I have a friend from days gone by when he lived in Canada, Patrick Coffin. We met when I was studying for the priesthood over 20 years ago as he was taking some of the same Theology classes I was enrolled in. Now Patrick is married, has two daughters and is living in California. He is a Catholic author, speaker and hosts a Catholic radio show as well as having appeared on EWTN and other talk shows. I recently was perusing his website and came across this poignant and beautifully written article about the late screen actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Patrick wrote it as if he was writing to a friend, Philip Hoffman, although he was already dead. It speaks so powerfully of the emptiness often found in those who are believed to have everything.
“Dear Phil: Forgive me for addressing a stranger as a friend. The cliché holds true: I feel like I know you. For 11 years now you’ve been the guy who was born to play blogger Mark Shea in a TV movie-of-the-week biopic. You’re one of those Completely Inhabiting the Character kind of actors. And what a range of characters you inhabited. You never got the girl at the end, but very few actors can bring to life the sheer variety of different characters you did: a dumpy baseball manager (Moneyball), a mincing novelist (Capote), an accused priest (Doubt), a megalomaniac cult leader (The Master), a shy caregiver (Magnolia). I could go on.
You won the coveted Best Actor Oscar award. You were nominated three times for Best Supporting Actor. How did you get to work with the best of the best (start the list with David Mamet, Sidney Lumet, the Coen brothers, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Ralph Fiennes)? Easy. Because that’s what you are. You were unusually good at your day job.
I thought that the news of your death would have flowed past my eyeballs and gotten lost this week along with the other news items. How quickly I go on with life after reading about ships that sink, kids with cancer, and genocide by machete. I got that pang of sadness that attends such news as the needless death of celebrity, and moved on. But the pang kept coming back.
So I wanted to write you an open letter on the day of your funeral.
Some will wonder what the point is of writing to a dead guy. But I’m a Catholic. I believe in the communion of saints. And so I strongly suspect you’ll somehow get my drift from beyond this vale of tears.
First of all, since your name is Philip Seymour Hoffman, I presumed you were Jewish. But the obituaries say your mom was Catholic, your dad Protestant. (A lot of stories about your mother; zip about your father.) I’m not a betting man, but chances are good that someone who loved you had you baptized. Piecing your life together from interviews you gave and the obituaries that continue to roll out, the stand-out event for me was the divorce of your parents when you were nine.
Nine is an awfully tender age. A nine-year-old boy is supposed to be perfecting his slap shot in winter, and his campfire-building chops in summer: living the life boisterous and rowdy, and viscerally eager to feel the affirming clasp of his dad. The social science data on the psychic wounds from divorce has a 60-year plus track record now. The news is not good. The trauma inflicted on small children by divorce must be faced and accommodated by them somehow, they say. If not, these heirs of sorrow must find a sense of equilibrium through escape and pain management.
It’s no longer a secret that heroine was your escapist pain management of choice. Your long-suffering girlfriend Mimi, according to “insiders,” had had enough of witnessing your self-destructive downward spiral in front of the kids and asked you to leave last fall. You can’t blame her. I’m certain she prayed you’d hit that coveted rock bottom and would bounce upward.
Your spirit was slowly strangled by the hellish tentacles (helped along by you, let’s be frank) otherwise known as shooting horse directly into your veins. The news hounds are now eager to announce that the usual suspects in overdose cases–your supplier–have been rounded up. As if they’re the real culprits.
I watched your last TV interview a few short weeks ago, after a long spell of sobriety, you looked exhausted and adrift. That mischievous sparkle in your eye was long gone. You even confessed to a stranger recently that you’re a heroin addict. Talk about signs of someone in total free fall. St. Augustine famously said amor pondus meum (love is my weight), meaning that what one loves deeply will determines deeply one’s choices. We know what your deepest false love was, and where it got you: on The List. I don’t mean just dead celebrities who die early through accident or illness. Listers are those who seem to throw it all away on purpose—quickly by gun or by noose, or slowly by heroin or its lesser imitators. A small sample of The List would include, in no particular order: Chris Farley, Elvis Presley, John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Sid Vicious, Corey Haim, Janis Joplin, Cory Monteith, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Prinze, Dee Dee Ramone, River Phoenix, Jim Morrison, Chet Baker, Judy Garland, Amy Winehouse et al.
Notice any commonality? Most are eternally cemented in our minds as legends. They’re also the object of nausea inducing Hollywood hypocrisy. The same tinsel-draped town that normalizes—nay, lionizes—drug use as a matter of “private entertainment” then turns around and is shocked, shocked, at your lonely deaths.
The signs were as obvious as bright neon that you were sliding down a Vaseline-slicked slope. You practically shouted it out to anyone who would listen. Only two years ago you told The Guardian you “had no interest in drinking in moderation. And you still don’t. Just because all that time’s passed doesn’t mean maybe it was just a phase. That’s, you know, who I am.”
Wrong, Phil. That’s not who you are, it’s merely how you behaved. By Christ’s saving work on the cross, you, are a son of God. The sting of your heroin needle is nothing compared to the agony of his nails, freely accepted on your behalf and mine.
One of the fall outs of that little thing called Original Sin is that human beings, fragile mortals all, are simply not equipped to handle the level of fame that comes with rising as a super celebrity despite outwardly sunny appearances. Looking at you, Phil, we saw worldly acclaim, an out-sized pile of cash, adoring children, and the highest plaudits of your peers and critics. None of it, as you knew all along, is enough. Only the unseen Spirit of God is enough.
I am joining in prayer those you left behind–especially Mimi, the sorrowing three kids who will pay the price of your addiction in tears for years to come, and your parents–as they get through your funeral Mass today in the same cold city where you died.
Requiescat in pace. May God speed your plow Home.”