A Celebrity Dies of an Overdose – Should We Care?

Peaches Geldof photographed earlier this year. By Dell Inc. [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Peaches Geldof photographed earlier this year. By Dell Inc. [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When a young mother dies, leaving behind two tiny children, it is sad. When that mother is a celebrity who dies of a heroin overdose, public reaction varies from sadness to condemnation.

I don’t normally write about celebrities, but something about the death of Peaches Geldof and the information that has come out during the recent inquest, strikes me as not just sad but as a disturbing reflection of our culture. I believe we are all responsible for fostering the culture that in part led to this woman’s death, and to countless other deaths in similar circumstances.

After the inquest, Piers Morgan, a British journalist who now lives in the USA, commented on Twitter, “So much viciousness towards Peaches. If you want someone to ‘blame’ then start with her mother.”

Piers Morgan is no stranger to controversy himself, and his choice to post on Twitter about Geldof’s death has met with plenty of criticism. I am not interested in  joining that criticism, nor in defending his action. It’s what he wrote in that short statement that interests me. It sums up why I think we are all responsible.

Morgan’s first sentence, “So much viciousness towards Peaches,” points to what makes us all responsible. Each of us contributes to a society that elevates a few people to celebrity status, and that then watches them closely as if they are not people. Even those of us who as individuals don’t try to emulate celebrities, criticise them when they fail to match up to our ideals. Can you say you’ve never judged any celebrity purely on what you’ve read about them? I know I can’t. And so I am part of the culture I describe.

In the video below, Jack Gleeson, who rose to sudden fame in Game of Thrones, talks at the Oxford University about the celebrity culture. (The video is about 30 minutes long, and I do recommend it.) Gleeson talks about the “commodification of celebrities” and how this reflects a shift in the West’s “tradition of a producing society to a consuming one.” Celebrities, he says, are “consumable and ultimately disposable.” This, he says, dehumanises them and turns them into an entertainment product. I agree.

 


Peaches Geldof was born to celebrity parents and lived all her life in the public eye. She appeared to embrace and even take advantage of this – she started writing for a magazine when she was just 14.
Of course, growing up in public doesn’t mean you are doomed to die at 25 of heroin, but in 2000, when Peaches was only eleven, her mother Paula Yates died of a heroin overdose. Geldof talked about she had never got over her mother’s death. This of course is what Piers Morgan refers to when he says, “If you want someone to ‘blame’ then start with her mother.”

Was Paula Yates to blame for her daughter’s death?

The consensus is that Yates was not an addict, but had taken drugs in the past. Geldof was an addict who relapsed. Both took heroin in a quantity that a regular user possibly might have tolerated, but that their bodies could not. At the inquest into Geldof’s death, the coroner remarked that people saw it as history repeating itself. He said this was not the case because Geldof had been treated for drug addiction and supported by drug treatment workers for two and a half years. She had been trying for come off the heroin substitute methadone. The coroner called this, “a considerable achievement,” and added that,“for reasons we will never know, prior to her death she returned to taking heroin, with the fatal consequences.”

This is a different attitude to the coroner at Yates’s inquest who described her: “foolish and incautious behaviour.”

In his tweet, Morgan place the word ‘blame’ in quotation marks. I hope this means he sees as little purpose in apportioning blame as I do. Peaches, Paula, and the many mothers (or fathers) who die of overdoses, whether in “idyllic” homes in Kent or in slums, are casualties of humanity’s collective desire to judge and condemn others, and to defend ourselves and hide our “defects” from others. Blame means to find fault with someone (including yourself.) It creates shame, a feeling of “not-good-enough,” and rarely leads to constructive change.

Taking responsibility, on the other hand, empowers us. According to Life Strategies, responsibility is not about right or wrong, but about recognising your part in a situation. They say:

Responsibility starts when you acknowledge that you are responsible – 100% responsible – for your part in the matter. That your actions – or inaction – have made a contribution in some way, no matter how small.

In that context, Paula Yates was partially responsible for her daughter’s death.  Peaches herself was also responsible. So was the culture we all help to create.

Peaches had been in drug treatment for two and a half years. Her elder son was twenty-three months when she died. Her younger one was eleven months. Two babies in two years is a lot for any mother to cope with, let alone a mother trying to heal from drug addiction and to practice attachment parenting.

This would be hard enough for anyone, but Peaches was publicly promoting the benefits of breast-feeding and co-sleeping, and credited becoming a mother with bringing her stability and calm that had been previously lacking in her life.

Many people are now branding Peaches Geldof a hypocrite – and while this might be true – who of us can truly say we never fail at achieving our ideals? I certainly can’t.

As someone who writes about the benefits of compassion, I have at times felt deep shame when I have not been able to feel compassion towards someone else. Through mindfulness and the processes I use, I have learned to release the shame and return to compassion, but it’s still “work-in-progress.” Peaches, it seems, had no such tools. I can only imagine the depth of shame she must have felt at her inability to attain her own ideal. The inquest revealed that she even kept the truth about her relapse from her husband.

Why we are all responsible

All of us have our dysfunctional thought processes, our addictions, distractions or compensations. While a chocolate, coffee or Facebook habit is innocuous compared to heroin use, these serve the same purpose – to stop us experiencing the pain and shame of feeling not good enough.

This is why I believe we are all responsible. What we deny in ourselves is what we dislike in others. We all judge, and we judge not just celebrities, but acquaintances, neighbours, friends, family members and ourselves. Each time we do that, we drive the shadow side of ourselves or others deeper into hiding and help foster an environment where shame thrives and true healing cannot take place.

The effects of constant blame

In Western culture, we judge people by the colour of their skin, the religious or political views, the way they dress, their weight. Our politicians spend more time attacking each other than they do working to create lasting solutions to pressing issues. We also judge people’s feelings, and we call the mentally ill names like nut-job or wacko, demonizing them, and trying to set ourselves apart.

Of course I don’t personally blame every one of these people every day. Nor, I’m sure do you. But I’ve walked past a beggar and assumed he was a drug-addict and that any money I give him would get wasted. I’ve seen a group of red-faced men drunk in the streets, and I’ve felt fear and disgust. I’ve also reacted with anger towards the people I love the most.

And it hurts. Always.

A new culture of compassion

Even if we accept that addiction is an illness, it does not mean we are powerless to prevent it. Governments, businesses and charities pour billions into trying to understand the conditions that create cancer in efforts to prevent those conditions arising.

Judging seems to be part of the human condition – or at least part of our culture. We do it to try to distance from others to protect ourselves, but it doesn’t work. It’s as much an addiction as any other, and we won’t stop it over night. But we can choose to become more aware, and we can choose to let it go. We can learn compassion for others and for ourselves. We can choose to see that we are all interconnected, and that what hurts one of us hurts us all. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can have an influence weeks later on the exact formation of a hurricane halfway round the globe, so our blaming and shaming of wives, husbands, children or neighbours contributes to a culture of fear and fosters the conditions for addiction.

Of course, Peaches’s behaviour was far from ideal. Of course, we shouldn’t pander to celebrities and indulge their wanton behaviour. But the healthy alternative to that is not tearing them down and criticising. It is to stop placing people on pedestals where they are isolated and afraid. It is to learn the difference between blame and responsibility. It is to create a culture of openness and honesty where someone who is struggling to keep up with the demands of a public career and two tiny children can say, “I need help.” Before it is too late.

Let’s create the culture we need: not one of blame and shame, but of compassion and support.


Comments

  1. I think you just posted this! I was perusing my faves and ran across it. I miss your writing (and writing myself, as I have been buried under an editing project from hell). Anyway, I loved this post as it touches on both shame on a general level but also on heroin addiction, which is on the rise again after a decrease. An overdose is not uncommon after attempting to get off an opioid substance. See: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anyway…

    It is to learn the difference between blame and responsibility. It is to create a culture of openness and honesty where someone who is struggling to keep up with the demands of a public career and two tiny children can say, “I need help.”

    Amen.

  2. Author

    You’re right Deb, I did just post it today. That editing project sounds intriguing (if not fun since it’s from hell.)
    Philip Seymour Hoffman did come to mind as I wrote this – his death brought a lot of similar comments. It’s far too easy to blame, but that doesn’t create lasting solutions. My vision is definitely for a blame-free but responsible world.

    I’m glad you liked this and thanks for your comment. I’ll will pop over to your blog soon. I’ve been away a lot, and just catching up.

  3. For some, finding someone to blame is easy if they are not in the situation. The same way that so many people are bashing Bieber’s mom for his wayward actions. It’s tough for celebrities, I think. Being in the limelight all the time and all. But who are we to judge? And I think the same thing happens in our neighborhood. When a kid gets entangled with a wrong group, it’s so easy for us to question the kind of parenting he is getting at home. 🙁

    1. Author

      Jhanis, I agree. We really are not in a position to judge because we don’t know the circumstances someone lives with, or what it’s like to be in their mind – with their thoughts and feelings.
      I also agree your point about it being the same in the neighbourhood as with celebrities.
      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  4. Placing the blame on her, or her mother, doesn’t seem productive. The fact is that people who are addicts have a very hard time controlling their behavior, even when it’s killing them. I’m not sure what the answer is but I do feel that as a society, all of us need more compassion, quiet time, sleep, and community. It’s sad that her children will now grow up without a mother. It’s unbelievably sad. I agree, too, that we need to foster a culture where saying “I need help” isn’t met with judgement or shame. Everybody needs help with things at time, and I find it really really sad that people don’t ask for help out of fear of judgement, etc.
    You’re so wonderful, Yvonne.

    1. Author

      Kristi, yes, it is so sad those children will grow up without their mother. Someone, I can’t remember who, said that they might be young enough not to remember, but whether they remember her or not, they will feel the loss.
      I agree with everything you say, and I am so pleased that through your blog you inspire others to foster a culture of compassion.
      Thank you for your kind comment.

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  6. Excellent post, Yvonne and so timely. Many are talking about Robin Williams this week – another major celebrity who so many idolized – who so obviously struggled with problems and so obviously needed help. I think it’s true in many cases that the public puts them up on such a pedestal that it makes celebrities and others afraid to admit their problems and situations. It makes it nearly impossible for them to seek the help they really need – for fear of shame and/or falling from the public’s grace. And I think you’re absolutely right – we need to start “humanizing” our celebrities more than we currently do and give them some room to breathe so they can admit and deal with their problems — And not just them – we need to do this for everyone … so they can comfortably and privately seek the help that they so desperately need without fear of retribution … “before it’s too late.”

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