Mark Alexander / October 4, 2019

The Slow-Motion Suicide of the Joker

It is wrong to memorialize drug overdose deaths as “accidental.”

In a daybreak editors call last week to determine the day’s topics, for our culture section we chose to cover warnings about violence in the just-released “Joker” movie.

That led to a brief conversation about the death of Heath Ledger, who played the role of “Joker” in the earlier Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight.” We had a dispute about how Ledger died, so, seeking to clarify my understanding of his death, I discovered that there is a long list of “tribute” articles that endeavor to challenge the notion that Ledger “took his own life” — which had been my contention.

Frankly, I found those articles to be as theatrical as Ledger’s acting roles, endeavoring to paint him as a happy and well-adjusted celebrity whose death was “accidental.” That is a gross mischaracterization.

Ledger was found dead of a drug overdose in January 2008, six months after he completed his role in “Dark Knight.”

According to the toxicology report by New York’s chief medical examiner, “Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine. We have concluded that the manner of death is accident, resulting from the abuse of prescribed medications.”

While his death may have technically and legally been ruled “accidental,” from the standpoint of those who could and should have intervened, it was anything but.

In a New York Times interview a year before his death — and while “Dark Night” was in production — among other clear indications of Ledger’s severely deteriorated mental state, he told the interviewer, “Last week, I probably slept an average of two hours a night. … I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” He said sleep medications left him in “a stupor, only to wake up an hour later, his mind still racing.”

He suffered these symptoms while acting his role as the Joker, and worse afterwards. But he was propped up and the cameras kept rolling. Did anyone really care?

Weeks before his death, according to his then-film project costar Christopher Plummer, “He was saying all the time, ‘Dammit, I can’t sleep’ … and he was taking all these pills to help him.”

To help him? Really?

I would conclude from the toxicology report and what I have read about Ledger that, obviously, he was in a tragic mental state at the time of his death and had been suffering clear diagnosable pathology and addiction for perhaps two years prior to his death. But apparently nobody gave a damn.

Like so many celebrities, he was continuously propped up by those around him who were more interested in what they were getting from him than what they could do for him — those sycophants who did not want to risk the benefits they were receiving from their proximity to his celebrity. Chief among them were those who were providing him the opioids and other prescription drugs that killed him.

There is a long, long list of celebrity overdoses by people who were propped up until the day they died. Hollywood examples range from Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe to John Belushi, Chris Farley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Ledger. Music celebrities include Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. There are countless other lesser-known celebrities who likewise perished.

I would argue that many of those surrounding these people, the beneficiaries of their celebrity status who often shared their pathology and addictions, are co-conspirators in their demise. Celebrity overdoses are often “romanticized” by those “closest to them” — the same people who were not willing to risk their benefits in order to actually care for their benefactor. These celebrities die very lonely “accidental” deaths, abetted by enablers.

While “tributes” may help those who idolized such celebrities — those in their midst and their fans — and ease any sense of shared accountability, these overdose deaths are not “accidental.” They are, in fact, what I would classify as “slow-motion suicides” – destitute and dreadful deaths that often reflect a culture of darkness.

As I noted last month in an column on deaths associated with alcohol and firearms, CDC data for the most recent year of record notes there were 88,000 alcohol-related deaths, not including perhaps 20,000 firearm suicides involving alcohol and drugs. More than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses — approximately 47,000 of those were opioids.

Refusing to call celebrity alcohol and drug overdoses what they are — slow-motion suicides — diminishes the “hard truth” about the 180,000 other drug and alcohol deaths annually. Certainly, many of those deaths occur despite genuine efforts to intervene by people who loved those who died. But in many other cases, substance abusers have been surrounded by those who aid and abet their demise, including family and “friends.”

As is the case with celebrity enablers, aiding and abetting of addiction and death should not be excused by writing off those deaths as “accidental.”

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