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Glamor Junkies
The culture of heroin addiction

Philip Seymour Hoffman

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Kevin D. Williamson

I was an admirer of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, but I was not surprised to learn that he had died as the result of a heroin misadventure. Not that I was in any way privy to Mr. Hoffman’s private life, it is just that I am never surprised when somebody dies from heroin. At least three young men in the New York suburbs died of heroin overdoses just before Mr. Hoffman’s death, western Pennsylvania is full of the stuff, and Vermont claims to be in the midst of a full-on heroin epidemic. Every few years I read about how heroin is making a comeback or about how there’s a new surge of heroin addiction, but I am skeptical. Heroin never makes a comeback, because heroin never goes away.

I have known a few junkies in my life, and once witnessed the curious spectacle of a young man’s deciding to become a junkie. A young opiate tyro just learning his way around a needle, he began by shooting up between his toes, explaining that this way no entry wound would be easily visible to such members of the general public as might take an interest in his inner arms. He was planning in advance for track marks under the assumption that his taking heroin was not going to be a casual thing. Addiction was not simply something that had happened to him, but something he planned for, a choice he made. I think he thought of it rather like getting a tattoo: something rock ’n’ roll, rebellious. Permanent.

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Here we are well into the 21st century, and I would be very surprised to learn that there is anybody in the civilized world — and by that I mean the world with sufficient industrial expertise to produce hypodermic needles and synthetic opiates — who has not heard the news that heroin is a very nasty business with a pretty good chance of helping you to an early death via overdose, HIV, hepatitis C, etc. People make bad choices all the time, usually because of a fundamental inability to operate over longer time frames: Nobody wants to be fat in five years, everybody wants the doughnut right now; you know she’s bad news, but it’s 2 a.m. and your decision-making timeline currently does not extend to sunrise; you should really take the money you were going to spend on that car and put it in your retirement fund, but part of you doesn’t expect to live that long. But taking heroin is, at least in part, an act of cultural affiliation. Connoisseurs of the poppy will go on and on about Great Junkies in History — William S. Burroughs, Sid and Nancy, Billie Holiday — though all in all I’d say that heroin addicts are less tedious on the subject of heroin than potheads are on the subject of pot. They do seem to have a particular fascination with the jargon of heroin, as though every conversation is taking place in 1970. I always have a sneaking suspicion that I could talk people out of deciding to become junkies if only I could get them to read a couple of good books composed with such literary skill as to illuminate the fact that Burroughs was a poseur and a hack. The belief that there exists some kind of deep and invisible connection between artistic creativity and addiction (or mental illness) is one of the most destructive and most stupid of our contemporary myths. I’d blame Thomas De Quincey, author of the 19th-century tell-all Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, if I thought anybody still read him.

On the subject of opiate addiction, no more bracing or insightful book has been written than Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, by Theodore Dalrymple. (One of the most cultivated men I know considers it the best argumentative monograph of its kind on any subject.) Dr. Dalrymple, now known to us as Anthony Daniels, has extensive experience in the field, and he finds both sides of the addiction–treatment ritual ridden with shallow romanticism, as well as a good dose of misinformation and pseudoscience regarding the biology of opiate addiction. (For example, alcohol withdrawal is physically a much more dangerous experience than is heroin withdrawal.) Considering the relationship between crime and addiction, he finds that criminals become addicts more frequently than addicts become criminals. His analysis is entirely unsentimental, the precise opposite to most of what is said and written about heroin. It is a reminder that the exercise of compassion first requires ridding ourselves of destructive stupidity.

The model of “rational choice” has taken a beating over the years in the field of economics, and those of us with a broader and less quantitative interest in social questions should take notice. It is hard to develop a rational-choice explanation for junkies unless we consider the very short term, in which case people use heroin for the same reason they use alcohol: They are bored, they are depressed, they are lonely, they cannot sleep, it is a social convention within a certain milieu. And it is associated with a promise, usually unspoken: James Bond’s martini is as much a part of his persona as is his Walther PPK and his Aston Martin. A glass of champagne has a certain meaning, a cigarette has a certain meaning, and so does a syringe full of heroin. Those who contemplate the legalization of such substances (and I am one of them) must do so with clear eyes, neither taken in by the romanticism of heroin nor unable to understand how and why that romanticism operates in the culture, and what that means for the choices that people make. It is not the case that no one plans to become a junkie.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.


Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Hollywood’s most respected actors, was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in his New York City apartment on February 2; he was 46. Here’s a look back at Hoffman’s prolific and critically-praised career.
Hoffman was a sought-after actor who appeared in more than 50 films, often working with more artistically-inclined filmmakers on challenging and off-beat projects. He appeared in three films for director Paul Thomas Anderson, most recently in The Master (pictured) in 2012.
Nominated four times for an Academy Award, three as supporting actor, Hoffman took home the statue for his lead performance as Truman Capote in the 2006 film, Capote.
Pictured, Hoffman with his Oscar for Capote. He also received four Golden Globe nominations (winning one, again for Capote), as well as many other critical honors throughout his career.
Even in small roles, Hoffman had a knack for turning in memorable performances. Pictured, Hoffman in the 1998 cult favorite The Big Lebowski.
In addition to regular move roles, Hoffman was active on the stage. He starred in a Broadway production of Death of a Salesman (pictured) in 2012, earning a Tony Award nomination. Hoffman was also co-artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York.
Of the craft of acting, Hoffman told NPR in 2009: "What it takes to be a great athlete is the same thing that it takes to be a great actor. That kind of concentration, that kind of privacy in public and that kind of unselfconscious kind of experience are very similar."
Hoffman had battled drug addiction on and off during his career, and entered rehab most recently only last year.
Here’s a look back at some of Hoffman’s most memorable roles.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): Hoffman joined the mega-hit franchise in its second film, playing the role of Plutarch, the head game-maker. He was slated to appear in the two-part third installment of the series, but it is unclear how many of his scenes were completed.
The Master (2012): Hoffman plays a towering and charismatic figure based loosely on L. Rob Hubbard in another collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson. The role garnered Hoffman a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.
Moneyball (2011): Hoffman plays Oakland A’s manager Art Howe, who is skeptical of the new data-driven sabermetric approach to signing baseball players, working alongside star Brad Pitt.
Synecdoche, New York (2008): Hoffman stars in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s dense, allegorical drama about a theater director working out personal problems while staging a massive production inside a simulated New York City.
Doubt (2008): Hoffman plays a Catholic priest accused of having an inappropriate with a male student, a role that garnered him another Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007): Hoffman holds his own as a grumpy CIA officer working with a backbench congressman (Tom Hanks) to steer support to the mujahadeen rebels fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Savages (2007): As one-half of a pair of middle-aged siblings (the other played by Laura Linney) both coping with the growing incapacity of their abusive father, Hoffman lends dignity to a character wracked with regrets over his own life.
Mission: Impossible III (2006): Hoffman steps into the over-the-top action series starring his Magnolia co-star Tom Cruise.
Capote (2005): Despite being physically much larger than the real-life Truman Capote, Hoffman totally inhabits the writer’s physical presence and captures his famous lisping voice. Hoffman’s widely-praised performance in the film, about the author’s work on In Cold Blood, won him an Oscar as best actor.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002): Returning to work with director Anderson, Hoffman has a brief but memorable role as a shady Utah businessman trying to scam star Adam Sandler via a phone-sex operation.
Almost Famous (2000): Hoffman’s small role in this tale of 1970s rock journalism had a big impact on the film’s central character (a stand-in for writer Cameron Crowe) and on audiences. Quips his Lester Bangs: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
Magnolia (1999): Hoffman stands out in director Paul Thomas Anderson's large ensemble cast as a kind caregiver tending to a bedridden man estranged from his son (Tom Cruise).
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Hoffman shined in a small role in director Anthony Minghella’s tale of a confidence man (Matt Damon) with a gift for impersonation in 1950s New York.
Flawless (1999): Hoffman plays a flamboyant transvestite man giving singing lessons as therapy to a New York City cop (Robert De Niro) suffering from a stroke.
The Big Lebowski (1998): Hoffman’s Brandt character — the fastidious and obsequious assistant to the other Jeff Lebowski — implores the stoner Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) to take care in his mission to deliver a ransom because “her life is in your hands, dude.”
Boogie Nights (1997): Hoffman plays a self-conscious sound man working in the 1970s pornographic film world who becomes enamored of new star Dirk Diggler, leading to a memorably uncomfortable attempted kiss.
Scent of a Woman (1992): Though star Al Pacino stole the show as the brash and blind Army veteran, it was Hoffman’s slippery character who serves as the antagonist in the morality play about honor and truth that underlies the story. Pictured, Hoffman (left) with co-star Chris O'Donnell.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: 1967-2014
Updated: Feb. 03, 2014

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