RIP, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The internet is abuzz with people sharing their grief over Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death.  Usually “R.I.P.” is one of those abbreviations that irritates me: an easy token, almost meaningless, possessing the same spiritual oomph as those cheap foam headstones littering suburban lawns at Halloween – ironically, the type of instantly-recognizable milieu from the set of a movie Hoffman would have starred in.

And the acronym – rip – is eerily appropriate to describe how many of us feel after learning about his death. Torn – even despairing – it does indeed feel as though he’s been ripped away from us. To put this feeling in perspective, I’ve never written about a celebrity death before out of the simple reason that I’ve never felt moved enough to. But when my phone dinged innocuously on the kitchen counter and I read the terrible headline, I had to read it three times before my brain would accept his death as fact.

I’ve spent the last day thinking about why I feel such a loss. Certainly, Hoffman was imperfect and a rare specimen of Hollywood celebrity. But that’s obvious. The Globe and Mail’s Geoff Pevere has compared him to “prickly” character actors like De Niro and Keitel. I see the similarity, but those actors were almost always typecast. So, too, was Hoffman, you might say. And yes, he was – but he was invariably cast in roles that were always diverse and surprising.

I first saw him in Happiness almost fifteen years ago when, browsing the shelves at the video store (remember that?) the movie’s title seemed too good to pass up. His portrayal of Allen, the neighbour obsessed with the pedophile’s sister-in-law, was mesmerizing. Hoffman’s acting was complex and intimate – and to say that the masturbation scenes were uncomfortable doesn’t do his acting justice. He was comic, tragic, and embarrassing, jerking up the come, eyes clenched shut in helplessness and pathos. My roommate was revolted; I was entranced.

Hoffman always took roles that were challenging.  He achieved what all good artists do: through his work, we saw ourselves, flawed, magnificent, human. His range was monumental – a defeated coach in Moneyball, hyper-anxious assistant in The Big Lebowski, and, as a colleague put it today, more Capote than Capote. He made me interested in acting as an art form, and able to recognize talent like Ryan Gosling — but only because I had seen it before in Hoffman. And those were only the movies – I wish I had seen him on Broadway.

He was devoted to acting. The antithesis of a star actor, he appeared in interviews as part bear, part caveman. Capote was the most groomed I’ve ever seen him. A friend who used to work in Toronto’s movie industry described him as the guy in the disheveled tuxedo with the grease stain on his belly. He seemed unapologetically himself, and perhaps to his detriment.

I’ll be honest; as someone who doesn’t follow celebrities closely, I didn’t know Hoffman battled addiction. And I don’t like correlating artistry with addiction, which is a disease. But I wasn’t, however, surprised to learn about his struggles. One can only imagine that the kind of empathy and recognition Hoffman evoked in us must have felt exponentially stronger to him.

Selfishly, I want more from him; many of us do. I want another thirty years of movies, to be able, at the end of the week, to snuggle into my favorite corner of the sectional, turn on the television, see a movie with his name on the cast list, and to watch it without hesitation. I want him to show me more of my world and myself. Even his death, sadly, has held up a mirror: the conflicted narcissist, self-admirer.

I heard tonight that Broadway has dimmed its lights. It’s going to take considerable time for us to let Hoffman go. As we do, I hope he truly rests in peace.

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Review: How to Expect What You’re not Expecting

Touchwood Editions (2013), 245 pgs. Eds. Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-DeMoor.

Riffing off the title of the popular book What to Expect When You’re not Expecting, the essays in this anthology explore pregnancies and parenting experiences that result in loss. Loss as a concept is redefined by these stories; while stillbirth, abortion, miscarriage, and adoption are typically considered to be losses, each experience is felt and explored differently. The anthology is notable for also considering parenting experiences that are not frequently seen as losses, including moving from a homebirth to the NICU, teenage motherhood, trying to conceive, moving beyond grief, and raising high-needs children.

For a book that so generously considers such a scope of experiences, the subject of post-partum depression is absent, but this omission can perhaps be overlooked, given the collection’s reach into largely unacknowledged aspects of parenthood and pregnancy.

This collection is a must-read – not only for those who plan on becoming parents, or who have experienced similar losses of their own – but for people who like good writing, and appreciate the personal essay genre for the difficult questions these writers confront. Why do losses occur? Why are some losses perceived as tragic, while others are seen as mere misfortune? Chris Arthur details the painful “demarcation” of his son’s death at thirty-eight weeks gestation: “A key question for many people was whether Boll had been born alive and then died, or born dead…According to which applied, our loss was viewed as serious or merely unfortunate.”

The majority of pregnancy and childbirth books currently on the market may include a chapter on stillbirth or miscarriage, but don’t provide information about the devastating decisions some parents face. And what is clear from this collection is that these experiences are not uncommon: both Chris Tarry and Cathy Stonehouse write about having to terminate pregnancies that are not viable.

Readers will recognize some of the essays from previous publications, including Susan Olding’s “Female Troubles” (from the widely acclaimed Pathologies), as well as Carrie Snyder’s “Delivery” (published recently in TNQ) and Lisa Martin-DeMoor’s NMA-winning “Container of Light” (also published in TNQ). But what is so necessary is Hiemstra and Martin-DeMoor’s decision to gather these essays into a collection that addresses the largely unacknowledged aspects of grief one experiences at the loss of a child, as well as the many ways loss can occur.

Touchwood raises important issues by publishing this book, the fourth in their loose series about the experience of parenting – or for some people, the decision not to be parents – in a society so focused on childbearing and raising.

In addition to loss, another emotion that unites these essays is love: for having optimism, for having conceived, for having grief – for having given life in all its many forms. The aptly chosen “How” and “What” of the title ask as many questions as they answer, and in doing so provide much-needed guidance.


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