Sunday, March 30, 2014

Karl du Fresne: Speculations on the unknowable

Charlotte Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, L’Wren Scott: three dynamic, talented, apparently well-loved people, dead in the prime of life, and all in the space of a few weeks.
Two, Dawson and Scott, took their own lives. Hoffman didn’t; he died with a heroin needle stuck in his arm. But he must have known that death was a likely consequence of his drug habit, and he took the risk anyway. So in a sense it was self-inflicted, even if he didn’t intend to die.
It’s hard to imagine the level of despair that takes some people to a dark place where even the knowledge that others love and care for them is no longer reason enough for them to go on living.
Dawson and Scott must have reached that point. Hoffman, perhaps not. But his lifestyle was self-destructive, and being a highly intelligent man (as he must have been, to be such an outstanding actor), he must have realised it.
We can only surmise that his will to live wasn’t as powerful as his addiction. The end result was the same.
All three lived their lives in the public eye, to a greater or less extent, so it’s our natural inclination to look for possible clues to what might have made them so unhappy that they saw no point in living.
Here we get into uncertain territory, because even those closest to them clearly didn’t sense what was going on inside their heads. But we can speculate on the basis of what we know.
Dawson had money troubles and wondered how she was going to pay the rent on her exclusive apartment. Scott, too, was reportedly in financial trouble: her fashion business was deeply in debt and according to some reports, she was too proud to accept her boyfriend Mick Jagger’s offer to bail her out.
Dawson and Scott had at least two other things in common. Both were adopted. As far as we know they had happy, secure childhoods and were close to their adoptive families. But is it possible that for some adoptees, there’s a void that can never quite be filled, even though they have been brought up in a loving and nurturing environment? 
I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems a reasonable question to ask.
Dawson and Scott were also childless. As a male I’m venturing onto dangerous ground here, but I read a thoughtful article in the New Zealand Herald by the writer Charlotte Grimshaw, who had known Dawson in her youth.
Grimshaw wrote, essentially, that having children can save women from feeling they must stay eternally beautiful and youthful.
“The addition of a dependant,” she wrote, “brings the urgent need for self-preservation. It’s what all parents know: that children not only enrich life beyond anything you’ll ever experience, they save you too. You can no longer party hard. If you do, the unit will begin to fall apart.
“Sometimes having babies makes women want to kill themselves, but once you’ve got them and survived (and sorted out the post-natal depression), the kids can be the best anchor to life you can have.”
We know that Dawson wanted to have children. In her 2012 autobiography she wrote with painful honesty about having an abortion to humour her then-husband, the ratbag Australian swimmer Scott Miller, for whom a baby would have been a distraction from his preparation for the Sydney Olympic Games. Dawson described it as a horrible, sad time.
Reading of her grief over that abortion, I was reminded of an Otago University study published in 2006 which found that 42 per cent of women who had had an abortion subsequently experienced major depression and even suicidal behaviour. This was nearly double the rate of those who had never been pregnant and 35 per cent higher than those who had chosen to continue a pregnancy.
Needless to say, the finding was controversial – so much so that several academic journals refused to publish it.
Dawson never got pregnant again, as far as we know. Grimshaw wrote of her: “Charlotte Dawson stayed eternally beautiful and youthful; it was her blessing and possibly her misfortune to remain untouched by domestic drudgery.” That phrase “and possibly her misfortune” is the telling one.
I wouldn’t argue for a moment that all women need children to make their lives complete. Many women are happy and fulfilled without them. But in the light of what we know about Dawson, it’s possible her childlessness weighed heavily on her. In the end she was left with only her beauty and vivacious personality – and in a shallow celebrity world in which appearances count for everything, its currency was diminishing as she aged.
It seems L’Wren Scott wanted kids too. She once told her adoptive sister, a Mormon mother of seven, that she envied her for her family and quiet domestic life. But it seems Jagger either didn’t want, or couldn’t have, more children.
Granted, it’s sheer conjecture on my part to suggest these may have been factors. Even the closest friends of people who kill themselves often fail to see it coming and profess to have no idea why they did it.
But you have to wonder, too, about the demands of the celebrity lifestyle. Models, actors and TV celebrities inhabit a vacuous world of air kisses, superficiality and insincerity. The fashionably chic first name Scott adopted (she was christened Luann) seems symptomatic of its preoccupation with appearances.
All that unremitting shallowness, and the pressure to live up to an image, must take its toll. For Dawson, this was doubtless exacerbated by her apparent inability to disengage from the viciousness of online social media, even as Internet trolls were doing their best to destroy her.
Her craving for attention evidently outweighed the damage she must have realised her exposure on social media forums was doing to her – just as Hoffman’s need for drugs was greater than his instinct for self-preservation.
At the end of it all, we’re left to consider one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.
A powerful urge to live keeps some people going even when their lives seem utterly hopeless. Others kill themselves when they seem to have so much to live for.

Karl du Fresne blogs at This article was first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.

1 comment:

paul scott said...

good article Karl.
I can agree with your analysis for sure, that is running out of money will drain all of your personal reserves. My brother is wealthy and I not, and the difference in confidence and purpose is manifest between us.
You discuss the family factor, in my case a child and wife, and then my brother and parents now gone..
Most of my life is dedicated to the progress of my daughter and my wife .
It is not a obsessive preoccupation it is natural life force.
I would be very unhappy indeed if I did not have my daughter and my wife