The Limits of Intervention

Two recent public deaths are weighing on my mind these days: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an apparent heroin overdose in apartment in New York City and, closer to home, the death by apparent exposure to the elements of a young man who was a senior at Denison University, the Ohio college I attended when I was his age and in whose precincts I now live, who had last been seen alive leaving a local bar at two in the morning.

Both these deaths are hugely tragic and worthy of more than private grief in that they cut short promising lives far before their time, and both were in a sense self-inflicted.  But they also have in common a nagging question that affects us all but lingers unspoken after the horror and sadness sinks in: could these deaths have been avoided if the people in these men’s lives had been more attentive or, having noticed something, if they had intervened?  I don’t mean the institutional responsibility of colleges, bar owners, or psychotherapists. I mean: what are the limits, within friendships and families, of intervention into the lives of those we love?

The inevitable public discourse about Hoffman’s death has followed two themes: focus on the premature ending of a great acting career to the near-exclusion of any reflection or judgment on the cause of his death, as though he had been killed in a car crash or struck by lightning (Charlie Rose hosted two famous film critics in a half-hour discussion having just this tone).  More recently there have been eloquent expressions by alcoholics and other substance abusers of the “there but for the grace of God” sort, their message being that no matter how clean you are or for how long, addiction never truly leaves your life and it is only by constant vigilance that the addict can hold it at bay.

Something is missing from this conversation. My first reaction upon hearing that Hoffman had been found with a needle in his arm and several dozen glassine envelopes of heroin in his apartment was not “what bad luck!” but “where were his friends and family?”  How is it that a public man who must have interacted daily with dozens of people who presumably knew him well and cared for his well-being was able to conceal the lethal severity of his relapse into heroin addiction?

And if that relapse was detectable by at least some of those people, what on earth could have prevented them from doing something to intervene in a course of behavior that could kill him or, failing that, ruin his life?  A perverted form of respect for individual choice?  Fear of alienating a friend in whose fame they could bask?  An overweening need to appear hip and non-judgmental about drug use?

These are not good answers, but they do raise the further question of what each of us would have done if we could, and what similar opportunities present themselves in our more quotidian lives when we suspect friends or family are at risk or in simple need.  In the case of the local college student, he belonged to one of the most intimate college campuses in the country, whose main entrance was a block away from the bar he left in the middle of a frigid night.  He was found several blocks in the opposite direction, face-down in the snow. Why was he leaving a bar alone at two a.m.?  Why was no one with him? He was seen leaving; was he also seen to be drunk at the time, departing into one of the coldest winter nights in thirty years? Had he been depressed, worried, angry, giddy in the days before?  Should someone have noticed any of these things and taken action?

I know nothing of these men’s lives, really. Certainly not enough to suggest that anyone could have done anything differently. But you have to ask: are our communities too fragmented, our personal communications too centered on little screens to notice when a friend or relative or neighbor is in trouble?  And if we do notice, do we err too much on the side of respecting others’ privacy, their personal choices?  Should someone have to ask for help before we are allowed to offer it or, much harder, to intrude into the situation?

No question: it’s hard to intervene. That friend may not at all be issuing that cry for help that one remembers later, when it’s too late. He may resist and evade and dissemble and deny, just as we might. He may call us rude for asking.  But if we have been attentive, we may have noticed something that sets off an alarm in our heads.  And the question is, what do we do then?  Call the cops or his parents or his children?  Convene a posse of close friends and confront him? Just follow him into that cold night?  Or back off and hope for the best?

What does that person’s trouble mean to us? Is it, as the coverage of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman suggested, just one of those tragic things outside our control that happens every once in a sad while?  Or is it our trouble too, and what’s more, our obligation?

The stories of these unnecessary deaths should at least remind us that friendship – whether by blood or chance — is not just about participating in easy times, nor even about doing one’s duty when it is obvious, nor, when all else has failed, coming together for funerals.  It’s about all that often unwelcome questioning and pushing and prodding and following in between.

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