I don't think there is any good way to say it. Minnesota's greatest celebrity died recently. I am not going to use his name or picture on this blog. It seems fairly obvious that he would not want that. There was the expected and understandable outpouring of emotion from his tens of millions of fans. And then he became a projective test for anyone who wanted to sell their idea or opinion or get exposure in the press. Some of those ideas and exposures included:
1. The opioid epidemic - he is another statistic.
2. Opioids are bad drugs and they can kill you.
3. We could have saved him if he went into treatment.
4. We could have saved him with Suboxone.
5. Public scorns buprenorphine (Suboxone) - a medication that could have saved him.
6. We could have saved him with a treatment intervention.
7. His problem wasn't addiction at all it was chronic pain.
8. We could have saved him by treating his chronic pain.
9. The doctors prescribing these medications need to be disciplined.
10. The people designated to save him - should have saved him.
11. His death was "pathetic".
12. That publicity rights legislation that exceeds copyright protection is necessary for the heirs.
None of these ideas are my ideas and I am sure that by the time you read it - this list is incomplete and outdated. This is what I have heard or read about his death since it happened. Some of the dynamics are familiar to me. The gossip columnists and sites trying to show that they have special contacts and insight and therefore may be more important than other gossip sites. The insiders proclaiming special knowledge that only a person very close to the celebrity could have. The very human tendency for some to celebrate the death of those with special talents and capabilities that none of the rest of us have. Death seems like the ultimate revenge of the mediocre and personality disordered - the final verification that a high flying person dies just like the rest of us. The entire debacle reminds of a sentence I read somewhere (the reference eludes me): "Only a primitive man celebrates the death of his enemy." How primitive would the man need to be in order to feel elevated by the death of a superstar? I realize that these more drastic formulations may be rare. What fuels all of the controversy? Some may say morbid curiosity. They are compelled to look at adverse outcomes whether it is a car wreck on the side of the road or a celebrity death under various circumstances. It still comes around to what one of my psychoanalytic supervisors described as the most primitive underlying and unspoken thought: "Better him than me!" The first time an analyst told me that I was somewhat taken aback and then over time I noticed that he was right. I expected to hear this kind of attitude from non-professionals but not from physicians. It turned out that I could hear that attitude from a broad spectrum of people.
My biases tend to be at the other end of the spectrum. I see special capabilities as a celebration of what human beings can do. Whether that is in athletics, entertainment, art, or my co-workers doing the job in a way that nobody else can do it. Individual talent and unique capabilities are there to be celebrated and not envied. I discussed this in an earlier post where the concept is that even people who aren't soccer fans can appreciate the greatness of Pele and just by watching him realize that we are all lifted up by that performance. Envy seems like a marker that we should all use to determine our own sense of self and our own boundaries.
In today's conflict-of-interest morality analysis anyone wanting to capitalize on the reputation of the celebrity to sell their wares escapes criticism. The people involved will say that this is the price of celebrity and if you did not want everything that went along with celebrity you should have avoided it. You are protesting too loudly when your privacy is invaded in real life or after you die. There is another argument that the fans are entitled to this information. To me that would depend on who is dispensing it and what was their reason. There are numerous analyses of this problem from the perspective of defense mechanisms and the study of life satisfaction based on the level of those defenses. Defense mechanisms may be interesting to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals but I don't think that they have to be brought out for this discussion. At some point in life everyone needs to take a close look at how they interpret both misfortunes and good fortunes of others. What does it really mean to them? What does it indicate about their philosophy of life? What does it mean about their life satisfaction? When you do that - I think that most reasonable people stop for accidents because they are there to help. They are not spectators. Human consciousness has the unique property of allowing us to imagine good and bad things happening to us without having to see the real thing happening to somebody else.
I hope that at some point the culture can move past the all too predictable sequence of self aggrandizement and the obvious conflict-of-interest that occurs when a celebrity dies. Human life and human achievement is worth celebrating and just like a single person can make us all better or at least feel better - it doesn't take much to bring us back down. In order to break out of these predictable patterns, it takes a conscious awareness of better ways to be or exist in life and that includes examining and rejecting reasons for continuing the old patterns.
I will personally remember his shining star and some of the accolades from the top performers in his field. He was truly one of a kind and his art was uplifting to me.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA