Somebody call out to your brother
He’s calling out your name
Hiding under the covers
With no one else to blame
You couldn’t help out your own neighbour
You couldn’t tell it to his face
You were fucked up by the blame
Matt Corby – Lyrics – Brother
This week I heard the news that award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died in his New York apartment. I read the story twice in two different papers, as if the first time I was unable to acknowledge the truth of it. He was only 46 years old. An amazing character actor with a face that hid the outward secrets of his age and his birthplace. It was difficult to not believe he was actually the characters he inhabited on the screen. He was a story teller, an artist.
He’d died of an apparent heroin overdose. He was found in his bathroom with a needle in his arm, surrounded by envelopes of high grade heroin. I thought about his estranged wife and his three young children, and suddenly I realised that I had tears falling down my face. I understood why I was so affected by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
My brother is a heroin addict.
He is out there somewhere in the great wide world, possibly right here on the streets of Melbourne, though I am not sure. I haven’t seen him for 11 years.
I doubt my brother, who would be 43 this year, has much in common with the American actor other than of course their addictions. That and they have similar facial expressions. When I see images of a very young Hoffman, I always, strangely, see my brother. He was a cheeky kid. One that had an insatiable curiosity. He wanted to take chunks out of the world, to pull it apart and dissect it and then put it all back together with a greater knowledge of how things ticked, whirred and worked.
He was whip smart, from the time he was born. Teachers thought him to be restless and unruly until one decided to test his IQ. Quite a strange thing to do in the 70’s. As it turned out my brother had a much higher than average intelligence. He exhausted my mother. He was simply bored, and restless and he had social intelligence also. Perhaps this combination would be the undoing of my baby brother.
Our parents separated when we were young. I was seven, and my brother was 5. My mother left my father, her volatile marriage…and us. Eventually she would take her daughters, one at a time. The eldest and youngest, my brothers, remained with their biological father.
My mother, like so many women of her time, did the best she could with what she had, physically and emotionally, at the time. I do believe that. It was a time of female liberation and highly prescribed legal drugs like Valium – my mother was not alone. A lot of women found the strength to walk out of difficult relationships, but were ill-equipped to navigate the traumatic landscapes of their own lives, let alone the impact it had on their children.
When I went to live with my mother I was both relieved and torn. I was my brother’s keeper. In the absence of our mother, I was the nurturer. I bathed him and tucked him into bed. I held his hand when we crossed roads to go to school. I read to him. I read him Little Golden Books and Dr Seuss. The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
I helped to keep him calm in the company of others, lest the noise and ensuing chaos upset our father. He liked Vegemite and jam. He didn’t like peanut butter. I played with him in the sandpit with his bright yellow Tonka trucks. He had tea parties with me in the backyard with my stuffed animals.
He had an amazing imagination. And sad, confused blue eyes. Sometimes in dreams I see those haunted eyes. Even though I was seven, I tried to make him happy. Even at that tender age I’d become a people pleaser, to keep the peace. To never rock that proverbial boat. I learnt to be a mother and a caregiver at an early age.
The day I left with my mother, I can remember the look on my brother’s face. He was so little and I felt responsible. He was crying, tears streaming down his chubby cheeks and holding his arms out. To this day that image is so burnt into my consciousness that I fight the lump in my throat from betraying me. I felt the stinging burn of guilt. I didn’t at that age have the words for what I was doing to him. For so long, into my adult years, I felt that I had abandoned him, just our mother had done before.
My brother’s lives are unknown to me. We were raised in separate houses by different parents, and sometimes in different states, I rarely saw them. They both carry the scars of an unhappy childhood. It’s written on them beneath their dark tattoos.
I don’t know when my brother started to take drugs. He told me once that his mind simply wouldn’t quit. He over thought all the time, about everything. He couldn’t quiet the endless ideas in his mind. The older he got, the more haunted he looked. For a time he lived with my older brother, who was the first to tell me that he’s been lost to the demon heroin. Something inside of me cracked with that knowledge. I wanted to help him. No I wanted to save him. I was too naive to do so. My optimism was no match for his very bleak reality.
He bravely went to rehab on more than one occasion. He stayed in my home occasionally, and at one point he lived with my sister who helped him through another stint of rehab. He held down a job. He worked for a mechanic fixing radiators.
He’d been to jail on more than one occasion, on drug related charges and, I suspect, parole violations. He lived in a world that was so foreign to me, and so devastating for me to try to imagine. How could it be that my wild haired, baby boy with a cheeky grin had ended up on the streets sticking needles in his veins?
I believe that stints in jail simply diminished all sense of hope for him. Parts of him were broken were broken enough to turn to drugs prior to jail time. Afterwards he was so lost and so broken that he couldn’t see a way back to any sense of normalcy. He didn’t really understand what normal even felt like. He didn’t contact me when he’d been in jail. He felt I couldn’t deal with it. He felt my life was too “all together” to deal with him.
All I know for sure is that I think of him almost every day. I sincerely hope that he is okay, wherever he may be. The last time I saw my brother he was gaunt and tired. He had tears rolling down his weathered face. He looked older than his years. His hands shook and he was restless and I knew then that he was using again. I looked at his tattoos – trying to burn them into my brain because on that fateful day something inside of me told me I would never see him alive again. I pushed money into his hand and he looked down at his feet, ashamed and bereft. We hugged. A long, slow, almost painful hug and we both cried. He wiped tears from my face and whispered. “I’m sorry, sis. I love you.” I told him I loved him too and that it was I who was sorry. I felt like I should have done more. I agonised over that.
I struggle to watch film adaptations of heroin users and drug abuse. My love of Indi films makes this almost impossible to escape, but it sends shivers down my spine. I read articles about drug issues in our country and other countries and I look deeply into images printed in my need to understand. I look more closely at homeless people and addicts in the street than most would…just in case it might be him.
Deep down I logically know that unlike Phillip Seymour Hoffman, his life will not drain away in a clean, expensive apartment. If he dies of an overdose, he will no doubt do so like so many others who have fallen before him – in some dirty, dark, horrid squat. My fear is that no one will find him, or notify anyone if they did. I sincerely hope he will not be alone.
Will it be any less tragic than the death of a Hollywood star? The public will make allowances for those that have made an impact on the world, like Hoffman and other stars before him. Those that admired his incredible talent will see him as the tragic victim of his own demons, which is absolutely true.
Most would think of my brother as just another ‘junkie’ They will say he had choices. They will think him inconsequential in the scheme of their lives, and in the world. They will think he made no contribution and yet he did. He made an impact on my life, on my ability to nurture and on the way I raise my beautiful kids.
Even some that have the financial means to secure help and are surrounded by people who love and admire them often lose the battle to drugs. Drugs simply don’t discriminate in their devastation.
I will always think of my baby brother with love – my memories will not allow me to dehumanise him. I will remember the child he was, wild haired and blue-eyed, taking chunks out of this crazy world.