Friday, January 25, 2008

Thoughts about Heath Ledger

Very recently, my brother died, by his own hand, in his apartment in Lower Manhattan. Along with a profound and deep sense of grief, such as I have never experienced before, and never expect to experience in the future (my own death will be a piece of cake after this), I have learned a great deal about suicide.

It was with a sense of grim familiarity that I have read this past week of the death, in circumstances that are still unexplained, of the actor Heath Ledger, in an apartment in Lower Manhattan. (Let me extend my deepest sympathy and empathy to his family and friends. Beyond everything else, he was one of the finest actors of his generation, and his performance in Brokeback Mountain will be watched and admired as long as people go to the movies.)

Within hours the Times (which presumably was more discrete than other news sources) was describing how the body was found (naked, face down on the bed, surrounding by bottles of empty pills.) Within a day there were excerpts from the medical examiners report in news reports, with all sorts of lurid questions about what he was doing and with whom on his last day on earth. I soon turned my attention to subjects in the news that were less upsetting to me, like the War in Iraq and the coming global recession.

When people, who had no reason or right to know, asked me of the circumstances of my brother’s death (that is, how he “did it”), I told them, politely, that it was none of their business. But of course my brother wasn’t famous. If he was, all the circumstances of his death, idle speculation about its causes, and quotations from anonymous sources on whether there was a suicide note and what it might say would have appeared in the papers.

Why do we not give those who die from suicide the same dignity and privacy we afford other deaths, both for the sake of the victim and the victim’s survivors? This is true even for famous people whose deaths are newsworthy. When, for instance, Ronald Reagan was dying of Alzheimer’s and related diseases, the coverage was extremely discrete—no articles about his incontinence, drooling, or news reports on his conditions, or what he looked like when he was on his death bed, and this is of course is how it should be.

We still view suicide as a form a crime, and an occasion for public and journalistic prurience. Very often, as in the case of my brother, the first people the immediate survivors speak to are not medical personnel, or grief counselors, but police officers. (Immediately after my brother’s body was discovered, my surviving brother and myself, who were the family members on the scene, were interviewed by NYPD detectives, separately, like the opening segment of a Law and Order episode.) Suicide victims are no threat to anyone but themselves, and it should be treated as any other form of death, like cancer or heart disease. All that is important is that Heath Ledger has died, all too soon, at the age of 28. The rest should be private information, known only to his immediate survivors. I do not see why this elaborate hierarchy of medical privacy that we have erected, epitomized by the recent and extremely restrictive HIPAA acct, should be ignored in cases of suicide. We need to treat the victims of suicide with the same respect and dignity we provide to any other cause of death.

1 comment:

Rob Snyder said...

Most reporters would find it difficult to accept the medical maxim of "First, do no harm"--as useful as it might be in such situations. Journalistic tradition holds that reporters should not deeply consider the consequences of their stories. (This is honored as much in the breach as in the practice, but that is a story for another day.) Moreover, most reporters also live in the hope that they will someday nail a bad guy to the wall in a way that will do him or her some kind of harm in the form of a fine or a prison sentence.

Nevertheless, a very fine journalist, Adam Michnik of Poland, once suggested that reporters should not hit harder than necessary. Any call or interview at the time of a suicide is bound to hurt the survivors, so reporters have a special obligation to work in a manner that doesn't unnecessarily add to their grief. And that goes for the deaths of ordinary people and celebrities.