The Tribe of Collective Grief: On Developing The Third Eye

I first pulled up to New York in front of our little studio in a fancy building on Central Park West in “My Hoffman’s” grandfather’s old Oldsmobile. His Polish grandfather, Ja-Ju, owned a casket-making business in the working-class town of Lowell, MA. Ja-Ju used to carry around the long wooden boxes that housed the dead in the back of the car where our towers of cardboard IKEA boxes now peeked out of the back window.

This was the only car that would fit us and the collective detritus of our mutual dreams as we made the pilgrimage from small-town Massachusetts to these city lights.

“The Maurice” fluttered sagaciously in white lettering on the crisp green tartan of the banner in front of our new building, that stately ship. I was dubious. The halls inside were lined with images of boats and old sea-faring sailors, not unlike the crusty impressionistic reproductions in the gray-washed inn on the Cape where I’d summered. Augie, the long lumbering Eastern European doorman, greeted us with shallow-eyes and a thin-lipped smile as we rolled up W57th Street that afternoon, the fading summer light reflecting off the fake-grosgrain of the old blue Oldsmobile. He seemed to understand that we were fleeing from something. But what could he do? He’d seen it all before.

As it turned out, The Maurice as we would come to know it had housed a menagerie of public and private characters in the years that predated us. Our eccentricities were not unique and immediately lost their self-conscious texture amidst the locals who peopled the hallway’s faded paisley runners. “You should have seen Susan Sarandon running up and down these hallways in the 70’s,” Maria Rosa, our across-the-way neighbor told us early on one evening after we first moved in. “She was blowing coke in the stairwells. Limos used to line up in front of the building afterward just to take everyone to Studio 54.” Maria Rosa herself had the air of faded celebrity. She was small and trim and still quite handsome with a loud academic sounding Italian accent — a fact which bore heavily into the making of her character — and wore big black cat-eyed glasses and died her fine bowl cut an attractive platinum. She had lived across the hall since the era when her wealthy Argentinian diplomat husband had rescued her from an asylum behind the Iron Curtain and moved them state-side into a palatial spread on the park. Now, the apartment was rent controlled and Maria Rosa, still dressed to the 10’s, walked dogs to make ends meet. Her own dog, Bruno, only ate organic meat and rice dishes that she went to great lengths to freeze and prepare. I can’t remember if he was, for a while, a vegetarian as she and I were at the time. Maria Rosa had introduced herself to us early on as a surrealist-sex writer from the 80’s. She’d written a book called Narcissism and Death, illustrated by the prominent animal rights artist Sue Coe. I still keep a copy on my bookshelf. It is amongst my most prized possessions. “Look at these two,” Maria Rosa would sometimes affectionately call out to Augie about “My Hoffman” and I as we passed them in the foyer in the morning as Maria Rosa was on her way back from walking the dogs. “Aren’t they so handsome.” In those moments, broke and running down town to the second-order literary agency where I worked days while applying to school at night, I think I felt amongst the best I’d ever felt.

“My Hoffman” was a brilliant young actor I’d met growing up in small-town Massachusetts. He’d had a locker next to mine in which he housed illicit pin-ups of Madonna and Prince, and bumper stickers with the flags of all the countries he’d visited. I first saw them when I moved to town in the 7th grade. “Australia,” he said, pointing to his most recent acquisition. We’d grown up riding around dark country roads smoking cigarettes and taking his father’s new Jeep Cherokee into the city on weeknights to see the drag queen, Misery, spin on Lansdowne. One evening in my early youth I wore a thin strip of silver metallic elasticine wrapped around my body as we danced to J-Lo in the wake of our adolescent inhibitions. “Honey, I like your dress,” Misery called out to me in the crowd from the stage.

Years later “My Hoffman” gained entrance into the same prestigious New York acting school that Phillip Seymour Hoffman attended in his early twenties to pursue his proclivities on the stage in a place where his brilliance would be recognized and challenged. I remember My Hoffman calling me at Brown during the first few weeks of the semester to say that he’d done exactly what the late P.S.H. outlines about committing to a character. “They have us crawling around on the floor for hours and finding our tails, while our body makes the noise our body wants to make,” My Hoffman said. His own interest in experimenting with drugs emerged around the same time. His father was ill with cancer and he eventually left New York to pursue a career in the arts. There are many private stories of his dependency I could tell here. Waking up with unforeseen bedfellows staying over in the other bed in his dorm room when I visited, piles of CDs and telltale towels strewn about the bathroom, the lone visitor’s belt on the floor beside the bed. The week before we were to make the big move to New York, when he went missing in a suburb of Oklahoma City. His parents’ frantic calls to local emergency rooms and hospitals. The only way his parents and I could trace him was the video at the hotel bar that showed him leaving with a group of four guys he’d met at the bar. At 2 p.m. the next day the phone rang. He was somewhere on a couch in Oklahoma, where or why he couldn’t say, but he was trying to figure out how he’d gotten there, who these people were and, more importantly, how to get home. “But Ann, how will he ever recover if you leave him?” I remember his mother saying to me on the phone.

I would eventually leave this man that I loved several years and two moves later. I remember the night I moved out, standing in the doorway of my tiny utility studio on the Upper West Side, diligently trying to pry a beer from his hand before he passed out on the futon. I remember the next day after I’d left, feeling some small pang of self-righteousness. This disease was his, I thought. It was free to consume him. But I was free to free myself from that dread.

I have often looked back on that moment with pain, mixed-emotions and longing. In the wake of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s passing, I was once again struck by a complicated guilt. Luckily I still have My Hoffman in my life, if at a distance — he is alive and well and thriving. But where was my place in the narrative of this life? Where is the place of collective responsibility? There is a complicated guilt that surrounds acts of witness. Is he in danger? Has he relapsed? How can we be sure?

In the opening scene of Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a slightly rotund new-age-ish priest reflecting on the uncertainty of the mid-1960’s, stands at the podium of a small Catholic parish in the Bronx and delivers the following arresting sermon:

What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience a most profound disorientation, despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together, by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that. Your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience. It was awful. But we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity? No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong. Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window: on one side of the glass, happy untroubled people and on the other side, you.

He goes on to tell a story of a sailor, the only survivor of a fire on a cargo ship who found a life boat, pitched a sail and “being of a nautical discipline, turned his eyes to the heavens and read the stars.” As the clouds rolled in “he could no longer see the stars […] As the days rolled on and the sailor wasted away he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home, or was he horribly lost, and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations: had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance, or had he seen truth once and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance?”

Watching this opening scene in the wake of Hoffman’s death, this speech takes on an eerie foreshadowing, imbued as it is now with a tragic, haunted new meaning.

“In doubt,” he reassures us, “we too are united.” There is a sense in these words that Hoffman was a man intimately acquainted with doubt, with the tribe of “private calamity.”

In Margaret Atwood’s haunting short, “Instructions for the Third Eye,” Atwood writes, “The eye is the organ of vision, and the third eye is no exception to that. Open it and it sees, close it and it doesn’t. Most people have a third eye but they don’t trust it. […] There are some who resent the third eye. They would have it removed. They feel it as a parasite, squatting in the center of the forehead, feeding on the brain.” As writers, as actors, as creators in the world, we feel some responsibility to develop that third-sightedness, to see less self-consciously, to invite in the kind of wide-eyed wonder that doesn’t shut the blinds on unspeakable actions, crippling uncertainty and ultimately unflinching self-doubt. Are those moments of earnest self-question, which for most of us take place in the privacy of the mind, not perhaps the most compelling emotions that unite us? Each of us has our own demons, those things which define, entrap and ultimately inspire us. It seems to me that to be touched by true genius, as Hoffman was, is also to be touched by a certain boldness. As Susan Sontag once said, “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.” Perhaps, for the truly gifted, life is tinged with a desire to investigate that darkness, that night-side of life, in the full light of day.

Hoffman always seemed to me an actor — perhaps the actor — who willingly took on that kind of third-sightedness. He was the kind of truly talented chameleon who was so committed to his characters that he seemed to become them, often stealing scenes with a riveting kind of authenticity which he brought even to supporting roles in films such as The Talented Mr. Ripley or ensemble casts like Magnolia. “Creating anything,” Hoffman reflected in a 2008 New York Times article, “is hard. It’s a cliché thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything. I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie. You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again. The key is you have to commit. And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

In re-reading Hoffman’s 2008 interview with June Stein in BOMB on the eve of his passing, I found this passage compelling:

PSH: I think that as an actor, it’s all about the questions you ask yourself.

JS: What are some of the questions you ask yourself?

PSH: Probably all artists do this whether they’re conscious of it or not. You’re trying to ask the appropriate questions that can very well start with, why am I here? Who am I to this person? Long Day’s Journey into Night is always a good example. About Jamie Tyrone, the first question is: Why is he at the house? Why is he still coming to this summer home? Why does he want to hang out with his mom who always lets him down? Why doesn’t he just drink himself to death? Why doesn’t he just bunk up at some shitty place in Manhattan? Why does he want to hang out with his dad? It makes him miserable. Why is he here?

JS: Why is he there?

PSH: That’s a huge question. So that’s what you do as an actor. You start there.

In many ways these questions seem mundane when spoken out loud. If your character knows something is not good for him — is not serving him — why would he keep coming back? And yet these are universally the questions that define the private lives we all lead outside of whatever spotlight, however small or large, frames our lives. And perhaps, too, the ones that defined Hoffman’s own personal existence. Why did he return to a life of addiction? Here was a smart, intuitive actor who seemed to understand intimately that it was the actor’s job to somehow render these small uncertainties — these residual mental ticks which linger in the liminal drainpipe halfway between consciousness and oblivion — on the screen in a way that makes us see them for what they are, the quiet bedfellows of humility and humanity.

As Lynn Hirschberg reflects in her piece for the Times, “Caden Cotard [Hoffman’s character from Synecdoche] seems to echo many of Hoffman’s own internal debates and anxieties.” Hoffman himself reflected, “I took ‘Synecdoche’ on because I was turning 40, and I had two kids, and I was thinking about this stuff — death and loss — all the time. The workload was hard, but what made it really difficult was playing a character who is trying to incorporate the inevitable pull of death into his art. Somewhere, Philip Roth writes: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’ And Charlie [Kaufman], like Roth, is quite aware of the fact that we’re all going to die.”

What always struck me as so perceptive about Hoffman’s performances was his ability to negotiate these small tics, these small realizations of death’s pull, into his art.

He seemed to love his characters, for all their foibles, to submit to them with both acceptance and dread. Hoffman himself said of filming Doubt, “The drama nerd comes out in me when I’m in a theater. When I saw ‘All My Sons,’ I was changed — permanently changed — by that experience. It was like a miracle to me. But that deep kind of love comes at a price: for me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, that’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.”

Not having had the honor of knowing Hoffman beyond his performances, one question continues to wrack my consciousness these months since the eve of his passing. What is the role of collective grief in sermonizing about the various tribes of addiction? Hoffman’s own death already seems to be shrouded with a similarly collective ‘doubt’ about the cause of his death: was Hoffman’s overdose the act of “misadventure gone wrong?” In many ways, this is not our business to know. Nor does it change the finality of its sad consequence. We have lost one of the greatest actors of our time in the prime of his artistic career. Perhaps Steve Martin said it best, “If you missed him as Willy Loman, you missed a Willy Loman for all time.” As Hoffman was among my favorite actors and Death of A Salesman remains my favorite Miller play, I have the sad feeling this statement is undeniably true.

My mind, and possibly the mind of our collective conscious, had already been thrown into its own kind of empathic third sense since waking up on the morning of Hoffman’s death to the advent of Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter in the morning’s Times. Beyond the debates about Woody Allen’s reputation, what struck me as most salient in Farrow’s letter was its final rejoinder, which had a note of sermonizing that seemed to me to cast an eerie echo recalling Hoffman’s opening sermon: “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton,” Farrow ends her letter, “have you forgotten me?” This struck me as an interesting question in the wake of Hoffman’s death that same evening, as it is that same doubt which Hoffman’s Father Flynn proclaims to unite us, under which Farrow’s story has unfairly suffered. “I want to say to you,” Hoffman says at the end of his opening sermon, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustainable as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”

Hoffman’s story of addiction, like Farrow’s as a survivor of abuse, reverberates within a deeper collective chord. How do we meet the day with empathic, creative and humane answers to these afflictions? Where does our collective grief rest? Having grown up with OCD, I belong to the tribe that panders to the currency of obsessions. Obsessions are illogical, and often the compulsions that we act out to assuage them don’t serve us. Why would a child sit on the floor of the bathroom religiously saying the Lord’s prayer for fear that the nightlight was too close to the wall and would burn the house down? Or why would she engage in strange rituals like finger counting, hand washing and checking? I remember once seeing a young boy on ER when the television show first aired in the early 90’s counting his fingers and hearing my mother say, “See, he looks crazy.” And thinking, she was right! So, why did I engage in these things if they did not serve me? Ultimately, as with all wars of the mind, addiction is not as much a neatly categorized problem with drugs as it is with brain chemistry, and the way one is thus able to navigate and cope in the world. But what strikes me more profoundly on a personal level is that, despite addiction and abuse’s victims, often these afflictions result in various privacies of the mind to which others, only a select few, are often privy. Often it is those who have observed abuse of any kind that remain its most solitary priests. They are the tribe of those who remain.

In fact, in many ways, the act of witness, of overseeing trauma, Hoffman says, played the central role in Doubt. We don’t ever actually witness his character, Father Flynn, molest the altar boy in question, and yet we sense that something is amiss. “We can never be sure,” June Stein reflects on the film in her 2008 interview with Hoffman, a statement which Hoffman himself understands as being the primary hinge in the play. “It’s more Sister Aloysius’s perception of what she sees…we were struggling with this scene yesterday,” Hoffman replies. “She [Meryl Streep’s character] says to me, “I saw you grab the boy’s arm, and the boy pulled away.” It’s so tricky because that’s really all it is. That moment is not about what she’s accusing me of. It’s about something else.”

That something else is a complicated emotion. The feeling that something is direly wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it.

As Dylan Farrow says, “Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity, to say, ‘who can say what happened,’ to pretend that nothing was wrong.” But ultimately that ambiguity, for those who surround the abuser, or (in Farrow’s case) the abused, can be crippling. In the final scene of Doubt, Sister Aloysius concludes that one pays a price for pursuing righteousness in the face of any addiction: “in pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God.” And the movie ends not in the breakdown of Father Flynn but in her own — the witness’s own — breakdown and rabid self-questioning. “I have doubts… I have such doubts,” she says of her choice to reveal her suspicions about Father Flynn’s “infringements” and thus oust him from the priesthood. And herein lies the beauty of the film — we too are shrouded in doubt. Did he do it? Or was Father Flynn simply the scapegoat of bigotry and prejudice, the victim of wearing his nails too long?

I have the feeling that that’s what Philip Seymour Hoffman did for us. He brought us closer to the world as if through a window. He allowed us to see our tribe, in all its complicated glory.

More Like This

The Only Thing We Have in Common Is Sweaty Desperation

"Percent" by Jon Elofson, recommended by Halimah Marcus for Electric Literature

Apr 19 - Jon Elofson

Reading Addiction Memoirs Fueled Mine

These stories were supposed to be inspiring but I felt worse after reading them

Oct 25 - Christy Tending

There’s No Place Like Grandma’s Abandoned Island

Meghan Gilliss’ novel twists assumptions about how families in crisis navigate isolation, addiction, and financial precarity

Sep 13 - Arturo Vidich
Thank You!