On Personal Tragedies and Public Mournings: When Death Kindles Uneasy Compassion
When Amy Winehouse died, she took a part of my (tremulous) faith in humanity with her. My passion for her music was — still is — boundless, but it was she, the woman behind it, who made such an indelible mark upon my soul. I felt like her pain was my pain: and even when she spiraled, unveiling herself in all her rawness, I loved her; even when she self-destructed slowly, and with it, her infinite potential, I loved her; even when her appearances became increasingly erratic, and bordered on the humiliating, I loved her.
You would think, watching the praise that followed the Amy documentary, that I was not the only one, you would think that I was in the majority of those who had affection for the late singer. But we all remember.
The first time I was introduced to Amy Winehouse, in 2008, her talent and her inner tumult were mentioned in the same breath. The jokes just write themselves, the friend said, in what was supposed to be a witty reference to her last name, her propensity for alcohol, and the irony therein. And it would not be the last time: it was almost a necessity, it would seem, a yes, but tacked onto her many, many accomplishments, a yes, but that immediately eclipsed the gifted woman she was.
Talented, yes, but caught on camera, stumbling drunk the other night.
Extraordinary, yes, but always covered with track marks on her arms.
Illustrious, yes, but slurring every words she speaks lately.
I remember walking through the airport, early in July 2011 about a week before she died. I can still see the rows of tabloid magazines permeated with blown-up, deliberately unflattering pictures of Amy Winehouse in various states of distress; if she was accompanied by her then-boyfriend Reg Traviss, he was almost inconspicuous — after all, he was not the point. It was she, the riveting trainwreck, who was supposed to flabbergast: look at her, she’s all over the place. She’s all over the place, and this cannot stand, we have a right to our opinion, and it must be loudly heard.
Because some well-known figures have exposed themselves to us, shown us this seemingly grisly side of them, we think we have the right to judge them, without pausing to consider that they may not want to show us this at all, without pausing to consider that they may not be able to help themselves. Amy Winehouse, like so many other “troubled” artists before her, did not purposely stumble onto our stage, and ask to be assessed and evaluated for our pleasure. She was dragged onto it and stood there, blinking in the harsh spotlight as we picked her apart, taunt after measured taunt.
And that would have been the end of that. I, and all those who cherished her, would have mourned her in peace and silence, with the resignation that comes from knowing that the world is cruel and that words are knives — had it not been for the response that followed.
Since then, Amy Winehouse has been crystallized in popular culture as this tragic artiste, the martyr with the ravishing voice, and the indulgence with which she is remembered stands in stark contrast with its lack thereof, when she was alive. Every time I hear her adulated, in the press, hear the hushed reverence with which she is sometimes spoken of, by those who had pointed and laughed just a few years before, I see red. Where was this benevolence when she needed it the most? It’s as if her passing had sobered us all, and it was suddenly tasteless to make jokes at her expense. I wish I could say that Amy Winehouse was the exception.
The about-face is always upsetting, although never truly surprising. It happened with Whitney Houston, with Michael Jackson, with Anna Nicole Smith, and the list goes on; it has happened so many times, and with such absolute familiarity that sometimes, I’m not sure whether to be offended, or simply go numb.
But the reaction is not the real heart of the issue. It’s the reasons behind this occurrence that have haunted me, with increasing urgency, over the last few years. As seemingly more and more people die, every year, by self-inflicted means, and as more and more people, myself included, carry their own heavy, heavy burdens in secret, it is not a matter of what we can do afterwards, when, frankly, it is too late. It is a matter of what could have been done, and what, for those who remain, can still be done.
The world is a hostile place as is, and even more so for those grappling with mental illness and/or substance abuse. Practical, tangible solutions abound. Rehab and therapy and so forth, although financially inaccessible for too many, at least, are still existing options. But these solutions are virtually useless when the milieu is harmful; they are futile when society at large holds these issues in contempt, when the conversations are, at a large scale, not productive enough. The progress made, in short, can be undone in a flash when you and your issues are welcomed with downright scathing attitudes.
I believe that there is a collective fear, for lack of a better word, to be compassionate in the face of raw, unsightly pain. I believe that the impulse that makes generally kind and decent people participate in active bullying, is the same one that makes people stay mum or look the other way when a self-destructive person is mocked and jeered at. It is the impulse that makes people casual, makes them shrug their shoulders and lean back to cooly observe the inevitability of the trainwreck, as if they couldn’t do something to help, as if it were out of their hands.
This is only amplified when it comes to those in the spotlight, because their privilege is somehow considered offensive.
It says a lot about the voracious-but-cruel relationship we have with celebrity; but above all, what it really shows is that mental illness and addiction, despite their pervasiveness, are still woefully misunderstood. It is not understood that these issues do not discriminate, and it is not understood that so much of it is uncontrollable, overwhelming. I watched in horror as Britney Spears, and later Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes, were raked through the coals while they clearly exhibited the signs of suffering from something serious.
I thought: if this was your sister, would you be so callous? Knee jerk reaction: yes, you probably would.
I initially chose to be angry, about the entirety of the situation, because anger gives me purpose. But eventually, like burning match after match, but lighting nothing with it, it exhausts the soul. So instead of remaining angry, I’ve started doing the second best thing: it try to understand.
I understand that for some reason, it’s the helpless, the truly helpless ones who elicit the most cruelty, and the least empathy. The ugly drunks, the suicidal messes, the all-over-the-place people, the ones who most need our good will. I understand that a part of it stems from an innate pleasure to kick perceived weakness when it is down; and some days, I wonder whether those, like Carrie Fisher, who were open and self-deprecating about every aspect of their struggle, those, like Prince, who was defiant in the face of criticism, or those, like Chris Cornell and Robin Williams, who managed to conceal the extent of their misery, were able to escape the degradation and the public humiliation, precisely for those reasons. Their kinder legacy speaks for itself.
I understand that people are comfortable with mourning openly for a person they denigrated, because of the safety of their distance and absence. There is no need for interaction with them, no need to deal with them rightfully pointing out that we were not there for them. There is no accountability, only guilt, and guilt seems a decent enough price to pay for emotional abandonment, apparently.
I understand that, in some twisted way, we allow ourselves to feel sorry for people like Amy Winehouse because in death, they have paid for their “trespasses.” I understand that the shamefulness of their public collapse, something society has no time for and no desire to see, is absolved when they have finally remedied to it: after all, to hear them speak of her, there was no salvation in store for Amy Winehouse. People were predicting her death the way one would predict snow on a winter’s day. “27 club” jokes were thrown around with cavalier regularity. I saw self-satisfied smugness, thinly hidden behind sober concern at the news, a sort of well it was to be expected layered underneath the bless her heart, she’s in a better place.
I understand that, for some, death not only legitimizes the sufferers and their pain, it tragically drives home the fact that the person was not, in fact, faking it. I understand that as long as they are alive, and actively screwing up, we feel as if we cannot and should not feel sorry for them.
But most of all, here is what I know.
That this appalling, heartless response to pain doesn’t only hurt those who endure it on a large scale, it also trickles down on everyone else, those on the periphery who don’t have the platform or the voice to be heard. Amy Winehouse and her unfortunate peers had the benefit — and misfortune — of being in the limelight, of having an artistic legacy, no matter how tainted, an artistry that acted as a sort of balancer for everything else. Those of us not in the spotlight, however, suffer another type of torture. A much more wordless one.
There is no “but she was a great artist who inspired millions” to offset the “but she was awful when she went on binges.”
There is no “they had a golden voice” to counter the “they were shut-ins who burned all their bridges.”
There is no “he wrote incredible stories” that excuses or shadows the “he became nasty when he drank”, long after we are gone.
I have seen and been on the receiving end of enough of this dynamic to know that people won’t change their attitudes overnight, nor are they likely to show kindness and compassion until it’s too late, until the recipient is long buried in the ground.
And maybe I am being harsh. I’ll concede to that.
Maybe I am not being considerate enough of the fact that general ignorance about mental illness and addiction is the biggest contributor to the insulting stereotypes so prevalent in society. Maybe I am not being considerate of the fact that very often, helplessness and despair in the face of the overwhelming anguish of another human being translates as condescending indifference: no one likes to admit that that they do not have the answers, that things are beyond them, that they are unable to help and fix something bigger than their loved one can handle.
But this does not excuse the mockery and/or the apathy. It simply does not. We shouldn’t have to be reminded that those who suffer a public meltdown are human beings only after they are dead. What we should be reminded of is that when we casually throw around words like “loony bin” and “cokehead” when referencing these artists, when we use words like “crazy” and “nuthouse”, when we have no problem linking privilege and emotionally instability, people around us are listening, people closer than we can imagine.
The family member who hasn’t told you they have regular panic attacks. The coworker who will never tell you that they suffer from PTSD. The child you don’t know has been self-medicating for months. The father, the friend, the cousin who has quietly been contemplating suicide. You just don’t know until you do, sometimes tragically so.
Kindness. Truly, it is not that hard. It can mean the difference between someone silently realizing that the world is not so terrible, that they have worth in this life, that they should seek professional help, and someone deciding that their existence is meaningless, that they will find no comfort from those around them, and that bottling their woes is safer than expecting compassion.
If you cannot be kind, inform yourself. It will open your eyes to the fact that mental illness, suicide and substance abuse are the ultimate equalizers: they don’t just happen to people lifetimes away. Hell, it could happen to you, and you would want the tenderness so readily denied to those people.
I would like to think that someone could have saved Amy Winehouse. Someone. Anyone. It is naive, and it is simplistic, but I cannot help but wonder whether it could have made a difference to know that no one was judging her, that it was okay to fall, because a net of worldwide grace and understanding would have cushioned her.
I don’t wish to juggle too long with the should-could-would haves, because ultimately, it could trivialize everything else that made her who she was: talented, wonderful, beautiful. As more and more people become open about their personal struggles, whether through social media or in their day-to-day interactions, I am hoping for a future when dishonest public mournings are no longer a thing, when we give the kindness we hope to receive: may that day come sooner, rather than later.
I need to believe this, otherwise I, and those who endure, everyday, have no place in the world as it is.