The Illusion of Celebrity Deaths

I do not understand the phenomenon of crying and grieving over a dead celebrity.

Inappropriately grieving celebrity deaths

Let me back up. I actually do understand this phenomenon quite well, but it’s probably more accurate to say I don’t participate in it.

My senior thesis in college was on the topic of Para-Social Interaction Theory (PSI) – the theory by Horton & Wohl (1956) that said one-sided relationships can develop between an audience member and performer in the media they are consuming, creating the illusion of a face-to-face relationship. In layman’s terms, you feel like you are friends with someone in the media and they meanwhile have absolutely no idea you exist.  A tame version of PSI may be tuning in to the same nightly news cast because you feel like you know the anchor and can trust the information they provide; An extreme version of PSI is the case of Robert John Bardo who stalked actress Rebecca Schaeffer for three years and shot her to death because she had filmed a sex scene.

When I was writing my paper in 2006, the web and social media were not the robust platforms they are today. Then, you’d be lucky if a celebrity had a MySpace page, let alone a website. But now, any media personality is easily accessible—or at least gives the illusion they’re accessible – making PSI and celebrity worship more rampant than ever. Whereas you may have previously written your favorite singer a letter or an email, and prayed to god they somehow saw it, now you can directly tweet at them. Instead of relying on People Magazine to snap two blurry pics of your favorite celeb on vacation, now you can visit their Instagram and see what they’re eating, wearing, or thinking, all in real time. Websites like Perez Hilton and TV shows like TMZ and Entertainment Tonight feed into our culture’s obsession with stars, and even local media personalities feel intense pressure to keep up an online persona.

Because we have access to celebrities through so many channels, it’s easy to feel like we “know” them on some level. That’s why you watched their wedding on TV, rooted for them when they went to rehab, and why you burst into tears when they died. At best this sort of thinking is delusional, at worst it’s dangerous.

Along with putting celebrities on a pedestal, our culture gives celebrities immortality and is then crushed when they die like the rest of us mere mortals. Grieving used to be appropriate for an untimely or tragic death. John Lennon, for example, dreamed of a world without hunger, possessions or violence and then was shot to death (by a fan who no doubt was experiencing PSI). That was tragic. But now whenever anyone remotely famous dies, regardless of the fact that they were a senior citizen with cancer or punished their bodies with drugs and alcohol for decades, it’s heartbreaking, it’s sad, it’s awful. You know what? It’s LIFE.

There’s no disagreeing David Bowie was a musical genius and a pioneer who broke barriers. I have mad respect for him and his extensive career. But his death still didn’t make me cry because I didn’t know him–none of us did. As his wife Iman said, “I am married to David Jones. David Bowie and David Jones are two different people.” Maybe you’d argue that his music was the soundtrack to your life—there for all of the bad and the good times. My question back to you would be, “Why does him dying change any of that?”

And as far as Alan Rickman is concerned—yes, he had a prolific, successful movie career, but you didn’t know him either. It seems so trivial to me that people are upset over his death when they’ll be able to see Rickman’s face or hear his voice anytime they wish by simply popping in a Blu-ray or adding Harry Potter to their Netflix queue. Can you say the same about a lost friend or family member?

If you’re still reading at this point, it’s likely you think I’m cold or emotionless. But you’ll be happy to hear there is something that makes me feel sad when a celebrity dies – it’s the fan who mourns the loss for days on Facebook, but cannot be bothered to attend a blood relative’s funeral. “No, I’m not going to attend the services,” they’ll say. “We just weren’t that close.”

 

That Night One Year Ago

It was the night of the college football championship and he was meeting the guys downtown to watch the game. And I just knew something bad was going to happen. I could feel it.

“Why don’t you let me drop you off downtown tonight and you can take a cab home,” I offered to him as he zipped up his winter jacket in the living room.

“No, baby! I don’t want to make you drive me down there. You’re watching your show and you’re already in your pjs.” Technically these things were true and being a girl who falls asleep on the couch at 9:00 pm wasn’t helping my case.

“Well maybe one of the guys could pick you up instead? Don’t they have to drive through here?”

“I don’t want to inconvenience them, babe. I will be fine, I promise,” he told me.

But I didn’t believe him.

I stood up to kiss him goodbye and I found myself putting my hands on his shoulders, like a parent about to send their kids off to summer camp. I looked him in the eyes and said:

“Just promise me you won’t drive. If you end up having too much, please call me or promise me you’ll take a cab home.”

“Of course, baby! Of course I will take a cab, I promise. I don’t plan on drinking that much, so you really having nothing to worry about,” he told me. We kissed goodbye and I resumed watching my trashy reality television show, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was going to happen.

**

My fears weren’t completely irrational. Almost all of the memories I had of him were steeped in alcohol. It was the glue that held our friend group together. Activities that weren’t supposed to be about drinking were made into ways to drink: Jack and Cokes and pitchers of beer during our Friday night bowling league; Beer pong, flip cup and shots at the Halloween party; “Sampling” dozens of high alcohol percentage beers, washed down with a mixed drink or lighter beer of your choice, as we hung out at someone’s house on a Thursday night; An entire keg, intended for ten people, tapped at 8:00 a.m. at our all-day softball tournament; Every wedding, every funeral, and every birthday – alcohol, alcohol, alcohol.

For a while, I thought this sort of thing was normal. I thought this was what people in their late twenties/early thirties did. When I spent the night vomiting, crying and praying to God to let me live, my friends laughed and said I couldn’t handle my liquor; When he got sick at a party, someone would be right there with a drink encouraging him to “puke and rally” so he could be the night’s hero; When someone else confessed the next morning they’d lost a big chunk of time and couldn’t remember much (called blacking out), someone else would conveniently have a photo or video clip to fill them in, along with a degrading story or five.

Drinking soon became a catalyst for a lot of really bad things; it fueled fights, injuries, drinking and driving, our friend group imploding and both of us getting divorced.

The great thing about losing a group of friends is that it gives you perspective. I had time to look back and realize just how much time was wasted getting wasted. I asked myself, “Do you miss that lifestyle, do you miss them?” and the honest answer was/is no. We had all grown apart years before and drinking was the only thing keeping us together. I knew I didn’t want to live my life that way anymore.  Alcohol had never been important to me—it was the social time it created that I valued—so it was really easy for me to change my habits.

It wasn’t so easy for him to change his habits though. He had been our group’s heaviest drinker—the life of the party who never wanted to leave and never wanted to stop. He was the person who couldn’t stop.

He had also recently started to reframe his obsession with craft beer as not a problem, but “a hobby.”  He told me he was an integral part of the craft beer community and that he loved his beer people. Whereas other people’s hobbies might be reading, his was following every brewer and brewery he could think of on Twitter. Instead of pictures of him, his family or his friends, his Instagram only contained carefully constructed photos of rare beers and brews in #properglassware (glassware that matched the beer they contained). Instead of a cute cat video or a photo album of a recent vacation on his Facebook, his updates were brags about waiting in line for the release of a popular beer and selfies of him consuming his victory. His restaurant choices, his vacations, and the ways he spent his weekends were centered around craft beer.  All of this was chronicled in a blog he appropriately named brewsandbooze. I slowly started to realize he had a problem.

When we talked about it for the first time, he agreed he had been drinking a lot lately, but assured me he was in control. To prove it, he quit drinking…for two months.

**

I woke up to the sound of the back door slamming and someone stumbling around the kitchen. I looked at my phone—2:30 a.m. From my bedroom, I could hear the dog get off the couch and make her way over to greet him. As soon as he saw her, he started weeping and said, “Sadie, I did a reallllly bad thing.”

I called out to him and he made his way into the bedroom, still crying, still stumbling and reeking of alcohol.

I asked him what bad thing he did. He told me he got a DUI.  I was livid. But as I listened and tried to make sense of his drunken tale, I realized he didn’t just get a DUI. He got into a car accident, he totaled his car, he was arrested, and he could have been killed or killed someone else.

I couldn’t listen to his story. All I could think about was how I offered to drive him downtown, how he promised to take a cab home, how he lied to me, and more than anything, how he was an alcoholic. I told him we were done and I meant it.

The next day, as he dealt with things like getting his totaled car out of the compound and calling a lawyer about the DUI, it became clear that he was starting to feel the weight of this accident. He looked like a scared child and just kept saying, “I could have killed someone. I could have killed someone.” He told me he was done drinking—forever—and that I had to give him another chance. I didn’t believe him. I told him, “Too bad.” It was my parents—the same ones who had been in love with my ex-husband—who convinced me I had to give him another chance.

Oddly enough, him not drinking took a toll on our relationship. His personality changed and we both had to learn who Sober Dan was. We had to find activities to do that weren’t centered around alcohol (try that for a week and you’ll see how hard it is). I also spent the first several months living in fear that he would drink again. It was terrible to feel so insecure in a relationship and to spend your time apart wondering if this was the time something would happen. After he’d come home from a concert, I’d quiz him about who he was with, what his NA options were, and if anyone pressured him to drink. When he had bad days at work, I expected to find him with a glass of whiskey in his hand. I mentally prepared for the moment when I would have to confess to friends and family that he was drinking again and I’d imagine the disappointment I would see on their faces.  I was 100% absolutely positively convinced he was going to fall off the wagon and that we were going to break up for good.

But that bastard did what I hate more than anything—he proved me wrong.

Today is his one year sober-versary. The “me” from last year who doubted his commitment to never drinking again is still in shock about this milestone. But the other me is so proud of him. They say things happen for a reason and I’m a true believer. That night a year ago was exactly the wake up call he needed to change his life. The fact that he walked away unscathed and no one else was injured is a miracle. Not drinking hasn’t always been easy and it hasn’t always been hard, but it has always been the right choice for him.

 

Death by Mixed CD

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that every single mixed CD I’ve made for a significant other has resulted in us breaking up. No, seriously. Check out this track record (no pun intended):

P.S. You Hate Me

Relationship #1:
Length: 3 years
CD made: November
Breakup: December

Relationship #2:
Length: 1 year
CD made: April
Never saw him again after: June

Relationship #3:
Length: A few months
CD made: October
Breakup: December.

I was even naïve enough to think it would be romantic to give my current boyfriend of 5 years a (two-disc!) mixed-CD for our anniversary. Not surprisingly, we suffered a major set back just weeks later. Although we didn’t break up, it’s really made me question the integrity of such a gift.

What is it about these CDs that are ruining my relationships? Are my tunes too sappy? Am I freaking boys out with melodies that promise happily ever-after? Have mixed CDs become such a thing of the past I’m being dumped for being so outdated? Are CD-R’s all made by Satan?!?! What could it beeee?

Perhaps a more logical explanation might be there’s something inside of me that senses the impending doom. I go all in, illegally download 15 slow-jams, and present them to my guy with a big fat bow and an invisible tag reading, “Please love me!”

Naw…that can’t be right. I’m sticking with Satan.