In a society that worships celebrity, how do we handle it when one of our idols displays clear signs of mental illness? In a word—well, two words—not well. We freak the fuck out. This has not been proven by any study but is merely an observation I make after witnessing the way we reacted to the travails in the past year of such people as Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Woody Allen and Shia LaBeouf. Lohan, of course, has appeared in court over 20 times for various incidents and though she has declared herself periodically sober, she has become a less-than-reliable character witness about her own life. Also, it doesn’t take a mental health practitioner to determine that things like giving a highly publicized interview and then making a reality show about your new sober life are exactly what you should not be doing if eventual serenity is your goal.
Lindsay and Amanda: Our (Somewhat Unjust) Reactions
To us, Lindsay Lohan has become a punch line—Oh there goes Lilo again, we think, whether we’re reading about her prima donna behavior on a movie set or her telling a judge to fuck off through her manicure. We react with contempt and judgment and amusement because she’s become more sideshow freak persona than person. Because, we think, she has all of this stuff that most of us will never have and this gives us the right. Because, we think, if we had all that stuff, we would never act so foolishly (when really we have no idea).
Though the antics of Amanda Bynes were arguably more disturbing—some hit and runs, wearing weird wigs to court, throwing bongs out windows, randomly attacking other celebrities on Twitter—we didn’t react the way we would if, say, a beloved sister or cousin or friend were doing these things. We made Laverne & Shirley parody videos about her and Lohan. We Retweeted her tweet about what she wanted the rapper Drake to do to her vagina (um, murder it) nearly 60,000 times. We dressed as her for Halloween. Eventually, she was institutionalized; it didn’t seem so funny when we saw photos of a demure-looking Bynes, sans crazy wigs and bongs and phone on which she could write crazy tweets, calmly strolling with her parents and their dogs on Christmas day.
Fame and Money Don’t Fix It
In the past few weeks, we’ve had the doubly whammy of the death of an actor of otherworldly talent from addiction and the re-hashing of our most respected director’s sex scandal from over two decades before. People seemed dumbfounded that Hoffman could have had all that he did and have been on the self-destructive path he was on as well as loathe to believe that Allen was capable of atrocities; in other words, we seem to need to be reminded over and over and over again that fame and money and success don’t bring the eternal satisfaction and happiness that we like to pretend they do. If ever there was an example of the flaw in this way of thinking, it was Woody Allen’s New York Times defense—where he railed against Mia Farrow for most of his 14 paragraphs and wrote without shame of having been in “the blissful early stages of a happy new relationship” with Farrow’s adopted daughter at the time of the accusation. Does a man who consistently uses the truth only when convenient and doesn’t take responsibility for any of his actions seem happy? Does living in a way where no one around you is willing to tell you the truth (or you’re not willing to ask their opinion) before you publish a piece like this seem like it would make you feel happy?
Now, look. Obviously getting your ass kissed on the regular feels good. Having money and people caring about and respecting you does as well. But you know what I’ve learned from just my extremely limited exposure to that? More than anything else, it makes you feel disconnected. If you’ve got terrific self-esteem (something I don’t know much about, alas), maybe you can keep it all in perspective and get that your job is overvalued in society and not let it impact your emotional wellbeing. But if you don’t—if you’re like most of us, that is—the more that kind of treatment is going to push you out of alignment. Because you know on a certain level that no one deserves this sort of thing and so your reality starts to nudge up against your self-belief and then you start to think, Well, hey, maybe I am deserving of this. Maybe the rules don’t apply to me. In my personal experience, the more people treat you like you’re better than them—better than anyone—the more isolated and alienated you begin to feel. And look—I don’t know the secret to everlasting happiness. But I do know that it has more to do with being connected, in real and honest and humbling ways, to people than in feeling better than them.
It’s Shia’s Turn
So then there’s Shia LaBeouf, an actor who has made a series of decisions lately that have been questionable-verging-on-alarming and which seemed to culminate of late in him wearing a bag over his head that declared “I Am Not Famous Anymore.” Whatever it is he’s going through—and he’s really the only one who knows but let’s assume it’s not great—we have reacted the way we always seem to in these situations: by, essentially, calling him an idiot for his narcissism and for his apparent lack of appreciation for his tremendous success. We do not, again, react the way we would if a loved one were exhibiting the same behavior. We condemn, judge and laugh. When LaBeouf took his bag-over-head routine a step further, Jerry O’Connell, apparently sent by Funny or Die, went and did a mock exhibit next door. This of course attracted people wanting to interact with a famous person as well as press because it’s the sort of thing our society values. But is the video funny? Does it say something meaningful? If so, I missed both.
More Compassion, Less Mocking
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that we always have to have an earnest reaction to things. I actually abhor earnestness to the point that I almost cannot appreciate a piece of writing that isn’t funny. But can’t we leave issues with mental health and addiction off the list of things we mock? Can’t we get a little more honest about what’s really going on by admitting that at least a part of us relates to a part of these so-called crazy celebrities? Look, we’ve all felt alienated, misunderstood and judged. So isn’t one way to start feeling less that way to stop alienating, misunderstanding and judging others—even those we’ve somehow become convinced deserve it? Perhaps then we can also admit that if there is a secret to everlasting happiness and satisfaction, fame and money aren’t it. Then maybe we can stop idolizing people who probably stopped growing emotionally as soon as they got famous (in much the same way that addicts stop growing emotionally when they get addicted). We can then feel empathy and not jealousy for those who have the double whammy of fame and addiction. We can also then applaud those famous folks who don’t try to perpetuate some shell of perfection that’s destined to crack—people like Russell Brand and Kristen Johnston, who don’t just speak openly about their sobriety but also work tirelessly to help other addicts. We can be grateful for the other actors, comedians and writers who’ve been willing to speak openly with me about their addictions on AfterPartyPod. And yet despite these people, we still have so far to go.
Take the situation last fall when the actor Donald Glover left the show Community and then posted about his loneliness and fears in a series of Post-It notes on Instagram, we called it “worrisome,” “disturbing” and “troubling.” Sure, it was unusual for a famous person to share something so personal with the public. It wasn’t a PR-friendly quote about how much he’d loved working on the show and wished everyone the best. But shouldn’t that be applauded and not judged? I mean, if we’re going to go crazy praising celebrities for coming out, can’t we also praise and not condemn them for coming out about their emotional difficulties? Look, I’m as much a sucker for a well-presented speech as the next person. But I know that my own struggles don’t tend to be perfectly polished or articulated. And I think we can learn just as much, if not more, from the person who’s in the messy bog of the problem than we can from the person who’s come out on the other side. If we could be less cynical and appreciate those rare moments of honesty more, surely a larger number of our so-called idols would open up about their mental health and addiction issues. Then we, as a society that worships them, could grow. So can we stop pretending that these aren’t real people grappling with the same issues many of us are? Maybe if we can get honest about them, we at least then stand a chance of getting honest about ourselves.
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