“With a Needle in His Arm”

This week’s media drumbeat: “Found dead with a needle in his arm.”

It’s bad enough he died alone with the only disease on earth that convinces its host it’s not there.

ACEHalfway through the first full day of Philip Seymour Hoffman media coverage I knew that “with a needle in his arm” had entered our cultural zeitgeist. Ever since, it’s been a week of the phrase, over and over again.

Yes, we know why – it’s a lurid, gritty and vulgar journalistic standard, but this has hit such a level of capitalization, it’s almost as though it’s been sexualized, as if media outlets can’t cover Hoffman’s death without worming it in, right upfront.

As the week has progressed, in fact, I’ve been hearing ever more creative insertions and timing of the phrase in broadcast media. News readers both local and national threw it out there immediately at first, but now it’s hangin’ back by a sentence or two. By next week it’ll be a paragraph, but only because the story has turned toward the Somali Pirate Chechnya Warlord Taliban drug dealers who might’a sold a beloved fat white guy a truckload of smack.

Philip Seymour HoffmanDon’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the guy’s work, and the best of it likely took place during his periods of abstinence. So, since the grand tapestry of Hoffman’s life should be stitched together with the golden thread of his contributions to the craft of acting, it’s disappointing that he’s being pissed on by the constant addition of the phrase, “with a needle in his arm.”

What’s next, a Norwegian death-metal band by the same name? My point is, our Philip Seymour Hoffman takeaways shouldn’t be what the corporate media uses to make money, but rather what addiction takes away.

Having gotten that out –  I must now confess to being a hypocrite.

A heroin overdose killed a friend years ago. More recently, an even better friend – to whom my book, Where Excuses Go to Die, is partly dedicated – died of complications resulting from a long battle with the same.

NEEDLE EXCHANGE SHORTCHANGE_Where Excuses Go to DieWell, when the subject comes up, of these two, which do you think is my go-to cautionary tale? It’s the first one, the lesser of the two amigos. Why? Because he died with a needle in his arm. He’d rolled over and weezed away between his bed and the wall. The arm in question was sticking up above the mattress with the syringe still in it.

The other guy was an indie rock hero who’d played a number of significant dates with many of music’s heavy hitters. Ah, but he died in a hospital bed, begging his brother not to tell their mom. By the journalistic norm we’ve seen this week – not quite as sexy huh?

What makes me a hypocrite is that I too, use the power of the needle-in-arm imagery. Granted, I’m not selling advertising time, or trying to secure a greater place in the pantheon of broadcast news, but I’m damn well familiar with how people react to the punch of that single-sentence narrative.

Disappointingly, it’s apparently not punchy enough as now the Internet and media swirls with the titillations of the late Hoffman being at the center of a gay scandal.


Whether he was secretly gay or not, of course, is irrelevant, but the excuses to expand the fetishization of his death, say much more about us than we’ll ever say of Hoffman.

Instead of rest in peace, Phil, I’ll just say enjoy that last laugh. It’s on us.

Photo credit: Philip Seymour Hoffman by Michael Muller


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