When Is It Too Soon To Make Fun of a Tragedy?
Last week, on the day Amy Winehouse died, I sat down and wrote a eulogy that several people, including my wife and online employer, found unnecessarily ghoulish. And while it's true I thought it was amusing to quip that London officials had banned Amy's cremation for fear of a nation-wide contact high, I was pretty sure I wasn't the worst person in the world. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what it was about this tragedy that made me so completely fine with cracking jokes. I mean, it didn't occur to me to write a bunch of zingers about all those murdered Norwegian children from the week before. Why did I have no compunction about making fun of this? And why did I get annoyed when I saw people leaving Facebook statuses about the Winehouse tragedy and summoning up the "27 club." Why did it ring false?A little more than a week later, I'm still not sure, but I think it has something to do with the distinction between fiction and real life, and the difference between tragedy and the tragic. In literature class, they teach you that tragedy is defined by inevitability. Tragedy requires a fatal flaw that can only lead to one unhappy conclusion. King Lear's arrogance sows the seeds of his destruction. Macbeth's lust for power seals his fate. Or take The Godfather as a more modern example. Despite Vito Corleone and then Michael Corleone's desire to ultimately run a legitimate business and to set rules for how they conduct their affairs, the enterprise was still based in crime, intimidation and murder. That flaw can only lead to more bloodshed. Corleone brothers, sons and daughters will be murdered. And like Macbeth, the taint of spilt blood will leave its mark. That's tragedy. Inevitable. Logical. All good tragedies follow this rule because if they don't, the events are merely tragic. And no one cries about that. Sonny and Fredo Corleone can't slip in the shower. Lady Macbeth can't develop breast cancer. That's melodrama. A soap opera. We want a death we understand. One that feels fated. One that is carefully constructed and inevitable. Anything less than that and we resent the writers. We accuse them of playing God, sprinkling death arbitrarily down puppeteer strings solely for the purpose of messing with us. And we refuse to cry.
"Look how they massacred my boy. ... They should have put nonslip pads in that shower."
But unlike fiction, it seems the things in life that elicit the greatest sadness are the merely tragic. Those slaughtered Norwegians; that Brooklyn boy abducted blocks from his home, murdered and chopped into pieces, and John Lennon shot for no foreseeable reason outside his apartment. These are the stories we can't look directly at. Those that make the world seem a sharp and narrow place, impossible to navigate without getting sliced and bleeding out eventually. There was no reason these things had to happen. No logic. And we cry and look at ourselves and our families and pray. Or we don't think about it or we hope that talking profusely about how terrible it is will keep the evil away like a talismanic incantation. It's the tragic events that terrify us most in real life because unlike tragedies, you can never see them coming.But Amy's story is a classic tragedy. A story of a woman whose unique ability to keep living was matched only by her desire to die. You could take her career, her teeth, every ounce of her life-sustaining body fat, and she would not stop. Hers was a heart that beat so fierce, that even in the bloodless hollow of a battered shell of a body, there was the thump of determination. Someone else would have given up. Gone to rehab. Or jumped in front of a moving train. But Amy said, "Screw you, heroin. Get into my body and get the job done. Nice and slow." And so it did. It may have taken seven years, but Amy finally got her wish of fatally overdosing on junk.
Is one of these the secret to everlasting non-life?
And some people see that steadfast dedication to suicide. That blind determination to be a living tragedy and can't help thinking about those other people -- God-smacked by the tragic -- who had to witness this. The young cancer-riddled mothers clinging to life, forced to suck up chemotherapy in the hopes it will keep them alive long enough to see their child's third birthday. Or children afflicted with horrific diseases identified by foreign names and numbers. Or anyone living in tremendous pain, but still praying for another day of life. How debilitating to their struggle to watch a celebrity throw it all away in a constant game of Russian roulette that inexplicably took years to end? And we think, Well that death makes sense. All is right with the world. That was supposed to happen. That can't be us. And we do not cry. But maybe these kind of lines between tragedy and the tragic can't be drawn. Maybe it's wrong to talk about Amy's mental illness and physical addiction in terms of a fatal flaw as if it's a conscious choice. Well, OK. What if it weren't drugs? What about adrenaline junkies. What if I told you it was a 38-year-old father of three who just had to hang glide constantly? Or only enjoyed life when he was base jumping or free-climbing mountains? If he fell to his death, would you grieve for him the same way you would that young dad who was hit by a bus? I don't know. I don't think I would. Is it wrong? I'm not sure.
"Just let me get a few more feet, and then I'll be sure to buy some life insurance for junior."
Or maybe I'm not comfortable forgiving the mental illness that leads to suicide because it's too close to forgiving the mental illness that leads to murder. Wouldn't we call that Norwegian terrorist, that Brooklyn child-murderer and Mark David Chapman mentally ill? These aren't rhetorical flourishes. I'm asking. I don't know where to draw lines. But I do know dark humor will always rise up to meet that kind of moral discomfort.Some people aren't plagued by this uncertainty. For some, it's because they are just better people with larger hearts who have room for both tragedy and the tragic alike. Others haven't asked the questions. And some are just lying.But Amy's biggest fans, the ones who call her a true genius of unique talent, seem to be the most forgiving. (Personally, I don't think those have to go hand in hand. I still haven't forgiven Greg Giraldo, one of my comedy heroes, for overdosing and I'm pretty sure given some of his Heath Ledger jokes he wouldn't mind me making fun of him for it.) But these fans do forgive her and although they haven't written Facebook statuses bemoaning the loss of a million other people who have succumbed to addiction and mental illness (albeit without musical ability), they say it's a tragedy that such an artist had to die in this way.And I'll agree it is sad that people succumb to addiction and mental illness. And it's not hard to find compassion for that condition in the abstract. In fact, it's not hard to sincerely wish that no one had to suffer such things. And I do. I wish that whatever chemical or biological or environmental affliction that trapped Amy into a death spiral of heroin addiction didn't exist. But without those influences, she probably would have been some completely different person. Someone who wouldn't write a hit song about not going to rehab. And if that were the case, Amy wouldn't have had the pain that so many of these fans loved her for. And they wouldn't be changing their profile pics to her face, lamenting the "27 club" and urging the world to see the tragedy.We see it. And it is a tragedy in every sense of the word.