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Perspective

The heroin mystique

Forget its reputation as the drug of artistic genius. There’s nothing romantic about this killer.

Wesley Allsbrook

Philip Seymour Hoffman died with what the media have depicted as a certain cinematic flair — the “needle still in his arm,” 50 or so bags of heroin and used syringes scattered around the Greenwich Village apartment where he was found. It was an unexpected ending for the actor, who, it’s been said, didn’t quite look the part. After all, as Frank Rich wrote for New York magazine, “This tragic loss doesn’t fit the Kurt Cobain/Jim Morrison — or James Dean/Heath Ledger — template of a brilliant (and glamorous) young performer self-destructing or being struck down, leaving behind a relatively brief and stunted career and reveries of what might have been.”

Decades after heroin’s ’70s heyday, long after the drug was associated with creative luminaries like Basquiat, Cobain, Jagger, and Joplin, heroin has retained a certain allure, the reigning drug of genius. Those who die at its hands — the famous ones, at least — don’t just die, but flame out terrifically, having “lived too hard” and “felt too much” but barely scratched the surface of their potential. Because unlike seedy, desperate drugs such as crack and meth, the ones destroying the homeless and the hillbillies, or even cocaine — what was it that Miley Cyrus said? Oh, right: “I really don’t like coke. . . . It’s like, what are you, from the ’90s? Ew.” — there’s a perception that heroin targets sensitive, artistic souls. And so, although Hoffman did not have the looks of a matinee idol, and never mind that he’d been in recovery for half his life, the conversation surrounding his death couldn’t help but return again and again to the “artist and his demons,” instead of what was more likely the less seductive truth: the story of the addict and his relapse.

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Heroin use in the United States doubled between 2003 and 2011. During about the same period, fatal heroin overdoses jumped 46 percent; last year, 4.5 million people tried heroin for the first time. In Massachusetts, 60 percent of those admitted to detox programs are seeking treatment for heroin addiction. “I think part of the romance, if that’s what you want to call it, of heroin is its very finality,” says Gary Gastman, vice president of Addiction Treatment Services at Lahey Health Behavioral Services in Peabody. “It’s certainly more dramatic to die with a needle in the arm than to smoke a joint.”

And we love the lurid details. Boston-based O’Connor Professional Group connects families and individuals facing addiction and other problems with therapists, rehab programs, and other resources. And as its founder and CEO, Arden O’Connor, says: “We are a culture that likes morbidity. We watch Criminal Minds. We read about gruesome details every day in the news. So when someone uses drugs, we ask about the low points, the relapses, the deaths. We don’t talk about recovery.”

Though many new heroin users find the drug after getting hooked on prescription painkillers — that may be how Hoffman got started again — a third are what Gastman calls “sensation seekers,” or those trying it “just because it’s another thing to try.” It’s hard not to wonder whether its celebrity has something to do with that. When Hoffman’s famous friends arrived in New York for his funeral, they were trailed by paparazzi; at least one fashion house released a statement crowing that an actress was carrying one of its $2,500 handbags to the service.

Some of the most compelling memoirs in recent years, meanwhile, from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight, chronicle the deep, dark fall and subsequent redemption of their recovering-user authors. There are dirty details, but there’s also a certain romance when considered in the context of the authors’ subsequent successes, not least of which includes Reese Witherspoon portraying you in a movie. Taking risks, the message seems to be, is but a part of an experience-rich life. Like sky diving. Or ankle tattoos. “YOLO” — you only live once — the kids like to say. It’s worth noting that heroin use is up in the suburbs and that 90 percent of teen heroin addicts are white.

But take away the sensation seekers, and you’ve got two-thirds of new users coming to heroin for different reasons, most of them not by choice. They’re thrust there by desperation, and there’s nothing less romantic than that. But we hear their stories only when they’re dead. As actor Jared Padalecki tweeted, “ ‘Sad’ isn’t the word I’d use to describe a 46-year-old man throwing his life away to drugs. ‘Senseless’ is more like it. ‘Stupid.’” Padalecki soon deleted his tweet. People didn’t like it. They found it disrespectful, cavalier. And yet, how else to describe Hoffman’s tragic ending? It certainly wasn’t the work of an artist.

76 percent

Increase in heroin overdoses in the city of Boston between 2010 and 2012

Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer and editor in Newburyport. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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