The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, January 24, 2008
Accidental Overdose or Suicide?
Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old actor nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 2005 film, “Brokeback Mountain,” was found dead next to a bottle of sleeping pills in New York City Tuesday. Other prescription medications were found in his apartment.
Young men don’t die easily, even when ill (TMZ.com reported that Ledger had pneumonia). For people to die this young, they must really abuse themselves, or else intentionally take their lives. And, sometimes, the line between the two is indistinct.
Among the famous deaths at such an early age was Jim Morrison’s, in 1971, at 27. Morrison, the lead singer and force behind The Doors, was an egregious alcoholic. A shocked visitor in Paris found Morrison pouring bottles of alcohol down his throat, and smoking nonstop.
Parisian officials noted Morrison’s death resulted from a heart attack. In 2007, Time reported it was more likely the result of a drug overdose. In either case, his death was actually an assault on himself.
Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970 at 27, had drunk alcohol and taken a considerable number of sleeping pills before going to bed with his girlfriend (who later herself committed suicide). He was ruled to have asphyxiated on his own vomit.
The most famous show business death by a star under the age of 40 was Marilyn Monroe’s in 1962, at the age of 36. Marilyn’s death by pills was listed as a suicide – although it has spawned rumors, myths, and debates ever since she died.
Those who die at an early age seem to have been motivated towards death. As a result, whether they intentionally took their lives or not, their deaths represent a kind of suicide – or a lack of sufficient will to live. They are troubled by external events, or are emotionally scarred or depressed, or suffer from a combination of these feelings.
It is premature to perform an emotional autopsy on Heath Ledger. But all indications are that he was a troubled man, and may have been for some time. Although Ledger was not an egregious partier, according to TMZ, Ledger had had a substance abuse problem.
Less debatable is the personal pain Ledger suffered when he broke up with his girl friend, Michelle Williams, who played his wife in “Mountain.” The couple had a two-year old child, Matilda. Ledger was a devoted and doting father who was devastated by his separation from his daughter.
Ledger had only recently returned to New York from London, where he had completed his latest role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” reputed to be the darkest of the Batman film series. Ledger described finding the role emotionally taxing, and said that it had given him insomnia.
This was a typical claim by Ledger. He told virtually the same story about playing a heroin addict in the Australian film, "Candy". For someone who became enmeshed with his characters, with resulting emotional turmoil, Ledger nonetheless intentionally sought out edgy and challenging parts.
One other recent part that caused him a great deal of anxiety was playing one of several versions of Bob Dylan depicted in the 2007 biopic, “I’m Not There.” He expressed dissatisfaction with his performance, although it was difficult to tell whether this discontent was more pronounced than usual.
According to an interview he gave in The Telegraph, “Ledger always felt unsure about himself as an actor. . . . His method was a simple one: to climb inside the skin of the person you're playing.”
As in all of his interviews, Ledger was edgy, insecure, evasive, contradictory in this 2005 piece. His parents separated when he was 10. Ledger left his hometown of Perth, Australia for Sydney at the age of 16. He became a star by age 20 in the 1999 film, “Ten Things I Hate About You.”
Ledger declared to the Telegraph reporter: "I'm a not resident of Australia. . . . I'm a non-resident of America. I'm not really sure where I belong."
Yes, it seemed he doubted whether he belonged on earth. Reputedly, Ledger declared after daughter Matilda’s birth, “"I can die now. I can live on through my child.”
Stanton Peele is a psychologist and author of Addiction-Proof Your Child (Three Rivers Press, 2007).