By Irene F. Starkehaus -
Like many who follow pop culture trends, I was curious when the Daily Mail began openly speculating about the "identity of [a] notorious womanizing actor whose hard partying ways have caught up with him."
Sadly, a fifty-something A-lister with a checkered past of boozing, womanizing and debauchery as a general description didn't narrow it down for me as much as I thought it would, and I found myself running through the who's who of middle-aged actors with public histories of bad behavior to better consider the possibilities.
This is a truth for which I harbor no joy. Most certainly, this dabble into voyeurism says more about me and my own nihilism than it does about the actors in question, but there it is. I listened to gossip and I played along with a game of hearsay and depravity to satisfy my own morbid curiosity. That means I am part of the problem, and the problem is nothing less than the cynicism and the codependence that decadence needs in order to thrive.
Worse still, I knew enough about the commerce of debauchery to guess who the actor could be. Charlie Sheen did make my short list of possible candidates to fill the role of hard partying actors who might be the subject of the Daily Mail post. When Sheen announced on the Today Show that he had contracted HIV, I wasn't particularly shocked given his tabloid-styled media coverage over the last thirty years or so. Further, I detected little genuine surprise from other media outlets. Wink. Nod. "Charlie Sheen? Really? I never would have guessed." And so it went until the mockery set in. And the mockery has thus far been brutal.
No. Surprised, I was not. But troubled? I was and am most certainly troubled. The news of Charlie Sheen's situation bothers me greatly.
Why? The event as a whole…it's like an onion of discontent, really. We peel away at one rotten layer only to reveal another. Charlie Sheen, not as a person but as a pop culture event, is a parable for the culmination of societal decay, and the event reminds us all about the important difference between absolute freedom and a freedom tempered by self-discipline.
But Charlie Sheen is also a person…a person that we should ultimately be rooting for with the hope that what is best for him and for his own personal growth as a human being will materialize. Sheen's adversity reminds us too that we should be humble and generous in our compassion for him even as we must critique the very public choices that he made to get him where he is today.
It's a thin line that we each walk between gathering important life lessons from events such as these and piling on to what we are tempted to see as a person reaping what he has sown. Has Charlie Sheen gotten what he deserves? I very much doubt it. Have any of us gotten what we deserve for that matter? Let's raise our glasses and toast to the hope that we ultimately avoid getting that very thing.
The critique is a simple one. The naked egoism on display in all aspects of Sheen's announcement struck me as surreal given the solemnity of the subject matter. Beginning with Sheen himself, he says he tested positive for HIV around four years ago. He takes four pills a day, he still drinks, and he is sexually active but only has protected sex. To that his doctor adds:
"We're so, so anxious that if he was overly depressed or abusing substances he would forget these pills," the physician said. "He's managed to continue to take this medication….Magically, somehow in the midst of incredible personal mayhem, he's managed to continue to take these medications."
There are times when one must hit rock bottom in order to change certain negative aspects of one's lifestyle. We should hope for such people that bottoming out happens sooner rather than later so they can begin the process of change. I suspect, in spite of the gallows humor that we will read about Sheen, most people are quietly wishing the best for him.
But within his confessions and reflections made public on the Today Show, Charlie Sheen and his doctor have demonstrated through a sheer detachment from reality that Sheen is miles away from rock bottom and for this, we should anguish over the loss. "Death comes to us all. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
To wit, Charlie Sheen has decided. He has decided to regard himself as a martyr and a savior in a situation that would improve greatly for him through expressions of regret and humility. Where that falls in the Kübler-Ross seven stages of grief, I could not say.
Evidence of this martyrdom: Charlie Sheen portrays himself almost as a victim… this would be a more appropriate reaction for someone who was ambushed with a tainted needle, I think. His apathy for cause and effect is stunning. From his account on the Today Show, contracting the disease was all very random:
Sheen said he was diagnosed roughly four years ago, but doesn't know how he contracted the virus.
Perhaps. But I'm betting he could make an educated guess. As to whether those who fear they have contracted HIV from Sheen during his very protected sex will carry forth the martyrdom…well, he's been careful. No need to worry about that.
Additional evidence of his martyrdom: Sheen has been blackmailed for millions of dollars over the risk of being exposed. Interesting thing about blackmail though, it can only be accomplished with consent…but that's hardly the point, I suppose.
"What people forget is that that's money they're taking from my children," he said about the "shakedowns" he has experienced. "I trusted them and they were deep in my inner circle, and I thought they could be helpful. My trust turned to their treason."
It's an emotional appeal to our sense of justice because blackmail is a lowlife transaction that the public can understand and detest, but let's be clear. Money going out to blackmailers or money going out to pushers and prostitutes – it's six of one or a half dozen of the other. Both actions mean less money for the offspring.
That point wasn't teased out much in the Today Show interview though. Why?
Because ultimately this Hollywood bad boy has been extremely obedient to the expectations that Hollywood laid out for him in a Faustian rise to superstardom. He did what was expected of him. He propagated radical lifestyle choices through his actions and through his art. Because of his obedience, he won't be held particularly accountable for his participation in the decline beyond some glib sarcasm about his condition, and even that will end in the next news cycle as long as no one steps forward to accuse him of passing the disease.
Evidence of his sainthood: Sheen will be the catalyst that will drive a cure for HIV:
Sheen said he hopes by going public with the diagnosis, it will help dispel the stigma of HIV.
"I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of other people and hopefully with what we're doing today others will come forward and say, 'Thanks, Charlie,'" he said.
Sorry to get political here. With self-esteem like that, Donald Trump ought to consider Charlie Sheen as his running mate. It will be huge. And he'll be the best running mate in the history of running mates. And they'll cure Aids and it will be the biggest cure since polio.
Is it possible? Will our newly founded Charlie Sheen awareness force a cure for HIV? I guess it's possible. But that's still not the relevant point to be made.
Here's the thing. Anyone who becomes sexually active in a post-Rock Hudson world ought to know the risks involved in being promiscuous in the same way that anyone in a post-Desi Arnaz world ought to know the dangers of smoking cigarettes. Stripping away any triumph in being right about the benefits of living a temperate lifestyle, Charlie Sheen is still neither a martyr nor a savior. As a man, he is someone to which we can offer our compassion. As a pop culture icon, Sheen can be criticized for having had the education and resources available to him to have known better and for having acted recklessly anyway.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. That is the kernel of misfortune that must be crafted into parable. Without cruelty, without sarcasm but with a profound sense sadness for the Shakespearean tragedy that is Charlie Sheen, we must understand what went wrong and seek a better form of performance art in the future.