Sunday, June 10, 2018

Alcoholism may have contributed to Bourdain's suicide. As a final tribute, we ought to find out.

Since his suicide in France two days ago, at age 61, there's been a torrent of well deserved tributes and retrospectives exploring Anthony Bourdain's amazing life and career except for one question: Did alcoholism contribute to his mental torments and untimely death?

My husband and I became charter viewers of "Parts Unknown" since it premiered in 2013 on CNN and were hooked by Bourdain's incisive yet lyrical writing, and the show's stunning photography and production. 

I remember a show about the Congo that analyzed the country's collapsing economy under the weight of rampant corruption and bureaucracy. One bizarre vignette in particular—can't remember all the details—showed an old train that went nowhere yet had a paid crew anyway to keep it in working in perpetuity just in case.


Bourdain's trip to Colombia was memorable too, and so was his take on Los Angeles' ethnic enclaves.

The show about East Jerusalem, and Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, didn't shy away from honestly portraying Palestinian life, frustrations and grievances.

Having tried to do that myself while a newspaper reporter I can testify it's as tricky as juggling live grenades, as any expression sympathy for the Palestinians inevitably triggers charges of anti-Semitism from right-wing Israelis, or worse.

Bourdain's brilliant writing was matched by equally inspired photography. I often wondered how long it took his camera crews to set up and shoot such beautiful footage and how many days or weeks it must have taken to edit it all down to a one-hour show.

"Parts Unknown" frequently left you with a sense of wonder and discovery, of "Wow!", that to me is the key to great documentary reporting in film or print.

Naturally there were some duds. The show about Chicago—my hometown—was lazy and unimaginative and took place mostly in the dingy surroundings of a bar on the North Side.

By that time, Bourdain's on-screen drinking, which we initially ignored as just a prop or part of his schtick of a rough-and-wizened character, seemed to increase with every show.

A show he did in Southeast Asia, maybe Vietnam, a couple of years ago, mostly centered on Bourdain and a group of local good ol' boys sitting around a table getting plastered and babbling unintelligibly toward the end.

We noticed the same thing in a show he did somewhere in Belarus (?) where, in the Slavic style, getting drunk under the table is a time-honored tradition that Bourdain seemed to embrace with relish.

We, and friends who are recovering alcoholics, started to grow weary of Bourdain's in-your-face, almost self-congratulatory drinking and the show's growing lack of focus. Sometimes, he looked as if he was half in the bag and the material wasn't that interesting or well thought-out anymore. 

Among Bourdain's many personal triumphs were his recovery from drug addiction, including heroin. I've never done hard drugs but I have known and have read accounts of people who have, and it's an incredibly difficult, almost miraculous path to follow, not to mention staying clean afterward.

Bourdain was very honest in his book "Kitchen Confidential" and in some "Parts Unknown" episodes about his battles with drugs.

But he kept drinking, almost defiantly, showing what might have been the old, and sometimes fatal,  alcoholic mix of denial, arrogance and "terminal uniqueness."

Indeed, he once wrote that "I am a very unusual case. Most people who kick heroin and cocaine have to give up on everything. Maybe 'cause my experiences were so awful in the end, I've never been tempted to relapse."

As if the experience of other drug addicts could somehow be not awful. 

That thinking assumes that substance addictions can be compartmentalized, an old fallacy among alcoholics. I drink wine, but not hard liquor. I don't drink before noon (or only after noon). I'm a social drinker not a drunk.  I never drink at home (one that Bourdain used in another interview.) 

Or the granddaddies of them all: "I'm cutting back" or "I can quit whenever I want". The vast majority of people who have quit smoking, drinking or hard drugs can tell you it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Have one or two cigarettes, or just a glass of wine, and you'll be back to a pack a day or a whole bottle of burgundy in no time at all.  

Drugs—injected, drunk or snorted—addle judgment. That's the reason substance abusers get high in the first place, to escape whatever it's tormenting them. 

But drugs, seductively, also induce delusional thinking, contrary to what users profess to seek. Alcohol, used addictively, is not a bringer of truth of jollity but of depression and hopelessness, and a major contributor to suicide. 

We do not yet know what made the suave and outwardly Superman-confident Bourdain finally snap. I'll miss him, whatever it was. And post-mortem psychoanalysis is admittedly highly speculative and possibly unfair, particularly so soon after his death. 

I hope, though, that the legions of Bourdain friends and admirers, once they get over the initial shock, try to seek out what really happened to him and how alcohol may have been a factor leading to his death—and do that as a final tribute to an amazing person. 
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