(Submitted to Maxim, Winter 2007, unpublished)
If anything defines the obscene transformation from a nation of rugged, devil-may-care adventurers to one of simpering, feminized spiritualists, it is our unholy obsession with rehab. Whatever the addiction or indulgence, there’s a cure to be found in some overpriced facility teeming with fellow miscreants and screw-ups. Only they’re not really miscreants, and I’m damn sure they’re not screw-ups. As if by fiat, the joys and delights of yesteryear, the very attributes that made us a passionate, sensual people, have been traded away (handed over without a fight, if truth be told) to those whose sole mission in life is to make sure that when we’re not living right, we’re apologizing for not having done so. If we’re not contrite, we’re at risk for sin. And that won’t sit right with the self-righteous keepers of the kingdom.
Rehab is rarely explored as an option for the average man about town, largely due to its exorbitant expense, but more than that, those of us not in the public eye have learned that if our lives spin out of control, we’ll be heading to jail, the arms (or bed) of another, or a hasty exit at the foul end of a firearm. Celebrities usually have too much to lose (reputations, ticket sales, gigs), so they are convinced by yes-men and agents alike to furiously explore reinvention and recovery, while the Everyman, burdened by anonymity, self-hatred, rotten kids, and unfulfilling labor, must simply endure, unless of course he’d rather garner the only fame available to him by leading the authorities on a freeway chase after permanently removing future burdens from the lives of loved ones. The occasional drama aside, he does in fact take each day as he must, which points to the essential arrogance of the rehab fixation.
At bottom, rehab assumes that the individual wants to change, and that he or she should embrace the public clamor for much-needed personal evolution. If what we know to be true about most Americans were to be uttered in public, we’d quickly realize that without booze, drugs, gambling, overeating, bigotry, mean-spiritedness, and even volcanic tempers exploding in violence, few of us would have personalities at all. Hell, it’s likely many of us would disappear altogether. We’ve been taught to believe that too many beers makes us intolerable, or that destructive behavior leads to pain (or, perish the thought, sends the wrong message to the children), when in fact they are the only avenues to enjoyment. And I don’t mean simply for the sot or lout in question. As an audience — whether in a movie theater or at our very dinner table – the quality of interpersonal relationships is directly related to, if not caused by, the very actions that now bring forth the rehab police. It’s more than sick, it’s downright dire.
Take the celebrity culture, which, of course, matters much more than what passes for our own daily grind: is there a famous figure, living or dead, whose memory would be enhanced had they been forced to strip bare, sob like grandmothers, and emerge as untrammeled as a nun’s nether regions? Any number of industry giants — whether Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Spencer Tracy, or John Barrymore — were utter slaves to addiction, and we’ve been the beneficiaries of their gutter ballets. They sipped, chugged, regurgitated, and roared like lions through a thousand inebriated nights, and those of us out there in the dark, the very people who now call for quivering lips and humiliation, were privileged guests every step of the way. Let’s focus on Mr. Tracy for a moment, for example. Here’s an Irish boozehound of the old school; a fighting, fucking, brawling, cheating, no-good cad who pissed and poked and slugged his way through dozens of flawless roles, and if brought — body and soul – to our own time, he’d be whisked away, laid bare, and returned so dull and non-threatening that he’d be indistinguishable from Tom Hanks. When considering the Golden Age of the cinema, thank fuck the fascistic studio bosses lied through their teeth, covered asses from coast to coast, extorted, bribed, and conned, all to make sure their “property” didn’t have to change a thing.
Pull any number of biographies off the shelf about old
Hollywood and you’ll be lucky to go more than two pages without reading nasty anecdotes about black eyes, car crashes, near rapes, or bitter exchanges. The average set was, for all intents and purposes, a glorified brothel, and co-stars exchanged fluids so frequently and with so many different people that when an accidental pregnancy or venereal disease did occur, no one had any idea of how to trace it. It was trashy, gossipy, and twisted, but impossible to judge harshly, as these were people who knew who they were, the public be damned. Casting couches and overt threats were just a method of conducting business, not the “sexual exploitation” of today. Given the way the titans of the era behaved, from Louis B. Mayer to Irving Thalberg, the rage-filled meetings that defined the system would now be followed by group hugs and therapy. Old L.B., a bastard of near-mythical proportions, would have already had his Oprah cry, his Larry King apology, and an extended vacation to any number of “restful” locations. We’d be comforted by his peaceful demeanor, of course, but all the genius — the drive, the madness, the authoritarian will to win — would be gone. We’d have killed another unrivaled spirit in the name of a syrupy kindness.
And what cruel beast seeks to strip the seedy from the very town that gave birth to the name? Instead of lives cut short or “young talent wasted,” why not celebrate that too-brief candle as having escaped the inevitable career downturn? James Dean, addicted to fast cars, surely needed rehab we might say, but by dying in a mangled wreck of steel and flame, he’ll forever be the alienated youth, the cowboy, and the tortured son. Three gems of the silver screen – Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, and East of Eden — and not so much as a B-movie horror film or nutty sequel to be found. Rehab might have saved his life, but it would have destroyed the legend. Many others might also have been granted a few extra years had they kicked their habits, but if so much of what they did for us as flickering images on the screen came from self-hatred and suicidal despair, who’s to say what sort of holocausts would have been forced down our throats as testaments to that “second chance?” Rehab, then, not only elevates the insidious belief that a lack of controversy is the lone road to acceptability, but it fails to grant the addiction’s power as a wellspring of creativity. It’s the prohibitionist’s bitter legacy: in the name of decency, they empty our lives of distraction.
Above all, though, rehab symbolizes an underlying fear of the unknown. By attempting to control, gloss over, and refine, it ignores that life — at least the only kind worth hoping for — is delightfully unpredictable. Good health, promise, and the love of family could all be gone in a moment, and so-called “clean living” is no buffer to that stinging truth. So when we celebrate the unreformed, the defiant, the foolish, and the flawed, we do more than dip our toe in the pool of experience, we dive right in, heedless of risk. Those refusing rehabilitation, then, are the ultimate heroes of our time. The world is on their clock, and they’ll stop when they damn well please. Sure, it’s a child’s life; indulgent, bratty, and vain. But they’ve given us color, added much-needed flavor, and when we’ve needed it most, rescued this careening train wreck from its journey over the cliff.