Reports about the tragic death of Heath Ledger include remarks by friends concerning his reaction to the recent break up of his relationship (accounts differ on whether they were married) with the mother of their daughter, two-year-old Matilda. One source said, “Heath was shattered by his split from Michelle. He became a recluse. He barely slept; he was dealing with terrible mood swings.” Friends say that he became an introvert, “hardly venturing out anymore,” “barely slept” and was obviously “headed in a downward spiral.” One analyst said that “a picture is fast emerging” from friends’ discussions: “he’s been battling some pretty serious demons,” “he lost his grip on life,” both personally and professionally, and he has behaved increasingly in an “unhinged” way. One of his friends saw him at a party after the estrangement with Michelle and said, “It was obvious something awful had happened to him.” The host of a recent party said that he arrived at the event “looking like a homeless” vagrant.
No one can know what was really going on in Heath’s life, and his tragic death is likely a accidental overdose of sleeping pills. He is known to have had pneumonia recently and to have been treated for substance abuse problems, including heroin addiction. All of those physical and emotional factors, including a reliance on sleeping pills, would make an accidental overdose plausible. He told friends that he was sleeping only two or three hours a night. He admitted that the psychological demands of his new role as “The Joker” in the upcoming Batman film were exhausting. He said that he couldn’t get his mind to turn off the intensity of his role as a “murderous psychopath.” A critic praising his role in Brokeback Mountain commented that he got into the character so deeply that it was hard to imagine how he would be able to get back out. Heath, though, claimed that after a scene was filmed, “I just walk out the door and I’m back into my regular life.” Critics have compared the “intense, brooding actor” to a young Marlon Brando and James Dean. He seemed headed for stardom, and the new Batman movie is expected to be a blockbuster.
But in a culture where recreational sex is fast becoming the norm for young adults, tragic deaths like Heath’s (even when the cause is murky) should be a wake-up call. Conventional wisdom tells young people that casual sex is meaningless. Heath’s depression following the break up of his relationship with Michelle Williams is just one example of the fact that not even sexy hunks are exempt from broken hearts. Heath and Michelle fell in love at first sight on the set of the movie Brokeback Mountain. A reporter who covered Heath extensively said that he stood in “awe of [Heath’s] devotion and attention to [Michelle].” Everyone agrees that Heath was devoted to his “two girls,” but that their later arguments over his drug use were “quite nasty.”
Another wake up call from the culture is Heath’s statement that he felt like he had lived out of a suitcase ever since his parents divorced when he was 10 years old. In spite of children’s supposed resilience, divorce leaves predictable negative outcomes, and father-absence leaves a vacuum that is virtually impossible to fill. Heath talked openly about his difficulty in dealing with his parents’ divorce; he felt close to both his parents and blamed himself. He said that getting into acting helped him deal with his dark emotions after his parents’ divorce.
None of these things alone, of course, led to Heath’s death, but combined they were obviously a factor in his deep depression and his life spiraling out of control. We do a disservice to young people when we promote the myth that sex is meaningless and shrug off the impact of divorce on children.