Usually on Weekend Reads, we focus on what people are saying about drugs and alcohol. When we covered Whitney Houston, we looked at the ways in which journalists and pundits baldly pronounced the singer’s drug to be a central aspect of her legacy. Last week’s reflection on the Ryan Braun “scandal” focused more on the ways in which media members heavy-handedly turned the Milwaukee Brewers slugger into a villain, a figure to be targeted by Major League Baseball’s half-crazed war on steroid use. Sometimes, however, one can learn as much about the way people discuss addiction from what pundits and journalists don’t say. The story of Neil Hope gives that new perspective.
In late February of this year, family members confirmed the Hope’s death, explaining that he had passed away and had been buried in a Hamilton, Ontario cemetery five years earlier. The bizarre circumstances of Hope’s death – how could he have been gone for five years before anyone noticed? – set off a wave of speculation about causality that subtly reverberates throughout even the most objective reporting.
A D-list celebrity by American standards, Hope was quite famous in Canada for starring on the iconic Degrassi television series, a good-natured, values-based young adult program that thrived on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for twelve years (1979-1991) and found new success in syndication on American PBS affiliates. Producers set the rough-yet-charming show in a working-class neighborhood in Toronto’s west end, and they carefully addressed all manner of social issues, from teen pregnancy to shoplifting to dating, without ever descending into preachy dictums or maudlin melodrama. The kids on the show weren’t actors – they had been cast from a variety of Toronto elementary schools in 1979 – and it often showed.
Neil Hope was one of the cast members who stuck around for Degrassi’s entire run (the show evolved in real time), starting on The Kids of Degrassi Street at the age of 10 before moving on to Degrassi Junior High and then Degrassi High. Hope played “Wheels,” a moderately intelligent, moderately handsome, moderately likeable adopted child whose main calling card in the show was just how darn unexceptional he was. The final season of Degrassi High, however, changed the longtime perception of the character, deeply affecting the way the media has interpreted his death. In the last few episodes of Degrassi High, Wheels struggles with alcoholism before and, driving in a drunken stupor, kills one pedestrian and blinds another. In a Degrassi reunion show set a decade later, Wheels was out of jail, but was living a deeply sad and isolated life.
As the old saw goes, life imitates art, and this was the case with Neil Hope to some extent. Degrassi’s finale was, by all accounts, hard on the young actor who found life outside of the public eye hard to adjust to. He drifted around Southern Ontario, working a variety of service jobs while slowly drifting away from his friends and family. On November 25, 2007, police discovered his corpse in a Hamilton boarding house. A city coroner chalked up the death to natural causes, though nobody could identify the body. The young man – he was only 35 – went unidentified until March 2008, at which time city officials buried him in a municipal cemetery. It was not until three weeks ago that Hope’s family confirmed that he had passed away, presenting us with a startling reminder of how disconnected Hope had become. At the time of the announcement, the wildly popular Degrassi: The Next Generation – a remake/continuation of the original series – was midway through its eleventh season.
In reporting Hope’s death, the popular press has danced around the issue of Hope’s purported alcoholism. This is interesting because, while Hope’s death was ruled the result of natural causes, coverage of his passing strongly suggests the press’s desire to fold alcohol abuse into his death without actually making that connection. Dave McGinn of The Globe & Mail, for instance, casually notes that Hope was “born in Ontario to alcoholic parents.” Hope then went “on to discuss his parents’ alcoholism in a series called Degrassi Talks, in 1992,” and “made a documentary about children of alcoholic parents, called The Darker Side.” While these may be factual statements, McGinn leaves them sitting there without context, unwilling to explicitly say that alcohol killed Hope but clearly implying it played a major role. McGinn, like many other writers, uses Hope’s experiences with alcoholism (both his parents’ and his own) as a means of making “Wheels” a tragic figure whose early death should come as no surprise, given what we know about the tortured lives of celebrities.
Articles from the Toronto Star and New York Times also make this point, speaking to Hope’s struggles with alcohol in ways that strongly intimate that it was booze – rather than, say, an undiagnosed congenital disease or some other medical anomaly – that ended his life. In Katie Daubs’ “Degrassi’s Wheels: The Lost Years of Neil Hope,” we get a distinct sense of Hope’s declining health. Hope had apparently suffered from diabetes, blackouts, and bouts of depression, all exacerbated by his struggles with alcohol. Hope’s friend Scott Bell also spoke of Hope’s declining health, talking about how the two would watch Maple Leafs games together while Hope downed a beer every ten minutes or so. Tellingingly, Bell describes Hope as being completely unguarded about his problem drinking and “pretty upfront about dealing with alcohol issues.” Bell’s comments ultimately suggest what Daubs wants them to suggest, that there’s no way alcohol could have not played a role in Hope’s death?
Paul Vitello’s obituary “Neil Hope, 35, Teenage Actor Whose Life Unraveled” goes over much of the same ground while somehow managing to seem more obvious about the desired dramatic arch of the alcoholic’s life. Vitello claims, for instance, that Hope’s parents “virtually abandoned him and had fed their drinking on his TV earnings.” This may be true, but no other media source that I could find could corroborate this claim. In fact, such a story smacks of the now-cliché image of the exploited Hollywood child, a breed of which Hope was certainly not an example. Vitello also makes the case that “the troubles dealt Wheels made him the Job of the cast.” This is something of an exaggeration. Wheels had his problems, but many characters on Degrassi had abusive, neglectful, or physically ill parents who pushed their children into antisocial behaviour or parentified roles. It seems, rather, that Vitello wants life to imitate art in an obvious and inescapable way, forcing Wheels and Hope into the same mould. Vitello would have us believe that Wheels was some sort of working-class Dylan McKay, the tortured heartthrob from Beverly Hills: 90210, the show that Aaron Spelling created when the CBC refused to sell him the rights for an American version of Degrassi. By all accounts, however, neither Hope nor Wheels were Jobs, though. They were too mundane for that, being the sort of troubled, unglamorous people we’ve all met throughout the course of our lives.
Like Whitney Houston and Ryan Braun, Neil Hope is more a Rorschach test for how we feel than he is a perfect exemplar of the ravages of drug use. After all, it must be said again, Hope died of natural causes, not cirrhosis or heart disease or cardiac arrest or accident or suicide or any other act commonly attributable to drug or alcohol abuse. For that reason, Hope’s case isn’t important to us because of its implications to broader cultural attitudes toward drugs, as Houston and Braun’s situation are. Rather, he is important because both his own struggles with overconsumption and his alcoholic parents seem so familiarly mundane.
The best write-up of Neil Hope’s death appeared on the website Book Riot, as author Dr. B contemplated on this issue in “Wheels, Degrassi, and Why Tough YA Books and Libraries are So Important.” Dr. B explains how Hope’s death transported her back to her teenage years. She speaks of visiting the Kemptville Public School library, where she learned about the Hope family’s struggles with alcoholism in a book titled Degrassi Talks: Alcohol. The book was, to her, a movingly universal piece, a work so generalizable that it “predicted the questions before I even knew what my questions were.” It illuminated “so many feelings experienced by children of alcoholics: guilt, resentment, confusion, and fear.” These sentiments crystallized one day at lunchtime when, arriving at the library, she “found a classmate hunched over a copy of Degrassi Talks: Alcohol, and she was crying. She was crying because reading that book gave her an understanding of the vocabulary her mother used to describe her father’s actions. She was crying because she had just figured out that her father was an alcoholic.” As Dr. B rightly points out, the book was never about Hope. Wheels and Hope’s experiences were meant to be conduits for self-realization, not far-off stories of fallen celebrity.
Because Hope was not a “celebrity” in the traditional sense, his alcoholism was never framed within the sort of self-destructive story arch attached to famous drunks like Billie Holiday or Mickey Mantle. How strange it is then that so many reports on Hope’s death rely on that same narrative. This seems to say something about our inability to understand alcoholism and the role of drinking in the lives of “troubled” people. Why do we feel impelled to proclaim that alcohol played a central role in Hope’s death? Would we have blamed cigarettes for his death from natural causes if he had been known as a chain smoker? Is it possible that Hope was a high-functioning, occasional binge drinker whose death had nothing to do with overdrinking? Maybe I’m soft-peddling Hope’s demons and there’s in fact good reason to frame his story as an alcohol-soaked tragedy. Then again, there’s the chance that Hope’s drinking means something totally different to us than it meant to him.