Last week, Fox released a promo for this Thursday’s episode of Glee, which will be a farewell to the character Finn and tribute to the actor who played him, Cory Monteith, who died in July of an overdose of heroin and alcohol. Reports had initially suggested that Glee producers might try to write in an addiction plot line that would mirror the actor’s real life, but they now seem to have abandoned that idea, although their PR rep won’t reveal details until air time. Either way, we know that the show won’t come close to portraying the ugliness of Monteith’s death, which almost certainly occurred in one of two ways. Heroin users who die from overdose either asphyxiate on their own vomit–triggered when the body attempts to repel the toxic substance–or, because heroin suppresses respiration, their breathing slows and eventually stops and they basically suffocate. It’s a ghastly, lonely death.
At the Emmy Awards last month, Glee costar Jane Lynch, a recovering alcoholic, described Monteith’s death as “a tragic reminder of the rapacious, senseless destruction that is brought on by addiction.” But Monteith’s other colleagues have mostly glossed over the fact that the beloved star was suffering a disease that causes unrelenting physical and psychic pain and ugly, senseless death. I frequently receive letters from the parents of kids who’ve died of overdoses, and one mother wrote, “Her lips were blue. I tried to perform mouth to mouth on my own daughter, but she was already cold and dead. The drugs won in the end.” Another wrote, “I went to the apartment and found him dead, curled in a ball, on the floor. There was blood and excrement. My baby died alone in hell.”
In an interview, Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy admitted that the star struggled, “but never on the surface, and I think that’s why everybody loved him.” Addiction isn’t clean, pretty, charming, or lovable. Addicts are shunned. They lose their jobs. Some lose their families, all of which is why they hide their affliction, often even from those closest to them. They present a sunny façade as their problem worsens until they can no longer hide it because they’re arrested, rushed to an emergency room, or die.
In America, we still view addicts as the other: those on the streets huddled in alleyways or doorways, unkempt, uncouth, possibly dangerous. We walk around them, averting our eyes. Or we follow their antics on TMZ— Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen, the brunt of jokes about their attempts at recovery followed by relapse. Monteith was a fresh faced, clean-cut heartthrob. When he died, a radio interviewer called and asked me to explain what happened. He said, “But Cory seemed so normal.” He was so normal even in his drug addiction, a condition he shared with 23 million Americans.
If it’s addressed at all, the Glee creators will almost surely sanitize the real cause of Monteith’s death. Hollywood isn’t obliged to portray reality—indeed, authenticity is anathema to feel-good shows like Glee— but by whitewashing addiction, the producers are failing its audience of young people, the group most vulnerable to overdose. A tribute replete with sad songs will make the audience cry, but it could also wind up romanticizing the star’s death. So while the episode may help Monteith’s fans grieve the loss of their idol, it won’t help them to understand why they would never want to be like him. This is a disease that needs to be shown with such ugliness that even a face as beautiful as Monteith’s will make the millions of young people who watch the show recoil in horror.