This Halloween marks 25 years that I’ve been haunted by River Phoenix’s untimely death. I remember, as a thirteen year old, hearing the recording on 1010 Wins all day that repeatedly mentioned how the actor had died, and an autopsy would be performed to determine how. Drugs were a stranger to me then, a teenager who’d spent days eating ramen noodles, and watching VHS tapes of River’s films in my living room.
On the news, the footage was released of River’s brother Joaquin’s 911 call begging that they come included him saying, “Please cause he’s dying, please.”
The agony in Joaquin’s voice became my agony beyond losing River, a teenage crush, from when my parents accompanied my older brother to the hospital for an emergency visit after he overdosed on opioids.
But before that even happened, or I knew that I too would be a sibling affected by drugs, I started a River Phoenix scrapbook, including pages I stole from the March 1994 issue of Premiere magazine. The theme of the article, “A Brief Life,” was connected to the remaining words in the title, “Much has been made of how River Phoenix died. This is how he lived, told by the people who knew him best.”
I loved reading about him through the eyes of those who loved him; how he danced down the street, cried real tears during Stand By Me in the scene where he talked about the milk money, and his instant adoration for Samantha Mathis, who, sadly, was there on that Halloween night 25 years ago at the Viper Room, and had to witness him on the sidewalk before he was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
At that time, one negative comment in the article bothered me. Judy Davis, an actress who worked with him on his final film, Dark Blood said, “I think it it has to be remembered that he was 23, and he made the choice. He thought he was immune.” The way it was framed lacked compassion, and seeing River beyond his addiction, mirroring the way people called him a hypocrite for being a champion of Earth Day, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
How could drug use live side by side with altruistic views, or being an activist? Easily, I would learn, before high school ended for me, when my own brother, first to stand up against a group of guys harassing a boy with Down Syndrome, or bring a stray cat home in his school bag that he cared for until her death, used heroin, the same drug that assisted with killing River Phoenix.
Society often fails to see that addiction does not define a person, and sometimes, the person who is addicted lacks the ability to see that too.
I didn’t know River, but it’s my guess that he knew his chosen path was not the best one, and that every day for him was a struggle.
(My brother in recovery)
When my brother, strung out on heroin looked at me and said, “Please don’t hate me,” and years later, my student, who confided in me through an essay that she was drug addicted one week prior to her overdose on the block of my classroom when she was supposed to be in my English class, I carried the same love and empathy I did as a teenage girl for River. He might have been the first one to teach me about the evils of drugs, but the real world had its lessons for me, and us, as a society as well. These addicts are our family members, our colleagues, and our friends.
When people are vehemently against Narcan administration and training being that it uses tax dollars for funding, I want to ask them the same question Emma Gonzalez asked President Trump about the NRA — is that, in this case the amount of money spent per state on Narcan use, the price that should be put on a life? My brother was saved by charcoal in his stomach, and my student, who survived her overdose, returned to my class tearfully telling me, “Do you know what people say about people like me?”
And then there was River. What if there had been Narcan on that Halloween night when his siblings and friends struggled to help him, and it could have made a difference? River, who said, in a blurb for Seventeen magazine, “I’d rather be alone than live with someone. Alone is a great time for creativity.” He might have gone on to complete more than 13 movies, to have made more music, and ultimately, might have been saved.
Whenever his sister, Rain, posts social media photos of her and River, and the siblings of my student who later died do the same of their sister, my heart aches with the lesson that for me, began with River. That good people fall from grace sometimes. Learning this through a celebrity crush on River has made me more cautious, more benevolent, and for every additional death listed in statistics of opioid addiction, I don’t see numbers.
I see people who, like River, like my brother, like my student, who simply lost their way.
Heart Phoenix, River’s mother, started the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding in his honor, and as his mother, I imagine every day for her is hard, not just this 25th anniversary of the loss of her son that reminds people what a tragedy his death was. To the Brooklyn Public Library in Flatlands where I lifted the magazine pages of Premiere for my River Phoenix scrapbook, I am truly sorry. I was just a young girl, trying to make sense of a senseless death, by putting together a scrapbook dedicated to the first man to have ever broken my heart.
Kathryn Buckley is a Brooklyn native who will likely never leave except for vacation. She teaches writing at the college level, and her work can be found in 34th Parallel, The Rumpus, Yahoo, The Chaffey Review, Clash Media, Toad Journal, Ravishly, She’Said‘, and Eclectica. Some of her favorite things are people, the beach, Halloween, anything pop culture related, creative writing, and her cat, Sam. Lately her friend calls her Taylor Swift because she works out heavy emotions through her writing. She can live with that.