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The Intrapsychic Frailty of Heath Ledger, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The premature death of Heath Ledger in January, 2008, was a shock to all who had come to admire him and his short but considerably noteworthy body of work. The death was ruled accidental, and was caused by an overdose of a variety of prescription drugs, shedding a spotlight on the overuse of such medications by people both famous and ordinary. Upon examination of his life, the dynamics that contributed to his ultimate fate pointed to several significant psychological factors, including depression, anxiety, narcissism, and the lack of a solid and clearly defined sense of self. Freud defined identity as “many obscure emotional forces, which were the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words, as well as a clear consciousness of inner identity, the safe privacy of a common mental construction” (Freud, 1959.) This paper will discuss aspects of Ledger’s life, using a Freudian framework in an effort to understand what happened to this talented, appealing young man.

Ledger was born on April 4, 1979 to a French teacher and an engineer, and grew up in Perth, Australia. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old, and his closest relationship remained with his sister Katherine, who he later gave credit for precipitating his acting career (Heath Ledger, 2012.)  In Freudian theory, when loss is experienced, the relationship between the self and the lost object creates a pathological relationship between parts of the self. In order to establish a stable identity, a person must have an idealizing identification with a parent figure, or another object. If that does not occur, a narcissistic vulnerability develops which makes it easy to upset the person’s psychic equilibrium (Weiss, 2000.)

In Freud’s Melancholia and Loss, he describes that depression is a defense against the experience of loss in which part of the self continues to remain identified with the lost object. At the same time, another part of the personality channels internally all of the aggression that was initially meant for the lost object, resulting in depression (Weiss, 2000.) In Ledger’s life, he experienced several losses, beginning with his parents divorce when his father left and he was raised by his mother, and into his adult years when he married actress Michelle Williams, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage ended shortly before his death. In the case of Heath Ledger, it appears that the divorce likely precipitated feelings of separateness and isolation which resulted in a sense of infallibility and grandiosity; as these feelings increased, the more intense the depression grew, leading him to use prescription drugs because of both his desire to escape pain, as well as his inability to sleep.

Through acting, Heath Ledger was able to express feelings of rage and power, thereby avoiding his sadness and fear. This allowed him to avoid dealing with feelings of helplessness as well is dependency on others. Disappearing into his roles provided him with an escape, the ability to maintain a false self rather than a real one. For someone with diffuse boundary issues, disappearing into a role came with dangers; Heath Ledger’s last role, The Joker in Batman, is a character who is sociopathic, maniacal, and exists in both real and unreal worlds (Dreyer, 2009) and for a Method actor like Ledger, playing such a role was accompanied by tremendous psychic difficulties. Method acting utilizes techniques that include drawing on one’s sense and memory to accomplish realism in the acting role. When using this method, actors use their own emotions from past experiences in an effort to achieve depth and realism to that character.

While method acting can accomplish a superior performance in a film, when playing a difficult or unpleasant role actors must essentially live the role that they’re playing, even if it ultimately causes a type of madness. The damage to an already frail psyche like Ledger’s can be significant, and methods of coping with these intrapsychic demons include soothing oneself with substances, in Ledger’s case, by using prescription drugs. While making the film, he had commented widely about the toll playing The Joker was having on him, complaining of insomnia and stating that at various points he had only been able to get two hours sleep while shooting that role. The version of The Joker in “The Dark Knight” was extremely sadistic, and was likely much too psychologically difficult to absorb by someone with identity issues to begin with. In various interviews during the filming, Ledger was quoted as saying that this character was “a little bit too disturbing to take,” and in particular, having to live inside his character for many months (Brian, 2008.) In an interview with the New York Times in November, 2007, he discussed his use of Ambien for insomnia, linking it to the difficulty that he was having playing “a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” (Lyall, 2007.)

Heath Ledger’s life and death were suggestive of narcissism, the belief that he was so special and powerful that he was immune to the likely medical consequences of his use of many prescription drugs simultaneously. He died of an accidental drug overdose in which he had taken six prescription drugs, including a combination of painkillers, tranquilizers, and sleeping aids. Ledger’s background, including losses such as his parents’ divorce and the breakup of his marriage, left him without the tools necessary to cope with such life altering disappointments without the use of artificial means to comfort him. In addition, his frail ego structure made method acting a difficult career choice, because it presented a danger of immersing himself in roles to an extent that his own identity was threatened, creating anxiety, which was accompanied by the inability to sleep as well as “stop thinking.” Ledger’s lack of a solid internal ego structure played the major contributing factor leading to his tragic, preventable death. His narcissism, as well as his early and significant notoriety, gave him a sense of omnipotence that allowed him to engage in reckless substance abuse, which was his only means of soothing himself. His life and death have served as a cautionary tale about the consequences of becoming famous and feeling so powerful that the mixing of potent prescription and nonprescription substances will not have legal consequences.

References:

Brian, G. (2008, January 29). Heath Ledger’s Prior Anxiety Problems and Mental Strain of Method Acting. Retrieved November 18, 2012, from Yahoo Voices: http://voices.yahoo.com/heath-ledgers-prior-anxiety-problems-mental-840013.html?cat=72

Dryer, R. (2009). Clap If You Believe in Batman. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care , 80-81.

Freud, S. (1959). Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, Volume 20. In S. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (pp. 77-178). New York: Macmillan.

Heath Ledger. (2012, November 17). Retrieved November 18, 2012, from The Biography Channel: http://www.biography.com/people/heath-ledger-266035.

Lyall, S. (2007, November 4). In Stetson or Wig, He’s Hard to Pin down. Retrieved November 17, 2012, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/movies/moviesspecial/04lyal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Weiss, H. (2000). Object Relations and Intersubjectivity in Depression. American Journal of Psychotherapy , 317.

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