Op-Ed By Juliana Hatfield: “I Want Heidi Fleiss To Get Well … But I Don’t Think Celebrity Rehab Is The Solution”

Op-Ed By Juliana Hatfield: “I Want Heidi Fleiss To Get Well … But I Don’t Think Celebrity Rehab Is The Solution”

This week saw the premiere of Dr. Drew Pinsky’s celebreality phenomenon Celebrity Rehab’s third season. It is precisely what its title promises: a reality show “documenting” a group of celebrities’ attempts to recover from substance abuse. A celebrity in her own right, singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield’s first book When I Grow Up: A Memoir dealt considerably with her experiences seeing friends and loved ones battle drug addiction. And she is a talented, if accidental, television blogger (take her thoughts on Jersey Shore, for instance). We asked Juliana to give the show a shot. The following is her response.

I wanted to hate Heidi Fleiss. I wanted to hate her for pimping women out to men; for declaring proudly and shamelessly that “I was the greatest madam that ever lived”; I wanted to be mad at her for her clown-like, overstuffed pillow of an upper lip looking like some big muscly man punched her, hard, right in the mouth; and for her eyebrows yanked up so surgically high on her forehead; I wanted to look down on her for doing this to herself. But I can’t. Even as she answers Dr. Drew’s intake inquiry, “Any pregnancies?” “Oh yeah … quite a few … I don’t know … thank god for abortions … just kidding” in her jittery meth voice, flashing her crazy toothy grin, I feel for her.

She is the one character I am rooting for on the new season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Maybe it’s because I have always felt lonely. And Heidi Fleiss is lonely these days. Really lonely.

Loneliness is her motif.

“I’m so lonely.”

“I’m a lonely person.”

“Drugs can make anything okay. They can cure boredom,” she says. And when she says it I understand why her days and nights are filled with drugs.

Fleiss lives with a bunch — a flock? — of big parrots, inherited from a woman who died, in the desert in Nevada. “I’ve never bonded to anything in my life but I fell in love with these birds.”

Later, repeating her loneliness motif — needing to make her utter isolation known, heard, above all else — she explains, “It’s Death Valley with twenty birds. It’s hardcore.”

It is. I can feel it: her hurt, her damage, the deathlike silence at night, the vulnerability underneath her unsentimentality.

“The only thing in her life is parrots and speed and Vicodin,” says Dr. Drew, to the TV audience.

I want Heidi Fleiss to get well and to find the companionship she needs, but I don’t think Celebrity Rehab is the solution.

Carl Jung, in a letter to AA founder Bill Wilson, wrote of a chronic alcoholic they both knew: “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness…the union with God…The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality.” (my italics)

TV is not reality. Even reality TV is not reality. Cameras and microphones and lights trailing a person during a dramatic, difficult period of her life is not reality; it’s something else. It’s commerce. It’s exploitation. It’s entertainment. And while I am very entertained by “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew”, I feel weird about being entertained by it. And I feel sad because I’m pretty convinced that not many of these starring addicts are going to fare very well when they leave the treatment center.

Jung goes on to write, “I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community.”

I think so, too. But I think that if that protective (fourth) wall is knocked down — by TV cameras and the audience watching — how can change/growth/recovery happen? How are you supposed to have a spiritual or supportive interactive communal experience — one which could induce an authentic psychic change — with cameras in your face making it impossible to be unselfconscious? The cameras’ everpresent existence seems to me to be in direct opposition to the concept of humility which is intrinsic to the 12-step program upon which the rehab in the TV show is supposedly based.

The aims of a TV production are in direct opposition to the goals of rehab. The camera follows you around, inflating your importance in and to the world, glorifying and broadcasting your troubles over the airwaves into millions of peoples’ homes. All this does is to perpetuate the fame and self-involvement that can really mess with a person’s — especially an addict’s — head.

I think money — and the possibility of renewed visibility leading to future job offers — is the only legitimate, honest motivation for anyone to go on “C.R.” I suspect that another reason people do go on the show — disregarding the fact that they are so drug- and booze-addled that they simply cannot make any rational or intelligent decisions about anything — is that they crave attention and fame. These people — especially these people — will never get clean unless they disappear; out of Hollywood, off of TV.

A 12-step program won’t work without humility and humility is not possible with lights and cameras and microphones trained on you, following you around, inflating your importance. And real community and support is not possible on a TV set. The aims of a TV production are in direct opposition to the goals of rehab.

I was almost famous for a minute back in the 1990s. I believe this little bit of fame I experienced helped to stall my emotional development. I’ve spent the past fifteen years trying to get unfamous (while admittedly putting myself out there just enough to be able to continue to make a living with my music in this image-obsessed culture.) But it would be disingenuous of me to say that I don’t still need and want some of the attention I get from fans and reviewers — I’ve always said that if I ever complete the process of individuation (a Jungian term for maturation or becoming oneself) I will no longer need any attention from strangers. I believe that seeking the approval and applause of large numbers of total strangers is a weakness and a character flaw, a sign of immaturity.

Dennis Rodman, pushing fifty, is a spoiled child. He whines that They made him come here; he denies he has any problem and claims he is only in rehab “because of court.” Shortly after checking into the rehab facility he bemoans the lack of “activities” offered to him.

One of the women on staff suggest a dip in the pool, perhaps? But Dennis doesn’t want to go swimming.

“Do you wanna talk?” she tries.

No, says Rodman.

“Do you wanna…play checkers?”


Read a book?


Is Rodman even literate? He can barely speak. He grumbles incoherently most of the time and when you can make out the words, none of it makes any conceptual sense. (This is a man whose development was definitely stunted at some point — probably when he got his first big basketball contract and women started throwing themsleves at him.)

Attempting to verbalize that he is above it all, impervious to the stupid Program and all its ilk, Rodman mumbles, sunglasses obscuring his eyes, “I’ve trained my mind … to put it in a Zen formation.”

Dr. Drew has an uncanny ability to zero in on the trauma underlying many of the characters’ attempts to numb their pain with substances. Almost all of the patients have suffered sexual and/or physical abuse as children.

Mike Starr is the former bass player of Alice In Chains. He’s a “hardcore polydrug addict” in the words of Dr. Drew. When asked the inevitable — does he have any history of trauma — Mike tells the doc, “Yeah — trauma from losing my band.”

Being fired from Alice In Chains? Trauma?

“I was the best bass player/entertainer there was.”

Really, Mike Starr? Really? I never even knew the guy’s name (or face) until I turned on the TV to watch this show. I think part of Mike’s problem is that he has a little bit of a skewed perspective on himself and where he fits into the world and history.

Mike won’t let Shelley, Dr. Drew’s perpetually harried right hand man, look at his abscess (“it’s in a private area”) on camera. (“You’re very polite for a drug addict,” Shelley remarks. “Thank you,” says Mike.)

No, thank you, Mike, for not subjecting us to the horrfying sight of your open sore. Even in his drug fog he has a sense there might be limits to consider.

Must everything — every inch of these poor bodies and souls — be exposed to the camera?

So they go into the bathroom and, mercifully, close the door. But their microphones are still on, so we can hear (and visualize) scene. Mike: “This morning I had this thing sticking out right here, from muscling dope”. Shelley: “It’s really oozing.”

But then, later, we are treated to a tight shot of the disgusting wound (How did they convince Mike to relent? Did they offer him a financial bonus on top of his celebrity rehab patient’s wage? Were there negotiations between Mike’s agent and the show’s producers/lawyers?). We see the doctor’s needle poking around in the bloody infected 2-cm. hole in Mike’s skin — like VH1 had suddenly turned into one of those gross medical surgery-operation channels.

Poor Mike. He’s in bad shape.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this show, to me, is the presence of MacKenzie Phillips. It’s not her pockmarked face or the deep ingrained sadness in her eyes or the gruesome fact that “My Dad shot me up with coke when I was seventeen” or the fact that at one particularly low point in her life “There were needles everywhere, blood on the ceiling.”

She has been “clean eight months” so why is she here?

At the time of the taping of the rehab show, Phillips hadn’t yet gone public with the news of her incest with her father, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. It appears that she was withholding the information from “C.R.” not for privacy’s sake but for strategic reasons — so she could wait to reveal the big breaking news later on the Oprah Winfrey show; Phillips was about to release her scandalous memoir and the Oprah exclusive would launch the book in a sensational wave of publicity.

I like Dr. Drew. I think that he thinks he is trying to help people. When he listens to the addicts tell their terrible sorrowful grotesque stories the look on his face is genuinely sympathetic and caring, I think. It’s real, I think. It’s real. Is it real? Is it real?


Juliana Hatfield’s ninth solo album, the acoustic LP Peace & Love, is out 2/16 via Ye Olde Records.

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