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Matthew Perry, child of divorce
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Matthew Perry, child of divorce

The opioid crisis is much discussed these days, with good reason. To honor the actor’s legacy, however, we should also remember him as a survivor of another all-too-common epidemic.

Chandler Bing, like many of his Gen X cohort, was the product of divorce. His wealthy parents casually announced their split to him, their only child, at Thanksgiving dinner when he was 9 years old. Chandler’s resultant lifelong hatred of the holiday becomes a running joke in “Friends,” as do his defensive, acerbic humor and inability to commit.

The Bing divorce is portrayed as extravagantly messy, the better to wring laughs from Chandler’s discomfort. A flashback in the show’s first season takes us to the scene of the primal trauma, with mother Nora (Morgan Fairchild) half-heartedly spouting boilerplate therapeutic reassurance while blithely revealing that Chandler’s dad, Charles, has been having sex with the houseboy. (“More turkey, Mr. Chandler?” leers said houseboy in the scene’s tacky “button.”)

Chandler’s relationship with his parents as an adult is also a reliable source of comedy. Nora is a best-selling “erotic novelist” who embarrasses her son during a “Tonight Show” appearance and later attempts to seduce his friend Ross.

Charles (Kathleen Turner) is just as monstrously self-absorbed. Now a transgender cabaret performer in Las Vegas (Chandler ruefully recalls him showing up at high school swim meets dressed as different starlets), he attends Chandler’s wedding after years of estrangement. There, the spectacle of his horrible, freakish parents once again at each other’s throats dredges up enough unpleasant memories that Chandler nearly calls the whole thing off.

None of this is as funny as the show seems to think it is, but then the same could be said about much of the show’s cutesy, cloying humor. It’s not as if this “insensitive” portrayal of adult-children-of-divorce Americans merits some kind of apology. At any rate, “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman has predictably focused her public self-flagellation on the show’s egregious “misgendering” of Charles, as well as its more general crimes against diversity. But the emphasis placed on Chandler Bing’s unhappy childhood takes on a certain poignancy as we collectively mourn the actor who played him. Matthew Perry, it turns out, also bore the scars of his parents’ divorce.

The source of misery

Released just a year ago, Perry’s memoir begins in media res, as our protagonist’s loyal assistant wisely busts Perry, then 49, out of yet another sober living house (Perry counts a career total of 15 treatment facilities) and speeds him to the hospital, where he almost dies of a burst colon brought on by years of opioid abuse.

Perry dedicated “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing” to “all of the sufferers out there,” and his stated purpose in writing it was to share all the gory details of his decades-long struggle with drugs and alcohol. In promotional interviews last year, Perry emphasized that he now valued his fame mainly as a tool for reaching other addicts and helping them achieve sobriety; since his death on October 28, many have testified to his generosity in this regard.

The divorce may not have caused Perry’s drinking and drugging, but perhaps it did lead him to seek refuge in his public identity as an addict.

And yet in telling the story of his life, Perry repeatedly returns to a source of misery predating his first drink at 14. Once he dispenses with his obligatory opening hook, Perry then reaches deep into the past to depict a far quieter but no less devastating memory: He is 5 years old and terrified, flying alone from Montreal, where he lives with his mother, to visit his father in Los Angeles. Almost 50 years later, Perry’s anger is still raw: “The other kids had parents with them. I had a sign and a magazine. ... Why was that little kid on a plane on his own? Maybe fly to Canada and f***ing pick him up? That’s a question I often wonder about but would never dare to ask.”

Perry’s parents met in 1967 at an Ontario beauty pageant. His mother, Suzanne, was there in her official capacity as the reigning Miss Canadian University Snow Queen, while his father, John, was there performing with his band. Their only child, Matthew, was born in 1969. Nine months later, John abandoned them both to pursue an acting career in Hollywood.

A tension familiar to anyone who’s survived such garden-variety “trauma” as the late 20th-century American no-fault divorce runs through the book. While the pain Perry’s parents caused him is obvious, every time he dares to express it, he checks himself. Surely it wasn’t that bad. Nobody died or got hit, and there was enough money to go around.

Yes, his overwhelmed single mother took a doctor’s dubious advice to soothe her baby’s colic with barbiturates, and by the time Perry was in kindergarten, he had so thoroughly assumed a “caretaker” role that his first instinct after losing the tip of his middle finger to a slammed car door was to comfort a distraught Suzanne.

And yes, his mother’s eventual career as Pierre Trudeau’s press secretary meant that she was often almost as absent from her son’s life as John, who called every Sunday and only had Perry flown out for visits “when enough time had passed that it was unseemly.”

And yes, Suzanne’s many suitors meant that Perry relived his father’s abandonment over and over, and when she finally did remarry (enlisting Perry to — cringe — “give her away” at the wedding), he struggled to feel included in her growing new family.

And yes, Perry was exhibiting the whole array of “troubled” behaviors — smoking, fighting, neglecting school — by the time he was 10.

The damage carries into adulthood

But John and Suzanne aren’t to blame. They’re much better parents to Perry now that he’s a grown man, and maturity (not to mention sobriety) demands that he cut them some slack. “I needed to remember that my dad left because he was afraid, and my mom was a kid who was just doing her best,” he wrote. Perry, of course, was a literal kid, but maybe that was a blessing. We all know how resilient children are.

Or are they?

“Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence,” wrote Judith Wallerstein in her groundbreaking study “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce”:

Rather it rises in adulthood, as serious romantic relationships move center stage. When it comes time to choose a life mate and build a new family, the effects of divorce crescendo. A central finding to my research is that children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals but with the relationship between them. They carry the template of this relationship into adulthood and use it to seek the image of their new family. The absence of a good image negatively influences their search for love, intimacy, and commitment. Anxiety leads many into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.

This passage might help explain why Perry never seemed to enjoy the substances that gave him so much trouble. From the start, his drinking seemed to be medicinal, a way to treat his persistent sense of discomfort, much like his Vicodin use, which he began to relieve the pain from an on-set jet ski accident. At his peak he was taking 55 pills a day to feel normal.

Perry’s pursuit of success was similarly driven by the need for relief. His earliest “performances” were bids for attention from his distracted parents. “Acting came naturally to me,” he writes of his first big role, the lead in his high school production of “Our Town.” “Why wouldn’t I want to pretend to be another person?”

Although Perry reports that he “fell deeply in love with acting” while playing opposite River Phoenix in his first movie, 1988’s “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon,” he mostly talks about his chosen profession in more mercenary terms. “Acting was like a drug for me,” he wrote, and he soon realized the exact high he was chasing: “By 1986 I was pretty sure fame would change everything. ... It was the only thing that would fix me.”

Maybe this is just the more or less sensible single-minded focus of an ambitious, career-driven young man. But it’s worth noting that even after he had reached the top, Perry never managed to figure out love, intimacy, and commitment. Not for lack of trying, either. Although he seemed to live the life of a Hollywood playboy, dating one A-List beauty after another, he was tormented by his inability to settle down.

Consider Perry’s own testimony, from an October 2022 interview: “I break up with them because I’m deathly afraid that they will find out that I’m not enough, that I don’t matter, and that I’m too needy, and they’ll break up with me and that will annihilate me and I’ll have to take drugs and that will kill me.”

Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes. And beneath the optimism of his recovery-speak, Perry hurt. For all his recent soul-baring, Perry’s most revealing moment happened unintentionally, while promoting his book on Canadian radio: “The thing that always makes me cry is that it’s not fair. It’s not. It's not fair that I had to go through this disease while the other five didn’t. They got everything that I got. But I had to fight this thing, and still have to fight this thing.”

What can you say about Perry’s strangely tone-deaf ingratitude and lack of perspective here, other than to wonder how much suffering this self-obsession must still have caused him?

The legacy divorce leaves

One also wonders about Perry’s conception of himself as having a “disease.” The disease model of addiction is, of course, standard in recovery circles. As a metaphor, it’s quite efficient at communicating the implacable, life-or-death nature of the challenge, while training focus on the most pressing task: to stop using.

But evidence suggesting that compulsive, self-destructive indulgence is literally a chronic medical condition is scant. Journalist Peter Hitchens calmly raised this point during a televised debate with Perry on a 2013 episode of “BBC Newsnight,” denouncing the disease model as a “fashion for dismissing the ability of people to take control over their own lives and to make excuses for them [instead].” Perry quickly became defensive and angry.

Why? Maybe he thought Hitchens was trivializing the hell he’d been through — implying that Perry simply should have manned up and quit long ago. But to see addiction as a psychological rather than a physiological affliction is not to minimize its seriousness. The disease model Perry clung to reinforced his reluctance to look too closely at how his parents’ divorce affected him; to search for a “reason” for one’s substance abuse comes perilously close to justifying it.

The divorce may not have caused Perry’s drinking and drugging, but perhaps it did lead him to seek refuge in his public identity as an addict. What would true intimacy with another person look like for Perry? What kind of family could he envision for himself? Rather than confront the void left by his own upbringing, Perry could pre-emptively set himself apart and choose instead the carefully constrained vulnerability of an addict helping fellow addicts.

By all accounts, Perry had been sober for a year when he died. His death does not present the usual cautionary tale of a doomed celebrity finally undone by one party too many. And yet he died alone. Unlike the character he so memorably inhabited, Perry never quite managed to embrace adulthood. Maybe Perry, contra Hitchens, was right, and it had to be this way; such was the progress of his disease.

At any rate, it’s not for us to judge how well Perry played the cards he’d been dealt. But as long as we’re seeking a lesson from his sad, untimely demise, surely we can consider the entirely voluntary decisions of those who brought him into this world. Perry leaves behind him a foundation in his name to help those struggling with addiction; it’s what he would have wanted, as the cliché goes. But the injury of divorce compromises the very sense of self that enables us even to know what we want.

The opioid crisis is much discussed these days, with good reason. To honor Perry’s legacy, however, we should also remember him as a survivor of another all-too-common epidemic.

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