Actor Heath Ledger helped people empathize with the pain of homosexual identity conflict

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

Very sad news yesterday: Actor Heath Ledger has died.

Those of you who saw the movie Brokeback Mountain will remember that Ledger was the heart and soul of that film.

In the movie, Ledger’s character Ennis falls in love with another man, but never allows himself to openly act out this love or admit to his homosexuality, in part becuase as a child he remembered a gay man being tortured and murdered by townsfolk simply for being gay. Trapped by traumatic memory, Ennis cannot allow himself to be in love with another man, and thus spends his life trying to deny what is his deepest truth. The toll this takes on him; the suffering he experiences, the opportunities for love he passes up and the joys he sacrifices were brilliantly, deeply and accurately portrayed by Ledger.

Identity binds of the type that Ennis del Mar experiences are horrible things. They cripple people’s potential and shackle their capacity for experiencing joy and happiness. This is what happens when people cannot live in accordance with their actual desires and instead act out desires that are designed to please other people; they are miserable. I’ve written before about the nature of such binds and the suffering they cause in my essay "Foreclosed Identities". I’ve also witnessed (as have many other therapists) many people struggle with trying to unravel such binds, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. By far the most common sort of identity bind I’ve witnessed happens to involve people’s struggle with sexual identity issues and whether it is okay for them to live a non-heterosexual lifestyle. I and other therapists have tried to describe the importance of finding the courage to be the person you need to be (to live as a gay person if that is what you need to do), but nothing we will ever write will ever make the point as powerfully as Ledger’s performance as Ennis del Mar becuase where therapists like myself speak words, actors like Ledger inhabit personal worlds and private feelings and invite others to experience these feelings directly.

In witnessing Ledger’s Ennis character and Ennis’ suffering, the audience feels what it means to be unable to be one’s self and hopefully becomes a little bit more tolerant in the process. Great actors like Ledger disappear into their characters. In personifying fiction, they reveal truth. They enable people to inhabit the interior lives of people unlike themselves and feel their private emotions directly. What a gift they give us. What a trememdous loss it is that Ledger, one of the actors who could offer us this revealing window, has died.

The death itself is not yet explained, but may have been drug-overdose related. No one is sure yet. Apparently, Ledger was a pretty intense guy who could get very wound up and had great difficulty sleeping even with the aid of sleeping pills. Last I read, authorities are testing a twenty dollar bill found near the actor’s body becuase it was folded funny. Maybe they suspect he was doing lines of cocaine or something. Or maybe there is something you can do with a folded bill and sleeping pills, like snort them?

Anyway, very sad news.

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