Why you should care
Because he was beautiful, talented … and dead of an overdose at 23.
Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage. You can find her work in Guernica, Marie Claire and elsewhere.
In 1986, I was 12 years old, the perfect target demographic for faux falling in love with River Phoenix. That was the same year he appeared in the beloved movie Stand by Me, and I was transfixed by the actor’s beyond-his-years performance. I was enamored of everything about him, from the obvious — he was beautiful and intense — to the less so: He was wounded. Precisely how, I didn’t know — a genetic fault, a traumatic event, neglect — but it was clear to me, a fellow wounded, that he was.
Had River simply been good-looking, simply a wonderful actor, simply a daydream, I probably would have crushed on him in the casual way I fell for his contemporaries — including the two Coreys, Haim and Feldman. Instead, I became passionately, irreversibly obsessed. I bought Bop and Teen Beat magazines for their posters of River, slightly smiling, brooding, slouching, his long hair half covering his face. I wrote fan fiction in which River was my first boyfriend, going so far as to imagine a kiss — I wasn’t entirely sure what people did when they kissed, but I liked the idea of it.
As I got older, my real-life crushes waned as easily as they bloomed. Once, I crushed all summer long on a neighborhood boy, only to feel instantly and permanently un-crushed when he raised his arm to reveal a bushel of boy-hair sprouting from his armpit. The first time I fell in love, it was with a brooding, River-like cigarette smoker who played guitar.
I understood his wish to do something meaningful at the same time he felt pulled to deconstruct everything stable in his life.
By 15, my posters of River had come down and I’d stopped writing fan fiction, but I still watched everything he did, read every interview. And, no longer able to bear my own wounds quietly, I began to act out. I smoked cigarettes and then started drinking and using drugs. I furiously wrote poetry and long letters, searching for some form of escape from my pain, the product of childhood hurts. I snuck out of the house however I could to absorb whatever drug was offered to me. I sat on my roof smoking cigarettes. I took acid in the park, ran from the police, wept as I got arrested because the handcuffs seemed like they were melting into my arm, and was delivered home. I smoked pot and drank and vomited out the windows of cars.
By his mid-teens, River was using, drinking and partying; his celebrity status delivering all the drugs he wanted, whenever he wanted. I noticed he had become more reserved in interviews; the beautiful slashes of his cheekbones hung like cliffs; his thought process notably diluted.
I ran away from home one summer and moved in with my boyfriend, sleeping in his bed at his parents’ house. I was 15, he was almost 18. His parents said nothing; I don’t even remember meeting them. Eventually, my father found me and took me home, and my mother gave me an ultimatum: I would go to AA meetings for 90 days or be sent to a group home for troubled kids. I chose the meetings. I got sober and, slowly, I woke up.
River became stranger and I crushed harder. He was a committed vegetarian, an outspoken animal-rights activist and a kid who gave money to homeless people. He was also self-destructive, hypocritical and lost. I understood his wish to do something meaningful at the same time he felt pulled to deconstruct everything stable in his life. Pre-internet, River was willing to expose himself in a more complicated, truthful way than we’d been allowed to see our stars do. He talked about the misery of photo shoots, the shallowness and absurdity of doing publicity.
He was singing in a band and had just played a homeless drug user and hustler in the unforgettable My Own Private Idaho. And he was coming undone. In Young Hollywood, by James Cameron-Wilson, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t see any point or any good in drugs that are as disruptive as cocaine. I never tried heroin. I tried alcohol and most of the others when I was 15, and got it out of the way — finished with the stuff.” And then, on October 31, 1993, River Phoenix collapsed outside the Viper Club in L.A., dead of an overdose after taking heroin and cocaine. He was 23, had never been married, had kids, become a producer or started the rainforest he dreamed of. I was 18 years old, months away from getting pregnant with my first child.
I wept when I learned of River’s death. I thought of all the hours I’d spent imagining someone I didn’t know, someone who didn’t know me, and how strange it was that I derived so much comfort and happiness playing pretend. I couldn’t process the fact that someone so talented, so admired, had died so young, while I — an average, poor, underachieving teenager — was still alive. And the truth hit me that at any time, if I decided to use again, I could lose my life.
When I found out I was pregnant, I started journaling every night, often writing letters to my unborn son. On the page where I listed possible baby names, you’ll find scrawled, in messy cursive, River. My crush on River Phoenix has stayed with me into my adult life. I find myself thinking of him, how beautiful and gifted he was, how he was the still point you couldn’t help being drawn to on any screen, and how drugs stole his life. I never used drugs again.