It is clear that the news media, and especially the entertainment and pop culture media, don’t want to lose their cuddly child performers. Thus when a former kid star like Corey Haim perishes at a young age, the victim of a dysfunctional childhood turned fatal by addictions to fame and drugs, the sad story is usually told as a cautionary tale about how one young actor’s early promise and talent turned to dust and destruction because of his own weaknesses and missteps. A responsible media would use such events to examine the larger, serious, and mostly ignored problem of child abuse and exploitation in the entertainment business, and its terrible toll of casualties.The media is not responsible on this topic, however, and in the case of Haim, seemed to go out of its way to falsely represent his fate as the exception, rather than the rule. Several publications, notably the pop culture-soaked glossy “Entertainment” magazine, arrived at the device of using Haim’s death to celebrate former child stars who “made it.” The intended message: “Like life, show business is hard, but most kids get through it okay. See?” “Entertainment” features career summaries of thirteen juvenile actors who “made it”-–Ricky Schroder, Cristina Ricci, Anna Paquin, Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, Natalie Portman, Ron Howard, Neil Patrick Harris, Jodie Foster, Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jason Bateman, and Raven-Symone. Thirteen stable and successful adults and one pathetic drug addict: that seems like a pretty good ratio. Problem? What problem? Corey was just a troubled kid, that’s all.
This spin is unforgivably deceitful. To state what should be obvious, we have no idea if all of “Entertainment’s” thirteen have “made it,” for the oldest of them are only in their thirties. The wounds of a childhood spent performing for adults can be deep, and often they don’t reveal their full damage until later in life. All we know about the thirteen now is that they are still talented, succeeding and coping well. At the still youthful age 0f 37, Corey Haim still had time to “make it” too. By 38, he was dead.
The outrageous aspect of “Entertainment’s” glossing over the roots of Corey Haim’s demise is that several similar tragedies involving former child stars have been playing out before our eyes. Former child star Leif Garrett is about to stand trial for possession of hard drugs. MacKenzie Phillips of “One Day at a Time” and “American Graffiti” can be seen on cable trying to kick multiple addictions on “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew Pinsky.” Tiger Woods, a child star in another field, is enmeshed in a career-threatening scandal that has shown him to be severely maladjusted, despite his remarkable success on the links. The doctor who provided the drugs that killed Michael Jackson, another child severely damaged while “making it,” was recently arrested. Just a month ago, former “Growing Pains” child star Andrew Koenig committed suicide, and former Disney super-star Lindsay Lohan appears to be engaged in a slow-motion suicide of her own that the media seem content to watch unfold, like a spectacular car crash at the Indianapolis Speedway.
Paul Petersen, a former child star of considerable wattage who has also “made it,” knows better than anyone that Corey Haim’s tragedy was far from unusual, and that the same pressures and influences that nearly derailed Petersen’s own life simply claimed another victim. The media’s distortion of Haim’s life and death exemplifies the resistance Paul has been facing for decades, since he established his child performer advocacy organization, A Minor Consideration. It is difficult for a non-profit organization and its cadre of volunteers to force the famously amoral, ethics-deprived and profit-driven industries that we call show business to care about what happens to the talented children entrusted to them. It is made more difficult still by public apathy and ignorance about the problem, encouraged by publications like “Entertainment.” One has to wonder if the misrepresentations are intentional.
Ask yourself this: a teen’s suicide stemming her harassment and bullying by fellow students in South Hadley, Mass. is sparking a nation-wide debate about the problem of bullying in the schools, but the media frames the death of Corey Haim by pointing to child stars whose lives haven’t spun out of control—yet. Why the disparate treatment? Which approach is more responsible, proactive, and logical?