Passed Lives

I’m sure you’ve seen the quote circulating in the press over the last week. “When I die, I don’t want ‘Friends’ to be the first thing that’s mentioned.” Just over a year ago, Matthew Perry told the Q with Tom Power podcast what he hoped his legacy would be. Instead, Perry said that he “would like to be remembered as somebody who lived well, loved well, was a seeker”. This, unfortunately, has not come to pass. For every article where someone shares how much Perry meant to them personally, there seems to be many more that remember him solely as a celebrity who was plagued with addiction issues. The question then is: have we failed him?

Instinctively, it feels wrong to assert that we should all be beholden to commemorate a person in exactly the way they want to be perceived. It would be an obviously dangerous precedent to set, and reduce our ability to remember someone for who they really were. Should our lives not be recounted honestly, warts and all? After all, an obituary is not a eulogy. Lauding the achievements of the recently departed is certainly an uplifting undertaking in a time of grief, but mentioning nothing else would obscure the depth to that person’s life. Light must come with shade, and nobody has ever lived without experiencing both the highs and the lows. It would be dishonest, then, to remember anyone purely as someone “who lived well”. 

Matthew Perry had his demons, like everybody else. Any retelling of his life that doesn’t mention them would be incomplete. The problem arises, though, when people like Perry are reduced to their demons and nothing else. This problem isn’t novel, our media has always focussed on the negative, but the competitive domain of online reporting has certainly exacerbated it. There are hundreds of news sites, big and small, that  all need your attention. And nothing grabs attention like a clickbait headline. 

The problem arises, though, when people like Perry are reduced to their demons and nothing else.

The amount of money he spent on his addictions. The amount of time he spent in rehab. The amount he drifted from his friends and family. All the sordid details. These are the sorts of things that have the greatest chance of grabbing your attention as you scroll through your feeds, inundated with headlines of a similar shock value. Maybe, if you are enticed enough to read on, you will find out about the deeper context to the story. The pressure of the limelight, Perry’s hard-fought recovery and the work he did for others who suffered from similar illnesses. But chances are that you won’t; that headline will be the only thing to take up any space in your mind. 

It’s not a lot of space, for sure. You probably won’t be able to recall that headline five minutes after you breeze past it. But each and every one acts as a building block in your mind’s subconscious construction of who Matthew Perry is. You might be someone who’s watched every episode of Friends multiple times over, and all you can see when you look at a picture of Perry is Chandler Bing. Even still, the real person of Matthew Perry is robbed of his human complexity increasingly more every time your brain registers one of these snapshots of his lowest moments. 

Compared to others who have recently passed, Perry’s life has been distorted by clickbait media more than most. Bill Kenwright, Bobby Charlton and Li Keqiang have all been commemorated in recent weeks, and none of them have been made caricatures of themselves in anything near the same way that Perry has unfortunately been. The immediate explanation for this difference is that their lives were simply not as tumultuous as Perry’s was. Maybe so. But we can’t know that for sure. Unlike those other recently departed public figures, Perry suffered from relentless invasions of privacy, scrutiny and speculation at the highest level. Sure, he recounts in his 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing about how he chased the limelight from an early age, but nobody could have known just how much of an icon he would become, nor just how much media attention that would entail. 

Compared to others who have recently passed, Perry’s life has been distorted by clickbait media more than most.

Even when he himself confirmed pieces of speculation that he has been dogged by since his Friends days, it still feels uncomfortable to remember a person for parts of their life that were laid bare for the world against their will. Again, it’s the lack of context to these stories that make them feel all the more stark and exposing. Only those closest to Perry, his friends and his family, would have known the real Perry, or at least the realest version of himself that he chose to present to anyone. 

But those people aren’t the ones who are writing the obituaries and opinion pieces on his life. They’re all written by outsiders, those who can know Perry only as much as the rest of us can, by putting together the pieces that have been made available to us over the years. Having been a star on the most popular sitcom ever, these writers perhaps feel that they know Perry better than they really did, para-socially bonded to the embodiment of the self-effacing everyman that was Chandler Bing. Of course Perry was born to play Chandler, but they’re not the same person. There is nothing we can read or watch that will get us anywhere near the real Matthew Perry. We can come closer, but never close enough to say that we knew him.

There is nothing we can read or watch that will get us anywhere near the real Matthew Perry.

Grief is an irresistible phenomenon. It numbs our senses and distorts our memories. But I think we have to try and remain cognisant of the huge, inevitable gap between our conception of a person and their true lives. So don’t remember Matthew Perry just for playing Chandler in Friends, or for being another victim of Hollywood’s addiction epidemic. Remember him for who he was: a complicated person and a complex soul, just as much as you or me.

Image Credit: Matthew Perry at Smarter Justice Lessons from the American problem-solving court movement 16.12.2013 by Policy Exchange, licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: Matthew Perry dressed in a suit, speaking in front of a sign for Policy Exchange.