He was just 23 when he overdosed and died. But his misfortunes began right from his childhood.
Cover image source: IMDb
Trigger Warning: This story contains details of drug abuse, death, and child sexual abuse that readers may find disturbing.
River Phoenix was one of the most promising actors of the '90s whose life was tragically cut short right in front of his sibling due to an overdose of drugs. But the end of his life wasn't the only unfortunate part of his brief existence as his misfortune and trauma began right from his childhood. The Oscar-nominated actor grew up traveling with his parents who were missionaries of the cult Children of God, which later became notorious for encouraging both adultery and incest. "Children as young as three were encouraged to 'play' sexually with their parents and other adults," revealed Gavin Edwards in a compelling biography, 'Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind', according to LA Weekly.
"The Children of God was a Christian sex cult. They believed that sex was a sacrament, and that sort of everyone should be engaged in it. And this, you know, extended to sort of partner swapping, and it also extended to encouraging children to, you know, engage with each other," he added. During an interview with Details magazine, River shared that he was just four when he first made love but wished he had waited longer. "But I've blocked it out. I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen," he added. This shocking revelation points at the possibility that the late star was sexually abused as a child.
The Running On Empty actor not only lacked stability in his life but also had to shoulder immense responsibility as a young boy. His parents Arlyn and John Bottom were cash strapped and so they traveled across the United States and South America with the cult, setting camp every now and then. One time, they settled in Venezuela where children sang on the streets in exchange for extra money and River was one of them. "At an early age, River was busking on street corners, trying to spread the word and proselytize for the cult. But if he didn't bring home enough loose change that day, the family wasn't going to eat," said Edwards during an interview with NPR. "So, it was a lot of weight in a lot of different ways, on a very young child."
River continued performing when the family resettled in L.A. and that's how his talent was discovered. But the years he spent in The Children of God continued shadowing even after he left it behind and maybe that was the reason behind him developing a strange obsession with hooking up. "[Sleeping with someone] was nearly all that River could think about," shared Corey Feldman according to Rolling Stone. "He decided it was time to lose his self-imposed 'second-virginity,' and get on with his first teen encounter." When he finally decided to lose it to an older girl he knew, he made it a point to ask his parents for permission. Shockingly his parents didn't just say yes but also put up a tent in the backyard and decorated it to get their 15-year-old son in the mood.
But he managed to somehow overcome his trauma or so the public thought given his dedication towards the arts. River even won the Independent Spirit Award and the National Society of Film Critics Award for his performance in My Own Private Idaho. He continued his brilliant work not only in the field of acting but also in music. Not many are aware that the incredibly talented artist was dyslexic. "He was special in the sense that he was very instinctive. He was dyslexic, which meant he couldn't learn two lines without making a mistake," said Dark Blood (River's final film) director George Sluizer. "That meant he had to understand what he said, to feel it. That gave him a certain strength."
People failed to notice his extremely indulgent drug usage, which ultimately resulted in his untimely demise. On 31 October 1993, River was at The Viper Room, a club owned by actor and friend, Jonny Depp, when he ingested speedball, a mixture of drugs. His sister Rain and brother Joaquin were present at the club when he began suffering a seizure. A worried Joaquin immediately called 911 as Rain threw herself on River to stop his seizure. Unfortunately, he lost consciousness and died shortly after at the age of 23 right when he was on the cusp of a promising career.