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Elvis Presley, who died 44 years ago this month, was not a drug abuser in the typical rock’n’roll lifestyle sense, a new book claims, but he was medicating to address a series of congenital illnesses.
According to Elvis: Destined to Die Young, the singer’s downward spiral, punctuated by health problems routinely written off as the consequences of addiction, could have been caused by Presley’s maternal grandparents, who were first cousins. His mother’s family – including three uncles – were cursed by early death, the author Sally Hoedel says.
Hoedel, an historian, claims it was not a coincidence, that Presley’s mother, Gladys, died at 46 and Presley at 42. “They had a similar four-year period of degenerative health, and that’s interesting because she did not take the same medication as he took.”
Hoedel writes that Presley’s health problems were intertwined with his life story, and he suffered from disease in nine of 11 bodily systems. Five of those disease processes, she says, were present from birth. Examining them, she believes, is a way to “humanise” the mythical figure of Presley, who in later life was known for his corpulence and indulgent appetite.
“Elvis is seen as less or more than human, like an image, and he’s been reduced to this rock’n’roll guy who died in his bathroom from taking too many pills,” Hoedel told the Observer.
“That’s not enough for a man who culturally shifted our universe. It’s not accurate and it’s not enough. Elvis was a sick man who hid a lot of his weakness to fill concert venues and support his family. By examining his flaws and health issues, maybe we can start to see his humanity again.”
Hoedel, a lifelong fan, believes that much of the reams of literature about the singer, starting with Albert Goldman’s 1981 Elvis, have distorted his image, and she believes that a revision is overdue. “Elvis shifted our universe culturally like no one has before and he deserves to be treated like an historical figure, like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, but instead he gets weighed down by sensationalism, and that keep us from the truth,” she says.
While some have sought to portray the family as hillbillies, the author points out that inter-marriage was not at the time unusual across society. Presley’s forebears may have made marriage choices because of poverty and proximity, but Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt married to keep wealth in the family.
“If we can strip away the negative connotations, and then look at the consequences, there’s a lot of truth to be uncovered,” Hoedel says. Among Presley’s ailments attributed to his genes were alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which can attack the lungs and liver; colon issues; an immune deficiency and lifelong insomnia.
His health issues, often written off as resulting from prescription drug abuse enabled by his infamous doctor, George “Nick” Nichopoulos, could therefore be attributed in the first instance not to over-medication but to health problems that Presley and his doctors were trying to treat.
“His health issues were varied but he hid them so well that over-medication is all we remember now,” Hoedel says. “It became a problem, but why was he taking them in the first place?”
“Dr Nick is a controversial figure. From my research, he was always trying to help Elvis but the line between friend and doctor got blurred,” Hoedel says. “One of the reasons Elvis turned to the medication was pain. He took too much at times but he was self-medicating because he was trying to find a way to be Elvis Presley.”
Addiction specialists might term that elaborate rationalisation and justification of a king-size nature, but Hoedel says Presley also felt responsible for his family (as many as 10 members lived with him at Graceland), his band and the Memphis Mafia – the courtiers who surrounded him. “By the time he’s touring again in the 70s, he was providing for more than 100 people. He says, ‘I’m sick, I don’t feel good, but I can’t stop because everybody is relying on me’.”
Hoedel believes Presley was not a drug addict looking to escape reality. “Elvis’s story is looked on as one of destruction, but it is a futile struggle to survive, through poverty and then through health issues,” she says. “It was hard to be Elvis, no one had done fame like that before, and no one else could do it for him. He was trying to function within his reality.”