12 Years after Brittany Murphy’s death, questions remain unanswered. Who was really at fault?

What happened to Brittany Murphy?

It’s a question that has continued to confound many of her dear fans in the years since her passing. She’d only been 32 – an age where many contemporary actresses find their niche and garner acclaim — but the legacy she has left behind is still rich and powerful nonetheless. Since her breakout role as Tai Frasier in the 90s cult classic Clueless, she’d captivated the nation’s attention at each and every turn. She could turn on the charm when required, exude gravitas on command, and take you through a profound, visceral journey through young adulthood with a snap of a finger. 

Her death represents a gaping hole in the industry that no one has seemed to fill yet, and no one likely will. That’s how our icons operate: they epitomize something so special and timeless and intangible that their talent dies with them, and we have no option but to savor their work from the ground up. 

However, Brittany’s death has also led to a number of conspiracy theories and baseless speculation about the actress’s life. With the release of a new documentary, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, let’s dig deeper into her brief time on earth.

Brittany Murphy’s death may seem suspicious, but the media obsession only hurts her legacy

(Photo by Michael Bezjian/WireImage)

Brittany Murphy died on December 20, 2009, at her home in Los Angeles. 

The fire department was called to the scene after she’d fallen unconscious in the bathroom. They performed CPR on her and later moved her to the city’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead on arrival. The county’s coroner’s office declared the death an accident, citing that she’d been suffering from a severe bout of pneumonia and that the prescribed medications didn’t react well with her  “weakened state” and iron-deficient anemia. 

Brittany’s husband, Simon Monjack, and mother, Sharon Murphy, insisted at the beginning that the actress’ demise was a result of a heart condition — not drug abuse, as many in the press had taken to assume. However, the situation became more insidious when Simon himself turned up dead a mere five months later. In his case, the coroner’s report listed pneumonia and anemia as some of the causes, the same as those of his late wife. Over the years, Sharon Murphy has changed her stance on the matter and has alleged that “toxic mold” in their household catalyzed her daughter’s declining health. There’s been no legal process to verify her accusation, so the circumstances undermining the incident are still considered suspicious, if not unresolved. 

The new documentary sheds light on a number of factors that may have contributed to Brittany’s health crisis. The fact that she’d been anemic prior to her death suggested that she was extremely underweight and that it was perhaps a deliberate choice. Brittany’s loved ones shared a story in which an agent told Brittany that she was “huggable, but not f***able.” The New Jersey native herself confirmed this in a 2000 interview where she said a “very important person in Hollywood” recommended she lose weight and change her look to secure leading roles. “So I got these extensions put in my hair, and that made a big difference,” she said. 

She was a victim of misogyny and a vicious paparazzi culture 

As for substance abuse, law enforcement authorities never budged from their initial finding that Brittany had only been ingesting what had been prescribed to her. There’s no indication, at least at the time of the death, that drugs were involved, so the tabloids determining that she’d died from an overdose is nothing but a desperate grasp for attention. There is no use in manufacturing drama out of what is an incredibly sensitive and unfortunate state of affairs. Brittany exemplified human vitality at its best, so the continuous fixation and guesswork into her death just send a bad impression. If someone would like to honor her legacy, they would look closely into her work, reclaim positive memories, and follow her example of childlike wonder and dedication. 

Ultimately, Brittany, like many other women in the arena, was exploited and mistreated by a toxic media landscape that profits off disparaging women and needlessly scrutinizing their mental health. As soon as the paparazzi noticed she’d lost weight, they started creating rumors of an eating disorder and a drug dependency — none of which were confirmed by the Murphy team and were nothing more than fodder to sell papers. 

The documentary does provide more information as to the accuracy of the gossip. Though very little can be verified at this point, multiple sources who were close to Brittany reveal deeper insight into the actress’s fraught marriage with Simon as well as the addiction challenges that accompanied them. Kathy Najimy, Brittany’s co-star on King of the Hill, shared that Simon’s arrival in Brittany’s life marked a turning point; the young actress started exhibiting bad behavior and became more susceptible to her partner’s control. Simon made her dismiss her entire management team and started assuming many of those duties himself; he allegedly pressured his wife to lose weight and even brought up plastic surgery several times. As per the sources interview on the documentary, he’d been a liar and a manipulator and coerced her into taking part in drug binges with him. Furthermore, the nature of Simon’s relationship with Brittany’s mom Sharon has been called into question a few times: the two shared a bed after Brittany died and were photographed in intimate positions a handful of times. 

There are a lot of other questions that remain and will continue to be unanswered. When a celebrity dies in her prime, the interest among the public is immediate and undeniable. It’s natural to jump to conclusions and stir up drama, but we have to consider not just the deceased’s close friends and family but their body of work in general. They had an impact on the zeitgeist, their performances meant something to the viewers, they symbolized something more significant than just petty gossip. She was just as stunning, thoughtful, and versatile as some of her male peers who also died young, such as River Phoenix or Heath Ledger, but, as Adam White of Dazed puts it, “unlike those men, she’s often been disallowed similar dignity.”

Part of the tragedy of Brittany’s life is that there didn’t seem to be any sort of blind spot when it came to what she could give […] She was someone who had everything, but somehow never enough.

Adam White on Dazed

Foster peace and understanding during someone’s death 

The loss of life has the capacity to bring out the worst in us. Human life is already fragile as it is, so when we come across a premature death, we can’t help but tap into our most brutal impulses and lay blame on the deceased. Pointing fingers doesn’t help anyone; it just promotes a confusing, chaotic culture of accusation and guilt. Instead, we should remember the dead through their contribution to society and the light they emanated in the world. Recalling their mistakes deliberately to somehow justify or complicate their death not only damages their legacy but worsens the mental wellbeing of the living, especially those who knew the deceased. 

So instead of becoming embroiled in the logistics of Brittany’s passing, we should foster peace, empathy, and care about the life she lived.

Remember others with empathy
You can never truly know what someone has gone through.