Pin it Stumble google-plus

Family Fire Traps


Published: 06/14/2012

by Jim Campbell

As long as I can remember I’ve known about Spontaneous Combustion, how fires can start without -- as the firemen put it -- any external accelerant. A pile of oily rags and trash in a corner, a mound of wood chips warmed by the sun; put almost
any sort of flammable material under pressure and heat and a fire can start. That’s why fire prevention inspectors tell us to clean up our basements and garages. When the right conditions exist, fires can start all by themselves, no match is needed.

Which brings me to Kathryn Hepburn. Yes, that Kathryn Hepburn, the one that won all those Oscars and awards for her work in movies and on the stage. After living for a while in Los Angeles, Kathryn escaped to the East Coast to a brownstone
house, at East 49th and 2nd Ave., in New York City. She ran away from being caught in spontaneous combustion!

Kathryn Hepburn saw the Hollywood lifestyle (with its mix of ego, ambition, competition, wealth, alcohol, drugs, sexual temptation and the lure of fame) created all the conditions for disastrous relationships, for conflagrations that consume and destroy people.

She wondered why so many stars and celebrities seemed surprised when their personal lives became a shambles, why they didn’t recognize the elements for disaster swirling around them. It is still happening.

Today, the same atmosphere breeds a stream of serial marriages, of break-ups and disasters, in the lives of the rich and famous. It is all rich fodder for the jokes of the late-night talk hosts like Leno or Letterman.

The size of the destructive lifestyle is demonstrated when Jay or David reveals that a celebrity guest has been married for 20 or 25 years. The audience applauds enthusiastically as if the guest had won an Olympic Medal. Maybe they deserve the applause (after all one should reward success) for not being consumed by a society seething with the destructive elements and forces that destroy so many people.

As comedians, tabloids, fan magazines and TV shows track the lives of celebrities, they miss important issues as they capitalize on the latest breakdown or breakup. Celebrities are people too, and there is a high cost to be paid as they cope with dashed hopes and face the struggles to heal the wounds, to get their lives glued back together. To profit from their pain seems a macabre practice.

It should also be noted that spontaneous combustion in human relationships is not confined to the communities of the rich and famous. Therapists and counsellors, to help their clients, often spend a lot of time looking for smouldering piles of stuff dumped in the corners. Those are the untidy crannies in our heads stuffed with bits and pieces of unresolved anger, injustices we’ve endured (real or perceived), things we’ve never forgotten or forgiven, what had been done to us and what we’ve done to ourselves.

It is a combustible pile that can burst, without warning, into flame under the slightest increase in pressure or heat in our lives. It doesn’t take much, as we might so aptly observe afterwards, because “it was the last straw.”

Doing a bit of tidying up, dealing with the accumulation before these things that catch fire and spoil the present, would seem to be a good idea. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Spontaneous combustion also takes place out there, in the world, in high-risk places, situations and lifestyles. To the age-old fire traps of alcohol, drugs and sex have been added the heat and pressure of hedonism, prosperity and fashion, the
easy anonymity in far-off places, the legalization of gambling, the idea that self-fulfilment trumps commitments, and more.

How many of these things can a person get into before there’s spontaneous combustion? No one can say. Too many seem bound to test themselves to the flash point, and then, far too often, it is too late.

Life’s survival manual, honed by thousands of years of hard-won experience, gives this advice: “Head for the exits.” Get out of there; run for you life; reduce; eliminate the heat and pressure. Following that simple advice can save a life; it can save yours.

Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based writer. Send your comments to
or via post to 115 George St. #604, Oakville, ON L6J 0A2.

Browse by Category