I knew that someone had died from my Twitter feed, because it abruptly became full of links about how to get help and statements about how the funniest people seem to have the deepest darkness living inside them. At first glance, none of them said who it was. I quickly went to Google news, and didn't even have to enter a search term – it was already there, the third item down. “Actor Robin Williams found dead at 63 of apparent suicide.”
I was alone in my room at the time, but I still involuntarily shouted “No, no, no” into my unfurnished house. There's always a certain amount of sensationalist excitement when tragic news hits the media, the rushing to find out who it was, how it happened, how the world is responding to it, but you never expect it to be one of your favorite inspirations, one of the tokens of your childhood. There are so many celebrities out there, and especially in the slightly bougie crowds I run in, we don't always like to parade our attachment to them.
Thus my shock and literal screaming into the empty abyss when I saw that Monday's death was of one of my favorite actors consistently since childhood. His death feels personal, in a way that I want to talk and think and do something about it moreso than I can remember happening since Patrick Swayze died my freshman year of college and one of my good friends first impressions of me was finding me writhing on the floor in a black dress crying.
But Robin Williams feels more tragic and close to home than Patrick Swayze even, although now I'm not writhing on the floor, having become slightly less dramatic in the past five years. Robin Williiams films are the backdrop of me growing up, he has felt like a personal character in my life since I can remember.
So many of his films reside in my memory as family emblems that I immediately called my dad, who hadn't yet heard the news. He reminded me of a time that him and my mom saw Robin Williams in San Francisco, years before I was born. I texted my mom and my sister, and shortly after I got off the phone with my dad one of my friends from home called, and asked if I had heard.
“I don't know why you're the person I wanted to call, and I can't talk for long, but I'm just so sad.” She said, and I was glad that she'd chosen me and repeated what I was thinking.
Of course as an artist, the way that Robin Williams most resonated with me was through his films. I still hear lines from Mrs. Doubtfire in my head that relate to anything I'm doing and unconsciously quote it the way I do Friends or Titanic. It's one of the first movies I remember watching repeatedly just because it was funny. It was a touchstone of our family entertainment for my entire childhood.
My dad would blow up air mattresses so my sister and I could stand with them and fling ourselves down onto the floor to imitate the characters falling through the doors in a flood in Jumanji. My camp friends and I still yell JUMANJI at each other as an inside joke because of the summer that we were planning a theme night and, stricken with excitement in a moment of inspiration, I yelled it at my friends out of the blue. At work, I quoted it to my old manager to try and describe waking up early: “What year is it??” Those are just small examples of the way that movie worked its way into the fabric of my life. But Jumanji wasn't just a kids adventure film, it was also an emotionally resonant piece about family and time. That's what all my favorite Robin Williams films are to me – movies that entertain while having a strong undercurrent of the truth about life.
Like every emotional and academic teenager out there, I watched Good Will Hunting repeatedly and it changed the way I thought about the world. I think we don't give enough credit to popular movies that really emotionally resonate with people, especially young people. Once they reach a certain level of fame, we tend to discount them – for being too popular to the masses, because it's cool to make fun of things that everyone likes, for being overwrought or trite. But we forget that part of the reason these films are so popular is that they connect with people on a basic level, and in the right circumstances, like Good Will Hunting, that should be celebrated instead of scorned.
Good Will Hunting tried to teach youths and adults alike all over the world what it meant to live with courage and go forward with love. To all the scared young idiots out there, which I know I was when I saw it, it was life changing. I obviously can't connect my success in building a life I loved at college completely to repeatedly watching Good Will Hunting, but I do know that all the great art that taught me the kind of person I wanted to be had a huge part in who I am today, and Good Will Hunting, and Robin Williams part in it, was definitely part of that chorus.
And of course Dead Poet's Society was another beautiful example of that. When Good Will Hunting told me about emotions, Dead Poet's Society told me about art, and explained to me why I loved books and paintings and films so much. I haven't seen the film in years, but it has stayed close to me as a love letter to young artists to remind us of who we are and why it's important to do what we do. More importantly, why it's okay and wonderful to do what we do in a society where everyone is telling us to go to an office and get a real job and start working for some fabrication of the American Dream that we can feel in our hearts is hollow compared to the truth that the art we love shows us is out there.
What Dreams May Come strikes me as the most poignant and tragic in light of the tragedy. It's less popular than his other films, it certainly isn't a comedy. It's a beautiful and devastating story about a family whose two children are killed in a car accident, and in the midst of the parents grief the father (Williams) is eventually killed as well. In the aftermath his wife eventually commits suicide. The film shows him in an artistically rendered heaven, fighting to go to hell to bring her back to the beautiful side with him due to her manner of death.
I don't need to explain why that is so hard to swallow now.
But more than the individual films he was in, Robin Williams emanated an energy that connected the world and made me feel more okay about being a human. When I thought of him, which I did often, in the years before his death, it wasn't as any specific character in his films. Of course I didn't know him personally so I don't know what he was like, but I don't think you can fake the genuineness that made people feel so connected to him.
It shows in the way the world is reacting to his death. I've never seen so many people be genuinely sad and broken up over a celebrity death, and across so many different sectors of humanity. My friends and I have basically created a support group-text about it. On Tuesday at IHOP, one of my regulars came in and when my manager asked how she was, she replied “Oh just terrible! Aren't you?” and when the host and manager looked at her, she replied “Because of Robin Williams!” We talked about it for a while before she ate, and in addition to my sadness I was just so humbled by the idea that this man's death could create such similar reactions in a young liberal wild child waitress and an elderly military wife who reads inspirational bible books when she comes into IHOP.
One of the things that I've noticed in the outpouring of sadness and support is the proliferation of links to suicide hotlines and telling people to get help if they are considering suicide. While I think that this is an incredibly important thing to remind people who may not have access to resources about, I wish that I had an answer to additional things we could talk about in light of this specific tragedy.
The fact of the matter is, Robin Williams certainly had access to the best that mental health has to offer. Reports seem to indicate that he was utilizing the resources he had to the best of his ability. And yet what happened remains. I don't think it's enough to remind people that help is available, because the help we have to offer, unfortunately, isn't enough. It reminds me of reading about Steve Jobs death to cancer, my thought process being if Steve Jobs money couldn't get him enough updated and newfangled treatments to cure his cancer, then cancer is much more terrifying of a demon than I ever realized. (Obviously, but anyway.) The comparison isn't a perfect one, but nevertheless – the best that we have to offer in mental health still left Robin Williams with no way out of his depression. The phrase that comes to mind is from David Foster Wallace, another great genius lost to suicide -
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
I come from a family where mental health disorders are common, and I count myself lucky that my own mental health troubles are mostly rooted in anxiety rather than depression, although of course they are related. This quote is the thing that has helped me understand depression more than anything else I've ever read, and that terror is something that anxiety sufferers know in a different form. But my point from above is this – for the depressed person, standing at the window, the suicide hotline might draw them away this one time, but they are always going to find themselves back at that terrifying window until one day the jump is the only choice they feel they can make. The 'solutions' we are publicizing and offering are coming too late.
There needs to be more research to understand what makes the depressed person reach the agony that Wallace describes. We need to find out if it is something created intrinsically in the brain with genetics, and move from there, or if it is something that is developed or worsened in life and figure out how to change our society so that we create a healthy environment where people can forge mental health. That is what I hope comes out of this tragedy – that this horrible disease has taken someone so prominent from us will make us question what creates this mental state and what can be done to help the people who currently suffer from it as well as the countless souls in the future.
I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a brain researcher, I don't know where to begin with the societal fight against mental illness. I'm just a human, an artist who has loved and suffered from mental illness and whose life was altered by a truly great artist and gift to humanity, Robin Williams. The only thing I can think to do now is find comfort in the fact that he united so many disparate people, and be thankful that we were given the gift of him on this earth, and in his memory love each other, continue to create, and mourn.