Until I read the comments on my brief obituary of Robin Williams, I had no idea that there was such a universal love of the man and his work. And, it seemed, a lot of the affection was connected to the characters he played, both the unreservedly humorous ones (Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire), but, especially, the damaged ones who were all the more empathic for their trials (Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting and Parry in The Fisher King, both of whom lost their wives in tragic circumstances). And although I knew Williams had substance abuse problems, I didn’t really pay attention to reports that he suffered from mental illness, something that, remembering those roles, somehow makes sense.
(By the way, although everyone seemed to agree here that Williams suffered from bipolar disorder, I can’t confirm that. A piece at yesterday’s PuffHo reports that, “Comedian Robin Williams once told an interviewer that he struggled with depression, but hadn’t been diagnosed with either ‘clinical depression’ or bipolar disorder.”) Several other comics I can think of, including Stephen Fry (much more than a “comic,” of course), Spike Milligan, and Jonathan Winters, suffered from depression or other forms of mental illness. I can’t help but think that the malady helped feed some of their comedic genius. Winters’s and Williams’s rapid-fire, extemporaneous comedic riffs, for instance, seem like a highly channeled form of mania—one of the poles of bipolar disorder.
As New York Times movie reviewer A. O. Scott said in today’s Memoriam to Williams:
Back then, it was clear that Mr. Williams was one of the most explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously verbal comedians who ever lived. The only thing faster than his mouth was his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-associative absurdity. Janet Maslin, reviewing his standup act in 1979, cataloged a tumble of riffs that ranged from an impression of Jacques Cousteau to “an evangelist at the Disco Temple of Comedy,” to Truman Capote Jr. at “the Kindergarten of the Stars” (whatever that was). “He acts out the Reader’s Digest condensed version of ‘Roots,’ ” Ms. Maslin wrote, “which lasts 15 seconds in its entirety. He improvises a Shakespearean-sounding epic about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, playing all the parts himself, including Einstein’s ghost.” (That, or something like it, was a role he would reprise more than 20 years later in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”)
Besides “Good Will Hunting” and “The Fisher King” (whose last scene I’ve reprised a few times in my own dreams), my favorite Williams movies were “Dead Poets Society,” and “Awakenings” (probably because the story, based on a book by Oliver Sacks, was so moving). And of course there were his incomparable comedic appearances, best when he was just making stuff up. When you saw Williams on a talk show, you always sat up because you knew you were in for a ride, and a lot of it would be hilarious. While I don’t know what he was like in his private life, every sign I could see (plus a few readers’ comments) suggests that he was exactly what he seemed to be: a funny, empathic, and (in light of the news) troubled man who hid his troubles well. The statement from his wife in his obituary in the New York Times supports that:
Mr. Williams’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement that Mr. Williams “has been battling severe depression.”
His wife, Susan Schneider, said in a statement, “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings.” She added: “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
Indeed, and that’s what readers here focused on. It is no small accomplishment to bring joy to the lives of so many people, and also, after death, to get them to open up about their own battles with depression. I found the readers’ confessional statements about depression very moving. I’ve had enough friends and family so afflicted that I know it is far more than sadness, and that it can plunge one into a maelstrom of hopelessness so deep that there seems no way out but death. I know, too, that to the severely depressed their malady is like terminal cancer: they see no respite, ever, and so death seems preferable to eternal mental torment.
Williams’ passing thus gave us some moments of humanity that provided respite, however brief, from the troubles and brutality besetting our world right now. We can mourn Williams not only as a purveyor of joy and laughter, but also for the knowledge that he died from an affliction far commoner than we think, and perhaps we can learn to help those so afflicted.
How do we respond to the severely depressed? Stephen Fry, who has been suicidally depressed, shows us how. Read this post from From Letters of Note:
“I had no idea who to turn to. But I really needed someone to turn to and to ease the pain. So I wrote to Stephen Fry because he is my hero, and he has been through this himself. And low and behold, he replied to my letter, and I will love him eternally for this.”
Here’s Fry’s reply to her (there’s a transcript at the site if you can’t read this):
What a wonderful letter, and a wonderful man!
Here’s how you don’t respond to Williams death: as P.Z Myers has in a post at Pharyngula, in which he claims that the media (and our government) has taken advantage of Williams’s death to draw attention away from racism and other social problems. In other words, we’ve been manipulated:
I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family. But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.
. . . Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction. No one wants to think the police might be untrustworthy. [This refers to the police shooting of black teenager Mike Brown in St. Louis.]
And think of the politicians! Midterm elections are coming up. Those are important! So people like Barack Obama need to be able to show their human side and connect with the real concerns of the American people by immediately issuing a safe, kind statement about Robin Williams, while navigating the dangerous shoals of police brutality and black oppression by avoiding them. Wouldn’t want to antagonize those lovely law-and-order folks before an election, you see.
Wealthy white man? Really? This is one of the most contemptible and inhumane things I’ve ever seen posted by a well-known atheist. It reeks of arrogance, of condescension, and especially of a lack of empathy for those who loved and admired Williams not because they knew him, but because he brought them happiness and made them think.
Yes, we can care about the oppressed, but we can also care about the loss of someone who did a lot of good in this world. Let’s face it: few of us atheists will make the difference that Robin Williams did. In a time of immense brutality, it does no good to ride roughshod over the feelings of those of us who really did admire and respect Robin Williams. What is gained by that?