Remembering Robin Williams (eight)

Confronting the unmentionable

So, Robin Williams is dead, and it seems that everybody is in mourning. On Facebook, those expressions of mourning cloud nearly every post. People express shock and dismay; some even bring President Obama into the mix when they quote the president’s reaction to the funnyman’s suspected suicide by asphyxia: “He [Williams] arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.”

He arrived as an alien: Robin Williams and Pam Dawber in “Mork & Mindy” (© American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)

Of course, life being what it is — are we all not merely visitors on this planet? — you’d think that we humans would be prepared for the death and disappearance of any one of us at any time, not just the old and infirm. Yet each time a sudden death occurs with no perceptible warnings to prepare us for the shock, we are left stunned as if we half-believed, in childlike Disney fashion, in a guaranteed number of years.

The Facebook mourning, of course, express a lot of expository thoughts, with most hoping that the Oscar-winning comedian and actor is at last at peace. Much of the shock expressed in these tributes is also connected to Williams’s manner of death, suicide. The expressions of sorrow seem exaggerated, with the word tragic appearing over and over again, as if an indirect reference to the sometimes unmentionable word — because, of course, most are trying hard not to tread on dangerous ground that might level any judgment against the five-star entertainer.

Suicide, for the most part, is still an unmentionable act. Several months ago, I wrote about a suicide at Restaurant Nineteen on the 19th floor of the Bellevue-Stratford building. A man who was having lunch with his wife left the table after she excused herself to go the ladies room. When she returned, he was not at the table. He had gotten up and walked past the servers and diners and jumped out the window and landed in the alley below. Confirming the facts for a story I was doing was as excruciating as going through dental implant surgery. Restaurant Nineteen had no comment, and there was no mention of the suicide in the press the next day, despite the fact that it happened during the lunch rush hour in broad daylight.

Some sum up Williams’s death this way: It was very tragic, but it was his choice, as if suicide were one of those valid option check boxes on a governmental questionnaire. The implication here is that if you are in chronic pain with almost no hope of resolution, then ending it all is somehow justified. Worse still, the idea of suicide is becoming commonplace, hence its present status among some as a valid life option.

Keep going

But suicide as a choice didn’t hold much water with my 95-year-old great aunt, the last survivor among her circle of friends, and a lady who felt very much alone in her rooms at Roxborough’s Cathedral Village. “Every depression, every misfortune,” she’d often say, “is like going through a tunnel. You go through it and come out the other end. You don’t want to end things when you’re still in the middle of the tunnel, because acting too soon would be the greatest tragedy.”

Did Robin Williams act too soon? Should he have waited and asked for more help from friends and family?

Williams, they said, had a severe case of chronic depression. In between his hilarious stunts as a funnyman, he was in rehab for drug treatment earlier this summer. He also had heart surgery in 2009, but these misfortunes didn’t seem to kill his spirit. Drugs, of course — Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perception notwithstanding — sometimes open the door to new personal demons, so it’s possible that the funnyman felt assaulted mentally and spiritually like a character out of Doctor Faustus. How do you explain to friends and therapists alike a discombobulation of the spirit or a sense of alienation that might even be a new experience for the sufferer?

Williams may have been a funnyman onstage, but comedy is no magic elixir when it comes to warding off depression. An analytical approach to depression only works to let you see its structure, or where the depression might come from, but nullifying it (without drugs) may involve something deeper that’s outside the boundaries of the average therapist.

I was first mesmerized by Williams in The Dead Poets Society, and then made sure to see all of his movies, especially Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage, both of which helped to mainstream gender-bending and same-sex relationships.

So I join the Facebook mourners in saying that the funnyman known as Robin Williams had the diverse appeal of a rousing Shakespeare play and that he will be missed terribly. I say this despite the fact that even as the comedian himself aged, society was also aging and changing alongside him. Most people, I think, would agree that it’s becoming more difficult to tell a joke in our hypersensitive world without some person, or some group, getting offended. As one Facebook poster (perhaps irreverently) put it, “How can a comedian operate in this environment?”


More remembrances by Rich Heimlich, Tom Hannigan, Maria Thompson Corley, Chris Predmore, Tara Lynn Johnson, Michael Lawrence, Gary L. Day, and Armen Pandola.

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