I have to begin by saying I’m usually not moved by the death of a celebrity. Of course it’s horrible when anyone dies, but I just don’t feel a personal connection to people I experience through the barriers of the screen. People who are removed yet again by becoming a brand or a product.
But for some reason, when I read that Robin Williams had died, I felt a personal loss. I’m still trying to figure out why exactly that is, but here are some of my thoughts on his life and death:
How could someone as funny as Robin Williams be so tortured that the punchline of his life is this horrible?
I had a discussion with some coworkers the other day about how maybe comedians are the most tortured of us all. There is some strand of the dark and perverse in the things that make us laugh. To connect with what makes us laugh, you have to be familiar with what rips us apart. Which came first, the loss or the laughs? At a certain point we need humor to help us through the awful, like laughing through a funeral. Life would just hurt too much if we didn’t let out the parts that wound us deeply.
He wasn’t “just” a comedian.
Comedians are analysts of the human condition, and their job is not easy or superficial. Yet, Robin Williams was more than humor. He was fun, family friendly characters like in Aladdin, Hook, Jumanji. He was of course, hilarious characters like Mrs. Doubtfire. And often forgotten, he was creepy characters like 24 Hour Photo and Insomnia. (Wow, I just realized the Robbins on a boat meme photo is a shot from Insomnia.) And he was inspiring, like Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting, and my favorite, Dead Poets Society. (And also wonderfully unclassifiable movies like Toys.)
He was more than just one role or one anything. He occupied all these facets of our lives. What makes us laugh, what terrifies us, what comforts us.
I’ve had my own, often thankfully short bouts of depression. So I respect and understand his struggle. I don’t think it was right or wrong of him to take his life and I can certainly understand the void of depression that could lead someone with a full life to see the world as hopeless. Depression turns even the best things in our lives into black holes that consume the very universe we live in. It tears them apart and only leaves an absence behind. Not even a desire for what was, but a hole.
So hearing that Robin Williams killed himself made me all the more depressed, because it made me feel that struggle and that pain. I’ve heard several people say he inspired them to pull out of their own depression. But for me it just echoed my own dark moments. A reminder of how it could have gone. I don’t really have anything positive to say about this. There isn’t anything to say about depression or suicide. It is terrible.
Thanks to the interwebs, the moment Robin Williams died, he was all anyone talked about. Like a larger than life rockstar burning out only to explode in the allure of their tortured too-soon-death, the man became a legacy at his death. Instead of a man, we now see him as a culmination of his roles, of his personality, his public life and deeds.
Maybe it’s just because I grew up in a conservative small town in the American South, but I only heard bad things about Michael Jackson; he was a deviant, a pedophile, until he died and suddenly became not his actions or his life, but a culmination of his art. A memorialized piece of culture and revered cultural icon. So it is with Robin Williams. His films will live on. His legacy will live on. His commitment to his family and to causes he believed in will live on. His awesomeness will live on. (He named his daughter Zelda, after the videogame, so he was the best kind of geek.) He is now all of these things at once, not a man, but a life and a memory that permeates the consciousness of everyone he’s moved and laughed and nudged through adolescence and their own dark times.
Looking back over what I’ve written, I think what strikes me most about Robin Williams is his range of characters. He’s so easy to identify with because life is a series of many roles, and we need the full arsenal if we’re going to get through.