Thoughts on the Death of Robin Williams

It is an unfortunate coincidence that on the same day I posted an essay which discussed my own struggles with suicide, Robin Williams killed himself. It is even more unfortunate that so many people eulogized him with lines from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. Williams didn’t write it, and it’s not a great film. I never agreed more with Roger Ebert than when he wrote, “…I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.”

On the film: The message of Dead Poet’s Society is profoundly anti-educational. It encourages us to throw away “stuffy” academic interpretations and just FEEL (and, despite its purported “do your own thing” moral, to follow.) Ebert continued in the same essay: “At the end of a great teacher’s course in poetry, the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they really love is the teacher.” Ebert was on to something about Robin Williams, which repeated in many of his movies. The cult of Robin Williams was most important.

I had a friend who patterned himself after Robin Williams’ standup persona. He spoke quickly, peppered his speech with non-sequiturs, and was often very funny. And annoying. This was not a person you could count on, because ultimately everything revolved around him. There was no way to be on a team with this person. I’ve read stories over the past two days about how Williams would go off on long riffs, ten or thirty minutes at a time, inhabiting characters for the entertainment of children on the phone or nervous celebrities in dressing rooms. The stories aren’t about interaction – they are about experiencing Robin Williams. Many of his movies have that same sense. There were good ones, to be sure (he appeared in over 100.) But most directors were content to let Robin Williams be himself, which was often funny and only rarely dramatically satisfying.

On the topic of suicide, I don’t think it’s evidence of cowardice or selfishness. We can debate what constitutes “waste” (I think all human life is inherently valuable no matter what virtues, gifts or talents the individual possesses.) A big part of why Williams’ death hits so hard is because suicide is scary. Cancer is deadly but it takes time and there are various treatments available. If somebody like Robin Williams succumbs, with presumable access to all kinds of mental health treatment, what hope is there for anyone? He was rich, well loved, and seemed to have everything going for him. Unlike a heart attack, suicide doesn’t allow us to point to any one thing and then eat better, exercise more, or use sunscreen. But calls to suicide hotlines are way up in the past two days. That’s a great thing – I was saved by a hotline once. God bless those who continue the work. And RIP Robin Williams. He will be missed.

I think I’ll watch The Fisher King.