I Think I Can Find You In Jersey
By now, everyone knows that Robin Williams has died by his own hand. At first I wasn’t going to write anything; if I thought it necessary to do a post for every celebrity who died, this site would turn in to a kind of TMZ obituary page. I decided to write this for two reasons. First, I was surprised at the emotion expressed by so many on social media. Williams’s death was experienced by so many as a personal loss. For all the legitimate criticisms of his work, he also managed to touch so many people both through his comedy and his roles in film. Second, as someone who has spent the past several months putting the pieces of his life back together from the depths of depression, Williams’s suicide brings to everyone’s attention the reality of mental illness, the physical and emotional toll it takes, and the reality that it is something people live with – sometimes silently, sometimes vocally – all their lives.
I remember the first time I saw Williams perform on television. Like millions of other families, ours was watching Happy Days when the show decided to do a bit more shark-jumping, having an alien arrive. What happened next launched a career no one could have imagined.
The next year, Mork returned in his own series, with Pam Dawber. What was amazing about Mork & Mindy was Williams’s ability to perform while strung out on cocaine much of the time. Also, his ad libbing could be, well, surprising. The show, however, started to slide downhill, and despite the addition of Jonathan Winters, it was canceled.
In the midst of the popularity of that sitcom, however, Williams got his first starring role in film, in Popeye. The film, however, was a mess and despite Williams putting on a marvelous performance, it bombed. After the cancellation of Mork & Mindy, Williams made a series of mediocre to bad films, including perhaps his most memorable bad film, The World According to Garp. Then in 1987, he landed the role of an Army disc jockey working in Saigon. Good Morning, Vietnam! was a hit, in part because during certain segments when Williams’s character was on the air, the director let Williams be Williams. The results were funny enough to sustain an otherwise lackluster movie.
What followed was a series of films that tapped not only Williams’s manic comedic style, but his ability to draw on his deep well of emotion. There was always something frenetically romantic about Williams, and his roles in The Dead Poet’s Society and The Fisher King – ironically films in which death and even suicide are not only important plot points, but themes – showed us sides of Williams that were surprising: touching, sad, filled with a kind of gravitas that made viewers wonder what was going on inside the man that could bring out so many different emotions, and so many different shades of these emotions as well.
Williams went on to win an Academy Award for best supporting actor in the Matt Damon vehicle Good Will Hunting, again a film that displays the irony of life: Williams is a therapist trying to help Matt Damon’s character through a bout of depression expressed as anger toward the world.
He appeared in a variety of films, from the American version of La Cage aux Folles, along with Nathan Lane to dark, disturbing roles. He even launched the second season of the TV series Homicide: Life On The Streets, playing a tourist in Baltimore whose family is killed in front of him.
I know the film isn’t highly regarded; perhaps liking it is a sign of a species of aesthetic Philistinism. Yet, my favorite Robin Williams movie is What Dreams May Come. Again, a film about death, suicide, and the power of love to save us, Williams plays a physician who loses his children, then dies, in auto accidents. After briefly haunting his distraught wife, he finds his way to heaven. After a time there, a friend tells him that Annie is dead, but because it was a suicide, she is in hell. Williams launches an attack on the gates of hell, finds Annie, and manages to rescue her.
Among the more moving scenes in what I admit is an uneven film is when Williams leaves his grieving wife and wakes up in a field of painted flowers and is greeted by his dog Katie:
Even more powerful, however, is when Williams meets his daughter, realizing she has been with him all along.
Williams’s struggles with both substance addiction and mental illness were very public. From the time he was forced to testify before a grand jury after the death of John Belushi until his last stint in rehab just a few months back, these very personal matters were part of our general public awareness of who he was. As someone who is still trying to get his life back together after a near-suicidal depression, I can tell you that I know what Williams lived through. The pain, the emptiness inside, the sense not so much of loneliness but that you are the only person alive, that no one can help you, that there is no refuge. These are all things through which and with which I lived.
I was extremely fortunate. I did the one thing, grasped the one tiny string dangling in front of me, that made the difference between life and death: I talked to my wife. That I had someone to whom I could turn at that last desperate hour when nothing else had any meaning makes me very lucky. I have since climbed out of the worst depths and am further along in my recovery than I could have imagined even three months ago.
I wish Robin Williams had someone he believed would listen, would help, would be there for him. I’m sure he had many people who would do so. The difference, however, is he believed there was no one. Or perhaps he did, but after years of living with this disease, perhaps he was just tired. That I can understand, too.
In any event, I am deeply saddened by his death. He brought us so much laughter, so much emotion through his career. He was a very real gift, offering so much of himself to us through his work. My prayers are with his family and those closest to him for whom this loss is far more personal, far more wounding, than the millions of us who loved him because of how he made us feel. I would also urge anyone who is entertaining thoughts of hurting or killing themselves: Get Help. I know it’s impossible to feel or understand it right now. The world has no color. Life is empty. Nothing is the word of the day. Place a phone call to a suicide hot-line. Talk to a family member or friend. Don’t give up.
Finally, I hope that Williams awoke in a field of flowers. I hope he looked around and not only smiled, but laughed his joy and freedom now that the pain and loneliness is over. I hope those he loved – family members, friends like Christopher Reeve and Johnathan Winters – found him, greeted him with happiness, and showed him that a place we all go to can’t be so bad.