It was August 11–my mother’s birthday, and the day we couldn’t wait for–the beginning of our yearly retreat to Martha’s Vineyard, a longed for respite from what ails us all year, a sunny bright day that promised a happy ending. Somewhere, thousands of miles away, a man beloved by the world, and the cause of so much joy, was in his bedroom tying a belt around his neck to escape the darkness that had been at his heels most of his life. It has been almost a week since Robin Williams took his own life and I cannot get it out of my mind.
The shock of the news hurt. How? Why? NOoooooo. He was so loved–by those he knew and those he didn’t. By all accounts he was the most generous, tender person. He was universally revered as a master of the discipline of making people laugh. No one could possibly replicate his fluid wacky stream of consciousness, those instantaneous and fully-formed impersonations that erupted rapid fire before our bedazzled eyes. His spontaneity turned every room upside down and thrilled us with the sense that ANYTHING was possible– and would happen as long as he was there. It was also clear that as fast as the jokes bubbled up, his mind was even faster. He was the ONLY comedian I’ve ever interviewed who truly, one on one, made me laugh, and never stayed in his chair.
There were glimpses of what ailed him; the more serious parts he played onscreen were tinged with trouble and inclined toward salvation: obviously, the lonely obsessive in ONE HOUR PHOTO; the Russian alien working his way through the Big Apple in MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON; a homeless man with his eye on the holy grail in THE FISHER KING; a dynamo of a comic DJ leading battered soldiers to laugh in the face of death in GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM; certainly, MRS. DOUBTFIRE trying to rebuild a family, in and out of drag; and most clearly, the role that won him an Oscar– the wounded therapist in GOOD WILL HUNTING, who weathered the significant storms of Matt Damon’s “Will.” Who didn’t cringe when the angry young genius mercilessly took his therapist’s psyche apart and analyzed that painting on the wall–a ship alone and ravaged on a roiling sea. The naked ache in Williams eyes cut to the bone.
He had infinite resources, and access to professionals working at the cutting edge of the insidious diseases which dragged him down. In the end, none of that mattered. The external world is a poor match for the infinite realms of pain within. That inner landscape is as dark and treacherous as any war zone, a horrible nightmare of unspeakable misery–and more subtle: an unseen abyss that one can spend all day crawling out of by whatever means– work, exercise, drink, drugs. Those days are heavy with the weight of some shadowy, unnamed thing sitting on your chest as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, some thing you will lug around all day, and the next and the next.
We know Robin battled drugs and alcohol and depression. He seemed acutely aware of other people’s suffering, and perhaps soothed his own soul by ministering to that pain in others. We can never know. We are essentially alone. And it’s a great leap to connect. I am so grateful for his efforts in this world, inexpressibly sad that he died so alone and tormented, and softened by his example into remembering the myriad ways in which we all suffer below the surface.
“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world…”