I have been meaning to say something about the death of Robin Williams, and though I’m quite late in commenting on this tragedy, I simply can’t let the event pass over the horizon without some reflection.
There are two stages, in our social-media driven age, to every death. The first is the Rumor. You hear it. You see the articles. Someone’s dead. No. It can’t be. What’s the source? Maybe it’s not true: the morbid machinations of some blogger. When you’re in that first stage, you still have hope. It’s a hoax, you tell yourself. So-and-so can’t be dead. They were just in that movie! I just saw them! Better check the New York Times. Until you get to the second stage, the Confirmation, the person isn’t really dead. No, they’re not dead till The Gray Lady says so.
When I went on Facebook and saw a friend’s post lamenting the death of Robin Williams, I was pushed into the first stage. Sadly, it didn’t take me long to get to the second. I went on Twitter and immediately saw Williams’s name “trending,” as well as all sorts of links to reputable publications. The Gray Lady had spoken: Robin Williams was dead. He had committed suicide at age 63.
I must say that, though the timing of his death surprised me—death is always shocking, even when it comes to the sick—the manner in which it happened did not. I had long known about Williams’s debilitating mental state and substance abuse, things which seemed to take a lot of people by surprise.
Despite all the jokes, there was something about Williams’s eyes and smile that always said sadness. He was hiding something. It was written in his often vacant facial expressions, glimpses of which you could see even in his most frenetically comical moments—the tired eyes, the thin, pursed-lipped smiles that fooled no one. Of course, I don’t know what was going on in his mind, but I suspect his manic comic style was the only way he could discharge some of this inner turmoil. Sad people are often excellent performers: indeed, it is only in the context of a performance that they can make any sense of their sadness.
This is partly what made Williams a brilliant actor. (The other, larger part was sheer talent, which ought not to be minimized by any pop psychology.) It is also why he was much more effective in dramatic roles than in comedic ones. The rapid-fire improv was always more mind-boggling than it was funny; I sat mesmerized at the novelty of it, but found it essentially worthless as entertainment. It was when Williams slowed down, when he wasn’t allowed to contain his pain with mania, that we saw the true force behind his talent. For instance, I urge you all to watch One Hour Photo, the 2002 film in which Williams plays a lonely photo-lab technician at a suburban big-box store. In my estimation, it’s the most searing performance of his career.
Sadly, many people used Williams’s death as an opportunity to primp and preen before their social-media audiences about suicide. A “selfish act,” so the most popular cliché goes. (Many people, I have found, are utterly incapable of not thinking in clichés.) Well, how selfish is it to want to end yourself? It was only last year that I lost a close friend and cousin to suicide. I saw the process of deterioration he went through—a decade-long twilight. There’s only so much anyone can take. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” Abraham Lincoln wrote. If ending one’s own torture is selfish, there’s nothing that isn’t selfish.
Rest in peace, sir.