“Keep a little bit of madness in you. Just a little touch of it. Just enough, so you don’t become stupid. A little madness will keep you alive, because no one in the world knows how to tax that.”Robin Williams – Reality… What a Concept
I owned that work on cassette. It was one of my first purchases, if not the first comedy album I ever owned. I listened to it so often I memorized it, before the tape fell apart and I had to stop playing it.
Robin Williams Live at the Roxy – 1978HBO Special it and Reality-What a Concept are currently out of print according to the Robin Williams Fan website. MP3’s from the album are available on Amazon.com
I loved Mork & Mindy. Watched his appearances on Carson. Went to see every film he was in, just because he was in it, and for no other reason.
I was outraged at Dead Poets Society, though. (spoilers!) I’ve watched it since, and I know now that I was wrong, that I shouldn’t have been so angry at the suicide portrayed in that film. But at the time I felt it was a betrayal, that it was an acknowledgement of the darkness in the world, that the film let the darkness win, by killing what I saw as the main character, the character I identified with at the time. Worse, I associated Robin with the film, because I had gone to see it specifically because he was in it.
All of us fight our own inner demons. I’ve fought with depression for many years, longer than I can count. Menieres has only made it harder to cope with, but the darkness has been there for as long as I can remember. It’s been with me so long that I don’t even remember when I made the pact with myself that I wouldn’t contemplate suicide.
It’s a sad observation of human existence that suicides increase when someone else commits suicide; this is especially true of prominent figures. Watching MSNBC’s coverage, I was struck by this when they flashed the numbers for suicide prevention on the screen. I feel it is a shame that Robin let depression win; and as someone who fights depression, and who knows there are others out there engaged in a daily battle with it, I have to see it as letting depression win. This is not a judgement on Robin, or an observation of failure on his part.
Depression is not cancer; or maybe it is. Cancer of the mental processes, perhaps. In any case, when the physical body fails (and it will, for all of us) then it really is over. But when the mind gets trapped in that inward spiral, no one can break you out of it unless you want them to, unless you want to keep living. That is a choice you make.
I will not leave a body for relatives to find, to ask themselves “what did I do wrong” when it isn’t about them. It’s about me. There will be no notes. No questions. Because (fate willing) I will not have to make that choice. I just hope I have time to write down all the things I think need to be related before that Mind That Bus moment happens.
Like Dead Poets Society. It’s not actually about the suicidal character; or rather, it not just about him. It’s about the mousy little guy who follows along for the whole film (my first conscious introduction to Ethan Hawke, another actor whose films I try not to miss) never hazarding more than is required of him because he is too afraid to take that chance. It’s about all the other characters, sucking all the marrow because they had a teacher who encouraged them to live life to its fullest. Because we’re only here for a brief moment, and then we’re gone.
On the revelation that Robin suffered from early stages of Parkinson’s, and that he had that road ahead of him clearly mapped out by others (including his friend Micheal J. Fox whose charity he donated to) I can easily imagine that he chose his time to leave rather than wait for the disease to rob him of his independence. Preferred to be remembered this way, rather than risk being the subject of pity; no longer able to ask people to laugh at him, with him.
That he had to kill himself the way he did is more an indictment of current societal norms than it is of Robin Williams himself. When you are stricken with a disease for which there is no cure, one that will slowly destroy what you were if not actually kill you outright, you are faced with some pretty hard choices. One of them is the ability to say “Ok, I’ve had enough now. I’d like to just check out.” A choice which is denied to the sufferer in nearly every case; requiring those determined enough to seek solutions to the problem, to resort to cruder tactics than they would have preferred had they actually had a choice.
I am convinced that Robin Williams is one of those people. Being denied the right to end his life legally at some point later, he chose that time and that place to act, right or wrong.
For me, it was the wrong choice. But then I’m not Robin Williams. Never wanted to be him. I just enjoyed his pointed wit, his ability to flit apparently effortlessly through characters; his willingness to laugh, and to encourage us to laugh, at his all too human foibles. In the end, it was those foibles, those failings, that killed him.
We sat down and rewatched Dead Poets Society as a family last week. Just wanted to see if his chosen ending for his life alters the way the film feels. In reflection, I think this film actually captures the real Robin; both the flashy in-your-face moments of characterization, and the quiet man who contemplates the meaning of life, tries to communicate the drive to find meaning to younger minds. In any case it holds up well, and I think I’ll have to dig up some of his other early works, dust off the Laser Disk player if I have to. Re-experience his work again, while the pain is fresh. Just to see if I can still laugh with him. I think I need a good laugh.
“O Me! O life!…Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless
of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself,
(for who more foolish than I,
and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light
of the objects mean
of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all
of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest
with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring
What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here
that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
I ran across this article submitted by Susan Schneider Williams (Robin Williams’s widow) to the journal Neurology. He apparently suffered from Lewy Body disease, undiagnosed until after his death. She discusses her experience with him in the final days of his life in the article and in this audio clip from the journal.
Although not alone, his case was extreme. Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.
Robin is and will always be a larger-than-life spirit who was inside the body of a normal man with a human brain. He just happened to be that 1 in 6 who is affected by brain disease.
Not only did I lose my husband to LBD, I lost my best friend. Robin and I had in each other a safe harbor of unconditional love that we had both always longed for. For 7 years together, we got to tell each other our greatest hopes and fears without any judgment, just safety. As we said often to one another, we were each other’s anchor and mojo: that magical elixir of feeling grounded and inspired at the same time by each other’s presence.
One of my favorite bedrock things we would do together was review how our days went. Often, this was more than just at the end of the day. It did not matter if we were both working at home, traveling together, or if he was on the road. We would discuss our joys and triumphs, our fears and insecurities, and our concerns. Any obstacles life threw at us individually or as a couple were somehow surmountable because we had each other.
The causes of his suicide are far more complex than anyone could understand until long after he was gone. I’m just now (Oct. 2017) able to look back on him and his work with a calm dispassion. Finally over the emotional hurdle of his leaving us in this way.
Terry Gross interviewed Dave Itzkoff on Fresh Air this week (May, 2018) about his latest book titled Robin,
Here is a link to the book on Audible (or Amazon) I fell asleep to this audiobook for about two weeks or so. Because of this I’ve been having a lot of flashbacks to the times I laughed and cried with him over the decades. It wasn’t the greatest biography I’ve ever read, but then I read a lot of biographies written by a lot of talented people. It is definitely not the worst one I’ve read, either. I could have done with less dramatization of Robin’s work by the performer. No one can do Robin except Robin. The publisher probably should have spliced in actual cuts from Robin’s audio recordings for those segments. It would have cost them licensing fees, so I know why they didn’t do that. Still, it would have made the book far more enjoyable to listen to. Reading it may change the experience since you’ll be hearing Robin’s voice in your head if you have an active imagination like mine.
I learned things that I didn’t know about the subject of Robin Williams, the man, which is really all I require of the biographies I read. There were plenty of personal insights from family and friends and from interviews with Robin himself. I recommend the book even if you are only half the fan of Robin Williams that I am. Another great intellect has left us. He would not believe this of himself, but he made the world bearable and a little more understandable for me while he was here. I will miss him.
In the early 1980’s I was working at a production company. We were editing a segment for director Howard Storm. I was amazed then and after seeing it again amazed at Robin’s natural ability to make people laugh. I never had the privilege of meeting him but like us all, will miss him terribly. The world has lost a little happiness.Pastel Productions