Last week, I called my friend Eric to talk about Robin Williams’s death. For fifteen years, now, Eric and I have talked about movies. He always has something interesting to say about the movies I like, and he makes good recommendations of the ones I haven’t seen. This all started as Peace Corps trainees, when we used to walk across Mymensingh together, running down the catalog of great movies we’d both seen and loved. I can still picture the route in my mind pretty well, most of the way, though photos don’t really do the route justice. As we talked, it turned out that Eric and I had both listened to Marc Maron’s reposted 2010 interview with Robin Williams. Eric had watched the 1998 Hollywood Squares episode that Whoopi Goldberg posted in memoriam. I paraphrased some of Chris Connelly’s eloquent remembrance. I was happy to hear Eric’s voice, and to think we both had something interesting to say about someone neither of us knew. I’ve spent more time than I would have expected sorting through the noise around Robin William’s death, listening (to paraphrase the Chicago doc) for some kind of signal, frustrated by the bland consensus (he was a flawed genius who died before his time; he was a sick man who loved to entertain people) and my own very small sense of touchstone (in middle school, I wore out my parents’ VHS copy of Good Morning, Vietnam trying to memorize the disc jockey parts; World’s Greatest Dad [see below] is surprisingly good).
What is the essence of that noise that gathers so quickly around an unexpected public death? I think it has something to do with candor. We do not want the people around us to die. We certainly hope they will not die unexpectedly. But more than that, we want to know that the people we know and love, and even, the people we admire, are well and will be well, more or less, in the long-term. That they might not be well becomes a kind of uncertainty that does not follow entirely from good wishes and warm feelings. The un-well are not always polite. They seem, sometimes, unpredictable. And what would it mean for a chronic illness to persist, what with all the various pills of all shapes, sizes, and colors; a clinically-trialed forgetting pill; those colorful and elaborate scans on late-night PBS of cranial electrochemistry; the seeming advances in therapeutic treatment? No matter than a century or so ago the shape and size of the cranium clearly indicated character and mental ability, whose ills cocaine alleviated. We want treatments to fix, fully and well. The persistent natures of chronic and complicated feelings—despair, neglect, vulnerability, self-destructiveness—and situations—grief, disease, neglect—remind us too much of our own humanity, which, by its very nature, is provisional and vulnerable.
One of the louder moments of consensus following Robin Williams’s death has been the well-meaning suggestion that friends and family members suffering from clinical depression should ask for help. Jimmy Kimmel said it like this: if you’re sad, please tell someone. As though someone in the middle (or, worse, at the end) of a profound depression, to the point of being suicidal, might pause their illness long enough to recognize and understand it, poke their head out of the shell, and then speak of their illness to a neighbor, a sibling, someone sitting across from them on the northbound El. Never mind, for a moment, the remarkable similarity to those post-9/11 NYC subway ads about terrorists. What responsibility exactly are we undertaking with such recognition? What should the informed person exactly do: call a friend, their doctor, a hotline, the police? How is the recognition of real helplessness a symptom of sanity? I’m thinking of the beginning of Catch-22:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.”
Robin Williams acted well and often, and seeing him from the distance of a career, he behaved publicly with a grace and kindness—a sanity—that made his public appearances, however zany, feel like great performances. Recognizably manic: human. And yet, like most ticket buyers, I stopped expecting very much from his acting. Then, I stopped buying tickets to his movies. I agreed he was very good in the beginning, and that something then sort of fizzled out once I recognized his tricks. Like most of America, apparently, Cait and I re-watched Dead Poet’s Society last week, a movie that I swore at some point I’d never watch again. It had settled in my mind as Hollywood bunk about creativity; a movie that, as a teenager, seemed liberating, and then fizzled out into something not so good. After his death, the movie came instantly to mind to remember him, suddenly iconic and signature. The movie itself is still uneven. But something in that movie is good, and it comes forward with more clarity the few times Williams is on-screen.
Really, the later-period Robin Williams gem is World’s Greatest Dad. Williams is terrific in it, largely because his performance in the movie seems distinctly un-Robin Williams. With none of the usual tricks, he inhabits that most inarticulate quality of grief—ambivalence—without doing much of anything I recognize as acting. Reading about Williams’s life, I kept thinking of that paragraph toward the end of Scott Russell Sanders’s essay about his father’s alcoholism, Under the Influence, in which Sanders passes through an intervening eighteen years of sobriety, to the back-end of the time during which his father drank himself to death. During his interview with Marc Maron, Williams talked about his twenty years of sobriety, and then the moment of a hotel mini-bar, and the following years of struggle, which seem, in the accounts of his death, some part of a stalled and ultimately failing effort, the gun in the first act, the broken promise.
What did Robin Williams ever promise me that I felt entitled to hold him personally to account? I didn’t know the man. Like so much feeling, my reaction falls along an incriminating and messy spectrum of contradiction and irresolution, the ebb and flow of meaning and fact. To quote the fantastic opening of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection…In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.
It’s an awful thing to feel loveless, to despair, to neglect what we know better than to take for granted. But when we rush to comfort people who truly suffer with bland sentiments of “it gets better,” and “ask for help,” etc., I think we patronize them a bit. In such moments, we’re really speaking to ourselves. We are assuring ourselves that there is an end to suffering, and a clear path to that ending. And yet, we know that suffering follows no clear path to its end, if it ends at all. In place of sympathy, perhaps, we might try honesty, and barring that, simple consideration:
At the time [Emily Post] undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath. When someone dies, I was taught growing up in California, you bake a ham. You drop it by the house. You go to the funeral. If the family is Catholic you also go to the rosary but you do not wail or keep or in any other way demand the attention of the family. In the end Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat. (The Year of Magical Thinking)
Public figures are easy to imagine. We don’t know them at all. We’re happy marking them to a place and time in our life, a performance in a movie, a haircut, a grace of the body, that asks them forever to, always, please, just stand in place. As movies, as in life. We look for one thing until we’re sure we see it, after which, we miss all the rest. Most of the explanations we make after a death are about ourselves: what we fear still, the mistakes we do not mean to make again in our lives, the cautions we relive or wish someone had made to us, how we suffered our own cataclysmic loss. Which is how I think it should be. The initial reaction is the public part. The private part is all the rest. At first, we’re lucky to think we can make any sense at all, with spouses, family members, strangers, even good friends, at that moment when the beautiful life, however flawed, is suddenly gone, and our memory of that life fills with clues, which are useless now for how they make sense.