Culture

Grief and Robin Williams

Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come/Photo © 2012 Getty Images

As I write this, almost exactly forty-eight hours after the first reports broke, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of tributes, essays, eulogies, memorials, flashpoints, arguments, finger-pointing, and, of course, pure grief concerning the death of Robin Williams. The demise of very few public figures could trigger the sentimental need to express oneself -- in written terms, specifically -- that Williams's has. Of course, this has special resonance within the entertainment industry, especially among comedians -- as Williams has been a seminal influence on so many of them, and has served as a markedly generous and frequent collaborator. Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, Norm McDonald, and countless others have found themselves expressing their grief publicly, and so has the greater part of the social media universe, abuzz with mournful sighs and touchingly detailed memories.

Even Philip Seymour Hoffman's death a mere six months ago didn't approach the seeming compulsion to connect with others, to share memories, and to offer personal reflections that Williams' suicide has -- although the reality of losing our greatest actor and our greatest comedian in the space of a year doubtless intensifies Monday's tragedy.

It seems that two distinct conversations have been initiated in the light of Williams's death, though at first glance they might seem like one and the same. The first is the obvious discussion of suicide as a consequence of a man's debilitating depression, which Williams wrestled with throughout his life and career. Various outlets have posited the widespread acknowledgement of mental illness as a life-threatening disease to be, perhaps, the one positive outcome of Williams's suicide, and speculate that the conversation sparked by his death will permeate the national consciousness to an unprecedented degree. Indeed, heightened awareness of mental disorders and extensive attempts to educate the public on what can be a sensitive and complex (and often divisive issue) is a move in the right direction.

But the other point of departure for his internet mourners is the concept of the comedian as a well of sadness -- his profession a front to guard the emotional void within. There are, of course, a plethora of exceptions to this rule -- for every Chris Farley or Robin Williams there is the lucky comedian who doesn't have to deal with the overwhelming effects of clinical depression. Self-indulgent misery, sure, but not the acute mental disorder that destroyed Williams. Though it's perhaps a meaningful notion to believe that all comedians suffer from debilitating self-hatred, it would be erroneous to conclude that that's the only wellspring of great comedy. Was one side of Robin Williams always driven to find a deflection from his permanent pain? We can only assume so. But to label his disease as the sole source of his greatness is to neglect the side of him that shone most brightly, especially in the eyes of his fellow comedians and performers: his generosity of spirit and his unbridled altruism. We must take care not to deprive Williams of his agency in this regard.

But the social media phenomenon of the past couple of days is really just a result of our grief, not its cause. Personally, I feel as though the reason that this has hit so many people on such a visceral level, almost to the point at which Williams's death approaches that of a beloved yet absent uncle, is the accompanying sliver of collective guilt. The past ten or fifteen years have seen Williams's kinetic eccentricity written off as a trite but inevitable enterprise. Consequently, Williams found outlets in villainous or otherwise experimental roles, which, while critically appreciated, lacked the warmth, depth, and, ultimately, the spirit for which the public first chose to embrace him. Other projects of recent years ("Man of the Year," "License to Wed," "The Crazy Ones") were predicated upon Williams as an institution, a cultural totem. One way to view this lapse into mediocrity was Williams' own poor and uninspired career choices, and to view Williams himself as the sole agent responsible for taking his own life on Monday is an option as well.

But when we look back, it was Williams as a team player that spawned his greatest work -- with Nichols and Lane in "The Birdcage," with Van Sant and Damon in "Good Will Hunting," with Barry Levinson in "Good Morning Vietnam," and even with Sally Field and Chris Columbus for "Mrs. Doubtfire."

This, I believe, is the final stake through our hearts. We once thought Williams worthy of such collaborators -- to rein him in, to tease him out, to make him real -- but we allowed ourselves to instead believe him to be old news, and, as a consequence, the man who had been our most cherished magician, our most honest comedian, and, for so many of us, our surrogate parent, fell into neglect.

Only Monday did we realize our mistake.