Many people will remember where they were when they heard the awful news about the passing of Robin Williams. I had just returned from walking my dog; she enjoys trotting through the grass and being pet by the small children we inevitably run into; I enjoy the moody, orange streaks of a summer sunset and the cool early-evening breezes. We both return to the house refreshed and happy. But my calm, content mood went straight south when I opened my computer to see the update about Robin.
And it is “Robin” to me, it’s been “Robin” for a long time. I had the pleasure of spontaneously running into the man not once but twice when he was filming in Toronto almost a decade ago. There’s a strange intimacy that happens with some actors; Robin struck me as a quiet, thoughtful person, not even half the manic personality he was onstage, but more of a deeply sensitive, feeling artist, the cute, funny boy in school who used humor as a defense mechanism. Being funny was a way of expressing the tremendous energy and imagination he carried around inside him, continually incubating new ideas while keeping watch over his latest batch of squawking hatchlings. He was tremendously playful, and tremendously feeling, and, to me at least, he was somehow always in need of a hug. Within much of his wide and varied work lay a deep sense of vulnerability, which was deeply touching, even as it was occasionally hard to watch. Perhaps that’s why there was a odd sense of the familiar when we met, an immediate understanding that allowed each of us to come away from those impromptu chats gently beaming. I didn’t expect or ask anything of him, and he seemed relieved I wasn’t starstruck or asking him to be “zany.” It was just good to be around a very talented, very real human being. I often wonder if he had a radar to pick out us sensitive souls who appreciated his playfulness and understood its humanistic, deeply vulnerable origins.
Like so many, I grew up watching Robin, on television, and then in movies. His turn as the teacher in Dead Poets Society came at a vital moment when, as a frustrated high school student, I realized there were many different styles of teaching, and the one I was being exposed to in my own English class at the time was definitely lacking. (Thankfully, I got my own version of Mr. Keating a year later.) Many times since I find myself wishing he’d done a series of poetry readings —live, online, for radio; he had a depth of feeling for words, language and music, and used them to full (sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad) effect whenever he performed. His solo voice was just as powerful and memorable as his rubbery physicality. Oh, that he had read the poetry of Shelley into a microphone, or done a live performance of Ginsberg’s work. A million magical worlds lived in him and were given voice through his performances, worlds we were entranced, seduced, beguiled by. He allowed us to remember wonder, and to find our own.
Robin understood “funny” but he was keenly aware of what can lie underneath. Mrs. Doubtfire was uproariously funny (and still is, to my mind), but, like his character in The Birdcage, there’s an intense hurt shot through the performance, one you can keenly sense in those sad blue eyes, and it’s made repeated viewings of both movies difficult to endure. Funny! Sad! Funny! Sad! His mix of humor and drama, of light and dark, feels authentically human, and continued to be expressed in a variety of roles, with the darkness (particularly in One Hour Photo) providing a vital counterpoint to the more life-affirming material (Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams) that won him mainstream awards and accolades.
Robin’s movies have, in so many ways, been markers for moments in so many lives, the “I remember whens” over the last 48 hours collected and offered like sacrifices on the alter of a disease we can name but can’t quite approach. Since Monday night, I’ve debated with myself about posting anything on his passing, not only because I’ve had my own intense experiences of depression, but because I don’t want to equate them with his suffering. Do I have a right to analyze, compare, or contrast? No, and neither does anyone else. Robin’s depression was his own; his suicide is also his own. Impossible to condone, difficult to understand, his decision does bring into stark relief the deep, dark room many depressives (I count myself among them) move in and out of, with frustrating, sometimes exhausting regularity.
As such, it seemed important to me on a personal level not to jump on the journo-pageview-train and spew out something half-assed, half-baked, schmaltzy, trite, narcissistic, didactic, high-handed, or grief-splaining. The rush to reaction, to “thinkpiece” a tragedy, for clicks and shares and comments, makes me recoil at the perceived ethics (and unfortunate financial realities) of my chosen world. How do I bridge the need to report as a journalist with the need to think, feel, grieve, and contemplate as a human? I’m truly not sure it’s possible in today’s high-speed world. In many ways I’m still not sure why I’m writing this now. But having lost many people I love to depression, and having nearly succumbed myself, it seems right that perhaps shouting to the darkness will inspire something greater than words and links from the armchair-activists I’ve seen across social media lately. Something like acceptance, and compassion in action. As Robin himself wrote in a reddit AMA last year, “Anytime compassion can be contagious, it’s a good thing.” That, to me, is a contagion worth spreading, acting on, shouting about. We need it.
It’s probably selfish of me to want more from Robin in terms of work — movie performances, television appearances, those taped poetry sessions — and yet I keep wishing for them. As someone wrote on my Facebook wall Monday night, “I thought and hoped this was a terrible hoax.” Robin’s light reminded at least this sensitive soul I wasn’t alone, that vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of, that playfulness matters. Keeping these elements intact against a world filled with ugliness is difficult, sometimes painful, but I want to believe it isn’t impossible. It can’t be. Carpe diem, shazbot, good morning Vietnam… O Captain, my Captain. The rest is silence. Thank you, dearheart. x