Even before I read a statement by Susan Schneider asking the public not to dwell on the suicide but on the gifts given during his life, I was already pining, longing for the Robin Williams I had come over years and years to feel was a member of my world and my life. Susan Schneider is Robin Williams' now widow, and he is a famous actor, comedian, human being with heart who committed suicide on Monday.
When I was years and years younger and staying with cousins, I was the one to tell my little boy cousin that Gilda Radner had died. I was surprised to find him grief stricken, bursting into prolonged tears, till I realized he was watching the reruns of Saturday Night Live on Nickelodeon and that basically to him she was a family member, a presence he relied on. And now I feel that, despite the analyses that will be done on the causes of Robin Williams' depression and addictions (depression and alcoholism have already been bandied about), there is something missing in our psychological honesty if we don't reckon with whatever it is we feel. It can seem almost silly to feel so connected with someone like Robin Williams, who I really knew through his television series but much more intimately (yes, I realize I'm using the word "intimately") through his films. As a therapist I found his portrayal of a particularly sensitive and creative psychotherapist in Good Will Hunting profoundly memorable. Oh! and Dead Poets Society. And I had memorized for years, the scene of his acting the part of a circus performer who defects from Russia in Bloomingdales no less, from the film Moscow on the Hudson in my head. I have found fondness alternating with hilarity at his slow Russian-sounding, moving-into--screaming the words "I defect" to an uncomprehending salesperson.
I suppose when Philip Seymour Hoffman died, there was a very tragic note, punctuated by his being in his forties and for so many, one of a kind when it came to his talent and poignancy as an actor. For many of us, Robin Williams, who was in his sixties and not his forties, was more of a personality. After all, he did the the comedy specials over years, with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, titled Comic Relief, which brought him into light as someone with real warmth and accessibility. As such it brought him into viewers' homes as a person who cared for those less fortunate than him.
Clearly, Williams had his own demons and his struggles, some of which likely gave him the depth that became resources that informed some of his larger-than-life film performances. His comedy, which many loved, proved a little too frenetic for me, but sometimes gave me belly laughs as well. More than anything he seemed to give a lot of himself, and I am but one of the many, many, many who enjoyed -- and I might say even cherished -- his presence in the world.
There is something of a question about the right to grieve over such a public figure; it can feel almost like borrowing from someone else's life. It can feel close to homeless to experience a sense of my own belonging in the world being more frayed than usual at the news of Williams' death. And yet I feel it needs to be said that in a world of so much change and movement and distancing from the reliability and constancy of family life, so often we do get to appreciate and even love some of the public figures in our existence.
Can it be dangerous, this attaching to a kind of stranger? Yes, of course, especially when we expect anything close to perfection or constancy from someone we know only slightly and through a lens of theatre. On the other hand, it feels important to admit that we crave human beings -- also those for whom we share a love. It may in fact be that too often we are so afraid of our own vulnerability that we frown on the kind of sharing of sentiments or even sentimentality which may be more human than otherwise.
I was 17 when John F. Kennedy died, and on the campus of Brooklyn College there was silence for days. My friend wanted to go to the funeral, which to my figurative ears now sounds strange to consider. But I went with her, and it was the collective shock and sadness of which we were a part, that made a difference to my life, and to the lives of many. Nobody questioned it, at a time when the news media was in general friendly to the president for better and worse, and it seemed that everyone in my world was in mourning.
This is not a plea for national grieving or any sort of idealizing of Robin Williams. I do want to say that in psychological fields and as a general defense against helpless sadness, we can tend to artificially skip over pain and begin to dismiss it or belittle that of others by a short, "Well, you know he was an addict" or, as an acquaintance of mine wrote in an email, "Well, we always knew that humor is a defense." To the latter I say, "No, we don't know at all that humor is only anything, let alone a defense." It is a gift, and a gift to others when it is used to awaken us from a slumber that can be numbing and deadening.
I'm supposing that I'm very much not alone here. So for those of us who need to feel worthy of our sadness, I say let's try to own it. It's part of what makes us human, and without it, well, we are much much less so.