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Lois Alter Mark Headshot

Robin Williams and the Under Toad

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ROBIN WILLIAMS
Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

Since Robin Williams' tragic death this week, I can't stop thinking about the Under Toad.

If you're a fan of The World According to Garp, which Robin starred in back in 1978, you're probably feeling that same chill.

The Under Toad is the larger-than-life creature Garp's young son, Walt, imagined sucking him down under the water every summer since being warned to "Watch out for the undertow."

Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety. Long after the monster was clarified for Walt ('Undertow, dummy, not Under Toad!' Duncan had howled), Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy -- when depression had moved in overnight -- they said to each other, 'The Under Toad is strong today.' -- The World According to Garp

The whole idea of The Under Toad has haunted me all these years. As a parent, it's kept me up at night.

Because of this -- although Robin may have been funnier in Aladdin and given a more Oscar-worthy turn in Good Will Hunting -- his performance in The World According to Garp feels, to me, like the most authentic version of the real human being behind the public face, the one which reveals who he really was.

I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave - and nothing but laughter to console them with. Laughter is my religion" even though "my laughter is pretty desperate. --The World According to Garp

When, at 19, I first read John Irving's The World According to Garp, I fell a little bit in love with the title character T.S. Garp. He's loving and mushy and funny and creative. He starts out as a curious child who becomes a loyal husband and devoted father. He feels everything deeply and personally. And yet -- or maybe because of this -- under everything lies the sobering knowledge that death can occur at any time. "Death, it seems," Garp wrote, "does not like to wait until we are prepared for it. Death is indulgent and enjoys, when it can, a flair for the dramatic."

When the movie came out four years later, I fell a lot in love with Robin Williams. It was like the role had been written for him. Who else could possibly have represented life's wackiness the way he did? Its funny, tragic unpredictability?

I followed him through every movie role, his personal ups and downs, his charity work, his TV appearances. I felt invested in him.

And that's why we're all devastated by his death. He was the best of us. He brought so much joy to generations of audiences and we feel so sad that our love and admiration couldn't bring that same joy back to him.

It's very simple. He can do wonders when he's wearing his magic gloves. If his wife is sad, he touches her with his gloves, she's happy. If his children are crying, he touches them, and they smile. But he can't feel them! He yearns to feel. He can even hold off death with his magic gloves, but he can't feel life. So he takes off the gloves and he dies but he finally feels life as he's flying into the arms of death. - The World According to Garp

The movie version of The World According to Garp begins with baby Garp joyfully being thrown up into the air while the Beatles sing "When I'm 64." The tragic irony is that Robin didn't even make it to 64.

"There are always suicides," Garp wrote, "among people who are unable to say what they mean." -- The World According to Garp

The book ends with the prophetic line, "In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases."

Today, though, we are all feeling like T.S. Garp himself, who, when asked what the T.S. stands for, simply replies, "Totally Sad."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.