The shocking news about Robin Williams' apparent suicide isn't really shocking so much as it is commonplace. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control reported 39,518 suicides, which makes suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.
In 1998, Steve Currie, an award-winning television producer and my father, was one of those Americans. Sadly, he was not the first member of our family to die that way. His sister, my aunt, committed suicide in 1979. Their older brother, my uncle, also died an early death. Abusive parents had raised them all. My grandmother, a nurse, would drug them with Valium when they came home from school. This was my grandmother's method of childcare.
My father achieved a great deal professionally, becoming the president of NATPE International at just 31, but always struggled with alcohol and prescription medications. Finally, as his world collapsed around him, he took an overdose of pills and went quietly into the night. Whether doing so was intentional or not -- he was apparently highly intoxicated at the time -- his death was ruled a suicide. He died the same way his older sister had.
My feelings about him have always been conflicted. At times, he could be a caring and loving parent. We watched Mork and Mindy together with our family. Too many other times, however, were less than ideal.
It is tragic that for so long people of faith, including Christians, have labeled suicide a sin. That is changing, as mental health and addiction are better understood. I admired my father's own attempts at recovery. He was not to blame for the abuse he endured.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, writing about the death of Williams, notes that:
Williams played a grieving therapist in the film Good Will Hunting and in this scene he tells Will Hunting, the gifted young man whom he is counseling who has been so grievously abused, "It's not your fault." As the therapist, Williams is offering the kind of compassionate connection (that) is also at the heart of the healing ministry of Jesus...
My father never believed that he was not at fault -- despite all his success he, the youngest of three children, failed (in his eyes) to stop the abuse they endured and to bury his beloved sister, and later brother, was too much.
Still, as much as I wish to offer unconditional forgiveness to my father, any telling of his life has to recount that for all his gifts, his love and stark intelligence he was also an abusive parent. I give thanks that God offers grace. Most of my memories are not good ones. He carried forward a cycle of addiction and abuse that he inherited from his parents.
My daughters are fortunate to live a different world in large part because my mother insisted that I receive counseling as my father's health declined over many terrible years. That does not mean that I go without scars. There are plenty.
I've often wondered if my father's minister or schoolteachers knew more about child abuse if something might have changed. All those who are baptized are called to care for the community, recounted The Rev. Dr. Peggy Way, in her book Created by God: Pastoral Care for All God's People. In this society, where it does take a village to raise a child, we don't take our responsibilities seriously enough and too often turn away from abuse instead of confronting it.
Suicide is not sin, but what is sinful is allowing abuse to occur without intervention and without adequate funding for children's programs that teach parental skills and identify troubled homes. Alcoholism is not sin but those corporations that target advertising marketing alcohol use at children and young people are committing sin. Not funding programs to research and treat abuse and addiction at adequate levels is sin.
Ultimately, my father, Robin Williams too, were responsible for their own choices. But it is hard not to acknowledge in a world of intolerable child abuse and addiction that we have all failed to create a world that provides everyone a fighting chance.
God is calling us in so many ways to create a newer world. A world where children don't have to ask, is it my fault?