Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Robin Williams' Death Prompts a Dialogue on Depression

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 13, 2014 at 11:10AM

Artists and writers open up about their struggles with the disease that claimed the beloved comedian's life.
1
Robin Williams in 'World's Greatest Dad'
Robin Williams in 'World's Greatest Dad'

It's still hard to grasp that Robin Williams is gone. He was by all accounts one of the kindest men in Hollywood and arguably the most widely-beloved actor working today – my friends who got into theater or comedy have cited him as an inspiration more than any other performer, long before this happened. It's difficult to believe that a man so devoted to making people happy could have been so unhappy. But Williams was very candid about his struggles with addiction and depression, and there's always been a theme of keeping the sadness at bay in many of his best roles.

Williams's death has put an empathetic, human face on depression, still a difficult concept for a lot of people to grasp. After all, everyone deals with unhappiness and dissatisfaction, so it's difficult for many who haven't dealt with real clinical depression to understand it. It's shown over the past few days, with plenty of people on social media and news sites urging anyone in pain to reach out for help, but it's far easier said than done. A number of op-eds were published yesterday and today, both from writers and comedians who admired Williams and those who have struggled with depression themselves. 

Jim Norton, Time

By all accounts, Robin struggled with depression and addiction over the years. So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. While my physically self-destructive days ended when I got sober, the thought of suicide has always been there, as an option, behind a glass that I could someday break in case of an emergency. I glamorized the idea of constructing my own exit.

And yet, on a day like Monday, it seemed only terrible and unnecessary. It doesn’t feel triumphant or glamorous; it feels sad and empty and incomplete.

Russell Brand, Guardian

I was aware too that this burbling and manic man-child that I watched on the box on my Nan’s front room floor with a Mork action figure (I wish I still had that, he came in a plastic egg) struggled with mental illness and addiction. The chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder was in fact harvested madness. A refinement of an energy that could turn as easily to destruction as creativity.

Robin Williams could have tapped anyone in the western world on the shoulder and told them he felt down and they would have told him not to worry, that he was great, that they loved him. He must have known that. He must have known his wife and kids loved him, that his mates all thought he was great, that millions of strangers the world over held him in their hearts, a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world. Today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.

David Simon, The Audacity of Despair

Mr. Williams caught the look from his director and ended the impromptu routine abruptly, with an awkward smile.  His breathing was labored, and he seemed genuinely embarrassed by his demonstration as cast and crew applauded with warm delight before returning to work.  But it seemed that the actor had gone there as much for his own needs as for the audience, that he had come back downstairs from the dollhouse of the dead, readied himself to shoot another painful scene of grief and guilt, and then, in manic desperation, reached out for as much human comedy as ten minutes will allow.


Sarah D. Bunting, Tomato Nation

I made fun of Robin Williams a lot. I stand by most of it — I saw "Cadillac Man" in the theater, and I resent it to this day — on the by-now-familiar grounds of "too much" and "hard to take" and "always on." But when he could go quiet for a few minutes? He has a moment in his guest shot on "SVU" when Merritt Rook is screaming at Stabler about the death of his (Rook's) wife, and the genuine anguish Williams summons, big enough to turn him inside out, is wonderful, and so sad, and not quite acting. The weariness, the sadness, the rage — that I "enjoyed" those parts of Williams's repertoire is not accurate. The hectic hilarity of the other parts, though…the man spent his life trying to outrun himself wearing a pair of flappy clown shoes, and the thing is, he could go pretty fast. He got pretty far before he caught a toe and went down.


Marah Eakin, The A.V. Club

It wasn’t that I didn’t deserve to live because I was so depressed, but rather that I couldn’t really see a way through life that ended in happiness, even as my dad pleaded with me to just “be happy.” It wasn’t that easy and isn’t that easy, and the only way I got out of the yards-deep hole that I was in was through medication, talk therapy, and lots and lots of time spent with others.

It might not have been that simple for Williams, though. We may never know what kind of therapy he went through, though if his empathetic performance in "Good Will Hunting" is any indication, he must have at least known therapists in his life. He could have even been through everything and still felt like he had no choice. In the wake of his death Monday, a lot of Twitter eulogies noted that “if you’re sad, you should say something,” and while that’s probably true, for so many people who are depressed (one in 10 Americans), it’s not that easy. You’re constantly crippled with sadness, unwilling to burden those around you, or unable to ever pull yourself out of it, even with that help, even with that shoulder to cry on.

Glenn Kenny, Vanity Fair

There are a lot of people out there for whom Williams was a hero not just for his incredible talent; whatever he was up to at any given time, the guy who hit T.S. Garp out of the park was still lurking behind his eyes. He was also a hero for the moral courage he displayed in the frankness with which he talked about his own struggles. Because he eventually lost the battle with one of the things he struggled with does not, I think, make him any less of a hero. It makes him a person more to be treasured in one sense, and a person to be remembered by anybody who is touched by depression and addiction. A reminder to be vigilant, to pay attention, to be kind, to be careful. We were all blessed to be in the world at the time Robin Williams was. Would that we could have conveyed that to him in a way that made a difference.


Eric Kohn, Indiewire

That's the unique predicament at the root of a career defined in equal measures by tragedy and catharsis. Williams' struggles were epitomized by his performances, and no matter which ones stand out on their own merits, collectively they illustrate an unsuspecting sacrifice of stability for the sake of art. Viewed in retrospect, it may prove to be his last great punchline.


Eric D. Snider, Complex

His death on Monday at the age of 63 would have been a blow however it came. But the manner of it —alleged suicide as the result of severe depression — hit me in the gut in a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of way. Even now, five years later, recalling the lowest days of my depression (unequivocally the worst time of my life) rips me apart, the mere memory of it enough to produce a shudder. And yet I didn't have it as bad, or for as long, as Williams did. Remembering how awful it was and realizing it could have been worse makes me weep with sadness and gratitude.


Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

What has become intolerable in the span of just close to 24 hours are the concern trolls popping up throughout social media simply to point out how weak Williams (and by implication anyone) was for being unable to continue with his life. Having experienced the loss of my wife's friend recently, not through suicide but through a series of self-destructive choices that inevitably brought him to death, I can say that depression is crippling. The force of such sadness has deep and inextricable roots that those who don't suffer from it can never understand. Those who survive it no doubt do so because they have a support system that helps them get through it. But those who don't feel an overpowering compulsion that can only be suppressed by engaging with friends and family to bolster them when they're at their lowest.

A Williams movie I dismissed long ago for overplaying its notes of grief, "What Dreams May Come," is one I plan on revisiting soon. I can't help but see the profound sadness of the man now, especially in those films I dismissed once as being too sappy.


E-Mail Updates