Comedy and Tragedy: thoughts on the death of Robin Williams

Even if he had died of natural causes, I would have taken note of the recent passing (at age 63) of actor/comedian Robin Williams.  I’m not much of a celebrity watcher; half the time after I see a movie, I couldn’t even tell you who was in the cast.  But there are a small handful of actors whose unique personality and/or exceptional talent forces the world – even that part of the world occupied by casual movie goers – to take notice.  Robin Williams was one such actor.

As the whole world knows, however, Robin Williams did not die of natural causes, nor even in an accident.  The cause of his death is both clear and incomprehensible:  Robin Williams took his own life.   His wife, Susan Schneider, in a statement released on the day he died, expressed her “hope [that] the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

In the long run, she will almost certainly get her wish.  Once the shock of his suicide wears off, Robin Williams will be remembered as a uniquely talented performer with a long list of achievements.  His career as a comedian alone would have been enough to earn him a place among the most admired performers of our time.  It was his unique comedic style that propelled him to stardom with his role on the television comedy series Mork and Mindy, which ran for four seasons, from 1978 to 1982.   Many actors in that circumstance find themselves typecast but Williams over his career played a widerange of serious movie roles, including that of a therapist in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Oscar in 1998.

But while the recollections of Williams’s professional accomplishments will eventually overshadow the manner in which he died, that process will take time.  I think it’s safe to say that most Americans, upon hearing that Williams had committed suicide, shared above all a single emotion: shock.  How can it be, we kept asking ourselves and each other, that a man like Robin Williams, who by every normal measure had so much to live for – who was professionally successful, financially comfortable, beloved by his family and admired by millions – could decide that his life was not worth living?

Those who knew Williams well or followed his career closely were perhaps a little less shocked at his death than the rest of us.  Like many celebrities, especially in the entertainment world, he had battled depression on and off for years, and had a history of substance abuse as well.  Both can be warning signs of severe depression, which can lead to suicide.  But of all those struggling with depression or addiction only a small percentage actually take their own lives.  That Robin Williams would be among them is indeed shocking.

Some snippets of information that have surfaced in the wake of Williams’s death suggest that his life was somewhat more troubled than was generally known.  The settlement of his second divorce had left him financially strained, forcing him to put his Napa Valley estate on the market.   He was “devastated,” according to reports published after his death, by the recent decision of CBS to cancel the television series The Crazy Ones, in which he co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar, after one season.  About five months ago, moreover, he had been diagnosed with “early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly,” according to his wife’s statement.

These postmortem revelations about the problems Williams faced are a worthwhile reminder that even the lives of the rich and famous have their dark sides.  They do little, however, to help us make sense of his suicide.  His financial circumstances, while somewhat reduced from the stratospheric heights he had attained earlier in his career, were still beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority of Americans. The network’s cancellation of his recent television series was no doubt a disappointment, but Williams had been in show business long enough to understand the arbitrariness of such decision-making.  It’s hard to imagine so accomplished an actor allowing such a decision to undermine his self-confidence.

The revelation of his early stage Parkinson’s diagnosis was the biggest shock to the general public, since few people knew about it before his death.  Having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s myself, and at a significantly younger age than Williams, I certainly do not minimize the emotional impact of such a diagnosis.   But while Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, it usually progresses slowly.  If, as his wife’s statement indicated, he was diagnosed only five months ago, he would in all likelihood have had years of life with only mild impairment ahead of him.  Suicide is not a rational response to such a diagnosis.

Then again, suicide is a fundamentally non-rational act.  A person contemplating ending his life does not carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of continuing to live.  Suicide is an emotional reaction to pain, whether to the agonizing physical pain of the terminally ill or to the unbearable mental anguish of the severely depressed.  As many in the mental health field have been quick to remind us in the weeks since Williams’s death, clinical depression is an illness, not an attitude or a philosophy.

We can understand – without necessarily approving – the suicide of a terminally ill patient who is experiencing severe physical pain.  Those of us fortunate enough never to have experienced severe mental pain, however, may find it hard to imagine its intensity.  Modern medicine  has made great strides in treating physical illness, and has made some progress in treating some mental illnesses as well, particularly when those illnesses that have detectable physiological causes.  To a large extent, however, the human psyche has continued to resist easy comprehension.

In the aftermath of Williams’s suicide, some of those who knew him personally have searched his words and actions in the last months of his life for some hints of the tragedy to come.  Some claim to have found such hints, while others have insisted that there was nothing in his recent behavior that could have enabled anyone to realize that he was contemplating so desperate a course of action.  I make no claim to inside knowledge, but in general, it’s best to treat such retroactive accounts with skepticism.  Hindsight, the saying goes, is always 20/20.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, we often seem to alternate between viewing the rich and famous as virtual demigods beyond the reach of normal human troubles and delighting in the rediscovery that even the most exalted of celebrities are fallible human beings.  Robin Williams was among the least pretentious of Hollywood celebrities, so his fallibility came as no surprise.  But he seemed better able than most celebrities to take satisfaction in the ordinary pleasures of life, which made the vulnerability that his suicide revealed all the more inexplicable.

As I thought about both Robin Williams’s tragic death and the life that preceded it, the well-known words of Ben Zoma  (Avot 4:1) came readily to mind: “Who is rich? One who rejoices in what he has, as it is said (Psalms 128:2) ‘When you eat from the labor of your hands, you will be happy and all will be well with you.’  ‘You will be happy’ – in this world, and ‘all will be well with you.’ – in the World to Come.”  (Translation from  the Koren Siddur, edited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks).   One who acknowledges the blessings he has been given, who takes pleasure in that which the labor of his hands has produced, is rich in the fullest sense of that word.

Sometimes illness, whether physical or mental, causes pain so overwhelming that, in that desperate moment death can seem preferable.  Such, it appears, is what happened to Robin Williams.  It is a tragedy made even more intense by the fact that Williams really did seem to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life, yet in his desperation he deprived himself of countless opportunities to enjoy such pleasures. We cannot fully know the intensity of his pain or fully comprehend the manner in which he sought to relieve it.  But as the High Holiday season approaches, we should redouble our efforts to keep Ben Zoma’s understanding of true wealth uppermost in our minds, and we should remember Robin Williams, as his widow requested, with gratitude for the “countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.