The Demons of Robin Williams

You can never tell when children's carefree, helpless peals of laughter will turn to tears and why.  Robin Williams, who entertained children and grown-up children all his life, was like a child himself. He never grew up.

Celebrating child-like innocence and insouciance in the make-believe world of the movies and making many of us forget our own, the incomparable actor apparently had had enough of the world of grown-ups. But, as a young friend wondered with infectious sadness, why is it that people who are all the time cheering up others often find themselves so unhappy and depressed? Why indeed?

Someone who spread pure joy and boundless happiness all around was so incredibly, incurably sad himself and died so unhappy — can there be a greater tragedy and irony than this?

Having long watched and admired the actor's path-defining work, like millions and millions of his fans around the world, one shares the pain. It's incredibly saddening. Almost like losing someone in family. This again has something to do with the genius of Williams' art and force of his personality that so many of us around the world who never met him or saw him in flesh and blood should feel so devastated. Great artists like him bring humanity together in a strange, indefinable kinship—the kinship of shared human emotions and fellowship of innocence and experience.   

From "Hook" to "Aladdin," from "Mrs. Doubtfire" to "Good Will Hunting" and from 'Good Morning, Vietnam' to 'The Birdcage' Williams was a powerful, creative force through and through, often leaving critics with the dilemma of slotting him.

As Ryan Gilbey of the Guardian notes, many of his most popular performances were as child-men rampaging through the prissy adult world.

While he was obviously recognized as the comical genius that he was for many of his quirky, delightful movies that many of us remember watching as children or with our children, he proved time and again in immensely inspiring films such as 'Dead Poets Society', easily his finest, that he was more than a 'funny man'. He was not just an extraordinary performer, he had a rare ability to connect with his audience—emotionally and in other ways.  

His role as John Keating, an unconventional high school teacher who's seen as a failure by his peers, demolishing all the stuffy norms and conventions of the 50s public school life, to rediscover the beauty of literature—and life—remains the most iconic and inspiring of all his performances.

Of course, there have been and there will be better and greater actors and artists than him. But that indefatigable smile, that impossible twinkle in the eye, that natural warmth and instant rapport that he established with his audiences in the blink of an eye…we will miss that. There will be no other Robin Williams for a long time to come for sure.

But why on earth did he have to kill himself, many of us ask in sheer despair. We may never know the answer.  Only those who have been to the bottomless pit of pain that is depression and loneliness may have some idea. The actor had been battling severe depression and bipolar disorder and had recently been in rehab, according to his representatives. Yet this is all very bewildering and shocking to his family and millions of fans.

Perhaps, just as there exists a thin dividing line between genius and neurosis, there is a not too distinct divide that separates laughter and happiness from tears and sadness. Apparently, even as the actor with a staggering talent for mercurial, manic comedy endlessly entertained and regaled us, often bringing helpless tears of joy to our eyes, he was often fighting his own tears.  

While he laughed at himself with us and revelled in being a clown, helping us forget our own endless anxieties and petty woes, he was battling his own demons and goblins.

Every year more than 39,000 Americans take their lives, twice the number of those killed in accidents or homicide. And more than 90 per cent of those who committed suicide were diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. As Time magazine put it, "Williams arrived at the same terrible place 39,000 other Americans reach each year, and like them, he concluded that the only way to annihilate a terrible despair was to annihilate the self."

Those who have battled depression at one time or another — it is often a life-long affair although doctors assure us with a straight face that depression is treatable — or loved ones afflicted by it know how utterly debilitating and life-sapping it can be.   Invariably, it is not just the victims who suffer; everyone around them, and the immediate family in particular, lives through this hell with them, often with far-reaching, catastrophic consequences.

It's easy to pontificate and sermonise about the moral timidity and even selfishness of taking one's life, without heeding the trauma and pain it causes one's loved ones. Who knows what demons do they fight, day in and day out? Who knows how and what they suffer, often in silence and often in their mind?

Of all the people though, it's impossible to imagine the ever cheerful and ever smiling Williams, the teacher celebrating life in 'Dead Poets Society', take the extreme step.  Perhaps, in the end, as Bikram Vohra writes, he gave so many people so many laughs he ran out of laughs for himself. Laughter is serious business.

The author is a Gulf based award winning journalist. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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