The PJ Tatler

Chasing Shadows in the Death of Robin Williams

I hate writing about this. You have no idea how much I hate writing about this.

Here at the Tatler, I tend to avoid writing anything about celebrity deaths. It’s not a policy, just a preference. Others cover them as news, but I generally avoid them.

We all die. It’s the human condition. Celebrities aren’t worth any more than the rest of us. That’s just a fact. Writing about their deaths feels ghoulish to me, as if I’m going for hits off their demise.

When we write about celebrity deaths, we just tend to get it all wrong. They are not worth any more than the rest of us, just because they happened to have become famous in life. But to some extent, their deaths become milestones in our lives because we enjoyed what they brought to us, or we appreciated something about them at some point in our lives. Their passing takes a little of us with them, because they made us laugh, wrote and sang our favorite songs, made that movie or wrote that book that had such an impact on our lives. Without ever meeting us, they touched us in some way, so we will miss them.

But with Williams’ apparent suicide after battling depression, some things need to be said.

First, I didn’t know him. Never met him. I’m not sure we were ever even in the same state. I had no idea he was battling depression. All I knew is that he was a man with almost alien talent and a mind that must have whirred at a billion RPMs. That had to be a blessing and a curse at the same time.

From Mork and Mindy to Aladdin to his more serious work, as an actor he had an incredible range. The same maniac who spun up on Johnny Carson played the wise, unruly teacher in Dead Poets Society. I identified with his Good Morning, Vietnam character both because that character, Adrian Cronauer, and I went to the same military tech school (DINFOS, then at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana), and because he played something I was for a while — a military broadcaster deployed overseas. I don’t think anyone else on earth could have played that role. It certainly wouldn’t have been the same film with anyone else in that role.

After news of his death broke, the Academy tweeted this.

 

On a first glance it’s touching, and for that reason it has gone viral. But it’s wrong.

Williams is free of his depression now, and as a Christian he is in a better place, but the message it sends is that suicide is a way out, a way to freedom. That is a terrible message to send. Many who may be contemplating suicide right now are not clinically depressed. For them, suicide is still very much a choice. No one should provide any encouragement to make the wrong choice. That isn’t what the Academy intended, of course. They had the best of intentions.

Matt Walsh writes that Williams did not die from suicide, but from choice. He chose suicide, says Walsh.

It’s surely true that some — most? I have no idea — who commit suicide choose it. I once found myself talking a friend out of taking his own life. It was a long time ago, practically a lifetime. I’m hardly even the same person I was then. That friend chose wisely and did not take that final, horrible act. He was not clinically depressed. He suffered from self-importance and angst, was angry with a God he claimed not to believe in, and a whole lot else, but clinical depression wasn’t part of the equation.

Anyone who has seen true mental illness up close knows that the idea of choice gets bent and blurred.

I’ve seen Alzheimer’s Disease up close. It’s not depression, but it is a different disease of the same organ, the brain. Alzheimer’s sufferers do not choose to lurch from the present to three decades into the past in an instant. They don’t choose to forget who you are, what your name is, who they are, where they are, everything they have ever known and everyone they have ever loved. They don’t choose to become hostile to those they love who are caring for them. They are not choosing any of that. Yet what is happening in their brains impacts their behavior and can be incredibly frustrating and crushing for their loved ones. It’s heart-breaking, one of the most heart-breaking experiences a person can experience.

There is no more choice in that than there is choice to come down with cancers unrelated to behavior. There is no more choice in that than the choice to grow old, see your organs wink out one by one, as you approach the end. Did the boy who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an organ disease which will probably kill him in his 20s, choose that?

Depression, like Alzheimer’s, is a disease of an organ, the brain. Where choice begins and ends in the mind of someone with clinical depression is quite blurry. I don’t pretend to know where it is. Depression is the ultimate mind game, only your own brain is working deviously against itself. The organ is working against the person. Because the brain of a depressed person works against itself, it works against the person, and it works against everyone the person loves. It’s insidious. But it is beyond my power to delineate the boundaries of choice in relation to depression.

It’s possible that Williams’ addictions led to his depression. It’s also possible that his depression led to his addictions. Addiction itself has hereditary characteristics, yet choice is surely involved. Having seen addiction up close, I make certain choices to avoid it. It’s also possible that his addictions and his depressions don’t have much of a relationship with each other. It’s entirely possible that one of the world’s funniest men was in no way in his right mind Monday and did not choose anything at all.

We don’t know. We probably never will. None of us are in a position to judge him.