On August 11th, 2014, a dark cloud descended: Robin Williams, the man who had brought joy into millions of homes the world over, was pronounced dead. He had taken his own life. Countless people took to social media to express their profound sadness and loss; in his tribute to the fallen actor and stand-up comedian, former U.S. president Barack Obama encapsulated America’s collective grief as follows:1
He was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets.
Making his debut on the hit TV sitcom Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) as an alien from planet Ork, Williams would go on to perform in the big screen in a number of starring roles—from radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (1987), to the gender-bending Daniel Hillard/Euphegenia Doubtfire of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) fame, to widower and psychotherapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting (1997), for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
As his decades-long career illustrates, Williams’s acting possessed both breadth and depth. He was capable of inhabiting a multitude of roles, and through his embodiment of those roles eliciting a range of emotions from viewers. One moment, as the Genie of Alladin (1992), he provokes uncontrollable laughter with his wild voice impersonation of fifty-two distinct characters. The next moment, he elicits both fear and pity as a lonely photo technician whose obsession with a particular family takes a decidedly dangerous turn (One Hour Photo, 2002). Williams had “the ability to go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable,” and so immersed was he in his roles that during the filming of Mrs. Doubtfire, members of the public, and the cast and crew, treated him as if he really were an old lady.
But as Obama’s tribute makes clear, the world did not only lose a talent; it lost a kindred spirit. Robin Williams was not only a good actor but a good human being. When Christopher Reeves of Superman fame was in the hospital following the tragic horseback-riding accident that rendered him quadriplegic, Williams, in full regalia, arrived as a Russian proctologist, bringing laughter back into his best friend’s life. Similarly, when Steven Spielberg fell into a deep depression during the filming of Schindler’s List, Williams spent countless nights on the phone lightening the director’s dark moods with his irreverent humor. His uncanny ability to make others feel better, including those with the most sour disposition, would earn him the nickname “Doctor of Soul.”
His spirit of generosity extended to strangers as well, evident in his involvement in charitable causes like the Challenged Athlete Foundation, which provides prosthetics to athletes with disabilities, and the Starbright Foundation, which seeks to make the wishes of terminally ill children come true. Throughout his career, Williams also took part in six USO (United Service Organizations) tours, entertaining more than 89,000 servicemen and women stationed across thirteen countries. And with his good friends Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg he founded Comedy Relief, which raised funds for the homeless. Unlike many celebrities, however, Williams was unconcerned with cultivating a star persona; he did not take on too many causes to avoid diluting his involvement’s significance. The men, women, and children who had the pleasure of meeting him also described him as genuine and personable. He was not one to refuse an autograph, and according to one of his biographers, “even his worst detractors had to concede that he was an exceptionally generous man.”2
The suicide of Robin Williams was unfathomable to those who conflated the life with the work, for he was the quintessential happy man in their eyes. Those more familiar with his biographical life made sense of the suicide by recourse to the actor’s substance abuse history; he’d been spotted in a rehab facility just months prior to his death, after all. But as Susan Schneider, Williams’s third and late wife pointed out, Williams entered the facility not because he had relapsed, but to reinforce his commitment to sobriety.3 And there’s no reason to doubt her testimony to the press; toxicology reports revealed zero traces of drugs and alcohol in his system. Aside from substance abuse, the news offered two other explanations for the suicide: Williams’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia (which I will return to shortly), and his “mental illness.”
“This is an important story about a horrific disease: depression,” wrote one commentator.4 “America has to wake up and realize this is as serious as cancer, and more funding and awareness has to be raised.” According to a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor, depression, alongside drug addiction, make up the “twin demons” of Williams’s career.5 Psychiatrists, both armchair and accredited, took to the soapbox as well. “We have to be ever mindful that depression is a real disease, it is common, it is serious, but it is treatable, and we have to keep talking about it,” says Dr. Harry Croft.6 “It’s a brain disorder, and it can affect anybody — the rich, the famous and the rest of us.” This disorder can make people “forget all the wonderful things in their lives,” according to Dr. Julie Cerel.7 “Having depression and being in a suicidal state twists reality. It doesn’t matter if someone has a wife or is well loved.”
The verdict, it would appear, is that depression “killed” Robin Williams. But others qualified the diagnosis by claiming that Williams was not only depressed but manic as well. More specifically, he was hypomanic. “Hypomania is exhibited in creative people, and successful entrepreneurs,” says Dr. Susan Biali.8 “They’re fast talkers, full of energy, funny, don’t need a lot of sleep — and their lives are often functioning very well. But it may alternate with bouts of depression.” In his letter to the editor of The New York Times, Dr. Henry J. Friedman9. The New York Times, p. 18.] says the death of Robin Williams highlights “the importance of differentiating types of depression, particularly bipolar from other types of depressive disorders.” The greatest irony in all of these efforts to pinpoint Williams’s brand of mental illness is that the actor himself never saw himself as mentally ill. He once told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”:
No clinical depression, no. No, I get bummed, like I think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, “Whoa.” Other moments you look and go, “Oh, things are OK.” Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.
The above testimonials, which are representative of the wider coverage of Williams’s death, operate from the assumption that mania, depression, and mental illness in general are endogenous in origin, arising from within the individual—specifically, the human brain. The illness takes a life of its own, as if the sufferer were possessed by a demon. What’s significant is that the experts make no reference to the concrete details of Williams’s life, except when looking for confirmation of the illness. They also have no qualms about diagnosing someone who had never set foot in their clinic or office. Williams’s exuberance on stage or in front of the camera is but a symptom of (hypo)mania, for example. His creativity is all but pathologized, and his suicide is framed as a depression-induced failure in reality testing; he was well-loved but could not see that he was well-loved, nor could he see that he was mentally ill. His death is mobilized in a call to arms to destigmatize mental illness, but in doing so the actor is depersonalized, reduced to abstractions and generalities bearing little semblance to the complexities of his life. Furthermore, his own perspective into his condition—his attribution of depression to very human causes—is rendered invalid.
When it became known that Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in November 2013, and may have been exhibiting symptoms as early as 2011,10 few commentators pointed their fingers at this latest culprit. But rather than ask what Parkinson’s must have felt like from the perspective of Robin Williams, they were more concerned with how the disease, and the medications used to treat it, might have exacerbated his clinical depression and anxiety—again, without reference to the concrete details of his life.11 In order to apprehend the role of Parkinson’s in Williams’s decision to die, it’s important to consider the lifeworlds of persons with the disease, in their own subjective terms—for how they interpret the bodily experience of losing their mobility and communicative ability, and the meanings they assign to such an experience.
Parkinson’s is a movement disorder resulting from abnormalities in the extrapyramidal motor system and associated pathways, and its main symptoms—collectively referred to as the “symptom triad”—are tremors, muscle rigidity, and slowness of movement (bradykinesia/hypokinesis).12 The course of this neurodegenerative disease is 10 to 25 years, and it is comprised of five stages—Stage 5 being the most severe, with the afflicted rendered so immobile s/he is bound to a wheelchair or bed.
The condition assaults values we hold dear in contemporary American society, “such as independence, competence and decency.”13 Due to loss of strength and manual dexterity, and the gradual yet painful transition from normal mobility to complete immobility, daily activities such as writing, buttoning one’s shirt, tying one’s shoelaces, maintaining one’s hygiene, preparing meals, and driving automobiles, progressively become more difficult if not dangerous and require tremendous effort. Many individuals with Parkinson’s speak of shame when discussing their condition and their growing reliance upon others, and those who depend upon their bodies for their livelihood are especially devastated. Their sense of physical competence is assailed, and unable to partake in roles and activities that once held meaning, their notion of self is radically altered, supplanted by a sick role. Being labeled as “disabled” creates a fissure between past and present selves and can greatly diminish one’s sense of self-worth.14
Parkinson’s calls into question the unity between mind and body, for the intact mind is suddenly trapped within an uncooperative body, a body that refuses to look and behave in socially valued ways and capitulate to the person’s will. When one is unable to speak normally or hold back one’s saliva when speaking, or project the emotion one genuinely feels due to rigid facial muscles, one cannot help but feel subjugated by one’s own body. While drug therapy can control the symptoms of Parkinson’s and lengthen the period of physical independence (though not indefinitely), long-term use can produce untoward side effects like hallucinations and further motor problems like dyskinesia, a state of extreme involuntary movement which causes the limbs to jerk and the face and torso to twist. In other words, even when the symptoms of Parkinson’s are attenuated via medication, the body continues to feel alien and unnatural, as if it does not belong to oneself. Moreover, the medicated body is felt by individuals to be in a state of constant flux and unrest—between movement and movement loss, between mental agility and cognitive lethargy.
The disease also thwarts one’s ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally. As I mentioned, there is a decrease in the mobility of facial muscles, resulting in what is commonly known as the “mask” or “stare” of Parkinson’s. Reduced facial expressiveness, in concert with stuttering, slurred speech, lowered volume and clarity, and difficulties with sustaining attention, can produce much anger and frustration. It is deeply saddening when one’s words and thoughts, once forthcoming, are suddenly choked, held captive within the solitary prison of one’s body.
The afflicted can feel especially stigmatized by others. Some express concern about the misattribution of symptoms to deviant behavior—for instance, being perceived as nervous or dishonest when one is trembling or sweating profusely during a stressful encounter, or being perceived as drunk when one misses a step and falls. Many resent feeling infantilized, treated as helpless, feeble, or senile and addressed in a condescending or patronizing manner. Because their partners and loved ones must now shoulder increased responsibility for their welfare, persons with Parkinson’s may feel themselves to be a burden. To counteract negative evaluations by others, some engage in activities that test the new limits on their bodies in perilous ways.
To avoid being treated differently, individuals may attempt to “pass” as persons without the disease (Martin, 2016; Nijhof, 1995). One might hide one’s trembling hands in one’s pockets or behind one’s back, for example, or restrict one hand with the other. Attempts to conceal or disguise symptoms can backfire, however. As one person explains, “I look worse when I disguise it because I’m doing contortions.”15 When unable to hide symptoms, and when unable to publicly present themselves in ways that align with their desired image of self, the individual might avoid social interaction and withdraw from public view altogether, so as not to risk further embarrassment or shame. Combined with a more tightly regimented life in which periods of rest and activity are planned, the feeling of being under constant surveillance, and the subsequent retreat from participation in social life, can lead to a deep sense of isolation and shrinkage of one’s world.
In sum, Parkinson’s calls into question one’s relationship to self, world, and other. The loss of automation exposes the fragility of the human body, undermining one’s agency and sense of security. Avenues for the creative expression of self are stifled by the disjuncture between mind and body. The self is devalued by the stigma of disability, and the world in which one dwells, once expansive in size, is suddenly diminutive. Thoughts of the distant future are truncated and life is lived on a moment-to-moment basis.
I do not paint such a grim picture to suggest that disability is a death sentence, or to imply that persons with Parkinson’s cannot live a rich and meaningful life in the company of loved ones. Far from it. Rather, I paint such a picture to illustrate how Robin Williams might have experienced Parkinson’s—whose symptoms he concealed for three full years prior to his suicide, and whose impact he must have felt long before an official diagnosis, as is the case for most persons with Parkinson’s.16 We must bear in mind that for actors and stand-up comedians like Williams, the body itself is the medium, the vehicle for the expression of a creative vision—in his words, “another colour you get to paint with.” Because his profession requires the use of the body in its entirety, someone as gifted in the expressive arts of performance and rhetoric is sure to suffer greatly when that body is suddenly faced with imminent deterioration. Williams was a fast talker, adept in the arts of mimicry and gesticulation, with a face that could capture pathos, bliss, and every shade of feeling in between. Parkinson’s would have undone the very foundation of his craft.
Three months after Williams’s suicide, the coroner’s report revealed that the actor was suffering from Lewy body dementia (LBD)—a diagnosis he was not privy to in life. As his late wife Susan Schneider explains, “Clinically he had PD, but pathologically he had diffuse LBD.”17 The two conditions fall within the same spectrum of diseases, but on opposite ends; both involve the presence of Lewy bodies, which are responsible for neural degeneration, but unlike Parkinson’s, persecution by Lewy body dementia is swift and merciless. It would appear that Williams was not only losing control of his body; he was losing his mind, and he was painfully aware of it. Billy Crystal had said that Williams’s “brain is the one thing that’s kept him buoyant.” But now, the man who once memorized hundreds of lines for the 2011 Broadway production, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, could not remember a single line when filming Night at the Museum 3 four months prior to his suicide. “I just want to reboot my brain,” he would say to his late wife.
Williams’ mind and body were under attack, and in the following excerpt, Schneider provides a more concrete picture of his deterioration:
Robin was growing weary. The parkinsonian mask was ever present and his voice weakened. His left hand tremor was continuous now and he had a slow, shuffling gait. He hated that he could not find the words he wanted in conversations. He would thrash at night and still had terrible insomnia. At times, he would find himself stuck in a frozen stance, unable to move, and frustrated when he came out of it. He was beginning to have trouble with visual and spatial abilities in the way of judging distance and depth. His loss of basic reasoning just added to his confusion. (p. 1309)
Williams was reportedly sleeping up to eighteen hours per day, barely able to climb out of bed.18 He’d become so reclusive that he installed blackout curtains in his bedroom, the darkening of his world mirroring the darkening of his soul. “Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating?” asks Schneider of her readers.
It should be apparent by now that the imminent deterioration of body and mind contributed to Williams’s suicide. However, this tells us nothing about what acting and comedy meant for him, besides the obvious fact that they were the source of his livelihood. In order to arrive at their meanings, and to apprehend what was truly at stake for him, we must go even deeper, to the formative years of his life.
Robin Williams was born on July 21st, 1951 to Robert, a senior executive at Ford, and Laurie, an aspiring model and philanthropist. He described his parents as emotionally and geographically distant. They were often away on business or at charitable causes, leaving him under the constant care of nannies. Though he had a privileged upbringing, his childhood was one of unremitting loneliness: “I lived in that big house and I was pretty much alone… I was kind of out in a big farm in the country way away from everybody.” To complicate matters, he was bullied in school for being short, shy, and stout. Though he had two half-brothers from his parents’ previous marriages, they were much older and not very close, and so he made imaginary friends. He reportedly had a massive toy collection, consisting of two to ten thousand toy soldiers who kept him company. Though the numbers may have been exaggerated, they nonetheless reveal his emotional deprivation, and his need to satisfy an intense longing for human connection, a need that would persist in adulthood.
Williams spent much of his childhood seeking his parents’ attention and approval, and in this pursuit, he discovered the power of comedy. His first ever impersonation was of his grandmother, whom he mimicked so accurately, and so irreverently, that his mother was reduced to tears. Comedy thus became his means of sustaining ties with his mother: “I think maybe comedy was part of my way of connecting with my mother — ‘I’ll make Mommy laugh and that will be okay’ — and that’s where it started.” If he could make her laugh, he could win her love. Though his relationship with his father remained distant, his father recognized his talents and would later finance his pursuit of acting (quite the endorsement given the man’s pragmatism). Comedy would also become Williams’s primary means of relating to others:
And since I was suffering from a case of the terminal shy I couldn’t make friends that easily, and I always spent a lot of time in my room and I created my own little world full of all these little characters that had strange and unusual qualities. After a while, I realized that people found these characters funny and outrageous, and then it got to the point where I realized the characters could say and do things that I was afraid to do.19
Later in life, Williams confessed to a severe case of ‘Love Me Syndrome’ and an acute fear of abandonment—both rooted in childhood, and both quelled by acting and comedy. In making others laugh, he felt loved, and in feeling loved, he felt less alone. Williams felt most alive when seen by others.
It is not surprising that Williams starred in the role of “man-child” in a handful of movies—a role that fuses together the adult body with the innocence and naïveté of a child. To name but a few examples: In Hook (1991), Williams starred as Peter Banning, a father and corporate lawyer who had forgotten he was Peter Pan, and in remembering, rediscovers the magic of his childhood and the magic that continues to surround him. He then starred as Alan Parish in Jumanji (1995), a child who becomes trapped in the fantastic world of the titular board game, reemerging decades later as an adult unschooled in the ways of civil society. And in Jack (1996), Williams played the role of a ten-year-old boy with Werner syndrome, which causes his character to age four times faster than the average person. The significance of these roles stem not from his authorial control over the script, which varied from film to film, but in the resonances between them and the subjective reality of his childhood. By Williams’s own admission, Jack’s lonely childhood, and difficulty making friends, mirrored his; and like young Alan Parish, he was often by himself in a big old house. Meanwhile, playing Peter Banning made Williams realize how little time he had with his parents growing up—a mistake he vowed not to repeat with his own children.
Some have interpreted Williams’ embodiment of the man-child role as proof of his arrested development. According to one of his biographers, “He never stopped portraying the man-child because he never stopped being the man-child.” However, such a statement ignores the restitutive power of creativity in the actor’s life. Williams himself espoused the view that creativity can be cathartic, a means of addressing personal trauma in a genuine way. It was also his breakwater against deep depression and anxiety: “You look at the world and see how scary it can be sometimes and still try to deal with the fear. Comedy can deal with the fear and still not paralyze you or tell you that it’s going away.”20 By starring as a man-child, Williams not only laid bare the injuries of his past to be empathically received by others; he was also reconciling past with present, acknowledging the enduring impact of his childhood experiences.
Obviously, Williams played other roles besides the man-child, but the point stands that for Williams, acting and comedy fulfilled the ontological needs of emotional validation and human connection. It is therefore unsurprising that he mined his personal life for material for his stand-up comedy. It is also unsurprising that whenever he performed at college campuses, he would ask the event organizers to place toys of their choosing on the stage, which he incorporated into his act. In doing so, he recapitulated the loneliness of his childhood, and the comfort he’d derived from his company of toy soldiers. But in doing so, he was simultaneously undoing that loneliness, for he was now partaking in communal laughter. It is even less surprising that Williams fell into a deep depression after the cancellation of the NBC sitcom The Crazy Ones in May 2014, three months prior to his suicide. His career started in television 31 years prior with Mork & Mindy, and it seemed that it would end in television. Williams begged for clemency, to no avail. Though the show’s cancellation after one season was due to a mediocre script and fledgling ratings rather than the quality of Williams’s acting, it was nevertheless felt as radical invalidation of his being. And with his mind and body literally disintegrating, Robin Williams took his life to thwart the complete eradication of self.
My purpose in writing this brief case study is not to suggest that creativity is a mere byproduct of trauma, or to deny the role of so-called mental illness in suicide, but to situate these phenomena within the context of human lives. In short, to render them humanly (rather than medically) intelligible. Creativity is a celebration of existence, and suicide a cessation of existence—two seemingly opposed tendencies that coalesce in the lives of creative suicides like Robin Williams. In order to understand their paradoxical relationship, however, the path forward lies not in reduction to symptoms and abstractions, but in immersion in lifeworlds. In doing so, we come to understand the individual in his or her own subjective terms, and in doing so, we begin to discern patterns (and variations thereof) that can illuminate aspects of the human condition. In the life of Robin Williams, creativity fulfilled ontological needs that had been thwarted by nuclear crises, which the creative act ameliorated and endowed with meaning. But when the creative act was rendered ineffectual by forces beyond his control, suicide became a possibility for preserving what little was left of the self, for reclaiming agency where it had been lost, so that death, if not life, became his own.
- Kaplan, D. (2014, August 12). Laughter to tragedy: Suicide by asphyxiation likely. Stars in shock at loss of comedy great. Daily News, p. 4. ↩
- Herbert, E. (2014). Robin Williams: When the laughter stops 1951-2014. London, UK: John Blake. ↩
- Yahr, E. (2014, August 13). Coroner releases details in death of Robin Williams. The Washington Post, p. C01. ↩
- Vislocky, C. (2014, August 15). Death of a comedy icon: R.I.P., Robin Williams. The New York Post, p. 24. ↩
- Goodale, G. (2014, August 13). Robin Williams suicide prompts heightened discussion of depression. Christian Science Monitor. ↩
- Monde, C. & Pesce, N. L. (2014, August 13). Depression: It can affect anybody — the rich, the famous and the rest of us. Daily News, p. 6. ↩
- Weintraub, K. & Kelly, D. (2014, August 12). All the on-screen laughs can’t protect against depression. USA Today, p. 3D. ↩
- Stewart, S. (2014, August 13). Blacklight: Shadows lurked behind the manic genius of Robin Williams – but he’s far from the only comic to be plagued by demons. The New York Post, p. 38. ↩
- Friedman, H. J. (2014, August 16). Treating depression to prevent suicide [Letter to the editor ↩
- Bender, K. J. (2014, November 8). Robin Williams’s autopsy detects no alcohol or illegal drugs. The Washington Post, p. A04. ↩
- Brown, S. R. (2014, August 17). Sad sendoff: Robin’s memorial expected to be small, somber. Daily News, p. 11. ↩
- Whitehead, B. (2010). The psychosocial impact of communication changes in people with Parkinson’s disease. British Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, 6(1), 30-36. ↩
- Nijhof, G. (1995). Parkinson’s Disease as a problem of shame in public appearance. Sociology of Health & Illness, 17(2), 193-205. ↩
- Martin, S. C. (2016). The experience and communicative management of identity threats among people with Parkinson’s disease: Implications for heath communication theory and practice. Communication Monographs, 83(3), 303-325. ↩
- Bramley, N. & Eatough, V. (2005). The experience of living with Parkinson’s disease: An interpretative phenomenological analysis case study. Psychology & Health, 20(2), 223-235. ↩
- Marr, J. (1991). The experience of living with Parkinson’s Disease. Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, 23(5), 325-329. ↩
- Schneider, S. (2016). The terrorist inside my husband’s brain. Neurology, 87, 1308-1311. ↩
- Dillon, N. (2014, August 14). Life in darkness: Star a shut-in for days. Trusted pal made grim find. Daily News, p. 8. ↩
- Dougan, A. (1998). Robin Williams. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press. ↩
- Associated Press (2015). Robin Williams: Comedic genius. Miami, FL: Mango Media, Inc. ↩