In Memoriam: Robin Williams

I’m taking the news of Robin Williams’ death kind of hard. It’s kind of embarrassing because I didn’t know him; he was a celebrity. On a personal level, we had nothing to do with each other. And still, I felt like I knew him. Part of it is shock, which always comes with sudden death, especially when it’s suicide. Maybe another part is that I’ve been kind of depressed lately, and seeing the toll of severe depression on someone else is particularly affecting now.

Another reason is that he looks so much like my dad (who is, thankfully, still living). In my family, we’ve always talked about how much they’re alike. He’s only 10 years older than my dad, and they share the same first initial and last name—R. Williams. And, like Robin Williams, my dad loves to laugh and to make people laugh. So there’s always been a part of me that equates him with my dad, as if he were my dad’s famous doppelganger. It’s weird, I know.

And then there’s another reason that’s fairly convoluted.

I grew up with his movies, with his face on the screen. When I was little, he was Mrs. Doubtfire and, on reruns from my parents’ generation, Mork the alien. He was also Garp and a grown-up Peter Pan. Later (for me, anyway), he was John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society — my favorite character in one of my all-time favorite movies (seriously, my online handle for a long time was “dead poetess society,” it was that big of a deal for me) — and flamboyant, accommodating Armand in The Bird Cage. More recently, he was a comedian-turned-president in Man of the Year and a sensitive, downtrodden writer and father in World’s Greatest Dad, in which he was dark and sad and absolutely brilliant. I love these movies — they continue to resonate with me about the importance of humor in our lives and what it means to love, to live passionately, to be sensitive, and to be honest. I love these characters and the complexity with which Williams played them. He made them live, showing incredible emotional fluency and dexterity, and I’m grateful to him for it. They’ve influenced who I am today.

But, more than anything, it was his presence. The wonderful thing about him was that, while he was often spastic and sometimes bawdy, there was always this glimmer of genuine tenderness in him that was so magnetic. He had such kind eyes. He exuded intelligent sensitivity and a desire and respect for goodness that is rare in celebrity, especially comedians, whose witticisms are often marked by cynicism. He was uniquely intimate and vulnerable on screen. It’s that intimacy and tenderness that I’ll miss. It breaks my heart that it was central to his illness, but I’m grateful that he shared it with the world. I’m glad his soul is immortalized in his films, TV appearances, and standup comedy. I’m glad that he loved to make people laugh, and that we had a chance to give him our laughter for nearly forty years.

In some ways, he was like Dumbledore for my generation — funny, engaging, enigmatic, secretly struggling but always aiming for goodness. We never really knew him, but we felt like we did. I think that’s why it’s hitting us so hard. I’ve never seen such widespread mourning over a celebrity. With the exception of Michael Jackson, I’ve never seen so many people become so protective over a celebrity against media oversharing.

So maybe it’s not so embarrassing or even surprising to be upset about his death. He was an artist—an actor and a comedian. We take artists’ lives and deaths personally because, even though they’re strangers, they’re in our homes and lives daily—in the movies we watch, the books and magazines we read, the music we listen to, and so on. Their work is part of the fabric of our culture. Artists rely on us to sustain them while they do what they love, and we rely on them to provide us with meaning through their craft. And Williams was so authentic in everything he did, most of all in real life.

As John Keating said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” In many ways, Robin Williams did change the world. For the better.

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