NBC reports that actor Robin Williams was found dead in his home. The Marin County Sheriff’s Office has released an official statement concerning both the actor’s passing and the ongoing investigation of the circumstances of his death. The Coroner’s Division of the Sheriff’s Office currently “suspects the death to be a suicide due to asphyxia.” However, they go on to state that a “comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made.”
William’s death comes as a painful and sudden shock to Hollywood and fans of his work, though it is reported that the actor had been “battling severe depression of late.” This, of course, does not provide any sense of closure or comfort to his loved ones, to his fans, to anyone familiar with the all-consuming grip of depression.
My fondest William’s movie is Hook, and it is the first film I thought of when the news broke. But I’d like to look at Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, for a moment. I have never seen all of Dead Poet’s Society. I think I should, though it’s going to feel different, now, given the context of Williams’ death and the plot of the film. Strange how that happens: Dead Poet’s Society has gone, in an hour, from being a movie about tragic teenage boys to a movie about a man playing a character that he himself could not listen to. And that’s what suicide does, really. It changes everything. Nothing remains untouched after the taking of a life. That’s simply not how it works.
I’d like to take a look at one of the poems John Keats delivers in the film. “Not O Captain, My Captain,” though that does seem particularly relevant at this time, given that Whitman’s poem doubles as one of the most well-known eulogies in history. Perhaps, if you’ve gone to YouTube in the past 30 minutes to see some of his work, you’ve run into the comments section to see “O Captain, My Captain” copy-pasted over and over because to many, it means something substantial. But I prefer this scene, not because it is understated or less popular but simply because I prefer the poem used. Does that say something about me? That I prefer “O Me! O Life!” to “O Captain, My Captain?” Does it mean that I am not mourning properly, as I chose to celebrate life instead of entertaining thoughts of death?
Suicide is always treated like a circus, with big, splashy headlines and constant coverage. There will be questions. There will be answers, some satisfying, some not. We never expect suicide, we may think someone is sick, we may want them to get help, but our minds seem to block out the idea of suicide until it is entirely too late. And then-what? Williams was a public figure, and his death will be no doubt as public as his movies, as his comedy, as his failings.
John Keating sits in a circle of his students and recites “the powerful play goes on.” This death with be picked apart, if only because it is a suicide, if only because it is sudden. The poem of life, for a time, will revolve around death, and perhaps instead we should focus on his life, on his humor that hid so much. We all know how suicide is treated in the press, how mental illness is treated, and the tragic ending notes of one life should not dictate the overarching themes of the story, so to speak. I’m not even entirely sure I’m talking about Robin Williams anymore, really, or if I am just venting my frustrations over the treatment of suicide in the press, or my rage that there is still no real dialogue going on about mental illness. Williams’ death will mean many different things to many different people, and just as any suicide creates fractures, this will be no different.
The powerful play goes on. And the word ‘play,’ here, becomes so much more poignant following a suicide. The idea that Williams himself was, in a way, trapped in an act, will no doubt be brought up at some point or another. But what an act it was. And just because Williams has taken his own life, just because he was depressed in his final days, does not mean we should look at his humor or his comedy as insincere. It was his truest form of self-expression, I think, and what he would most likely want to be remembered for. That, I think, was his verse. And that’s the Robin Williams I’m going to remember.
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