It’s the saddest domino effect in the age of information. Bad news flying as fast as the high-speed DSL will carry it. R.I.P. statuses accompanied by links to canonized images and videos. Anguished tweets representing real life gasps and exclamations of disbelief. Tombstoned memes. Harried press releases bloated with shock and starved of details. Interviews and articles recalled from binary archives to be re-read in a devastatingly fresh tone of sorrow and loss. Within a day, we are saturated by the spectacle of death, delving further and further into our thoughts on Robin Williams. A man few of us knew, but so many of us loved.
Inevitably there is backlash, pitted against the worship of celebrity culture in a world brimming with humanitarian disasters and untenable daily hardships. Disbelief that so many care so outwardly about the passing of one person on a screen, when there are genocides and massacres the world needs to know about. Bickering over how to appropriately express grief and demands on how we should be prioritizing the underlying issues. Arguments over the personal decisions of a man in the lime light. Conjecture, posturing, and opportunistic chest-puffing.
I consider myself an empathetic person, engaged with world news, and cognizant of the rhythmic pulse of life. Aware that the heart has the capacity to simultaneously love as many different people and things as it is able to mourn. Steadfast in my belief that none should be shamed for expressing their feelings. And appreciative of the fact that sometimes we don’t fully understand why we feel the things we do.
When I read the first post about Robin Williams’ death, I felt it in my heart. His image had so recently been in my living room promoting a TV show that was destined for only a single season. My kneejerk reaction, silly but sincere: I should have watched The Crazy Ones. As if, somehow, an improved audience would have alleviated all that ailed Mr. Williams. My second thought resonated with a million of its brethren washing over a population raised on his work: I hope he knew how much we loved him. As if, somehow, if I had a moment to sit beside him to fully express how his characters and his commentary made strangers laugh and cry and how that made us care about him, it may have cured his depression and helped him overcome any residue of his battle with addiction.
That is, of course, not how mental illness works. And that is not the essence of celebrity/audience relationships. As 3rd party viewers to both, we the family and the fans, are attached to and disconnected from the sufferer and the face on the screen in ways that are surprisingly complex. And while I can’t explain the nature of these entanglements, I can try to unknot the threads of my own emotions and lay them flat in an effort to understand how they are tied to me. How he is tied to me.
Robin Williams has been making me laugh since I was old enough to pick out my own shows on TV and buy my own tickets to the movies. My best friend and I would rattle off quotes from Good Morning Vietnam with such frequency they became like mantras. I wore out the VHS copy of Hook from overuse, even after I saw it a half-dozen times in the theatre. My mother would laugh as heartily at “a run by fruiting” every time it was on the TV as if she was seeing Mrs. Doubtfire for the very first time. There have been occurrences in my life when I recalled the sage advice of Sean Maguire and incorporated it into my own personal decisions. I thank the writers of these moments as gratefully as I thank Robin Williams for understanding their words and delivering them to me (or ad libbing, as he was wont to do) in such a way that resonates. In such a way that they made me feel attached to him, emotionally, if not physically. In such a way that was relatable, calming, cheering, moving. Williams, through his acting, showed me how a sincere sense of humanity can be displayed through comedy as successfully as through drama. To me, he is an association to and proof of the existence of crinkly-eyed joy, brilliant free-associations of the mind, and a youthful exuberance that really can exist in adulthood.
His presence had become familiar. There is peace in familiarity. And there is comfort in the anticipation of seeing that which is familiar. I have always turned to his movies and his standup to laugh, to cheer me up, to make me think. Each stage in his career reflecting a stage in my life, like markers, helping me remember earlier times and feel like I felt back then. I turn to friends and family for these same wants. The relationships are fundamentally different, but the affect they can have, in the mind and in the heart are essentially the same. When Mr. Williams made me laugh, I was reminded of all the previous smiles he brought to my face. I was reminded of the giggle fits he induced in my friends in our childhood. The snorts he evoked from my mother. I’m saddened by the thought that his life is now destined to be as nostalgic to me as those memories. I had taken for granted that he would always have more to give. More mania, more subtleties, more assurances that it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. Accompanying someone through decades of their life is an intimacy. One sided, in this instance, but no less important in what I took from him and what he gave to me.
It is a long-standing notion, the ease with which we can proclaim an emotional attachment to paintings or music. The fact that such pieces can have a personal impact on an individual is universally accepted. For some, the mourning of a celebrity by an audience of strangers is seen as a hollow endeavor. But I consider Robin Williams an artist. His celebrity is of no consequence. It’s his work and his spirit that have invaded my headspace and moved me to feel deeply. Immortalized by his catalogue of classics, remembered fondly for his gentleness, generosity, and genius. As a human being, he had so many sides that I will never see and never know. As an artist, he has left me with portraits that I have analyzed endlessly. I will hang them lovingly in the halls of my memories til I too take my final bow.
Thanks to our friends at Two Geeks Talking for letting us share this content.
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