He Was Like Me

This tribute to Robin Williams will not be like others.

I almost entirely knew Robin Williams from his breakthrough role in Mork and Mindy, a 1970s sitcom that combined the sensibilities of My Favorite Martian and Three's Company. The character of Mork had been created for an episode of Happy Days, and proved so popular that he was spun off to his own show. For me, there was no reason but Mork to watch this show. Every other character was boilerplate sitcom. When Williams was on the screen, it sparkled. The rest of the time, it snoozed.

But what a sparkle it was! I'm sure much of Mork's most surreal and hilarious moments were improvised. Robin Williams's standup was a tour de force of tangents, voices, juxtapositions of ideas mashed together in ways one never saw coming. It was manic, furiously busy, the comedic version of an Art Blakey piano solo. I bought a couple of his albums, and just didn't care for them, wondering how I could find Mork so appealing, and the comedian behind him so manically off-putting.

The reason, of course, was that Mork was more than a riff. He was a person, a sweet, gentle soul who occasionally got carried away with an idea and took it too far, to comedic results. Until recently, we would've called that kind of behavior Asperger's Syndrome; but since that diagnosis has been removed from the DSM, we can now just say it was somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Margie Boule's husband attended college with Robin Williams. Here's what she wrote about him today on Facebook:
Dave says Robin was very quiet, not given to attention-getting outbursts, not outgoing or a clown. Then one night Dave attended a production in which students each gave ten minute solo performances on stage. "In ten minutes, he carried on complete conversations between about nine distinct characters," Dave says. "It wasn't manic, the way it was later when he became famous, but it was brilliant." 
What Dave is describing here sounds very much like the toned-down Robin Williams that came out in the character of Mork. It also reminds me of myself.

The one word that has probably most been used to describe me is "quiet." I've also never been called outgoing or a clown. And during my days of preaching, people frequently wondered how I could be so confident in the pulpit (or, more frequently, in front of it) as I improvised sermons, yet such a cold fish in the fellowship hall. I suspect that people who observe me teaching may have the same reaction: how can someone who is so present, so engaged, in this act of performance become so distant when it's time to make small talk?

And yet, that's who I am. I care deeply about people, am deeply enthusiastic about my interests, become passionate when I'm performing, can pursue an idea down the rabbit hole and into wonderland; and yet when I'm not wearing my performer or teacher hat, people can feel put off by me. That's why it's always been hard for me to make friends: people have to be patient enough with me to see past my guarded exterior.

That's who Robin Williams appears to have been: someone very much like Mork, a beautiful, sweet alien who never quite fit into a world that didn't know how to relate to him. We loved his humor, were blown away by his virtuosity, entranced by the vulnerability of the characters he portrayed, enamored with the dreaminess in his voice when he allowed us to see past the riffing comedian.

Robin Williams also struggled with depression, a demon I'm well acquainted with. I battled it through my twenties and well into my thirties, talking with one therapist after another until all my talk was gone. I finally found peace at, appropriately, the Peace House, where I learned to live in the moment, taking life a day at a time. I had times of back-sliding--emotional traumas will do that--but for the most part, I was able to push through and be back on my feet in a short time, with no deleterious effect on my work.

What I don't have in common with Robin Williams is substance abuse, something most people speculated about for much of his career. He had to be on something wild to do the things he did, the thinking went, just as those baseball players setting world records must be taking steroids. I tend to think, though, that the drugs were not part of the act, but were rather part of surviving in the world when he was not on stage, addressing the pain of being an alien, an outsider, a man with a huge heart but no one to really offer it to. That's something I'm also familiar with.

Learning of his death by suicide saddens me, as it has so many people. I've been watching the tributes pile up on Facebook and Slate. Mixed in with them have been a few reminders of just how abusive suicide is to the people left behind, as well as an occasional remark about the ironic parallel with one of Williams's less-well-received movies, What Dreams May Come. Even in the deepest pit of despair, I never thought of taking my own life. Perhaps if I had not finally defeated my demons, and found myself in my sixties and still struggling with them, I might think differently, but I doubt it. The people I love trump any sense of release I might get from ending it.

I do know people who have fought the depression battle for most of their lives and are simultaneously brilliant artists. Certainly the art, especially if it is a performing art, can have a therapeutic function, and I've heard Marc Maron address this many times in his interviews with comedians. As he and his subjects have frequently concluded, though, the performance is never enough. It's more like a drug that takes the edge off the darkness, briefly shines a light into it, keeps them going, if they're lucky, until the next time they're in the spotlight.

The problem with using substances or activities to address deep pain is that over time, one develops a tolerance to their effects, and needs a larger dose or a stronger drug to achieve the same results. And at some point, they just stop working. If there's no other way to address the pain--no therapist's couch, no support group, no meditation practice--or if all those alternatives have proven futile, I can see how the knife on the wrist, the belt around the neck, or the pistol in the mouth becomes more attractive.

I think that's what happened with Robin Williams. I wish it hadn't. And I hope it doesn't with the depressed geniuses I know.

What I'm left with for now is the realization that I was like him when I was young, but as brilliant as he was, I'm glad I'm not like him anymore.


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