Oh Captain, My Captain

I don’t typically write a post like this in my director’s blog. But this blog has morphed into something other than just a chronology of film-making; rather it has become the place where my life gets reflected in relation to this work, or how this work gets reflected in my life. So I think I’ll break with my usual and write this post, because I feel a need to get the words out and this seems the best place to do it.

Yesterday we learned that Robin Williams died, likely taken by suicide. I am stunned, shocked, saddened, numbed, outraged. Sometimes I feel the tears come and yet they don’t really fall. I feel awkward wondering how is it possible that I could be so affected by the passing of someone I never actually knew? He was a comedian; actor; personality; mystery. I’ve no idea what his personal life was truly like, or what his character contained. I only know what I saw…I only know the ways in which I was influenced.

And that’s the part that keeps coming back to me – while it is true I never really knew the person, I do know the ways in which I was influenced by that person.

Can I imagine my life without ever having the presence of Robin Williams in it? Actually no. I first saw him in Mork & Mindy…Ok, quite possibly the role he may have wanted us all to forget but that was where I and so many other people noticed this way-out-of-the-box personality. In truth, he was one of my first crushes. Granted, I was all of 5, so it was one of those innocent little kid kinds of things where you just stand in awe of someone. Curiously enough though, I still to this day find myself more drawn to someone who can make me laugh over anything else. Have you met my husband? Proof enough.

Where would I be without Dead Poet’s Society? Hitting me at those critical teenage years, how else would I have come to embrace the phrase, “carpe diem,” and run amok in the woods with my friends as we reenacted scenes and lines and imagined ourselves to be superheroes. We believed we could overthrow all nasty, tyrannical, oppressive baddies while looking great standing on top of a desk. We were nuts. Most of all we were inspired.

Am I about to say that everything he did was inspirational? No. Mrs Doubtfire didn’t make me want to change my life. But it did make me laugh and cry, all at the same time. The World According to Garp is still one of my favorite films and I secretly enjoyed Moscow on the Hudson. Popeye sucked but Toys was bizarrely enjoyable. Good Morning Vietnam and Good Will Hunting will always remind me that being outside of the box is the best way to live.

Now because of the manner of his death, there has been much written in just the short 24 hours after the announcement about depression, mental health, cries for help, suicide, and on and on with the endless list of how tragic it was that he may have succumbed to an illness. He could’ve prayed, he could’ve reached out, others could have noticed, no one saw it coming. He battled drug addiction and major depression. Who knew the clown was so down.

Ok, really, I did. And so did everyone else who has ever stood on the edge of society. To have a wit and social criticism as sharp as Williams’ means you have come to intimately know the ills and injuries of the world around you. Laughter and pain innately go together, because the only way to make meaning out of insensible suffering is to mock it, laugh at it, diminish it to the absurdity that it is. Williams stood simultaneously within and outside of social convention, and what some will call madness is also his genius. He was intentional schizophrenia at its best.

I’ve read some posts (I read too much) that talk about humor as a mask for mental illness. I’ll grant that as a possibility. However I will also oppose my mental health brethren on this point. I see Williams’ loudness, humor, boldness, and veracity as those things that stand against the position of mental illness in his life. He could laugh in its face as if to say, “See, I am not all addiction and depression. You are just one part of me, and I am many parts more.” What he gave to all of us is what needs to be remembered and held close to be used as the shields and swords that battle the confining labels of mental illness, of diagnosis. We are not DSM-V codes. We are people who can laugh and cry, all at the same time. Being ill doesn’t mean I can’t also be well.

I don’t know why he suicided. I don’t think anyone will ever know why, in spite of the rampant speculation that will take place now and for a very long time. Will I get angry at the thought that suicide could’ve taken another of our wonderful, crazy spirits that burned way too hot and bright while it was here? Will I fear that suicide and depression will try convince more of us to forget our fight and take us away? Yes. But I also remember when Williams said comedy was the ability to test where the limit is, and sometimes you have to cross it to know it’s there. You’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever seen, and I’ll always remember that. I don’t know if you’ll ever know how many people were affected by you, but we all know the void that is now left in your place. No one can fill it. And I will miss you.


Crying, By Sam Taylor Wood