About twelve hours ago as I write this, Robin Williams died.
The news is rippling its way through the Internet fault lines – one blessing and curse about social media is how easy it is for bad news to spread. Most people are posting their shock and sorrow – remembering his films, posting quotes. One wag on Twitter also said “I feel like the Internet right now is the world’s biggest and saddest group hug.”
Some people, too, are quietly talking about the cause of his death; it was a suicide, most likely. Robin Williams’ representatives have confirmed that he’s been suffering from a major depressive episode lately. And here, too, a lot of the Twitterverse and the Facebookers are posting links to suicide hotlines and depression counselling services, urging people to treat themselves more kindly.
Even more quietly, a few are saying that they saw hints of the demon that ultimately got Robin. For all he talked, they’ve pointed out, have you noticed that…there’s a lot of things he didn’t say? His episode of Inside The Actors Studio was long, and he discussed much – but if the questions got too close, he would go off on an improv riff and distract us. In a podcast with Mark Maron earlier this year, somewhere during the last ten minutes he starts talking about facing mortality, and caught himself thinking “eh, fuck life,” and he talks about some suicidal thoughts he’d had – but then he and Maron start riffing on San Francisco vs. Los Angeles and spin more jokes and skip away from the topic. And one of the clips I’ve seen tonight was from when he was in the play Bengal Tiger In The Baghdad Zoo, where he plays the ghost of a tiger. (It makes sense in context.) In one of his monologues, the tiger is discussing his shock at finding himself still haunting the world after death; “Tigers are atheists,” he begins. But he ends by repeatedly asking, “Why am I still here? Why am I still here?” And tonight I heard something in that question I’d missed before.
For all he gave us, there was a lot he didn’t share. And not sharing that ultimately got too heavy. Except sometimes he let some of that out, and that’s when the best art came out. We just didn’t know the specifics because he found a way to spin that pain into other things. But it’s like he said – through someone else’s words – in Good Will Hunting:
You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that, do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.
Every time he got close to say the whole truth of who he really was, he got terrified of what he might say, and backed away.
But sometimes letting that truth come out in your art is what you need to do; it’s something, in fact, that I’m realizing I need to do myself.
In his own episode of Actors Studio, someone asked John Cusack for advice on really digging deep and putting the most of one’s self into their art. And his answer struck me:
Well, anything that’s interesting […] all your passion, your sex, your anger, your rage, all that, comes from that part of you that you want to hide and push away […] And most people try not to feel all those dark things. We [as artists] have to go feel them, but its an opportunity too. That’s what I do, I just try to remember that the part of you that’s going to do a good job is the part of you you want to most deny.
At the time, I was at a stuck point with my writing. I was doing a lot, sure, but getting burnt out – I was writing a lot of articles, mainly, and was slowly watching whatever I’d had that once had passed for a voice starting to ebb away. I’d gone back and reread some of my old journals, and would be struck by the images and language I’d used in the past – but then turned to the present and would despair at how lifeless and bloodless it sounded in comparison.
What John said stayed with me a long while, mainly because of how right it felt. The work I’d done before was risky and strange – and now I was playing it safe. I was talking about things outside myself, rather than talking about me. And that shadow side – the stuff that I wanted to deny – was getting buried deeper and deeper again, and with it went the voice that made me unique.
And that scared me a little. Granted, the thought about opening up scared me a little more – I tried to think about something really risky to write about, to try to force myself into opening up, but all I could think to write was porn and that seemed a bit like overkill. So why had I started closing down in the first place?
And after a while I started realizing that it was an old demon – the belief that no one was listening so why bother.
I was pretty flamboyant in junior high. There’s a picture of me at age 13, dressed up for Halloween as a clown with face all done up in Bozo makeup, and I’m mugging extravagantly for the camera, next to my friend Lisa who is just standing there sedately in a baby costume. There are other pictures of me with my best friends pulling all sorts of zany comic faces. But round about age fourteen, that starts fading. I start turning up in pictures less and less altogether as well.
And that’s also when a lot of the music I listened to seemed to follow a theme. I listened to a lot of Genesis and The Police then, but I’ve noticed that my particular favorites all followed a theme of sorts:
On one hand, that sounds straight out of the moody-teenager nobody-understands-me playbook. But in my case, it was a little more subtle – I wasn’t being mocked for what I thought, or bullied or picked on. …I actually wasn’t getting much of any feedback at all.
It actually wasn’t quite so bad as all that – I was getting plenty of praise from teachers about classwork, and plenty of praise at home. But schoolwork was something I could rattle off easily – I wanted feedback on the more personal, serious things I was writing. That was the real me. And I wanted the feedback from people who weren’t family or teachers; they had to like me, I thought. My friends, and strangers, and other classmates….they didn’t have to.
Once in a blue moon I caught people’s attention. There was the anti-nuke movie Krishna and I wrote our senior year, which somehow actually got reviewed by our local paper’s entertainment editor. I remember being tremendously grateful that he didn’t pull any punches, and discussed it as a serious work, even offering criticism of the weak spots.
But most of the time, the things I did and the things I said seemed to fall into a sort of vacuum. I was part of the drama club, but I was left out on the periphery of a knot of kids that were all in each others’ pockets all the time and always got all the good parts. They were too busy with their own drama as well, and my little bids for their attention often went unnoticed….and that’s when I started fading from pictures, and started listening to Phil Collins and Sting sing about lonely men on corners and on islands and how I was talking but no one was listening.
College reversed that a while. I was in a new crowd, showing my writing to different people who actually said things about it and commented on it and asked questions, and even if the things they had to say were bad, I didn’t care because holy shit they’re acknowledging I spoke in the first place. And that sustained me for years – I kept writing, people kept reading things, and offering feedback. A short story I wrote even once got into the hands of Leon Uris, after I’d been his assistant during the workshop of a play; he called me after reading it and rather than offering some mild head-patting, he actually talked shop with me for a half hour. He said something about how I was unafraid to look at the shadow side of things, and that was a compliment that sustained me for years afterward.
That shadow side Lee said I was unafraid to look at is the same shadow side that John Cusack talked about, and the same shadow that Robin Williams tried to cover up in his work. So I’m not afraid of it.
The problem then, instead, is that I’m afraid no one else wants to hear it.
I had a doofy Livejournal blog back in the day, and it was pretty lively for a while. But then….the comments started slacking off. And with it went my excitement about posting. Believe me, I know how irretrievably 90’s hipster that sounds – “oh woe is me no one is commenting on my Livejournal nobody likes me”. But after having your say to the world, without any indication anyone’s listening, you start to wonder just what the point is. The timing probably didn’t help either – I was also caught up in work with a theater company whose audience base was starting to falter as well, and “why are we bothering” was starting to get to be a refrain in the office. And this was during the leadup to the 2003 Iraq War, during months and months of protests and more and more people trying to speak up about how we didn’t want there to be a war in the first place, only to have our protests ignored and the nation go into a war that is still going on over a decade later.
“Why bother, no one’s listening” was a theme for me for a long time.
But I can’t. Not talking is going to kill me. Not talking about the demons inside us will kill all of us. I have the luxury of this blog – I can, if I want, post anything at all here and speak my mind and know that anyone could come along and read it. I could get heard. And if one of the things I have to say is a plea for help, that too could get heard.
However, knowing that I could get heard is different from knowing I am heard. I’ve had this blog for a few months now, and while I can see people are lurking, I’ve only had a couple comments from you all. I’m grateful you’re reading – but I also need to know you heard me. Lest I start to think no one’s listening again, and I lapse back into that same silence again.
We all need to speak up. We all need to talk more about the side of ourselves we want to deny, like John Cusack said – we all need to speak up about the painful side of things, like Robin Williams tried to do. But we also need to talk back to the people who said something, so they know “I’m here, I’m listening.”
I quoted Message In A Bottle earlier – if you’ve heard it, you know the song ends with a hundred billion more messages coming back, Messages in a bottle all their own. “Seems I’m not alone in being alone.” Robin Williams was trying to send us out his own messages in a bottle; maybe he never got those back. John Cusack sends his own out; he’s getting ones back. I’m trying to send my own out now, more often.
I ask you all – please, send your own messages out, speak your own truth. Speak it in art if you need to, but speak it. And more importantly, when you hear someone speaking theirs, let them know you heard and are listening and are there. The thoughts inside us all can eat us if we’re not careful – but speaking to a deaf world also hurts. Let me know you’re there. Let others know you’re there. Talk to someone yourself if you need to. Let’s all help each other so we don’t lose anyone else too soon.