I haven’t really known what to say about Robin Williams.
Almost two days have passed and I haven’t said much more than a sentence about ‘what a shame it is’.
Which is odd because words about suicide usually come easier to me than shopping lists. My Dad killed himself ten years ago, and I’ve almost finished a book about it, and usually, now, I find spewing words about it as natural a part of my day as running a bath or taking the binbags out. I’m like a marine now in the writing about suicide. Through the applied articulation of grief I have written myself ‘well hard’. In fact most of the time I have to stop myself from banging on about death all the time because I don’t want to be a total drag of a loser of a sap of a dick and I am aware that not all of life should be about death. Some of it should be about…Life.
Sometimes I think mass outpourings of grief for famous people is an insult to all the people who quietly die every day without much note. Sometimes I think the tribal togetherness, the bowing to a totemic presence is what makes us collectively beautiful. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t really know them. It matters that for a while we all come together, before the world moves on again.
But for now the world is picking through Robin Williams’ biography. The iconic films, the dross, the zany personality, the improvisational genius, the struggles with coke and booze, the death. People and publications are all saying much the same thing. It’s hard to be original with post-humous accolades when the feeling left behind is so common.
Some people are even making jokes. Lovely Richard Herring got a bit of stick for tweeting a comment about Patch Adams. Cue a bit of ‘too soon’ uproar. Sometimes we just say things. Sometimes they’re not funny. Sometimes they’re just off the cuff and regretted instantly. Sometimes Twitter’s not the place. Sometimes it increasingly is. Reactions to death are all different and all natural. Richard says we should talk more about death. I’m with him on that.
I think perhaps the movies Robin Williams said yes to that earned him ridicule are perhaps just as important as the ones he said yes to that got him Oscar nominations (and one win). The mawkish over-sentimentality that he became more and more known for – perhaps that was him trying to reach out. Sometimes a desperation to express our softest parts isn’t always that elegant. Something in those scripts moved him to say yes to them. Perhaps there was a little of the ‘can’t turn the money down; one subpar movie every three years to cover the tax bill’ about it, but probably not much. But it’s hard to get that stuff rights all the time. The emotional thrust is sometimes well-intentioned, but in its expression artistically a bit rubbish. And sometimes that is as important. Humans don’t always have the luxury of refinement. Most of the time we’re a bumbling mess of shit. Rarely are we presented to the world in perfect array. Sometimes good intentions are all we have and the art doesn’t follow it through; doesn’t do our intent justice. Humans aren’t very artful, really. Art is a construct of ours. And the presence of bad art, in far greater proportion to the great, is the thing that allows greatness to exist. If everything was great, there would be no such thing anymore. We need the shit to remind us of that.
Robin Williams was all things, as broad as the emotions that blight a man that can eventually lead to him taking his own life. He was a massive spirit, a glorious beautiful mess of a man. How can this always be caught in perfect art, how can it be confined in an edited two-hour film? A film is the sum of many parts – its many departments – writing, directing, acting, and editing being only four. He wasn’t responsible for all that. He just said yes to some words and threw himself into it. He loaned his spirit to people. And who knows which of those silly box office flops was just him fighting the darkness, grabbing on to something to give him light, to hold him up, to distract him from his own thoughts. He might have been struggling during Mrs Doubtfire and rampant with happiness during Death To Smoochy (don’t ask – I haven’t got a clue either). We don’t know. And because his true self underlies all those films, somewhere, it means they are, in a way, all as important as each other. Because those films are segments of his life. Hidden in those films are flashes of his true self; his moods of the time; little flashes of whatever he was actually feeling. Little improvisational sparks that made the films better, that came from him, and whatever he was thinking beneath the script. In between doing those scenes, he sat quietly in a trailer and ate some food, eyes dipped in private thought. At the end of the day he went home and loved his family, he did his living, he felt whatever he really felt. All of it. Then he did some more scenes. And we get to keep those.
As an unhappy woman in my early 20s I fucking loved Patch Adams, the film that journalists and dear Herring are using as the comparative career nadir against the zeniths of his finest work. Patch Adams distracted me from myself. It was about a doctor who wanted to make his patients laugh. He wore a red nose on the ward, for fuck’s sake. That’s fucking great. It was safer to cry at that than at my own life. Since watching Dead Poet’s Society when I was about ten, Robin Williams had always been my Captain. I trusted him with my laughter and my tears. He always knew how to extract both from me. I felt safe with him. And I was a total sucker for his twinkly blues. Now I wonder if my Robin Williams marathons were sometimes slightly less to do with the specific films, the heart-pummelling of Dead Poets, the glory of Good Morning Vietnam, the mournful genius of Good Will Hunting, the snortfest of Mrs Doubtfire, than the ineffable things he brought to them. Was a little less to do with the construct of the film itself, and more to do with the truth he stowed in everything he did, even the shit. There was the pained light, the tortured defiance, the awareness of absurdity in his eyes, even when the rest of the film was letting itself down around him. Maybe that’s all I needed to see at times and the script could, actually, go suck itself.
Sometimes humans can. Sometimes humans can’t.
Robin Williams decided he could not, anymore.
I’m up here in Edinburgh, a city full of performers and comedians mourning a man that many cite as the reason they attempted comedy to begin with. Most of them would be happy enough to admit they don’t have even a quarter of the spark and skill and spirit he had. I am up here doing two of my plays. We are having a lovely time, audiences are lovely, but part of me also feels done with them. I want to write something new now; I think that’s how I know I am more writer than performer at heart. I wrote the plays while I was deep in writing my cheery little book about Dad. They are quite silly plays, in parts dark, in parts sad. I think I needed the escape. Suicide books are hard. I wrote the plays as an antidote to the suicide book, and now I feel ready to write something else. And I think it is because I know the plays aren’t wholly the truth. It’s hard to push them when all I’m thinking of is finishing the book when I get home.
An author friend of mine says there is no truth in writing, that words so imperfectly capture the ‘self’, that we can’t actually capture the ‘self’, that words fail the moment we write them. I sort of believe this because logically it is fact that we cannot capture the essence of our human spirit in linguistic cells we have constructed in the latter slither of our existence as a race, but I also sort of think that all writing is truth plus props. Writing exists for a reason. We created it for a reason. No matter what fictions we construct, there is always some truth of our selves hidden in there. That though narrative scenarios, arcs, journeys, characters, and dialogue changes on the top level, that there is always a bit of the self stowed away in the baser soil.
I suspect I have only one story I will ever tell. Everything else is just props assembled around the truth. And my truth is suicide. It wasn’t always. Until Dad did it, it must have been something else. But I don’t remember what it was. I am this now, and the truth of this is that it never leaves me, even in my lightest happiest moments, even in the middle of the most carefree laugh, half of me is still cast in shadow. Somewhere in the laugh is a streak of raw shock that I am laughing at all. I don’t know if this will be true for the rest of my life. And I am glad I cannot know.
Everything is suicide. It is with me every day. And I know lots of people who have felt and still feel similarly.
I had a messy day the other day. I went to see two plays that brought the stuff I keep submerged up to the surface. One was Paines Plough’s Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan. About a man who makes a list of brilliant things to keep him afloat through his mother’s depression and later suicide. Though the play is massively uplifting, brilliant, and, despite its subject, never very dark, it made me a bit of a mess. I rushed out at the end and spent ten minutes in a disabled toilet, pacing and crying. I knew I had to get it all out before I could get on with my day. I got it out, put some make-up on, had a bloody big red bull, and went and did my play. Later I saw another play, So It Goes, about a girl who had never been able to talk about her father’s death, and so had written a silent show about it, where she tells her story using a little whiteboard around her neck. I spent some more time in a toilet after that.
Then the day after that I almost died. I stood at the roadside in a daze and a bus sped past and I felt its force, its hard wind against my face. My friend pulled me back too late and we stood in shock at how close I was. There was a time a few years ago when I fantasised about being run over, yearned for the ‘perceived accident’ of a bus or car felling me so I wouldn’t go down as a suicide. I wanted to die. It’s all I could think of. Dad’s suicide had made me want that, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t want that now, and the nearness of the bus chilled me, but I know that at any point in my life I could feel that pull again. Wanting it.
The day Robin Williams died a man was on North Bridge, being coaxed down by the police. For hours one of the main thoroughfares of Edinburgh was shut off to the tourists and the performers and the natives, while they tried to talk him down. He was obviously quite determined, but something in him allowed him to be appealed to for a few hours. Later the news broke about Robin.
Suicide is everywhere.
By this morning I had to write this. Write something about all of it; the plays I’ve seen, the plays I’ve written to fight the book I’ve written, Robin Williams, Dad, crying in toilets, dredging it all out in a silent roar, and buses, and a man on a bridge. I didn’t think I would be able to get my words out in my play later if I didn’t. Suicide wells up every now and then and you have to process it or you get messy.
Robin Williams is lying cold somewhere, being medicalised, his body probed and treated, and there will be a funeral soon.
I don’t know what happened to the man on North Bridge.