August 12, 2014

Robin Williams Taught Us How to Feel.


By now, a lot of the world knows that Robin Williams died yesterday.

I found out only because I was shutting my computer down for the day, one last notification pinged and I happened to check it. It was from my editor, who wrote that Robin had passed.

“What?!” I said, to myself. And promptly burst into tears.

Tributes to Mr. Williams are flooding in from all over—this site is no exception. People are mourning and eulogizing in sometimes beautiful, sometimes heart-wrenching ways: “I met him once,” a popular story goes, “and he was just so kind to me. To everyone.”

That story seems to have been told a lot. Robin Williams seemed to be kind to everyone.

There’s a particularly strange thing that happens when an actor—a celebrity—as universally adored as Robin Williams passes away. As a friend on social media pointed out late yesterday, “Facebook is never more insufferable when a celebrity dies.” That’s true, to a point.

Statuses flood our screens about how we’ll miss them, how their work impacted so many, how it was too soon—and we will, and it did, and it was, but it can ring hollow to people who know that the person who died was only truly known by a few friends and close family members.

To the rest of us, they were just a face on a screen.

Why then, do we sometimes take it so personally, when a celebrity dies? What part of themselves did they offer us to make us believe that they somehow belonged to us?

My own story, my own reason why I’m so broken-hearted about Robin Williams’ death is that in a way, he raised me.

My own father was only truly present for the first part of my childhood. After my parents’ divorce, he seemed to be like a ball on a tether that got stretched out further and further—he orbited my sister and I, we knew he was there, but we rarely saw him.

The stepfather that replaced him in our home was a gym teacher and a jock who couldn’t really understand me, though he did his best. For a while, growing up, I felt like I didn’t really have a man in my life who could fill that paternal role.

And then there was Robin.

I’ve always been the “escape into a good book or a good movie” kind of person. I love the stories. I love the hearts that shine on pages and in screens, sometimes bigger and better than real life because their true intent is stripped clean, for the whole world to see. Movies and books often present a lot more straight-forward emotion than real humans do.

When I get sad, often I turn to the comfort of a movie I’ve seen countless times before, because in that moment, the movie is like an old friend. I know when I will cry, when I will laugh and the kind of smile that will be etched on my heart afterwards.

Robin Williams gave me some of the movies that shaped me.

As John Keating in “Dead Poets’ Society”, he taught me to wake up and get passionate about life—that poetry was exciting and could taste like blood in my mouth. “Carpe diem, boys!” he yelled, making the girl on the other side of  the screen want to live and taste as fully as he did.

As Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning Vietnam”, he amazed me by turning being a trouble-maker into an important part of political dissent. (For a while I was so inspired by that movie I had the entire opening monologue memorized.)

He was the lovable Genie who essentially helped Aladdin grow the f**k up.

He was a husband tragically killed in a car accident who did everything he could from beyond the grave to comfort his bereaved wife.

In Mrs. Doubtfire he played a father who so missed his kids he did whatever he needed to in order to spend his days with them.

And Sean McGuire, his seminal role in “Good Will Hunting”, showed us that great love and great grief go hand in hand. In that movie, he exposed such a raw nerve of feeling that it left me aching for months.


His comedy, too, taught me so much.

The way he approached his various substance abuse problems—his addiction to cocaine, “They call it freebasing. It’s not free, it costs you your house! It should be called homebasing!”, or alcohol, “I went to rehab [for alcoholism] in wine country, just to keep my options open.”—or how he referred overtly to his depression and got not only laughs, but the kind of knee-slapping, belly-aching laughs that can only be described as cleansing—showed me that in humor lies catharsis.

As someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression and who struggled with addiction issues, that meant a lot to me.

By saying that Robin Williams raised me, I don’t mean to put myself in the same class as his family, or his biological children—they are experiencing a grief that is unfathomable to me.

But yet, through his movies, which I always turned to when I needed comfort, he taught me so much about how to live life—both with grief, and through it—absolutely full-throttle.

No regrets. Nothing held back. Heart pinned to our sleeves.

I expect that I am not alone in that feeling. I expect a lot of us feel that Robin, in all his imperfections and hilarity, with that big full heart that throbbed and ached just below the surface, helped us be better people.

I think that is why Facebook might be a little insufferable for some people right now, as many of us try to remember a man that we didn’t really know, but whose art anchored us in ourselves and our experience. Who embodied kindness and genius.

Who, in doing exactly what he knew best, gave us glimpses into the beauty of the human condition.

I want to say here that if you can at all ask for help, then please do. I know that it is never that simple—and yet. And yet.

This clip, featuring Robin and Carol Burnett, has been one of my favorites for a long time. In it, he helps her to grieve during a funeral—a bit eerie, given the context, but an incredible piece of comedy.


“Oh Susan, Susan, you’re trying to avoid the sadness. I can’t let you do that.”

Thank you for being one of the teachers who taught me how to feel.

Rest in peace, Robin. Thank you so much for all you did for me, for everyone else. We will miss you terribly.

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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Youtube Still

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