Dead Poets and Comic Geniuses

The checkout line was unusually long at Safeway today. Long enough to give me time to notice the tabloids staring down at me from bins on either side of my cart. All the headlines seemed to be about Robin Williams, promising “intimate details” about his final hours, his last words, where and how and why he took his own life.

I tried to look away. At some level, I didn’t want to know the details. The details were none of my business—and besides, I certainly didn’t trust that a tabloid rushed to print so soon after his death would actually get much right, or that the editors even felt any obligation or desire to get anything right. They wanted to sell papers. And if there were no alien abductions to report this week, then exploiting a man’s pain would suffice.

Surely, I thought, Williams had to have known that this moment of private agony would soon become food for the maw of celebrity culture. If he had stopped to think about it for a minute, he would have realized what his suicide would do to his loved ones, and how it would become the latest obsession of a culture constantly in search of a new obsession.

Stop. To. Think.

But he couldn’t, of course. That’s the point. Depression that deep is single-minded: it doesn’t allow in thoughts about the aftermath. Depression functions by minimizing access to rational thought. That’s its modus operandi.

The curiosity that caused all those papers to be printed is equally irrational. And as the checkout dragged on—the woman at the head of the line was having a long dispute with the cashier about coupons—I finally lost restraint and picked up one of the magazines. I skimmed to the story, but stopped myself after simply gazing at the photos—Robin in various film roles, a shot of the house in Tiburon where he died. I stuffed the magazine back in its bin, unread.

When I was four years old, my grandfather killed himself—a fact that was kept from me for years, of course, but that has haunted me ever since I found out. In high school I took a class called “Insanity in Literature,” where we read The Bell Jar and learned how its author, Sylvia Plath, had ended her own life in a gas-filled kitchen. I was fascinated by the concept of suicide. The romanticism of it appealed to my adolescent “they’ll miss me when I’m gone” attitude.   But there was something else, too: still grappling with the inevitability of death, I was amazed that anyone would actually want to move it up on the calendar. What on earth could explain that, I wondered.

I found out soon enough. My first novel, Chemistry, was inspired by one of my first romantic relationships, a love affair with a handsome 26-year-old man whom I watched sink into a debilitating depression. Just a few months into the relationship, I was thrust into the role of caretaker, witnessing his spiral into uncontrollable despair. He began seeing a psychiatrist and was put on medication whose effects were as unpredictable as the disease itself. And one day he attempted suicide by overdosing on the very pills that were supposed to cure him. He survived and was institutionalized for several months. It was during my frequent visits to the mental hospital that I began to see how depression works, how it pulls you away from the world into a solipsistic universe that admits nothing but itself.

As I learned from that experience, suicide has a disproportionate impact on the LGBT community, particularly our youth. And over the past week, a lot has been written about the increased risk of suicide for middle-aged men. So that covers two of my own demographic categories.

Despite what I’ve learned—through personal experience as well as studies on the subject—I struggle to understand. When I heard about Robin Williams, I tried to imagine what had happened. I tried to see myself in his shoes: walking through a beautiful, well-appointed house on a sunny day, past the mantel where my Academy Award stands guard, past posters of my films and various signs of success and adulation, into a closet full of designer clothes, so I could throw a belt over the rod.

It didn’t compute for me. He had everything he could want—everything I want—and still he did this?

But it’s not supposed to compute. It’s not supposed to make sense. Fame and fortune are irrelevant. The fact that Robin Williams achieved things I can only dream of is irrelevant. Many, in fact, have argued that the pain he suffered was precisely the thing that led him to overcompensate by being so incredibly funny. It may have been the key to his genius. But even that genius couldn’t stop him from reaching for the belt.

As I confront my own midlife crisis, I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been me; it could have been any of us. Our culture encourages men to be externally focused, to make their mark in the world. When you reach an age where new beginnings are hard to come by, disappointment inevitably results. There’s a tendency to believe you’re stuck with whatever it is you’ve created by then. When the second chances are used up and the years ahead are clearly fewer than the years behind, you’d damn well better be happy with what you’ve achieved.

And although I know that Robin Williams’s depression went far deeper than a midlife crisis, I still find myself cautiously observing the people in my life who fall into that demographic—looking for signs. Because a midlife crisis is no longer a joke.

Neither is depression. It made that point clear by killing the funniest man in the world.

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