Rest well, Shaman King: On Robin Williams

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I don’t have much to offer about the passing and legacy of Robin Williams outside of what has already been written, Tweeted, shared via status updates, exchanged at kitchen tables, or conveyed in shocked text exchanges. Beginning with the syndicated episodes of Mork and Mindy that aired in the early 80s, Williams has always been an omnipresent force in my life. For so many people—for decades—he was like the Genie he portrayed in Aladdin, a hilarious and frenetic ball of energy, heart and genius. And it felt as if he, like Genie, was immortal—like he would be with us forever. This was partly what shocked so many when the news broke.

Equally shocking, of course, was that this man who inspired in countless millions laughter, joy, and love was not only gone, but he took his own life. We were reminded that depression is a monstrous, invisible disease that does not discriminate. As Mark Joyella expressed, “Please. Robin Williams didn’t have ‘demons’. He had a disease. A soulless, hideous, relentless motherfucker of a disease.” Just as it can take—just as it has taken and just as it will take—our friends, our family members, our veterans and soldiers, it daunted this national treasure, finally extinguishing his flame and very few of the millions who loved him from afar ever realized anything was wrong. It reminded us that the disease is real, that it afflicts people daily, and that we collectively struggle to understand it in a way that makes possible meaningfully engaging the topic.

A handful of days ago, Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Anger has broken out there and demonstrations and riots have since taken place. The community is in mourning and frustrated by being so grimly confronted by the reality that—despite shifts in the popular narrative over time—the life of a young black person in this country somehow remains disposable. There has been a great deal to celebrate since the movements in the 1950s and 60s, but the realities, especially for black youth, are still dire and grim. I can, as I saw someone mention somewhere online, measure my whole life by incidents in which unarmed black men have been brutalized by police or by people believing themselves to be acting in spirit of righteousness. Just as Robin Williams has been in my consciousness for as long as I can remember, so has this detestable reality.

The deaths of Brown and Williams are two entirely different events contextualized by entirely different circumstances, but both are heartbreaking because they illustrate brutal realities and uncomfortable inevitabilities that consume the health and lives of so many. The circumstances of both should remind us to keep fighting the good fights, and to remember to make an effort to love each other more than we typically make time for.

But the backdrop of Brown’s murder, and the subsequent militarized lock-down of Ferguson, makes for me the loss of Williams all the more devastating. The beautiful thing about comedy is that it can transcend so much of what is otherwise divisive. It can be a common language in that it is the proverbial spoon full of sugar that makes palatable offerings of deeper truths. There are Shamen of this form. Pryor, Bruce, Rivers, Carlin, Brooks, Rock, Martin, Cheech and Chong, Murray, Cosby, Barr, and now Notaro and CK. They and countless others both famous and unknown have fought to share perspectives and points of view that are otherwise off the table. In doing so, they have brought seemingly disparate pockets of our society together to pursue enlightenment. These are the people we need to help us tell the truth. When we are beaten, these are the people we look to to restore our spirits.

Among that group, living and dead, Williams had that energy and perspective that felt almost alien. It was too heart-felt and too right on to be human. His place was special in our time. As Marc Maron said of him, “There is no body that wasn’t touched by Robin Williams at some point. He was the king. The spirit of comedy ran through this guy.”

In this time, when black kids are still getting shot because they are black, and when things seem to feel as if they are hopeless and in shambles more than we can remember them being, we need that spark of madness Williams so famously cherished and kept alive. We need what we thought he would produce an infinite amount of not because it stops the bullets of overzealous police officers, or because it alone will stop racism, or because it innately ails our ills; we need it because it gets us through. It keeps our hearts alive and, when carried out at the right times and with the right skill, it brings to us truths not just about society, government, race, sex, consumerism, and more, but truths about ourselves that we are often otherwise unwilling to confront and examine in great detail.”

Ironically, in losing Williams, we are reminded of one of the truths that afflicts many of our truth-tellers—that the fear and isolation, which Williams candidly discusses in the context of his substance abuse in his 2010 conversation with Marc Maron—can be magnified exponentially by the onset of depression. That onset can literally stop a person dead.

“The mayor’s name is fear
His force patrols the pier
From a mountain of cliche
That advances every day
The doctor spoke a cloud
He rained out loud
You’ll keep your doors and windows shut
And swear you’ll never show a soul again
But isolation pushes you ’til every muscle aches
Down the only road it ever takes
But everybody’s scared of this place, they’re staying away
Your little house on Memory Lane”

— Elliott Smith, “Memory Lane” (2003)

The disease is real it is killing our people. Depression took our Shaman King.

For me, the Williams binge will begin with his absolutely brilliant performance in World’s Greatest Dad, then on to Garp (fuck you, Under Toad), The Fisher King, Death to Smoochy, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, and everything in between. First, I will finish watching The Birdcage, which I started last night before I finally just had to retreat to bed, and I will take in all of the heart Williams bled into that movie. I will cry my way though his talk to Will (and—in my mind during the dozens of times I have watched it before—to me) on the park bench in the Common. I will cheer him on as he brings patients back to life before coping with him as they slip back into darkness in Awakenings. I will love what he did and appreciate his countless contributions.

We must confront and fight the mechanism of entrenched racism, a system that discriminates, brutalizes, and murders, that takes the lives of American kids because of the color of their skin. And we need to know, to understand, to educate about the disease that can itself brutalize and take lives—seemingly silently to many onlookers—wholly without discrimination.

Those battles will prove longer lasting than they should, and so on the way to the other side we should do everything we can to love and show compassion along the way.

I will miss the king. Rest well, your highness.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.