The death of beloved comedian Robin Williams has proven a Rorschach test for our times, evoking disturbing responses from the well-meaning as well as from the hatemongers.
Rarely have I seen a celebrity death that has evoked such an outpouring of nearly universal grief — one that touches people of so many generations and backgrounds. Like his mentor, Dayton’s own Jonathan Winters, Williams was that rarest of beings, the kindly comic, finding humor in human foibles without eviscerating his subjects.
Countless fans have lamented that the man who brought so much joy into their lives couldn’t find relief from his own troubles. Why couldn’t he have lived a long life like Lauren Bacall, who entertained Americans during the darkest days of World War II? The screen legend also died last week, at 89, the news of her death eclipsed by Williams’ apparent suicide.
It’s heartbreaking that the comedian’s death has prompted some vicious responses.
Most disturbingly, his daughter Zelda Williams abandoned her Twitter and Instagram accounts Tuesday after saying at least two people were sending her Photoshopped images of her father’s dead body as well as messages blaming her for father’s death.
On the same day, Rush Limbaugh implied that Williams’ “leftist” views” led to the suicide and that it “fits a certain picture or a certain image that the left has. Talk about low expectations and general unhappiness and so forth.”
I am also troubled by the well-intentioned tributes with mimicking Williams’ role in Aladdin: “Genie, you are free.”
It’s no doubt meant to be a more original way of saying, “Rest in peace,” with the unintended consequence of endorsing suicide as a way out.
Suicide isn’t a way of freeing yourself from your demons; it is succumbing to them.
And survivors are never free from the pain of their loss.
Joyce Venys of Huber Heights lost her 17-year-old son, Ryan, to suicide seven years ago. “Some days it seems like yesterday, and some days it seems like a thousand years ago,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the going forward that scares you, and sometimes it’s going back.”
Williams’ apparent suicide brought back many memories of Ryan, a gifted artist and musician.
“At first I was as shocked as anybody when I heard about Robin Williams,” Venys said. “But then I thought about the tragic side of comedy and how most comedians have this dark side. An artist’s brilliance comes from the way they feel things more deeply, like Ryan. They feel such a high level of pain. When they attempt suicide, they don’t want death; they want the pain to go away.”
Yet in another respect Williams’ death is very different from her son’s, Venys said: “Ryan was too young to know the joys and trials of life, or to know that the joys could outweigh the trials. Robin Williams knew that roller coaster ride.”
Venys thinks there is too little openness about suicide, now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control.
She hopes that Williams’ death will bring about a deeper awareness. But she doesn’t want the comedian to be remembered only as a suicide victim. “I hope that his family and his fans will think about his life and not about his death, not that momentary lapse,” she said. “He fought so hard, but this was one time he couldn’t pull himself out.”
Jonathan Winters was Williams’ comedic father figure yet also played his son, Mearth from Mork, in his breakthrough role as the space alien in “Mork and Mindy.”
Winters also battled a demon that nearly killed him – alcohol. He had two young children when he quit drinking in 1958, at the age of 33. Later in life, he said, “I just realized, ‘Hey, I’m either going to be around to perform and be a husband and be a father to these kids and paint or it’s over, and I’ve got to pack it in.’ And I just don’t want to do that, and I still don’t.”
Winters died last year at 87.
If only his protégé had lived such a long life, fulfilling his many gifts to the very end.
Only then could we say, without pain or regret, “Genie, you are free.”