According to film director Brian Levant, who worked with Robin Williams when his career took of, everyone was stunned by his energy and creativity. But Levant also remembers how Williams fueled himself with drugs.
“Every time he’d sneeze, he’d say, “there goes a hundred bucks.” You’d never know it on show night, though. An audience was really his drug of choice, and he’d dazzle them.”
In the beginning of this summer Robin Williams checked in to Hazel Addiction Treatment Center where he enrolled in to a 12 step designed program in order to focus on his fight against alcoholism. The center lies alongside the riverbank of the Mississippi not more than 4 miles from my apartment at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Robin Williams reportedly struggled with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction in his life and his death by his own hand in his own home was possible triggered after realizing, that he was in the early stages of Parkinson.
Death is a deeply private matter and especially suicides should be mentioned with great caution in order to prevent potential copycats. It is not an easy task and journalists are balancing the aforementioned alongside a commitment of illuminating the issue of suicide for their audience.
In an article for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School Meg Spratt points to studies that say that journalists don’t realize the full extent to which their reporting might result in imitation and furthermore points to specific historical evidence that some news coverage of suicide results in more attempts.
For instance people in Denmark will sometimes jump in front of trains. The media will refer to them as person collision rather than suicides. We have a set of press ethical rules in Denmark that clearly states that: “suicide or attempted suicide should not be mentioned unless obvious public interest requires or justifies the press coverage, and if so, mention should be as gentle as possible.”
A few Danish publications went beyond these ethical guidelines as they described the details of the death of Robin Williams leading to criticism this week.
Several media outlets in the U.S. did the same. Shortly after the death of Williams Marin County Sheriff’s Lt. Keith Boyd held a press conference. The details in his briefing went far. Several medias quoted the Sheriff. This is for example from Fox News:
“Williams’ body was found in his bedroom slightly suspended in a seated position with a belt around his neck. The other end of the belt was wedged between a closed door and the doorframe. Both rigor mortis and livor mortis were present in Williams’ body. Williams’ left wrist had cuts, and a pocketknife with what appeared to be dried blood on the blade was found near his body.”
Another example was from New York Daily News this Wednesday that chose to let the word “HANGED” dominate the front page in large, bold font alongside details from the suicide.
Treasure every minute
It very well could be argued that the degree of detail and graphic disposition went way beyond serving the reader’s need of information. Where is the obvious public interest?
At the same time the revilement in graphic detail overshadows several more important aspect of the tragic story. First of all that Robin Williams was not alone, far from it. Every forty second an American dies by his or hers own hand according to The New Yorker, and the rate is going up, especially among middle-aged men.
At the same time his death reminds us about the fragileness of life and he also reminded us about that and the need of treasuring every minute especially the time we have with our loved ones. He also reminded us of that in acting.
In the movie Good Will Hunting Robin Williams plays Sean a psychologist who’s wife has passed away. He has therapy sessions with this Boston working class kid (played by Matt Damon) who is a math genius but works as a janitor at the university. The kid has just met a girl that he has a crush on, but he is afraid that if he continues to see her, then the perfect impression will fade away.
Sean: …I think that’s a super philosophy, Will. That way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody.
My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful idiosyncrasies. You know what? She used to fart in her sleep. Sorry I shared that with you. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up. She woke up and gone like “oh was that you?” I’d say yeah…I didn’t have the heart to tell her…Oh God…[laughing]
Will: She woke herself up?
Sean: Yesssss. Oh Christ…. aahhh, but, Will, she’s been dead two years and that’s the shit I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know, little things like that. Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That’s what made her my wife. Oh, and she had the goods on me, too, she knew all my little peccadillos. People call these things imperfections, but they’re not, aw, that’s the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let in to our weird little worlds. You’re not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn’t perfect either. But the question is: whether or not you’re perfect for each other. That’s the whole deal. That’s what intimacy is all about.
Life isn’t for anybody
Some years ago Robin Williams spoke with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross and suicide emerged as a joke doing the interview. She asked him about his experiences with depression and therapy.
“As the one therapist said, change is not a hobby, you know? And there’s the one guy at the suicide hotline said life isn’t for everybody.” Terry Gross starts genuine and spontaneous laugh. Williams pauses and laconically states “that will be a rough one.”
In the interview Robin Williams talks in a quiet melancholic tone that emphasizes a huge gap between the Williams in the limelight and off stage, and its almost impossible to comprehend that it is the same man who manically speed talked through Goooooooood morning Vietnam!
Decca Aitkenhead described it like this in the Guardian: “His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous baritone – as if on the verge of tears – that would work very well if he were delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind – even tender – but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.”
In the end, the clown makes everyone laugh, but who makes the clown laugh? It seems a tragic mystery why a man who brought so much gladness in to the world couldn’t find it for himself.
Note: I chose to quote Fox News extendedly in order to make the point as clear as possible and show the exact degree of detail in the report.