Big Stories

Robin Williams And The Dark Art Of Laughing At My Demons

In the middle of an empty bar, I erupted into grief, knowing full well that I’m only here because my suicide attempts were unsuccessful.

Universal Pictures

This is not a eulogy. This is not a neatly smug explanation for why we should have seen this coming. I will not be digging blindly into a dead man’s head, nor will I perform a full transnasal craniotomy with a long, slender hook. I know him only as a clown, a man with the rare gift of telling the uncensored truth while making its existence bearable. This is not a think piece on the cultural importance of Dead Poets Society or the labor practices in Hook. It’s not a list of his 13 funniest moments, a sallow retrospective on his darker roles, a reprinted interview from decades past, copious arm-hair fetish erotica, or a callous analysis of the physical aspects of his suicide. No, this is fumbling through the sick sense of recognition.

When the news broke of Robin Williams’ death, I’d just settled into a faded lime settee, my sweaty August thighs adding to the body fluids no doubt collected on the velvet upholstery. The hot dredges of summer daylight, the kind already slipping through our proverbial fingers, poured unencumbered through a wide window that seemed to pluck the fading light right out of the clouds. It was the second half of a long workday, the part where I crawl into my favorite bar and sit in the corner like a sullen cat and make strange, grimacing faces while banging away at a keyboard. I opened my laptop and I saw it: Robin Williams, apparent suicide. And I believed it immediately.

For most of this calendar year, I’ve been researching clowns. Talking to clowns, reading about clowns, spending time around clowns, and generally amassing a book’s worth of clown trivia. (For instance, Hugh Jackman used to be a birthday party clown.) And while there was certain levity at times, I was struck by how much sadness was seeping through cracks everywhere I looked. There’s the tragedy of Joseph Grimaldi, the progenitor of the iconic clown whiteface and one of the biggest entertainers of his day, who lost his first wife and baby during childbirth, watched his son die an alcoholic, tried to commit suicide and failed, and died a broken, penniless drunk. There’s Barry Lubin, better known as Grandma the Clown, who regaled me with his history of alcoholism, depression, cancer, divorce, and loss. Heartfelt stories came pouring out of strangers and friends alike, all signaling to me that the sad clown isn’t just an archetype; it’s part of what makes them great. Something about life in the darkness makes one cherish those moments in the light.

At first, it seems a great cosmic irony that Williams dedicated his life to inspiring the kind of joy and release he could never really give himself. But I get it. And, of course, he did.

For me, a lifetime of depression has meant that I grew up feeling like the awkward assemblage of my own biological chaos was woefully inadequate, like a pebble in someone’s shoe, some tiny, insignificant nuisance to be found, removed, and absolved. People assured me that it gets better, to just keep trying, to do something nice for myself, to find joy in daily life. They can fix you, they said. You don’t have to be like this. Let me tell you how to fix this. We need to fix you.

It always seemed like bullshit. How does one start to climb out of a cave that seems completely air-tight?

Whereas other brains might feature a home built with treated lumber, finished with something shiny and easy to clean, I’m more of a pile of raw wood. It’s a little too much empathy, perhaps, or maybe just not enough serotonin floating around upstairs. But whatever the cause, I saw myself in Robin Williams. I learned there was power in laughing at your demons, and the sweetest glimpses of amelioration in unleashing laughter in others. A master of the art of clowning — that is, mocking those in power with impunity and relieving the quiet anxieties of social taboos — Williams was the consummate performer. And, like so many other great clowns, it seems his appreciation of joy must have, in some way, been borne out of excruciating pain.

I think there’s such beauty in the clown. I don’t mean this with any schmaltzy pretense; I mean it in the same way one is the lowest common denominator of all whole numbers. Like how farts can make even babies giggle. The way it’s hard not to laugh when someone falls down. The way it feels so, so good to make someone smile.

The way it can reach people who think themselves unreachable.

Imagine you have a house full of appliances, but you’ve never had electricity and have no idea that other people do. And then one day, the power just fucking turns on, and everything whirs to life, and suddenly the darkness is not only kept at bay. That’s what it felt like when I finally got on the right medication a few months ago. This was soon followed by a churning horror I’ve yet to shake that settled into my guts when I finally realized how sick I’d been. Depression can also be like a house full of cat piss: After a while, you just get used to it.

When Williams died, I suddenly felt reconnected to my years of loneliness in a way I couldn’t experience before treatment. I still cannot shake how deeply isolated I felt when in the depths of my illness, how I felt rejected by many of the people trying to help me. Which is why, in huge, choking sobs, in the middle of an empty bar, I erupted into grief for Robin Williams, knowing full well that I’m only here because my suicide attempts were unsuccessful, and so I got to stick around for another go at treatment. But in those tears was also an outpouring of gratitude: He taught me that I might be fucked up, but so was he, and weren’t we all, anyway?

I believe that one of the kindest things you can say to a person is simply this: You’re fucked up, and that’s OK. And that’s what I heard in him. He seemed as fearless as he did troubled, and the way he spoke candidly about everything from cunnilingus tongue fatigue to harrowing mental illness made me feel like maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t so bad to be stuck inside this brain of mine. That life is generally ridiculous and messy, and we are all so deeply screwed up, and, given the choice of laughter or tears, your best bet is to dance on the edge and revel in the absurd intimacy of the two.

Robin Williams walked that razor edge between laughing and crying, gathering up the mishmash of our poetically stupid humanity and reflecting it back to us with such compassion that we saw not the tally of our insufficiencies, but the glorious sum of our parts. A consummate reminder that everything is ridiculous, we are never as alone as we think we are.

We’re all fucked up, and that’s OK.


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