Robin Williams and Despair

In a brief examination of depression in the wake of Robin William's devastating death, Shep Rose cites parallels in the life of another tragically lost genius, David Foster Wallace.


In the wake of Robin’s Williams tragic death by suicide, I decided to write a little about depression. Thankfully, I don’t have first-hand knowledge about the subject. Meaning, I don’t suffer from depression myself. However, my favorite author is David Foster Wallace. He is the most brilliant, hilarious, prodigiously gifted, and, ultimately, tormented writer I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. He killed himself at the age of 46, after a career of prolific work and widespread praise. I’ve read almost all of DFW’s writing and even tackled his biography entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max. I have a specific recollection of reading his short story, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, on a plane and laughing so hard that I was convulsing with tears rolling down my face and my seatmate was visibly concerned about my well-being. So, when he committed suicide in 2008 I was baffled. Here was an extremely bright and keenly aware person who people loved the world over, and he chose to leave us. It was no big secret that he had grappled with mental issues in the past—it was all over his writing. For those of us who don’t know much about depression, real serious depression, DFW writes about it in the very same essay I thought was so funny. He paints a vivid picture of what it is like to suffer from this affliction:



The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.



This is an incredibly powerful passage that accelerates and intensifies the common refrain that is found when researching depression, “there’s just no reason to get out of bed in the morning.”


So, back to the tragic loss of Robin Williams. Truth be told, I’m not his number-one fan, but it’s impossible to not respect his talent or to ignore the length and breadth of his career. His frenetic and almost jack-rabbit-paced stand-up in the late '70s and early '80s was definitely fueled by cocaine (he’s admitted as much on many occasions) and was almost grotesque (if not impressive) to witness. This, though, was followed by an astounding movie career, and film was easily his most effective medium. To be able to cut and paste different takes must have been an arduous, but deeply satisfying, job for a director and editor. He undoubtedly gave you a myriad of different takes on characters with plenty of outrageous ad-libs. The biggest example of this has to be Good Morning Vietnam. I remember my parents had the movie soundtrack cassette, and our whole family would laugh at some of his bits on tape during long road trips, and it is easily one of the top five movies that my family can all agree on watching. Another one of his films that is very close to my heart is Dead Poets Society. Having gone to a strict boarding school, it really speaks to me in its humor, sadness, and soul. The film was also full of inspiring bits of advice and wisdom delivered passionately and convincingly by Williams:


Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." Don't be resigned to that. Break out!.... Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, Robert Frost said, "Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.


I have no doubt that Williams lived his life unlike anyone else, he definitely marched to the beat of his own drum and took the path less traveled. What’s so tragic is that it had to end like it did. Why do such funny and creative people like Williams and DFW suffer when they have multitudes of adoring fans and major accomplishments under their belts? I think it’s because of the seemingly overriding feeling of despair that always seems to catch up with them. It must be a feeling of great loneliness that most of us feel we can cure with a few phone calls or meals with loved ones. Depression seems much deeper and ingrained than this. And despite the thousands of dissertations and studies on this subject, the despair persists. I have done no such extensive research, but I do have a story that was told to me that was more personal than reading about a famous writer and actor succumbing to this horrible condition.


I have a friend that went to college out West and was close with a guy a couple years older. They had a lot of good times together, but as it turned out, his friend was manic depressive and eventually took his own life. My friend had absolutely no idea, he just remembered laughing at frivolous things, constantly joking around and having fun. He didn’t think that he could have changed him, but he wished that he had known, something—anything—so that more people were there to prop him up, help out, and make more plans to look forward to.


In no more place does this resonates than in David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece called Infinite Jest. While a character is speaking of depression; he astutely, and rather simply, proclaims, “It’s a lot easier to fix something if you can see it.”


While I was talking today with a friend about Williams, she claimed she had read that many of Williams’ friends never really knew the true Robin, that he was always performing and “on”. I wish they and my friend from out West had at least been able to see the problem so that maybe they could have helped fix it.


RIP Mr. Keating…O Captain, my Captain


Please read any and all of DFW’s work that you can, a short one is his graduation speech to Kenyon College here.


And for a longer and greatly rewarding read try this.


Image from