The stories he couldn’t tell
“How do you put this man out of his misery?” That was a line that had been floating in my head for weeks. I had been thinking of Bernardo Soares, the introspective bookkeeper in 1930s Lisbon whom Fernando Pessoa created as his alter ego in The Book of Disquiet. Soares spends most of his time walking the streets, sitting at cafés, ruminating over his headaches, insomnia, tedium, his “worthless self,” and “the vast indifference of the stars.” The book is strangely compelling; all that brooding can be addictive. Yet sometimes even I (and you know me, it ain’t easy being me)—yes, even I was getting impatient with that whiny, repetitive voice.
I wanted Soares/Pessoa to lighten up, get some sun, get laid, get on Tumblr, shut up, or seek professional help already. But he won’t. He doesn’t believe suicide is the answer. Neither is human connection nor divine intervention. Neither atheism nor Christianity, not even the “resignation” of the Buddha. Nothing works for him. Art is mere pretense, like the masked ball that is life. He’s forever moaning: “I’m tired. I had a long day full of idiotic work….” And groaning: “I have no social or political sentiments.” “The idea of travelling nauseates me.” “I hate to read.” “I’m dazed by the sarcastic terror of life….” Worse, “our pain has no value beyond its being a pain we feel.” And: “No one understands anyone else.” This was all too much even for mopey me.
Perhaps it all reminded me of my own “issues.” I was getting antsy, snarky, and miserable because I couldn’t finish writing what I had started about Pessoa. I guess the Disquiet excerpts I had posted would be enough to speak for him. For both of us. I’m the one who should shut up. So I gave up trying to make sense of another man’s pain and loneliness. If I couldn’t tell my story about him, perhaps this is not the time or the way to do it. Again, I just need to let go. Quit worrying. “Be indifferent,” as Pessoa himself would advise. Then, Tuesday morning, I was stunned by the first thing I read on the Internet: “Robin Williams dead at 63 in suspected suicide.”
Part of me is getting sick of the eulogies. That he was a kind and gentle man, sweet and generous and compassionate. Part of me couldn’t get enough of it. We shouldn’t get enough of it. Yes, keep the tributes pouring. Let’s keep thinking of him, thanking him for making us laugh and cry, appreciating the goodness of his life, the greatness of his soul. Let’s keep mourning him. Perhaps that’s one way we could keep reminding ourselves that we’re all vulnerable. Depression, addiction, and suicide are real, ugly, and lethal. These are types or outcomes of mental illness we should not romanticize or be complacent about. This is not the time to be indifferent.
Like many others, I was a kid when I got introduced to Williams in the late 1970s via Mork and Mindy. He was Mork, TV’s funny alien and friend to Pam Dawber, the sweetest girl on the planet. It wasn’t my favorite show, and Mork wasn’t my favorite character. I was more into Charlie’s Angels, Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, James at 15 (and at 16), Family, Three’s Company, and The Muppet Show. But like those other characters, Mork made me feel that my fish-out-of-water self could find ways to swim, crawl, or stumble on wherever life put me.
Mork showed me that everyone was weird and sad in some ways. He reminded me that with a little luck and love, we could all laugh, endure, and find human connection no matter how alien or alone we felt. It’s the sort of cheesy nostalgia that makes me think of how simple life used to be. How reassuring it was to watch TV and movies, read books, and enjoy the company of people you could only meet on the screen or on the page. That was how life was supposed to be: there were problems, but people learned to deal with them.
Mork wasn’t supposed to give up trying to understand these unpredictable earthlings. He wouldn’t self-destruct, even as he struggled with his doubts and failures. In nostalgia and denial, I still insist that Williams wasn’t supposed to die this way. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ned Vizzini, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, Anderson Cooper’s brother, my friend’s cousin—no, they weren’t supposed to go this way. They were going to stick around for as long as they could. Perhaps that’s exactly what they did.
And I do not mean that as glib resignation. I do not mean to glamorize suicide, addiction, or depression with that list of famous names. I’m not saying it’s OK to harm yourself and give up on life. And I am not in favor of explicit or sensationalized reporting about suicide. I know that even a personal blog like this has a responsibility to those who might be affected by such public issues as mental health. But my response to the things I read and watch can’t be anything but personal. In which case I am bound to write a lot of self-serving, potentially offensive, and ultimately pointless statements.
Still, I wonder if Rebecca Solnit’s story about the resilient Turtle Man would have made any difference to any of these men. Would they have been consoled by her beautiful passage about a “generous world” in which we allow ourselves to cry out for help and to offer help? I wonder if the example of Pessoa, who wrote some of the most depressing pages in literature, would have meant anything to them. After all, here’s a real person who endured what he called “the tragic futility of life” till an illness (cirrhosis of the liver) finally put him out of his misery. I can only hope that the eulogies for Williams, along with the “think pieces” about his depression and addiction, help us find more ways or better reasons to stick around.
The night before I found out about the actor’s death, I began reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. In the first chapter, the author-psychoanalyst writes about a patient named Peter who fakes his suicide because he has other (true) stories that were too difficult or painful to tell. Grosz says: “I believe all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but Peter was possessed by a story that he couldn’t tell. Not having the words, he expressed himself by other means.”
We will never know the stories that Robin Williams couldn’t tell his family and friends, his fans, or those who could have given him the help he needed. But we can always find comfort in the characters he gave us. The empathetic alien in Mork and Mindy, the generous genie in Aladdin, the father/nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, the mad homeless widower in The Fisher King, the doctor in Awakenings, the therapist in Good Will Hunting, the loner in One-Hour Photo, the teacher in Dead Poets Society. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for all the stories you told us to keep us far and safe from our misery.