This post is dedicated to Robin Williams, who I loved as a child, teenager and a grown up.
It seems that there are few happenings within the spectrum of human experience that seem able to dent the collective conscience as powerfully and uncomfortably as the self-mortification of a gifted or beloved celebrity. In the 21st century, War and natural disasters have become so frequent and commonplace, so relentless and ubiquitous, that many of us unconsciously file them in dusty alcoves in the libraries of our minds whenever they flicker on our TV screens or emblazon the headlines in our newspapers. Sometimes, they barely register. My Facebook feed has been packed for the last 48 hours with tributes, eulogies and goodbyes to the actor Robin Williams, whereas posts about Gaza, Northern Iraq, South Sudan or Syria are conspicuous by their absence, and not just for the last two days (with the exception of a minority of my friends who are in states of constant political activity).
I am not suggesting for one minute that Robin Williams, or any other public figure that takes their life in tragic circumstances, is not deserving of our attention, mourning or respect, or indeed that we should attempt to qualify tragedy. Far from it. Nor am I proffering judgement on people who don’t follow global news. Rather, I am intrigued by what it is about the self-inflicted death of a celebrity that captures our attention and emotion in a way that other news doesn’t seem capable of doing. Why are we so drawn in, and why does the loss seemingly feel so much more resonant or personal?
Well, unlike the casualties of war or famine who are innumerable and anonymous and frequently presented to us as diluted statistics, it may be because this kind of tragedy always has a face. A kind, smiling, instantly recognisable face in the case of a man like Robin Williams. It feels almost like losing a relative you loved, the one who always told the jokes at the family gatherings and always seemed to be armed with the right words for the right moments. Their performances seem a part of the fabric of your childhood, intertwined with your memories, helping you to set your personal GPS for a time and a place.
For me, Robin Williams was the highlight of Mork and Mindy and I cannot extricate the memory of the show from the wonder at getting our first family television set and the laughter and enjoyment of my mum and dad. This rings true for other celebrities who died too young because the weight of the world became a burden they could no longer bear. On a personal level, Kurt Cobain would be an obvious example of someone who was a part of my early teens – a genius who appeared on my friends’ bedroom walls, and whose music was the only thing that would get the boys on the dancefloor at the school discos.
And in the 21st century in particular, celebrities have become so venerated and visible that they weave themselves into our lives like some psychological toxin saturating the throes of our unconscious. I am ashamed to admit that I know more about Kerry Katona’s life from seeing countless magazine covers than I do about Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s. I know more about Cheryl Cole’s boyfriends than I do about the wives of Henry VIII. For better or worse, right or for wrong, it feels like celebrities belong to us and this may be part of the explanation for why so many people are deeply affected by their passing. Their passing is like losing a thread in the tapestry of our lives – something that was part of the landscape of the day-to-day, something we could set our watches by. But I’m not sure that I’m fully behind this school of thought.
I think what is more likely is that the suicide of a celebrity rams home a great deal of sad and uncomfortable truths. In a media-driven world where a reality television star getting a new haircut or a singer getting a pet pig are worthy of front page news, we are all led to believe that celebrity is something that we should aspire to; it is sat on a pedestal in front of us and we are forced to believe that it is important because it is put where important things are supposed to be.
The lives of celebrities seem to contain all of the glamour, comfort and desirability that juxtaposes so unfavourably with the lives that the vast majority of us lead; this is what we should want, we are told, and if we don’t have it, it is we who should be unhappy, incomplete and insecure. How then could somebody who has everything that we are told that we should ever want, with all their talent, success and good looks (think Heath Ledger), all of their adoration, achievements and ability (think Gary Speed), all their magic, magnetism and musical artistry (think Kurt Cobain) possibly want to take their own life? In our eyes they have it all; they emblazon billboards; they light up the silver screen; they look the way that you’re supposed to feel guilty for not looking.
For many people I think that maybe it is comforting that our lives bring us more contentment and satisfaction than we give ourselves credit for, an affirmation that for all our relative unimportance that we have something right, have a balance and freedom that an A-lister could only dream of. This does not mean that people are revelling in the tragic death of another human being, rather it means that they are reassured by the challenging of an idea, of a notion perpetuated by every tabloid newspaper and celebrity gossip magazine, that our lives are somehow less significant or fulfilling than the trifling idiosyncrasies of the plastic celebrity dramas that they invent and then play out on their pages. How many times have we heard someone stop to say ‘why would they do that when they…?’ before citing the afflicted person’s talent, wealth, attractive partner or fame as reasons for them to carry on living?
But perhaps more than any of this, it is the truth that depression, addiction and inescapable misery level the playing field and remind us of our collective humanity, vulnerability and susceptibility. What else could link Amy Winehouse with the thousands of desperate addicts who will die as a consequence of their dependencies this year? What else could link Robin Williams with the millions of ‘regular’ people who are pushed in the direction of Prozac because nobody, including themselves, can find an answer to their problems? Depression makes a human of us all. It reduces 21st century demi-goods to ruin and humiliation in just the same way that it riddles marginalised teenagers or the millions of people who are desperately unhappy as a consequence of being ostracised and persecuted for their sexuality, religion or ethnicity.
Through a high profile victim, prominence and gravity are given to a horrific disease that is too frequently dismissed, and even more frequently misunderstood. The death of people who are supposed to have it all forces us to ask uncomfortable questions, and to redefine our concept and parameters for happiness and psychological well-being. It urges us to be grateful and pleads for empathy for those people in our lives or on its edges, and it pushes us to try to come to a greater understanding of what we can do to make sure that we don’t lose more wonderful people, whether they be Robin Williams or the woman next door. It shows us how success and satisfaction are two deeply personal concepts that cannot be governed by outward perceptions, or measured against societal barometers, and it asks us to look beyond the surface, underneath the smiling veneer in order to find the truth in the people we know or love, and to love, accept and understand them for the truth we find.
I mourn Robin Williams’ passing, for the man he was, for the joy that he brought to so many millions of people, whether he was making us laugh in Good Morning Vietnam, making us cry in Dead Poet’s Society or making us believe in the power of one person to do good for another in Good Will Hunting. But more than anything, I mourn for him as just another man who couldn’t find a way out of the labyrinth of torment that he had lost himself in. I hope he finds in death the peace that he was unable to find in life, and more than anything I hope his death helps other people find answers where he found only darkness.