Amnesia Lane: Thoughts on Robin Williams

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Let’s talk about Robin Williams, the indirect namer of this column.

It’s doubly appropriate that the movie the “amnesia lane” line was from, Dead Poet’s Society, was also this first time I saw him perform. My sister and I used to watch random tapes out of my parent’s movie collection. It was but one of many movies we saw before we could understand; we also watched Swing Kids often.

It also is fitting is that a Walt Whitman elegy referenced in that movie, originally intended for Abraham Lincoln, has been making the rounds on social media:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Robin Williams was a rare breed of actor who could be at the top of his game in either comedy or drama. Because of that, I don’t feel it odd at all that my introduction to him wasn’t though his better-known comedic side.

It’s hard not to remember anything I’ve seen him do without assigning some superlative to it.

His role in One Hour Photo made it the only psychological thriller I had seen that actually made me uncomfortable.

The first time I saw his Live on Broadway special, my friends had to pause the DVD for a good five minutes because I was laughing so hard and so long I legitimately had trouble breathing.

And I can’t disagree with his Oscar and Screen Actor’s Guild wins for Good Will Hunting.

The man brought great charm to his many roles in children’s movies, incomparable wit and delivery to his comedy and great intensity and devotion to character to everything else.

But his manic bouts of entertaining had another side.

What people get wrong about depression

Robin Williams suicide, as many tend to be, was the apparent result of depression. Without living in his head, it’s hard to say why he felt it, or even if it was a clinical from or if it stemmed from things going very, very poorly for him of late. If there were significant problems in his life (it doesn’t seem to be career related, but his career is pretty much the only thing outsiders are able to analyze), that could certainly change the narrative of his suicide completely. Although we don’t (and won’t) know the whole story, bringing up the idea of depression is certainly worthwhile, and also personal for me.

Depression is a tricky beast. It’s so difficult to discuss that any time someone finds a way to describe how depressed people can feel is cause for celebration.

Depression in its myriad forms is a personal thing. While there can be plenty of common strings, what is true for one person could be devastatingly wrong for another. But what follows is what what occurs to me as an adult after various episodes throughout my life, both minor and heavy.

When a person is depressed through external forces, it’s just a low mood or a rotten, horrible, no-good, very bad day. When people offer help on those occasions, an externally depressed person can be cheered up.

But when a person is depressed through internal causes (the most popular of which being no damn reason at all), others have a strange expectation that it can be remedied as though it were nothing more than that bad mood or day.

I’ve often struggled with mental anchors weighing me down, and I’ve often done so alone. It’s not that I’ve never had other offer to help, it’s that they couldn’t. Some of the best ways to help overcome any problem, of course, are to minimize or eliminate the cause. However, that cannot be done when there is no cause or a cause that doesn’t respond to such efforts.

In fact, those who insist on helping risk coming off as condescending and annoying. This is one reason why such depression often is invisible; those who suffer it hide from those who are all too eager to try to fix things.

(Not to say that depressed people should be ignored, but neither should they be harassed.)

In the end, with no relief from within and little help from without that doesn’t serve to make you feel WORSE, many people are left to wait out a depressive episode. Relying on time as a cure can be a very dangerous option when somebody is sufficiently affected as to harm him or herself. In the less-pronounced cases, either a person overcomes the setback, or the attack relents and allows them to go on… for now.

This is a bit of a mess, but like I said, it’s hard to talk about it.

To say depression is simply a feeling of sadness is a gross oversimplification. Depression can manifest in any number of feelings, or as the lack of any feeling at all.

The most common way my depression kicks in is by sending thoughts unbidden into my consciousness of things that slightly embarrass the me of today that were done by the me of many, many years ago. I imagine not many people are randomly vexed by turns of phrase they uttered in elementary school.

Go ahead, click on the link. Just don’t try to bury me in compliments afterward or tell me to forget it all; neither will make it never happen again, and you’d be foolish to think they could.

So, Robin Williams had a bout with depression and committed suicide. Such a simple phrase seems to tell a complete story, and people might be quick to speak of its elements in a similarly simplistic way.

Just know that depression, its causes, its effects and overcoming it are extremely complex and multifaceted things for which everybody’s mileage may vary. We cannot make any reasonable assumption of his mental state or why he was in it. Nor should we get so tied up in his death as to equate depression to suicide, for suicide is not an inevitable result of all kinds of depression.

(But this part is about depression, not suicide. If you’d like to learn more about warning sides of suicide and ways to attempt to prevent it, there are many resources to check out. This and this are good places to start.)

Though, the subject of this particular suicide does bring up something else.

What journalism gets wrong about suicide

Lest we forget, I am one of the “young journalists” who help makes Damage Control a fantastic and disturbing blend of geek culture and journalism, as the banner of the Movable Type iteration of the blog so stated.

It’s easy to forget that given that Geoff writes about news nearly every day and I often wander off into feature land. It’s also easy to forget because the bio I wrote for myself that describes me as working for “the major newspaper of his minor metropolitan area”  five years ago has yet to be posted (which is just as well, as there was a typo in the original).


There are few things as widely and intensely covered in the news world than shocking celebrity deaths. Robin Williams was, arguably, one of the most recognised celebrities of his age. He was still well entrenched in Hollywood, and we’ll see him in four more movies (including a documentary) that are currently in post-production.

But, as in any mechanically-achieved death, the details can make it all the more grim.

This morning, I found all-too detailed reports about exactly how Williams was found after using a (frankly) clever and novel method of suicide that I had never heard of or thought up before. That probably also goes for hundreds of millions of other people as well.

While these were all facts freely given by the investigating Sheriff’s Office (which didn’t legally need to be so verbose), the reporting on Williams’ methodology was not “detailed.” It was “instructional.”

The fact that it was done by a newsworthy person does not make such intricate details noteworthy for publication. There is no greater news value nor shocked attention that could be had beyond simply calling it a suicide by hanging. No greater detail was necessary for extra sales, extra clicks, extra search engine optimization or extra viewer involvement. Not that those are the pillars of journalism to begin with.

I have a feeling that, in the coming years, a few families will regret the method was so widely reported.

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