Couch and Stage

Integrating words and action in psychotherapy.

Who Killed Robin Williams?

Reflections on the Life and Death of Robin Williams

When I was young, I loved the old Anglo-American ballads. One of my favorites was ‘Who Killed Cock Robin,’ a question and answer song unmasking the murderer, coffin-maker, grave-digger and preacher of the dead bird.

Nothing in the ballad reveals the identity of the robin, although there is historical speculation that the bird might be a stand-in for the mythical Robin Hood or the historical 18th century British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. Whatever the identity, the ballad suggests Cock Robin was a worthy figure and that many in the animal kingdom took care to ritualize his passing. One old version of the song ends:

All the birds in the air

Fell to sighing and sobbing,

When they heard the bell toll 

For poor Cock Robin.

In my days as a folk-singer, I sang the song as a kind of lament, drawing out the pathos in the poignant final lines of each verse:

Who killed cock robin?

It was I, oh, it was I.

These lines suggested to me that singer and audience, the generalized ‘I,’ were complicit in the death of an innocent.

The media reported that Robin Williams took his own life. As with any suicide, especially that of a heralded celebrity, speculation abounds. Why would someone of such talent and genius, wildly successful at that, kill himself? The usual media talking heads offered the usual explanations: depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol and drug abuse. Some noted that he had recently returned to rehab and was despondent over the lack of acclaim for his latest films and TV series--all credible reasons.

And yet, I wonder if this Cock Robin was killed, and if so, who killed him? In the song, it is the sparrow with his little bow and arrow. In reality, we can only guess. Was it the media with its bottomless demand of success? Was it the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Was it some internal demon that this Robin needed to silence forever? 

I pondered this question more than usual as my clients, students and children were noticeable jittery, even depressed. I realized how so many identify with a public figure not only in life, but also in death. Some openly questioned the ironic sadness of the clown who needed to portray a happy persona to stave off the darkness within. I wondered with them, ‘Don’t we all do that, making light of that which feels so heavy in order to survive?’ Nietzsche famously wrote that the thing that does not kill us makes us stronger. But what about the thing that does kill us? Doesn’t that threaten to make a mockery of all semblance of strength, and isn’t that lurking just around the corner--if not a bow and arrow, then an invalidation, a creative failure, a drink too many, a devastating review.

As a child, I was drawn to clowns, especially the great circus clowns, mimes and actors like Emmett Kelly, Marcel Marceau, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Their exquisite sense of timing, control and stage magic made me feel alive to my imagination and to my burgeoning mind. But when I witnessed the more uncontrolled manic energy of such comedic performers as Lenny Bruce, Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis and Jonathan Winters, I had a hard time looking and laughing. I felt uncomfortable, sometimes disturbed. Looking back, I think it was because they crossed a line for me that blurred the boundaries between performance and reality. When Lenny Bruce transitioned from his incisive social satire to an obsessive reading of court papers against him, I could only see a performance of pathology. I could never watch my beloved Jerry Lewis perform a telethon, hugging ‘his kids’ while sobbing into the camera. When people I admired crossed over the safe aesthetic distance of the fourth wall, exposing too much of their own pain, I turned away. 

Robin Williams was in a different class, as he was a classically-trained actor who specialized in playing healers like the neurologist, Oliver Sacks (in the fictional persona of Dr. Sayer), in ‘Awakenings,’ the psychologist, Dr. Sean Maguire, in ‘Good Will Hunting,’ and the iconoclast, Patch Adams, who uses humor and humanity as forms of healing. He played such roles with a degree of restraint, sentimentality and humor that served his characters well and seemed to beautifully match the actor with the character. But when in more overtly comic roles such as Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire, the Vietnam DJ, the Genie and Popeye, that drew on his gift of improvisation, I had a harder time watching. This was heightened for me when he appeared unbridled on the Johnny Carson or David Letterman shows and entered a manic universe of brilliant yet disturbing riffs. I lost the personae and got lost in the person who was not funny to me, but sad, more like the fictional patients he treated in his roles of healer in the movies. 

I ran into him once by chance, in a small clothing store in Greenwich Village. He was shopping and so was I. By this time, he was a celebrity. There were few customers in the store and there was no way for me to avoid his presence. I recognized him right away, but tried my best to respect his privacy. At some point he looked up at me, and for a moment I thought he was going to approach me. But then I thought, ‘Why would he do so? Who was I in the face of such a public figure?’ I left the store without lingering and noticed that Robin Williams did the same. As I crossed the street, I turned and saw that he was following me with his gaze, as if to say: ‘Hey, don’t you know who I am? Are you not going to validate my presence?’ As I continued on my way, I held onto the image of the Robin out of role, upset and sad.

I knew the actor Robin Williams but not the man, even though in his most manic performances, I felt that I saw the man. And I didn’t want to watch. I deeply admire the artist in the man, and I mourn the man who could not summon enough artistry to ultimately survive. I feel lucky to have witnessed so many life-affirming performances from this remarkable man. 

As a drama therapist, I try my best to help others apply the art of performance to work through their dark nights of the soul. Sometimes I can help, sometimes I cannot. When helpless in the face of persistent depression and suicide I feel complicit in the murder of the self and, in my childlike voice, revert to singing: 

Who killed Robin Williams?

It was I, oh, it was I. 

Robert J. Landy, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational Theatre and Applied Psychology and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at New York University.

more...

Subscribe to Couch and Stage

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?