On Monday night, the world was shocked to read about the suicide of Robin Williams at age 63. The outpouring of grief asked how someone who could bring so much joy to so many could also experience such darkness.
There was talk of mania, manic-depressive and bi-polar illness, his struggles with drug addiction and severe depression for which he sought help before his death. Dr. Gary Sachs, founding director of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital noted that some creative artists find that mania gives them the energy and free-associations necessary for their work. Some psychologists suggest that humor comes from dealing with an unhappy childhood—Williams was often left alone in a big house, and was bullied for being overweight—while others note that the highs come from the same recesses in the human psyche as the darkness. Many used the word “genius” to describe his flashes of brilliant wit and improvisational antics.
Williams first dazzled the world with the innovative Mork and Mindy, but he could also stir the deepest longings in our souls in films like Dead Poets’ Society. In 1997, he played a psychiatrist in “Good Will Hunting,” in which he pressed an anguished Matt Damon to be honest with himself. Yet Williams himself was said to wonder if he knew himself; he was many things to many people. Film critic A.O Scott of The New York Times remembers his mind being “blown” in eighth grade by the idea of “Reality—What a Concept;” critic David Edelstein noted the Fisher King as the key Williams role; Dan D’Addario of Salon, equated Williams as the Peter Pan for the zany freedom of our childhood, and Sarah Larson at The New Yorker wrote that he was he was “an id run wild, or a child, or ourselves at our craziest.” Many remember his teaching of Carpe Diem – Seize Life," the manifesto he taught his students in Dead Poets' Society, as the most memorable line of his legacy. Slate's Forrest Wickman said, in summary: "Whole generations will remember him differently.”