Suicide Breeds Suicide

by Dish Staff

Earlier this year, Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, spelled out how killing yourself makes it more likely that others will take their own lives:

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, Steven Stack reviews research on suicide contagion:

[T]here have been more than 100 empirical investigations of copycat suicide. A review of 419 findings from the first 55 investigations showed that only 35.8 per cent documented an increase in suicide after media coverage. Given that most evidence is not consistent with a copycat effect, a search for the conditions under which a story may elicit imitative suicides has been a key theme in this work.

The most important factor distinguishing studies that report a copycat effect from the ones that do not is whether or not a celebrity is involved. In particular, copycat effects are most likely to be reported in work focused on two distinct types of celebrities: those in politics and entertainment. The analysis of those 419 findings found that studies based on either or both of these subtypes were 5.27 times more likely to report an increase in suicides following coverage.

But he theorizes that “Williams’s gender could conceivably prevent a record number of copycat deaths”:

The more Williams’s suicide is discussed, if all else is equal, the greater the odds of a copycat effect. It is, however, doubtful that the impact will be as great as that of Monroe or Choi. They killed themselves at the peaks of their careers and popularity. In addition, the review of 419 findings in 55 studies determined that research that focuses on female suicide rates was 4.89 times more likely to find a copycat effect than other research.

Margot Sanger-Katz explains how to ethically cover suicides:

Few of the experts’ recommendations make much sense in the case of Mr. Williams. Studies suggest avoiding repetitive or prominent coverage; keeping the word suicide out of news headlines; and remaining silent about the means of suicide. “How can it not be prominent?” [professor Madelyn] Gould said.

Experts also say articles should include information about how suicide can be avoided (for instance, noting that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255).

They also recommend avoiding coverage that describes death as an escape for a troubled person.

Bill Gardner adds:

So how should journalists report on suicides? The public interest is best served by simply reporting that a person has died by suicide, with no additional details provided. If that’s too much to ask, then at least such details should not be placed in headlines or featured in a way that calls attention to them. This guidance is found in many ethical standards for journalists.

Williams’ suicide has also prompted a lot of constructive journalism about suicide prevention. I am all for that: suicide prevention is one of my research areas. But the most important thing to do is to find more effective treatments for the cause of many suicides: depression. And to find these treatments we need to be conducting more mental health research.

A reader response to Hecht’s video is here. More Dish on suicide contagion here.

Suicide Leaves Behind Nothing, Ctd

by Dish Staff

The thread on Robin Williams’ death morphs into our long-running thread on suicide:

Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s post reminded me of the thoughtful and informative comic on depression by Hyperbole and a Half. It’s in two parts – One and Two. I just re-read it all, and making it a little more heartbreaking this week is that the movie she is looking for in Part One stars Robin Williams …

Another reader opens up:

First, I want to make it clear I’m not writing this for sympathy or attention. A lot of people have been posting on social media this week about their own personal struggles with depression and suicide. I’m not ready to go public like that, but in the wake of Robin William’s suicide, I wanted to share something anonymously with your readers.

Yesterday I showed up at my therapist’s office with my “suicide kit”:

a bottle of 20 OxyContin, a bottle of 100 Tramadol, a bottle of aspirin (to thin the blood and facilitate drug absorption) and a half-dozen straight razor blades. I’ve had variations of this kit since a botched suicide attempt in my teens. If I had to give a reason why I’ve kept this thing around, the closest I could articulate it would be “escape hatch”. There’s a history of depression and manic-depression on both sides of my family tree, and I saw how it ground away at them, especially my mother. I did not want to die like that – alone, bitter, medicated, stripped of personality and hope.

So here I am at 50, no immediate family, just filed for divorce because my husband of 18 years found something perkier out yonder, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I haven’t been eye-balling that kit every single day for the last three months because holy shit do I ever want to fucking escape.

And then Robin Williams hangs himself on a doorknob, evidently after hacking away at his wrists first, and suddenly it seems like half the people I know are confessing to suicidal thoughts or struggles with depression. Last week I was not so depressed that I could not hear it, could not absorb it, could not register the fact that I am not alone in feeling this way.

I’m not adequate enough of a writer to describe to you how important this is to someone like me, but know that it is important. Important enough to make me close and throw away an escape hatch I’ve held open for 33 years. And that’s why I’m writing. In case one of your readers out there also struggles with depression, also has their own “escape hatch”, can also hear, absorb and register that they are not alone in this. Because you’re not. I’m here. We’re here. Know this. And if you can, let others know it too.

Another reader:

Of course the ongoing Robin Williams discussion hits a cord with anyone who has felt what deep depression feels like. I feel blessed that I have had limited experience with it personally, except when I had my twins 10 year ago and suffered a despair – post partum – that I could not explain or get rid of without medication for a while. As those who have felt this inexplicable emptiness know, there is no amount of external stimulus, love, support or encouragement that can really heal this.

But that depression was NOTHING compared to what was a nearly suicidal reaction after being on Wellbutrin earlier this year. I was in a lethargic funk and feeling down about all sorts of things, and my doctor said if fatigue was a problem, perhaps bupropion could help. For about a month I thought it was helping, and then I woke up one morning and wanted to end it all. It was the scariest feeling I’ve ever had. The only thing I could muster was the will to look up my symptoms and it appeared I was having a paradoxical reaction to the medication that was supposed to help lift me out of the blues.

The idea of moving out of bed, of even getting to the toilet seemed beyond me. I cried, screamed and scared myself all day. Thankfully I felt sure it was a strange reaction to the medication and despite the pharmacist telling me I should taper, that was not going to happen. I stopped taking it immediately and about two days later I felt better.

But to think that feeling I had is something people with severe, suicidal depression grapple with every day, I can totally see why some battles end the way Robin’s did. I cannot even explain the feeling, other than to say I came close to calling 911 and checking myself into a mental hospital, and I do not have a history of major mental illness. I felt like a hopeless prisoner in my own mind, from which there was no escape, relief or balm but time.

Some people deal with that every day. We should have compassion and mercy and not question the “what ifs” – because unless you’ve felt that pit of despair, you just don’t know. So in the talk of seeking medication help as part of the fight against depression, that is well and good for many, but people should also be aware that the cure can make things even worse for some people. The brain’s chemistry remains such a frustrating mystery, so it’s impossible to tell for whom this will be the case. The warning labels say these things but I never thought that would be me.

Thanks for listening.

The Knots Of Depression

by Dish Staff

Like Elizabeth, Rod Dreher uses the death of Robin Williams to discuss his own experiences with depression:

It seems so elemental — of course your mental state affects your perception of reality, duh! — but unless you’ve lived through it, it’s hard to understand how profound it can be. I walked around the house as if I were wearing a heavy wool blanket soaked in cold water almost all the time. Reason is largely powerless in the face of it. You can’t just snap out of it. You can’t make an argument for why you shouldn’t be depressed, and why things are really not as bad as you think they are. I mean, you can try this, and maybe it will help a bit, but it’s like being tied up and thrown off a pier, and being told by well-meaning people standing on the pier how you can save yourself by swimming to safety.

Some people — like Robin Williams — are not going to be able to save themselves, or be saved, for the same reason that some people who are thrown into the water bound by knots they did not tie will drown. I could be wrong about this, but I trust in the mercy of God in the case of poor souls who suffer so much that they cannot see any other way to relieve their pain.

The death prompted Ty Foster to come out as bipolar:

I can’t speak for anywhere else, and I can’t really speak for any other disabilities, but I know that in my home country [the US], we are still quite a long way from eliminating the stigma that surrounds mental illness. When I’m depressed, it’s hard enough to get myself to the bathroom and back, let alone getting myself to a freaking doctor. Recovery is made all the more difficult by the fact that the world around me, in many insidious ways, causes me to feel even more alone, weird, creepy, scrutinized, awkward, unworthy than I already would. So the hell with that world.

Relatedly, Jason Millman flags research finding that “improvements in understanding mental illness … didn’t help reduce the social stigma”:

People were more likely to say they didn’t want an alcoholic to marry into the family (up from 70 percent to 79 percent) or have someone with schizophrenia as a neighbor (up from 34 percent to 45 percent). Most in 2006 also said they were unwilling to work closely with someone who had schizophrenia (62 percent) or alcohol dependence (74 percent), and most thought people with either illness would likely be violent.

“There was no support that greater scientific understanding translated into reduced prejudice in the United States or elsewhere,” Pescosolido wrote in a more recent March 2013 review of research into the social stigma around mental illness. Reducing the stigma, she points out, will depend on a better understanding of the social and cultural factors shaping it.

Depression, Success, And Lies Of The Mind

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

spirit animalYesterday I bemoaned those who would turn Robin Williams’ death into a mandatory mass therapy session. But that isn’t to say I don’t appreciate some of the conversation his suicide is provoking. If you’ve never been clinically depressed, the idea that someone like Williams could possibly find life wanting tends to seem absurd.

But depression is a “lie of the mind,” to borrow an old Sam Shepard title. It cares not for your comedy-god status or your loving family. It cares not that plenty of people have it worse. “Depression is a skilled liar, using what you know is true as basis for a massive fraud,” wrote journalist John Tabin yesterday. “If you’re suicidal, you’re where I was five years ago,” he tweeted. “Please read”:



I got teary-eyed reading that, and not just because Tabin is someone I know and like. There’s also the pain of recognition: I could have written nearly every word he did here. This is my depression story, too.

But then again, it is almost all depression stories. That is what will strike you if you read very many of them. The building blocks of depression are always the same: hopelessness, isolation, pain. The absolute, iron-clad conviction that nothing will ever change. Then (if you’re lucky) come hard-won coping tips. An uneasy peace between you and your biology. But it can all be illusory, as Tabin mentions—you are fighting to overcome a brain that wants you to die using that same brain. You will often have to keep coming up with new tricks.

Can you imagine doing that for a lifetime? I don’t think it speaks ill of anyone who eventually decides the tradeoffs aren’t worth it. As a Dish reader lamented via email:

…when someone dies after a lifelong battle with severe mental illness and drug addiction, we say it was a tragedy and tell everyone “don’t be like him, please seek help.” That’s bullshit. Robin Williams sought help his entire life. He saw a psychiatrist. He quit drinking. He went to rehab. He did this for decades. That’s HOW he made it to 63. For some people, 63 is a fucking miracle.

People unfamiliar with how depression works think Williams’ wealth and success should’ve been an antidote. Dave Weigel deconstructed this myth yesterday at Slate, with rare help from personal anecdote:

If you’ve never suffered from depression, or had a public career, the suicide of a successful person makes no damn sense. It’s the same reason why an artist quitting or breaking his band up makes no sense—you wanted something, and you’ve finally grabbed it, so why would you ever give that up? What’s wrong with you?

Depression is what’s wrong with you. I’ve been medicated for depression since 2001. In 2002, after a particularly low episode, I was taken in by campus police that marked me as a risk for self-harm. I then voluntarily checked myself into a mental hospital.

I like seeing men like Weigel and Tabin sharing their stories right now. Too often, depression is still viewed in a gendered light. And because women are expected to be emotional, I don’t think our stories resonate as strongly with those who don’t understand depression. That it really isn’t a disease about emotionality falls on the proverbial deaf ears.

But perhaps the hardest thing for people to understand is that depression doesn’t respond to rational incentives. It doesn’t matter if you have a new, awesome job or a new, awesome baby. It doesn’t matter if you’re a world-famous actor or a successful political journalist. Here’s Weigel again, explaining how the depression-brain tricks you:

One: You earned none of what you have. You’re a fraud. People are going to find out. Everything your critics have said about you, from the guy who lobbed dodgeballs at your head to the hate-mailer who hated your Iowa story, is completely right.

Two: All that other stuff you feel, the negativity and the screw-ups? You definitely earned that, because you’re meant to fail. You’ve succeeded, and you still feel this way? Why, that’s proof that you won’t possibly feel better.

Three: Nobody truly likes you. They can desert you at any moment. They’re succeeding, and you’re not.

It’s contradictory, and pointless, and bears very little relationship to the reality of what you’re going through. It’s unpredictable in a way that makes you feel callow; I’ve been sad but functional after the deaths of family members, then horribly depressed while walking home on a random Wednesday.

The random-Wednesday bit is one of its most insidious parts. And it also makes it tricky to calibrate your response. Is this afternoon funk just an afternoon funk? Is there something secretly bothering me? Or am I once again spiraling into a totally irrational and unprovoked cycle of hate and emptiness that will last for months? Only time will tell! 

Any sort of conclusion here feels pat and forced, so I’ll just say that I’m glad people are sharing about and discussing this right now—and in ways more nuanced than “depression is bad, get help!” Thanks, Tabin. Thanks, Weigel. Thanks everyone who is sharing stories (I’d be amiss not to mention these very good takes from Helen Rosner, Molly Pohlig, Chris Gethard, and Jim Norton). Oh, and thanks GlaxoSmithKline! Wellbutrin is my spirit animal…

It’s OK Not To Feel Anything When A Celebrity Dies, Ctd

by Dish Staff

A reader writes:

Thanks to Elizabeth Nolan Brown for her eloquent essay on Robin Williams.  This reminds me of when Princess Diana died. I found out when I walked to the corner store to buy the newspaper. I read the headline and thought “Shit, that’s too bad” and didn’t give it another thought. Then the worldwide hysteria erupted and it was all Diana, all the time.  I just didn’t understand what the big deal was.  My wife, friends and family thought I was incredibly callous to have almost no reaction to Diana’s death.

Same thing with Robin Williams. I liked him and more than once busted a gut listening to him, but he was an entertainer with no connection to me.  Why should I grieve? It sucks that his demons took him down and I understand why some people are sad, but I just can’t muster it.

A like-minded reader adds:

It is as if Facebook and Twitter reactions to celebrity deaths and tragedies have supplanted going to church as the cultural litmus test for letting the greater community know you are a good person and people are compelled against all reason to participate.

But another relates to Robin:

“If you’re that depressed, reach out to someone. And remember: Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems,” – Robin Williams, World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

I was diagnosed with postpartum depression not that long ago.

I reached out, got help, and feel a million time better already. But it took along time. Depression makes you believe that you can’t dig yourself out of the hole you find yourself in. It makes it feel like if you reach out and talk to you someone, they’ll think you’re crazy. One of the main reasons I didn’t talk about my PPD was because I thought my doctor or husband would try to take away my son for fear that I’d hurt him. And that’s where depression twists the knife that is guilt. I felt guilty because I’m a mother! I should love this period of my life! I should be thrilled to have this amazing, perfect, healthy human being that looks at me with such love. But it’s a chemical imbalance. It’s not something I could control.

Mr Williams suicide is the second I’ve heard of in less then two weeks, the first being a former acquittance. We really do need to work on having a more open and honest dialogue about depression in this country.

Another gets honest:

If someone were to die at the age of 63 after a lifelong battle with MS or Sickle Cell, we’d all say they were a “fighter” or an “inspiration.” But when someone dies after a lifelong battle with severe mental illness and drug addiction, we say it was a tragedy and tell everyone “don’t be like him, please seek help.” That’s bullshit. Robin Williams sought help his entire life. He saw a psychiatrist. He quit drinking. He went to rehab. He did this for decades. That’s HOW he made it to 63. For some people, 63 is a fucking miracle. I know several people who didn’t make it past 23 and I’d do anything to have 40 more years with them.

Another gets open:

With regards to the death by apparent suicide of Robin Williams, I want to draw a clear line between Feeling and Mourning in this particular situation. I agree completely with the sort of Yeah, No Duh thesis of your post, and I found myself in the Facebook poster’s camp when, say, that guy from The Fast and the Furious movies died in a fiery car crash. It was tragic and ironic and awful, and I “felt” for his fans and family, I suppose; but I didn’t mourn.

I am deeply mourning the loss of Robin Williams.

I was born in 1969, so I grew up with Mr. Williams on my teevee machine. I obsessed over Dead Poets Society in my early 20s, around the time I realized I would suffer the rest of my life with depression. Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire helped me through the miserably dark early ’90s, when my diagnosis shifted to Bipolar Disorder, and I laughed and cried at the tail end of that rotten decade with Good Will Hunting and The Birdcage, both of which I sat up all night last night watching.

And somewhere in there, between Williams as a fat blue cartoon genie and a gay Miami nightclub owner, I laid down in my grungy apartment’s bathtub and made a pitiful, half-assed and obviously unsuccessful attempt at opening my wrists. I didn’t want it enough, so I failed. I still bear the small, pale scars of that day as reminders of what the end might look like. But I made it over. That time.

I am deeply mourning the loss of Robin Williams, because he felt like a friend and fellow-sufferer. He was the classic Crying-on-the-Inside Clown; a man who had everything and an almost universal acclimation as one of the greatest living comics. And yet he didn’t make it over. With all his fame and celebrity and the deep respect of his peers and fans, Robin Williams couldn’t make it over. I mourn for him; I mourn for that inescapable pain that not even his wife and children could help him overcome. I was inconsolable last night not because I’d never see another Robin Williams stand-up act or another in a long line of his mediocre late-career comedies, but because if he couldn’t make it over, what chance do I have?

Yes, it’s fine to feel nothing about this. Be my guest; the last thing the world needs is more faux-sentimentality and rootless hero-worship Because Celebrity. But when you’ve loved a performer since you were 9 years old, and suffered with him and laughed with him and watched him grow and rise and fall and fail and get back up and start all over again, all the while laughing most loudly at himself, you owe yourself a moment of true mourning.

Go here for all our coverage of Robin Williams’ death.

Robin Williams, RIP, Ctd

by Dish Staff

People Leave Tributes To Robin Williams Outside Mork & Mindy House

Megan Garber honors the comedy legend:

[Robin Williams] has been with us—and next to us, and above us—for more than 40 years, not just on the screens of multiplexes, but in our living rooms and in our lives. There’s Good Morning, Vietnam, on Netflix. There’s Mrs. Doubtfire, on TBS. There are those reruns of his stand-up on Comedy Central. There are all those clips on YouTube. …

We refer to our actors—the big ones, at least—as “stars.” We do that mostly because it’s a convenient cliche. But we do it as well because celebrities have a kind of cosmic constancy in our lives. The people we put on our screens—the people we elevate and exaggerate, the people whose likenesses we watch, huddled together in darkened rooms—form their own kind of firmament. Ancient humans used the stars to navigate the world; we ask our own stars to do similar work. We look to them not necessarily to guide us, but to orient us.

What are your thoughts about Mrs. Doubtfire? How funny is the Genie? Do you think that “words and ideas can change the world“? However you answer those questions, they will reveal something about you and your place in the universe.

A bit more down to Earth, Alyssa reflects on Williams’ remarkable range, which “resonated in radically different ways”:

Williams excelled in bring out the strength in characters who initially appeared weak, and in bringing dignity to people mired in hopelessly undignified situations. He also slyly exposed the weakness and selfishness in people who seemed to be strong, even when he was only acting with his voice. As the Genie in Disney’s gorgeous animated movie “Aladdin,” Williams beautifully captured the dilemmas of a being who had access to tremendous power, but had to manipulate other people to get closer to his own heart’s desire. He was critical to making the movie more than kids’ stuff.

Marlow Stern adds:

[Williams] didn’t just play a huge role in the lives of children; he was a malleable, adaptable comedian who could cater to audiences young and old, gay and straight. Take his outré turn as gay Miami nightclub owner Armand Goldman in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (a personal favorite), which saw him shift from flamboyant scenery-chewer to composed pseudo-Republican parent at the drop of a hat. Or as Joey, the sleazy, besieged used car salesman in Cadillac Man.

A good glimpse at Robin’s range:

But Damon Linker sees the darker edge of that versatility:

In his manic and maniacal stand-up routines no less than in his greatest dramatic acting, Williams danced on a tightrope over the abyss.

He behaved like a man desperately trying to distract attention from an emptiness within himself. The possibility that he ended his own life leaves me feeling terribly sad. But it also feels somehow fitting, like the confirmation of a half-acknowledged hunch — or the fulfillment of an awful prophesy barely perceived or understood.

On stage Williams could be exhilarating, and exhausting, as he hurtled through a kaleidoscopic array of characters, some impressions of famous people, most of them conjured from the depths of his own slightly deranged and riotous imagination. In well over an hour of frenzied free-association, Williams would careen through the world, making bizarre connections, heaving forth fragments of ideas and clumps of observations from what must have been a tortuous unconscious.

When it was over, I was invariably worn out by laughter — but I also felt slightly unnerved, aware on some level that I’d just been entertained by one man’s utterly distinctive form of self-abuse. It was less a comedy routine than a comedic seizure.

That spectacular energy came from “not just natural genius,” Willa Paskin points out, “but also cocaine, drugs, emotional pain”:

At his best, and also at his worst, there was something uncontrollable about Williams. Even perfectly in control of his body, of his impersonations, of his timing, he seemed powerless—or scared—to stop being a fount of funny, to turn it off. His non-stop energy often had a childlike quality to it—Peter Pan in Hook; an overgrown boy in Jack; even Mork, who like all Orkans aged backwards—but also something more substantial, more dangerous, and more unhinged. … Performers’ deaths, especially the unnatural ones, often color, at least for a little while, their work. Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” is not a song you could listen to the same way after she drank herself to death.

J. Cohn hopes that Williams’ death raises more awareness of depression and the risk of suicide:

Although we’re accustomed to hearing about artists and their hidden “demons,” Williams was such an effervescent, joyous presence that his struggles could put into sharper relief just how life-altering and devastating mental illness can be. If he couldn’t conquer it on his own, who could? The lesson would be one last, great contribution from an artist who made so many already. …

We’ve come a long way since the days when we treated the mentally ill as freaks—covering up and denying their problems, holding them singularly responsible for their conditions, or locking them up far away in institutions. We’ve also learned a great deal about the interaction with addiction—and the extent to which both afflictions can have deep genetic roots or be shaped by experience very early in infancy and childhood. But we still treat it as a second-class disease. It’s evident in the choices we make as a society and, too often, in our actions as individuals. The stigma, though far less potent, lingers.

Comedian Jim Norton can relate:

So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. While my physically self-destructive days ended when I got sober, the thought of suicide has always been there, as an option, behind a glass that I could someday break in case of an emergency. I glamorized the idea of constructing my own exit. …

The funniest people I know always seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.

Read all of our RIP coverage here.

(Photo: A makeshift memorial for Robin Williams is set up in front of a home in Boulder, Colorado on August 11, 2014. The exterior of the house was used in the opening credits for “Mork & Mindy,” the comedy based in Boulder that catapulted Williams’ career. By Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

It’s OK Not To Feel Anything When A Celebrity Dies

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Yesterday Robin Williams died, seemingly from suicide. Scrolling through Facebook a few hours after the news broke, I found myself in a sea of RIP and this is so sad! and other, lengthier expressions of mourning for the beloved actor. One update stood out, from a friend of a friend. After acknowledging that it may sound cold, she wrote:

I just want to put it out there that it is also ok not to have any feelings when something bad happens to a celebrity.

This was met with initial, emphatic approval from a few, quickly followed by admonitions. Didn’t she get the memo that we were all supposed to be using this as a PSA about mental health? They bet she wouldn’t be singing this tune if she or someone she knew had suffered from depression!Las Vegas Hosts International Consumer Electronics Show

Now there’s nothing wrong with using the surprising (apparent) suicide of a surface-happy comedian as a catalyst for discussing mental health issues. But how absurd to suggest it’s wrong not to. Maybe some people would prefer to remember the man’s life and work rather than his demons. Maybe some people who are intimately aware of the toll depression can take (or the pain a loved one’s suicide can cause) are loathe to latch their very personal pain to online discussions of a stranger with strangers. Maybe not everybody has to react in the same emotional tones.

But then why say something at all? That was another criticism hurled at this Facebook poster. Why couldn’t she have just kept her big non-mourning mouth shut?

Permit me a brief digression. As a college theater major, I once auditioned for a play that would be directed by a visiting Nigerian professor, Esiaba Irobi. For this play, Professor Irobi decided to eschew traditional callbacks and instead gather us all together and watch while we engaged in various games and activities. Near the end of the audition, we were all invited in a circular procession around the room, repeating after Irobi as he sung out some sort of call-and-response funeral dirge.

We were explicitly told not to act—this wasn’t an exercise to see how well we could feign grief. The professor said he wanted to see how we moved. There were drums. And there were quickly tears, all around me. Not just soft, subtle tears dotting my classmates’ cheeks but big, loud, hearty sobs. It confused the hell out of me. We weren’t actually at a funeral. We didn’t even have a fictional backstory for this procession, nor could we understood a word Irobi sang. Sure, his voice could carry emotion well, but I felt skeptical that the crying crew, which made up about half the room of auditioners, weren’t putting on a bit of a show.

Later, I brought this up with my then-boyfriend, who had also been at the auditions. He assured me his grief and that of those he’d talked to had been genuine. Then he told me it was sad that I was so closed off from my emotions that I couldn’t experience what they had. He felt sorry for me.

Because I was young, it genuinely stung and worried me. I am far from an emotionally repressed person, nor a non-demonstrative one. I’ve been known to cry at country songs and Law & Order episodes. So why couldn’t I feel sad over this imaginary scenario that had so tugged at my classmates’ heartstrings? What was wrong with my emotional response?

Nothing, is obviously the answer. There is no correct way to grieve. There is no correct way to mourn those you love, or to mourn acquaintances, or to mourn celebrities and strangers. And trying to conjure an inauthentic emotional response will only make you feel worse. But even knowing this, I admit—when popular public figures die, there’s always a moment in which I feel just like I did in that audition. Why does everyone seem so much more upset than I am? Why am I not reacting the same way? 

This is why I’m glad my Facebook friend didn’t keep her mouth shut. There is nothing wrong with feeling genuine sadness over the passing of an entertainer you enjoy and admire. There is nothing wrong with being stung by the way Williams seems to have went. There is nothing wrong with posting Mrs. Doubtfire stills to Instagram and heartfelt missives on your Twitter timeline in response, if the spirit moves you. And the “normalcy” of these responses is shown in the likes and retweets and expressions of solidarity with which they’re met. Collective catharsis exerts a powerful pull.

But in the age of all this public emoting—some no doubt genuine, some signaling—it can be very easy to forget that not everyone is “deeply saddened” by the news of Williams’ death. Some aren’t even moderately saddened. And that’s okay, too.


Update: Readers responded to this post here. You can also view all the Dish’s coverage of Robin William’s death here.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Robin Williams, RIP, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Some immediate reaction from Twitter, including many clips of Williams’ greatest moments, here. Several more clips after the jump. A reader writes a moving eulogy:

I’m sure that I’m just one of many Dishheads writing in about the horribly sad death of Robin Williams. I’m a child of the ’90s, and he was a constant fixture of my cultural world through childhood and into adulthood. Not only was he a genuine comedic genius – his bit on the invention of golf [seen above] was legendary long before today, as was his 2001 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, to name a few drops in the bucket. But his joy, sincerity and warmth of personality left a mark that I am now surprised to find was so deep.

He was consistently open about his struggles with depression, addiction and alcoholism, and it sucks that some combination of those demons managed to overpower him, despite all the effort he put into fighting his battles and helping the rest of us fight our own. His approach to humor was so unusual among comics of this era: it was never based on cynicism or complaint, but rather, predominantly, on sharing the things that made him irrepressibly happy. He was such a transparently compassionate person that if he’d had any inkling of the outpouring of collective mourning that took place [last night], things might have gone another way.

I’ve never seen a larger or more visceral mass response to a celebrity death.

On Twitter alone, I follow close to 200 accounts, from a wide range of countries, cultures and sub-cultures, and I swear almost every single one came out of the woodwork, some of whom had been silent for years before tonight. And Twitter’s “trending” topics were completely dominated by subjects related to his life, career and death. It occurred to me that this might have to do with the fact that Robin Williams, whose filmography spans from Mork & Mindy (1978) to Night at the Museum (latest installment in post-production), is one of the few figures who looms just as large for my parents’ generation as he does for mine.

It’s really odd – I didn’t even consider myself a great fan of his, but he was a part of my life all the same, and this gutted emotional state I’m in is clear proof of that. I’ll miss him. Fuck depression.

Another points out:

If you weren’t already aware of it, I thought I would link to a WHO document [pdf] about responsible media coverage of suicide.  I learned about it through this podcast.  It’s being reported that Robin Williams killed himself, and celebrity suicides can cause a string of copycat suicides.  How the suicide is reported can influence how many copycat suicides occur and this is true for famous and not famous alike.  This is known as the Werther Effect. I’m not being critical of your coverage, but thought that you should be made aware of the WHO document.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, discussed the Werther Effect and much more in her “Ask Anything” videos for the Dish. Meanwhile, as another reader notes, Robin Williams’ performance in Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” music video has a dark irony this week:

A happier ending:

If you’ve never seen the standup bit of Robin Williams simulating cunnilingus, then you haven’t seen the full range of his comic genius.  It makes my cheeks hurt from laughter every time I seen it (and might have a good tie-in with your recent coverage of hirsute men):

Another reader ties in another recent thread:

Last week I was going to send Williams’ and McFerrin’s version of “Come Together”, since it is one of my fave covers, but it didn’t seem quite outre enough. Now it’s a no brainer. No video, but it does have nice pictures of Robin:

And another touches upon another Dish theme:

You covered Robin Williams’ tragic, untimely death, but I think you failed to include a video that has him mentioning a number of favorite Dish topics, including Catholicism and gay marriage:

Robin Williams, RIP

by Dish Staff