Williams at the Happy Feet Two premiere in 2011 | Photo by Eva Rinaldi Photography via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1sS5Ktz)

Williams at the Happy Feet Two premiere in 2011 | Photo by Eva Rinaldi Photography via Flickr (http://bit.ly/1sS5Ktz) Photo by Eva Rinaldi Photography via Flickr


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I’m not sure what year it was that I first saw Dead Poets Society. IMDB tells me it was released in 1989, so it must have been at least another six or seven years before I saw it, but the timeline doesn’t really matter. For a young and highly sentimental lover of language, that film gave me a place to belong. It had been preceded by Hook and Aladdin, and later I would see Good Morning Vietnam! and Good Will Hunting and recognize that it wasn’t an accident that all these films that told stories of the world’s strange beauty happened to display the talents of this one man.

He was the genie who made magic; the therapist who could tell you it wasn’t your fault; the dad-turned-nanny who loved his children so much he couldn’t stand to be away from them.

This is what makes Williams’s death by suicide at 63 such a shock: He brought magic into so many people’s lives; he seemed to believe and communicate so many things that were good about the world. It’s days like today when I wish for nothing more than a time machine; our proximity in time to when Williams was alive seems so close that it’s unfair that we can’t go back in time to tell him that he will be okay, that depression doesn’t last forever even when it seems to, that there are realities outside of his own mind’s darknesses.

But it never is that easy. It is also one of the most important things we as religious people need to understand, that depression is a real illness–not a battle to be won or lost, nor a mental condition to be overcome. It is just as real a disease as any, and God cares for and loves and is with all those who struggle with it, even now.

Williams was born in Chicago and raised in the Episcopal Church, which he described in a standup routine thusly: “I don’t understand the whole fundamentalist thing; you see, I’m an Episcopal; that’s Catholic Lite. Same religion, half the guilt!” He married three times and has three adult children; the thought of them being left fatherless now is devastating.

He was one of only two students admitted to an advanced program at Julliard his freshman year; the other was his good friend Christopher Reeve. Williams told PARADE in September 2013 that his two divorces had cost him a lot: “It’s ripping your heart out through your wallet.” He listed his Napa ranch for sale and lived primarily in the San Francisco area with his wife Susan Schneider, whom he married in 2011.

Williams was on the advisory council for Walden House, a recovery center in San Francisco, having himself gone through several bouts with drug use, alcoholism, and sobriety. Speaking to The Guardian about addiction in 2009, Williams said “There’s nothing romantic about it. This idea that as an artist you have to push yourself and explore the dark side? I went there. You can do a lot more interesting stuff when you’re not messed up.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite scene of his. Williams had a gift for making moments: Mrs. Doubtfire’s run-by fruiting. Adrien Cronauer’s decision to lock himself in the studio and report on the explosion at the restaurant. In real life, when he called Steven Spielberg during the filming of Schindler’s List to cheer him up. But I don’t know if there is any moment I have thought of more than this.

If you find yourself struggling with depression, know that you are not alone, and never hesitate to ask for help. This is the website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or you can call 800.273.TALK.

 

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Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. In addition to being a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s “Her.meneutics” blog, she has also written for publications such as Books & Culture and The Bold Italic. She is interested in the intersection of church and culture.

18 Comments

  1. Chaplain Martin

    Thank you Laura,
    So many of use are sadden not only by the death by suicide of Robin Williams, but also sadden that a man that gave us many laughs and though provoking performances would be so depressed as to take his own life.

    I hope your appeal to those deeply depressed would cause them to seek out persons and/or counselors who listen to the pain.

  2. “If you find yourself struggling with depression, know that you are not alone, and never hesitate to ask for help.

    This is the website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or you can call 800.273.TALK.”

    Well done tribute! Poor guy!
    Thanks.

  3. Thank you for your kind words about Mr. Williams. I really like what you say here, Ms. Turner, though I would disagree slightly with one point.

    Yes, depression is a “real illness…just as real as any disease” – but it is _also_ “a battle to be won or lost” and “a mental condition to be overcome”. It’s not an either/or situation. In fact, clinical depression chemically produces mental conditions which must be battled, which must be overcome – even if only held at bay, one day at a time. Prescription medicine can be an indispensable tool to use in the fight, but it is a heavily-flawed one.

    My mother struggled with mental illness for much of her life, and I promise you that not only is it an illness, which should not be stigmatized – but it is a battle.

    • miss cangetdown

      I interpreted these comments as addressing the “suck it up” or “win that battle and get over it” attitude rather than denying that it truly is a battle and an authentic mental condition. Thank you for this supportive article that brings comfort through understanding!

  4. Robin Williams was someone I grew up watching and always made me smile when I watched his films. It was so shocking and heartbreaking to learn about all that he was going through.

  5. What a sad loss of such a hilarious, stupendous and good-hearted man!! I grew up watching Mork and Mindy, cried with my Dad watching Dead Poet’s Society and laughed wholeheartedly watching Mrs. Doubtfire.

    Although he committed suicide, it is obvious that he was going through severe depression, a terrible disease that needs to be conquered. In that state, it is difficult to have proper control of one’s mind. The fact remains that he was a meek and caring person during his life.

    Robin may have the hope of resurrection back to life on earth, to be reunited with the plethora of family and friends who love and miss him now (Acts. 24:15; John 5:28,29), which will ultimately be decided by God’s kingdom or heavenly government. If realized, I will give him a humongous hug!!!

    Eventually, all sickness and disease, including depression, will be done away with by God’s kingdom, along with old age and death (Revelation 21:1-4).

  6. I have been personally acquainted with nine suicides and have struggled with suicidal thoughts of my own, a function of clinical depression. It never gets any less painful when one hears of a suicide. I have been most troubled by Christian suicides, of whom I have known two. As a Christian I would typically argue that faith should sustain one through the most difficult of circumstances, but that appears not to always be the case. For my own part, despair seems to be the primary negative emotion associated with suicide, the emotive sense that things will just not get any better. A tragedy indeed.

  7. Davetta Wells

    Thank you for restoring and elevating Christians again to followers of Christ….this is such a kind, compassionate, Christ-like article. Thank you for your kindness.

  8. Dear Laura,

    I sincerely mourn the death of a great talent and a worthwhile human being in the death of Robin Williams, but I hesitate to give him the title “Captain.” Humans, despite best intentions tend to imperfections. I do not think that Mr. Williams would want us to follow where he went, and a “captain” is a leader. I would not follow a path that led to the solution to his depression that he chose. I say this not to detract from his contributions but to say that we need a higher captain.

  9. I lost my son 18 months ago the same way as Robin. It is the worst emotion a mother can experience. I wrote at the end of my sons eulogy If I could give you one thing in life I would give you the ability to see yourself through my eyes. Only then would you realize how special you are to me .

  10. lauraturner.religionnews.com Robin Williams: The death of our captain | Entertaining Faith After using a handful of tutors from a variety of agencies, we would argue that the French tutoring, German tutoring, Spanish tutoring and 11 Plus lessons at bespoke languages tuition are of the very highest quality! Karella PadleyReasoner7785@googlemail.com www.bespokelanguagestuition.com

  11. I will miss this man’s contributions to our world. He filled so many of our lives with humor and entertained us all. He was a great human being. I pray to God he knew Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and look forward to the day we are all together again with our Lord Jesus in Heaven. All forgiven and healed. Amen

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