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Suicide, a Crime of Loneliness

Robin Williams entertains the troops. Photo: Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Robin Williams entertains the troops. Photo: Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Every forty seconds, someone commits suicide. In the United States, it is the tenth most common cause of death in people over ten years of age, far more common than death by homicide or aneurysm or AIDS. Nearly half a million Americans are taken to the hospital every year because of suicide attempts. One in five people with major depression will make such an attempt; there are approximately sixteen non-lethal attempts for every lethal one. The rate of suicide is going up, especially among middle-aged men. These statistics get dragged out over and over again, but they bear the endless repetition. Suicide may be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but it is one that beckons with burgeoning seductiveness.

We lionized Robin Williams for the manic gleam in his performances; at his best, he was not only hilarious but also enchantingly frenzied. There are very few people who have that kind of wild energy who don’t dip the other way sometimes. It often seems as if those who are most exuberant experience despair in proportion to their joy; they seem to swing wildly about the neutral average. Not always: some people are like Bill Clinton, who appears to have sustained a level of hyper-engagement that never lapses into withdrawal or dysfunction. But not very many.

Robin Williams made no secret of his troubled moods. In a profile of the actor published in the Guardian, in 2010, Decca Aitkenhead wrote:

His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he’s not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous baritone—as if on the verge of tears—that would work very well if he were delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind—even tender—but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.

She asked Williams whether he was getting happier, and he said, “I think so. And not afraid to be unhappy. That’s O.K., too. And then you can be like, all is good. And that is the thing, that is the gift.” Aitkenhead saw this as sentimental, but in grim retrospect it points to someone who struggled against his fear of his own sorrow, someone who was afraid, perhaps, because he understood the potential that unhappiness had to subsume everything else about him.

When the mass media report suicide stories, they almost always provide a “reason,” which seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination. Such rationalization is particularly common when it comes to the suicides of celebrities, because the idea that someone could be miserable despite great worldly success seems so unreasonable. Why would a person with so much of what the rest of us want choose to end his life? Since there are always things going awry in every life at every moment, the explanation industry usually tells us that the person had a disastrous marriage, or was a hopeless addict, or had just experienced a major career disaster, or was under the influence of a cult. But Robin Williams does not seem to have had any of these problems. Yes, he fought addiction, but he had been largely sober for quite a while. He was on his third marriage, but it appeared to be a happy one, and he seems to have been close to his children. His newest TV series was cancelled a few months ago, but his reputation as one of the great performers of our time remained untarnished. So he would have had little “reason” to commit suicide—as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little “reason” other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.

Nor is suicide an ultimate manifestation of “selfishness” or “cowardice,” as the reason-mongers often argue. Suicide is not a casual behavior; for all that it may entail impulsivity, it is also a profound and momentous step for which many people don’t have the force of will. At one level, the suicide of young people is obviously more tragic than the suicide of older people; youths have more of life ahead of them, more of a chance to work things out. At another level, middle-aged suicide—the vanquishing of someone who has fought off the urge for decades—is especially catastrophic. It implies the defeated acknowledgment that if things aren’t better by now, they won’t be getting better. Robin Williams’s suicide was not the self-indulgent act of someone without enough fortitude to fight back against his own demons; it was, rather, an act of despair committed by someone who knew, rightly or wrongly, that such a fight could never be won.

Depression is a risk factor for heart disease; open-heart surgery is a risk factor for depression. That’s an unfortunate conundrum, and it will be hard to know what role Williams’s heart surgery may have played in his escalating anguish. Alcohol is a depressant; it depresses some negative feelings, which is why people use and abuse it, but it can also make despair bottom out. It’s not yet known whether Williams had been drinking immediately before his suicide, but he had done a recent stint at Hazelden, in Minnesota, where he went in order to “fine-tune” his sobriety. So if we are playing the game of looking for “reasons,” those are a few that offer themselves.

The same qualities that drive a person to brilliance may drive that person to suicide. Highly successful people tend to be perfectionistic, constantly striving to meet impossible standards. And celebrities tend to be hungry for love, for the adoration of audiences. No perfectionist has ever met his own benchmarks, and no one so famished for admiration has ever received enough of it. That untrammelled dynamism that Williams brought to almost every role he played has a questing urgency, as though it were always in pursuit of some truth yet to be named. In public appearances, he never showed the callous narcissism of many actors; his work relied on the interplay between riotous extroversion and nuanced self-study. He played an alien so well because he was an alien in his own mind, permanently auditioning to be one of us. Suicide is a crime of loneliness, and adulated people can be frighteningly alone. Intelligence does not help in these circumstances; brilliance is almost always profoundly isolating.

Every suicide warrants mourning, but the death of a figure such as Robin Williams makes larger ripples than most. The disappearance of his infectious glee makes this planet a poorer place. And since suicide is contagious, others have perhaps made copycat attempts already, reasoning that if even Robin Williams couldn’t make things work, they can’t, either. Waves of such events have often followed high-profile suicides; in the period after Marilyn Monroe took her own life, for example, suicide in the United States went up by twelve per cent.

Williams’s suicide demonstrates that none of us is immune. If you could be Robin Williams and still want to kill yourself, then all of us are prone to the same terrifying vulnerability. Most people imagine that resolving particular problems will make them happy. If only one had more money, or love, or success, then life would feel manageable. It can be devastating to realize the falseness of such tempered optimism. A great hope gets crushed every time someone reminds us that happiness can be neither assumed nor earned; that we are all prisoners of our own flawed brains; that the ultimate aloneness in each of us is, finally, inviolable.