One perspective says the world will tell us who we are, if we listen to its reaction to our behavior. Another perspective says we tell the world who we are by our behaviors, if the world will listen. There is a lot to be learned from simply observing what other people say and do. Most notably, understanding that instinctive behavior very rarely deceives a discerning eye, while listening to what someone says is always open to deceptive intent and misinformation. The following information about Robin Williams was gleaned from biography.com and Wikipedia.com.
The tragic news over the death of Robin Williams has drawn world attention. By no stretch of the imagination, his talents have been lauded as genius by anyone and everyone in a position to judge. On the surface, when watching Robin Williams perform, people experienced an interaction with Robin Williams the performer. Most people didn’t think of it as a two-way conversation, between him and them, yet that’s exactly what it is. We call this a dyadic experience.
I would like to propose the following: What if your first and second dyadic experiences took place with your mother and father. What if they set the stage for your expectations of every dyadic experience thereafter?
While it is not my intent to sit in judgment of any person so revered and loved as Robin Williams, I feel that there is something to learn from his passing at his own hand. Instead of presenting accusations, conjecture, speculation, or subjective opinion without having all the facts, I’m going to attempt to color the point I would like to make in a “what if” format. I’m simply asking a question that you can ask along with me. What can we derive from understanding the experience of growing up as Robin Williams, who became one of the world’s foremost entertainers, only to end his life by his own hand?
Robin Williams was raised in an affluent family environment, where his father was a senior executive in a major American automobile company and his mother was a working fashion model. What if his father wasn’t home very much to provide a model of masculinity for his son to imitate? What if his father lectured him a lot, but wasn’t around to play with his son? What if he wasn’t around enough to model being the kind of man he would want his son to be? What if his mother, a fashion model, was constantly working and more involved in her career than in her son’s physical and intellectual development? What if she wasn’t around very much to provide Robin with the dyadic experience of physical love, intellectual attention, approval and nurturance that every child needs in order to develop a clear sense of safety and a resulting sense of belonging in the world?
Growing up, with his father and mother away much of the time, what if Robin Williams was attended to by the family maid, and didn’t have many friends? What if the family maid was his main companion? What effect might this have had on his evolving self-image? What if his early childhood reflected a lot of loneliness and isolation? What if his ability to develop a sense of identity and the important experience of belonging in a group of young males was inhibited?
What if he spent inordinate amounts of time playing alone or with the maid? What if he spent so much time alone, engaged in his fantasy world, in an effort to feel what he could not feel in real life (because his mother and father were not present), that he became trapped in that fantasy world like an addiction?
What if the need to exist and to feel purposeful drove him deep into his fantasy world where there were no structures, boundaries, limitations or constraints on what he could make himself feel to fulfill what he needed. What if his mind was free to wander and create realities of incredible proportions that were missing from his reality-based boyhood growing up? What if the fantasy world of imagination became his escape and altered his perceptions and expectations of life in an effort to help him control an expanding and pervading sense of loneliness? What if there were elements of this progressive reliance on fantasy that forced him to explore more and more extreme perversions of the reality he longed for by seeking public approval? What if Robin Williams figured out how to get the world to approve of him, when his mother and father were not around enough to give him the kind of essential feedback that all children require?
What if Robin Williams’ path to the top of the entertainment world, through his remarkable comedy, as well as his serious devotion to the darker sides of the human condition in movies, really reflected a deeper cry for help? Someone to listen to him. Someone to hear him. What if he was trying to ask the world to give him that which he never received as a child? What if he had an interest in making people laugh only because it was a path to a feeling of acceptance, a feeling he was not permitted to feel? What if audiences were the only people who would, in effect, listen to him? This would mean that the audience successfully provided the dyadic experience that was supposed to be fulfilled by his mother and father.
It is a fact that he left The Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where he had received a full scholarship to attend, before graduating because they said there was nothing they could teach him. The school was renowned for its conservative classic style of training, and they said Robin Williams was beyond their structure. What if Juilliard helps creative people compartmentalize their talent, and Robin Williams could not compartmentalize himself. What if compartmentalizing felt like losing his voice or control over his body? What if the ever present sense of loneliness and powerlessness, that some children experience when they do not have enough attention from their parents, was so horrifying and debilitating that to compartmentalize himself was tantamount to a death sentence?
What if along the way, in an effort to cope with feel bad behavior and feelings, Robin Williams discovered drugs, alcohol, and continued to rely on comedy to combat and essentially distract himself from his loneliness? What if the loneliness reflected a sense of the ubiquitous isolation or sense of invisibility in the world? What if Robin Williams recreated his childhood need with every performance? What if his frenetic work ethic was a desperate child reaching out to the world to pay attention to him? And what if the world could do nothing but laugh at him to relieve their inner tension over witnessing this plea for help?
I read that on the TV show Mork and Mindy, they let him improvise most of the script, and that the script from the movie Good Morning Vietnam was also almost all improvisation. While most actors require/crave a structure (in the form of a good script), Robin Williams had to create his own structure. What if he created his own structure to reflect his desperation, because he could not share the stage with the writer of the TV show or the screenwriter in the movie? Since TV and movies are about making money, and Robin Williams’ comedy made money, he was allowed to improvise, but what if it was a cry for help and no one listened, because everyone was either laughing or making money? What if Robin Williams was trying to say something about his struggle in life, as we watched his brain zip and dart from place to place, subject to subject?
Of his relationships, there’s nothing unusual about meeting a cocktail waitress and marrying her, or a marriage lasting only 4 years and one child. But what if a man marries his son’s nanny? What if it was her sensitivity and nurturing behavior for his son that overwhelmed his deep sense of loneliness and powerlessness, which described his life as a child growing up in the affluent suburbs of Michigan?
Although Robin Williams’ career was long, extensive, varied, and overwhelming compared to the typical mono dimensional celebrity, he also fought life-long depression. Plenty of depressed people discover alcohol, and some even integrate their depression and their addictions into their celebrity lives, but what if his drug addiction and his depression were tied to something deeper: something he never got from his mother and father, and covered it up by being an entertainer? What if he discovered that he was able to cover up his inner pain, which was the result of his disappointment over not being able to achieve a rewarding connection with his mother and father, by reaching out to the population of the world and making them talk back to him through their laughter? What if this laughter was the connection he always craved?
What if Robin Williams was able to successfully hide his inner pain by being funny and entertaining in an effort to distract himself from his lifelong unhappiness? What if he successfully covered up his sense of loneliness and isolation by unknowingly entertaining others? By being funny, and having the world reach out back to him with laughter, his secret was safe. What if no one really cared or suspected he was suffering, as long as he could make them laugh and distract himself from his suffering?
And finally, we come to the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s is a disease that progresses over time to affect movement and speech. For a man with a secret, what if such a diagnosis meant that Robin Williams would no longer be able to cover up his inner pain, because both his frenetic movement style of entertaining and his quick witted speech, which was his conveyance to the world, would be slowly taken away from him. What if, after a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety, both of which he tried desperately to hide from himself by being one of the world’s greatest entertainers, the diagnosis of Parkinson’s manifested as symptoms that could no longer be hidden from himself or the world. There would be no distraction from this reality.
What if Robin Williams, despite years of fighting depression, anxiety and drug addiction, all in an attempt to deny his inner pain, could no longer hide from his secret torment from himself or others. The act of suicide is controversial and confrontational, because one who exercises suicide exercises a moment of control. In effect, they wrestle control away from the forces of nature, which are supposed to dominate the creation and termination of life.
What if Robin Williams’ sense of self-hatred that he learned from an ambivalent mother and father, became so strong that it overwhelmed the biological forces of nature and his unstructured reality? What if Robin Williams’ act of control was his final testimonial to the world? What if he became convinced with the diagnosis that he would never get what he ultimately needed from the world, so he decided to take it?