[UPDATE: This is important enough to add to the top of the page. If you need help, please, please talk to somebody. Try contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. According to Cracked.com’s David Wong, it’s been extremely helpful, and you can trust him because he’s a comedian. No, really. Wong says if he had to estimate how many comedians he knows who suffer from mental problems, he’d say “approximately ‘all of them.’ “]
I could start out this post with some little shard of dark humor, the kind that covers up despair with an attempt at detached wit, like, how fucked up must our country be when one of our greatest comedians commits suicide?
But I like the directness of Eric Idle’s recent tweet, so I’m going to steal it:
I am sick with grief.
As a child, one of my favorite movies was the live-action “Popeye.” Yes, the one that Robert Altman directed. The one that made it into a book called Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops. The one on Rotten Tomatoes that the audience hated almost 20% more than the critics, a phenomenon I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed in the time I’ve known about the web site. Yes, I can remember what the movie was like, and yes, it was very, very cheesy. I haven’t watched it in quite a while, but I’m 100% positive if I caught “Popeye” today I’d be cringing at the weird, ramshackle sets, the extreme overacting, the goofy dance numbers, and all the rest. I’m sure I’d be cringing most of all because I’d surely be aware of that queasy double-consciousness we get when re-discovering ourselves at certain ages, or looking at something we used to love.
Yeah, I loved the movie “Popeye.” For a while, it must have aired three times a day on HBO, and I watched every chance I could get. My parents loved “Popeye,” too. To the point where we’d quote lines back and forth to each other. We sang the songs. We memorized runs of dialogue. For some reason, we latched onto the bizarre setting, a rotting little harbor village called Sweethaven. When Popeye first rows into Sweethaven the morning after a terrible storm, the self-satisfied, ratty bourgeois dwellers are already singing their town “anthem”:
God must love us
We the people
And so on and so forth. Okay, I admit the words are kind of insipid. But the soaring absurdity of the whole thing comes out much more if you hear it in context. Some choice lines I didn’t even catch until I googled them just now: “Swept people from the sea / Safe from democracy”; “God must have landed here / Why else would he strand us here?” My mom and dad, both small-town folk, ate up the humor and then some. Ever after that day we first saw “Popeye,” even after my parents divorced, whenever we rolled in to some decrepit little burg, one of us, usually my mother, would always sing in the quietest of voices, “Ah, Sweethaven…”
If you can handle the cartoony cheese and rubbery surrealism, you really ought to take a look at that YouTube link above. Or look at it one more time. Those shots of the man rowing to shore over the bluer-than-blue Mediterranean represent the first few minutes of Robin Williams’s career as a film actor.
To be honest, the reason why I’m sharing all these childhood memories is because I don’t have much of a coherent response to the death of Robin Williams. I sort of feel like I’ve lost a parent. I grew up watching Mork and Mindy. I was only too happy when “Popeye” came out. At the time, no one told me it was one of Hollywood’s greatest flops. I loved the movie, first and foremost, because Robin Williams was in it, and he, as far as I was concerned, was the funniest man alive.
I know his shtick grew thin after about 20 years. Maybe looking back, it all looks pretty stale. Seriously, though, millennials, Robin Williams hit the airwaves in pre-Simpsons, pre-Seinfeld, pre-Colbert, hell, even pre-Monty-Python-Gets-Famous-on-PBS America. You wanted something on TV you were sure would be funny? And not just polite-titter funny, but edgy funny? Unpredictable funny? New funny? Robin Williams was pretty much it.
Also, all that rowing and water imagery in “Popeye” reminds me (now) of poet Anne Sexton and her final book, The Awful Rowing Toward God. Not necessarily because of the scene where Popeye arrives in Sweethaven. I’m thinking of the movie’s grand finale here, when Bluto steals Swee’pea and starts a madcap chase out into the middle of the ocean where Popeye’s father’s treasure is supposed to be buried. (Yeah, I know I’m spoiling away here. It’s a 34-year-old movie. Shut up.) Of course, Popeye comes through in the end, Bluto swims away beaten, and everyone gaily sings the traditional “Popeye the Sailor Man” song. Happy ending, right? Except for the fact that all of their seagoing vessels–and I mean all of them–were destroyed in the fight to get to this deserted rock in the middle of nowhere. As a kid, that always bothered me. What are all the people supposed to do now? Their spinach reserves aren’t going to stretch for more than a day or so. Not with two-dozen castaways clinging to a couple of rocks, with nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see.
If you thought I was reaching for an allegory for depression here, you’re right. Depression isn’t a little problem, not in the slightest. Depression is a ghastly brain disease. Bipolarism, which Robin Williams had according to the Twitter buzz, is an even uglier brain disease and results in even more self-destructive behavior and suicide. People with bipolarism at times have the energy to push and push and push themselves out into nothingness. They climb Mount Everest. They row toward God. They celebrate for a little while once they arrive at their destination. What they don’t realize is that they used up all their resources on the journey. When they try to turn back, they realize they’re stuck. No more energy or motivation or stamina. The situation only gets worse from there.
Can’t say that this is what Williams went through at the end of his life. I know I’ve had this experience, though. Others, I believe, have fought through these crises as well. Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of Anne Sexton, describes her mother’s struggles with bipolar disorder in a phenomenal memoir, Searching for Mercy Street, and then writes of her own horrifying ordeal in Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. If you’ve never read either of these books, you should. Be warned, however: they are both harrowing. For my money, Half in Love is the far more gut-wrenching of the two, even though it documents Linda Sexton’s recovery. Yes, depression and bipolar disorder are such awful conditions that the success stories, the stories of survival, can be the most traumatic.
I don’t know that I can say anything more about Robin Williams. There’s really too much to say and not enough will to say it. I want to wax poetical, express my hope that Williams has reached his haven, and that the sweetness is as satisfying to him as it is to people who’ve never had to deal with mental illness. But that sentiment is pretty much D-grade schlock. I hope he’s at peace. And I hope we learn how best to remember him.