Over the past few days, I have watched with dread as news of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide has pervaded the Internet like a fever. I’ve seen the breaking footage and the press conferences, the statements made by his family as well as the ignominious report made by the Marin County Coroner’s Office detailing Williams’ physical condition and state of undress.
What I have found to be most compelling, however, are the multifarious responses on social media from celebrities and regular folk alike: the outpourings of grief; the anecdotes; the photos, the tributes, the R.I.P.’s. The Internet in this sense is a kind of reactor, containing a controlled explosion of hasty thoughts and genuine emotion. So it really didn’t surprise me when all this heartfelt sentiment made the effortless transition into a debate about the morality of suicide.
The first blurt from more than a few people in my Facebook feed was that “suicide is a selfish act”. These declarations were usually triggered with “I’m a huge Robin Williams fan, but…”, and often contained buzzwords like “cowardly” or “thoughtless”.
Then came the backlash: the wave of retorts condemning these comments as “insensitive”, followed by links to a slew of articles rationalizing suicide as the symptom of a disease. “He couldn’t help himself,” they all seemed to say. “He was a victim. To call him selfish is foolish and ignorant.”
For the record, I think both sides of the argument are correct.
I also think they’re both dead wrong.
Allow me to elucidate:
When I was a toddler, my Father killed himself. Like Robin Williams, he hanged himself with a belt, leaving my Mother to deal with the thousands of dollars in debt that she had racked up by supporting him through medical school—not to mention a young child and the stigma of being widowed.
For my part, I was too young to have been able to retain the details of the moment, so I didn’t have any real context until years later, when I discovered his suicide note folded up and stashed away in a decorative tin on the mantel of our electric fireplace. Addressed to my Mother, it read:
My Dear Lois
Please understand that I had to disappear. For too long I’ve known that life for me and for you with me will be a constant succession of unhappy times. I cannot face the future, the present is too unpleasant. You will do much better without me. Please find somebody great next time. I’m sure you will but you must be careful to avoid disasters like me or some of your previous men. You’ll get lots of help from our friends, you will be happy once the morbid Mark evaporates as matter and memory. Take care of Josh, don’t let him be unhappy.
All my love.
As I read the letter for the first time, it felt heavy. It was practically dank with the final thoughts of an obviously very depressed man. Having previously experienced nothing but a dim resentment toward my Father, here I suddenly felt sorry for him for the first time.
Then I read the letter again. And again. And again. Pity turned to disappointment. And disappointment became disgust. It finally occurred to me: my Father’s suicide was a selfish act.
Perhaps you think this is some knee-jerk, emotional reaction. Maybe you imagine I’m too close to the situation to understand the realities. To that, I can only say I am simply working with the tools I’ve been given.
I have a note from my Father.
Let’s ignore the fact that in just over 100 words, he mentions himself nine times (one of which is a reference to himself in the third-person). It’s his suicide note. I can’t fault him for making himself the protagonist.
I’m more concerned with these words: “…you must be careful to avoid disasters like me or some of your previous men.”
“You must be careful,” he says, and very deliberately brings up my Mother’s “previous men” to make sure she knows the mistake was hers.
You keep doing this. You should have known better. This is on you.
Then he adds the coup de grâce: “Take care of Josh, don’t let him be unhappy.” This is his very last thought. It has a don’t-forget-to-walk-the-dog vibe I’ve never quite been able to ignore. It is here that he places the burden of my happiness in my Mother’s hands like a leash and a bag of bones.
Oh, by the way… don’t let Josh be unhappy like you let me be unhappy. Me, the disaster. Me and my constant succession of unhappy times. Me and my unpleasant present. Please understand that I had to disappear.
Me. I. My.
My Father’s suicide was a selfish act. I’ve already made my peace with the experts and their decades of research that prove otherwise. These scientists pretty much know they’re right. I disagree.
You see, my Father’s suicide was selfish because I say it was. I called him selfish to mourn what he abandoned and to show my Mom that– despite what my Father had written—it wasn’t her fault. And ultimately, it was also to assuage myself of the notion that I was a burden to my Mother during what must have been her most difficult times.
This is how I’ve processed the trauma. This is how I’ve healed. And nobody can tell me I’m wrong, because the grief is my own. Mine. Maybe my Father wasn’t being selfish. Maybe he was. But whether you’re an expert or just some online know-it-all, DO NOT PRESUME TO TELL ME HOW I SHOULD FEEL. Suicide and its aftermath aren’t black-and white events. They’re personal.
As for Robin Williams, his motives for doing this terrible thing are none of our business. His family will need to process it without our philosophical input. But by all means, please keep posting your amazing pictures. Tell the story about when you met him or worked with him. Go watch Jumanji.
And if you need help, for fuck’s sake, go get help. Don’t leave us behind.