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Robin Williams: His Laughter & Legacy of Sadness

Who would have thought that behind the funny face and well-timed quips lay a complex interplay of struggles which would lead to his tragic demise. He chose the limelight of the stage in which to enact his improvised personas for the amusement of his audience, but in the end his toughest role was his real life – the third act in the final stage of his life.

At some point we will all go through an adversity for which there seems to be no help on the horizon. Whether professionals, parents or life partners – all lack the resources or insight necessary to help you overcome this gigantic hurdle. Williams’s hurdle was more gigantic than most. No amount of money, fame or privilege was going to rid him of the “terrorists in his mind”, as the Lewy Body Dementia which took over of his brain was so aptly described by his widow, Susan Schneider Williams.

Posthumously, he was diagnosed with the second worse case of dementia – Lewy Body Dementia, but at the time of his death he was labouring under the doctor’s misdiagnosis that he had Parkinson’s disease. Either diagnosis would have sent chills down the spine of any human being; even the most seasoned of comedians would have struggles to joke about such a menacing outcome.

But in the months leading up to his death, his increasing tally of debilitating symptoms, translated to the ultimate death sentence – he just didn’t know how to be funny anymore. Williams, who is best remembered for his outstanding performances in films such as ‘Dead Poets Society’, ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ for which he received an Academy Award, in the final months of his life was confronted with a role for which there was no script or rehearsal to prepare him. This was reality, raw and uncut – the loss of the tools of his trade – mental acuity, quick wit and a razor-sharp memory. Also, as a comedian he was also known for his physical humour, and he was losing control of his bodily movements. His comedic style was often described ad manic; this coupled with his recurrent bouts of depression throughout his life, raises the troubling question of whether Robin was also suffering from manic depression.

What seemed to come so easily to Robin, may not have been as easy as it looked. Williams attributes the stress of stand-up comedy as his reason for experimenting with drugs and alcohol. He would struggle with addiction for more than two decades. Robin has been quoted as saying, “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”

It is often thought that comedians are the happiest people in the world. After all, how can those who bring laughter to others not be full of happiness themselves?  But is their choice of occupation in fact a coping mechanism? He may well have endured a childhood of emotional neglect. This would explain why he was drawn to comedy – an attempt to dispel the loneliness of his childhood. He created characters and conversations in his head to cope with the loneliness of being an only child. His parents were wealthy so Robin lived in a big house, and was often looked after by a nanny because both parents worked. He was also bullied in school when he was in the sixth grade.

We were so busy laughing, we were so awestruck by the genius of this comedian with his inimitable talent that we didn’t notice the sadness and his subtle cries for help. But we are not laughing now. We are still reeling from the shock of his sudden departure and wishing he was still here.