Happy August the 11th: How the suicide of Robin Williams rattled a generation

 

Tennessee Williams (1911-83) was best known as one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century but he also wrote dozens of equally histrionic, twisted short stories. At their best, they are evocative of both high art and squalid kitsch, as if Andy Warhol and John Waters made a film from a script by William Burroughs.

“Happy August the Tenth,” a Williams short stories from 1970, was written while the author was suffering from a midlife crisis, money problems, a bad case of writer's block, chronic depression and a giant dollop of sexual frustration to boot.

In the story, two middle-aged women are living uneasily together as roommates in a house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, fighting the petty arguments and settling the pathetic scores left unsettled from years past. The women had made an amicable agreement years ago when renting the apartment. Horne, one of the roommates, would occupy the more spacious master bedroom during the months of August and September, when the heat and humidity of New Orleans are at the worst. The other ten months of the year, the other roommate lived in the air-conditioned room.

“Superficially,” Williams writes, “this would appear to be an arrangement which was more than equitable” to the other roommate but nevertheless still caused great emotional distress for her. Deprived of cool air when she needed it most, she spent those two months in sleepless exhaustion, rolling around a bed filled with her own sweat, filled with thoughts of despair.

Not too long into the summer’s arrangement, Horne burst into the other room one morning and shrieked at her roommate, after another night with no sleep, “Happy August the Tenth,” greatly confusing her and aggravating her depression. The two months of her hell had just begun.

She looked in the bathroom mirror after being awoken so suddenly. He writes, “Middle age was not approaching on stealthy little cat feet this summer but was bursting upon her as peremptorily as Horne had shrieked her into August the Tenth.”

A little more than a decade later, Tennessee Williams was dead, suffocated with the lid of one of the many bottles of prescription medicines he had been addicted to for decades.

I thought about ole Tennessee over the past weekend, especially on Sunday, which was August 10, the cause for my annual revisitation of his short fiction. I thought of the lives of quiet desperation being lived by so many around the world, the reasons for that desperation and how to mitigate or avoid it in my own life. I looked in the mirror on Sunday and did not feel the same sensation that the character in the short story did and it made me very glad.

It has been a very long summer, with very little in the way of good news to buoy and sustain us. Wars are raging in Ukraine and the Middle East with no real end in sight; closer to home, our Hoosier heroes Paul George and Tony Stewart have both experienced tragedies from which they may never fully recover. I don’t know a lot of people who have too much hope for the future since the hope Barack Obama promised us in the giddy days of 2008 has yet to materialize for many people.

Happiness is transitory and gradual but shock and depression can arrive with the quickness of a lightning bolt. And those thoughts came immediately back to mind when the story of the suicide of Robin Williams began to break around 6 p.m. Central Time on Monday. His death, had it been caused by anything other than suicide, would have been hard to take but something that could have been processed. But this was no ordinary celebrity death. It was something that was tearing at the souls of many of my friends.

By 11 p.m. on Monday, my thoughts and the thoughts of many of my friends were deep and dark. Conan O’Brien, the voice of a certain generation that includes me, broke the news to his studio audience with a mixture of shock and disbelief, his reaction mirroring that of my friends on social media.

Suicide is a tough rap to beat. It claims many lives and seems to target the rich and famous disproportionately. Who among us would not have traded places with Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Hunter S. Thompson or Robin Williams? They all had riches beyond belief, access to power and women and travel and all that capitalism causes us to yearn to achieve.

The suicide of Robin Williams affected people in a way I haven’t seen since Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris in 1997. There was that same sense of disbelief, of an unsettlement that rattled to the core and a sense of personal loss, as if all those episodes of Mork and Mindy had been filmed in our basements instead of a Hollywood sound stage.

Not many of us can identify with being led on a high-speed chase through Paris to evade paparazzi but we all can identify with being depressed and despondent. Some of us can identify with that more than others.

For me, there have been vast swatches of time in my life where that was the case, where the man I saw in the mirror horrified me and the prospect of carrying on anything in the world seemed difficult or impossible. I went through some very dark periods, as those closest to me know. But, for the most part, they’re in the past, or so I hope. Once you hit 30, the romance and tragedy of suicide becomes less attractive and simply living life to the fullest resumes its proper place at the front of our mental lines of thought.

John Belushi never figured that out before a lethal dose of heroin and cocaine took his life. In Wired, Bob Woodward’s flawed recreation of Belushi’s demise, Robin Williams is a central character, portrayed as enjoying mountains of cocaine and sharing Playboy models with Belushi and his other cokehead friends. Williams could have easily died in the same way Belushi did, in a lonely hotel room with a heart stopped from an overdose.

But he didn’t. Instead, he seemed to embrace life and spent his time creating one of the greatest careers in show business. No matter how bad the material he was given, he made the best of it. And his best, it turned out, was so much better than everyone else’s. Whether he was spending 10 minutes with David Letterman or Johnny Carson or Conan or filming one of his great movies, it seemed like he’d come to terms with the dark side, as we all have to do.

On Monday we found out that it had all been a lie. He couldn’t kick that depression any better than Belushi or Cobain could, despite having a legendary career, three wonderful children and all the fame anyone could hope to attain.

Myself, I was taken back to the day in 1994 when Cobain blew his head off with a shotgun. I just happened that day to be covering John Updike’s brief meeting with the Indianapolis media in promotion of a talk he was giving that day.

From a column I wrote for NUVO in 2009:

Like everyone else, I was saddened and confused about Cobain's suicide. How could a man of such talent and passion have been in such pain that he felt the need to murder himself?

Had I been at Denny's that day, I would have asked my fellow diners, but I found myself instead in a room with one of the great writers and minds of the 20th century, an author who himself was no stranger to despair. So I asked him what he made of the situation.

His answer has stayed in my mind, haunting me for the last 15 years. Luckily, I had audiotape rolling as he spoke.

"I think all of mankind operates in the shadow of spiritual crisis," he said. "The rock stars, in a way, more so than any of us. I don't know quite what led to this man's suicide, nor does every rock star commit suicide, of course. Very many remain quite healthy and survive the terrible blast of celebrity and whatever other temptations befall them.

"It puts an extra strain on the system to be so young and, suddenly, so rich, so much attention focused on you.

"And what do you do with all this sense of suddenly being superhuman? I suppose one thing you can do is maximize pleasure. One way to maximize pleasure, maybe the first way that comes to mind, is to take drugs. Drugs have a life of their own; they get you involved in a self-destructive cycle and, just off the cuff, that's why it may be extra hard to be a rock star.

"'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,' Thoreau said. Certainly most men and women lead very deprived lives. In a sense, the deprivation shelters us from ever exploring those limits of possibility, which the very rich, the rock stars, the movie stars are used to leading.

"I once read a book about the sultans, the sultans of Turkey, to whom the word 'no' was never said. They could do anything. And one of them would go out and shoot people at random on the street because the sultan was allowed to shoot 10 people at random a day. They had harems populated by scores, hundreds, of women. Rich beyond belief. A lot of them wound up crazy and impotent, so there's a limit to getting everything you want.

"Rock stars? I don't know where they come from, they probably come out of middle-class basements, don't they? Where they have their guitar and their drum sets? They are simply middle-class kids whose dreams have come true too soon and maybe because they're very reckless and self-infatuated, they're trying to become angels. That was certainly the feeling you had in the late '60s and early '70s, when so many of the real stars just went down like rockets: Joplin, Hendrix and others.

"What their insides, their spiritual state feels like, I don't quite know, but modern man lives under an extra stress that people of the Middle Ages, the more credulous ages, didn't have. You cope with it in varying ways. Some refine their faith; some turn to drink; some ignore the whole problem and some shoot themselves in the head."

What Updike said that day has resonated with me for the last 20 years; although it brings little comfort to me, it rings with the authenticity of truth. My own dark times have hopefully receded into the past but none of us can be certain of that, can we? Like the alcoholic for whom relapse is just one bottle of Crown Royal away or the heroin addict struggling from withdrawal, tortured by the knowledge that one hit is all that’s needed to stop the pain, I am fearful that at any time an otherwise picayune tragedy can drive me back to that place I hope I’d banished forever.

Robin Williams obviously couldn’t do that. So what makes me and others who’ve struggled with depression any better? Obviously there is not an easy answer to that question; there’s just the terrible trial and error we all experience in life.

On Sunday, I woke up and went to the Quaker meetinghouse, about an eight minute drive away on the northside of San Antonio. It’s a simple but beautiful building with delightful landscaping appropriate to the climate here: a huge bush of fragrant rosemary, plump and content cacti and perfectly formed live oak and pecan trees. It’s a good place to come and ponder things on a Sunday morning.

The only real dogma the Quakers have is another simple concept: there is “that of God” in each and every human being. They believe humans were made in the image of God and therefore possess the ability to manifest that divinity on earth in very real ways: expressing love, a dedication to nonviolence and peace as a necessary step in development and a devotion to affirming that principle in their everyday lives.

This meeting practices what is called waiting worship, where the members and guests sit in a simple room with a large window providing a view into the back of the property. The meeting begins in silence. And then it stays in silence. There are no ministers, preachers, singers, none of that. There’s silence, broken only by the ambient noise of feet shuffling on the floor, occasional coughing etc. Since all at the meeting are equals, anyone can stand up and talk, as long as it seems credible to the others that the speaker is moved by religious fervor to speak. There is no debate about what is said and there is a respectful period of silence before the next person speaks. Some meetings apparently are completely quiet for an hour and others more lively but the purpose is the same, to sit and pray or meditate or focus one’s energy towards the positive and loving.

On Sunday, quite unlike me, I felt compelled to stand up and speak.

I said:

“If the Quakers believe there is ‘part of God’ in everyone then that means we all have the opportunity to express that divinity if we work and focus our energies on the positive. It also means that you can't have any enemies unless you hate God, because by definition God is in everyone and everyone has the opportunity to also do good things no matter what bad things they've done previously. From my perspective, religions and names for God are all invented by man, just like sports teams or brands of soda were. There’s no real significant differences between them except for literalists. Now, if everyone felt that way, it would change the world but there's too many people with a financial interest in war and promoting their brands so it will never happen. That means everyone has to take care of themselves and the people they love and not expect other to care as much about our families as they do theirs.”

My solution works for me, at this time anyway; I can’t expect it to work for anyone else. What leaves so many of us devastated by the death of Robin Williams is that the improvised solutions we invent to battle the darkness didn’t work for him, either. That fact will leave many people feeling unsettled for quite a long time. 

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