Depression, Mental Illness, News

Robin Williams’ Suicide: Blaming the Victim, Shaming the Ill

I know next to nothing of Mr. Williams’ health history and have followed news of his death only in passing. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s just, like the Williams we’re all suddenly becoming better acquainted with, I have my own struggles demanding my attention.

Truly, I’ve always felt the allure of Williams as a performer and human being. As a young comedian crashing into the nation’s psyche via the Mork and Mindy show, his high-energy antics communicated to my young mind the stimulating possibilities of life itself. In later performances, he exuded an almost palpable sense of compassion and tenderness betraying the perfect frailty of human existence.

While bad acting can so often feel like the clumsy fabrication of a life from dead matter (thinking Nick Cage here in his more Frankenstein monster moments), the good stuff springs from the deepest parts of a person and seems to tap into a shared emotive energy that binds all people. We recognize ourselves when gifted with such performances.

What came from Williams, I choose to believe, came from inside of him. It was earned (it would seem) in the forge of his own suffering, a suffering that concluded this week with his final decision: the decision to silence the pain by extinguishing his own life.

That decision has been kicked around in public for days now by a good number of commentators and supposed friends. And, in almost every case, these people just need to shut the fuck up.

Those who haven’t been touched by major depression have about as much right to pontificate on suicide as the able-bodied have to speak on behalf of those living with cerebral palsy. And, honestly, they’re about as good at it as any of the millions of inert and unredeemed Flubber DVD cases gathering dust in what I imagine to be Hollywood’s vast commercial caverns (sorry, Robin).

Until this morning I’ve been able to ignore nearly all the chatter. Yesterday, a self-justified Christian-oriented bleating on The Blaze blaming Williams raised my ire but didn’t surprise me. One more heckler taking pot shots at the “godless.” (I won’t dignify the site with a link and potential additional web traffic; you’ll have to seek it out your own self.)

This morning, however, I stumbled upon a short post by Williams’ purported friend Peter Coyote. Sadly, the actor-cum-Buddhist priest delivered a very similar analysis to that of the Blaze, albeit dressed in the saffron robes of mindfulness. I snapped. Putting aside my writing assignments for the day, I weighed in–a little too enthusiastically for the curator of the Facebook feed promoting Coyote’s sermonette, perhaps.

The quick and dirty of Coyote’s post is this: Williams, gifted as he was, didn’t take the time to develop balance in his life through (it is suggested) diligent meditation and reflection. Hence, his death is his own fault and stands as a warning to us all to practice better self care.

You can Coyote’s post here:

Screen shot 2014-08-14 at 11.29.26 AM


I would suggest that Mr. Coyote’s attempt to deliver a “teachable moment” so suddenly on the heels of Williams’ death is not only in bad taste but also displays some misunderstandings about the nature of the brain and depression.

In fact, I read this post as being only a few degrees removed from some of the aforementioned fundamentalist Christian rants about suicide being a choice displaying one’s fallen state or lack of faith. While his understanding of the wily nature of the brain is perhaps considerable, Coyote needs to understand that there is suffering that even studied practice does not reach.

Some folks inherit (or develop through injury, trauma, or environmental exposures) brains that are hobbled in some way, much like someone born with malformed bone structure or who develop a physically degenerative disorder later in life.

While most folks would find walking the line at a police sobriety field check fairly simple (assuming they haven’t been drinking) such a performance would present significant difficulty for those who hip girdle or leg bones have solid kinks built into them.

Should Robin Williams have spent more time meditating? Maybe. Is Coyote insulting and diminishing Williams’ struggle (and, consequently, the struggle of all those with living with the physical illness of major depression) by suggesting that Williams should have just worked a little harder? Absolutely.

Those who have not lived with life-threatening depression–those who have not been to the place where ending one’s own life seems to be the best, possibly the only solution–have remarkably little to offer on the subject, ultimately. And those who assume that they do because of their credentials–be they spiritual, academic, or Google rankings–almost always advance injury.

Now that he has so readily offered his critique of Williams’ life walk, I hope Mr. Coyote also finds the time to grieve the death of his friend.

For the rest of us, I hope we can turn our dialogue to the nature of suffering, the power of addiction, and the reality of mental illness. With all of Williams’ resources, even he couldn’t find relief from the forces that badgered him to the point that death seemed to be the only avenue to peace.

At the shallower end of the economic pool those resources are scarce, indeed. I personally went to the local MHMR months ago only to be talked out of filing for assistance because, I was told, the wait to see a doctor would be up to five months. Why clog the system?

On the heels of Williams’ death, questions about the limits of the scientific understanding of depression seem like a logical place to direct coverage. Perhaps exploring the many failures of popular medical intervention would yield editorial fruit. There are tales to be told–and ones that have the real potential to assist those who continue to suffer and stain against the incessant pull of suicidal impulse.

But to stand on news of Williams’ death to pontificate before the man’s body is even in the ground? I just have to shake my head in disgust.

Williams showed my younger self a vibrant world buzzing with potential. And while the world I’ve grown to inhabit is more quixotic than I could have anticipated, it’s one that’s been undeniably enriched by Williams decision to share himself with the world.

For now and for the days that are to come I choose simply celebrate his life without judgement.


9 thoughts on “Robin Williams’ Suicide: Blaming the Victim, Shaming the Ill

  1. enrique valdivia says:

    I recently lost a close friend. Whether it was suicide is open to interpretation. What I know is years ago he said he would kill himself when his money ran out. Well, his money ran out and he died. When news of Robin Williams’ death reached me I had no desire to join in the choir of public opinion about suicide because all the talking and reflection in the world ultimately fails in the face of death. It fails in the face of life too but that’s a rant for another day. People want so badly to make sense of things.

    Peter Coyote’s note about Robin Williams didn’t impress me one way or the other. But friends of mine “liked” it in a Facebook kind of way so I thought “Wow, I have friends who are friends with Peter Coyote” and felt a faint wish I was one of the cool kids too. I probably never would have thought about it again if you hadn’t written your response. You’re right Coyote’s words lay blame on Williams for not training his fabulous imagination properly so he could see there is always hope. By this Coyote showed himself to be a deluded person who happens to call himself a Buddhist Priest. I’m not ordained in anything nor am I a Buddhist scholar. But I understand the meditation practice which Coyote and I share is and ought to be utterly pointless. That is to say, if you’re doing it to get something out of it then you’re doing it wrong.

    When my friend died I was far away. I wonder whether he would have lived if I had cancelled my trip and stayed with him. Why didn’t I call those mutual friends who were professional therapist and perhaps could have gotten him emergency care? Perhaps he wouldn’t have left the emergency room if we had thought to bring a cot for him to lay down on while he waited for hours to be checked in. None of that matters now. From now on he won’t be home to take my calls or host parties or call me on my bullshit.

    I do hope you don’t stay too angry at us who fail at compassion. Underlying the chatter and bad advice are some good intentions – with the exception of Rush Limbaugh of course but when is he not the outlier? It’s the collective moan of people wishing things had turned out differently, that Robin were still with us to make us laugh.

    • I too have lost friends in ways that seem in retrospect to have been very preventable in the midst of living lives that were deeply unmanageable. I imagine I could have prevented a handful of potentially damaging acts, perhaps, but not the course of a life. And the questions survivors ask of themselves can be brutal. I pray yours get less pressing.

      My point is that there are places the brain goes that have nothing to do with with one’s choices or training or desire. This is not a post against Buddhism, by any means. I’m a practitioner myself, although a lazy one. But seriously: I just spied a baby anole in the garden not 30 minutes ago, Enrique. How can I be angry after that. ;)

      Thanks for sharing of yourself here.

  2. Like you, Greg, I have been put off by the need of some to pontificate or judge Robin Williams’ choice to end his life. As a long time Buddhist practitioner, I also felt Peter’s words missed the mark. For me this is a time to quietly grieve (the best way it seems to me to show respect and kindness to his family) and also to celebrate the beauty of Robin’s life, rather than try to extract a sermon. I have seen great damage done when Buddhist teachers insist that a meditation practice is all that is needed to heal debilitating depression. That only lays additional burden and blame on a person whose brain is malfunctioning.
    I am so happy to hear of the baby anole! I saw one earlier this summer and it gladdened my day for hours.

    • Thanks, Mobi. I love when people are caught up and enthusiastic about their life and life practices. I cringe when they insist that what they have found is a one-size-fits-all solution. (Confession: I’ve been one of them.) As attractive as the concept is, life is just too big for that.

  3. Dr. M. Josephine Louise says:

    As a well respected and successful psychologist, it’s clear that you missed Mr. Coyote’s very loving, thoughtful words for the loss of his dear friend Robin. Everyone grieves in their own way, which those who are not judgemental, choose to respect. I lost 2 dear friends to suicide, and unlike you, I sincerely appreciate that Mr. Coyote does not at all blame Robin in any way. Mr. Coyote thoughtfully conveys, quite accurately, that he was not in his right mind in taking his own life. It was the result of a mental illness, depression. I commend Mr. Coyote for sharing his personal reflection of Robin’s demise and our tragic loss. I’m grateful that most people do not share your perspective.

  4. Dr. M. Josephine Louise says:

    Your blog is clearly a pathetic, shallow attempt to simply smear Mr. Coyote’s fine reputation as a well admired Zen Buddhist priest and self-less advocate for human and animal rights. Your fragile ego is so obvious since you cowardly stamped Mr. Coyote’s name at the top of blog to ensure that your repulsive smear campaign would be found. I have great faith that most see through your attempt to counter your poor low esteem. I do sincerely hope you seek professional help for improved mental health.

  5. Joseph says:

    Deeply hurt & disappointed by Peter’s comments regarding Robin’s choice. I studied at the San Francisco Zen Center as a resident and priest trainee for years and met Peter on several occasions. He struck me as being very kind, but somewhat self-involved, and well.. pompous quite frankly. As a survivor of suicidal depression it’s very clear to me that Mr. Coyote is speaking well beyond his experience or expertise. I found his comments to be condescending and very amateur hour. Williams brought joy and the opportunity for self-reflection to millions through his film choices and roles. He deserves respect and consideration not condescension and pity. As my mother would say, if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything. A little “noble silence” if you please Mr. Coyote.

  6. Nola Susan says:

    Thank you for posting this. I could not agree more with you. Coyote clearly has no clue, nor understanding of the disease of depression any more than he has a clue to his ignorance and massive ego, i.e. ‘I’m a Buddhist priest and hey, I DO KNOW IT ALL because I AM’ approach is both insulting to Robin’s disease and choice of suicide. Shame on you Mr. Coyote and to Dr. M. Josephine Loiuse. Sadly, if only you ‘meditation cures all’ devotees can get your ego’s out of your asses then maybe you would see things from a ‘medical’ not ‘religious’ perspective. So tired of seeing ‘mindfulness and meditation’in main stream psychology. Still, I forgive you both for your ignorance and pray that one day you may see beyond your pompous-ness.

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