At my Work and Peace blog, I've written about Yi-Fu Tuan's book Who Am I: An Autobiography of Emotion, Mind, and Spirit (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). The last paragraph of the book came to mind when I heard of Robin Williams's death. Tuan writes:
Let me end with an encapsulating anecdote. My memory for facts is not very good, as I have said, so I cannot remember the year or, precisely, the location of this event. It happened, in any case, well before I came to Wisconsin. I was alone, driving west late—well past midnight—across the sparsely settled landscapes of Nebraska. My car and another one ahead were the only two on the narrow highway. We kept each other company. I was never a confident driver, least of all in the dark, so I appreciated the front car's taillights, which guided me and made me feel safe. Just when I was beginning to take my companion for granted, his right-turn signal started to flicker. A friendly gesture, I thought, but also regrettable, because I was going to be left to myself. The car turned into a country lane. Henceforth, I had only my own headlights to show me the way. They illuminated a short stretch of the road and were then absorbed by a wall of darkness.
In the paragraph before, Tuan writes:
I yearn at times for a real home, permanence, continuing and dependable (that is, "mature") relationships, and even, in a weak moment, a firm reputation in an established discipline that can boast a long roster of scholars, a building of its own with paneled rooms, time-honored procedures for the granting of awards. But fate has decreed otherwise.
As the flyer shown above states, Yi-Fu Tuan is one of the most accomplished geographers in the world today. Yet his autobiography reveals to the reader a man with a deep loneliness, someone whose achievements cannot substitute for close and lasting relationships. Elsewhere in the pages of Who Am I? he writes of his own suicidal thoughts:
The last time I had coffee with Tom Boogaart, a graduate student on his way to Belgium to do research, he said almost casually, "Now that you have retired, I can see that you are eager to end your life." I was shaken. I didn't know I was such an open book. Or it might just be that Tom is an exceptionally penetrating reader, for no one else has suspected this morbid streak. Several years ago, I bought Final Exit (1991), which is a sort of handbook for "self-deliverance and assisted suicide." Reading it put me in the dumps, for the book made it obvious that suicide is not an option for me. As a child, I thought nothing of sticking a wriggly earthworm with the sharp point of a fish hook. I can't do that now. I find it hard now to swat a fly. If such tiny bundles of life are too alive for me to kill, what about a large warm body, a human being—me? The idea is preposterous. I don't have the guts to jump out of the window or shoot myself with a gun, and, as Final Exit makes clear, I don't have the technical competence for the gentler forms of self-destruction.
We now know the manner in which Robin Williams killed himself. To my mind, it seems as if he were carrying out a punishment, an execution. I read a few journalistic pieces at the time of his death, and the Guardian interview conducted by Decca Aitkenhead—which allowed the actor to speak in his own halting, circumspect way—seems prescient.
It is almost impossible to get anything coherent out of him about the film, or any of the issues it raises. He is vague, tangential and at times more or less incomprehensible—until the conversation turns to more personal matters, at which point he becomes lucid and forthcoming. What Williams really wants to talk about, it turns out, is his relapse into alcoholism, his rehab and his open-heart surgery.
* * *
My worry beforehand had been that Williams would be too wildly manic to make much sense. When he appeared on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this summer, he'd been vintage Williams—hyperactive to the point of deranged, ricocheting between voices, riffing off his internal dialogues. Off-camera, however, he is a different kettle of fish. His bearing is intensely Zen and almost mournful, and when he's not putting on voices he speaks in a low, tremulous baritone—as if on the verge of tears—that would work very well if he were delivering a funeral eulogy. He seems gentle and kind—even tender—but the overwhelming impression is one of sadness.
Even the detours into dialogue feel more like a reflex than irrepressible comic passion, and the freakish articulacy showcased in Good Morning Vietnam has gone. Quite often when he opens his mouth a slur of unrelated words come out, like a dozen different false starts tangled together, from which an actual sentence eventually finds its way out. For example, "So/Now/And then/Well/It/I—Sometimes I used to work just to work." It's like trying to tune into a long-wave radio station.
In explaining why his second marriage failed, Williams says, "You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that's hard to recover from. You can say, 'I forgive you' and all that stuff, but it's not the same as recovering from it. It's not coming back."
Every action may bring someone considering suicide to the wall of darkness that Tuan evokes at the end of his book. Whether it's shame that causes one to remain there, or fear of dying that makes one pass through, is perhaps impossible to predict. Who would have predicted that Robin Williams would kill himself? A graduate student knew that Yi-Fu Tuan was contemplating suicide, but how many of us would have seen beyond the pleasant smile, the impressive scholarship?