Death of an Icon

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are depressed, so I did a little research. I looked up Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums, and found that nine of the top ten artists (those with the most albums on the list) had a drug problem (Bruce Springsteen being the exception). So did all five of IMDb’s top five actors (that’s where I stopped looking, though #6, Dustin Hoffman, did as well). Sports figures, of course, must stay in shape, but even there you find one drug scandal after the next. And what are drugs? Escape from the plain, real, often-depressing world.

[UPDATE: Someone sent me the link to comedian Jim Horton’s article about Williams. In it he writes: “So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction… In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.”]

I’m not aware of any other industry whose top practitioners are so likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, broken marriages, other self-destructive behaviors, and of course suicide… as entertainment. Not politicians, not the military, not any other profession or (legal) blue-collar field. In order to find a similar level of prevalence, one must look at drug dealers or prostitutes.

Isn’t something wrong with this picture? The entertainment industry is supposed to be about making us happy; entertainers are sharing happiness with us. Yet behind the scenes, they seem to need to escape. Either temporarily by getting drunk or high, or all too often permanently, whether via overdose or deliberate action.

The answer, I believe, is that what I said above is not really true. Entertainers are not sharing happiness, they are acting. Comedians practice their art and make people laugh… and then go home, where life isn’t funny. They aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient. Thus the need to escape.

True happiness is not found via entertainment. Happiness is tied to attainment, to achievement, especially to attaining completion as a person. The Vilna Gaon says on Megillas Esther (8:16) that in this world, Simcha, happiness, precedes Sasson, joy. “Happiness is moving forward to reach an objective in happiness, and joy is afterwards, when one has already achieved the objective and feels joy in his heart.”

Happiness is not a casual thing, it doesn’t just happen, it is something that one can pursue and develop. This is why Chazal say “it is a great Mitzvah to always be happy” — it’s something we can cultivate.

This statement also teaches us that happiness is not a state of laughing delight. Rav Alexander Mandelbaum, in his “V’hayisa Ach Samayach” (“and you shall only be happy”), speaks about two types of happiness considered by Chazal — happiness with one’s lot, and happiness in performance of Mitzvos. Happiness with one’s lot is developed by considering that G-d gives each individual precisely what that person needs — so he or she, even in a difficult situation, should be happy with the understanding that HaShem saw that the difficult situation would prove to be of ultimate benefit. That sort of happiness doesn’t “just happen.”

One does not always feel Sasson, joy. But it is a Mitzvah to always be happy — even on Tisha B’Av, even during Shivah. How can this be? We can comprehend this by understanding Simchah as a feeling of moving happily in the right direction, pursuing a goal. That is something that can remain with a person even during times of grief and pain.

That is real happiness. Unfortunately, the purveyors of what the modern world calls “happiness” — the entertainers — realize within themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, that they have not found and are not providing true happiness.

What makes this especially sad is that now that he is gone, the stories are emerging of Robin Williams, the humanitarian, who visited hospitals on Dec. 25 to give presents to all the children. When he met the doctors and nurses who had spent their holiday stabilizing a premature baby, he teared up — recognizing people whose efforts were real and transformative. Perhaps he didn’t realize that yes, you can make others happy, you can give people something lasting, just with a smile — and even a joke or two, which Robin Williams had in abundance.

Yes, it’s sad that he went, and it’s sad that he was so sad — he could have been so happy.

19 Replies to “Death of an Icon”

  1. Wow, you really don’t get it.
    Depression isn’t about being happy. It’s about not being able to feel. It’s about emptiness. It’s about the world being full of all things good and being unable to take any of it in. It is not a choice. It’s an illness. There is no ‘could have beens’. His illness is what it was, and saying that he could have been so happy is extremely invalidating to those of us- including Robin Williams- who can’t have been so happy.

  2. Shay,

    Thank you for your comment, but I’m afraid you misunderstood me. To borrow your words, you didn’t get it, referring to my essay. I do know the symptoms you describe, though those of us who have not felt them personally can only comprehend them by proxy.

    Depression may not be a choice, but how you respond to it, is. Therapy, as compared to drug treatment, is about helping a depressed person to find a way forward — to choose life, despite the negativity.

    Very frequently, the disease of depression has a cause, like any other disease. And we have to acknowledge, address and treat the root of the illness.

    That is what I attempted to do in my article. While you may argue that people with depression are drawn to entertain, to getting people to smile and laugh — I think we can question why so many people reach true success in entertainment and then seem to develop symptoms of depression.

    1. Again, you don’t get it. If you did any research on Robin WIlliams’ death you would see that yes, he did seek treatment. Many many times. There’s only so much treatment and rehab and meds can do.

      An estimated one in ten adult Americans suffer from depression. The vast majority of them are not in the entertainment business. Your point is invalid.

      Robin Williams suffered from bipolar disorder. This disease may be triggered by a trauma, but it is also possible to be triggered by a high fever. Treating Robin WIlliams’ fever wouldn’t do much for him. The cause of his disease would be his chemical and genetic makeup, not something that occurred in his life.

      1. Nothing that I said indicated a belief that Williams didn’t seek treatment. On the contrary. This is in no way contradictory to the idea that a fundamentally different outlook on life might (key term: might) have helped him towards a different outcome.

        Yes, in his individual case that may well not be so. There are any number of mentally ill people who have all the right outlook and it doesn’t help. But I do not believe the entertainment field is helping its most successful practitioners to develop a healthy outlook, and I think the evidence for that failing is all around us.

        Yes there are many other causes of depression. But would you say that because we know that smoking causes lung cancer, we should not look for anything else that might also cause lung cancer? To say that because businessmen suffer from depression my point is “invalid” is to claim that a factor must be present in 100% of cases in order to establish causation, an obvious fallacy.

        I’m sorry, but your claim that the causes of William’s bipolar disorder are categorically “not something that occurred in his life,” in no way tied to behavioral and lifestyle choices, runs contrary to current medical science.

  3. It would be good if you were familiar with the research before opining. The relationship between creativity and mental illness is complex and not entirely clear.

    Additionally, any and all interventions that help relieve distress are potentially life-saving. Don’t make arbitrary distinctions between interventions. When someone is in the abyss, we seek effective interventions. If only treatment for depression was as simple as “choose life.” Why do you think it takes so much training and experience to effectively treat depression and bipolar disorder? It’s anything but simple.

    People make meaning in a variety of ways. You are free to choose your own meaning. Please do not attempt to choose or define it for others.

    1. Psychdoc is quite mistaken about my familiarity with the research — first and foremost because I was discussing not creativity, but the consequences of being a world-class entertainer. As an aside, it’s amazing to me that people feel qualified to know the entire background of a person merely because he looks like an Orthodox Rabbi — not to mention, of course, that dealing with people is part of a Rabbi’s job.

      Neither, of course, did I dismiss any or all interventions. What I did was highlight what could have been (and, statistically, was likely to be) a contributing factor that people rarely like to discuss.

  4. Rav Menken, thank you for a very thought-provoking piece. Some questions, though, emerged for me as I read this and if I’m misunderstanding or misrepresenting your position in any way, please do let me know. You say entertainers “aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient.” It would seem to me, though, that if one brings joy to millions of people the world over, even on a limited scale, this should provide a person (with the caveat they don’t suffer from clinical depression) plenty of fulfillment if they have the proper perspective and certainly more so than many other occupations where the primary objective is simply to make money.

    Also, I don’t think the inspiration that Robin Williams provided with his heartfelt and frankly profound performances in films like “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting” provide merely transient pleasures, but rather, they offer rich reflections on life and how to live it that can inspire us for years to come. These might be only movies, but by the same token, books are only books.

    But even regarding his comedies such as “Aladdin,” don’t we learn from the Gemara in Taanis 22 about the high value God places on comedians who cheer people up? But then again perhaps you agree, as you state, “yes, you can make others happy, you can give people something lasting, just with a smile — and even a joke or two, which Robin Williams had in abundance.” Perhaps we cannot compare a great entertainer to a doctor who saves lives, but I would still argue that for many people, rich and meaningful culture are among those things that make life worth living.

    Further, if entertainers are depressed because they aren’t providing true happiness, why do we not see the same levels of depression in other fields, such as investment banking, where the impact of the job might not be on quite the same level as we find in heart surgery?

    In Williams’ case, while there was no doubt a correlation between his art and his depression, I don’t believe it was causal. This is not to say, however, that there isn’t something inherently unhealthy in Hollywood stardom, where too often entertainer’s self-worth is tied to the transient adoration of millions of strangers whom, as you correctly note, don’t truly know them and where the overall lifestyle tends to present a host of both physical and mental dangers.

    But I have no idea to what degree such factors played in a role in Williams’ demons and can only say that my own life was most definitely enriched by him and that in my opinion, his accomplishments were far from transient and that the joy he provided was no less genuine than the joy that merited the comedians in the Gemara shares in the World to Come. At any rate, thanks for the post and I look forward to your thoughts.

    1. Joseph, you’ve highlighted that there’s only so much that can be said in a short essay, which could be seen as oversimplification. You put your finger on a point I had omitted: “the proper perspective.” Let me illustrate with an example.

      A particular Rabbi, whose name I’ve forgotten, was going through a very trying situation. But when others saw him, he was careful to smile as always. Someone close to him remarked on it, and he responded that true, he was going through a situation which caused him distress. But why should the other person see his unhappy face and be unhappy as well?

      Sometimes depressed people think if they smile and mask their feelings, they are lying to the world, thus making them more unhappy. But if their outlook is like this Rabbi, focused upon the recipient, then the effect is very different.

      I do not believe that even the most profound and moving performance is more than that – a performance. Those who are still “second best” are aspiring to a pinnacle, which, as I described, brings Simchah. But what of those who have already “arrived” and realize they have the world’s adulation for what they present, not who they are?

      There are a number of other factors at work, and I did not mean to point to his art and his depression as in my reply to PsychDoc’s argument. The “life in a fishbowl” is relevant as well. Why else might investment banking be different? Perhaps because one becomes a successful banker through discipline, and away from the limelight.

  5. “I’m not aware of any other industry whose top practitioners are so likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, broken marriages, other self-destructive behaviors, and of course suicide…”

    Your speculation seems very thin…but in any case I would like to disagree.
    I would wager that ANY profession where people reach the top, as a result of burnout, overwhelming pressures from society, access to lots of money and parties and fame from youth (and preceived impunity as a result), result in depression and very frequently, substance abuse. This is no less true for the OJ community, and other professions including politics, financial services, healthcare, retail, etal.

    One thing I will grant you is that entertainers typically peak in terms of wealth and acclaim at a much younger age, before life experience and families…when partying hard and staying up late are more attractive to people. By contrast, a more “traditional” professional might not reach that level of success until well into middle age…when “wilder” activities are not as appealing.

  6. Raabi Yaakov,

    Your facts citing depression among top actors and musicians are veritably true. However, what’s your point?

    Other people in society are not in the spotlight, so it’s hard to glean the proportion of people who suffer from mental illness.

    What are you trying to say about Robin Williams exactly?

    1. Brian, the point I was making cannot be applied specifically to any one person without access to his or her medical history. There are, obviously, many factors at play in any case of mental illness, just as with any other.

      With regards to entertainment itself, there are also other issues at play. Someone who abandoned a career in Hollywood to work at the Orthodox Union described the famous Orson Welles as very insecure and seeking validation. At least one writer suggested that Williams was depressed at having to take jobs in television after being successful on the big screen. Fame is a very fickle, transient friend, and if that is the source of your self worth and validation, what do you do when it’s gone?

      My point was neither to be an exhaustive study of contributing factors to mental illness nor to explain the behavior of all entertainers under all circumstances. [To judge from some communications I’ve received, you’d think I’d said all you need to do is have Simcha, and all depression will immediately be cured. Bizarre but true.] It was to look at one contributing factor as to why symptoms of depression and self-destructive behavior might be so extraordinarily common in specifically the highest echelons of the entertainment world.

      1. Hi Rabbi Yaakov,

        Is there any proof that mental illness is more prevalent in workers of the entertainment industry than that of other industries? To what extent do you entertain the notion that people with mental illness are drawn to the entertainment industry?

        I ask these questions respectfully and critically, since it seems to me that you haven’t submitted any empirical evidence – but rather speculate – that the entertainment industry causes mental illness.

        Even if it were true, in general, that the entertainment industry caused mental illness, surely you would agree then that it is still possible for a single entertainer to be mentally ill independent of the industry. I respectfully find it insulting and arrogant that you conclude that Robin Williams’ illness was not intrinsic (or biological, for lack of better term), but rather caused by the industry (you highlight your conclusion in your final words: “… he could have been so happy.”)

        1. Brian,

          I didn’t say the industry, but rather leading entertainers. There aren’t all that many, and when 9 out of 10 top musical artists/groups and 6 of 6 top actors have a problem, you don’t need to employ the Gallup organization to notice it.

          I specifically do not believe that this is endemic to the entire industry, nor is it endemic to the aging subgroup. Rather, you see evidence of a deterioration after becoming famous, even if very young — Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan are examples of young entertainers who, after becoming famous, exhibited self-destructive behavior characteristic of depression and/or other mental health issues. I haven’t seen their medical files either, but I think we agree their behavior isn’t anything we would call healthy.

          I made it clear that I was responding to Williams’ death but not claiming knowledge of his specific case. On the contrary, I said “While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.”

          1. Indeed, you said that you could be wrong about this one situation, but your last statement which I quoted seems to imply that you think you’re telling us what really happened with Robin Williams.

            I can appreciate your alternative perspective, but I don’t see how on earth you could say, “But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness.”

            You can offer a different perspective, but it’s troubling when you make statements like that as if you had known him, let alone were his doctor.

          2. Brian, put what I said in the context of the paragraph in which it is found. I think the likelihood extremely high that being a leading entertainer contributed.

            Yes, a person who smokes can coincidentally develop lung cancer. You cannot prove causation in any one case. But saying “I don’t believe” it was coincidental is certainly fair and appropriate.

          3. You offer an interesting perspective. I think that sticking to statements like, “I think it’s possible that there may be another cause” rather than “I don’t believe that” may remove much of the controversy of this article. I don’t think I’m arguing over symantics, because to me, at least (for what it’s worth), the tone of your article was somewhat authoritative and conclusive.

  7. Most of the time, i don’t agree with you. But this time, i would like to give you an accolade or shake your hand. Your post is beautiful. Robin Williams was a human being, fragile but full of love for others. His humour was his armor to hide his sadness. From what i learn , his relation with his father was almost non existant. He was scared of him.
    Those traumas, this sadness of life is almost present in the religious jewish world. But here too, we hide them, afraid of what the neighbors would say, fear of not getting a shidduch, shame for the family if you acknowledge that we are going to a therapist. But disease of the soul are real as disease of the body. As for the latter we are going to the doctor, what is wrong to go to the therapist for the former. The Rambam didn’t see any difference between both. The gemara in Brachos נז amud ב, if I’m not mistaken, says that if a person is down , meaning depressed, he needs three things to see (beautiful things), to hear(music) and to smell( flowers, spices). Why aren’t we ashamed to say that we had a cold but we are when it comes about mental issues? From someone who was there and got out, baruch Hashem.

  8. Thank you.

    first piece I’ve seen written that does a deeper job of addressing the suicide. And you did a beautiful job not being critical of the subject but rather constructive for the readers.

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