MY 16-year-old daughter came into my bedroom on Wednesday morning, asking if I’d heard the news. I’ve always heard the news. If it’s not on Netflix, however, she’s not interested.
But the death of Robin Williams had affected her so much that she required a damp motherly hug.
My own sadness at his death was reflected through the eyes of my children. Back in the olden days, I enjoyed Good Morning Vietnam as much as the next person. I was one of those child-free adults who went on a date to see Aladdin. But for me, the real joy of Williams has been watching Mrs Doubtfire with my kids.
Nina and I never tired of his peerless takedown of Pierce Brosnan in the swimming pool, that excruciating accent, his character’s anarcho-syndicalist approach to housework. As soon as her little brother was old enough to appreciate a man wearing a bra, it all began again. As they watched it together, honks of laughter were audible from the other end of the house.
So his death is a thing in our family. Multiply this around the world, to every household that snuggled on the couch in front of Aladdin. To everyone who watched Good Will Hunting and took up teaching, or put on a red nose because of Patch Adams. Williams’ untimely death is, unlike much of the noise about famous people that is the grating backing track of our lives, important. If Nina notices, it’s huge.
But the fact that we, in the west end of Glasgow, felt close to this talented man does not give us an excuse to gatecrash the Williams’ family’s own grief. In these days where nothing is private, where everybody’s dirty laundry is scrutinised and debated on the digital washing lines of the internet, live, peg by peg, that is all too easy to forget.
Williams’ daughter Zelda, for example, posted about her father’s death on Twitter and Instagram. She is 25. That is how people of her age respond to everything from devastating personal tragedy to their coffee being served at the wrong temperature. It does not mean it’s not the stuff of their souls. Whoever thought it was a great idea to tweet her a mocked-up picture of her father’s dead body needs to remember that Twitter accounts are attached to human beings.
Some stellar bodies may have minions, or indeed algorithms, to inform the world that they are loving their new false eyelashes. Zelda Williams, although an actor, does not. She tweets about computer games and raccoons and is charming and sweet with her father’s fans. By deleting Twitter from all her devices she has sent herself to Coventry, to keep the idiots out of her handbag and her iPad. The relentless demands of rolling media, prurient blogs and the restless wits of social media mean that as soon as, say, a hugely loved and admired and gifted performer such as Robin Williams takes his own life, there is a competition to say the most offensive thing possible. Gosh, that is awful, what a terrible loss for his family, I really loved his funny voices, is no longer enough.
Instead there is an immediate race to the bottom. Before Williams’ wife released the news that her husband had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the Fox News website, a terrifying American portal of right-wing agitation, speculated that he killed himself because he was embarrassed at having to take television roles after a sterling movie career. He was selling his ranch in Napa, he couldn’t afford his house outside San Francisco, he was doing sequels and second-rate movies because he was broke.
And if this kind of speculation was not horrible and hurtful enough, Rush Limbaugh jumped in, live on radio, stating that Williams actually took his own life because he craved fame. He was, according to the contrarian broadcaster, a whiny liberal who was dissatisfied with his delightful life. His final selfish act was, in Limbaugh’s eyes, to kill himself and send a tidal wave of love crashing through the airwaves.
“Everybody would love to be spoken of the way the media’s speaking of Robin Williams today and last night,” he said live on air. “I really hope – because there’s some very fragile people out there – people don’t try to emulate or get this kind of notoriety for themselves by doing the same thing.”
It’s as if, by being a professional clown, Williams had signed away his right to be a fragile person himself. By aligning himself with the progressives of Hollywood (he supported an impressive range of causes including Amnesty International and Aids research) he had an opt-out on the mental illness that can affect anyone, no matter how rich, talented and generally blessed.
It turns out that he was not blessed with Rush Limbaugh’s impermeable self-belief. He was one of the vulnerable ones. His death shows us that, in an age where nothing is private, we need to recalibrate our boundaries. It’s too much to expect the venality merchants of talk radio to give fragile talents such as Williams room to breathe, never mind to make dodgy sequels.
But surely the less gifted among us, those who do seek attention by sending horrible pictures and abusive messages to the recently bereaved, can have a bit of mutual humanity. Without needing to retweet it. «