I am struggling to process the news about Robin Williams’ suicide. It’s going to take awhile. I didn’t know him in a personal or social context, but my job gave me a chance to talk with him on four occasions over the years. Almost invariably, in those conversations we’d finish talking about whatever project he was promoting, then we would chat for awhile, off the record, about life in general.
I quickly recognized that – putting aside his prodigious genius – we had quite a bit in common. Both of us were Cancers – the screamingly sensitive sign – although Robin was born nearly a year before I was. Both of us were social misfits as we went through our school years, then developed a quick wit as a way to hide that awkwardness and loneliness, keeping most people at arms’ length by staying “on” all the time. In those post-interview chats, I really liked the sweet, vulnerable guy who wasn’t a friend but got me, as I got him.
One of those interviews happened not long after my mother died. In another one of those weird coincidences, Robin had lost his own mother not long before that. Both of us were raised by Southern women (his mom was from Louisiana, mine from Alabama), so we spent quite a bit of time sharing thoughts and, yes, complaints about how Southern mothers know how to push their sons’ buttons more efficiently than any others. “Well, they installed them,” Robin said.
We talked for nearly half an hour about that, not interviewer and subject, not friends, just two grieving sons. At the end of that conversation, he finally sighed and said, “Well, John, maybe you and I just need to think about our mothers having coffee together in heaven and saying, now and then, ‘Elvis! Put down that biscuit!’ “
That’s the Robin Williams I knew, to the extent that I knew him. He wasn’t a personal friend, yet when we talked, he seemed to let down his guard and stop performing. He gave millions of people a lot of joy, and it just breaks my heart that he got to a place where he was in such pain that he saw no other way out.
Rest in peace, Robin. Give my love to both our moms. And Elvis.