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Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor

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Robin Williams died today. He was 63. There are multiple reports that he took his own life. If true, and there is no reason to doubt the reports, he succumbed to depression.

Williams was so multi-talented and so brilliantly funny that it is hard to imagine him sad much less depressed.

Part of it, of course, is that he was a movie star, far removed from our "normal" lives. But it is not only his celebrity status that makes Williams's depression hard to imagine.

It's not just that he was rich and famous and funny, it's also that his energy level always seemed higher than that of anyone else in the room. He was the maniacal DJ in Good Morning Vietnam. He was the irrepressible Genie in Aladdin. He was the David Letterman guest that, as Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, left viewers "astonished, thrilled, and wearied." He was, literally, one of the featured characters in Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" video.

By all accounts, it wasn't just an act.

Many stars are very different than their on-screen personas. Not Williams. He had a reputation for being nice, as well as funny. See, for example, this recollection from a one-time dinner companion. Clearly, the humor was a core part of who Robin Williams really was.

So was the depression.

Robin Williams
Funny people are experts at using humor to cover up pain
(image by Source Unknown)

We shouldn't be surprised. The first-hand recollections of Williams appearing all over the internet recall not only his humor but also his cocaine and alcohol addictions, as well as his pain and depression. In many ways, Williams is the modern-day, real-life Richard Cory, a tragic reminder that appearances can be deceiving and that even humor -- especially humor -- can be used as a mask that shields both the wearer and those around him, from the pain underneath.

For the past several years, I have had the privilege of spending a few hours each week with the incarcerated youth in the county where I live. I'm there to introduce the kids to the values and practices of restorative justice, to the idea that there are more effective and productive ways to deal with conflict than via violence.

Sometimes, we do role-plays. Sometimes, I tell stories. Mostly, I try to listen, to really hear what is true and meaningful in their lives. I do this because it's the best way I know to build relationships and also because, if I'm not willing to listen to them, why should they bother listening to me?

Every week, the composition of the group changes a little. Over the years, I've met well over 100 kids. Some are so sad they are unable to utter more than a few words. Others are angry and resentful about being where they are, again. Another group tries to "play it cool". Each type presents its own challenge, but there's another group that is harder to reach than any of the rest: the entertainers.

These are the kids that have learned how to make others laugh. They've also learned that, in that comedic moment, they can temporarily forget about their incarcerated fathers, their abusive uncles, their substance-dependent mothers, and all the other troubles in their life. In that comedic moment, they hurt just a bit less. And so they grasp every opportunity to entertain and, in doing so, cover-up the pain.

And if I say to them, "you're a funny guy -- I love how you make everyone around you laugh -- but I can see that there is also a part of you that is sad," they say "Naw, I ain't sad. It's all good. I'm good."

But they're not good. Because the pain never leaves for long.

I don't know anything about Robin Williams's inner life. I don't purport to know whether he was able and willing to confront his demons. I have no negative judgment regardless for I trust that decent people do what they are able to both live a good life and not cause others unnecessary pain and Williams was clearly a decent man.

Despite their crimes against society, most of the kids I meet at the detention center are also decent, and most of them are also struggling. The ones that are silly, that tell non-stop stories and jokes? They may be struggling more than most.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)

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Are people bracing themselves for the fact that R... by David Mccann on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 12:39:40 PM
Perhaps he simply knew what we all know. All thing... by Stefan Thiesen on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 1:03:33 PM
What I don't get is we have children starving in A... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 12:53:41 PM
Bill, I would have to agree with your comment. Th... by Jill (Julia) Dalton on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 1:11:47 PM
Jill, right now my sadness for the loss of Robin W... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 1:58:08 PM
As per most famous actors, Williams was "bigger th... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 5:58:42 PM
I have worked around entertainers for many years. ... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 6:34:32 PM
Thank you. I will do further homework on your reco... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:33:04 PM
Robin Williams was a human face America needs badl... by Guglielmo Tell on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:44:17 PM
Insightful article. I know when I did stand up co... by Jill (Julia) Dalton on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 1:09:47 PM
That WallPeople die of boredom; not old age. They ... by molly cruz on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 2:43:50 PM
The rumor in Hollywood is that Robin was biplar. I... by Richard Girard on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 4:35:51 PM
I can understand Robin William's pain. I too thoug... by Jerry Kelley on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 3:08:11 PM
Well done observations, Mikhail. Especially when ... by Otay on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 4:06:51 PM
An afterthought or two: How does present day psyc... by Otay on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 4:33:01 PM
I used to be bipolar and it is clear to me that Wi... by Paul Easton on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:05:55 PM
Another thing to consider, when certain people dec... by J. Edward Tremlett on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 5:32:11 PM
Thanks for this, I agree. As I understand it, a pe... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 8:14:12 PM
Yes, on the one hand Camus is right: the ultimate ... by Robert S. Becker on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 8:18:30 PM
I love it when famous celebrities die and the inte... by Samson on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 5:56:20 PM
Its not a question of celebrity. I wouldnt care wh... by Paul Easton on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:19:03 PM
Robin Williams was Marlon Brando of the comedy. I'... by Guglielmo Tell on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:34:11 PM
I haven't heard of anything in Carnegie Hall more ... by Wupatki on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 8:10:40 PM
I agree with all that you wrote above. Thanks for ... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 9:09:47 PM
For anyone who might be interested, here's a petit... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 at 10:11:05 PM
Who needs to scold FOX when we have our own myopic... by Robert S. Becker on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 9:57:57 AM
Robin William was a high profile casualty of an af... by robert krupkin on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 7:42:14 AM
Thanks for sharing your story and for your thought... by Meryl Ann Butler on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 8:40:44 AM
Just wondering, how would the depression and suici... by Burl Hall on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 12:30:59 PM
You want to talk about him not belonging?Apparentl... by Bill Johnson on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 3:47:16 PM
You can try to give people like Robin a sense of b... by Bill Johnson on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 3:47:35 PM
Thanks for your comment, Burl. It's at least possi... by Meryl Ann Butler on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 6:53:00 PM
This lovely piece was posted on Facebook by Robin ... by Meryl Ann Butler on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 7:15:53 PM
She stated it beautifully, but here is her deepest... by Bill Johnson on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 8:03:24 PM
I have to wonder if Robin Williams also was empty ... by Bill Johnson on Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 at 8:11:49 PM
I don't know how I missed this article for almost ... by Dan Baron on Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014 at 2:07:32 AM
I have to admit, the first thoughts that come into... by Dan Baron on Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014 at 2:24:09 AM
Actually, I think it's quite similar to if you eve... by Dan Baron on Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014 at 2:33:35 AM
If only, during his career, he had starred in a re... by Dan Baron on Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014 at 2:44:33 AM