Robin Williams and the Fate of the Creative Genius

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From time to time, I watch a TED Talk by the author Elizabeth Gilbert in which she speaks about the surprise success of her memoir, Eat Pray Love, but also about the personal difficulties many creative people encounter by nature of their chosen path. She recalls her teenage years when she first began to express her desire to be a writer, and then all the outcry that seemed to attend her, all these adults wondering whether she was aware at the slim chances of success, the bitterness of rejection, and a fruitless death upon a “scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure”—hyperbole, of course. Gilbert goes on to say that yes, she has always been afraid of these things, and also of a lot of other things, but then raises a point by questioning why.

“Is it logical,” she asks, “that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do? And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers kind of don’t do…?”

In the wake of the great Robin Williams’ unexpected and tragic death on Monday, I can’t help but fall back on these questions as the world mourns the loss of one of the most unequivocal creative forces of the century. For audience members who have watched Williams’ performances over the decades, observing a comedian of limitless breadth, an natural actor full of depth and emotion, and a man who by all public accounts exuded nothing but the brightness of life, his sudden departure tolls a sorrowful sound. To his family, the sadness must be deafening.

Of these great creative minds, Gilbert illuminates a crucial point when she states that her father, a chemical engineer, was never in forty years of work asked if he was “afraid” to be a chemical engineer. “But to be fair,” she notes to a ripple of laughter, “chemical engineers as a group haven’t really earned a reputation over the centuries for being alcoholic manic-depressives.”

History seems to show the accuracy of that sentiment, that creative entities across all genres seem exhibit a reputation for extreme mental instability, too often dying at their own hands. And when someone like two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer says, in his last interview before his death, “Every one of my books has killed me a little more,” the words portray an extraordinarily gray self-appraisal of a life’s celebrated work.

“But we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this,” says Gilbert, “because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.”

Like Gilbert, I’m not okay with that.

Nancy Andreasen wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic in June chronicling these so-called “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” addressing, in part, the question of why creative genius is often accompanied by mental illness. Citing Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, and several other artists famously ended by suicide, Andreasen discusses some of her studies on the correlation between creative genius and mental instability. One startling mention appears in Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Joseph Schildkraut’s study of fifteen abstract-expressionist painters in the mid-20th century, through which he concluded that half of them suffered from some form of mental illness, and half of those afflicted artists failed to live past the age of sixty. In one of Andreasen’s own studies, 80 percent of writer subjects interviewed in her office admitted to struggling with some sort of “mood disturbance” at some point in their lives, compared to just 30 percent of the control group.

I don’t mean to delve into brain science and the hidden genetics or practiced traits operating within the great creative minds of our species—I will leave that to Andreasen and her colleagues. But I think I invoke the feelings of many millions of people as we encounter another death of a beloved artist with a “there goes another one” sigh of familiarity.

I will also not repeat the rest of Gilbert’s speech, because I relate to it fully and feel that everyone should watch it on his or her own. But I do wonder how much of it would have related to Robin Williams, a dying man who made the whole world feel alive.

To the dead, I offer my infinite gratitude for the magic you spent on regular kids like me, and my regret that you could not see your own gifts fully in life, if not in art.

To the living—to the actors, playwrights, poets, painters, novelists, musicians, singers, dancers, and chemical engineers—I offer my full support and equal gratitude for the conjurings of your beautiful minds.

“To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

– Robin Williams as John Keating, Dead Poets Society

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