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No Academy, the genie is not free

POSTED: August 19, 2014 2:25 p.m.

Robin Williams’ suicide on Aug. 11 sent ripples of grief and heartbreak through millions of fans worldwide.

I don’t think I’ve ever lived through a celebrity death of this nature—where the star was universally beloved, in a way that each one of his fans felt so connected to him that we were individually hit with personal sorrow.

And why shouldn’t we have been? The man was a genius. I never saw him in anything that wasn’t just completely top-notch material, from the light-hearted, loveable Genie in "Aladdin" to the high-minded, inspirational Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society."

Only a few days before Williams’ death, I had a conversation with a friend about him. Williams was my first declared "favorite actor" as a child, because of all the commercials I saw him in for "Aladdin."

I still very distinctly remember seeing the clip of him in the studio with those huge headphones on, doing a vocal bit for the part—complete with emphatic hand gestures and goofy facial expression—and falling in love with him as an actor (as much as a kid can "love" an actor, at any rate).

From then on I paid particular attention to him, from the countless times I watched "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Jumanji" and "Hook" as a child, to when "Night at the Museum" came out in my teens, to when I finally saw "Dead Poets Society" for the first time on a snow day this past winter.

Aside from his incredible acting talent, from what I’ve read about him over the years, he is a joy to work with and has championed various causes that he believed in, the recipients of the benefits of his actions ranging from children in hospital wards, to the homeless, to the military—and the list goes on.

My point with all of this is: I loved the man, and I respect what he did with his life more than I can express in this little column. If every actor in Hollywood were like Robin Williams, how much brighter a place our world would be!

But it’s what he did to end his life that I find unbearable. Or, more precisely, it’s how so many people have responded to his death that gives me pause.

As the world became acutely aware in the hours after he was found dead of asphyxia due to hanging, Williams was afflicted with depression—and, as his wife revealed within days after his death, the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

While grieving his death is essential and important, and honoring what he did in life is crucial, the adoration must stop there.

A viral image being tossed around the Internet all this past week was a screenshot of the now-famous tweet posted by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences within hours of Williams’ death.

The tweet was a photo of Aladdin and Genie embracing at the end of the movie, captioned with the emotional line, "Genie, you’re free."

This concept of Williams’ suicide giving him "freedom" is an absolutely horrible message to send to those struggling with anything similar to what he was.

Depression is a serious disease that it’s difficult for most to comprehend, and giving those contemplating suicide another reason to think it’s the best course of action for them is a truly regrettable oversight. (I say "oversight" because I know The Academy must have had no intention of encouraging anyone else to take their own life; they were only trying to pay tribute to a well-loved man.)

At the end of the day, it boils down to this: a man has killed himself. He has taken his own life rather than face another day on this earth. So no, I don’t believe "free" is the right word to use here.

A more appropriate word to describe the suicide of Robin Williams is simply "tragedy."

I think Williams, based on the causes to which he contributed over his 63 years of life, would similarly wish his death to be used to raise awareness for the demons he faced in his depression and other problems. That’s acceptable, and in many ways, necessary for the benefit of the millions burdened by depression today.

But above all, we must not act as though how he ended his existence was in any way admirable. Perhaps we can empathize—and I certainly don’t think any of us are going to hold it against him—but that is where the positive portrayals of his death must end.

Suicide is not freedom.



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