In a post on another website, someone lambasted people who were publicly mourning the loss of one of the greatest actors of our time, one of our greatest artists, one of the few celebrities who has actually had real influence beyond just what it took to cash a paycheck. This post was my response.
Dead Poets Society came out in 1989. I was ten years old. I didn’t see the movie, though, until junior high. Eighth grade, I think. 1992. I was thirteen.
And I was miserable.
I was living in a town where gay was either the worst possible insult, or a whispered horror, like someone telling you that your aunt has cancer, when she’s standing in the next room, and they don’t want her to hear. I didn’t know what bisexuality was, yet, but I knew I liked girls, too. In my mind, I was “half gay.” And I couldn’t tell a single soul.
I was being raised by a father and stepmother who demanded obedience to an extremely rigid set of rules. The dishes had to be washed in a specific order, in water hot enough to burn my hands. The beds had to be made – complete with hospital corners – every morning, before school. I wasn’t allowed to watch movies above a “G” rating without explicit permission, and I’d learned not to ask. I was only allowed fifteen minutes of time on the telephone, twice a week, and only if one of them was sitting there, listening in. I wasn’t allowed to speak to a boy on the phone, not even for a group project for class. If the boy had to get information to me, or I to him, it had to be relayed through another female member of my group. I did a lot of projects alone.
I was forced to attend a church that was based more on hate than on faith. Everything was bad. Everybody else was wrong, and going to hell, and if I so much as put one toe out of line, I was bound for everlasting fire and damnation, too.
My stepmother picked out my clothes every night, the ones she’d chosen when she took me school clothes shopping in August. They were horrid. I went to school every day looking like one of those kids you see in sensational news footage, after the authorities have raided a polygamist cult compound. Long skirts or baggy pants, button-up blouses, and nondescript tennis shoes. No jewelry or makeup allowed. Couldn’t cut my hair. Face covered in horrible acne. Braces on my teeth. I got grounded for almost two months for my first “B.” So, I was a nerd. Always with better grades than most of my classmates. I wrote poetry, and won spelling bees, and always had my nose in a book.
There weren’t many people who would even talk to me, and I had even fewer friends.
One of those friends was Heather. I’d had a crush on her older brother for over a year. He asked me to be his girlfriend. Starstruck, of course I said yes. She stopped speaking to me for months.
I’d lived a very sheltered life, and didn’t know anything at all about relationships, let alone sex. He seemed to know all about it. And he wanted me. The girl no one would even speak to in the halls, and he would hold my hand, send me candygrams on holidays, pick me flowers.
One day, we were hiding, making out, hands in places they probably shouldn’t have been (but entirely over our clothes), and a group of the popular kids came around the corner.
By that afternoon, they were talking, you know, the way they do? Loudly enough for me to hear, to the whole class, like I wasn’t there, or was invisible? They were talking about “that girl who let that boy finger her under the bleachers.” I was labelled a slut, immediately. And this was the same boy who gave me my first kiss.
It never stopped.
Everything was about conformity. And I just couldn’t seem to get it right. Couldn’t pretend well enough. Couldn’t make anyone believe that I was just like them, even though everything around me screamed that such was the only appropriate way to be.
At the beginning of that year, my sister had gone to live with our mother. And our stepfather. The one who had been molesting me for two years, by this point. For the first four years of her life, I’d raised her, mostly alone. For the next four, I still had to be the parent, anytime we were with mom. As far as I was concerned, she was my responsibility. And she was gone. There. With him.
I was beyond miserable.
I spent most of the first half of that school year considering suicide. Thinking about how I could do it. About what the least painful way would be, and more importantly, the least messy. After all, I wouldn’t want to leave a mess for anyone to clean up. I was already too much trouble, as it was.
Worry about my baby sister stilled my hand, and stalled my plans, but the thoughts wouldn’t go away. I still couldn’t fit in. Couldn’t be what everyone wanted me to be, what it was obvious I was supposed to be. I was a failure.
One day, just before Christmas break, my English teacher rolled in one of the AV carts, and put in Dead Poets Society.
And I realized, for the first time, ever, that maybe… just maybe, it could be okay to be me. Maybe the people demanding that I be something else, that I round off my edges to fit in that round hole, were wrong.
I know that was a fictional character, and I know the writer is probably owed much of the credit for the role. But Robin Williams’ performance as Mr. Keating rocked my world. And changed my outlook. I decided to take charge of my own fate, albeit in a horribly misguided way.
At the end of that school year, I moved in with my mother. To protect my sister, and to try to figure out who I was, when I wasn’t trying so damned hard to fit in.
And the next year and a half were HELL. My sister didn’t want me. My mother didn’t care enough about me to even ask where I was going when I walked out the door with a friend. And my stepfather had continual access to me, in a house where none of the doors locked properly.
That movie was, again, a touchstone. Mr. Keating was my hero.
A couple of years later, and back in the shitpot little town, I was outed to my entire high school, and came out to my dad, about the time The Birdcage came out. Robin Williams, again, was playing characters which were SO very relevant to my life, and that silly, touching, wonderful movie was a part of what got me through that.
At the end of 2000, my second child was stillborn. I have never wanted to die as badly as I did, then. I don’t even remember most of that year. Just flashes.
But I remember discovering What Dreams May Come. I sobbed most of the way through that movie. Then I watched it again. And once more. I watched it until I could stop crying, and get up off of the couch, and do something besides just wanting to die. I shared the movie with my sister, after her boyfriend, and the father of the child she was expecting, committed suicide. I held her as she sobbed, and we watched it until she was all cried out.
A year or so later, I was the one who put people into action, when no one could reach my sister, and her last communication to anyone, to me, sounded suicidal. I’ve talked people off those ledges, metaphorical and literal.
There were … attempts… during all of those times. Moments when life just seemed too damned difficult, and not at all worth it, besides. And I won’t say that Robin Williams is in any way the main thing that stopped me. But he helped. Every single time. He helped, even if only by giving me a safe reason to cry until I felt a little better. Some catharsis. And that isn’t even counting the laughs he gave me at so many other times.
So, today, I was heartbroken. No, I never met him. No, he wouldn’t have known me if we passed on the street. But the mere thought that someone who has, in some weird, secondhand way, been instrumental in helping me through those times when I wanted to give up, gave up, himself, is awful. Every time I hear of someone’s suicide, I am saddened by it. I know what it is to be mourning the loss of a loved one because life became too much. I know what it is to want to just check out, just stop trying. I ache for every single person who finds themselves in that place.
But, as much as I didn’t personally know Robin Williams, this one hit me pretty damned hard. He helped me, when I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to, and when things got bad for him, he didn’t feel like there was anyone there to call for help.
If you want to insult those memories, by saying or implying that the only reason I care is because he’s a celebrity, go right ahead.
Or you could, you know, stop focusing on just the pain of those left behind, and realize that the pain he must have been in, the pain that anyone who commits suicide must be in, is probably far greater. Yeah, he was a celebrity. So what? He was another person, floating around on this rock with the rest of us, and in a pain so unbearable that he chose to hit the emergency exit door, rather than keep suffering.
And I feel for him. Not more than I do for any other person who reaches that point, because of his celebrity status, but certainly not less, either.