Beyond the Wishes of the Genie: Remembering Robin Williams

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Several weeks ago, Hollywood did what it does best: it veiled reality with an illusion borrowed straight from the Magic Kingdom itself. Hours after learning that Robin Williams had died, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences chose to remember him by tweeting its 806k followers a screenshot of Aladdin and the big blue genie hugging. Above the image was a three-word caption: “Genie, you’re free.”

It’s easy to understand why this vision of the larger-than-life genie embracing young Aladdin under a majestic sky pinpricked with twinkling stars might be viewed as the quintessential one for remembering a man whose ability to make people laugh was itself dreamlike. And for millions—the tweet received 69 million impressions—the image’s artistry worked, inciting retweets and invoking gut-wrenching, lump-in-throat sentiments:

@TheAcademy I don’t think a tweet has made me cry before now.
@TheAcademy This one leaves me in tears each time I see it.
@TheAcademy I was sad before, and then I saw this and just wanted to bawl my eyes out.
@TheAcademy MAJOR CHEST PAINS OMG IM CRYING

But not everyone “wanted to bawl [their] eyes out.” Tucked among replies from those moved by the image were replies from those who found the Academy’s tweet disconcerting, nothing more than a harrowing reminder of how easily and quickly a little sprinkle of stardust from Tinkerbell’s wings can transform reality.

@TheAcademy This is a really irresponsible way to talk about suicide. Suicide is a way out, but it is NOT freedom.
@TheAcademy You don’t think maybe equating suicide with freedom might be more than a little problematic?

While the impulse to equate suicide, especially Williams’s suicide, with freedom may help the living find meaning in a seemingly “meaningless” death—the sufferer is no longer tethered to the mental and emotional hell of depression, now he is “free”—it is also misleading. As some psychologists have suggested, suicide is not freeing, at least not in the way the genie is finally “freed” from his lamp.

Williams is not free to “see the world” with a little brown suitcase in hand nor is he free to miss Aladdin or anyone else. His “freedom” from life was not a big gleeful leap into a sky bursting with fireworks while Aladdin sang “A Whole New World.” His leap into “freedom” happened alone, in the stillness of a room, as he quietly choked while suspended from a doorframe. And we need to remember that, to grieve that.

But the image, with its clever caption, doesn’t want you to remember that part. It doesn’t want you to believe that a man who could raise the human spirit through laughter could do such a thing. It doesn’t want you to tumble into the dark abyss of grief and, for a moment, realize that Williams wasn’t his characters—Patch Adams, Parry, or Dr. Malcolm Sayer—who all somehow managed to overcome the pain and suffering of living. Instead, it wants you to forget what he couldn’t overcome by imagining his pain as something enchanted, charmed, part of his magical mystique, part of a Fairy Tale. And of course we want to believe that; of course, we want to erase the terror of his suicide and slip into the fantasy that his genie’s voice proclaiming freedom rings true right now.

But it doesn’t.

His voice is silent.

Yet silence can speak volumes, if we listen.

Allowing Hollywood to portray Williams’s death as something romantic, the stuff of movies, not only demeans his death but all suicides by brushing aside the emotional and mental messiness that comes with someone taking his own life. Right now, in this country, we don’t need to see Genie hugging Aladdin goodbye minutes before he sets off to travel the world. What we desperately need to see is the mess: According to SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) nearly 30,000 Americans commit suicide every year, or in more specific terms, an average of one person every 16.2 minutes dies by suicide. SAVE notes that the “strongest risk factor [for suicide] is depression.”

That depression is a national problem affecting 1 in 10 adults in the United States is no secret; neither is the stigma attached to it—despite the seemingly endless commercials touting medications and help numbers, people suffering from depression continue to be marginalized, perceived as “other” and “forced to live in pain.” Much of this comes from a health system that is overburdened, broken, and operating under antiquated laws that, according to USA Today, were created specifically to underfund mental illness: “an obscure provision of the Medicaid law specifies that funds may be used for hospitals treating physical conditions but generally not for mental health.”

The seriousness of the problem screams for a serious response, and when someone like Robin Williams—the lovable, funny man with the gregarious personality, who in a heartbeat could turn your tears to laughter—decides life isn’t working, we tend to respond. And we have responded, now and in the past: the last major discussion around suicide that flooded media outlets came just six months ago when Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead from a lethal mixture of drugs. We talked and debated and talked more, but how much has really changed? How can we commit in earnest to making changes in our mental health system when suicides like Williams’s are diluted and transformed into nostalgic Disney moments?

There is no question that I want to remember Robin Williams as he was in the Birdcage, a dynamic gay club-owner prancing around a stage in an “eclectic celebration of a dance,” or as the poignant Dr. Maguire in Good Will Hunting, or, of course, as the daring and inspiring Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. Sure, right now I want to imagine that he is sitting in that field of brilliantly colored flowers in What Dreams May Come, looking out into an ethereal sky brushed with shades of bronze and gold. But if I am to remember him wholly and honestly, and embrace him for the talented actor he was, for his ability to sublimate his sorrow into seamless laughter, then I must also remember that his real life wasn’t lived as a Hollywood movie filled with starlight and wishes, nor did it end that way. I remain confounded, left wondering how the Academy could choose to tweet a wistful cartoon image in Williams’s memory when the tapestry of his life’s work is so much richer and deeper than a caricature of himself as a powerful genie.

Are we that disconnected?

The idea that Robin Williams, in his final moments, in those moments before he tied a belt around his neck and hanged himself, was somehow thinking of the shapeshifting blue genie being set free is something that I find impossible to grasp. Despite the Academy’s good intentions, if his death is to mean anything—and obviously we need it to—I hope that it can be captured with more dimension than a Disney image. For me, the words of the heavy-bearded American poet Walt Whitman—words Williams’s on-screen students reached for when they paid homage to their teacher—are far more profound than the animation crafted in the spirit of that other Walt, Mr. Disney:

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turnings…


Maria Smilios is writer living in Astoria, Queens. She is a regular contributor to Narratively, and her work has also been published in Role/Reboot, Literary Mama, Feministing, Killing the Buddha Blog, and The Grub Street Free Press among others. She is currently working on a series of essays about growing up in New York City in the 1970s. You can follow her on twitter at @MariaSmilios. More from this author →