Early on in What About Bob?, a sort of buddy comedy wherein one of the buddies is mental illness itself, Bob Wiley lists his ailments with the thorough pleasure of a hypochondriac:
Well, I get dizzy spells, nausea, cold sweats, hot sweats, fever blisters, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, involuntary trembling, dead hands, numb lips, fingernail sensitivity, pelvic discomfort.
Dr. Leo Marvin [Richard Dreyfuss], ensconced in his tasteful office, a psychological sanctuary redolent with authority and fruitful diagnoses, listens patiently. After Bob [Bill Murray] vocalizes a fear of exploding bladders, fakes a heart attack, and lets loose a burst of faux-Tourette vulgarity, Dr. Marvin asks a simple question: “Why exactly are you doing this?” To which Bob offers a far more complicated answer: “If I fake it, I don’t have it.”
The representation of mental illness in art is fraught with the tension inherent to any profoundly shattering human phenomenon. Like death or war, insanity is a reality rich and storied enough to support the trappings of a broad range of genres and aesthetic choices: slapstick straight jacket gags and terrifying visions of the mind’s hinterlands are borne with equal aplomb. But even in the most beautiful, strange and sympathetic renderings of mental illness (the paintings of Francisco Goya, say, or the poetry of John Berryman), it is hard to escape a certain entrenched taxonomy of representation.
It seems to me that the mentally ill are almost always relegated to the role of visionary, antihero, schlock-horror fiend, or crass comedic foil, while we in turn submit to a familiar sense of awe, levity or revulsion. Our falling into these prescribed responses feels a bit like whistling in the dark, a warding off of the visceral terror surrounding something unknowable and potentially devastating. Mental illness is a burning bridge, a severance with our own illusions of a rational world, a quantifiable reality. We fear its power to disrupt or destroy the cleanliness of identity and productive action. Out of that fear emerges an eagerness to cringe or cry or laugh in lieu of grappling with the knotty darkness of sanity’s eclipse. Like Bob Wiley, we “fake it.” If we respond to it, if we categorize it, we don’t have it.
My own battle with mental illness began in my early twenties with a fairly mild series of panic attacks. It was an entirely manageable struggle, something haunting my periphery that I kept at arm’s length with reading, writing, and emergency medication. In 2010, that equilibrium was shattered when I found my girlfriend of four years dead in our bathtub. She had had too much to drink and drowned in a foot of water. The senselessness of that tragedy, the proximity to a kind of literal and figurative death of love, opened something inside my mind and my chest that remains difficult to properly articulate. I began to have multiple panic attacks per day, one bleeding into the next until even the valleys between were marked by a corrosive inner watchfulness: the fear of the fear had set in.
Standing in line at grocery stores became an impossibility. Freeways were centers of such intense claustrophobia that I could no longer be a passenger. The potential for panic episodes, rather than the episodes themselves, began to close down the physical space around me. For a stretch of time in 2011 and 2012, I was unable to leave my residence, and it was with considerable horror that I saw myself becoming a long-nailed, long-bearded agoraphobic, a permanent silhouette behind a window.
It was during this period of forced inhabitation that I returned to What About Bob?, a film I’ve always felt to be an underrated gem within the Murray canon. Its central premise—that Bob Wiley drives his doctor insane even as he, Wiley, recovers his sanity—treads familiar genre territory. Call it the comedy of inversion. But despite the film’s rehashing of traditional comedic tropes, the warm and open-handed way in which it explores mental illness is anything but ordinary.
What About Bob? never strives after a needless profundity, nor does it take easy shots at the reality of Bob’s struggles. Outside of a couple of too-simple laughs, it treats the problem of mental illness with remarkable assurance and humanity, which is to say it showcases the daily crises precipitated by even the most mundane of tasks with an empathic humor and generosity of feeling. “What About Bob?” sees the tics, the mantras, the routines and prescriptions for what they really are: talismans against the alienation and anxiety of contemporary existence. Though the film is undoubtedly a comedy (and remains hysterically funny), the counterpoint to each laugh is an existential pang. We feel deeply for Bob’s psychological and spiritual upheaval because it is our own.
In the year following my girlfriend’s death, a period wherein life was nothing more than stretches of sea-gray time and an unhurried sense of disintegration, I remember very clearly thinking to myself: you are losing your mind. Beneath the numbness and the animal fear, there was also a profound sense of shock: that I was still there beneath the wreckage, me, Dustin, an interior voice, a manifested awareness in the morass of panic and paranoia. The sickness in my head that kept me locked in a small room, terrified of visitors and the warmth of the sun, had merely complicated and thickened my existence rather than erasing it. Strangely, it was Bob Wiley I found myself returning to—Bob Wiley, the man, the radiant human force beneath the debilitating symptoms—and in so doing felt less alone. It is in the way he smiles, the way he shrieks, the way he baby steps: a courage I couldn’t appreciate until I was taken out of life’s pageant, unable to buy a gallon of milk let alone get in an elevator. Out of the shattered taxonomy of the mentally ill, neither seer nor psychopath, Bob Wiley emerged as something utterly unexpected: a hero.
These days I am not healed but I am healing. I still have problems driving with others; I walk out of meetings and conference calls; I can’t fly; I take the aisle seat at the theater. I’m hemmed in by my illness in a million tiny ways. It’s never far from me. But in living through my own Wiley-ness—in experiencing and rejecting the mantle of “crazy”—I’ve also realized we are not our diseases; we are not our tragedies. The scaffolding upon which these catastrophic experiences rest is made of sterner and more mysterious stuff than we realize.
When I think of Bob Wiley now, I like to picture him out on Lake Winnipesaukee shouting his joy to the wild blue of the sky. Sure, he’s tied to the mast with a length of good, strong rope—but he’s sailing and he’s sailing and he’s sailing.