“Shabam-shibbebel-yibbam”, ( or some such expletives) shouts the Bone in The Amazing Bone by William Steig. Unexpectedly, the loathsome fox begins to shrink until he is the size of a mouse, no longer a threat to succulent Pearl the Pig whose oven was heating in wait for her. The Bone unaware how he/it had muttered the magical words, declared he did not know where he had absorbed them, maybe from living in the pocket of a witch, but who knows for sure?
When I worked on a paper for Children in Poverty in Ontario, I recall reading that what impacts most strongly on a child is having a parent, a teacher, a friend who supports that child emotionally. One person can make such a difference. Yet why is it that even some children or adults with packs of friends cannot find their way through an abyss? No magic bone appears to rescue them from their traumas. But often, there are attacks that arrive from not just outside but inside as well. This week Robin Williams took his life and I’m sure many wondered, how if a person such as Williams with all the love, concern and care from friends and family in his life could not survive the crises that plagued him, then how anyone?
Just yesterday I read Joanna Schneller in The Globe who reflected on our connection with movie stars, illusions that we extend to entwine ourselves in, imagining that we possess meaningful association with them: “… actors who come into our lives through film and tabloids whom we think we know because so much is published that we feel affinity to them.” She maintained that what we feel, our emotions, nonetheless are in deed real towards the celluloid super star and we should not dismiss or diminish how we feel. She asserted. “We are not wasting our time if we take to the internet to help us process the weight of depression that crushed Williams. We’re not even pathetic if we try to express our feelings in 140 characters or less. The feelings are real. It would be tragic not to feel them” (Aug 16, 2014.)
We, of course, do experience feelings for ourselves. However, we have no idea what Williams truly was , neither the deep inner thoughts of Philip Seymour Hoffman or the insights of Lauren Bacall when she was married to Humphrey Bogart. These people are mere areas for transference for us, a palimpsest that we employ to post on, then erase our thoughts and feelings. That we think we know them is perhaps saddest of all and to be given permission to grieve for them is saddest yet. The basis for our response not even real or true, often manufactured.
True enough that we don’t always own our emotions, their presence, their façade that obfuscates what lurks beneath. Providing license for grief should herald a wakeup call to look within, not without. Why listen to Jenny McCarthy when you really know so much better.?
In contrast today in The Star,( August 19), Dr. Gabor Mate, took another stance in saying that childhood conditioning can play a role in depression and that Williams was bullied as a child and found his father “ frightening”. He said “[ Williams] early in life had learned early in life to cover up his feelings, as a child does when he is emotionally alone and there is no one with whom to share”. Does this tidbit of information allow us to rationalize and psychoanalyze, pondering like Dr. Freud’s penetrating Ah-ha : that was the reason! as we smugly don our own white coats, clucking as if we knew the secret yearnings and despair that dog some members of society.
However, reading Ruth Ozecki’s book “ A Tale For the Time Being”, I could begin to understand the depth of depression a child/adolescent would face by the constant mockery by their peers. For Nao, one of the protagonists, it is life’s constant brutalities that encourages her to seek suicide as well. Fortunately for Nao, she unearths shreds of resilience and as the literature on that topic teaches, one person- a friend, a teacher, a family member can make the difference.
For Nao, it is the wisdom of her grandmother nun, the perseverance of a great uncle written in a French diary, her own purpose and project that persuade her to continue on for her own sake. Being inspired to find a glimmer of hope when all the lights are dimming is the challenge. For the heroine of Ozecki’s book, Nao may find solace;and in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the reader is able to envision her heroine Ursula’s diverse trajectories, a plethora of alternate paths taken or not with varying outcomes.
Yet, as I stand outside a character such as Nao and peer into her soul and thoughts, make connections, and think I comprehend her pain, I am at a remove from the scorching mistreat by her classmates that reinforces she is worth less than her twisted underwear. The value of books is to bring us to the edge so we might peer over and try and empathize. At least a book gives us context and reason, words that convey reason. Our television glimpses or media-driven reports are not truths that can instruct the way into a tortured soul. Like the commercials created by Don Draper in Mad Men, they are snippets created to manipulate our emotions for a variety of reasons; most commercial.
When I worked at OCT, my research for the ethical standards revealed that several universities offered classes or courses to teach the values we hope our children will espouse and make their own: Care, Respect, Trust and Integrity. Coupled with the standards, these ethical incentives are what we all should strive towards in our daily actions : codes to guide our behaviour and interactions with others.
Williams’ death makes us stop and face our own mortality. I think that it was his sweetness, self-deprecation, laughter and crazy antics that endeared him- at least on screen and the zines that profiled him. At least that was how he portrayed himself in his film roles and comedy shticks. Too bad there were no magic words for Williams as in The Magic Bone to ward off his demons and shrink them to mouse size. Even nanoo- nanoo did not do the trick.