Robin Williams’ reported suicide is not an “allegation”

Talented people keep dying.

Heath Ledger. Natasha Richardson. Michael Jackson. Patrick Swayze. Amy Winehouse. Alexander McQueen. Pete Postlethwaite. Christopher Hitchens. Steve Jobs. Whitney Houston. Donna Summer. Michael Clarke Duncan. Cory Monteith. Paul Walker. Philip Seymour Hoffman. HR Giger. Rik Mayall.

I was sixteen when Ledger overdosed. Since then it’s seemed as if an endless stream of celebrated people have been dying far too young. I can’t tell if it’s really so, the past few years being a statistical atrocity, or if I only noticed as a teenager how often a bright light goes out. I’m not sure which would be worse.

Robin Williams was an extraordinary talent. I was never a particular fan of his family films, despite being a child when most of them came out, but watching him in Good Will Hunting is the first time I remember recognising some films stood out above the rest. I laughed so hard at Good Morning, Vietnam that my face hurt; I was mesmerised by him in Dead Poets Society; I recoiled watching One Hour Photo. I’ve seen very few comics with his mix of depth and speed, few actors more quotable.

People around the net are saying all of this. For most of today, as one tends to when someone so valued dies, I felt like I ought to say something – a Facebook post, a blog post, a tweet or retweet. But what do you add? I’d nothing more to say, I thought, than the obvious truth as banal as he was extraordinary: the man’s dead, and it sucks.

Then I saw a link on social media.


‘Fox News host labels Robin Williams “such a coward”‘, a headline at The Raw Story announces,  ‘over alleged suicide’.


Although representatives of Williams have described him ‘battling severe depression’, his suicide specifically is unconfirmed. (Presumably it’ll come down to a coroner’s report.) But it isn’t an ‘allegation’.

When the press refers to something as ‘alleged’, it’s usually because its confirmation will do major PR damage. Sexual assaults by public figures are ‘alleged’; police brutality is ‘alleged’; political corruption is ‘alleged’. People said to have troubling attitudes often complain, for instance, about ‘allegations of racism’, since ‘alleged’ now suggests something shameful or criminal in a way ‘possible’ or ‘reported’ doesn’t.

Having depression isn’t shameful. Having depression is not a crime.

Self-harm may be a crime; it it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

Killing yourself, or attempting it, may be a crime; it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.

To refer to Robin Williams’ apparent suicide as having been ‘alleged’ frames it as an accusation. It suggests that if and when the actor is confirmed to have ended his own life, he ought to be thought less of – ironically, exactly what Raw Story‘s article slams Fox News for saying.

I googled the words ‘Robin Williams alleged suicide’. I saw Guardian Liberty Voice announce ‘Williams allegedly commits suicide’. I saw Perez Hilton describe attacks on him for ‘allegedly committing suicide’. I saw phrases like ‘actor’s alleged suicide’ and ‘the allegedly story’.

On social media, I’m also seeing discussions of mental health – hopes that in the wake of losing Williams, much-needed conversations might be had; anger over incredulity that a rich celebrity might be depressed; openings-up from those who went, like me, through periods of self-harm and depression. The emergent theme is often shame of one kind or another directed at those who turn to suicide, whether religious guilt, the stigma of being ‘crazy’ or regret about the misery of loved.

If we’re going to talk about this, let’s do it without encouraging the shame we’re trying to dismantle.

If you think people who kill themselves deserve not to be looked down on, stop using language that suggests they should be.

Robin Williams’ suicide has been reported; it is unconfirmed; it is apparent. It is not an allegation.





  1. says

    “Killing yourself, or attempting it, may be a crime; it shouldn’t be. It isn’t shameful.”

    The point in shaming any giving behaviour is to try to discourage it from happening, as I’m sure you already know. Given the grief and pain that suicide often inflicts on survivors, I’m not entirely clear on whether it would be a good idea to destigmatize it entirely.

  2. Konradius says

    “The point in shaming any giving behaviour is to try to discourage it from happening”
    The guy is banned, so I will try not to pile on, but this quote is critical.
    Because people do honestly believe it. And because it is so completely bullshit. People have been doing this for ages (and then I mean really ages, as in as long as we know history). And it simply does not work. It forces people to not talk about shamed behaviour further deepening the (sometimes resulting) depression.

    I don’t know Damion from other venues, but it may very well be he was sincere but simply very misguided.

  3. John Horstman says

    What I find most disturbing about Damion Reinhardt’s comment isn’t him making it, but that I’ve seen a lot of feminists making similar arguments. Why do feminists making that argument specifically bother me? Because it’s the same as a common argument that rape apologists make: that someone (usually a man) deciding ze cares about someone else (usually a woman) somehow obligates the target of (nominal) affection to do certain things for the person in question, irrespective of what the target wants. In the case of rape apologists, it’s have sex (becasue no sex makes them sad/angry/etc.). In the case of people opposing suicide rights (which are covered under a universal right to bodily autonomy), it’s continuing to exist and experience unbearable pain of some sort (becasue that person being dead makes them sad/angry/etc.). Seeing feminists who would (and do) recognize that the former is an absurd argument advocate the latter depresses me. That fact that someone else has an emotional investment in my behavior cannot be held to be a reason to compel me to behave in certain ways that I find are harmful to myself, up to and including continuing to live/exist if I consider my continued existence to be harmful to me. It’s an objectifying denial of agency whether we’re talking about rape or compulsory existence, based on some paternalistic notion that other people can define one’s best interests better than oneself can (I reject any claim that existence is inherently, necessarily, universally “better” than non-existence).

  4. Brony says

    I’m a little confused john Horstman, can you clear something up for me? You mention two arguments that bother you, and I have to be honest in saying that I do not see how feminism is related to emotional pressure that someone considering suicide might feel. If anyone thinks this is too off-topic feel free to let me know.

    Please understand that I do support the rights of someone to choose to commit suicide. There comes a point where what one is enduring is simply not worth the remaining days and those people get to make that choice. But concern for the feelings of what family thinks is not something that can easily be wished away either and in the end the person in pain gets to weigh which is more painful to themselves, the desire to live for ones family and friends, or the desire to stop suffering. I don’t see how this is is related to feminism. The feeling of knowing that your family will miss you is a passive pain with respect to the dying person and often exists no matter what the family does, the whole situation is often hard to bear. But the dying persons rights remain regardless because when the pain of living exceeds that pain from watching relatives suffer they get to choose to leave..

    The pain from rape apologists is also a passive pain but the rights are located elsewhere. A need for something is uncomfortable but there are no rights claims that a rape apologist can make like the dying person can make other than that they can try to get sex, but coercion, deception, and other behavior start adding moral problems (no personal implications, I’m just trying to be thorough). The rights claims are completely on the side of the people they want to have sex with, but won’t so they apologize for rape. This does not mean I am not sympathetic to people who want to have sex and can’t, I’m in a similar situation myself. But life is what it is.

    Can you give me an example of a feminist that is making an argument of the kind that is bothering you? You go from “similar arguments” in your first sentence to “that argument” and then say it’s the same as a common rape apologist argument. Something is clearly bothering you and I’m not trying to pretend that you are not bothered, but I really want to make sure I understand what you mean by this,

    “That fact that someone else has an emotional investment in my behavior cannot be held to be a reason to compel me to behave in certain ways that I find are harmful to myself, up to and including continuing to live/exist if I consider my continued existence to be harmful to me.”

    What sort of emotional investment in your behavior are you talking about?

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