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.