Two days ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences sent out a tweet with an iconic image of Aladdin hugging the genie. Its caption: “Genie, you’re free.”
It was blatantly related to the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, who voiced the quirky genie more than 10 years ago.
The post has since been retweeted 330,000 times and favorited 230,000 times. This was no Ellen Oscar selfie, which received more than 2 million retweets according to The Verge, but it certainly ranks in the most well-known tweets category (if there is such a thing).
Yet after a few hundred thousand retweets, the devil’s advocates showed up. This tweet makes suicide look like an acceptable way to handle problems, they said. You are not “free” when you kill yourself. This is no way to talk to people who have or have had mental illness.
Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps it was penned thoughtlessly, without any consideration of the consequences that might follow or the multiple meanings it could hold. Perhaps the Academy is unaware of the concept of suicide contagion, that when others who have struggled with similar doubts and fears see one of their role models go down a path they’ve been treading slowly, they quicken their pace.
Yet none of these ideas entered my mind when I instantly retweeted that post.
Though I am by no means brilliant, I’m also not ignorant of the challenges that face those who suffer through mental illness. I wrestled with episodes of moderate depression for six months last year. I went to a psychiatrist who recommended an antidepressant. Days on days passed when I would head home from class and sob, or spend hours talking on the phone with my mother about mundane things. Though I’d dealt with difficult situations before, I had never felt so unbelievably sad.
I shed aspects of my personality like scales until I realized that I couldn’t live like that. But I couldn’t die like that either.
I was incredibly lucky that certain components of my life changed, and I was able to somewhat recover from the experience. But I understand what it is like to be buried under layers of doubt and self-pity. You cannot blame my retweet on inexperience.
I’ve also read up on suicide contagion. While studying international relations in college, I took a class on the politics of terrorism and wrote a paper on why increased media coverage of terrorist attacks might lead to more terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. While politically-motivated suicides are a bit different from this case, they follow the same core concept. If an act of desperation has worked for someone else, why not try it yourself? (Note: I beg of you, do not try it yourself.)
And I’ve seen this same kind of viral phenomenon rear its head and then pull back when the naysayers appear. The genie tweet reminds me of Dr. V’s Magical Putter, published on Grantland.com in January. For the first 48 hours after it appeared online, readers commented about the quality of the story and its interesting facts. Eventually, someone pointed out that the subject of the story (spoiler alert), a transgender woman, had killed herself in the course of the author’s reporting and hey, wasn’t this a problem? Whether her death was directly or indirectly related to the author’s actions has been hotly debated, but regardless, it sparked a conversation about how to handle transgender issues in a journalistic context.
This genie tweet, too, has sparked a conversation, with many pointing fingers at the Academy and those who have retweeted the post. Though I see their point, I think they’re adding a layer of meaning that might never have been intended.
To me, this tweet is more of an apology. In Aladdin, the genie was trapped inside his lamp, forced to do the bidding of the less creative people around him. Though it was Robin Williams’ choice to perform comedy and seek out work as an actor, he, too, was trapped in a world where his mind moved much more quickly than those of the people around him. He probably understood the darkest corners of the universe better than most. It’s likely that he used parody to position himself in a false mode of existence, as a person with a face that changed for every film he shot. Separated from the truths he never wanted to confront.
(On a side note, several celebrities whom I consider inspirations have committed suicide, namely David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath. I think there must be a correlation between genius and death, as none of these people were able to cope with the sheer hopelessness of the world.)
So what if we, the lesser ones, are Aladdin in this sad story. It is not our fault that Robin Williams was imprisoned in his own mind, and it is too late for us to try to fix it. Our efforts probably would have been futile anyway.
But we can at least apologize to him. Robin, we are sorry that you, who graced our screens with your cackling laugh and kind face, were burdened by so many problems. We regret that we couldn’t improve your world, though you touched so many of ours. We recognize that depression is a heavy weight, and neither a quick tongue nor a sharp wit can truly make that lighter. Though your issues were not our responsibility, we care that you were hurting. We wish we could have freed you yet still kept you alive.
Maybe this was the only way for you to feel free. That doesn’t make it the right way to solve any problem, and that will never make it OK. But I don’t have any preconceptions that killing yourself means you won’t go to heaven. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re waxing eloquent with David and Sylvia right now. And, ever unselfish, you have reminded an entire world of fans to appreciate their own lives and loved ones, at least for a little while.
Thank you for all you have done to make us feel liberated. Now it’s your turn.
Genie, you’re free.