The heartbreak of Robin Williams’ suicide brings depression and suicide to the forefront of everyone’s mind, along with remembrances of his many film roles. Why did he do it? Ironically, Williams won his only Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1998 for his emotional performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. Maguire, a gifted, underachieving therapist saved Will Hunting from self-hate. Remember the iconic scene? “It’s not your fault!” That’s why the film was called Good Will Hunting. But Williams never felt good enough himself. And that is the terrible tragedy. In real life, Williams’s decision to end his life leaves many unanswered questions. Why was he unable to get the kind of help he “gave” Will Hunting, to go on.
Sean’s treatment of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) confirms my years of psychoanalytic work and sheds light on the considerable influence of self-hate and never feeling good enough that underlies depression. Williams played the role of therapist brilliantly and sensitively. As Sean delves into Will’s personal history, he slowly wins the frightened orphan’s trust.
Himself a once-chubby, bullied only child who spent much of his time playing alone in his family’s mansion in Bloomfield Hills, MI, Williams knew about scary fathers, shaky trust, and the terror of abandonment. He knew quite well, I might conjecture, struggles and fears very similar to those of Will Hunting.
Robin Williams’ Suicide & Good Will Hunting
Like Will, Williams admitted he was a very lonely boy and he developed his now-famous comedic personality to hide his sadness. In a 1986 60 Minutes interview, Williams openly acknowledged a self-deprecating voice in his head: “Sometimes I get afraid. You think, ‘I don’t have it anymore. It’s not funny. I’m not creative. It’s old and – stupid.’”
In addition, to help mask this demeaning voice, Robin Williams also struggled with sobriety. He used alcohol to “defeat”it and the lonely emptiness it inflicted. In a particularly candid 2010 interview on comedian Marc Moran’s WTF podcast, he described his major relapse while shooting The Big White in Alaska: “I was feeling kind of isolated…and I was thinking, there’s one cure…I think it’s trying to fill the hole and it’s fear…Rather than going, ‘this will pass….’ you go, ‘this will pass quicker [with alcohol].’”
Comedy, Williams said, was the only “sanity clause.” “The idea of going on the stage is one salvation. It’s like lifting a siege.” And, yes, depression is a siege. Especially when depression brings torrents of self-hate: “What are you afraid of?” Moran asked him. “People see your insecurity,” Williams replied. That fear makes opening up to help most difficult.
Self Hating Voices & Depression
In my work with depressed patients, I’ve witnessed this kind of self-hating voice lodged in their minds—a voice that won’t let go for complicated reasons. Many a scene in Good Will Hunting shows us what underlies this kind of self-hate, vicious self-blame, and terrible fear of not being loved. Because he had similar struggles, perhaps it’s no wonder Williams brought so much to the role of Sean Maguire.
As therapists, we all need to do our own personal work. Bringing deep knowledge of personal experiences to empathetically understand and reach you or anyone who comes into my office, helps to go beyond your own familiar self-protections (defenses). That’s a skill Robin Williams conveyed with great poignancy in Good Will Hunting. Yet, sadly, he couldn’t look for or find the same therapy for himself.
The Necessity of Trust
In Good Will Hunting, Sean poses this question to his psychology students at community college: “Why is trust the most important thing in making a breakthrough?” Because without trust, therapy goes nowhere. People hide.
Most importantly, people hide and stay in hiding, in many creative ways. A good therapist must create a safe enough environment to sensitively get past carefully constructed defenses and find where each person hides. Why? Because that psychological hiding place masquerades as the safest haven—much safer than a stranger who thinks he or she can help. Out of fear, a depressed person holds on to that hiding place with tenacious strength.
A Battle of Strengths
In Good Will Hunting, Will tests each therapist’s strength, as any patient does, and quickly defeats the first round of would-be saviors. He mocks their efforts not because he’s “bad” but because he’s scared and they aren’t savvy enough to see it. Indeed, scared patients must come to know that their therapist is strong enough—stronger than they are—to take the distrust, anger, and hurt they bring from the past. We see this beginning to happen when Will asks Sean how much weight he can bench-press.
“285. What do you bench?” Sean wisely quips right back. Will immediately ramps up his defensive attacks against Sean and rips apart his painting. Otherwise, the terror of meeting his match would take over. But he’s really telling Sean a story about himself. There’s a “big f—ing storm, the sky is falling on his head, and his oars are about to snap” being unleashed.
Fear of Being Judged
Will’s (pseudo)-independence is only a mask. That’s one hiding place. Sean sees right through it: “I look at you and don’t see an intelligent confident man … I see a cocky, scared-shitless kid.” Will is scared – of being judged. He’s been hurt and abused. Now, the voice inside judges him. Love is not to be trusted. In Will’s world, what posed as love can hurt and judge. Love can turn against him. A depressed person never feels good enough. Good is defined as perfection.
This fear of not measuring up, though, is never based on reality, but on that distrustful and self-critical voice in a depressed person’s head. They believe it nonetheless. Perfect means never making a mistake and knowing how to do everything. And, they hate themselves for needing any help at all. In the film, Skylar (Minnie Driver) unwittingly commits the worst “sin” in the eyes of someone as self-hating, pseudo-independent, and scared of rejection as Will is: she wants to help him.
Being “Weak” Not An Option
Will had to prove he could take care of himself from an early age in spite of a childhood void of people he could count on: “Do I have a sign on my back that says ‘Save Me’?” he shouts angrily during his confrontation with Skylar, “do I look like I need that?”
So, any therapist who works with a depressed patient must understand the depths of shame, feelings of weakness, and belief that needing help means they’ve failed in their pursuit of perfection. Most specifically, in their capacity to help themselves. Bipolar depressives have this fear even more intensely than others because of the extreme vulnerability of their self-esteem. They try at all times, to stay away from feelings of smallness and sadness.
If you’re depressed, you’re probably convinced your feelings are pathetic. That’s very common. The cruel, unrelenting, judgmental voice quickly jumps in and tells you you are right: “You shouldn’t feel that way. Weakling. Be tough. Stay far away from your feelings. They will only take you over and bring you down.” Will they? A therapist must help you see that your feelings can actually be useful (and human.) Not easy.
Mostly, being vulnerable to love and need terrorizes you. We see this in Will when he falls in love with Skylar. Certain he’ll be left, especially if she comes to know the real him, the voice comes in again: “Go away. You’ll only be hurt.” So, Will leaves her before she can leave him. Will trusts no one. He’s convinced that the emotional storms of loss when he is rejected, will certainly kill him.
A Good Therapist for Will
Sean McGuire knows loss. A brilliant man himself, he hasn’t realized his own potential. Sean knows feelings of failure. Knows what it’s like to feel less than someone else. Sean knows fear. He understands Will’s guilt and self-blame, yet he isn’t co-opted by Will’s self-hating voice.
A therapist can’t be taken in by this very convincing voice, otherwise, therapy will fail. Because, when the voice of self-hate takes over, it hijacks the real person within. And, that voice also tries to hijack the therapist It even hijacks reality. And, worse yet, It becomes the voice of Truth. This voice is an intruder. It must be exposed for what it is and what it does.
In his unconventional but sensitive and caring ways, Sean does this quite well. Above all, he helps Will understand and know that the abuse he suffered (the source of much of his self-hate) was not his fault. That Will wasn’t and isn’t bad. In fact, he’s Good Will Hunting.
Allowing Will to “come clean” and expose the guilt he’s held inside by blaming himself for the awful experiences of his childhood, Will begins to gradually let go of the ways he tries to run away, and to trust in love. Most importantly, in the safe space of Sean’s office, Will learns that feelings—even terribly sad ones—won’t kill. Sean helps Will begin to mourn his losses. Yet, he must feel more than just sadness.
Sadness And Anger Heal
So, Sean says to the sobbing Will: “F—k them, OK?” Yes, tears are not enough. They aren’t the only part of mourning the past. Anger is required: anger at them. At the abusers, at all the people who disappointed and failed. You have to feel a right to your anger. And, you must direct it where it belongs (at least in therapy. Otherwise, that anger turns into self-hate. And, self-hate is the driving force in depression.
Yes, above all, if this doesn’t happen, anger teams up with the self-hating voice. And, when this isn’t turned around, suicide, in worst-case scenarios, results. Is that what happened to Robin Williams? Could he not entertain angry, even vengeful, fantasies against the ones who hurt him? Not being able to be angry, even to imagine murderous feelings, misdirects anger against the self. It’s a real hope-defeater. Was this the reason for Robin Williams’ suicide?
Where’s The Hope?
Where’s the hope? Therapy must be as personal and individual as Will Huntings. Everyone’s histories (and what they make of them,) are different. Sean Maguire finally gained Will’s trust—but not without great obstacles. He didn’t tear down Will’s defenses, though. That’s critical. Gentle and compassionate is important. And, most importantly, he doesn’t give up. He understands Will’s fears of love and helps him not to need his defensive walls any longer. Robin Williams’ suicide sadly says he didn’t have this kind of help.
Hope replaces the self-hating voice in good therapy, unveiling that voice as not the only friend it portrays itself to be. Underneath it all, that negative, self-hating, frightened voice, wants goodwill, too; someone who understands and doesn’t replicate the judgment and self-hate that lives inside.
The Good End of Good Will Hunting
Finally, Will chooses love at the end of Good Will Hunting, Two songs play: one is Elliot Smith’s song, “Miss Misery.” Yet, Will still struggles to believe he is strong enough to let go of the various self-protections that keep him alone and unhappy and this the next song’s words show, as ”Skyland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” plays almost in tandem: “Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight. Gonna grab some afternoon delight.
The fight comprises this song of hope with a completely different. Sure, we hear longing – but also the expectation of satisfaction, not rejection. As Will heads across the country, hopeful for a new life, we all might think of Robin Williams’ suicide and wish he’d felt he could turn to help and find this same hope in his most desperate time.