God, angels, demons and the brilliant, troubled life of Robin Williams

In the end, it was all about the voices in Robin Williams' head, the brilliant voices, the angelic voices and what he often described as the quiet voices of his demons. Almost every mainstream media obituary for the beloved actor and comic includes some variation on this passage from the main story at The Los Angeles Times:

Over the years, the international superstar struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction. ...

Williams was a close friend of the late comic John Belushi and was with him March 5, 1982, just hours before Belushi died of an overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. The pain of a friend's death helped Williams kick his own bad habits, but the cure wasn't permanent.

In 2006, he returned to rehab after two decades of sobriety.

"You're standing at a precipice and you look down, there's a voice and it's a little quiet voice that goes, 'Jump!' " he told ABC News.

Sometimes the voices told him to do things that, as an addict, he knew were completely irrational. He didn't mind telling people that he knew what it was like to wrestle with demons inside his own head. That voice on the precipice? 

 "The same voice that goes, 'Just one.' … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that's not the possibility."

All of those wild, spinning riffs on God, the Bible, fundamentalists and a wide array of social-justice issues were coming from somewhere, but the elite newsrooms spent little ink on that side of this amazing and tragic life. After leading with some of his political riffs, The Washington Post even managed to mangle one key religion fact in the comic's past:

Robin McLaurin Williams was born July 21, 1951, in Chicago and raised in a 30-room mansion in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. 
His father, Robert, was a sales executive at Ford Motor Co., and his mother, Laurie, was a former model her son would later call a “Christian Dior scientist.” Each parent brought a much older child from a previous marriage into the family, leaving Robin to play by himself with 2,000 toy soldiers — giving each a different voice.

Actually, it's rather crucial that "scientist" was supposed to have an upper-case "S." 

Born in Chicago on July 21, 1951, Robin McLaurin Williams grew up in comfort, the only child of a Ford Motor Co. executive.
"My childhood was very normal," he told The Times. "Almost hypernormal."
He liked to describe his mother, Laurie, a Christian Scientist, as a Christian Dior Scientist and said he grew up on a huge estate. "It was miles to the next kid," he said.

As the Religion News Service noted this morning in its digital newsletter, the adult Williams was always open about the fact he was, by choice, an Episcopalian. (However, readers might want to question the origins of that Top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian list.)

The key, for me, is that none of these stories managed to wrestle with the sickness and evil in this man's life, while also dealing with his drive to help the homeless, to relate to military veterans and other signs of an intense commitment to helping others -- even as he struggled to help himself.

As a stand-up comic, he was never far from yet another attempt to figure out how good and evil could exist in the same wonderful, yet flawed, world (yes, the theodicy question), offering a barrage of references to literature, culture and, of course, religion. This is one reason for the grief that will emerge in online commentary by religious thinkers and leaders in the days ahead, even if it was missing from the news reports. See, for example, this poignant essay at The Forward on William's status as an honorary Jew.

At RNS, San Francisco writer Laura Turner noted in an online essay:

This is what makes Williams’s death by suicide at 63 such a shock: He brought magic into so many people’s lives; he seemed to believe and communicate so many things that were good about the world. It’s days like today when I wish for nothing more than a time machine; our proximity in time to when Williams was alive seems so close that it’s unfair that we can’t go back in time to tell him that he will be okay, that depression doesn’t last forever even when it seems to, that there are realities outside of his own mind’s darknesses.
But it never is that easy. It is also one of the most important things we as religious people need to understand, that depression is a real illness -- not a battle to be won or lost, nor a mental condition to be overcome. It is just as real a disease as any, and God cares for and loves and is with all those who struggle with it, even now.
Williams was born in Chicago and raised in the Episcopal Church, which he described in a standup routine thusly: “I don’t understand the whole fundamentalist thing; you see, I’m an Episcopal; that’s Catholic Lite. Same religion, half the guilt!” He married three times and has three adult children; the thought of them being left fatherless now is devastating.

If only a little bit of this brilliant man's obsessions -- his angels and demons -- had made it into these news reports. He was drawing his inspiration from the wounds in his life. That's a hard topic to address without digging into religious issues.

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