Kurt Cobain, was born in 1967, and died 23 years ago today. He flitted between narcissism, empathy, love and pain, trying to enjoy his life and simply be himself, but not feeling it, instead feeling everything else instead. He’d have been 50 now, just a month older than me. 5 years ago, I also attempted suicide, after a lifelong struggle with identity and feeling too much.
Whilst Cobain is in nirvana now, where are we 20+ years on? Still struggling for identity, as individuals, and a generation? Cobain struggled with being seen as the voice of a generation. His band, Nirvana, was labelled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain himself proclaimed as “the spokesman of a generation”, something that did not sit well with him.
Faking it, Being Someone Else
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.” – Kurt Cobain
Cobain was trying to work out how to be himself amidst the pressures of fame, parental divorce, love and loss, and mental health conditions including bipolar mood swings between depression and mania, as described by his cousin, a nurse, who noted his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and as an adult Bipolar (unconfirmed?). Several relatives had also committed suicide in the same way.
He struggled to feel what he thought he was meant to feel or enjoy. He couldn’t fake the enjoyment of fame, or life itself.
“I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Empathy and Fame
He mentioned empathy four times in his suicide note, and the struggle between feeling too much and yet not feeling anything – or what he thought was the right thing, at all.
“I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus, man, ‘Why don’t you just enjoy it?’ I don’t know!” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
Nirvana sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide, but fame and success do not fill the void. He hated the fame, and was envious of Freddie Mercury and how he seemed to relish it.
“We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves…I really miss being able to blend in with people.” – Kurt Cobain
Reading, Writing & Lyrics
Cobain “occasionally took refuge in the counter-cultural writings of authors such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski”. Yet, described himself as having the “tongue of an experienced simpleton”, and hating the Freudian analysis that people subjected his lyrics to. Another reason, to explore him in his own words, not the interpretation of others.
“I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.” – Kurt Cobain
“I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity.” – Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was seemingly bisexual, though gave mixed interviews on that side of his personal life, calling himself “gay for a while” yet “more sexually attracted to women”. As a teen he was arrested and fined $180 for graffitiing “Homosex Rules” on a wall. He once said, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t.” It is not clear if he ever consummated this part of his persona, despite saying:
“If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” – Kurt Cobain
Whilst Generation Y, born early 80s to 2000, followed Cobain’s Generation X, we are now on the Gen Z cohort, born since the Millennium. A group happy to be neither gay nor straight, to question gender and express it fluidly.
Cobain wrote about women’s rights in his songs, including concerning the rape of a 14yo girl after a concert (not one of his).
“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.” – Kurt Cobain
“He was himself”
Canadian musician and writer, Dave Bidini, in an article for the National Post entitled “Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago today, wasn’t a hero, martyr or vampire. He was himself” ended with this comment:
“He looked like he didn’t care (because he didn’t) … His arms hang down and he turns sideways from the crowd, as if he’s trying not to be seen, even though 20 million people have their eyes trained on him. In a society where ‘bringing it’ and ‘all or nothing’ and ‘going for it’ are sicknesses pumped by fools who aspire to drive people apart rather than draw them together, Cobain’s sense of oblivion was, in a way, brave and confrontational, and that’s why he cracked even the hardest edifice and ate through misplaced pop culture like a creeping disease. In the end, he made an enormous impression for someone who wasn’t even there.” – Dave Bidini, National Post
Cobain did escape, “Rather be dead than cool”, others need not take that route if they can follow his other wisdom, to be yourself and find someone you can be yourself with and talk to.
Remember him alive though, here’s an awesome unplugged hour-long Kurt Cobain MTV concert in NYC November 1993 just months before his suicide, my favourite line of which was “like this is my third cup of tea already” – how Rock’n’Roll!
I will remember him, as much for the angst music of a tortured soul, as the desire to find and be himself, a journey I am also on, aren’t we all to a degree?
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” – Kurt Cobain
Tom Sosnik comes out as Trans citing Leelah Alcorn as inspiration
An apparently confident young 13yo Jewish teen living in Oakland, California, has come out as trans with the full support of his sister and parents. Tom Sosnik comes across as mature, self-assured and brave, but in no doubt of the hard path ahead. He cites Leelah Alcorn at the beginning and end of his coming out speech and both, thanks, and calls for the support of, his peers and community.
His YouTube video, published 16 March 2015, comes with the following statement by him:
This is how I came out to my community as trans.
Please share my story and my message with your loved ones.
To all those struggling to embrace their true and authentic gender or sexuality, I want you to know that if no one else accepts you, I always will. Rest in power, Leelah.
Full text transcript of Tom Sosnik’s coming out video
“On December 28, 2104, Leelah Alcorn a 17 year old trans woman committed suicide because her family didn’t accept her. This made me want to act on a subject that has been bothering me for quite a long time.
All of sixth grade I struggled with my gender identity and I’m now embracing my truth. For a while, I dismissed the fact that I hated my body, I pretended to be content with what I was assigned until at a certain point I broke. I went through a series of horrible breakdowns and I would stand under the water in the shower crying. I knew I wasn’t happy but it didn’t seem fair to me that everyone else around me was. They didn’t spend all their time thinking about how much they hated being categorised as a woman. I didn’t share that same feeling, in fact, I felt the opposite.
For some of you, this may come as a shock and for others, well you knew or thought I was transgender, well here’s your reassurance – I am no longer Mia, I never really was and now I finally stand before you in my true and authentic gender identity, as Tom. I stand before you as a 13 year old boy.
I understand that this will be a difficult adjustment but I hope and trust that you will treat me with respect and thoughtfulness. So for those of you who are having trouble that is completely understandable. You have known me as a girl for over a year and it is hard to understand that I never was that girl. I want to tell you as a I consider you all my friends, well most of you – no I’m kidding. In my heart I am still the same person, whether you like that person or not, it’s me. So here I am, no longer Mia Sosnik, a 13 year old girl, that you thought you knew, but Tom.
I imagine that some of you will have questions and I am open to answering them at any time they come to you. I trust that you are all mature enough to understand which questions are inappropriate, disrespectful or hurtful. Please feel free to ask me because after all I know the most about my transition. Please talk about this with your parents and your family but I ask of you really not to talk about it with your friends, it’s not – gossip worthy.
If there’s something you want to say I’m happy to talk with you and I really hope that you all will support my decision to embark on a harder route in life as the boy I truly am. Any form of support I receive with much gratitude and I hope that everyone can really support me because you guys are like my second family. And if you support me, I will feel like the luckiest boy in the world. Thank you for letting me share my story.
I want to just tie it back to what I said at the beginning. After reading Leelah’s suicide letter I came to really appreciate the support I have in my family in my community that she never got. Thank you all for making me feel safe enough to openly be myself.”
Risk of Copycat Suicides
The positive references to Leelah Alcorn are all the more uplifting given the spate of US trans teens suicides recently, and the lack of recognition even in death by many of their families. Overnight, it was desvestating to hear of yet another suicide as 18 year old Blake Brockington took his life. He was the first Charlotte, NC trans homecoming king last year. This, only weeks after Ash Haffner, another Charlotte trans man ended his life.
Furthermore, some have argued that the sharing of Leelah Alcorn’s suicide letter would inspire copycat suicides, rather than in the case of Tom Sosnik, an inspired coming out, in part, because of her.
Both of Tom’s sisters have been “meaningful members of his support system“, and one of them, Gil Sosnik, shared his story and video on facebook:
Last week, my 13 year old brother came out as trans to his school and community in a really moving naming ceremony and we were able to capture it on camera. Seeing how much his words have inspired and touched the family and friends in his own network, Tom began to see that there was something about his speech that was universal and humanizing, something that could empower trans* and otherwise gender nonconforming folks while also conjuring empathy and understanding among allies. Watch and share if you are moved by his story.
It has been clearly demonstrated that family support has a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of transgender youth and according to a 2012 Canadian report, can lead to a:
“93% reduction in reported suicide attempts for youth who indicated their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity and expression”
Without that support, some 57% of young trans people attempted suicide, even higher than the averaged-out figure for trans of all ages and domestic backgrounds. (See more on suicide risks)
Another LGBT suicide has recently been put down to religious non-acceptance in the harrowing story of gay repression and rejection in the life of a successful Muslim Doctor in the UK.
More positively, Tom’s family and religious background is in complete contrast to the religious home life of Leelah Alcorn which saw her sent to Christian therapists and undergo conversion therapy to try and stop her being trans. A path which was no doubt a contributing factor to her suicide and is categorically dismissed as psychologically sound or helpful by the APA.
Reparative Conversion Therapy
Reparative or Conversion Therapy seeks to turn someone from their innate sexuality or gender identity by positively encouraged, aka forced, heterosexual and birth sex gender “appropriate” roles. Of course the concept of appropriate comes from stereotypical concepts of socio-familial and sometimes all-out religious traditional understandings. This kind of aversion therapy, whether of LGB or Trans people, is more likely to increase suicide risk than prevent it. The APA argues that:
“reparative therapy poses a great risk, including increasing the likelihood or severity of depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior for those undergoing therapy.”
Dr Kenneth Zucker
Dr. Ken Zucker is Psychologist-in-Chief and Head of the Gender Identity Service in the Child, Youth, and Family Program at CAMH, Ontario. The American psychologist and sexologist, and GIC head at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, is also on the APA’s DSM-V committee. Just last week CAMH suspended all trans admissions and treatments by Zucker and has put the whole programme under review.
“The APA, responding to criticisms by LGBT activists, point out that Zucker does not advocate reparative therapy for teens and adults, not for gays and lesbians at any age, but only for the trans community.”
Well that’s ok then – “only for the trans”! This is 2015 and being trans is still considered a mental illness, a mental struggle – yes, but it is not something that is aided by disparaged and unethical reparative therapy and pathologising treatment.
How Trans Support should be done
Tom’s own family is Jewish and seems to have positively supported his coming out, posting nothing but proud affirmations on Facebook whereas Leelah was banned from using social media and cut off from her friends and support network.
Tom Sosnik, his family and community, are an example of how coming out as trans, and/or LGB, should be handled – with bravery, acceptance, and support. He and his family embody the “fixing of society” that Leelah Alcorn called for.
Saddened, shocked, but not sure I was surprised. Such was the sudden news of Robin Williams‘ apparent suicide at 63 that the Internet was awash with rumours last night that it was a ruse, a fake story. Details emerged overnight (British time) that he had indeed been found dead at home in Marin County, California, apparently having taken his own life. The latest information is that “Marin county sheriff’s department lieutenant Keith Boyd confirmed that Williams was discovered hanged, and had apparently attempted to cut his wrists.”
Owing to considerable empathy with his bipolar depression, this is a tough article to write in memoriam to the wonderful Robin Williams, who I first watched aged 11 when he appeared as the alien Mork. Sadly he has returned to his home planet and left us the poorer, but we have over a 100 films and thousands of laughs to remember him by and the challenge to understand mental illness better over our lifetimes.
Update (11 August 2015): It is now a year to the day that Robin Williams passed on and he still makes me laugh and cry in equal measure and continues to inspire whether in life or role.
Films and Characters
Last night I was preparing to watch The Birdcage film with my partner and a friend. We never got round to it, though I’d loaded it into the DVD up to the opening scene. It’s now set for a memorial movie night with the memorable Armand. He was so versatile, able to play funny, straight, sad, young, old, real, fantasy, even a penguin or two in Happy Feet as the voices of Ramón and Lovelace.
Of his co-star in Happy Feet Two, ‘La Toti’ Sofía Vergara, Williams said“I’d walk 50 miles in the snow just to stand in her garbage … and I cleaned up that line!”
Williams appeared in over 100 films, as well as television and theatre, so versatile were the roles that he played. Whether as Mork or Peter Pan, he always looked like he would never grow up and would live forever – one reason we, as adoring fans, all feel the wrench of his going now.
Perhaps, most memorable for me, was Mrs Doubtfire, and the agony of a father doing anything to get close to his kids. Its long-posited sequel Mrs Doubtfire 2 will presumably now no longer be made.
He was scheduled to appear in several unfinished films, but one that just made it to completion and was screened this summer at the Los Angeles Outfest Film Festival is Boulevard (2014) in which he plays an older married man coming to terms with his secret homosexuality.
Another inspirational film for me was Dead Poets Society (1989), as I always wanted to be a maverick motivational teacher, much as my own inspired English teacher was when I was 13 – he’d sit on the desk and read to us Kafka, Tom Sharpe and Shakespeare rather than setting us essays. In the film Williams, plays Keating the English teacher, who challenges the pupils to see the world in different ways, standing on their desks, ripping pages from books that deadened poetry, encouraging them to carpe diem, “seize the day” and call him “O Captain! My Captain!” in reference to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln.
“It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer,
his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
Waiting for Godot
Williams appeared with his friend Steve Martin in a much acclaimed limited-run production in 1988 of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. A review said that “As the earthbound Estragon, Robin Williams is the same Robin Williams we have come to know and love for his manic intelligence, comic body language and perfect sense of timing. In this part, he is in bad need of a shave. Between convulsions, he gives unmistakable signs of a soul in puzzled torment.”
The play is about two down-in-the-dumps men waiting for someone, possibly God (though denied by Beckett), to show up. Being unable to think of a good reason to leave, it becomes an eternal and continually disappointed wait. Williams’ real life “puzzled torment” and wait is over and he has decided to leave us. A brave choice – a phrase that some people will not be comfortable with, but one that echoes my own experience, though I’m glad I survived now.
Williams began his stand-up comedy career in the mid to late 1970s, around the same time as his first film role in 1977 and appearance as Mork in Happy Days (1978) which led to the spin-off series, Mork and Mindy, which was hugely ad-libbed.
In the Happy Days Season 5 episode, “My Favorite Orkan”, Williams, as Mork, tries to kidnap Richie and take him back to his planet but is foiled by the Fonz. Originally a dream sequence, it was so popular that it was edited so as to be real and allow for the character of Mork to have wiped their memories and reappear in Mork and Mindy as an exiled alien from the planet Ork where humour is banned. Oh Shazbot! Mork showed up again in a retrospective episode of Happy Days, “Mork Returns”.
In 2004, he was voted 13th on Comedy Central‘s list of the “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time”. It was his improvisation that got him the role of Mork, standing on his head at the audition. Ad-libbing often led to film and television scripts adapting to him, rather than him sticking to the lines. Much of his role as the genie in the animated film Aladdin (1992) was improvised.
In 2009 Robin Williams conducted a delayed 26-city US comedy tour called “Weapons of Self-Destruction“, aimed at George Bush, rather than himself. He was hospitalised that year for heart surgery after announcing the tour in 2008. In 2010 he performed the show in Canterbury, New Zealand, and donated all the proceeds to the Red Cross and post-earthquake rebuilding projects.
I’ve often heard the phrase “the funny man of comedy” used of Williams, but aren’t all comedians meant to be funny? To me it means someone who can laugh at situations rather than make jokes by taking someone down. The irony is of course that the funny man who appeared in Happy Days was an unhappy man.
Just because someone can make us laugh, does not mean that they can make themselves happy. The daily battle with the black dog of depression and for Robin, at least, the associated ‘demons’ of drug and drink addiction, lifts momentarily in the manic moments of humour and comedy, but returns like a fog blanket blocking out the sun. Judgements of his addictions are insensitive, for those who’ve experienced depression, know full well that it can lead to other behaviours in order to survive or end the feelings of depression. Concert pianist James Rhodes called depression a “cloak of lead, a toxic second skin“:
“Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don’t get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel.”
Robin Williams was funny, depression is not, though he laughed at his own “demons”, drink and drug addictions, which had returned to afflict him in the last few months. But that doesn’t give us the right to laugh at his life, troubles or choices.
I’ve done stand-up comedy and did a whole set on my own suicide attempt, it was dark and dead pan. Someone even thought I’d made it all up and commended my ‘acting’. In fact, it was the truth, often stranger than fiction, and my own surviving suicide and finally wanting to be alive again that enabled me to laugh at death and make fun of myself. That is not for others to do though. Doubly insensitive and offensive is the joke on Twitter I’ve seen about it now being an ideal time for Kellie Maloney (the transitioning Frank Maloney) to audition for Mrs Doubtfire 2, now that Robin is dead.
Others have taken to the web to say that they have no sympathy for those who take their own life, or suffer from alcohol and drugs addictions. The Guardian has had to moderate and delete about 10% of the comments on the report of his death. I’ve read of people on Facebook calling it “the pussy way out”. So wrong. Suicide is often a decision to end not only self-torment but to end being a burden to others. It can take courage and bravery to attempt it, it is not a coward’s way out as Fox News‘ breaking news editor and anchor Shepard Smith called it, it is the last straw for someone who is tired of fighting for survival every day. I’m not encouraging suicide, but I am saying stop judging it and view the person who has gone as now at peace.
“How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?”. This was said of Stephen Fry, but is doing the rounds about Robin too. Fry references an article by Alastair Campbell in which “he suggested changing the word ‘depression’ to ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill”. Fry writes about feeling sad, lonely, depressed, suicidal and the rights to seemingly illogically having those feelings.
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” – Stephen Fry
Even when surrounded by loved ones, depression is a lonely disease, but having a partner or friend around has saved me from acting on suicidal feelings more than once in the past. It was when all alone, in the darkest hours of the night that I attempted it more seriously.
“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone” – Robin Williams
Very often there are no answers or solutions, and there should certainly be no judgements for what is in cause or effect a chemical imbalance in the brain. I’ve suffered from depression for over a decade and for the last 2 years been under investigation for a variant of bipolar or cyclothymia, Mood Affective Disorder. Fry has cyclothymia and whilst Williams never regarded himself as fully diagnosed, many clinicians think he had depression and Bipolar Affective Disorder.
Whilst the label may help with gaining the right support and treatment, it is irrelevant to how we treat people with the symptoms of the varieties of depression and addiction. We have not lived their life, seen inside their mind, and therefore do not know the balance of accountability for their own actions and suffering under the weight of seemingly intransigent conditions that afflict people indiscriminately and unfairly.
Depression disables, debilitates, and is often met with misunderstanding that you can do something about it by pulling yourself together, getting out more, getting up or some such chivvying coaching. Similarly, with suicide, the offers to “talk to me” before you try it next time, or of it being a “selfish way out” that hurts others, are ignorant, even if often well meant, thoughts. Suicides can be planned or spontaneous, cries for help or calls for the help and feeling a burden on others to end, persistent or momentary feelings of the need for it all to stop, the feeling of powerlessness or the only way to take control.
Dean Burnett in the Guardian called it a “staggering ignorance of mental health problems” to refer to suicide as a selfish act. Suicide and depression are not selfish. Williams had access to the best help around, but he was the “clown that could not be fixed“, as Simon Jenkins writes:
“There was no help that Williams and others like him could not and did not receive. It failed. All illness is a great leveller, but none levels like mental illness. It remains the poor relation of medicine. Research is paltry. Therapies are halfhearted. Drugs are primitive.”
One-in-four of us will get a depression related illness. Yet it receives a small percentage of even 1/40th of the medical research and treatment budget.
Devastating news about @robinwilliams — knew him a little and liked him a whole lot more. A brain wired like no other and so so kind.
Robin Williams’ favourite children’s book was CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe which he would read out loud to his kids. Famous for his funny voices, when reading it to his daughter, named after Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda computer game series, she said “Don’t do any voices. Just read it as yourself.” One of the hardest things in life is to be yourself.
His third wife and now widow, Susan Schneider, said:
“I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”
Fellow actor and comedian Steve Martin, tweeted that he “could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.” ‘Mensch’, whilst simply meaning “human being” is a Yiddish idiom for a genuinely good person, a real “stand-up guy”.
Barack Obama, in offering condolences, referred to Williams as “one of a kind”:
“Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
Tributes will continue to flood in from fans, friends and fellow entertainers, Sarah Silverman described him as “pure love” and Stephen Fry sad he was “so so kind”.
At one point over half the trending tags on Twitter were Robin Williams related including #RobinWilliamsWillLiveOnForever.
George Takei said “May the heavens be brightened with your singular glow” and several have commented on Twitter saying that now he can make God laugh. Friends have expressed sadness, referenced mental illness and one wrote “I can’t believe Mindy is Morkless”, an apt end for how it all began back in 1978.
Gifted, manic, funny, sad, tormented, lost to us, but now at peace. RIP
[This article is an expansion of one first published here]