How Robin Williams Helped My Mom Understand Me

by Alicia Lutes

One day in February of last year, my mother called me up out of the blue to talk about Robin Williams. This was a rare and unusual occurrence on several fronts — ours has never been a relationship of constant texts, let alone calls — and celebrities were not a part of our regular conversations. But she had just finished listening to an interview with Williams and a lightbulb had gone off. "He reminded me so much of you," she said.

Let me back up: As a loud, emotional, hyperactive, non-sequitur-obsessed kid, I was an amusing oddity to my mother. In our first home, the neighborhood kids thought I was a Cabbage Patch doll come to life (it was the '80s). She would prop me out the window, and I would laugh and wave at the kids. "Sometimes I really wonder where you came from," she'd say. "You are something else, kid." "I don't know what to do with you" was a phrase uttered frequently with a variety of emotional meanings and intent.

Things were at times quite fraught between us. My curious and out-loud nature was at times a snarl in our relationship.

When my mother said that Robin Williams reminded her of me, my initial thoughts were mainly, Uh what? Confused, you might say. (That is laughable on several levels was another thought.) She'd listened to Williams' interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, she explained.

"The way your head is and the way your thoughts are everywhere and all over the place all at once," she said. "It sounded a lot like you. His struggles in his own mind. His thoughts and the way he felt about himself reminded me very much of you and the way you've always thought about yourself."

Alicia Lutes

(Just guess which one above is the author.)

In conversation with Maron, Williams opened up about how his darker thoughts weighed on his mind. His need to bring people joy, make jokes, and generally perform or create in one way or another was something he simultaneously loved and hated about himself. Being different, in all its shapes and ways, is never easy.

Those sort of dueling forces of the mind are something to which most can relate. For him, it was "Does that make me an artist or a psychopath?" To my mother, I was essentially just like him. And so she bought me Williams' biography by Andy Dougan, which I decided to take as a compliment.

Michael Caulfield/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Even as a young kid, I was weirdly existential and tortured by the feeling that I was some weird outlier. That feeling always peppered my outlandish ambitions, weird voices, loud singing, at-times space cadet-ish questions, and behaviors. It all equaled some serious emoting.

Like most my age and younger, I grew up with Williams as the sort of idealized father of my childhood dreams. But he was so much more than that; he encompassed so much. His was a sort of humor electric: bustling with wild abandon, able to inhabit the beautiful and expansive complexity of the human spirit. He told stories and gave them all — humor, drama, or otherwise — the life they needed to be properly told. He knew much of the depths of human emotion on both sides. His was a full soul.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Williams was nothing if not wholly himself, foibles and all. He was so magnetically, frenetically human. His characters pointed so directly to the multitudes within us all. He was often silly, but he was never without heart. His glinting eye was always mirrored in our own glee.

No one has ever made a person smile quite like Robin Williams. And perhaps no one ever will.

When it was announced that Williams had died Monday, I called my mother for the first time after an extended silence. Because in spite of whatever issues have plagued us, Williams' existence was our line into one other. The hole in the fence. His death was a reminder that we should all always keep digging into ourselves and our stories.

It is cruel that mental illness can so often get in the way of that. We should all be kinder and more loving of each other, willing to help each other. Like Robin.

"I never thought of him as mentally ill, I thought of him as creative and misunderstood. But what is mental illness, if you really think about it?" My mother pondered on the phone Monday night. "I mean aren't we all a little mentally ill from time to time?"