Robin Williams, Maria Bamford, and Shamanism

Last night CNN’s Errol Barnett and Larry King pondered why someone like Robin Williams, a man whom they claimed had everything — genius, riches, awards galore – would take his own life.

King went on to paraphrase EA Robinson’s famous poem “Richard Cory,” the one Simon and Garfunkel put to music; only King misidentified Richard Cory as “Mr. Blackwell” and embellished with extra info like “he had parties on every Halloween.”

Here, look at it yourself. (And also enjoy the dulcet tones of Judy Birdsong yakking on the phone in the background)

Here’s the poem “Richard Cory”

Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,

We people on the pavement looked at him;

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean-favored, and imperially slim


And he was always quietly arrayed.

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.


So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, on calm summer night

Went home and put s bullet through his head.

Here is Errol Barnett extolling the nuanced wisdom of Larry King.

Now, dear reader/viewer, take a look at Robin Williams’s first appearance on Johnny Carson.

Nancy C Andreasen’s article “Secrets of the Creative Brain” in the July/August Atlantic explores the connection between creativity and mental illness.  According to her 15-year study of participants of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop that included the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Cheever, “and 27 other well-known writers,”  Andreasen writes that her “writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out the stories of their struggles with mood disorder — mostly depression, but occasionally bipolar disorder.  A full 80% percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance, compared with just 30% of the control group.”

Although Williams never acknowledged that he suffered from bipolar disorder, his manic highs certainly seem to suggest that a BPD diagnosis is reasonable, and if we can imagine lows that counterbalance the highs on display in the clip above, those those lows would be Marianas-Tench-like, bottomless.

Coincidently, just last week I caught the comedienne Maria Bamford being interviewed on NPR describing a visit she received from a Whole Foods aficionado while Bamford was in a mental hospital.  Bamford, who’s famous for channeling voices, echoed the all-knowing tone of a Californian new ager as she impersonated the visitor.

Visitor: Look, Maria, you need to, like, get into nature.

Maria:  You mean like Virginia Woolf and the river?

old pictures 004Even before yesterday’s dismal news, I wondered in a different culture if Williams might turn out to be a shaman, and watching Bamford’s most recent special (see trailer below), it’s almost as if she’s possessed, not by demons, but by a number of different personalities.  Here’s Joseph Campbell explaining the difference between a Shaman and a priest:

There’s a major difference, as I see it, between a shaman and a priest. A priest is a functionary of a social sort. The society worships certain deities in a certain way, and the priest becomes ordained as a functionary to carry out that ritual. The deity to whom he is devoted is a deity that was there before he came along. But the shaman’s powers are symbolized in his own familiars, deities of his own personal experience. His authority comes out of a psychological experience, not a social ordination.

To become a shaman or shamanka (the term for a female shaman), one must undergo a psychological crisis.

Here’s anthropologist Douglas Mackar’s description of the shaman state:

The most basic aspect of how we are Shamans is the experience of the trance state.
 All creation occurs in a trance state. In trance, your old attitudes can’t disrupt creation and evolution. It’s only when you release from that trance state that you fall back into your old mind state. It’s always a temptation to go back to the familiar. True change- transformation- is incorporating new knowledge into your psyche and holding it there long enough for it to become a permanent part of your thinking. (Douglas Mackar)

Of course, the 20th and 21st Century LA was Williams’s and Bamford’s milieu, and I don’t mean to imply that they literally were sha-people, only that they share some similarities, and a trance state is not a bad way to describe some of their comic performances.

And also we shouldn’t conflate Williams with Richard Cory.  Cory “glittered when he walked” and Williams bounced around whatever room he was in like an Indian rubber ball.

His suicide didn’t surprise me.

One thought on “Robin Williams, Maria Bamford, and Shamanism

  1. Pingback: Alms for Oblivion: The Lighter Side of 2014 | You Do Hoodoo?

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