Last Thursday, Henry Rollins wrote a controversial column in the wake of Robin Williams’ death. The piece, titled “Fuck Suicide,” was widely criticized for its harsh outlook on those who ultimately took their own lives. Rollins has since reached out to apologize through his own website after the piece’s overwhelming feedback. Last week, we reached out to Jamie Tworkowski, the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, an organization that helps those struggling with addiction, depression, self injury and suicidal thoughts. He responded with this open letter to Rollins.
Dear Mr. Rollins.
I am writing in response to your recent column, “Fuck Suicide.”
There’s a statement that has stayed with me for years now. It came from a friend who lost her brother to suicide. She said, “Don’t mistake the man for the moment.” She has chosen to remember her brother for his life. He lost a battle. He was more than just that losing.
I’ve spent the last nine years working in the realm of depression, addiction and suicide. Suicide happens to people. It is a choice made by people who are hurting. So, in my mind, “fuck suicide” basically translates to “fuck people who are hurting.”
No good comes from that statement. I’m sure it generates web traffic. It definitely sounds bold and tough. But it won’t save any lives.
Compassion is the thing. Understanding.
You said you were “stepping off the train” (of being a Robin Williams fan) because you “simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.”
It’s true. We don’t understand. We don’t know what went through his mind in those final moments. Certainly his children were worth living for. It seems he loved them very much. But again, you judging him or anyone – it does no good.
We make many choices in this life. We make thousands of them. My guess is you’ve made a few that you regret. A few that hurt people. A few you wish you could go back and change. How would it feel to be known only as those choices, only as the choice you made in the most painful moment of your life?
Robin Williams died. Robin Williams also lived.
Your article suggested, “No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.” You write as if Williams made this choice in a perfectly rational state of mind. For many, depression is a paralyzing dark sadness. It becomes the lens they see the world through. It is the lie that says there’s no way out. Once again, you judging Mr. Williams or anyone else who dies by suicide does no good.
You said, “When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind.” If you want to defend the children of Mr. Williams, don’t give up on their Dad. Don’t say he never lived. If you want to defend his kids or any other kids who have lost a parent to suicide, join the fight in breaking down the stigma that surrounds mental health. Encourage people to believe that it’s okay to be honest about their pain, and that it’s okay to ask for help. Tell people it’s possible to change, possible to let go, possible to start again.
You wrote, “I may be able to appreciate what he or she did artistically but it’s impossible to feel bad for them. Their life wasn’t cut short — it was purposely abandoned.” Would you say that about someone who lost a battle with cancer? I ask because Robin Williams lost a battle. He lost a battle with depression. He made a choice to end his life but it would be a sad mistake to ignore the battle that he fought.
It is a battle millions fight today, tonight, right now. The real question is, what do you say to those still breathing, the ones still here but struggling? My guess is “Fuck suicide” won’t help them. But compassion just might. Understanding just might. Pointing folks to hope and help just might.
As for how you choose to remember Robin Williams, how you to choose to remember the friends you’ve lost to suicide, and the many more lost to this awful ending; I would challenge you with the words of my friend, spoken in honor of her late brother, who died but also lived: Don’t mistake the man for the moment.