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For Robin Williams: Going Behind the Smile

Posted in ChicagoNow , August 12, 2014 (photos by Sam Levitan)

What is hidden behind a smile? The suicide of Robin Williams yesterday reinforced what I have come to learn about funny people – many of them are hiding very sad cores. So, in honor of National Smile Week, here are some reflections on smiling.

I had been trying to write a post about getting kids to smile in pictures. I was thinking about why it can be so hard to get a child to smile for a photo? I mean really smile, not the fake, cheesy smile with eyes squeezed shut. Upon further reflection, I realized that kids, like Williams, are not always happy when we want to take that photo. So, the smile becomes a weird mask that may be hiding the child’s true feelings at that moment.

Think about the smile command. We tell kids to say “cheese” or “pizza” or “ice cream.” Anything to elicit that smile we want to capture in our photo. As humans, we are innately drawn to a smiling face. We delight in a baby’s first smile and go through all sorts of contortions to make it happen over and over. We reinforce it by our excited reactions. The baby learns that a social smile goes a long way and garners a ton of attention.

As children get older, they come to understand the smile command for picture taking, but at a certain age, maybe four or five, they often give a goofy facsimile of that smile. They don’t really want to comply. It is only as they mature that they understand it’s the smile mask we want for those photos. So, they give it to us. But it is not necessarily a reflection of how they feel inside.

Adults understand the importance and power of the smile. All my life, I have encountered people who, like Robin Williams, are just so funny. When I was younger, I believed there was some special, indefinable quality they possessed that made me laugh at most anything they said. I’m not talking about great comics now. These were just ordinary people in my life who cracked me up every time I was with them.

But as I matured, I began to see what was behind the mask. Many of these funny people were actually pretty sad and depressed. Some were even rather angry. They had learned to use humor as armor to keep others (and maybe themselves) from knowing that unfunny person inside.

I have watched and read numerous tributes to Robin Williams, but I have no idea what demons were behind his mask. Folks speculate: depression, addiction, bad childhood… unless you knew the real person behind the persona, you can keep talking and writing forever without really understanding.

What I take from William’s suicide is what I learned from all of the really funny people in my life. The smile can be hiding a lot of pain, and being funny is an effective tool to keep friends from getting too close.

I circle back to my original plan to write about getting kids to smile for photos. Why bother? The pictures of my kids and grandkids that I cherish tend to be candid shots that capture something about the child. All of those cheesy and fake smiles don’t do much for me. They certainly don’t show me who they are.



by Laurie Levy
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