Adolescence

‘Dead Poets Society’ Saved My Life


But the writer was a 14-year-old depressed girl. The late Robin Williams—the film’s star—suffered a strain of the illness that was as insidious as a cancer. And just as heartbreakingly deadly.



If you’ve never enjoyed the singular pleasure of watching Dead Poets Society as a bookish 14-year-old girl, I strongly suggest you take steps to rectify that immediately. Should you find this task logistically prohibitive, I understand, but I must stress that you’re missing out on the full experience. 

Because if you watch Dead Poets Society in any state other than that of a bookish 14-year-old girl—ideally in 1989—you might very well agree with the late Roger Ebert, who found the movie so formulaic he didn’t hesitate to spoil the entire climax in his review of it. (It’s been 25 years since the movie was in theaters, but if you’re planning to watch it for the first time, consider this your warning that I, too, will reveal the ending.) Like Ebert, you might consider Dead Poets Society “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something” and “shameless in its attempt to pander to an adolescent audience.” 

The thing is, though, if you’re a bookish 14-year-old girl, you haven’t yet seen a hundred “other stories in which the good die young and the old simmer in their neurotic and hateful repressions.” And compared to Hollywood’s usual attempts at pandering to you, which in 1989 almost exclusively feature proms, shopping malls, and the high-school football team, you will gladly take one that foregrounds romantic poetry, New England autumn landscapes, and a bunch of unabashedly nerdy teenaged boys wearing navy duffel coats and falling in love with their English teacher.

If you’re a bookish 14-year-old girl in 1989, in fact, Dead Poets Society is the single greatest event in the history of cinema, never mind what Ebert thinks. 

And if you’re a depressed, bookish 14-year-old girl in 1989—undiagnosed, untreated, fascinated by suicide both as a subject and (not always, but not never) an option—Dead Poets Society might even be one of the things that helps you stay alive. 

So.

***

Fuck depression, fuck depression, fuck depression.

There you have the contents of both my Twitter feed and my entire brain in the moments after news broke Monday of Robin Williams’s death in an apparent suicide. I was heartened, for once, to see so many people identify the real cause of death and race to talk about it, as opposed to wondering what happened, what “drove him to it”? 

Depression is a chronic and sometimes fatal illness—the end. No matter how honest and pragmatic you are at your best, the disease turns your mind into a conniving frenemy, insisting it knows you better than anyone else, and can therefore say with expert authority that the world would be better off without you; that the people who love you would cease to, if they knew who you really were; and that this ineffectual heap of flesh on your couch or your floor—not the curious, engaged, funny, thoughtful person you seem to be at other times—is who you really are. Depression insists that your authentic self is a black hole.  

Any number of things can trigger the break that leads to following through on suicidal thoughts, but fundamentally, the cause is this: Your brain keeps telling vicious lies about who you are, until you become powerless to disbelieve them. Fuck depression.

***

Ebert even found himself unimpressed by the literary element of Dead Poets Society. “None of these writers are studied,” he wrote, “in a spirit that would lend respect to their language; they’re simply plundered for slogans to exort the students toward more personal freedom.” 

But again, and I can’t stress this enough: Roger Ebert was not a 14-year-old girl in 1989.

If a teacher had put the whole of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in front of me at that time in my life, explaining that the narrator was the same guy as Homer’s Odysseus, I’d have been asleep by the scudding drifts. Instead, I first encountered the butchered-down slogan version as recited by Tiny Baby Robert Sean Leonard, complete with an impish eyebrow raise after “Come, my friends”: 

Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset … and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

Not only did I not know what the fuck any of that meant in the context of the poem, I didn’t even know what the poem was—just that it was written by “Society member Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” But I loved it. When the movie came out on video—an event my best 14-year-old girlfriend, Christine, and I celebrated with slightly more enthusiasm than the birth of her first child twenty-some years later—we paused and rewound until we’d transcribed it faithfully, then memorized it. 

Not long after, on a day when our own English teacher led us to the school library in hopes that we might actually use it for a forthcoming research paper, Christine and I disappeared into the poetry section for most of the hour, sitting on the floor and scrolling through every Tennyson poem in every anthology we could find, searching for those lines. We kept peeking over our shoulders, ridiculously afraid of being busted for neglecting the actual assignment—”Here comes the English teacher! Hide the poetry!” Christine was too reliably studious and high-achieving (in DPS terms, somewhere between a Neil and a Meeks) to feel totally comfortable ignoring what was expected of her. I had the constant anxiety of shy poet Todd, but the impulse control of charming jackass Charlie, so it probably was what was expected of me. 

We flipped through page after page until finally, there it was: “Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world …” 

Now, I love the internet like a family member. The internet is one of the many reasons I’m glad I survived high school, and every bout of active depression I’ve had since. I Google nine out of ten thoughts that pass through my mind on a given day, and as I rewatched Dead Poets Society last night, I plugged in other lines and watched titles and authors appear within seconds, thinking, This is a glorious time to be alive. 

But that moment! The thrill of finding just what we were looking for, the pride of our adorably minor act of rebellion, and the giddy sense of time travel that literature can provide—some part of us existing simultaneously in 1990 Illinois, 1833 England, and 1959 Fictional Vermont as we read—well. I hope today’s bookish 14-year-old girls can still find moments that approximate such joy, even if they never touch a physical book. 

***

A few years later, Christine was at Stanford, and I was at a small Catholic college 45 minutes from my parents’ house, having effectively flunked out of one with the sort of idyllic Vermont campus I’d been longing to live on since I was 14. One of the few things I’d learned so far as an English major was that all the poems quoted in Dead Poets Society are essentially pop standards of English lit. If Christine and I had simply asked our teacher or a librarian where those Tennyson lines came from, we probably could have gotten an answer almost as quickly as if we’d had Google. The references were obvious to any literate person who wasn’t still getting the hang of being alive. 

But by then, it didn’t matter anymore. The Signals catalog was selling “Carpe Diem” T-shirts, and Whitman, Thoreau, and Dead Poets Society were all old news to me. The pop culture offering I was obsessed with that year—i.e., the one from which I took most of my personal slogans—was comedian Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer album, which contained this life lesson: 

Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette, or a chocolate-chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up, and go back to fucking work the next morning. That’s it! End of fucking list!

***

As a chain-smoking, whenever-I-could-drinking, chronically-on-academic-probation, still-untreated depressive sophomore, I was far more drawn to Leary’s screaming cynicism than Robin Williams’s unapologetically earnest words as Mr. Keating: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for!” 

I mean, I was 19. I had seen it all, done it all, and given the “Carpe Diem” T-shirt somebody bought me to Goodwill. Poetry, beauty, love—whatever. A cigarette, a chocolate-chip cookie, and an orgasm were the best anyone could hope for, because everything was fucking terrible.

***

Everything is fucking terrible. I mean, it really is. Everywhere right now, as I’m writing and you’re reading, some people are killing each other, because this is a thing that people do all the time. Lately, in this country, a horrifying but not surprising number of them have been police officers murdering black men for existing. (Speaking of time travel, the pictures coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, look like they’re straight from 1964.) And that’s before we even get into problems so vast and tangled and political, we only have to say the name of a country or territory to evoke a shudder: Iraq, Syria, Gaza. The highly contagious, generally deadly Ebola virus has killed over 1,000 people in recent weeks. Closer to home, a universally beloved comedian and Juilliard-trained, Oscar-winning actor has taken his own life, leaving behind a wife, three grown children, and all the rest of us.

Seriously, you guys. Everything is terrible.

There is a school of thought that says people with depression are not extreme pessimists, but extreme realists. The problem is not that we’re biased to see the negative, but that we’re biased to see the truth, where people with healthier brains might instinctively wall off all manner of atrocities and minor heartbreaks, then hang a cheerful wreath on the locked door for their own emotional protection. Confronting the truth all the time can wear a body down.

I buy that, up to a point—perhaps because my experience tells me it’s true, and perhaps because it flatters me, as a person who values clear-thinking and honesty above most things. Including, sometimes, the ability to get work done, enjoy social interaction, or get off the fucking couch.

But when depression metastasizes into despair, our brains begin to lie, completely without conscience, about the one truth that usually makes all the rest of it bearable: Life is fundamentally worth living. Your life, my life, every life.

This is not a controversial statement that requires extensive proof. It is the truest thing any of us will ever know.

Or, as Whitman says in a long, long poem Dead Poets Society plunders for slogans:

To be, in any form—what is that?

(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither;)

If nothing lay more develop’d, the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.

***

In the obituaries and remembrances of Robin Williams that have appeared in the last 24 hours, two words you don’t often see together keep appearing: “genius” and “nice.” A clip has gone viral of Conan O’Brien, Will Arnett, and Andy Richter, all of whom worked with Williams, struggling to articulate what makes this loss feel so profound, shortly after hearing the news. “He was an amazingly kind and generous person,” says Richter, hitting the arm of his chair for emphasis. “As funny as he was,” adds Arnett, “he was even better as a person … Just the loveliest, sweetest, one of the kindest guys that I’ve ever worked with. Just such a soft, warm, emotionally sweet guy.”

Rewatching Dead Poets Society last night (for the millionth time, but the first in a long while), I was struck by how much that warmth defines the character of Mr. Keating, whom Ebert faults for “a curious lack of depth … compared with such other great movie teachers as Miss Jean Brodie and Professor Kingsfield.” It’s true, Keating never espouses wisdom much more incisive or original than “Words and ideas can change the world,” or quotes a literary master at great length. But he cares about the boys in his class. The other adults in their lives—a hidebound headmaster who antagonizes Keating, a despotic father who crushes his unexpectedly fragile son’s ability to hope, and a bunch of mostly silent mothers who, if they were real, would probably have been prescription-doped to the gills—are so cold and distant, kindness is the number one thing these kids need. Their growth begins not when they stand on a desk or rip the pages from their textbooks, but when Keating bathes them in the glow of his bright blue eyes and understanding smile, and regards them as fully human.

Like I said, the man went to Juilliard and won a lot of awards, up to the Oscar. Maybe it was all just the character. Maybe when director Peter Weir said “Cut!”, the light went out of Williams’s eyes, and he turned into an asshole. He was, after all, a man with ultimately deadly mental illnesses, including alcoholism and drug addiction, which can make it heartbreakingly, backbreakingly difficult to love someone, no matter how kind, generous, and brilliant his non-shadow self is. Those who are grieving most deeply right now, the people who knew him best, over the longest time, are undoubtedly also the ones with the worst memories of him. That’s part of what it means to love someone like that. Or anyone, maybe.

Still, I can’t believe the character’s gentleness, playfulness, and clear affection for the young men in his charge are all a matter of technique and deliberate choices, rather than the actor’s personality. A colder, more self-conscious actor might have infused his line readings—or ad libs—with a bit of irony, tried to make Keating more of a cool intellectual than an earnest, poetry-loving, people-loving marshmallow. Perhaps that would have made Keating the “great teacher” Ebert wished to see in this movie, the kind whose students go forth with a genuine, lifelong love of literature. “At the end of this teacher’s semester,” wrote the critic, “all they really love is the teacher.”

Maybe if he’d been 14 years old at the time, Ebert would have seen that it was entirely possible to love both. In a teenager’s mind, fragments and slogans can kindle a deep, abiding appreciation for words and ideas—which, yes, can damn well change the world. My friend Laura wrote of the movie yesterday, “I don’t care if it’s sentimental or cheesy. It was the first thing I ever saw that depicted the magical feeling reading poetry gave me before I understood anything about it.” Laura now has an M.F.A. in writing poetry and a Ph.D. in thinking about it. She’s given a paper at an international Walt Whitman conference, but still thinks of him first as “a sweaty-toothed madman.”

The scene in which Ethan Hawke’s Todd Anderson spits out that description of “Uncle Walt’s” portrait begins with him sheepishly admitting he hasn’t finished his assignment, to write a poem of his own. Rather than berate him, or even throw a pointedly disappointed look at him—two reactions I know well from my own spotty academic career—Keating immediately diagnoses the problem: “Mr. Anderson believes that everything inside of him is worthless, and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd? And that’s your worst fear.

“Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.”

Tell me there’s anything more important than that for a shy, anxious kid to learn. I defy you.

***

When Christine’s oldest son was about two, she told me she found herself—now a graduate of both Stanford and Harvard, married to a Princeton man—spiraling down into irrational worries about giving him every opportunity to succeed, making sure he attended the right schools that would lead to the right networks for the right job, etc. The kind of things Mr. Perry is obsessed with in Dead Poets Society, to the exclusion of his son Neil’s desires and any expression of his authentic self. Neil (Leonard) loves his friends at Welton Academy and has just discovered a passion for acting, but his father has decided to transfer him to military school, “then Harvard, then medical school.” The movie’s climax, as you already know if you read Ebert’s review or were a 14-year-old girl in 1989, is Neil’s suicide. The community blames Mr. Keating, while the audience is meant to blame Mr. Perry.

In real life, there is no one to blame, no one factor that cracks someone’s mind open and lets in the damned lie that their life is not worth living.

And in real life, Christine’s husband stopped that overachieving parental bullshit cold with seven words: “I just want him to be nice.” That, she told me, was all the perspective she needed on her beloved son’s future.

Great people are remembered by history. Kind people are remembered by people. There’s a slogan for you.

***

Twenty-five years after I first saw Dead Poets Society, twenty after I memorized Denis Leary’s whole act, and ten after I finally started managing my depression as well as possible, this is one of my guiding principles: I would rather be remembered as a kind person than anything else. Also: Life is worth living. That’s a useful one.

Life is worth living, in fact, because of chocolate-chip cookies and orgasms, as well as poetry, art, and romance. (If they ever made a non-deadly cigarette, I would add those back to the list immediately, but I finally did quit in 2010.) I mean that in a way that’s neither as sentimental as the aphorisms of Dead Poets, nor as caustic as Leary’s early-’90s comedy. It’s just—and I say this with the benefit of powerful anti-depressants—the truth. Everything is completely fucking terrible, except chocolate-chip cookies are not. Whitman’s poetry, if you like that sort of thing, is not terrible. Loving and being loved are occasionally terrible, but in the aggregate, very much worthwhile.

When I was young, I kept thinking there’d be a better, more epic-feeling answer than that: that after high school and college, when I had the freedom to fully be who I am, I finally would sail beyond the sunset, seeking a newer world. I would “make no little plans,” for “they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” speaking of essentially meaningless aphorisms that spoke to teenaged me.

Instead, I stayed in this one and eventually learned that life is worth living mostly because you’re already here—and that’s not a depressing (in the colloquial or medical sense) reason. You’re already here! Just look at this terrible, beautiful place! How could you leave?

In other words:

…What good amid these, O me, O life?

 

                                      Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

 

By tomorrow, ending a remembrance of Robin Williams with those lines—written by Whitman and spoken so memorably by Mr. Keating to his huddled audience of rapt, astonished faces—will already be a damnable cliché. Dozens of other people will peg it as the obvious landing spot because, sloganish as those lines may be, that’s pretty much all there is to it. The play and your verse, your cookies and your orgasms. The moments when you find exactly what you were looking for, or someone says exactly what you need to hear. A movie you love so much you can watch it a thousand times and never feel finished with it. A thoughtful gesture from someone who looks at you with deep, kind eyes and cracks you up a moment later. That’s it. End of fucking list.

And that’s plenty.

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