Robin Williams’ death is a kind of sad that doesn’t come along for me very often. The guy was an incredibly rare soul, and beaten by demons with which I am somewhat familiar – addiction and depression. A lot of folks have taken it as an opportunity to discuss suicide, which is probably a good way to make something good of it.
In theatre school I struggled with my own depression and suicidal ideation, and part of the process of figuring that out was a solo performance piece called Give Them Wings. I’m posting it here in hopes that it adds some small value to the discussion or the world.
<Set: Simple set, two towers bracketing a box with a blue mat out front>
<Lighting: Warm steady light tight on the actor + set >
<Opening sound plays as the lights come up – ocean against rocks blends into the news report capturing the collapse of the South Tower of the WTC>
<The actor arrives comes in as the newscaster speaks >
I believe the people who leapt from the towers of the World Trade Centre chose life. They stood on the edge on high and they wanted not to be there when the tower fell.
I want not to be here, but I want to fall.
The terminal velocity of a human body falling from a great height is two hundred twenty feet per second. It takes six point eight seconds to reach this speed in free fall.
I am standing behind a thin piece of railing on the Signal Hill walking path. It is October, 2001. I had another suicidal impulse tonight. Part of me seems to want to kill myself. Part of me just wants to get away from the edge, one way or another. The gray rocks of Signal Hill and the dark waters of the Atlantic are crashing together hundreds of feet below me.
The twin towers have fallen. It is a moment for change. Moments like this don’t come along very often.
I had another suicidal impulse tonight, and it pissed me off so much that I <actor grabs own collar & indicates dragging self by it> dragged myself by the collar like a disobedient child up through the Battery to the Signal Hill walking trail and thence to a thin piece of railing to listen to the gray rocks of Signal Hill and the dark waters of the Atlantic crashing together hundreds of feet below.
<Remove wristwatch, dangle it>
The last 18 floors flashed by the jumpers in a single second. The world watched somewhere between 50 and 200 people choose to fall from the edge on high for six point five soul-curdling seconds. They were traveling nearly two hundred and twenty feet per second when they reached the ground. If I jump, I will fall half as far. It will take me four point five seconds to reach the rocks, and in my last second of life, the only thing watching me fall will be one hundred and fifty feet of Signal Hill granite.
How beautiful the view must have been from the edge on high. A clear September day, New York City spread in every direction, and, not so very far away, the dark waters of the Atlantic.
<Kneel down. Take out the picture of The Falling Man>
What do you think this guy was thinking when he was standing at the edge on high?
<Assume prayer position>
“God, let me live. Give me wings. Make it quick.” Is suicide still a sin when you don’t want to die?
<Unzip the partition with the family and friends photos and begin shaking them out>
My little sister is pregnant. My mom has lost her mother. My friends need me to pay rent this month.
I don’t care.
This person cared enough to be in the office before nine AM on a Tuesday.
<Take out the newspaper. At the start of the following speech, it is folded and used as if taking pictures with a camera >
Bolivar Arellano is a photographer with the New York Post. He remembers the falling people. ‘I heard the crashes of people jumping. It’s still in my mind. I prayed: “Give them wings. Don’t let them hit the ground.”‘
<Let the newspaper fall>
Some folks say we should agree not to look at these pictures. They think that by looking at them we exploit the horrible choice with which they were faced. Others say that we should look and remember, give witness to their lives.
When I was standing on the cliff edge I hoped for both – that when I fell, people would remember me as I once was, shining with potential. And I hoped that when I fell I sank quick and quiet into the rocks and water so that nobody would have to hurt too much or too long. Most of all, I hoped that the end would be mercifully swift, and I felt guilty for that wish.
I, too, have stood at the edge on high. But these are not my brethren. We were wishing very different things and making very different choices.
<The towers fall away to reveal wings >
I choose life. I’ve found my wings. I wish the jumpers could have chosen life. I wish we could give them wings.
I hope that the world finds its wings. I hope that we can change.