Robin Williams Did Not Have Demons. He Had a Disease. Or Several.

A woman takes a picture of a mural of Robin Williams in Belgrade. Marko Djurica/Reuters

A brief note to those who write articles and headlines, to those who tweet and post to Facebook and, for that matter, the dwindling pack of those who conduct sustained face-to-face conversations with other human beings about the matters of the day: Robin Williams was not plagued by demons. Demons do not exist outside of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and straight-to-Netflix horror movies. Hence, they could not have tortured him into self-slaughter.

Allusion to demonology when discussing mental illness is more than just sloppy cliché; it suggests that our thinking about mental health remains mired in a medieval outlook, a pre-modern conception of the human mind susceptible to maleficent forces we can never understand.

I do not think everyone who has written about the supposed demons that drove Williams to suicide (and plenty have been doing it, as a quick perusal of Google News reveals) believes he was inhabited by evil spirits. But the anachronistic usage dismayingly lays bare how little we still know about why people suffer and, sometimes, kill themselves. "Demons" remain a convenient but debilitating euphemism, three centuries after the Scientific Revolution and long after we've discarded quasi-religious explanations for other diseases. Nobody, after all, suggests that cancer is caused by sin.

Claiming supernatural causes, however facetiously, for mental illness removes these ailments from the sphere of science, hinting at a dark power that we could never unravel and that will claim us if it must. That turns all parties — the mentally ill, their families, scientists and social workers — into helpless subjects of numinous currents.

Demons did not kill Robin Williams. If reports of his mental illness are true, the fault (if it can be called that) lies with neural synapses, or monoamine neurotransmitters or glutamate receptors. And beyond the brain, there are genes that may have made Williams more likely to suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, or maybe even both. Someday, scientists will figure out what makes the brain sputter and the spirit dim (they're already doing it, though slowly). But I can confidently tell you that demons had nothing to do it. The explanation, when it comes, will be rooted in this world.