That’s the simple line Robin Williams’ professor and counselor repeated to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting in Gus Van Sant’s much-loved 1998 film, Good Will Hunting. The line was so basic that it was sometimes derided as too simple. I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit.
The character of Will Hunting had been physically abused as a child by his foster-father. Perhaps the most chilling lines of dialogue happened just before Williams insistent four words of comfort.
Will: He used to just put a wrench, a stick and a belt on the table. Just say, “Choose.”
Sean (Wiliams): Well, I gotta go with the belt there.
Will: I used to go with the wrench.
Sean: Why the wrench?
Will: ‘Cause fuck him, that’s why.
“It’s not your fault” comes just after.
I grew up from the ages of 4-12 in a house with an alcoholic. A mean, often drunken, stepfather who thought nothing of beating me until I wet my pants for spilling tomato soup, or backhanding me for dropping my fork. As you might guess, dinners were a gas in my house. However, he saved the real punishment for my mother. There were many nights I can recall shaking in my upstairs bedroom as screaming and striking went on below. The worst evening was when he threw my mother down the stairs. It was a long staircase. I still believe to this day some of the structural health issues my mother has are from that incident.
Years later at the age of 20 I was filled with a deep despair. I was in a terrible relationship with the first girl I ever really cared about and I attempted to take my own life. It was truly one of those “cry for help” kinda deals. I downed some pills, waited for about 30 minutes, came to my senses and called an ambulance. I didn’t come close to dying, but I knew what it felt like to want to.
After leaving the hospital, I knew I needed help. I found it in the office of a counselor named Shelia Fullmer. I thought I was going there to talk about my current problems, but I ended up spending nearly all my time discussing those eight terrible years under the hand of a man who should have cared for me, but didn’t. Who should have loved me, but didn’t. Who should have at minimum, done no harm. He didn’t do that either.
When talking about one particularly awful encounter involving my hand and a toilet seat, Sheila let me finish and then she stopped me before I could go on to anything else. I still remember her exact words, as if they were they were the only words worth recalling in the whole of my life. “It’s not your fault. You know that, right?” For over eight years I had waited to hear that and I didn’t even know it was what I needed. So simple, but yet not. So when Robin’s character, Sean Maguire, tells Will, “It’s not your fault,” it’s personal to me. My chest caves in every time. I guess it always will.
I know not what demons hounded Robin Williams. I have no idea what brought him to apparently take his own life. I do know what the hollow depths of depression feel like. I know why he might see it as a solution. I know I wish it were not so. But more than anything, I wish Robin would have found his Sheila Fullmer, his Sean Maguire. Someone to look at him kindly, without judgement, and tell him “It’s not your fault.”
God how I wish that for him.