What Good Will Hunting Can Teach Us About Men, Shame, and Suicide

Robin Williams

“Shame, fear, isolation, addiction. Shame, fear, isolation, addiction. After a few hundred times through the spiral, men will do anything to get off the ride, including suicide.”

 

Last week, I re-watched Good Will Hunting for the first time since Robin Williams’ suicide. I’ve always felt that Williams’ portrayal of Will Hunting’s psychologist, Sean Maguire, was one his most powerful performances on the big screen.

What really struck me watching this film again was the isolation and loneliness of Sean Maguire. The healing in Good Will Hunting was shared by both the patient and the therapist. Unfortunately, this connection with others did not transcend the film into Williams’ life in a lasting way.

When Will Hunting first meets Sean Maguire, Hunting says, “I think you’re about one step away from cutting your fucking ear off,” after analyzing a painting of Maguire’s. Matt Damon’s character then brings up the term “Any port in a storm.” For Williams and so many other men, the only port they find in the storm of their life is suicide.

Why is it that men like Williams felt so isolated and unable to connect with others? The film offers insight into this dilemma through the life of the main character. Will Hunting is savant who grows up on the wrong side of the tracks. As an orphan, Hunting suffers horrible physical abuse.

When Will falls in love with Skylar, a wealthy Harvard student played by Minnie Driver, he lies to her about having 12 brothers. This clues us into the shame he feels about being an abused orphan.

As the love between Will and Skylar intensifies, so does the commitment. When Skylar asks Will to come to California with her where she will attend med school, Will acts out all the classic avoidance strategies of someone who fears rejection due to shame.

He expresses his fear with a scenario of moving out to California with Skylar where she might “find out something” about him that she doesn’t like and not want to be with him anymore. He then makes up excuses why he can’t go to California. As I stated in an earlier article, fear and loneliness often go hand in hand. In this case, Will fears rejection, commitment, uncertainty, and vulnerability to the point that he is willing to let go of the love of his life.

Skylar presses him and asks, “What are you so scared of?” Hunting launches into attacks on Skylar as a “trust fund baby” who is just using Will so she can tell her rich friends how she went “slumming too once.”

Will then tries to leave when Skylar pushes him to be honest with her, but Skylar blocks the exit. This is where things get violent.

“What do you want to know, that I don’t have 12 brothers? That I’m a fucking orphan?…You don’t want to hear that I got cigarettes put out on me when I was a little kid…You don’t want to hear that shit, Skylar,” Will screams at her.

Once the shameful elements are public, men like Hunting will do anything to avoid the embarrassment. In this case, Will tells Skylar that he doesn’t love her which leads to isolation and loneliness.

The next level of this death spiral is addiction to anything that will numb the feelings of shame and isolation. In the 1997 film, Will’s addictions are cigarettes, alcohol, and physical violence. In his early stand-up routines, Robin Williams used to mention snorting cocaine in the 80s.

Thus, the cycle continues: shame, fear, isolation, addiction, shame, fear, isolation, addiction. After a few hundred times through the spiral, men will do anything to get off the ride, including suicide.

Suicide has been an answer to shame for centuries. In Japan, culturally sanctioned forms of suicide in the forms of seppuku and hara kiri were offered to samurai who “lost face.” Perhaps this is why present day Japan has one of the highest rates of suicide for young people who fail out of the education system.

In Palo Alto, California, a male student from Gunn High School just committed suicide by jumping on the Caltrains track. In the past 12 years, there have been 7 suicides by students in this area, mostly boys. Local media likes to point out the pressure of going to high achievement schools like Gunn, but not too many people discuss the shame of underperforming in these academic environments.

Reading the manifesto left behind by UC Santa Barbara shooter, Elliot Roger, one can easily see the chain of shame, fear, isolation, and addiction that lead to the suicidal attack. Roger was ashamed of being a virgin and ashamed of being Asian. He feared rejection from beautiful women. He isolated himself through addictions to video games and lottery tickets.

 

One of the saddest parts of the manifesto narrates how Rodger would drive alone from Santa Barbara to the Arizona border to buy lottery tickets that he envisioned would make him rich and, therefore, attractive to women. The shame of finding out that he had spent all his money on losing lottery tickets was tangible.

So what can we do to break this cycle? As the father of two sons, I think about this a lot The only answer I came up with is I don’t know.

Maybe the film can offer some insight. I was never a big fan of the “breakthrough” seen in Good Will Hunting. It seemed too tidy and unrealistic to have Will heal from years of abuse when Sean simply repeats over and over, “It’s not your fault.” But on this viewing with perhaps wiser eyes, I see some guidance that might prove essential.

First, the healing takes place between men. I’m not saying that this couldn’t happen with a woman therapist or a female spouse, but in my experience women have a hard time hearing about men’s shame without judgment.

In Daring Greatly, shame researcher Brené Brown tells the story of a man who approached her after one of her talks. “We have shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us,” confessed the man.

An uncomfortable Brené Brown was about to comment on how hard men are on each other, when the man told her about his wife and daughters: “they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.”

Men need to be able to help and ask for help from other men. In the men’s group I run, I see the power of this non-judgmental brotherhood every meeting. Men confess deep shame to the other men in the group, and instead of judgment, they get empathy, understanding, and support.

Second, Sean Maguire is persistent. Will Hunting like many men wears a lot of armor. It takes time and persistence to break through the barriers and reach a man’s heart. At one point, Will shoves Sean, but Sean keep closing the gap and repeating, “It’s not your fault.”

Third, Will cries. The cleansing and transformative effects of crying for men cannot be underestimated. Part of the reason we have so much shame, guilt, loneliness, and anger built up is that we rarely get to release it in the form of tears.

Also note how when Will Hunting does start crying he says, “I’m sorry.” Even though Sean was telling him over and over that it is not his fault, Will takes responsibility for everything. The tears wash away all this unjustified guilt and shame.

I can’t help but imagine what would have happened to Elliot Rodger or Robin Williams if they would have been able to cry in the presence of caring, supportive men who kept repeating verbally and non-verbally, “It’s not your fault.”

I do realize that half of my research comes from Hollywood, but so does a majority of the codes of manhood that trap men in shame, isolation, and addiction.

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

photo: Hot Gossip Italia/flickr

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One thought on “What Good Will Hunting Can Teach Us About Men, Shame, and Suicide

  1. Damn right.

    Also on the subject of Robin Williams, and the pressure that young men are under, the film Dead Poets’ Society would also fit the themes you’re talking about.

    Things are tough enough for everyone already without this extra pressure caused by preconceived ideas of gender roles.

    Like

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