After the recent death of Gene Wilder, I heard several moving tributes and interviews from the early 2000s. But it was Wilder’s words about his childhood that struck me: after his mother had a heart attack, the heart specialist took eight-year-old Wilder gently by the arm and said, “Don’t ever get angry with your mother. Because you might kill her. Try to make her laugh.”
I imagine Wilder held tight to these words, this myth: If I don’t get angry with my mother, if I can make my mother laugh, then I’ll still have a mother.
I also imagine this myth propelled the young Wilder on a quest to use his wise and gentle humor to get others to laugh, to keep people well, to keep people alive. How fortunate that so many of us have been the beneficiary of Wilder’s humor and dramatic talent. But believing that the expression of a particular emotion could kill one’s mother? What a burden for a child to bear! At what point did Wilder realize the doctor’s words were hyperbole? What impact did this realization have on Wilder? Was he grateful for the doctor’s words that set him on a particular trajectory, or did he chafe at the doctor’s well-intentioned manipulation? [Read more…]