In the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, a rather sweet then bitter story of lost innocence, the writer AA Milne is portrayed as a PTSD survivor following his experiences as a soldier in World War I. During the early scenes of the film, prior to his ‘Winnie The Pooh’ celebrity, he is shown reacting irritably, dissociatively, to sudden movements, popping sounds and such. Balloons. Even before the film invokes it, the image of the iconic bear, holding aloft a red balloon while strolling down a bucolic country path, is conjured in the viewer’s mind, juxtaposed against horrific associations of bullets strafing bodies over bleak European fields.
In that era, PTSD as a diagnosis didn’t exist. Milne’s symptoms will have been known as “combat fatigue”, or “war neurosis” by the contemporary likes of Sigmund Freud and his ilk. People seemed to understand the brokenness that war could elicit. They didn’t seem to know how trauma might permeate personality, affect lives over a lifetime. A scene midway through Goodbye Christopher Robin suggests that someone, perhaps apocryphally (I’ll research this later) understood that desensitization techniques might intervene with identifiable phobias. Milne and his son, Christopher, participate in an exercise devised by a fellow veteran in which balloons are spread over a patch of grass so that Milne can make play of his neurosis. As he jumps on a balloon, popping it, he gets to take in the experience, note the lack of calamity, the warm containment implicitly supplied by his smiling son and supportive friend, and step-by-step (literally), popping sound by popping sound, heal this particular pain. What also seems to heal is creativity, nature, and play. Determined to heal war-hungry yet ravaged society with his writing, Milne settles upon children’s stories as a way to instill wholesome values and peaceful ambience. The result was the beloved ‘Pooh’ stories, though the film’s second half depicts the sour turn that fame inflicts upon Milne and his son. This culminates in circularity: grown up Christopher Robin, determined to be a man, or be his own person at least, himself enlists, enters WWII (like everyone else), and proceeds to learn his own lessons.
Over the last year I have been preoccupied again with another popular icon whose links to war history and trauma are thinly known. I say again because my project has been an on-again, off-again affair for just over a decade now. My forthcoming book, The Psychology of Tommy: how a rock icon reveals psychoanalytic, attachment and personality theory, began life as an academic paper that I sporadically wrote and re-wrote over several years until finally publishing it within a SAGE journal in 2016. That was followed by two notable and quite gratifying presentations: a one-hour talk at the Creativity and Madness Conference last year in Santa Fe; then a ninety-minute lecture and slide show at San Francisco’s Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year. Prior to that, I’d had my own brush with fame, meeting Tommy songwriter Pete Townshend (at his invitation) backstage at a Who concert in 2016. That was a lovely, if slightly disappointing moment, because my hero was tired, reticent, and deluged with visitors, not just me. Pete was polite yet brief in our meeting, signing a copy of my paper, and receiving a copy of it from me, though I don’t know if he’s read the piece. I don’t know if he really wants to revisit yet again the nearly fifty year old Tommy via the insights of intellectuals or an obsessed fan. Indeed, the memory of that meeting bears small resemblance to another scene in Goodbye Christopher Robin, one in which Milne and his son are visiting a zoo but distracted by gawking admirers. Seeking privacy, Milne brushes off a ‘Pooh’ smitten child, and as I watched this scene, I was reminded of Townshend’s jaded air that night in 2016.
Separate from its music, the rock opera Tommy is not a children’s story. Nor was it conceived as an allusive antidote for a war weary audience. Tommy was originally aimed at the generation born at the end of WWII, a generation that later started an anti-war movement. It was conceived semi-consciously as an ambient narrative, a tale of a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” who embodies silence, secrecy, a mind broken by adult hypocrisy and trauma. The setting of Tommy was the post-WWI period, though a post-WWII subtext is obvious. Plot? Subsequent to witnessing a murder, the boy Tommy is instructed to not say anything, so he proceeds, uber-Hamlet-like, to manifest the decree as a somatic syndrome. Soon he is abused by peers who find advantage in his disability, though later, informed by his protracted withdrawal, Tommy discovers a talent for playing pinball, enters competitions contrived around that pastime, and becomes a champion and star—like a rock star. Then, like rock stars of the late sixties, he parlays his fame, finds spirituality (latent within him all along, we’re meant to think), breaks his silence, and begins preaching the word. The latter portion of Tommy exudes arch or ersatz-Buddhist thought, or something like it: relinquish material desires, dissolve oppressive societal roles; speak the truth, and so on. Somewhat contrarily for his followers, not to mention the average Woodstock-bound listener, the character also remonstrates against drug use, and because Tommy appears didactic on matters like this, his followers rebel. Tommy ends on a cautionary note: declaring that what goes around comes around, but that individuals can find freedom, hope, even God, within themselves.
There. Tommy in a nutshell. My existing manuscript is a further 50,000 words and it might yet extend further to God-knows how many words. Despite its antecedent publication, I’m yet to garner interest from the establishment that would facilitate my book’s dissemination: agents, ‘acquisitions’ editors, and other publishing intake-types have thus far rejected my queries, book proposals, and sample chapters. They say they are ‘compelled’ by my idea, observant of Tommy’s place in pop history. One or two even compliment my writing style. But they also say they’re not interested; that they don’t know how to sell my idea, hybrid that it is; split as it is between the prospective readerships of pop culture and academia. I get the idea, their idea as they imply it: marketing must be targeted in a singular dimension, not diluted by a muddy anticipation of readers with cross-pollenating interests. As you, my current reader can tell, I don’t agree. Or, noting my own resistance, I simply don’t want to agree. But I should agree more than I do, as we’re talking about something—marketing, publishing—that is someone else’s bailiwick, after all. The money that might be invested in production and promotion of a widely published book: it would be someone else’s, after all.
In the last year, ancillary to my percolating ambition, I have been attentive to many-things pertaining to World War II: twice watching the film Dunkirk; reading Thomas Childers’ Soldier From The War Returning, and more recently, Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, about the lesser-known stories of ordinary women amid the WWII era. Watching Goodbye Christopher Robin, a more serendipitous happening (it happened to be on TV as I was flicking through channels, I mean), joins the list of influences. It also stokes my rollercoaster hopes, contesting my periodic discouragement. Because the film is a light entertainment, and commercially-presented, I am reminded that I must engage a readership, be interesting, personable, even fun. Because the film has an earnest, deeper message to impart about war, trauma, what attaches children to not only parents but also nannies, for example, I know there is room amid fun for serious ideas: ideas that require some academic rigor, for they are complex and deserve study, not glibness. These ideas are imparted implicitly via psychotherapy, also, so in my book I do what I suggested I might in my 2016 paper: I place a fictional Tommy in therapy, with me. And building upon the constructs explained throughout the book, I fashion a plainly-delivered intervention.
Sound ambitious? It should. Actually, its intention is grandiose: I think Tommy and my book about it say something important about mental health and the human condition. In the weeks ahead, I’ll give a preview of my book via this blog by introducing some of its ideas. Here are a few terms to take in as a snapshot: insecure narrative, scapegoating, addiction, misogyny, circularity, repetition compulsion, secrecy.
Sound like fun?
One response to “The rock opera Tommy and the human condition, via Winnie The Pooh”
Ambitious Graeme, but I’m glad that you still have a passion for this. Tommy is a true case study in trauma and a very schizoid boy. Keep on rockin’ it!