Tag Archives: Tommy

The things not yet said about Tommy

And there are some things still unsaid, believe it or not. So, in the aftermath of my book’s publication (The Psychology of Tommy) plus the satisfaction of receiving a good review in Kirkus magazine (made their Indie books of the month list for June—yea!), I’ve decided to provide a summary of the book’s psychological theories as they relate to the opera. This idea stems largely from the comments of my Kirkus reviewer, who admired the overall flavor of my book, the quality of the prose, as well as some of my ideas about The Who, but clearly felt lost with respect the psychoanalytic theory that inhabits the book’s center. This was to be somewhat expected as the reviewer is a literary critic, not a psychologist, but what may be deemed “minutia” or “esoteric” needn’t be so intimidating to the average reader. But the material should nonetheless be important to an interested reader, for in my opinion, if you’re a fan of Tommy and you’re not interested in its psychological themes, then you’re not really a fan of Tommy. Therefore, without detailing (yet again) the entire plot of Tommy, here are the main theoretical points of the text, uniquely applied to the rock opera, as in not previously explained either by an artist, music critic or any social science observer.

  1. Firstly, whenever commentators casually observe themes in Tommy, they tend to notice something relating to Narcissism, either because of the ubiquitous presence of mirrors, or else because of the protagonist’s introversion. Narcissism is a concept that is much diluted by popular opinion and lay definitions. In the book I point out that while Tommy is given to spells of grandiosity as a young adult, he is not exploitative or unempathetic as a character, contrary to what is commonly observed in Narcissistic personalities. His earlier self-absorption is more Schizoid or trauma-based in its quality and his Narcissistic wound is comprised of repeatedly pronounced and frustrated needs: to be seen, to be heard, to be touched.
  2. Secondly—also important—Tommy is not autistic, nor is the opera an allusion to autism, and this is not a matter of dismissing a speculative diagnosis based upon developmental material that simply isn’t provided. Tommy is not autistic because that is a neurological deficit that is biologically-based, and Tommy’s psychosomatic affliction is clearly linked to the prohibitions expressed in the song “1921”: you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing…
  3. Next, continuing the repression theme, I observe that Tommy exudes mythic status, recalling at least two classic literary myths that are embedded in the collective unconscious: Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. The essence of Hamlet is perhaps less famously downloaded as an explanation of the human mind, but in my text I argue that Tommy’s dramatic crisis is similar to that of the Danish prince. He has been traumatized by the loss and then return of his father, plus an inexplicable crime that follows, and in addition, he is told that he must deny the senses that witnessed this event (or intuits it), hence the deaf, dumb, and blind condition, plus a generalized insecure attachment, exacerbated by an insecure narrative—the problem of secrets. How this dovetails with the Oedipus Rex myth pertains to the following devices: the condition of blindness as a metaphor for denial; Tommy’s thwarted sexuality (he is unseduced by the Acid Queen, and is benignly rejecting of Sally Simpson, a would-be partner); his compromised identification with patriarchs and male figures in general, because they are either absent (father), murderous (father), or abusive (uncle and cousin). His solution in the absence of earthly models is spiritual, though the opera at best implies that God, the ultimate patriarch, will not let the hero down. Repression, denial of sexuality, failure to integrate a Super-ego: three features that informed Freud’s theory of neurotic psychosexual development.
  4. And what of the Narcissism of matriarchs, you may wonder? Theoretical attention to this matter emerged less from Sigmund Freud than from Melanie Klein, the second most famous figure in the history of psychoanalysis and arguably the originator of modern Object Relations Theory (though the theory of objects—meaning caretaking other—being incorporated into ego is properly derived from Freud’s 1917 paper, “Mourning and Melancholia”). In Tommy, mirrors as physical objects are rivals to the boy’s mother, who exudes jealousy and ultimately rages at these symbols of her replacement. In her “smash the mirror” anger, she manifests a split-ego: on the one hand, behaving herself like an un-mirrored child; on the other hand, inhabiting the coercive role that her own caregivers once likely played. As a male, Tommy must go to extremes to separate from her, yet the positive turn in the opera lies in his yearning—at first internal and muted, and later explicit—which is best conveyed in the “Listening to You” passage that appears both halfway and at the end of the album. In all of the sources I’ve read about Tommy, no one has remarked on the likely meaning of the “You” that is indicated here: a fusion of self and other; a dyadic phenomenon of self that is forged by a dynamic with another. This is attachment theory’s prevailing notion of what is means to develop most plainly…a self. In my book, I further assert what Who fans might see coming if they read this: that Tommy’s story parallels what Townshend the songwriter, plus The Who as a group, attempted during their career, especially during their early halcyon days. Paraphrasing critic Dave Marsh, they sought to entertain and to express themselves, but more importantly, they sought to represent a complex, yearning and troubled audience.
  5. Repetition and trauma. The essence of this theme is that history repeats, especially painful events. This means that they re-occur and that history is therefore cyclic and not linear, as humans often prefer to believe (progress!). It means that we feel compelled to repeat, or to re-experience (the parlance of trauma) so as to maintain attachment, versus remembering symbolically (in psychoanalysis, symbols mean words). So Tommy doesn’t remember his past, just as Pete Townshend, The Who and their audience struggled to remember their pasts, though they may have been obsessed with the past (think of the line, “the past is calling…” from an ethereal passage in the later Quadrophenia). Tommy re-enacts, plays games, finds pain and joy and then pain again upon an inner journey. In this way, he is liberated from pain but old residues linger, leading him to repeat forebears’ mistakes: he is naïve with his dreams, expects too much, is didactic and bossy when his followers won’t play his way. This climaxes in a revolt, though the denouement is a peaceful, disappointment-containing and sober end.
  6. The last psychological theme to explain from my book is that of implicit memory and fragmented, pre-verbal unconsciousness. For those concerned with narrative drama, the supposed flaws in Tommy lie in its thin storyline and vagueness. I argue that whether intended or not, the incomplete expressions in the opera reflect the dissociated mind of the protagonist, which allows for a similarly unconscious experience in the listener—a kind of absorption into experience that an analyst named Wilfried Bion wrote might occur between analysts and patients. The best example of this fragmented yet evocative expression again lies within the song “1921”, in which the implied crime that ignites Tommy’s deficit condition is repeatedly and exclusively referred to as “it”. Tommy was born amidst war, like the Mods of West London and The Who were born amidst war. What they saw and heard will have been unfathomable once, and what may have been fleetingly clear may have been censored. Meanwhile, what they felt was vibration and noise, and what they later did with that was rock and roll.

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Outside of time

 

I loved Max Raabe’s one-liners last night, including his deft allusion to Donald Trump just prior to the encore. With it, he nearly brought the house down at Davies Symphony Hall, though upon reflection, I was glad he didn’t take it further.

If you don’t know who Max Raabe is or why he might be relevant to this blog, especially the recent entries about The Who and Tommy, then bear with me: a few years ago I had no idea who Max Raabe was, but his cultish appeal now grips me, has me delighted in a new form of escapism, ruminating upon that which exists outside of time, lurking in vintage elegance. You see, Max Raabe is a jazz singer, one who exists in a time warp, taking his audience back to an earlier time, circa 1930, when top hats, black ties, silk scarves and reefers were the tailoring alongside the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Bertolt Brecht, to name a few. “Max parties like it’s 1929” is a tag-line that promotes the German baritone singer, who performed Tuesday night with his Palast Orchestra. For two hours, listening to Max and his 13-piece band, you can sink into their ambience, conjuring a night amongst the one percent of another era, and soak up the cabaret. In between numbers, Max deals comic soundbites in a deep, Bela Lugosi voice that has people laughing before he’s even delivered a punchline: “Tonight we have some lovely music for you all; songs that ask the questions, where can we find love? How do we find one another? How to get rid of each other?” His delivery is slow, offbeat, as in unusual, but also timeless. His joke about Donald Trump was buried in an anecdote about Samson and Delilah, relating to a song I can’t remember (I guess the joke was more memorable). Max told the story of Samson, the ancient Israelite hero, whose vigor and authority derives from his hair and who is betrayed by his lover, Delilah, who orders a servant to cut Samson’s hair. Max’s cryptic yet readily understood punchline stemmed from a subsequent musing: why would strength or moral authority be bestowed upon those with unusual hair?

The quip received the biggest of many laughs on the night. Clearly, the San Francisco audience was in sympathy with Max’s implications, and it was the only joke of the night to reference contemporary politics. That it did so in the guise of ancient mythology is important as it allowed Max and his orchestra to maintain their pose of disinterested observers, wryly commenting on the world but remaining detached, a bit like Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies in the similarly-themed musical, Cabaret. For Max Raabe to maintain his cultish outsider status, his ride upon the periphery of pop culture while paradoxically achieving success, he must maintain his distance. To enable escapism, he must be coy and oblique. To be relevant, which he apparently chooses to be, he must comment on the era in which he actually lives, but do so through the veil of allusion.

In 1968, when The Who were themselves cultish, as in not yet superstars, Pete Townshend set about the task of writing Tommy, a rock opera about a boy whose drama exists outside of time, and whose story is now part of the rock and roll mythology. Except The Who’s music did not harken back to an earlier time, but rather to the future. Indeed, at that time they were as cutting edge as anyone, making a noise the likes no one had ever made before, much less think of as entertainment. If you need evidence of this, give a listen to the recently released The Who at Filmore East 68′ CD. Twenty minute jam sessions based upon an original 3-minute single were nobody’s idea of rock and roll in the 50s, but that’s what the kids wanted in 68′, apparently. And The Who, poised to blow those kids’ minds with a new form of pop narrative and not just their glorious noise, were set to oblige.

The story of Tommy bends time to fit a surrealist framework, allowing for imagination and a stirring of feeling. Townshend introduces a dramatic point, an altercation that happens in the year 1921, with the background context being that of World War I and the absence of a father. As The Who’s members are all children of the WWII era, the setting of Tommy is allusive, designed to conjure links but not be explicit. The unnamed crime of 1921 is cryptic, operating as another allusion: what are the atrocities that follow war? What are the traumas that continue, such as the next wars on the docket (Vietnam?), or the crimes that exist upon war’s periphery, like assassinations (MLK? Two Kennedys, Malcolm X?). Hmmm? What might this otherwise unsubtle and loud British group be saying about our world, some might have wondered?

Beyond 1921, the timeline of Tommy drifts apart as if chronology doesn’t matter. This story, like a myth, could happen at any time, anywhere, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know where the boy grows up exactly; where he becomes a pinball champion and later a spiritual leader; it doesn’t matter whether his stardom coincides with the 1930s, whether his fans are drafted into WWII; where his so-called holiday camp is. I read somewhere that Tommy’s story was meant to end in 1984, which is perhaps an allusion to Orwell, but that mooted time-frame would also be time-bending, as Tommy still seems like a young man with something to learn at the opera’s climax. He strikes me as being the age of his author–a mid-twenty-something–with an uncertain, though promising future, but one that isn’t frozen in time. The Who will be touring again this year, plus recording a new album, to my pleasant surprise. I doubt Max Raabe will be their supporting act. Too quiet. I further suppose that music is supposed to take us forward and back, with something to remember, and then something to look forward to.

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We do it for them

 

A tense moment between a man and a woman: they’re watching a film together—some cutting edge Netflix drama, filled with clever yet vulgar twists and dialogue—and a villainous character gets her comeuppance. The watching man lets out a bray that celebrates the moment and directs a slur at the character. His guest fidgets, discomforted, thinking the outburst rude, and beyond that, deeply offensive. They argue. His remark was demeaning, especially to women, the woman asserts. She should lighten up, he counters. It’s only a show and he doesn’t act like that in real life.

The latter comment intrigues because it appeals for something that some will allow and some won’t: some space that appears on the cusp of privacy versus the public domain wherein an “objectionable idea” as Freud once put it can live and breathe. As I helped the woman think through her options, which consisted of “letting things go” versus “standing up” for principles of decency, I challenged her framework, pointing out that her binary view didn’t represent the intermediary place that art holds in society. Inadvertently, perhaps, her male adversary was speaking to something that many will fiercely protect. He wants art to do its job and act as a container for human impulse. He wants to live vicariously through the actions of others thoughts and feelings that are forbidden. He wants leakage through his repression barrier; some release of pent up tension lest it build up and then burst through that wall, causing a flood.

The woman gazed back at me as if I were speaking of alien needs, not those of average human beings. She had no such desires, she insisted—no aggression, on that level anyway. She didn’t relate to vengefulness, to hateful impulses; to that which degraded people, exhibiting ugliness. Taking my point about art, she asked, what about beauty, or positive ideals? Shouldn’t good art inspire, not destroy? She shook her head, knowing I was merely representing another view, not engaging a polemic, necessarily. But it was a problem because it had caused a divide, this matter of what art, popular or not, should induce. Moments later, she brightened, thinking of another point, this time one that re-posited me as an opponent. It wasn’t so much the show itself, she reminded me. It was her partner’s reaction to it—his inconsiderate outburst—that shook her. Isn’t that a different phenomenon, she inferred? Even if a writer, an actor, a filmmaker, or even a musician expresses something ugly or provocative, isn’t it the audience’s responsibility to stay in reality versus the fantasy realm, for the sake of an ordered, safe and civil society? Isn’t it our (the audience’s) job to not extend what happens on screen or on stage into our daily lives?

Interesting that she mentioned the role of musician. For a few moments, my mind associated—drifted, as I write in my Tommy book—about a certain musician who used to speak of this a lot, albeit obliquely. “We do it for them,” Pete Townshend once said in an interview, regarding violence, and beyond that, the expression of frustration. This was during the The Who’s early days, when they were ubiquitous on the club and concert hall circuits in Britain, playing for mid-sixties Mods, that post-war faction of kids who blended nihilism with neo-consumerist habits. Townshend was speaking of two things: firstly, of the auto-destructive elements of The Who’s then-act, which climaxed with each group member (save John Entwistle, usually) ritually smashing up his instrument; secondly, his comment was about the volume and general ferocity of The Who’s rock and roll, surely unprecedented at the time, yet heralding alternative sub-genres of rock music, including heavy metal and punk rock. The Who’s noise and littered stages were a nightly release for their fans, though for the most part, the damage didn’t leave the stage, much less those clubs and other venues. As far as we know.

There may have been exceptions. Actually, it may have been fortunate that The Who didn’t break through to a wide audience until 1965, after the success of singles like “I Can’t Explain”, and especially “My Generation”—so expressive in its hate, its fear of aging. Had they been a hit a year earlier, their Mod-stirring anger and flamboyance might have been blamed for the riots between gangs of Mods and so-called Rockers on the south coast of England in 1964. Fifteen years later, when The Who were one of if not the biggest rock group in the world, their macho image and violent ambience was partly blamed for what was then one of the worst disasters to strike the world of rock. I’m referring here to the incident in Cincinnati in 1979 wherein 11 fans were trampled to death because of a pre-concert stage-rush by fans. On the one hand, this was not a deliberate act of violence. As far as anyone knows, no one set out that night to harm anyone, to start a riot, for example. In retrospect, that tragedy seems to have revealed something else in the rock and roll audience: states of altered consciousness, the delirium of drunkenness, dissociation, jadedness; not caring about people.

It has been mine and most Who fans’ observation that Pete and the boys did indeed care about people, their fans especially. It’s hard to substantiate such a statement, not that this is my responsibility. Perhaps their widely known charitable infrastructure, The Teenage Cancer Trust—not a unique way for artists to demonstrate caring, necessarily—is one exemplar of this impression. As I further write in my book, the rock opera Tommy was a watershed moment for them, dramatizing as it did the consequences of war, everyday violence, lack of truth, and authoritarianism. Otherwise, it has been the implicit qualities of The Who, their various gestures and overall demeanor that has yielded a lingering image that juxtaposes their one-time violence and anger with an enduring sense of love. Young men once smashed guitars and bled the ears of their fans. Those fans shouted back, shoved and pushed one another maybe, while the gentler types stepped away and found other heroes to enjoy. Maybe those different types get together at times, and like The Who, work things out and grow old.

 

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Graeme on the radio

More on Tommy: this time a conversation with fellow therapist and Who enthusiast, Joe Peroni. Enjoy

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Graeme presents Tommy in Santa Fe…at last

From August, 2017, this presentation was part two of a project that culminated in my book, The Psychology of Tommy, published in May.

 

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Repeat

 

One of the subtler Freudian themes in Tommy is that of repetition compulsion. We repeat, Freud wrote in 1914 in “Remembering, repeating, and working through”. Specifically, we repeat instead of remembering, or realizing. We act out that which is repressed, feeling ashamed only when consciousness is brought to bear upon our actions. Prior to modern notions of addiction, which includes behaviors that are repetitive despite negative consequences, we’ve held in mind this underlying template for why human beings behave paradoxically, pledging to never forget…then forgetting anyway.

Tommy Walker witnessed a murder at the age of seven, roughly. Prior to this, his life experience is unknown but is subject to speculation: his father had been away at war, was reported missing. Tommy’s mother, apparently lonesome, had taken another lover, was poised to replace Tommy’s father until the father returns, discovering…oops! It’s unknown what Tommy thought of his world, how he experienced his world, prior to witnessing a crime, but upon that event he is told to not say anything—indeed, he is told that he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything; that he will pretend that nothing of importance had even happened.

This is the opening drama of Tommy: well known, or known enough by Classic Rock fans, or by most over the age of forty who made passing glances at pop culture, I think. I aim to make its meaning further known in my 2016 Tommy paper, as well as in my forthcoming non-fiction. In response to the crime and, by implication, his parents’ censoring message (BTW: it’s the father who’s returned and killed the lover), Tommy dissociates in the extreme. The libretto and myself now, even, play along with the secrecy by not quite naming the event, so a style of response pervades characters and listeners, and it all makes sense, somehow. Somehow it makes sense that Tommy’s over-the-top reaction—his psychosomatic deaf, dumb, and blind reaction—is the perfect over-reaction. It splits reality between a shameful, dangerous disclosure of truth versus a deadening, self-denying silence. It is a schizoid withdrawal, a monk’s solution: at once a pathology and an eloquent, logical act. Tommy’s symptoms are extreme yet prescriptive, and who hasn’t thought at one time or another, that the best thing to say or do in response to injustice, is nothing.

We imagine as Tommy proceeds with his life that he retains memory, as in biographical memory, of the events that compel his silent protest. We assume, even, that his condition is a protest and not merely a detachment, for that would sever hope, lead to an unhappy ending, which breaks the rules of popular art, never mind rock and roll. Through twists and turns, Tommy’s life improves because he has talents which defy his withdrawal, which draws admirers, even followers, which in turn further messes with the isolationist plan. Tommy re-engages, but does so in a didactic, overbearing manner, forgetting himself, forgetting why he isolated in the first place. Out of habit, he forgets how to relate. The followers revolt and unwittingly emulate Tommy’s past adversaries: they find they want to abuse him, reject him. They stop listening.

Circularity. Tommy’s end is not so much happy as sober. He, The Who, myself, many others: people try to learn from their past, try to help others, and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Maybe that seems easy when observing an outcome, that behavior or act that we could never imagine ourselves doing. The thing is that we don’t know the many repetitions that culminate in those acted out, unforgivable atrocities. We judge, or other ourselves, as social justice warriors term it. Our psyche holds onto our mistakes but obscures memory, helping us avoid pain. So we don’t notice the repetitions, and we don’t how we get somewhere until we’re there.

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Tommy the scapegoat

 

As I traverse this process of soliciting editors to read my Tommy manuscript, I am forced (it’s only a minor hardship) to conjure the would-be reader of my decade-and-counting project. He or she is a hybrid figure, I imagine: half-interested in rock and roll or sixties counterculture; the other half a student of modern psychology, perhaps a clinician. When I presented a version of my 2016 Tommy paper, most notably at the “Creativity and Madness” conference in Santa Fe last year, and again at the Mechanic’s Institute in January of this year, I took fleeting moments before, during, and after my talk to notice the crowd, see what kind of people had shown up to listen. In Santa Fe, they were doctors and psychiatrists, mostly, there to see a variety of presenters, but were nonetheless sympathetic to my subject. They were indeed appreciative. At the Mechanic’s Institute, it was a bit more of a rock and roll crowd, dotted with the tangentially curious: people who asked questions about Tommy and religion, Tommy and feminism; Narcissism in the arts. Listen to agents and publishers who reject manuscripts and you’d hear a lot about the need to categorize tightly. This seeking of a reader with cross-pollenating interests will not do. It’s far too whole object relations for people who don’t know what whole object relations are. For the clinician or psychology student, who also lives in a split-object world, the script of the rock opera does not sufficiently apply to clinical material.

As case illustrations go, my protracted Tommy analysis is more fun than most, I’m inclined to think, but therefore more fanciful. However, it is not frivolous, nor does it dilute theory. If anything, I attempt to restore erudition to some ideas that have already been dropped into the psyche-literature sieve, resulting in reductionist meaning. Take the derivative concept of scapegoating, for example. In systems theory, a scapegoat is an individual who absorbs the blame for a family’s dysfunction. Stereotypically, he or she is the acting out teen whose delinquent behaviors draw attention to a systemic problem. Of course, this interpretation is that of a clinician, as it reverses the interpretation of actors within the system. Therefore, the intervening therapist is one who holds that a paradoxical purpose exists within an individual’s pathology: to highlight the bad object influence. Consciously, this conclusion is avoided, even fought against. The teen who acts out continues to engage in their behavior, but upon scrutiny (or cross-examination, as they might experience it), this person shrugs, begs off explanations, insight. They don’t know why they do what they do. Or, they proclaim that their negative behaviors are stupid, inexplicable. They simply have to stop doing it, they suggest in resignation.

What is the unconscious waiting for? What does it want? The antecedent theory belongs to drive and later object relations theory, and perhaps most specifically, the observations of W.R.D Fairbairn, who wrote in the 1940s of psychological development in which children internalize “bad” objects, repressing them but allowing for their return as a result of their nature. Fairbairn pointed out that Freud’s model of repression and “good” objects was represented by his structural theory of Id, Ego, and SuperEgo. These agencies of the psyche contain human nature—the nature of the repressed, if you will—both good and bad, with a SuperEgo representing a codified structure of “good” objects, societal values and such. It begs the following consideration: if the container of “bad” objects is the Id, or if it doesn’t exist, it stands to reason that one’s bad objects become lost, dissociated; hence, “I don’t know what happened”. Fairbairn suggested that children internalize parents, repressing not so much what is intrinsically “bad” but rather the bad memories, which are associated with negative feelings, like guilt. Therefore, repression pertains more to what is forbidden, and what must therefore be discharged.

In writing about Tommy Walker, the famous deaf, dumb and blind boy of The Who’s rock opera, I cite Fairbairn’s writings so as to characterize the deeply somaticized child as one who has internalized his “bad” objects: his parents, who are at once traumatized by war, chaotic in their handling of jealousy; secretive in their pervasive cover-up of a shameful killing. Fairbairn’s notion of internalization extends to a redemption of bad objects, for it is the child who absorbs the pathology—in Tommy’s case, manifesting the lifeless, deadened way of being via his psychosomatic disability. In a confused and double-bound condition, Tommy does what Fairbairn’s child does: he protests and denies simultaneously. For the astute observer, he compels notice of his own silence, which speaks volumes about that which cannot be said. His silence is archetypal: a symbol of shame, but also of eloquent expression, of spiritual touch. His symptoms obscure the relatively unnoticeable neurosis and character pathology of his mother and father. They preserve a compromise stability, perhaps a false ideal, because a need for God, even a false God, is necessary in the world governed by the devil. At the same time the mysterious illness stirs imagination, has nonplussed observers wondering, what’s happening in this private, if allusive world? Tommy’s listeners, or Tommy’s viewers, if one thinks of the various plays or the film, are not so much nonplussed by the rock opera’s message as casually attentive, tangentially curious.

 

How about you? Are you attentive? Tangentially curious?

 

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Securing a truthful narrative

 

Psychology professor Jude Cassidy wrote an important paper on the subjects of secrecy and attachment theory in 2001. Providing an overview of others’ research, she analyzed features of secure and insecure attachments as derived from narrative recollections within the Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI). Narratives drawn from the AAI interviews are classified as either reflecting a secure/autonomous state of mind or they reflect the three insecure states of mind: dismissing, preoccupied, and disorganized. In her paper entitled “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy”, Cassidy highlights a criterion put forth by the designers of the AAI: a defining feature of a secure narrative is that it is truthful, although this criterion is not based upon content of recollections, but rather on the way experiences are organized in an interviewee’s mind. An interviewee can describe either a good or bad childhood, but what is required for a secure classification is the matching of global descriptions with specific examples. On the messages of parents, Cassidy further writes, “parents can be untruthful about the reality of the child’s experiences in a variety of ways”. They can ignore, withdraw from, or become angry in response to the child’s behaviors and feelings, and thereby convey that those behaviors and feelings are unacceptable. She cites examples, like a mother who fails to hear her baby’s cries because they trigger painful memories of her own once unanswered cries. In another case, a mother denies the pain of a child after a perceived minor injury: saying “that doesn’t hurt” when the pain does, in fact, hurt. An attempt at reassurance, perhaps, betraying that anti-hard truth bias, plus a disowning of painful memory.

With this concept of insecure narrative in mind, I might observe Tommy Walker seeking to piece together his recent and distant past. Presuming (in contrast to the film) that Tommy’s parents are still alive, I might support the young man’s pursuit of them so as to organize and understand his autobiography, pose investigative questions about his past and theirs. The idea would be that of therapeutic truth-seeking. Hamlet didn’t obtain this, but literature sometimes offers this kind of denouement, with contexts extending from the parent-child dyad to broader perpetrator-victim narratives. In a recent novel, Lilac Girls (2016), a story of American, Polish, and German women whose lives intersect during and after World War II, author Martha Hall Kelly spins a tale based upon true events, blending real-life heroines and villains with composite fictional characters. Caroline Ferriday, a one-time Broadway actress and socialite, is one such heroine plucked from historical obscurity by Kelly’s novel. Concerned about the plight of French orphans, primarily, Ferriday also learns about women victimized by Nazi medical experiments and arranges to bring them to the United States for proper, if overdue medical treatment. Later, Ferriday turns investigator and advocate and helps locate the whereabouts of Nazi doctors still living and practicing in Germany.

One of the composite figures is a once Polish underground soldier and later prisoner of the infamous Ravensbruck (all-female) concentration camp. With Ferriday’s information, Kasia, who was a teen during the war, hunts down a former Nazi doctor who conducted inhuman experiments on herself, her sister and her now deceased mother, and discovers the doctor freely practicing medicine in a small German town years after the war—a one-time prison sentence having been commuted for political reasons. Dr. Hertha Oberheuser, the only woman tried and convicted at the Nuremburg trials, according to history, is portrayed in Lilac Girls as an ambitious, yet naïve character, more indifferent towards anti-Semitism than an ardent perpetrator of cruelty. When initially instructed to euthanize sickly prisoners versus treating them, she is initially repulsed, if ultimately cooperative. Later, when subjecting individuals to dreaded Sulfa experiments, she becomes increasingly detached, and as the story progresses, her character seems to embody the loss of German feeling.

A tragic figure in this respect, Oberheuser elicits the slightest of sympathy when confronted by Kasia in the novel’s climactic passage. Until cornering her in her office, Kasia is dogged and fearless in tracking down the guilty doctor. Shaking, fearful that other hiding, former Nazis may yet persecute or destroy her, Kasia manifests her trauma while on the cusp of revenge. Still, she calms down enough to blackmail Oberheuser, threatening media exposure unless the former Nazi explains, in painful detail, the circumstances of the prisoner’s experience at Ravensbruck. Specifically, she demands that Oberheuser review the scene of Kasia’s mother’s execution, which previously had been shrouded in mystery. The somewhat apocryphal passage portrays the Polish survivor not so much finding revenge (though she does expose Oberheuser) as peace as she conjures her mother’s final moments. Contrary to the doctor’s expectation, she does not play the vigilante role. Instead, upon hearing the doctor’s confessional, she quietly returns home, seeks succor in the arms of her husband, and goes to bed, exhausted. Thus, the woman secures a coherent if not so consoling narrative, and upon that note, the novel ends.

Recently, I watched a film that ended on a compelling, ambiguous note, with a main character undecided over a future path. A fellow viewer, seemingly frustrated by the lack of clarity, posed an interesting question: would the resolution, or lack of it, chosen by the character at the end of the story be enough for you?

Is it enough to discover truth?

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The rock opera Tommy and the human condition, via Winnie The Pooh

 

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?

[O1]

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Who Cares

 

Been gone from this for a while. Several reasons: I wrote two blog articles for psychecentral.com, both of which called for some extra time and attention. Next, I’ve thought to give Blended some time to breathe—that is, to let the six or so entries devoted to it a chance to sink in. Fat chance, I think sourly, which leads me to the most personal reason for my absence: a certain discouragement and torpor. Nothing special, just the standard writer’s self-importance, feelings of petulance…immaturity.

Another priority was the preparation for January 4th, my latest chance to talk Tommy before an audience. I’d been wanting to present at Mechanics’ Institute (MI) in San Francisco for ages, and I said as much at the outset of my talk. Thursday night I had my moment before an eager crowd of sixty, there because of MI’s capable marketing team. I got paid nothing for my time and labor. That’s what I’ll say if the tax or music copyright watchdogs ever ask, and the truth is I’m not doing it for the money. The reason I talk is the reason I write. I want someone to hear me. I want an audience.

“Are you ready to rock?” exhorted my host, the activities director at MI. She’s a nice woman, supportive and interested. More than myself, even, she’d observed the potential for a discussion about The Who’s Tommy to bring out the fans amongst the MI membership. Actually, I’m not sure how many in the crowd were MI members. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but I’m grateful someone knows what people want to hear. Anyway, six o’clock on Thursday rolled around. I knew my material, was ready to talk, and as I stood in the wings, waiting for the audience to take their seats, I felt close to stardom, I think. I almost noticed how it felt, rather like I did in Santa Fe in August. Then I began.

Fifteen minutes in, all was going well. My voice, ordinarily dry and halting when speaking to groups, felt limber and relaxed. I paced languidly before my audience, gazing out casually, leaving pauses for effect, breaking into a slight lilt when reciting pertinent song lyrics. I stared over heads a lot—a technique designed to limit distraction, preempt anxiety. I played one or two samples of songs from Tommy—did my arm-windmilling bit, aping Pete Townshend, The Who’s songwriter and creative engine. The darkened room at MI made eye contact difficult. The few pupils I did meet seemed attentive and expectant, yet respectfully patient. An hour ahead of a promised Q & A session, I sensed the gathering of opinion. There was a handful of voices in the audience ready to challenge, to question or to share. I had suggested such an exchange at the beginning, right after the host’s rockin’ announcement. These people at MI: they weren’t like the staid crowd at the Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe. They might have known less about psychology than doctors or therapists. Indeed, they likely gave less than a shit about John Bowlby or Melanie Klein, or James Masterson and Allan Schore. But they did care about Tommy. They had a lot to say about The Who.

Some just wanted to share how they’d been at Woodstock, and watched in amused awe as Pete Townshend stuck his knee into Abbie Hoffman’s groin. A political comment, sort of. Another man chuckled as he relayed a Jimi Hendrix/Who anecdote. I played along, knowing it would be the infamous Monterey Pop episode wherein the two bands tossed a coin to see who would get to play first, blow hippie minds and make rock history destroying things. One is meant to guffaw in concert at these tall tales, finding humor in the macho interplay of legendary rock stars. Truth is, I find this kind of jocular reminiscing slightly painful. After all, what I’d shared was, as far as I was concerned, a rich, layered analysis of a celebrated pop icon, yet still the kind of treatment The Who had thus far been denied. I didn’t want to merely reminisce with fellow fans. I wanted to muse with them, bring a sense of historical texture, intellectual interest wrapped in love and passion. I wanted to spark thought on something they had enjoyed over time but not truly examined.

Thankfully, the storytellers weren’t the only faction in the audience. One or two had read Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, and wanted me to speculate on how Tommy related to its author’s history of child abuse. Questions like this were a welcome challenge, but it was nothing compared to a penultimate query that has stuck with me since. Seated behind a man who had shared apocryphal stories about The Who’s early Mod days was a slender, brittle, middle-aged woman. Wearing a frown, she raised her arm, waited her turn, but upon being called, made a chiding comment that The Who were “a band for men”, and further offered that their love songs, few and far between as they were, seemed fraught with themes of abuse and exploitation. Punctuating this comment was a leading question directed at me: as a therapist, surely I thought (The Who) an unbalanced and harmful icon (something like that). Through the dim light, I looked into this woman’s angry eyes, saw the withering incomprehension of a staunch Beatles fan, a feminist revealing her barely male-tolerating ire. I didn’t want to answer her question per se. I wanted to spend another hour on the subject.

Collecting my thoughts, I noticed that we were towards the end. My host, the MI events organizer, might have glanced at her watch. I thought of “Sally Simpson”, a lesser famous song from Tommy that some critics abhor, for reasons I’ve never understood. The song is about a girl who falls in love with the guru-like Tommy character from afar, and gets hurt trying to touch him at a speaking event. Stood before the crowd at MI, with the seconds spinning by, I knew what I wanted to say at my slightly parallel event. I just had to organize myself. Moments later I was sharing an anecdote: a story about the inspiration for “Sally Simpson”; an incident in 1968 when The Who supported The Doors on tour, and Townshend witnessed the uber-petulant Jim Morrison kick a female fan in a melee. The incident sparked Pete’s sympathy, plus a memory, perhaps, of how he’d once envied the attention other bands (like The Beatles) garnered from screaming, clinging girls. The Who’s early songs were as female-bashing as anyone’s, I admitted on their behalf to that angry-looking woman in the MI crowd. But the following lyrics from “Sally Simpson” show what Tommy and great rock n’ roll are all about, ultimately:

She knew from the start

Deep down in her heart

That she and Tommy were worlds apart

But her mother said never mind, you’re part is to be what you’ll be

 

We grow up

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