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