A Freudian Interpretation of Brian Wilson's Life

by Michael De Bernardi


"Hang onto your Ego

Hang on, but I know that you're gonna lose the fight."

(Brian Wilson)

Brian Wilson, the man who wrote these words in 1966, was born on June 20, 1942 in Inglewood, California. As these song lyrics demonstrate, the man who would become, at various times in his life, the genius behind the Beach Boys, drug addict, paranoid schizophrenic, and recovering songwriter knew that his psychic system was held together by delicate strings and anticipated the eventual surrender of his Ego to his Id and the external world.

Brian was the first of three boys born into the family of Murray and Audree Wilson, an abusive system that would deeply impact on his psyche for the rest of his life. The Wilsons were a middle-class Protestant family supported by Murray Wilson's mildly successful songwriting career, but dominated by his overbearing, abusive treatment of both his alcoholic wife and frightened children. Brian was a good student who graduated from high school and attended a year of college, but his first and constant love was music. In his recently published autobiography, Wouldn't It Be Nice, Wilson writes about how, from as early as he can recall, he constantly heard music in his head and spent most of his late childhood and adolescence sitting at the piano, trying to bring these sounds out of himself. At one point in fact, he moved his bed into the family room, next to his father's piano, so that he could play every night until he reached the point of exhaustion and could just fall into bed. At the age of eighteen, Brian, together with his brothers Dennis and Carl, his cousin Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine, formed the group that would become known as the Beach Boys and within two years became a household name in the United States.

Eventually Brian left home, married his longtime sweetheart, Marilyn Rovell, and fathered two daughters, Carnie and Wendy (who, incidentally, became two-thirds of the currently popular group, Wilson Phillips). However, music remained Brian's foremost passion, and as his family life suffered, he turned to drugs to help him cope with the pressures of being a rock star, husband, and father. Internal strife within the Beach Boys grew as well, and Brian became less and less able to cope with the realities around him. In addition to the music, Brian now began to hear voices in his head, suffer depression, and was no longer able to stand the pressures of touring with the Beach Boys, instead opting to stay home, smoke marijuana, take LSD, and feverishly write, perform, and produce the music, by himself, that would make the Beach Boys successful.

As he sank deeper into his mental illness and relied on marijuana and cocaine for relief, Brian's family life, music, money, and grasp on reality suffered. At one point, by his own admission, Brian ballooned to 340 lbs. and spent three entire years lying in his bed getting high, letting no one visit him unless they brought him food or drugs. His paranoid symptoms increased and he spent most of the 1970s walking around his house, incoherently muttering to himself, or wandering out in search of drugs, waking up days later with no remembrance of what had transpired. Fed up, the remaining Beach Boys decided to fire him from the band, and having kicked out their creative force, spent the rest of their careers to date performing rehashed versions of old hits. Marilyn took her daughters and left, Brian ran out of money, spent time in and out of mental institutions, and ended up in the early 1980s, as he writes, wanting "to slip into the peace and quiet and darkness of non-existence".

However, controversial help arrived in the form of Eugene Landy, a clinical psychologist whose "24 hour therapy" helped pull Brian out of his destructive lifestyle and put him on the road to mental and physical health. With considerable expense and difficulty, he was eventually able to get Brian Wilson back to the point where he was writing songs, coping with reality, and embarking on a solo career that today has made him able to tour the country performing his music. However, in the past year, Landy has lost his license to practice as a result of a lawsuit filed by Brian's family that claims Landy has "brainwashed" Wilson in order to take his money while Brian is unable to care for himself, and seeks family conservatorship of him and his estate. The lawsuit is currently pending, Wilson and Landy are under court order to have no contact, yet Brian Wilson appears to be at his healthiest point in years, offering as proof his autobiography, a second solo album, and his current tour.

Viewing Brian Wilson's development and life today through Freud's structural model is an interesting task in that his life has been one full of psychological maladjustment, and certainly not one that someone would call "healthy". His early experiences in a dysfunctional family in which he was victim to his father's own psychological problems and eventual jealousy, coupled with a mother who passively allowed abuse to occur while drinking her own problems away, impacted greatly on what Brian was to become and how he viewed his own talents and role in life. Rather than having normal ego and superego development, Brian's environment adversely affected him to the point where he had no choice but to retreat into a psychotic world where he would be able to hide from reality and avoid learning the lessons that his childhood was unable to teach him. It took Brian Wilson until he was well into his forties before he was ready to confront his underdeveloped psychic system and escape from the self-imposed childhood that defined his life to that point. However, the jury is still out, literally and figuratively, on Brian's recovery, and since Freud himself was not very optimistic about the psychotic's chance at improvement, this exploration of Brian Wilson's psychic apparatus will deal primarily with his general status over the past twenty years, not necessarily where he is supposed to be today.

As the years passed in Brian Wilson's life, we can see a distinct collapse into mental illness accompanied by a return to primary process thinking. In many ways, Brian was unable to "hang on" to his ego and the loss was compensated for by increased functioning in both id and superego. Fame and the accompanying financial rewards allowed him unlimited access to every source of libidinal gratification that he might have wanted, and his drives for drugs, food, and sex eventually took over in his system, disrupting even his creative urges. When Brian first left his parents' home and was seeing Marilyn, he would often "move into" her parents home for days at a time because he found a family that could provide him with everything that his own family could not. Unfortunately, his visits to the Rovell's also provided his libido a target for potential gratification in the form of Marilyn's two younger sisters, both of whom Brian approached sexually, only to be rebuffed repeatedly until he was forced to establish a permanent residence of his own. These drives never faded, however, and Brian's eventual marriage suffered because he was finally taken up on his offers by one of his wife's sisters.

The temptations that surrounded Brian served as impetus for the expansion of his id needs and desires. His money could buy him anything, and he took advantage of this fact especially in terms of his oral drives. Smoking marijuana constantly and eating himself to the point of extreme obesity were the only ways that his ego, forcibly weakened and unable to maintain effective defenses due to the seductions of his world, could provide for the id's overwhelming urges. However, even before Brian's main sources of gratification were to be found in external sources, his greatest and most satisfying drive was for the creation of his music. The songs flowed out of him with the minimal of conscious effort, but his main gratification was to be found in expanding them into meaningful expressions of himself. Of course, the greater the material he produced, the more praise and reward he could obtain from the outside world, and when combined, as we shall see, with a dominant superego, the necessary underlying drive for Brian Wilson was his need to be an artist successful to both himself and others.

One interesting encounter took place for Brian in the summer of 1969. Having grown up listening to and imitating the records of Elvis Presley, Brian finally had the chance to meet him. For much of his professional life, Wilson had been driven to be at the top of his profession, and Elvis represented the force to be toppled if Brian was to claim the throne. Brian is known to have been one to resort to jokes and humor as means of dealing with stressful situations, and meeting such a rival was exciting yet disconcerting. Led by a number of bodyguards, Elvis strolled into the recording studio, and Brian, having heard that Elvis was a karate expert, delivered a series of pulled puches and chops instead of shaking hands. Elvis, obviously not amused, answered by saying "Hey man, don't do that". The two talked for a while, but at one point, for some reason, Brian jumped up from his chair and threw a few kicks in Elvis' direction. Elvis simply replied, "I told you not to do that", and walked out of the studio.

Here we can see by example the second of Brian Wilson's id drives in action, his aggression. While Brian had always respected and admired Elvis, he also saw him as the barrier between himself and his idealized position in popular music's heirarchy. His id wanted nothing more than for Brian to "transcend" Elvis, and the only way this could be acheived was through aggressive action. Of course, to actually assualt Elvis would have been a mistake considering the bodyguards present, so Brian's ego defended against these unacceptable drives by using humor for gratification. The aggressive impulse was unmistakably present, but ego was strong enough to hold it back and gratify the id by the joke.

While Brian's libidinal id drives were visible in his behavior and personality, aside from this one example, his aggressive drives were for the most part either repressed or, as here, defended against. Of the two, one could argue that the aggressive drives of Brian Wilson were the most prevalent for him, but also the most difficult for him to deal with. The reason for this is probably the destructive relationship that Brian had with his father in which his id had no choice but to strengthen its aggressive impulses. Constantly the victim of physical abuse and psychological degredation, yet unable to fight back in any way, Brian repressed his aggression and allowed his father's unkind words to internalize during the development of superego, something that, when combined with id's need to increase aggressive drives, created a tension on the ego that was twice as difficult to defend against. In fact, Brian's aggression toward his father was so well repressed intially that he believed his father to be a great man, allowed him to manage the Beach Boys, literally gave him the rights to all of Brian's songs, and allowed Murray's tyranny to continue unchecked, even when Brian was large enough to physically put a stop to his father's abuse. It was only much later, when the pressure on his ego became so strong that it withdrew from reality and conceded power to the id, that Brian's aggression toward his father became conscious and allowed him to break contact, even refusing to attend his funeral.

Brian Wilson has been deaf in one ear since he was a small child, possibly resulting from one of his father's violent outbursts. To a man for whom the aural gratification of creating and hearing music is of utmost importance, such a loss can be devastating to the psychic system. While probably little more than symbolic, this fact reveals a weakness in Brian's ego strength and perhaps foreshadows what was to come for him. One of the primary functions of the ego during development, according to Freud, is to negotiate the physical and sensory organization of the individual. In all likelihood, Brian's ego performed its function adequately and his hearing was formed normally; a blow to the head by his father became a blow to his ego by taking away the hearing that the ego had constructed and would become so important to his gratification later in life. The extreme gratification that was to have come to Brian Wilson through his and others' music was forever limited by his father's attack, and though he may have used used his famous vocal harmonies to make up for the loss of stereophonic sound, one can only wonder what effect this "rape" of his ego by his father may have had on his creativity and personality. At the very least, the incident provides a starting point in his father's quest to completely control Brian's life, from his senses to his behavior to his creativity, but the impact that this control may have had on his ego and superego development can be more easily understood when viewed through the relationship.

As the song lyrics suggest, Brian Wilson was concerned that he was "losing" his ego and was concerned about just how he could "hang onto" it. Looking back across Wilson's life to date, it seems that his ego never really developed fully to begin with, so his later problems were simply results of ego's inability to deal with the external world and the combined forces of id and superego against it. Initially, growing up in such a restricted and dictatorial household caused Brian's id and superego to develop more influence over him than one might want. Since Freud's organization is that of a closed system where each action must be met with an opposite and equal reaction, overdevelopment of id and superego would forcibly take energy from the ego structure. Though one might think that a destructive upbringing might bring obvious, visible change in someone's functioning, Brian seemed to have been on the right track for much of his childood. Though he was withdrawn and shy, his focus in adolescence was on things that one might call normal, like surfing, girls, cars, and his music, and he even functioned well enough to launch his career and get it off to a successful start. However, eventually his reality testing mechanisms began to fail, and ego began to lose itself to the external world and its internal rivals. Psychosis resulted much from the fact that his ego, as we shall see, eventually lost its ability to function normally and Brian lost "the fight".

For much of his childhood, Brian's secondary processes were at work and he was able to function as normally as could be expected. He was simply waiting until his was old enough to leave home, keeping his aggressive id drives toward his father sufficiently repressed, and immersing himself in his music. He even seems to have negotiated his Oedipal conflicts successfully enough to identify himself with his song-writing father, sometimes to the point of agreeing with his father's jealousy-induced suggestions that Brian quit trying to write music because he would never be as successful as Murray. The ego served its functions in gratifying the id by driving him toward his music career, supplying women for his libidinal needs, helping him find all of the drugs he needed, and so on. While all of this was going on externally, however, his oppressive superego and an id that could find increasing gratification of all of its drives through Brian's career were slowly draining whatever strength the ego may have had following his childhood. The stress and fatigue resulting from the Beach Boys' increasing popularity and Brian's growing penchant for mind-altering substances were also contributing to the alliance of forces at work on his ego. It was around this time that he composed "Hang On To Your Ego" and increased his consumption of LSD, resulting in a "flashback" that Brian recalls as the first time he lost his sense of reality. Browsing in a bookstore, he suddenly observed all of the books around him starting to melt. He tried to run away, but was unable to control his motor skills enough to leave, so he ended up lying on the floor in a fetal position until the incident had passed enough for him to regain his composure.

The incident confirmed what Brian had feared was happening to him, and his realization that he no longer had any firm ego boundaries was all that the id and superego needed to stake their claim at constructing Brian's reality for him, independent of what was going on in the "real world". The ego could no longer distinguish itself as an independent entity, and as Brian began losing interest in his work, his capacity for concentration and judgement, and his sense of reality testing, the ego's repressive barrier broke down, allowing the id and primary process to take over. Having lost much of the battle, the weakened ego was unable to produce any signal anxiety, and Brian's id impulses toward food, drugs, and sex were free to dominate him. He began a self-destructive period in his life where he lost all desire to write, exploded physically and emotionally toward his father (breaking off contact), ignored his role as husband and father (leading to eventual divorce), and making libidinal gratification his primary concern.

His fragile ego was no longer able to handle any external stressors that were viewed as threatening to his system, once causing an airplane to turn around in mid-flight because he had to return to California and his mother and forcing the Beach Boys to cancel a series of concerts. Brian could no longer perform or tour due to his paranoid fears of devils being out to get him, and defended against most of his obligations in life by avoidance. Though he was no longer able to repress threats to his psychic system, he relied heavily on what ego-defense mechanisms he could muster to support his psychotic break. As mentioned earlier, Brian always had used humor as one of his major defenses, but when his paranoid delusions allowed little room for laughter, he turned to other mechanisms including denial, turning against himself, regression, avoidance, rationalization, and intellectualization. He was always able to defend his destructive behaviors against the attempts by others to help him because he believed that he could no longer deal with reality. Brian at first denied that anything was wrong with him at all, but upon recognizing that he was too debilitated to even write music, he played his father's role and turned against himself, further realizing his death instinct by doing anything for enjoyment, regardless of potential danger to himself. He intellectualized his withdrawal from public life as being a necessary step in his musical and spiritual development, but then rationalized his inactivity as needing some "time off" for himself. Brian was allowing himself, as an adult, to regress to developmental states that required him to take no personal responsibility for himself, instead hiring people to tend to his every need; he defended his maladaptive behaviors using whatever method he could whenever he could get away with it. Eventually his money ran out , the Beach Boys fired him, his family abandoned him, and Brian Wilson was finally forced to acknowledge reality and find help for himself before it became too late.

While all of these developments were taking place in the id and ego, the superego was playing its role and impacting on the other components of the psychic system. Any individual who is made to develop in a family system as abusive and controlling as Brian Wilson would have difficulty forming a superego that would be too lenient, and he is no exception. Because the voice of the superego can be described as the internalized parental voice, the best way that we might describe Brian's superego is as a "harsh" one - a very punishing, guilt-inducing, aggressive superego formed by the harsh treatment by his father. Having as a model a father who cares little for the thoughts and feelings of his wife or children, Brian developed an ego ideal that took little account of other people, including his band mates and family. He wanted artistic success and expression for himself, not necessarily for the Beach Boys, and this is reflected in the way that he took personal responsibility for the writing and producing chores for the band. As a family man, Brian did not have the time for his wife and daughters because initially his music took priority, only to be replaced by his drug addictions and psychosis, again not entirely unexpected considering the role model that he had.

It would appear that much of the structure of his superego has to do with a reaction to Brian's aggressive id drive toward his father. There is no doubt that he must have hd aggressive impulses toward his father for the unfair upbringing that he was subjected to, but because he forced himself to repress this drive, Brian Wilson turned the aggression inward toward himself, giving the superego a strong foundation upon which to build. Once the superego had been formed and the intense aggression was not relieved, the superego would become hostile toward Brian himself, setting up the future ego weakness that was to follow. Feeling proud of his natural gift for music and striving to develop it, all the while being told by his father that he was not good enough and would "never surpass [his] old man", made Brian want to succeed all the more, but it also brought intense guilt feelings with it.

During the Beach Boys' first European tour, Brian suddenly became depressed and was once again unable to perform, eventually breaking down and having to return home. This occurence can be explained in one of two ways concerning superego functioning. First, as Brian relates, this was the first time that he recognized himself as having surpassed his father; the group that Brian had given birth to and nurtured was now an international phenomenon, far exceeding Murray's moment of fame in having his name mentioned on "The Lawrence Welk Show". This realization caused Brian's superego to turn up the guilt and accompanying pressure surrounding the idea of moving beyond his father and induce the resulting depression. Secondly, though he was momentarily "on top of the world" in his musical career, Brian felt lonely and unfulfilled, forcing him to confront the ego ideal that he had created for himself against the reality of what he had acheived. Instead of being happy and satisfied, he became a victim of the superego and could only think of the fact that, although he had acheived things that most would only dream of, he was deeply unsatisfied with himself and expected more. His harsh superego would not allow him to think of his achievements, only those things that he had not yet achieved. As the eventual psychosis began to develop, Brian complained of hearing voices in his head constantly telling him that he "wasn't good enough" or calling him "a failure". This is no doubt the internalization of his father's voice, telling him the same things years earlier, brought on by his guilt over his father having been a failure in Brian's eyes, not only as a song writer, but as a father as well. Perhaps the drug and alcohol consumption was Brian's attempt at quieting the voices in his head and self-medicating himself from the harshness of his own superego, but the excessive guilt that he claims to have felt can only have resulted from his father's failures and his own unrealistic ego ideal. Of course, as Brian Wilson became more pathological, the "conscience" functions of his superego were also consumed by the id's systemic domination. When it came time to invest in his family and himself, Brian was easily able to avoid the guilt feelings by retreating into his psychotic world.

The base of all of this speculation on Brian Wilson's pathological and psychological structure is to be found in his developmental experiences. Three main themes that seem to come up repeatedly when examining his developmental history and resulting pathology are the struggle for contol between Brian and his father, the strained resolution of the Oedipal conflict, and his narcissistic needs. There is not much specific, detailed information on his early developmental history, but some stories do seem to shed light on just exactly what was going on in Brian's psyche during his early years.

First and foremost among the conflicts with which Brian had to deal in his childhood is the demand of his father for control of his every though, action, and feeling. As with the earlier example of the deafness, there are undoubtedly many early traumas that attacked Brian's underdeveloped psychic system and upon which he either became fixated or developed defenses against. Freud believed that psychosis is the result of an early repressed conflict (such as toward the father) and a precipitating cause (the pressure of fame) that set off the internal mechanisms toward eventual withdrawal from reality. Eventually the ego tension becomes so great that it cannot decide which defenses to use and a regression to primary process occurs. Such a model fits well over Brian Wilson's life, as we can trace through his stages of development. He states that in his family while growing up there were "no hugs and kisses - food was supplied instead". The family control issues threatened even his progression out of the oral stage by continuing to emphasize food as the main means of gratification, but the most striking example of this process is in another story related by Brian Wilson.

He tells of a time when he was a young child (he gives no age) and his father had come home from work tired and angry at the family. Deciding to take some of his agression out on Brian, Murray removed the newspaper from under his arm, unfolded it, and placed it on the kitchen floor. Then, for no apparent reason, he commanded Brian to defecate on the paper while the family watched. Knowing that a refusal would result in a severe punishment and sobbing uncontrollably, Brian complied while his mother and brothers watched idly. His father then made him stare at it for a long while before making him dispose of it himself. As he now relates, "I felt beaten, soiled, humiliated".

This is precisely the type of early trauma that Freud was talking about that can force a regressive fixation. There could have been no other motivation in Murray Wilson's mind than to invoke these feelings in his son, and by tampering with the primary resolution of the anal stage of development, he forced his son to internally re-examine his acievements and sense of self at that time, possible forcing a regression to the anal stage for a renegotiation of the control issue. The man who would stand naked on the kitchen table and repeatedly yell, "I am the king of this family!", felt compelled to enforce his dominance over his subjects, and continued it well into Brian's adult life. Having never been taught that he was good enough to make decisions for himself, it is no wonder that Brian was unable to cope with the stresses of the outside world. He was never given control as a child or teenager, so he was unwilling to seize it for himself as an adult.

When the external world became too painful to deal with, Brian had to regress to earlier stages in his development and re-examine himself through his own eyes. His mistrust for his father and apathy shown by his mother pushed him into a self-reliant, narcissistic state where he could rely on himself and only himself to make it through his existence. This narcissism helped to pull his ego into the traps set by his psyche and further away from reality, causing him to lose all necessity for other people besides his drug dealer. He longed for a world that he could control for himself, away from his father's sphere of influence, and where he could feel good about himself and his accomplishments, rather than sufferring from his consuming guilt. Eventually, however, this reliance on himself led to a further mistrust of others and their motives and led him further down the road to paranoia.

Interestingly, much of this mistrust for others is a direct result of his conflicts with his father that were not resolved in Brian's Oedipal period. Murray Wilson's control over his son, as mentioned previously, streched into all aspects of his son's life, including even his sexual behavior. Brian tells one story of how he was caught masturbating before dinner by his father, who proceeded to say nothing to him, but ordered his mother to withhold Brian's dinner for the next three nights. Of course, she complied, and Brian's mistrust of both of his parents grew, and his sexual behavior ceased for a long time thereafter. In many cases, a disturbance of a child's sexual life can lead to a neurosis in which the ego defenses fail, allowing the id and superego to pick up the slack. Once again, Brian's ego was under attack and his father's attempts at even controlling his body had a detrimental effect on the psyche.

It can be argued that Brian Wilson never successfully resolved his Oedipal conflict because he never was able to reach a positive identification with his father. While he may have later related to him on an occupational level, the constant aggression between the two hindered him from ever feeling as if he and his father were allies in this world. Brian tells the story of how, when he was "six or seven", he jumped into a fight between his mother and father to stop Murray from hitting his wife, only to have the aggression turned on him and result in a beating of his own. Following the incident was one of the few times where his mother ever offered him any sort of praise as she thanked Brian for trying to help her. Later in life, when his parents had eventually divorced, Brian continued speaking with his mother, long after abandoning any relationship with his father, and his parental identification seemed to be more with her than his father. When Brian was a child and saw his mother drinking to escape her husband's scorn, he never could quite understand and felt little respect for her, but ironically, it became the same sort of habit for Brian when he turned to drugs to escape his father's punishing influence by way of his superego and the guilt it caused him. The fact that, even after many years, Brian felt much more allied with his mother than his father, for whom he could only feel hatred and anger, seems to indicate that his development through the Oedipal stage had less than optimal success.

Brian Wilson has often been described as a genius, and his music attests to this, but the old addage of there being a fine line between genius and insanity has extra applicability here. Not only did developmental influences play into Brian's eventual psychosis, but the fact that many of his stage-specific resolutions were either reversed or unattained allowed all of the other negative influences on his life to build up on his ego and push its withdrawal from reality. Though Freud would argue that most of the changes in the human psyche occur before the end of adolescence, Brian Wilson seems to be an exception to the rule. While it is true that the building blocks of his psychosis were in place by the time he was twenty, many of the pressures that he faced with his success served as reinforcers and dictated the way that his psyche would impact on his life.

One could argue that Brian is really just a big child who never completed his development and was forced to keep working on the issues until he got it right. There is some evidence that over the last few years he has made progress and is once again taking resposibility for his own life, but the fact remains that he has been psychotic, and his system will probably never recover. He tried his hardest to "hang on" to his ego, but in the end he didn't have the strength to do it; only time will tell if he has what it takes to renegotiate all of the developmental and personal issues that were unfulfilled in his past.

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