John Lennon lived through 40 years of anything but normality. He was the Beatle with the most wit, charm and mystique, but behind this veneer of good humour and affable charm was a psychologist’s dream patient.
Lennon was set to be a little different from his very early childhood. As with anyone, our formative years as a child tend to be of the most over-arching factors in who we become in later life. Our insecurities, relationship tendencies, friendships and behavioural demeanour can often be traced back to nurture.
John Lennon suffered from maternal abandonment from the age of five when his mother, Julia Lennon, was put under increased pressure by her eldest sister Mimi Smith to give up care of John. Mimi repeatedly expressed to Liverpool Social Services her lack of confidence in Julia as a mother for John due to her “sinful” ways. It is still unclear just how fair Mimi’s accusations were regarding Julia, but it is likely that Mimi wasn’t happy with Julia’s fun-loving personality; she was known to be cheeky, good-humoured and impulsive – many traits that would later be attributed to her son.
In 1945, John was finally forced into the care of his strict and prudent auntie Mimi who would take over parenthood with her husband George Smith. While allowed to visit his mother regularly, John became increasingly upset with the separation. Some 12 years later, Julia was killed by a drunk driving policeman when John was only 17; this was a source of severe trauma in Lennon’s life that would appear to be pushed to the back of his mind during his early years of success with The Beatles but would emerge in his art later on with songs written for his mother like ‘Julia’ and ‘Mother’.
By the 1970s especially, after the break-up of The Beatles, Lennon began to confront the ails of his childhood. John’s wife, Yoko Ono, recalled a confession that the musician had once made to her: “He told me that when he was in his teens, he sometimes used to be in Julia’s room with her when she had a rest in the afternoon,” Ono explained. “And he’d always regretted he’d never been able to have sex with her”. This gives an insight into the Freudian relationship John had with his late mother which was likely sparked through the neurological damage caused by his abandonment and Julia’s subsequent death.
It was in the years of Lennon’s reflection that revolutionary psychologist, Arthur Janov, was soon to be publishing his self-help book The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy, The Cure for Neurosis. Janov claimed the primal therapy detailed in the book would end all need for clinical psychologists and distributed copies of the book to a number of celebrities, including John Lennon.
Despite the widespread condemnation for the teachings of the book, Lennon was particularly inspired by the texts at such a self-analytical and spiritual moment in his life. He agreed to take part in a four-week treatment programme run by Janov where he learned to face the traumas of his past through “Primal Scream” therapy that would allow someone to get the baggage of yesteryear off one’s back, Yoko Ono described the experience: “You really feel every painful moment of your life — it’s excruciating, you are forced to realise that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky.” This therapy would inspire Lennon’s 1970 song ‘Mother’, in which he gives us a taste of the screaming.
Now, 50 years later, it appears the therapy hasn’t proved the ultimate answer for psychological issues and it is unclear just how much it really helped John during his four-week retreat. However, one great fruit of Janov’s labours was the name of one of Scotland’s finest rock bands, Primal Scream, who named themselves after this most unorthodox screaming therapy popularised by one of the most legendary idols of the rock and roll world.