A struggle with mental illness – I Am Brian Wilson: A memoir

February 5, 2017 at 11:24 pm | Posted in creativity, depression, mental illness, song writing, writers' health | Leave a comment
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Pet Sounds

When I was fourteen my older brother gave me the new Beachboys’ Pet Sounds album for Christmas. It was and remains my favourite. I’d never heard anything like those sophisticated, layered compositions and sublime harmonies – and neither had anyone else. No one had ever put together sounds like that before. It had a massive influence on future music. Without Pet Sounds the Beatles would never have made their Sergeant Peppers album.

I’ve been thinking about Pet Sounds a lot lately because I’ve been reading I Am Brian Wilson (with Ben Greenman, Coronet, 2016), a story of early success and mental illness, of creative genius and tragic loss, of addiction and second chances. I love this book.

The Beachboys comprised brothers, Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine. (The important contribution of bass guitarist Carol Kane to Pet Sounds should also be mentioned.) A few years ago, I saw a TV documentary on Brian Wilson. It seemed as if all his nerves were on the outside instead of being protected on the inside like those of most people. The thought of someone with that degree of sensitivity having a violent father is awful. In that situation, most people would develop toughness to survive, but when you do that, the good things in you have a tendency to close down too.

Hearing voices

Brian Wilson’s musical genius would never close down, no matter what. And the pain of his upbringing had to go somewhere. He started hearing voices in his head. He developed phobias and couldn’t go on tour with the others.

At one stage during his long journey through mental illness, a mysterious Dr Landy came into his life and quickly gained control of it (and control of his money). He writes about Dr Landy screaming at him and stuffing him full of drugs: ‘If you help a person to get better by erasing that person, what kind of job have you done? I don’t know for sure, but he really did a job on me.’ (p. 12)

The story of how the humane, resourceful Melinda came into Brian’s life and helped to liberate him from the clutches of this charlatan is told in the film, Love and Mercy, an uplifting film from 2014 directed by Bill Pohland.

It’s moving to read Wilson’s thoughts about the film, and worth quoting at length. The most rewarding thing about it for him was ‘to see what people took away from the movie, mainly the idea that mental illness should be handled in a humane and straightforward way. It’s a struggle like any struggle. It’s something I’ve had to carry around most of my life, and something that really kept me off balance until I learned how to get my head around it – and to have people around me who helped me do that. So many people wrote us or called to say that the movie helped them deal with similar problems in their own life, with family or friends.’ (p. 276, 7)

Seeing mental illness differently

He goes on to say that one person who wrote was Michelle Obama. She helped set up a partnership between the film and the Campaign to Change Direction. See www.changedirection.org

This organisation encourages people to see mental illness differently. He writes:

‘I have met other Presidents and First Ladies. I have played for queens. But I’m not sure that I have ever been prouder than when we made that arrangement with Campaign to Change Direction.’ (p. 277)

He knew his music was inspirational but he had been ashamed of his life, feeling that he couldn’t be honest about hearing voices and struggling with drug addiction. When people responded to the film so positively, he felt that he could be proud of his life as well, and ‘[t]o be told that other people could learn from it and get stronger was even better.’ (p. 277)

The subject has written this memoir with the help of journalist Ben Greenman, and in some cases this arrangement can sound inauthentic, but the narrative here is seamless and we’re definitely listening to one voice, the voice promised in that first-person title, and a voice that is simple, honest and intimate.

The child in us

It’s always seemed to me that it’s the child in us that creates, that we go back to a child-like state to paint pictures or write stories or songs. There is plenty of fascinating detail about how the author writes music and lyrics, but the child-like quality of Brian Wilson’s voice can be heard most in passages like the following, where he is alone and quietly wondering about the mysteries of life.

If he sits still for hours, he is often thinking about his two brothers, who died young. ‘I can get into a space where I think about it too much. I wonder why the two of them went away, and where they went, and I think about how hard it is to understand the biggest questions about life and death. It’s worse around the holidays. I can really get lost in it.’ (p. 11)

It’s a pleasure to gain insight into the mind and the life of this man whose often autobiographical songs have resonated with generations of people all over the world and have made them feel that they weren’t alone, for example, ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ from Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson writes that to live successfully with a mental illness, it’s necessary to have the right doctor, the right medications, and the right people around you. He writes that it feels good to put forth this account because while he knows he’s had many problems and some regrets, he’s not the cartoon character the media painted him as either, a fat guy holed up in his bedroom, afraid to go out of it. It made me think that every person with a mental illness deserves to be accorded dignity, and you don’t have to be a musical genius to deserve it.

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