Brian Wilson: An Adlerian Analysis

by Michael De Bernardi

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

"I know there's an answer,
I know now but I have to find it by myself."

(Brian Wilson)

In 1966, Brian Wilson wrote the words and melody for a song called "Hang Onto Your Ego", but after recording it once, he changed the lyrics, renamed it "I Know There's an Answer", and re-recorded it for the Beach Boys landmark album, Pet Sounds. As advanced in a previous paper, Brian's life as a successful songwriter and performer was sadly interrupted in the late 1960's as he was unable (in Freudian terms) to "hang on" to his ego and slid into an unproductive world of psychosis. However, just as he was able to change his lyrics to convey a different idea, his life can be interpreted through different means to arrive at an entirely different view of his psychic structure. Whether he realized it or not, Wilson's new lyrics not only changed the meaning of his song, but actually revealed a shift in theoretical paradigms from Freud's drive-based objective psychology to the subjective, goal-oriented psychology of Alfred Adler.

While Adler may have originally been a disciple of Freud, fundamental theoretical differences eventually split the two and freed Adler to continue the pursuit of his Individual Psychology. Whereas Freud always maintained that the libidinal and aggressive drives were the basic dynamic force in human beings, Adler suggested that the striving toward a fictional goal, one of superiority, was the motivating factor in the individual and that the successful adaptation to life depends on the degree of social interest present in the striving. Rather than presenting a psychology based on the pushes of internal drives and mechanisms, Adler views the individual as being pulled toward the achievement of his life goal (or fictional finalism) and the innate need to invest socially in his community.

Alfred Adler once said: "If we want to understand a person we have to close our ears. We have only to look". Upon applying this statement to the life of Brian Wilson, it takes on an entirely different meaning. Although it is unknown whether it was a birth defect or the result of an early beating from his father, Brian Wilson suffered from total deafness in one of his ears. To close our ears to Brian is to ignore the girls-and-surfing, endless summer music that he created and more intensely examine the disturbed individual behind his harmonic facade.

One of the earliest conceptions in Adler's theory was his discussion of the Organ Inferiority concept. In one of his few nods to Freudian mechanisms, Adler stated that there were distinct organ drives as the primary force behind the individual. As his theory evolved, these sensory drives began to lose their autonomy to what he systematically called the Aggression drive (or Will to Power), then the Masculine Protest, and finally the individual's Striving for Perfection. However, the preeminance of the Organ Inferiority concept remained intact throughout Adler's theoretical formulation. Eventually the idea of seperate sensory drives was superceded as Adler moved away from Freud, but he remained committed to the importance of organ development. Adler believed that when a child has a sensory organ that is developmentally retarded (as with Brian Wilson's ear), this creates a feeling of inferiority against which the child's development and social identity will react. While Adler thought that the primary motion of all human personality was against an acquired feeling of inferiority, he said that children with organ deficiencies have more serious inferiorities to deal with. Besides being the focus of the individual's need to overcome his feelings of inferiority, the deficient organ also becomes the object of striving in that the person tries to gain pleasure for it.

These ideas fit quite well with the case of Brian Wilson and his career. As he relates in his autobiography, Brian could "hear music in [his] head" from early childhood on, and then tailored the rest of his life toward gaining control of these sounds and communicating them through his art. He gained his ultimate pleasure from writing and performing his music, and was constantly obsessed with the sounds he could create in the recording studio. In fact, as he stopped performing and devoted his professional time primarily to writing and recording his music, Brian became increasingly interested in the explorations of the limits of musical instruments and the recording technology, becoming one of the first individuals to incorporate sounds like dogs barking, locomotives, Indian chanting, and other noises into popular music. The 1960s brought stereophonic sound to the mainstream, but as Brian's inablility to hear out of one ear prevented him from utilizing the technology, his production techniques stretched the limits of monaural sound further than anyone before or since, all in an effort to provide himself and his listeners with the ultimate listening experience. The intricate and subtle harmonies that Brian wrote continue to be recognized examples of his talent across all musical genres, once resulting in a television tribute from Leonard Bernstein where even he referred to Brian's music as "genius".

Of course, the one thing that separates Brian Wilson from most of the rest of the musical or non-musical population is the fact that he was a schizophrenic and has lived the majority of his life under the influence of this illness. Adler wrote a lot about the possible negative impact of the organ inferiority on an individual's psychological adjustment, identifying many characteristics that apply quite well to Brian's life. Moreso than the general public, a child with an organ deficiency, in his striving to overcome the more serious inferiority issues, is usually overconcerned with the self, lacking in social interest, isolated, and often displays paranoid symptoms. They often consider other people as their enemies and are so interested in their own welfare that they are unable to invest sufficiently in their social needs for love, friendships, occupation, etc. The superiority for which the maladjusted individual strives is the elevation of himself and the suppression of others, often hiding his own inferiority feelings to the extent that he himself cannot see it. Maladjustment consists of the more "selfish" striving for personal power and self-enhancement rather than for perfection.

As Brian Wilson gained fame and recognition for the talent that he posessed, he began to rely more and more on himself and his ideals to guide him through life. The only things that he utilized to give him external support were food and drugs, and he basically had no need for other people. Although he did get married and have two children, his family was never of much importance to him, always taking a back seat to his music or utilitarian friendships that supplied his habits; even the remaining Beach Boys became little more than voices-for-hire as Brian took full responsibility for writing the music and hiring outside musicians to assist him in recording it, oftentimes supressing the creative impulses of his bandmates because their ideas didn't fit in with the music he heard in his head. The displeasure and inferiority that Brian felt because of his organ inferiority could only be remedied by the product of his own creativity self-reliance.

Instead of seeing the person as a victim to internal impulses as Freud suggested, Adler viewed the self, being pulled toward the external world, as central in his theory. He saw the most general cause of maladjustment as being the child's feelings of inferiority resulting from a combination of organ dysfunction, poor early environment, feelings of being hated, and dissatisfaction with early social relationships. However, where Freud may have searched for and identified certain agents as determining the individual's maladjustment, Adler thought that such factors were not causal, but influenced the individual's sense of self through the conclusions he draws from them.

The basic dynamic force present in life is the individual's striving to be free of his inferiority feelings and feel that he is superior or a well-adjusted person. Brian's relationship with his abusive father, combined with his organ deficiency, served to increase his feelings of inferiority beyond that which the normal person might feel. The competetiveness that his father displayed toward Brian and the lack of any loving relationship produced feelings of cowardliness, the timidity of Brian's childhood, the submissive obedience toward his father, and the basic feelings of worthlessness against which Brian had to react. Adler replaced Freud's libidinal drive with what he called a Masculine Protest against Feminine Tendencies, which arise from feeling weak in the face of adults, as an early form of the individual's striving toward perfection. Murray Wilson dominated Brian both physically and psychologically, creating "unmanly" feelings in Brian, against which he formed a Masculine Protest toward his father. Brian's reactions to his father confirm Adler's ideas that the Protest overtakes the child, waking feelings of revenge and defieance, making him want to surpass the father in every respect, while eventually leading to neurosis or psychosis.

However, the Masculine Protest does more than simply wake feelings of aggression toward the father, it soon becomes the individual's Striving for Perfection, a force that will dominate the rest of the person's life. This need to eliminate feelings of inferiority creates a craving in the individual for achievement and satisfaction; it dominates consciousness for the rest of the individual's life and directs his attention, memory, production, and fantasy. Especially crucial for Brian Wilson is that the striving also produces Art. It is important to note here the importance of consciousness is Adler's theory as opposed to Freud's minimization of it. The Adlerian individual's movement through life is not a result of unseen forces or unconscious meddlings to the extent that Freud's is, but the way that a person perceives his environment and reacts to it is of utmost importance. Thus, Brian's conflict with his father and need to create his music were very real to him, and it was his ability or inablility to deal with these situations that created the individual that he would become. The fact that paranoid psychosis was Brian's eventual fate indicates that, unlike the healthy individual who is striving for superiority in a social sense, that is, gaining satisfaction by overcoming difficulties that are appreciated as such by others, Brian turned his striving inward on himself, eliminating the need to evaluate himself in relation to others and focussing his life on the elevation of himself and his goals.

Adler believed that the basic, common inferiority feelings come from the dilemma of being a child in an adult world. The difficulty of remaining self-involved when needing to rely on social relationships creates the need for the child to see himself as embedded in a larger whole; he has to be a member of society and prepare himself to meet the problems encountered in social living. This need for Social Interest is innate, but it must be brought out in early relationships, especially from that with the mother, and it needs to be continued throughout life in the spheres of occupation, social relationships, and love. Whereas Freud had a tendency to compartmentalize the mother figure into an object to meet different needs throughout development, Adler viewed her as necessary to nourish the child's psychological needs to experience and understand basic fellowship and broaden them into a life-attitude toward others. The individual's basic ego drives (ego, not in Freud's sense of the battleground for warring drives and structures, but as the individual's holistic self) are directed towards society and the striving for power, dominance, and superiority within it, and it is the mother's role to model this Social Interest for the child. Adler saw Social Interest as the barometer of a child's normalcy and believed that all failures are so because they lack in it.

In such a system, we would have to view Brian Wilson as a failure. His approaches to his occupation, friendships, and marriage indicate that he was unable to invest cooperatively in his social relationships and had to find the answers by himself. He turned to his music as his primary way of expressing himself and to food and drugs as his replacements for the social investment that he was not able to make. The fact that his mother was as much a victim to his father's dominance as Brian was effectively removed her from her role as Brian's social provider. She escaped the family situation through alcohol consumption and did little to defend him against Murray's wrath; instead of modelling healthy social interactions in the household, all Audree Wilson could teach Brian was to escape problems chemically. Brian learned that social investment was not something that could provide him with a means to overcoming his inferioritites, so his motivation became more self-centered in the direction of private reward. Within Adler's system, this kind of striving for personal superiority would be maladjustment and put Brian on the wrong path for a healthy future. However, though we may view Brian as an objective failure in the common, social sense, he would not necessarily be a subjective failure. Brian chose to address and solve his problems in a self-centered way instead of within the social framework of his environment. By divesting himself of his social environment, he has rejected his need for social validity, remaining consistent within his own framework, and thus not a failure in his private sense.

Had Brian simply remained interested in stressing his own physical and social drawbacks, with no purpose except to be free from them, he could have made no progress whatsoever. He was forced to create goals for himself that were rooted in the reality that was most familiar to him, and that meant turning himself inward toward the only person he could trust. His world showed him no benefit to be gained from investing in social relationships, so his guiding force became a striving toward personal superiority, outside of societal confines, and elimination of his inferiority feelings through his music and increased self-reliance and self-esteem. This brings us to a concept that is central in Adler's theory, the establishment of a goal, or Fictional Finalism.

The concept of the Fictionalism is that of an idea, including an unconscious notion, that has no counterpart in reality, yet serves the function of keeping an individual's life on a goal-oriented path. These fictional structures are creations of the individual, fundamentally carried on in the unconscious, that assist in the formulation of a single life-goal toward the achievement of which one's life is directed. Adler believed that heredity, early experience, organ inferiority, and environment all contribute to the formation of this goal, but it is basically formed due to subjective unconscious causes, the point of which is to provide for a basic unity of personality, self-consistency in behavior, a basis for orientation in the world, and assist in compensating for the basic feelings of inferiority. The final goal that emerges from the individual will determine the path along which he will direct his life (mostly unconsciously) and what character traits that individual will mainifest. It works to assure the individual that there is a goal toward which life is leading and create positive assurances in the present to help mitigate inferiority feelings. The system of the individual is holistic and goal-directed, and all behavior is striving toward the goal, regardless of how socially deviant it might seem; the subjective integrity of the individual is constantly being maintained.

This self-ideal is mostly unknown and not understandable to the individual because it is formulated and exists for the most part in the unconscious. Adler's unconscious, however, is quite different from Freud's in that it really harbors no secret drives or repressed notions that the individual is unable to consciously deal with. The only true function of the unconscious is to contain the final goal toward which the person will spend his life striving; it is nothing other than that which the individual has been unable to formulate in clear concepts. For the most part, the healthy individual is almost completely unaware of his goal, but Adler thought that for the psychotic, the fictional goal could in part become conscious if this process is suited to achieve an enhancement of self-esteem. He thought that the goal of a paranoid schizophrenic is the loftiest of goals in that the individual is striving to be most like a god, and the height of the goal becomes so great that common sense becomes useless to the person in solving his everyday difficulties. The paranoid strives to be the center of attention (and oftentimes actually believes he is), and eventually loses all interest not only in other people, but in his own reason and understanding.

Though it is impossible for anyone to determine exactly what Brian Wilson's fictional goal consisted of, there is no doubt that because of the fact that he turned out to be schizophrenic, his pathology resembles something like what Adler described. Brian states repeatedly what a withdrawn and bashful child he was, and even his early songs like "In My Room" testify that he needed little more than a place where he could "tell [his] secrets to". He was afraid of any social contact, as demonstrated by his refusal to tour with the Beach Boys any longer, right at the point when they were first achieving stardom, opting instead to stay at home in the recording studio in order to establish himself as the true genius behind the band. His music became less dependent on traditional pop structure and Brian lost all concern for his audience, causing the other band members to reject his ideas repeatedly because they were "not commercial enough". Adler's theory can even account for Brian's drug abuse in that he stated that alcohol or drug addictions result from an individual's being confronted with insoluable goals. Obviously, Brian could never achieve the godhood for which he was striving, so, like his mother before him, he sought escape through substance abuse. Brian's psychosis then, it would seem, was a result of his own construction and maintainance when viewed in Adlerian terms, and not the result of uncontrollable ego regression as Freud might suggest.

The individual plays a very active role in Adler's theory, and early on in his development an attempt is made to integrate his Striving for Superiority and Social Interest into a united front from which he can deal with the world around him. This role is given to something called the Creating Self, which synchronizes all of the individual's internal and external influences, as well as his unknown potentialities, and gives his striving a direction. While this integrative structure may sound similar to Freud's ego, in Adlerian terms it is identical with the central Self. The Fictional Goal is then filtered through this Creating Self, and the individual adopts a Style of Life that will display the internal dynamism of the system to the external world. All of the behavior, habits, and symptoms that a person shows are a result of the integration that has taken place and the way that the goal-oriented activity is manifested. Every action that takes place from this point on will be in some way an effort to work toward the person's goal, and those aspects of his personality that others see will also be an effort to maintain integrity within the self.

There is little question as to the negative impact that Brian Wilson's childhood had on what he was to come, and from an early point on, the way that he presented himself, his Style of Life, was indicative of his internal and external struggles. For as long as he could remember, Brian was a quiet, self-focused child, with little regard for anyone besides the more threatening people in his life. Those people who tried to reach out to him were usually met with extreme resistance, and this selfishness eventually resulted his psychotic break, something that was as painfully obvious to them as it was to Brian. Whether or not he changed his song lyrics in 1966, Brian Wilson still lost "the fight" because the "answer" he was looking for was to be found outside of him in the Social Investment that he never made.

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