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John Lennon: Psychodrama of a Gifted Child

John Lennon: Psychodrama of a Gifted ChildWhen I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.
~ Anonymous (but erroneously attributed to John Lennon)

On Dec. 8th, 1980, I was in bed listening to the radio when suddenly, in a voice labored by heavy breathing and halting words, the disc jockey broke the news that John Lennon had been shot and killed in front of his New York City apartment building. The news ransacked my brain.

The Beatles weren’t just a rock band; they gave us an identity. Their songs weren’t simply catchy tunes or stray memorable lyrics. The music told us who we were. It pointed us in a whole new direction. The simplicity and clarity of their message pierced the fog of the Vietnam War, drugs, the environment, and politics. “Love is all you need” not only made sense, it gave us something to work toward.

Collectively the Beatles offered hope. But it was John Lennon who offered inspiration.

More than the assassination of John or Bobby Kennedy, or the shortened lives of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendricks and Janis Joplin, Lennon’s tragedy undid us. “If you want to be a hero,” Lennon recommended, “then just follow me.” We did, and still do. How could we not follow him? We still wrestle with war, drugs, the environment, and politics. What argument exists against someone who insists we Give Peace a Chance?

But what type of childhood provides the creative drive to be belligerent for peace? As many psychologists might suspect, the answer lies with John’s mother.

The White Album (and if you don’t own it go out and buy it right now) included the first of two songs Lennon wrote about his mother, Julia Lennon. In favor of a more carefree life, she had given John to her sister Mary, and brother-in-law George Smith, to raise. Prior to this, stories from rock and rollers were about girlfriends and lovers. But this beautiful ballad was about John’s mother.

Here is an excerpt:

Her hair of floating sky is shimmering
In the sun

Morning moon
Touch me
So I sing a song of love

When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind
Sleeping sand
Silent cloud
Touch me
So I sing a song of love

Beautiful music; beautiful words. But the truth is John’s mother abandoned him, then was killed when he was 18; his father was absent throughout John’s childhood. Painful realities, but Lennon’s creative energy uniquely honed and focused these dynamics. His resilience, the love received from his aunt and uncle, and his creative talent came together to produce many songs about love and peace. Perhaps in “Julia,” we see the first creative effort to reconcile with his mother by attempting to transcend the pain; this was most likely a result of his venture into meditation. The lyrics and melody suggest that he may have been coping with the truth of his mother by detaching with love.

But there would be other ways of coping, alcohol and heroin among them.

Where do you turn after meditation and drugs? John worked with Arthur Janov, developer of primal scream therapy. In primal scream the neurotic tension of unmet needs is expressed and released. The approach, like many cathartic and expressive therapies, operates on the premise that repressed pain can be brought into consciousness and resolved through a reexperiencing of the issue or incident and fully expressing the resulting pain. The song “Mother” was a direct outgrowth of Lennon’s therapeutic journey. In psychodrama, which operates along similar premises, we have a saying: “The cure for acting out—is acting out.”

Primal scream therapy stopped short of identifying the need for the correction through a new enactment, but instead advocated for a scream to release the pain. In psychodrama a corrective experience is introduced after releasing the pain to evolve past the neurosis. In other words, once the neurotic tension is released through the reexperiencing, you create a new scene to replace the neurotic one. It is the creative process that is given center stage in psychodrama. So it was in Lennon’s life. In one of the most haunting tracks of all time Lennon takes full use of his new therapy.

Mother, you had me, but I never had you
I wanted you, you didn’t want me
So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye

Father, you left me, but I never left you
I needed you, you didn’t need me
So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye

Children, don’t do what I have done
I couldn’t walk and I tried to run
So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye

Mama don’t go
Daddy come home

The final two lines are repeated 9 times (don’t get me started on the number 9 and John Lennon, okay?) and with a screaming, wailing, roar he resolves the pain of his parents in the only way that can be truly healing. In 75 words John Lennon summed up 100 years of psychology by grieving what he never had. The correction wasn’t simply his screaming; he did his cathartic integration as a creative work of music.

Alice Miller, a Swiss psychoanalyst, wrote Drama of the Gifted Child, which described the dynamics of children who were born to self-absorbed mothers. In essence she notes that all of the talents they display are in the service of trying to get their mother to notice them. The effort doesn’t ever pay off, and the ache is repeated with other intimate relationships where the effort is to develop great talents and gifts, but never to get the attention from mom. The solution, according to Miller, is to grieve, to say goodbye to mom. Experiential grieving, allowing yourself to feel the pain that you are not going to have your mother’s love, allows you to break free. Waiting on the other side is your creative energy.

So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye

Through grief and creativity John Lennon did what was needed to grow, and we were the grateful recipients.

The Beatles’ last concert was on Aug. 29th, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. Their last album was released in 1970.

Nearly half a century since their last outing you would be hard-pressed to go through a week without hearing a fragment of a Beatles tune in an elevator, on the radio, in a coffee shop. Their music has become as ubiquitous as their message. Love and peace seem never to go out of style. John Lennon made self-reflection and healing through the creative process a standard. A catharsis of integration has become both the goal and the process in much of today’s music. Any one of Eminem’s songs will suffice as proof.

Will the next generation find something in the work of John Lennon? No telling, but now at least they will have access. In November 2010, a dispute with Apple Inc. (the Mac computer people) and Apple Corp. (The Beatles’ music holding company) reached an agreement over a conflict that began years before Lennon’s death. Beatles songs finally are available for digital download. What did Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple Inc., say of all this? “We love the Beatles… It feels great to resolve this in a positive manner.”

So, as John, Paul, George, and Ringo said in their final press conference: The Beat Goes on…

John Lennon: Psychodrama of a Gifted Child

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is a core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu.   His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018, and his next book, Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity To Overcome Depressionis hailed as: “…the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness.”  by Deepak Chopra, MD: Author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.

Learn more about Dr. Dan at his website.

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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). John Lennon: Psychodrama of a Gifted Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Dec 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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