Pete Townshend is a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for the rock group The Who, in a career of more than 40 years. Rolling Stone magazine listed him among the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
His new memoir ‘Who I Am‘ is, according to a Rolling Stone review, “intensely intimate, candid to the point of self-lacerating. It’s a rock god opening up his most human frailties.”
The review adds, “Throughout the book, Townshend makes himself uncomfortably vulnerable, especially in his deeply saddening memories of childhood sexual abuse…left parentless, at the mercy of predators…he turned this trauma into the 1969 breakthrough Tommy.
“Those feelings of rage, shame and inadequacy never left him, even after he fought his way to the top of the music world.”
Roland Kelts wrote the book “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.” and notes that Townshend responded after reading it: “This story shows how today we all use movies, comics, music, art and advertising to face our past and its traumas, rather than to escape.”
Of course, Townshend’s life – and memoir – are rich, complex stories, with far more than just his experiences of abuse. But I continue to be struck by how many artists suffer from and respond creatively to trauma.
A Guardian newspaper review notes that at age six “he was sent to live with his mentally ill grandmother, Denny, ‘a perfect wicked witch,’ who, he is convinced, allowed him to be sexually abused by her lovers; he also alludes to giving his mother’s lover ‘the green light.’ The precise events elude him (‘My memory just shut down’) but the shards of detail are chilling… He retrospectively interprets his 1966 ‘mini-opera’ medley ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’ as a cryptic account of his time with Denny.”
Another review article describes passages of his early life as “harrowing to read, as he acts out by starting fires and retreating into himself. As an adult, he will become incredibly self-conscious and introverted, describing ‘the polarities of my ego’ as ‘the artistic grandiosity and the desperately low self-regard.’
In his memoir, Townshend writes of his exceptional musical talents, in passages such as this:
“On my first Isle of Man fishing trip, I had a fiasco with a huge trout and was consoling myself by playing harmonica in the rain. I got lost in the sound of the mouth organ, and then had the most extraordinary, life-changing experience. Suddenly I was hearing music within the music – rich, complex harmonic beauty that had been locked in the sounds I’d been making. The next day I went fly fishing, and this time the murmuring sound of the river opened up a wellspring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of a trance. It was the beginning of my lifelong connection to rivers and the sea – and to what might be described as the music of the spheres.
He also writes about being a fire-starter: “I went door-to-door borrowing matches from neighbours, claiming Mum’s oven had gone out. I didn’t set light to any houses, just to piles of rubble on bomb sites, or old cars. One day I misjudged things: I created a city with building blocks underneath a refrigerated van I took to be abandoned, then stuffed the city with paper and set it alight. The van’s occupant came out screaming…”
Destructive acting out like this can be a way for people who have been abused to deal with overwhelming feelings, such as the “desperately low self-regard” he mentioned.
In her article Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist , psychologist Cheryl Arutt comments, “In a world where destructive acting out is all too frequent (and meticulously documented and sensationalized on the news and TMZ), sublimating painful feelings by expressing them in the form of artistic expression allows the artist to choose to ‘act out’ in a way that is constructive.”
See more comments by Dr. Arutt, and multiple artists about their experiences with difficult childhoods and trauma, in the posts: