By all accounts, anyone who knew John Lennon learned to expect the unexpected – and sometimes the unpleasant. That’s just how John was.
One minute soft and tender. In a blink, harsh and cruel – with a legendary acid wit that didn’t seem quite as witty when it was turned on you.
The man who wrote “Imagine” could also write a song called “How Do You Sleep” and address it to his oldest friend.
Lennon was an example of the borderline pattern – a very common pattern of behavior that shows up, to some degree, in most people. A therapist I used to work with defined borderline as “he loves you…he hates you…he loves you…he hates you,” and that might still be the best definition I’ve heard so far.
The borderline pattern is simply an emotional gyration between vulnerability and rage. One minute you’re opening up and seeking love – the next you’ve clamped down the defenses and launched deadly missiles.
In Lennon’s case, it isn’t difficult to see the basis for the pattern. All Lennon fans know the familiar facts:
The father, Freddie, deserted the family when John was an infant. The mother, Julia, warm and loving, if emotionally immature and a bit unstable, raised the boy for a few short years. When John was barely kindergarten age, Julia, unable to balance her own life with the responsibilities of parenting, left John with her stuffy, emotionally distant sister, Aunt Mimi. Julia re-emerged as a larger presence in John’s life when he started his early teens, playing the role of an adored, playful older sister more than a mother…only to be killed suddenly when John was 18, struck down by a drunk driver.
The pattern is hard to miss: abandonment to nurturing to abandonment – back and forth and back and forth. Lennon lost his father, but had his mother. Then lost his mother. Then had his mother again. Then lost her again. She adored him, but couldn’t keep him – so back he went to Aunt Mimi. Then she adored him again, but died suddenly, leaving him utterly bereft and as afraid to trust love in any form as he longed for the love he’d once cherished.
All this set up a gyration from seeking love, and opening up emotionally – to closing down, spitting sharp put-downs, and even violent, often drunken, outbursts.
The borderline pattern is usually handed from parent to child. The parent exhibits this switch from one extreme to the other, and the child, attempting to adapt in response, begins to gyrate, too. In Lennon’s case, the events of his childhood were extreme, involving actual abandonment and the sudden death of a parent – so his pattern was particularly severe. By all accounts, John could be a very difficult person to deal with. His son Julian makes that clear in describing his few memories of his father, and even Sean, who barely knew his father, described him as having a strong temper and behaving unpredictably – affectionate sometimes, cruel and angry at others. The man who wrote “All You Need is Love” was indeed warm and loving and sincere and idealistic. He could also be vicious. That was the fearful child in John, fighting, unconsciously, to survive in a world fraught with the peril of abandonment and betrayal.
The best approach to the borderline pattern in psychotherapy is to model stability. The therapist becomes a stable object. Every week, the same thing – safe and predictable, and utterly unlike the patient’s childhood world.
If I worked with John Lennon, I would seek meticulously to be the same stable object each and every time he saw me. I would let him know I welcomed his anger just as I welcomed all his emotions, so long as he put everything into words instead of going into action on unexplored feeling. I would make certain he never received a response from me other than acceptance and support. The goal at all times would be to flatten out the gyrations – to offer a Middle Path, the path of the Buddha, the path of moderation.
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, you tend to make predictions based upon your past experiences with the people in your life. That’s all John Lennon was doing. He knew the world was not to be trusted because it had betrayed him, cruelly, when he was a child.
But, as they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future return.
I would make sure Lennon knew I wasn’t like the people in his childhood. I would be there, the same old People’s Therapist, each and every time – offering support and understanding.
Perhaps that’s what Yoko, his second wife, was able to bring. She did appear to offer a measure of serenity in his final years.
Of course we’ll never know the man John Lennon might have become. Or how learning to moderate the gyrations that unconsciously governed his behavior for so long might have affected his genius as a songwriter.
We are all poorer for that loss.
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