Tears of a Clown

Tears of a Clown

As a researcher in the arena of childhood and youth, in particular how cultural narratives impact on children and young people it is not unusual that personal experience impacts upon the topics that I choose to study. One such incident occurred last year, following a conversation with a friend of nearly 50 years.

Spurred on by my musings on the events of my teenage years, I repurchased some 1970s teenage publications and looked upon them again with professional adult eyes. Looking through the montage covers of these publications at the smiling idols of the era, I began ticking off how many had died at a young age, and in tragic circumstances. I was also simultaneously working on a project that focused on issues around ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACEs), a concept based in the finding that events creating insecure emotional development in childhood impact upon lifelong physical and mental health, resulting in a lower life expectancy of 20 years for those with the highest ACEs score.

Beginning to wonder if there might be a connection between the concept of ACEs and the number of early deaths of so many of those who had been idolised by teenage girls of my generation, I carried out a quick straw poll of people featured on the cover of FAB208 annuals from 1972-75, who I rated as relatively enduring major stars.  Eight of those still living had never featured in the media with respect to addiction problems. Eight who had died, and two who were still living had all featured in publicity relating to addiction, some explicitly citing emotionally disrupted childhoods. Alcohol was named as the major source of substance abuse in five of these cases. This is a very small sample, so any conclusion can only be indicative; however, it shows a larger proportion of early death and addiction than would generally be expected. While still contemplating this finding, I carried out a literature search relating to research on ACEs in general, and found a reference to more secure findings that tied the ends of my thoughts together: performing artists with a high ACEs score tended to be more intensively creative than those who experienced more secure, loving childhoods.

All of these ideas were still circulating in my mind when the news broke that 1970s teen idol David Cassidy had become yet another of those to die at a comparatively young age, having experienced various difficulties throughout his life. On Monday 11th June, a TV programme aired in the US which followed Cassidy recording his last album Songs my father taught me, a tribute to his father, a ‘debonair and dashing … bipolar, manic depressive alcoholic’ who left his mother when Cassidy was only three and a half. In the programme, Cassidy reflects on his childhood memories of his father, commenting upon being ‘an abandoned child, but I worshipped him’.

This documentary therefore unwittingly constitutes a poignant case study of the complex mixture of talent and anguish in a creative, sensitive performer that has been previously described in academic research. For example Marie Forgeard found that the number of adverse childhood events reported by her sample of 373 participants predicted breadth of creativity, leading Scott Kaufman to contemplate a new rationale for the use of creative therapies, such as art and drama for those with high ACE scores. In 2015 Paula Thompson and Victoria Jacque found a link between shame and fantasy in dancers, working from a theory of fantasy as a coping strategy, and in later, larger scale research, found that performing artists with high ACE scores were more able to enter what is known as a ‘flow state’, losing themselves in their performance.  Chiraag Mittal found that while research typically finds that people with high ACE loads lack impulse inhibition, which can have negative consequences, the mirror image of this quality is the ability to shift attention quickly: ‘an aspect of cognitive flexibility, which is thought to underlie abilities such as creativity’.

All of this made contemplating the documentary about Cassidy’s last project even more emotionally harrowing than it otherwise would have been, especially as my first ever pop concert had been one in which he starred. The poignancy of the documentary’s narrative was further exacerbated by a bitter note; public dissemination of a conversation recorded by a journalist on her iPhone of a clearly ailing Cassidy explaining that while he was experiencing dementia-like symptoms, he had recently been informed by his doctors that these were not caused by the neurological degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s Disease as he had previously thought, but by his drinking.

I am very familiar with the insidious fear of mental decline that is typical in a person in later life who has watched the demise of two relatives who developed the condition; in Cassidy’s case, his mother and grandfather, and in mine, my mother and my paternal aunt. From this perspective, it would have been quite reasonable up to this point for Cassidy to have presumed that his increasing forgetfulness was due to the onset of Alzheimer’s. What he appeared to be doing in the recorded conversation was explaining that he had just been given an alternative diagnosis for his condition. Sadly and somewhat predictably however, the popular press overwhelmingly presented this phone call as the ‘sensational’ aspect of the documentary, in articles with disingenuous headlines similar to the Daily Mirror’s David Cassidy admits he LIED about having dementia to cover up his drinking.

In conclusion, it is very sad to see a person whose performances brought pleasure to millions, and who clearly experienced adverse events in childhood, being posthumously presented in this fashion.  Part of being ‘ACEs and trauma aware’ means not framing the key question as ‘what is wrong with you?’ but instead ‘what happened to you?’ Recent contemplation on David Cassidy’s life has led me to consider that perhaps we should not only be applying this practice in individual, personal interactions, but also to people in the public eye, and that our media should attempt to become more ACEs and trauma aware, not least in the wake of recent high profile suicides.

As Cassidy himself sang:

‘See the funny little clown/ See the puppet on a string/ Wind him up and he will sing, give him candy he will dance/ But be certain not to feel if his funny face is real’.