Montage of Heck, the life of Kurt Cobain, is a very disturbing and powerful documentary. Cobain is the poster child for emotional devastation. And yet, at the same time, there is something in his music which resonates powerfully with his generation. Brett Morgen, the writer and director, beautifully and painfully captures the dialogue of his life with his art. Montage of Heck traces Kurt’s life through home movies, his extensive drawings from an early age, animations of his drawings, his music and concerts, stories told through interviews with the key figures of his life, and actual videos and movies of scenes from his life.
I don’t make it a practice to analyze people from afar. In general one never knows the true story behind the story. But this documentary is so biographical that it gives us such a clear window into what happened to Kurt and how he became who he was. No generalization will capture his essence or his art. Kurt, like all of us, evolved his character as the culmination of how his temperament digested his emotional environment of responsiveness, abuse, and deprivation. This interplay in each of us writes a play in the theater of our consciousness. Kurt became who he was as a result of this internal scenario.
This documentary affords us a rare and tragic view as to how it all got established and played itself out – his pain, his shame, his inability to relate, his drug addiction, his art, his suicide.
Kurt’s problematic life trajectory was set early in his life, and it continued to degenerate from there, through no fault of his own. The early footage shows his early years. His mother, who says she doted on him, was to abandon him nine years later, which does not reflect a devoted mother. Father was distant, strict, and uninvolved. Kurt was active, impulsive, and unrestrained. His early drawings, which were a constant all throughout his life, shows conflict and uncertainty. He also took to music at an extremely young age. I deduce from what we can see that there was a significant degree of deprivation and abuse at an early age. [In contrast see – “What is Love? On Maternal Love.”]
His parents had a painful divorce when he was nine which he never got over.
Kurt felt a deep sense of shame, desperation and abandonment. He always longed for an intact family.
He became defiant and withdrawn. His mother chose an abusive relationship over Kurt and kicked him out of the house. He lived with his father who soon remarried. Kurt tortured his new siblings, and his father kicked him out as well. Kurt then lived with a number of relatives and occasionally his mother and sister. Nothing was stable. He immediately started drinking and smoking marijuana. He was actively suicidal by thirteen. Kurt became an insolent loner and a bully. Because of his small size he was ridiculed and humiliated. He was alienated and filled with hatred. Kurt dropped out of high school, and lived with a girl who supported and tried to mother him. He did every drug imaginable, a lot of acid, and started heroin in 1986. He soon gravitated to the Seattle grunge music scene.
I will piece together Kurt’s temperament which comes across very clearly. He was an Internalizer, Active, Introverted, and an Observer. Let’s go through each element: Internalizer/Externalizer – An Internalizer who is subject to the trauma of abuse and deprivation retains an internal figure of an abuser persona inside his theater. As such in the context of sadomasochistic play, the abuser figure on the inside attacks the abused ‘self’. The rage is tuned inwards. This takes form as self-hate – “I’m bad; I’m inadequate, I’m stupid, I’m ugly,” etc. In the context of shaming abuse, an Internalizer feels “ashamed”.
Externalizers, unlike Kurt, locate and experience the trauma of abuse as coming from other people. An Externalizer’s orientation is as a blamer. As such, he would be inclined to blame, and fight with others. For example, from a legacy of shaming abuse, an Externalizer experiences a rage at being “shamed” by a person outside him, as opposed to feeling “ashamed”. [See – “The Nature-Nurture Question – Nature. The role of ‘Nature’ comes from our genetic temperament.”]
Kurt was filled with self-hate, shame, and self-attack. His shame would lead him to live in degradation and filth. This was consonant with his inner sense of himself. It would lead him to numb his pain with drugs. As it turns out the specific drug that numbs out the aggression of self hate is heroin. But like all drugs, it doesn’t work.
Kurt’s songs reveal his Internalizer orientation.
“I’m so happy
Cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly
But that’s ok, ‘cause so are you…
I’m so lonely and
That’s ok, I shaved my head
And I’m not sad
And just maybe
I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…
I like it
I’m not gonna crack
I miss you
I’m not gonna crack
I love you
I’m not gonna crack
I killed you
I’m not gonna crack”
[Nevermind – Lithium]
“I was drawn into you magnet tar pit trap
I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn back”
[In Utero – Heart-shaped Box]
“I feel stupid and contagious”
[Nevermind – ]
“Rape me, my friend
Rape me again
Taste me, my friend…
My favorite inside source
I’ll kiss your open sores
Appreciate you concern
You’ll always stink and burn”
[In Utero- Rape Me]
“I won my own pet virus
I get to pet and name her
Her milk is my shit
My shit is her milk…
Look on the bright side is suicide…”
[In Utero- Milk It]
“What else should I be
Everything is my fault
I’ll take all the blame”
[In Utero-All Apologies]
Active/Passive – Active children sit and walk and climb early in childhood. They take off at the beach. The active child is naturally physical, physically expressive, and action-oriented. They are easily bored, need to run around a lot, may have short attention spans, except when they are interested. They can be fidgety, impulsive, and concentrate poorly. This describes Kurt to a tee. [See – “How an Active or Passive Temperament orients our Personality.” ].
With an Active temperament we need to look at the degree of responsiveness, abuse, and deprivation that is digested into our plays of consciousness. In Kurt’s early life the family was problematic. There was considerable sadistic aggression and the absence of loving. This became even more magnified with the abandonments and fighting that followed after the divorce, along with the absence of a stable family from then on. In the context of deprivation and abuse, kids like Kurt are prone to spin out of control. Kurt was falsely defined as having the made up brain disease – ADHD and was given Ritalin at a young age. This did not help. We can see that the things Kurt gravitated to were what he was interested in – a rich drawing life and music. For these he had endless concentration.
What Kurt really needed were especially good enough boundaries and love, with safety and security, certainly not abandonments.
This is what an active child needs to fulfill himself. Kurt expressed his impulsive rage by bullying and abusing his step brothers and sisters and other kids. He lacked compassion for the feelings of others. In relation to being subject to emotional deprivation and abandonment he didn’t trust anybody, but had love-hate dependencies on unreliable people. Kurt acted on his impulses especially when humiliated, ridiculed, or betrayed. He had been suicidal since he was thirteen. He had OD’d on heroin many times. Then, in a fit of jealousy and rage, and fear of abandonment, he overdosed on Rohypnol in Rome. A month later, On April 8, 1994. He ended his life with a bullet to the brain. He was twenty-seven years old.
“Bright and clear
It’s what I am
Death with violence
Is what I am”
Introversion/Extroversion – Introversion means that the scenario of the play is oriented from the point of view of oneself, while an extrovert operates from the point of view of other people. Introversion literally means to turn inward. The primary reference of an introvert is his own self, not other people. He is self-oriented. the introvert is naturally oriented to his own internal endeavors and creative imagination, which come out of his self. The literal meaning of extroversion is to turn outwards. An extrovert’s primary reference is with the self of the other person, not his own self. The extrovert is other-oriented. He is naturally tuned into what is going on inside the other person. [See – “Introversion/Extroversion.”]
We can see that Kurt was primarily involved with his creative imagination as his primary frame of reference. Being tuned into the feelings of others was not his strong suit. An introvert who has been subject to abuse tends toward narcissism. As such, his “me” orientation takes on a new dimension. It focuses on himself as the injured party. He is furious and outraged at slights and injuries directed at him from others. He leads with an exposed nerve and indignantly feels, “How dare you treat me this way?”
We can see that Kurt’s introversion was his strength and his tragic flaw.
He was consumed with drawing from an early age. He drew all throughout his life. He was a very good artist, and expressed himself powerfully through his visual images. Likewise, he focused on his music with fierce perfectionism – writing and rewriting the music and the words over and over again. His images, his music and his lyrics were always true to his inner voice.
His voice was a voice of pain, rage, anguish, despair, self hate, shame, and murder. His singing voice was a harsh, gravelly monotone scream, which pierced like a knife. The instruments were thrashing and violent, which stands in contrast to the hidden melodies which are surprisingly gentle, plaintive and beautiful behind the mask. This contrast creates a stark dissonance of feeling, between lilting beauty and pain.
The dark side of Kurt’s narcissism is that his frame of reference was only about him and no one else. He wrote:
“I don’t care what you think unless
It is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
A travel through a tube and end up in your infection”
[Nevermind – Drain You]
When Kurt quit High school, he moved in with his girlfriend. She worked and stole for him, while he slept all day in squalor and drew and wrote songs. He felt entitled and had no misgivings about draining her dry.
Narcissists are easily injured and hurt. When he felt ridiculed, abandoned, or jealous it threw him into despair, anguish, and rage. With his Internalizer voice it turned into self hate and shame. With his Active temperament he readily acted on impulse without regard for anybody else’s feeling. It never occurred to him to raise his daughter in a wholesome fashion.
He and Courtney Love, his wife, lived a life of heroin squalor, filth and disorder. When he OD’d he didn’t care about even his young daughter. With his suicide, his only concern, tragically, was to end his pain, with no thoughts of others.
Participant/Observer – The orientation as Participant or Observer determines how one relates to the people and scenarios of the play of consciousness as a whole. A Participant is naturally oriented to be immersed in and emotionally involved with others. He easily and naturally engages through feeling. The natural orientation of an observer, on the other hand, is to process at a distance, rather than be immersed in the feeling relatedness of the scenario of the play. An Observer tends toward thinking, and emotional removal. . [See – “Are you a Participant or an Observer?”].
Kurt was an Observer. As such he was removed from feeling and relationships. His observations about his life and his reality were perspicacious. As an outsider, he was removed and not a part of things. You can see it in his band interviews, were he usually seems preoccupied off someplace else. He kept to himself, and focused on his private preoccupations. The pull to drugs was geared to numb himself from feelings, to blot himself out. From behind his music screen he screamed his pain.
“I’m a negative Creep
And I’m stoned”
[Bleach – Negative Creep]
“In your eyes
I’m not worth it
Gimme back my alcohol…
[Bleach – Scoff]
It was understood by the Greeks that there was a function for theater and art. Through art, life’s tragedies could be enacted on stage where the audience could vicariously participate in a drama, and live through it in their imagination. Otherwise, in a world with no art, people would enact the dramas in reality. Without an imaginary war in art, there would be a real war in life. Certain artists like Kurt Cobain put their art into the world. Music is the art form that communicates feeling directly. Kurt couldn’t connect in feeling in his real life, which is so much the story of a life of extreme pain. But he could express it in art.
He took the extreme pain of the world into himself and put it out there into the music.
Kurt lived the extreme of a tormented life. In his own beautiful and ugly way, he sacrificed himself for us through his art. He was pure in it. He didn’t hold back. Kurt suffered in his life from the consequence of emotional deprivation and abuse. I have tried to describe why Kurt had four strikes against him and he couldn’t find his way home. This in no way is meant to reduce him, but to try to understand what happened. As a psychiatrist I would have done everything I could to deal with and help him mourn his pain. His suicide is a tragedy and in no way is it ennobling. His squalor and drug use could have potentially been dealt with. His shame and self hatred, his inability for feeling is such a tragedy not of his own making. His personal issues are purely human issues that derived from his circumstances. This is a human story, not some biochemical brain disease. We need to encompass this tragic story. All of our stories are human stories. It is equally disturbing to me that his music resonates so readily with his generation. Something in this speaks to the dissolution of the fabric of intact families and an intact culture, where so many individuals resonate with such shame and pain and anguish. I wish this were not so.
It is my hope that his sacrifice will help us all live through him vicariously in art, as an alternative to living it out in reality.
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Adult photo – copyright- Loudwire.com
Child photo – copyright- www.parentdish.co.uk
Cry and soul image – copyright-funny-pictures.picphotos.net
Drug image – copyright- www.the quotepedia.com
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.