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He became defiant and withdrawn.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.
* * * * *
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.
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I like that you have outlined the problems in living that Kurt Cobain faced, and the horrible life experiences he had. I have always maintained that problems in living are not solved by modifying brain chemistry with drugs though drugs can help in calming the mental feeling of distress and help you focus (I take SSRIs and a mood stabiliser).
However, the moment you say, ” Kurt was falsely defined as having the made up brain disease – ADHD and was given Ritalin at a young age.”, you will be subject to criticisms similar to:
“you will be subject to criticisms similar to”
Also known as “hater’s gonna hate”. Your point?
The ritalin connection is interesting as I’ve often wondered why Kurt Cobain took his life.
Withdrawal from any kind of recreational substance has never given me the grief that coming off psychotropics gave me.
It is very rare for a psychiatrist to have the kind of insight that allows him to see the falsity inherent in ADHD or any other false psychiatric diagnosis. Of course he would be subject to criticism by those who ignorantly claim that mental illness actually exists.
*I take SSRIs and a mood stabiliser (without a mood stabiliser, the SSRIs alone make me manic), and also mirtazapine for the SSRI induced tremor.
As long as you don’t force your drugs on me, you are welcome to your legal drugs.
Registered for this site: I don’t know if you are a legitimate poster because of your unusual atavar but if your story is authentic I’m sorry you have tremors! I recently discovered an organization devoted entirely to educating and providing support for indivuals with TD as well as their family members. Do you want their contact info? And does your prescriber know about the tremors? Is that why he/she prescribed the mirtazapine? If so, did your prescriber discuss with you other options for alleviating the side effects of the SSRI’s such as safely and slowly tritrsting off the SSRI’s while getting lots of psycho/spiritual/social support for the reasons that caused you to seek help in the first place?
What’s wrong with my avtar?
I do not have tardive dyskinesia. The tremors are a side effect of the SSRIs which stop when I use the drug. Mirtazapine helps to a certain extent.
I do not want to wean off the SSRIs at this stage of my life. They help ease the psychological pain associated with problems in living (but they are not an eliminator of problems in living). This may probably be anathema on MIA but I can’t help that. It’s ones choice to be on or not be on prescription drugs. I don’t have the horrible withdrawal effects that many hear report even if I stop using them.
*The tremors are a side effect of the SSRIs which stop when I stop using the drug.
*I don’t have the horrible withdrawal effects that many here report even if I stop using them.
I had a tremor when on a cocktail of Wellbutrin XL, Adderall, Remeron, and Doxepin that fortunately disappeared once I stopped taking the meds.
You’re one of the lucky ones – I know another person who was weaned off SSRIs after years and he was fine (actually after getting off the drugs he’s become a nicer kind of person – I don’t know if it were the drugs or the fact that he found a new gf but the change was quite remarkable).
One of the best biographies I have read is Heavier Than Heaven, by Charles R. Cross. Kurt Cobain’s childhood was a mess. A total absence of caring by his parents about the effect of their self-destruction on their child.
Thank you, Rossa. I’ll check it out.
Interesting blog, “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.” We have been in the midst of real life wars since 9.11.2001.
And as an artist, I had the common symptoms of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome misdiagnosed as “bipolar” because of disgust at 9.11, and bullying in my real life by some people who abused my children, including a pastor who denied my innocent daughter, and the granddaughter of the head of the investment committee of the board of pensions for the ELCA religion, a baptism on the morning of 9.11.2001. Here’s a book I’ve got on order that points out the evil within the author (and my) ex-religion, goes all the way to the top.
And my medical records are filled with lies that claim being an artist, active volunteer, and mother raising two small children is being “unemployed.” It appears at least some within the psychiatric industry do not believe being an artist is a profession, since they call it “unemployed.” I’m working on a book about my paintings and journey now. I hope some day the psychiatric industry will get out of the business of attacking, defaming, and torturing the artists and people who’ve dealt with child abuse symptoms or concerns. Since John Read’s research seems to imply that psychiatrists profiting off of stigmatizing, and turning child abuse victims into schizophrenics, with their drugs in my opinion, seems like it is the most common etiology of “schizophrenia” today.
While I had the “voices” of the child abusers pumped into my head via anticholinergic intoxication syndrome, which was mistakenly called “bipolar” and “schizophrenia” by psychiatrists, I found Kurt’s music very comforting, it was like he was singing my words:
“I’m so happy because today
I’ve found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze
Cause I’ve found god”
I was grateful I found God because He had decent “voices” start harassing the three evil child abuser “voices” in my head. Once my psychiatrist finally grasped the reality that I was dealing with real life evil sociopaths, and the medical evidence of the abuse had been handed over by some decent nurses, he decided to declare my entire life and everyone in it a “credible fictional story.”
Wouldn’t it be a better world if all could just learn to treat all others in a mutually respectful manner? A book of stigmatizations, medicalizations of human experiences, and iatrogenic illnesses caused by the psychiatric drugs is not a “bible.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” is what the real Bible says. That means the DSM is basically the opposite of the real Bible.
I would say our current society, especially those within the psychiatric industry, has too much respect for war and maintaining the warrior elite in power, and not enough respect for the artists and creatives who would like to see peace on earth and common decency prevail. I do tend to agree with the author of the above mentioned book, that the “imaginary war,” which you speak of, is a real war, albeit in our imagination, between God and Satan, or the forces of good and evil. And I mean no offense, but it seems to me that most of the psychiatric industry is on the wrong side of the war … again. I’m glad you are speaking out against the torture drugs and hopefully you are speaking out against the DSM, as well.
As an intelligent artist, someone whose supposed to be a judge according to 40 hours of unbiased psychological career testing, I am shocked by what I consider to be the utter stupidity, fraud, and lack of ethics behind the psychiatric industry’s belief system. I’m glad one Harvard psychiatrist sees it too.
Thnx you so much for your very interesting, in depth analysis. You’ve answered a lot of questions that arose when watching the film. I was wondering if you had a chance to review and reflect upon Kurt’s suicide note. It can be found here:
Would love your take. Thnx in advance.
Yes I do have some thoughts on it. I would interested in hearing yours.
This was a very smart subject to write about. The popularity of this iconic figure will result in greater traffic of young people to this site where they can learn about the false God of pharmocology and the many safe alternatives ways of healing from trauma and abuse. We need the energy of this generation to tip the scales.
It seemed to me that given Cobain’s sensitive nature and his harrowing experiences, he probably had a severe case of leaky gut.
Was pleased to receive such a nice tweet from Brett Morgen, the writer/director of ‘Montage of Heck’…
Brett MorgenVerified account@brettmorgen
This is intense. Don’t agree w/ everything, but fascinating. Reflections on ‘Montage of Heck’
Los Angeles, CA
“Kurt was falsely defined as having the made up brain disease – ADHD and was given Ritalin at a young age.”
There’s your answer. People are resilient, and can often survive terrible abuse and neglect. Once you introduce drugs and false diagnoses, the journey becomes much more difficult. Psychiatry, or the psychopharmaceutical industrial complex in general, is creating an entire generation of Cobains. The irony, of course, is that psychiatry poses as the solution to the very problems it creates.
This is not to say that broken homes and neglect do not account for much suffering, rather, such suffering is much more easily overcome without the added afflictions of drugs and psychiatric labels.
Kurt Cobain was probably just like any other talented kid who could have blossomed in a loving home as long as he was free from psychotropic drugs. Perhaps he cannot be blamed for how he dealt with the injustices. Whatever his own “narcissism,” the real narcissists are those who occupy seats in the psychopharmaceutical industrial complex and think it their duty to diagnose and analyze those who suffer as a result of “medicine” and “treatment.”
I’ve been following Nirvana ever since 1991 when Nevermind came out. I’m also the same age as Kurt, he is only 1 month older than me! I’ve never related so well to a band as to Nirvana. When other musicians died I felt not much of anything. When Kurt died it took the wind out of me. I believe (and I’m no MD) it was just a perfect storm of events. His upbringing, his misfortune in his family life, many were his own choices obviously. The suicide rate of heroin users is very high. You can’t hardly point to just one thing. It was a combination of things. And the rumors that have been flying for some time was that he felt (and probably justifiably so) his wife Courtney was having an affair with another rock star. That is just a rumor. But that’s enough to send some people over the edge, particularly if they are carrying all this other baggage already.
I clearly recall his suicide and the ones that followed. I even remember MTV showing Courtney as they gathered to remember him. I think Kurt had a way of touching people. He was a star that didn’t seem to know how to be a star. Instead, he was very real, and I think part of you wanted to take care of this slightly disheveled man. It seemed like such a think shell to hide so much talent.
I watched the documentary, and I found that even after all these years, I came like Courtney. She’s quite abrasive, but I think that might have been one of the reasons that Kurt needed her.
The one difference is that I’ve lived more now, and I got to thinking the most destructive relationship I had. It was many years ago, but we started friends on some level as I watched him spin out of control. It ended in his suicide just a few years ago, and I thought a lot about how on earth I had gotten there. I realized that some people get to the point what’s there life is more like a slow suicide than living. It was just a matter of time, and you’ve felt so alone for so long, you just don’t want to do this by yourself. The relationships are always explosive and dangerous and codependant. Much like I view Kurt and Courtney. I think in situations like that, those involved never really learned how to love or be loved. I had to leave the state to break free. I don’t think that Kurt could, and I don’t think he could trust the love and admiration he received from his fans anymore than he could the destructive one he had with Courtney.