August 24, 2016 I woke from an extraordinarily lucid dream in which Bowie and I were married and had a six-year-old daughter who was at "Karen's."  (Let it be known that while before the dream I thought Bowie was a genius songwriter, I never had any feeling of intimacy about him.  And let it also be known that I've never been married.  And I don't have children.)  Anyway in the dream I had to tell Bowie that he was dead.  We both sobbed.  There's more to it than that, but it produced this and an enduring fascination that extended to the great Iggy Pop.  Wow!  I'd love to write songs and perform with him!  Anyway I'm grateful to be able to explore Bowie or Pop in any genre, including during my current studies at Northwestern University.  Here's an imperfect start.


            The following is an introductory analysis to songwriter, artist, musician, and performer David Bowie’s (1947–2016) struggles with mental illness during his artistic ascension from 1968 to 1979.  The creator’s profoundly varied, prodigious, and critically acclaimed songwriting came to the fore during prolonged periods of cross-dressing, androgyny, and bisexuality. Using Kohut’s self-psychology and Winnicott’s object relations theory, we will explore how, through the use of artistic persona and personal relationships, David Bowie ostensibly “healed himself.”


            Our first area of study is based on Winnicott’s notions of dependence: “If dependence really does mean dependence, then the history of an individual baby cannot be written in terms of the baby alone.  It must be written in terms also of the environmental provision which either meets dependence needs or fails to meet them” (1971, p. 95). 

           In David Bowie, born David Burns Jones, we have a grappling with Mother, starting from his birth as Margaret Mary “Peggy” Burns’ third illegitimate child, and continuing throughout the course of his life. Having a “reputation as a sexual predator” (Sandford, 1996, p. 10), and known for her coldness and mood swings, Peggy was from a long line of madness.[1] With a “growing tendency to depression, and later, schizophrenia” (Sanford 10) Peggy “found it hard to display emotion towards anyone but young children” (Gillman & Gillman, 1986, p. 42), and was according to her sister Pat “affectionate…in her handling of babies” …but not much else. Bowie’s childhood friend Dudley Chapman paints a rather grimmer picture: “Peggy would open the door and stand aside as David entered without exchanging a word.  ‘It was a very cold household…It was as if he was there but not there.  There was no sign of affection at any time.  I don’t think it was a family. It was a lot of people who happened to be living under the same roof’” (Gillmans, 54).

         To put it euphemistically, Bowie’s childhood environment was the antithesis of “facilitating” (St. Clair 65), and Peggy Jones’s mothering was the opposite of “good-enough” (Winnicott 66).  Complicating matters, Terry, Peggy’s son conceived with “the love of her life” (Gillman and Gillman, 1986, p. 37) – notably not David’s father John[2], which embittered the ne’er-do-well to no end – “move[d] into” the family home at age ten.  This corresponded with Bowie’s birth, and little baby Bowie “slept in the bed next to” (Stanford, 14) Terry throughout his infancy[3]

         To complicate matters, Peggy’s sister Una, confined to an insane asylum, contributed to the already cramped household when she sent six-year old daughter Kristina to stay at the Jones home while David was an infant.  Kristina “smeared excrement from [Bowie’s] nappy on the wall” (41) she later disclosed, because she “was jealous” (41).  She also reports to have “punched David to make him cry, and the first time he stood up,…screamed with laughter and pushed him down” (41).  “I intended to be the only one who walked” (Gillman, 41, 1986), Kristina announced to one biographer.  Worse, David’s father John, a failed piano bar owner who worked as a hotel porter, seethed jealous animosity toward David’s half-brother Terry, who bore a strong and uncanny physical resemblance to Peggy’s idealized absent lover.  Broadly put, Bowie biographers (Gillman, Stadford, Leigh, Bowie) report an early childhood of entrapment in a tiny home rife with mockery, humiliation, paranoia, and abuse, with alternating periods of favoritism in which David was treated “like a god” (Sandford, 1996, p. 66). 

         There was one light for David, however: his older half-brother – and future deranged and in-and-out-of-institution[4] manic depressive and schizophrenic who would eventually commit suicide – Terry.  Bowie’s infant bed mate, childhood conspirator, and close friend would perhaps give baby Bowie his first experience of mirroring, or Winnicott’s notion of: “When I look I am seen, and so I exist” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 71).  As one biographer writes, Terry and David were very close: 

         The fondest relationship in the [early childhood] household at that time…was between David and Terry.  They shared a bedroom on the ground floor, and on cold mornings David would snuggle into Terry’s bed.  He worshiped Terry…and Terry idolized him” (Gillman and Gillman, 1986, p. 43)

         It was half-brother Terry – not Mother – who David slept with as an infant, and Terry would continue to provide baby and then childhood Bowie with the “facilitating environment” deficient in Mother.  Indeed it could be argued that Terry provided David with a “transitional object”[5] (Winnicott, 1971, p. 12), of sorts, a kind of Mother-Brother figure, which facilitated his growth as a creator, songwriter, musician, and artist.  For critically, Mother shunned not only David but his art – as Bowie put it: “A compliment from [Mother] was very hard to come by.  I would get my paints out and all she could say was ‘I hope you’re not going to make a mess’” (Sanford, 14) – while half-brother Terry provided a nurturing artistic and educational environment in which Bowie could stretch his gifted and precocious wings: 

          Over the next fifteen years Terry, the good-looking boy with a taste for jazz and Beat authors like Jack Kerouac, became a role model and virtual tutor.  As Peggy’s sister Pal said, ‘David worshipped Terry. And Terry idolized him.”  Bowie’s obsession with madness remained a constant, but he drifted apart from its flesh-and-blood archetype” (Sandord, 1996, p. 15).    

          There were wrinkles in this tenuous and deficient pseudo-holding environment, however, even as it would be Bowie’s only childhood experience of “good-enough (bro)thering.” First was Bowie’s father John, who hated Terry for bearing an uncannily similar physical resemblance to the “love of [his wife’s] life” (Gillman and Gillman, 1986, p. 37); so toxic was John’s jealous animosity toward Terry, in fact, that “John actively discouraged signs of affection toward Terry from both David and [cousin] Kristina” (Gillman and Gillman, 1986, pp. 49-50).  Worse, David’s mother repeatedly kicked older half-brother Terry out of the house, during which he would wander for weeks, homeless. Terry’s sometimes-dependence on Bowie for food and other necessities during these intervals, which Bowie would as a child “sneak him,” would become a lifelong psychological, if not physical, dependence.[6] 

          Psychologically put, Peggy Bowie provided the opposite of what Kohut’s self-psychology necessitates in healthy childhood development: “empathetic attunement” (Berzoff, 2011, p. 166).  If “repeated empathic failures are the roots of disturbance and thwarted growth” (Berzoff, 2011, p. 166) then the effects of Peggy’s coldness would be a crippling nonexistence of the mother-infant merger: to lover Ava Cherry, Bowie disclosed he “felt nothing for his mother” (Sanford, 1996, p. 144).  When David’s mother then repeatedly exiled his older brother – whom he idolized, loved, revered, felt union with and learned from – David would likely be forced to consider what his mother would do to him if she knew of the parts of himself he and his brother shared.   Winnicott would say that to combat this fear, David buried his “true self” (St Clair p. 67) with a “false self” that would account for much of what was reported offstage throughout his twenties as “cold natural reserve,” controlled manner, and paranoia, a state lacking intimacy in which he trusted “no one” (Sandford, p. 66).  Indeed, intimacy was not safe.

           Perhaps this was a family/genetic prescription for survival: shutting down.  Both parents and even half-brother were known as “aloof” and “cold” people, perhaps shutting off emotions as a way to deal with fear of madness, a proclivity/tendency David Bowie was to purport using to “control himself.”  This does not, however, signify David’s desperation for attention, love, and nurturing as a child, not only artistically but essentially. While displaying precocious focus, musicality, and body awareness (grace and talent for dance and movement), as a child of four:

…the…neighbors would routinely be startled by the arrival of the borough ambulance, summoned by [Bowie’s] plausible, yet always          unfounded, claim to be ‘dying.’…As he grew older, David grew more ambitious in his efforts to draw attention to himself.  Kohl remembers a winter’s night when ‘two fire engines – half the local brigade’ arrived at Stansfield Road on a fire alarm” (Sanford, 12-13). 

          In a way, Bowie was “dying” the death of his “True” self, an arrest in maturation that would persist throughout Bowie’s 20s and to which Bowie would attest exhaustively in interviews: “There is no David Bowie.”[7]  Mother would live on to torment, as evidenced by David’s first wife of ten years Angela, who would describe their adult relationship in 1967 as “pecking at each other like psychotic vultures in [a] closed little house” (A. Bowie, p. 61, 1993), and Peggy “as mean as she was miserable,” a woman whose “abuse came in multiple forms, from out-and-out diatribes to low-level harassment” (A. Bowie, p. 62, 1993), even as Terry’s need became more pronounced, perhaps culminating in that “Space Oddity” was released in the same month that Terry was institutionalized” (Sanford, 1996, 15). 

          David Bowie’s early childhood, then, was fraught with favoritism, intense competition for approval from and with half-sibling Terry and troubled daughter-of-a-schizophrenic-mother Kristin, a household overcrowding, and paranoid schizo-affected mother.  As has been shown, this would be the exact opposite of Winnicott’s “good-enough mothering” and safe “holding environment” for early childhood development (St Clair, 64).  Bowie’s early childhood experiences with Mother, Brother, and cousin Kristina then offer snapshots of a childhood encouraging Winnicottian notions of fragmentation and depersonalization (St. Clair, 2000, p. 72) rather than “integration” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 70), to say nothing of Mahler’s necessity of “a libidinally available mother who allows for the unfolding of innate potential” (St Clair 94). 

          Since Winnicott’s theory lack a unified theory of development, it does seem prudent to use Mahler here, in brief, to theorized developmental processes.  Postulating that “Disruption of the parent-child relationship during the autistic, symbiotic, or separation-individuation phases results in varying degrees of serious pathology” (St Clair, 2000, p. 94), Mahler’s four developmental subphases show how Bowie’s self could have become profoundly fragmented, requiring intervention in the form of analysis or (in Bowie’s case) art therapy:  Bowie’s childhood experiences exposed disrupted: 1. “differentiation and body image” or “symbiotic emotional supplies” (St Clair 89) – exemplified when cousin Kristin spread Baby Bowie’s feces in his playroom; when Peggy outsourced infant nighttime duties to Terry, with whom Bowie slept; and Peggy’s overwhelming disinterest, volatility, and aloofness; 2. “practicing,” wherein “[t]he ability to crawl and then walk, to move physically away from mother, plays a crucial role in the clear psychic representation of the ‘I’” (St Clair, 89) – as when cousin Kristin pushed him down when he tried to walk; 3. rapprochement[8], or the time “when the toddler wants the mother to share each newly acquired skill and experience” (St. Clair 91) – consider Peggy’s dismissal of Bowie’s painting, for instance; and the fourth subphase: “emotional object constancy and individuality” which “depends on the internalization of a positive inner image of the mother that supplies comfort to the child in the mother’s physical absence and that allows the child to function separately” (St Clair, 93).  This gives way to the next section because in David’s case, it seems, in order to internalize Mother, he had to become her.


            The following section explores in brief how Bowie integrated fragmented aspects of his self through the use of stage and songwriting persona.  A thorough exploration would formally dissect these aspects, and thoroughly integrate Bowie’s lyrics, albums, and overarching topical concerns – but, regrettably, this far exceeds the limits of this paper. However we will explore in brief how Bowie through artistic relationship, artistic output, and stage persona tripped through the three poles of the self to ultimately integrate[9].  

                                    GOOD ENOUGH MOTHER

            Picture it: David Bowie steps off a plane into U.S for his first American tour in 1970 wearing…a dress (A. Bowie, p. 128, 1993).  His long hair, thin waist, and graceful mannerisms culled from years studying theater, dance – and his own wife – make him a wondrous, androgynous, vision.  What a lovely…woman. By donning a dress and following his first wife’s lead[10], Bowie participated in a form of “transmuting internalization” by which “aspects of the selfobject are absorbed into the child’s self” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 142).

            The first need of the child is mirroring, which, when done correctly, leaves a child singing “I am terrific, perfect; look at me!” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 143).  Yes, David Bowie’s wife of ten years, Angela Barnett was an exceptional mirror.  In some ways, Angela Bowie’s role to Bowie personifies the term “selfobject”: “persons…experienced as parts of the self or that are used in the service of the self to provide a function for the self” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 142).  It was Angela who both found the dresses that made Bowie a hit and encouraged him to wear them. To her, David was a “gleam in the mother’s eye” (Kohut and Rogers handout, 1985); she fawned over his appearance and encouraged his creative fancy.  A “Space Oddity den mother” (A. Bowie, 1993, p. 77), as she called herself, with an unshakable conviction in his genius and talent, she managed Bowie’s managers; “promoted and protected…the ideas he stood for” (p. 182); provided him a “home base secured and operational” (p. 83) known as Haddon Hall; and advocated when David became passive: “More and more, I became the person who put his ideas into action, found and secured the resources he needed, and kicked down the doors he wanted to walk through” (A. Bowie, 1993, p. 57), she reports. 

          Good-enough mothering, indeed.  Through “optimal mirroring, interaction, and frustration” (Berzoff, p. 176) Angela helped strengthen – or perhaps form – David’s first pole of the self by mirroring the grandiose self, and “reflect[ing] and identit[ifying] its unique capacities, talents, and characteristics” (Berzoff, p. 170).  And in the sufficient nurturing of that pole through mirroring, Bowie’s adult self-esteem was born: with “I can make it happen” ambition, he stormed the U.S.  To catalyze growth, as a mirror, Angela was also uniquely a twin.  Photos of Bowie and Angela evidence striking physical similarities perhaps enabling the untrusting and paranoid, or narcissistically compromised David to “merge” (Rogers and Kohut, 1985): both were bisexual, pale, blondish, tall and waif like, they had short similarly shaded hair and similar (nearly familial) facial features.  When David Bowie married Angela the “door kick[er]” (Bowie, p. 83, 1993) whom he “did not love,” (Bowie, p. 64, 1993) he committed himself to spending ten years facing, cohabitating with, relating, and making love to a powerful, dominant, female, loving version of himself (and Mother) – barring the genius-level talent, of course.  In this way, Angela was both an empathetic mirroring selfobject…and a twin.

         Functioning as a selfobject, Angela helped “evoke the structured self” Bowie lacked from childhood and helped begin David’s trend toward “the continuity of…selfhood” (Rogers and Kohut, p. 171).  A dysfunctional childhood produced in Bowie a fragmented self trapped in arrested development.  As a 22 year-old, he was nearly erupting with all forms of “narcissistic injury” (171)…and these frequently made the news.  Outrageously bisexually sexually promiscuous; a chainsmoker and addict of everything, though preferring cocaine (grandiosity) and alcohol (numbing); prone to frequent “withdrawals” or “rage” (Kohut and Rogers, 1985); David was vulnerable to using the kinds of ineffective coping strategies Kohut covers at length (St. Clair, 2000, pp. 150–152). 

          But Angela helped close the gap on these huge developmental deficits.  She shared clothes, and at least one biographer finds that: “Androgyny was...[a] way [for David] to put clear water between himself and the stultifying world of [his parents]” (Sanford, 1996, p. 48).  In the pursuit of his interests she was a “storm trooper”(Sanford, 1996, p. 61), who mirrored his infant mother-merger needs by living with him “in a fantasy world” – or more accurately a “bisexual fantasy” world” (48).  In this sense, Angela became an “idealized parent image” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 149) to David, replicating the early mother-child relationship in which “the child tries to hold onto global narcissistic perfection by assigning it to an archaic object, the idealized parent image, and by striving to stay merged with this object” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 149).  Indeed, despite their differences, Bowie remained with Angie for a decade, suggesting that feelings he derived from this “idealizing transference,” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 149), the mobilization of the idealized parent image, felt safe, productive, and necessary.

          The relationship might have been complicated, it might have been messy, but it was a good start.  As Kohut theorizes, “the formation, cohesion, and health of the self actually occur from the taking in of good psychological nutrients from selfobjects. That is their function—to create and build a strong, vibrant self” (Berzoff, 2011, p. 167-168).  Angela most assuredly did that, placating Bowie’s grandiose, mirroring, and twinship needs, and even in many ways the idealized parent imago he lacked, thus opening up David to a world of possibility for self-development through the use of persona – and sexuality[11].

                        GOOD ENOUGH (MOTHER)–BROTHERS

            Another Kohutian developmental hurdle Bowie appears to have resolved through the use of persona was his alterego or twinship needs, expressed through the character of Ziggy Stardust[12], an alien from Mars.  Sharing a childhood bedroom, a bed, and who knows what else with his ten-years senior schizophrenic half-brother, Bowie was reared on the strange but sadly predictable schizophrenic cocktail of paranoia, alien invaders, and divergent thinking.  Consider the image of a teenager and a boy gazing out into the night from their shared bedroom window, aliens in their own home, avoiding the hell downstairs, whose gaze catches the “coaching-lamp of the Crown pub,” an “old lantern at dusk” seen as “‘romantic’ by a neighbor” (Sanford, 1996, p. 19), and we may just get a glimpse at what Bowie was feeling when he wrote in the eponymous song “Ziggy Stardust”: “Just a beer light to guide us” (Bowie, 1972, Track 9).  To cope, Bowie transformed into Ziggy Stardust.  “I was stalking time for the moon boys, the Bewlay Brothers”[13] (Bowie, 1971, Track 11), he would sing in a song of the same name.   

            Alter ego and twinship needs were actualized, and talents and skills “optimally utilized” (Rogers and Kohut, 1985) by Ziggy Stardust, the red-headed exhibitionist “alien” Bowie created to project confidence on stage and protect his fragmented, vulnerable, and developmentally immature self.  That Bowie chose a persona closely allied with the interests he shared with his “twin” brother (both creative, intelligent, divergent thinkers, plagued by various degrees with “the family curse”) makes sense when once considers madness was Bowie’s lifelong chief fear.  Marketed as his “alter ego” (Sanford, 1996, p. 107), Ziggy displayed an attractive “messianic quality” (Sanford, 1996, p. 78), a posture that must have been comforting Bowie, and yet just “beneath the arctic exterior there was a fragile ego” (165).   So obvious were Bowie’s attempt to distance himself from his troubled genetic past through the complicated use of personas that would bind him to it, even music critics noticed that:

            Bowie’s characters were a contradiction, or a series of contradictions – ‘like

            Houdini’s underwater cages, self-set traps from which he executes miraculous

            Escapes that work as well as the tricks they create’. The final word was from the      

            Illusionist himself: ‘There is no definitive David Bowie’ (Sanford, 1996, p. 160).

            Yet the Ziggy Stardust persona allowed David Bowie to integrate the “alien” and “mad” and “brother-like” parts of himself in a uniquely stable environment – the stage.  Wrestling with “true” and “false” selves left over from dysfunctional childhood – on his own[14] – would have been difficult enough.  But the stage’s unique “holding environment” (Winnicott) offered a safe place where Bowie in the persona of Ziggy could experience “positive feelings…of being actual and real.”  Winnicott theorizes: “In short, good maternal care brings the infant into existence as a person” (St Clair, 2000, p. 71).  This certainly applied to Bowie, whose stage persona Ziggy Stardust cemented his arrival as “a Star.” But identity confusion also made the coming down to “reality” harder.

            Welcome to the more “frustrating” (Kohut, pp. 144–145) aspects of Ziggy, which Bowie successfully endured, and which Kohut regarded as “playing a central role in the building up of self structure” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 144).  With the birth of Ziggy (Mahler might consider this another form of “practicing,” or “learning how to walk” – on stage) Bowie’s marriage to Angela fizzled (Mahler might insert here that the first subphase had been complete, wherein Angela’s attention suddenly became “too smothering and too intrusive”) (St Clair, 2000, p. 89) once Bowie realized he didn’t need to “check back” for Angela’s gaze as often – or at all.  As with most progress, there are regressions, and Bowie was no exception.  On the last night of Ziggy Stardust’s “life,” after which the persona would be retired, Bowie sobbed to strangers in an alley  in costume before his last show (see endnote 7), then carried on professionally with the performance in character.  Afterwards, he calmly walked into his dressing room, shut the door, and destroyed the place.  Described as a “rampage,” Standford writes:

            The table with its wine bottle and flowers, the walls, the chairs, the lamp and

            windows were all kicked and spat on.  But it was against himself, finally, rather

            than his fans or staff, that Bowie turned.  When he emerged it was noticed that, as

            well as his bloodshot eyes, he was scratched about his neck and face and showed a

            red bruise the size of an apple on his cheek (1996, p. 4).

            Kohut considered such “narcissistic rage to be pathological because it emerges when the very fabric of the self has been injured. Indeed, Kohut called narcissistic rage a “‘disintegration product,’ because it occurs when a person feels he or she is literally falling apart and has returned to a state of primitive disorganization” (Berzoff, 2011, p. 167).  With the “death” of adaptive strategy Ziggy Stardust, Bowie was alone again, left with the hollow center from childhood he and his half-brother shared, full of divergence, creativity, and paranoia.  The alien Ziggy fully integrated into his psyche, there was nowhere left to go, and Bowie would wander alone, taking comfort in cocaine – that enabler of grandiosity and “god” – until his next character/persona manifestation.  In other words, until the next persona – or actual person – helped Bowie internalize developmental needs and deliver crucial lessons and until it/he/she was wrung out, exhausted by overuse[15].   

            Around this time, collaborator, colleague, and “twin” Iggy Pop further helped Bowie carve out a “cohesive self” ­through the satisfying of twinship and idealizing needs – this time with a real, live, male figure.  Kohut postulated that “selfobject needs can and should be met by a variety of people and experiences throughout the life cycle” (Berzoff 173) and historically speaking, Iggy Pop remained a lifelong supply for Bowie.  If Kohut’s third pole “refers to the need to feel that there are others in the world who are similar to oneself,” and if “working through involves completing processes that were traumatically stopped in childhood” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 154), then merging with Iggy Pop, a punk rocker, was a strange but effective solution.  Ejected from his band, The Stooges, which had gained much acclaim but little in the way of finances, Pop and his career stalled when he wound up in the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA “on the verge of a mental breakdown” (Gillmans, 419). At this, Bowie “saved” Pop: he helped produce Iggy’s hit album Raw Power (1973), and invited Pop to room with him in Berlin between 1976–1979 where they would both work on “cleaning up” from drug addiction.  In essence, Bowie became, naturally, his “brother” in the true sense of the word: he became his friend.  Ultimately they co-wrote an album together (The Idiot, 1977), and Bowie even backed up Iggy on stage playing keyboard as a member Iggy’s band, thus becoming “one of the boys” after years spent on stage, out front, all alone.

            Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy – as his three solo albums from that era are known – together represent some of Bowie’s most critically acclaimed works.  Is it because Bowie made so much advancement in self-cohesion by twinning with Iggy?  Certainly, the benefits of woking with one’s “twin” were reciprocal: while in Germany Iggy dressed like Bowie, dyed his hair blonde, and imitated the sophisticated Brit at every turn (a bit of a My Fair Lady period).  Crucially, however, their merging was born of an alterego: Bowie met the Michigan-born Iggy Pop during his first (dress-wearing) 1971 U.S. tour and promptly started:

‘scrawling notes on a cocktail napkin about a crazy rock star named Iggy or Ziggy.’

Within hours of returning to Beckenham, Bowie was raving – to the point of

obsession when he was in the mood – about creating a fantasy character ‘who looks

like he’s landed from Mars’ (Sanford, 1996, p. 74).  

Fantastically, Bowie’s savior alter ego Ziggy had been based partially on Iggy Pop.  A sort of Mother-Brother-Alter Ego-Twin. 

            What drove Bowie to merge with Iggy so?  We can consult Kohut for guidance, who as a psychoanalyst theorized “There is no ego without id” but as a self-psychologist postulated “There is no id without ego” (St. Clair, 2000).  Described in their first meeting as “pale, intense, faultlessly manic, a hallow-eyed vagrant twenty pounds underweight” who “[i]n his first hour at the club…ate four full-scale breakfasts” (Sandford, 2000, p. 82), Iggy might have stood out plainly as…more of a “freak” than Bowie himself.  According to biographers “Iggy’s ways intrigued Bowie. His humor diverted him: the stories about Detroit and Ann Arbor, growing up in a trailer park, the clinical discussions about heroin and methadone. Bowie was shocked.” (Sanford, 2000, p. 82).  Further, after “three days without sleep,” Iggy, Bowie’s id-alterego-twin personified, proclaimed that “‘the only good rocker [is] a dead rocker’ and rendered himself insensible by smashing a beer bottle over his head” (Sanford, 2000, p. 82).   Bowie reported that Iggy “unleash[ed] the animalistic parts of rock…with no apparent inhibitions, least of all when performing on stage, a state that David himself hoped to achieve (Gillman and Gillman, p. 259).  But as one biographer writes:

            There was another component too.  At the core of the friendship was a therapeutic

            interaction that was of benefit to both.  As David helped nurse Iggy back to health

            [from a heroin addiction], through his loyalty and his diligent steering of Iggy’s

            career, it was as if he was vicariously solving his own problems.  Iggy helped David

            directly in turn, showing by his example that a body racked by drugs could recover

            its vitality and physique.  The other irresistible inference was that David had found

            in Iggy a sufferer from metal distress whom he could help, free from the risks of     

            confronting [his brother] Terry” (Gillman & Gillman, 1986, p. 419)

Thus Kohut’s three-pole theory of development and identity bore out: there was more to motivation for behavior than aggression and sex – the feeling of being “special.”  For Kohut, “self” as the central organizing principle existing simultaneously with id, ego, and superego, and narcissistic development, had to do with vicissitudes of self-esteem (Cytrynbaum, 2016a).  Clearly, Bowie and Pop helped each other find it. 

            Perhaps this is why Kohut’s self-psychology works well with lower-functioning borderlines, who are essentially psychotic in the middle with flimsy defenses circling them (Cytrynbaum, 2016a).  How closely does this resemble the fledgling Bowie and Pop, gender-bending, self-flagellating, underdeveloped, vomiting out uninhibited stage performances while internally riddled with a terrible turmoil? As with psychotics, you don’t want to rip away defenses – they need them (Cytrynbaum, 2016a).  Effective regression can only happen when individuals are a certain amount stable, and borderlines need more protection. Borderline, schizophrenic, psychotics, need more adaptive supportive therapy – not “assaultive” therapies that would most closely resemble Bowie’s dark childhood days.  Because borderline, schizophrenic, psychotic, and narcissistic patients have a hard time maintaining relationships, and have severe attachment disorders. Bowie’s finding of a “twin” or “alterego” on which he could “see himself” and attempt a stab at cohesion seems fittingly brilliant of his genius.  As Cytrynbaum states, “There are very dark caves in you that you can climb out of – with a very secure rope” (2016a).  Bowie and Pop were each other’s ropes.

            The experience of efficacy in psychoanalytic treatment “I can elicit a response, therefore I am somebody” (Wolf, p. 175) offers an inlet into how Bowie developed a cohesive self through persona and personal relationships.  With his “merger-hungry personality” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 148) he created personae that allowed him to wend his way through developmental stages he didn’t experience as a boy.  And fortunately, Bowie’s “true self” was found. By 1978, Bowie told a friend he had “grown up at last” (Sanford, 1996, p.190).  His addictions had fallen off, he had a string of hits, and when he performed them, it was “in his own clothes” so to speak.  In his success his mother finally approved of him, visiting one show once, an act of “rapproachment” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 190).  In 1979 Bowie was quoted as saying:

            Now I look at other people.  I even go into shops and, if somebody talks to me,

            I chat back.  Three years ago I could have no more done that than fly – literally.

            They couldn’t drag me on an airplane screaming, at one time.  Now, every day,

I get up more nerve and try to be more normal and less insulated against real people” (Sanford, 1996, p. 190).     

That Bowie had been in dangerous territory in his pursuit of a cohesive self, however, became clear later in life.  In 1993 at 46 years old, middle aged, Bowie remarked: “I often wondered at the time how near the line I was going…how far I should push myself.’  Ziggy and the other characters, explained Bowie, had been ‘alternative egos,’ a form of madness through which he had meant to save his sanity” (Sanford, 1996, p. 15).   Bowie’s exploration was risky, but luckily for him, successful. 

            More conservatively, Kohut, Mahler, and Winnicott’s theories would be better applied by a professional clinician in a safe holding environment for maximum expediency in the quest to bring about a cohesive self.



[1] As definitive biographer Bowie biographer Christopher Sandford writes, “The Burns history was chilling enough.  Peggy’s younger sister Una suffered from depression and schizophrenia, underwent electric shock and finally confinement at a Victorian asylum...and died in her late thirties.  A second sister, Vivienne, suffered a schizophrenic attack, and a third girl, Nora, was lobotomized in an effort to cure what her mother described as ‘bad nerves’.  Of Peggy’s two remaining siblings, a brother won a Military Medal for ‘utter disregard of his own life’ in the African desert, and a fourth sister, Pat (described by Bowie as a ‘frightful aunt’…was cast as the family rabble-rouser.  Peggy’s parents, Margaret and Jimmy, were, respectively, a frustrated poet and self-confessed ‘madwoman,’ and a fantasist who concocted a fictional career as a war hero” (Sanford, p. 14, 1996).


[2] Terry was born in 1937 “from an affair with James Rosenberg, a Jew with whom she fell in love despite her active membership in Oswald Mosley’s fascist, pro-Nazi Blackshirts” (A. Bowie, p. 33, 1933). 


[3] Erchak writes, “When male babies sleep with their mothers while father sleeps elsewhere, they identify with their mothers, a cross-sex identification; when they sleep with both parents, they identify (nonsexually) with adults” (p. 65, 1992).  What then happens when male babies sleep with their brothers?  It would follow that a same-sex identification might be born. 


[4] Bowie’s heralded album The Man Who Sold the World’s (1970) original U.K. album cover – a photograph of a beautiful long-haired Bowie lying supine and suggestively in a dress tossing playing cards – was summarily rejected for transatlantic transmission by Mercury Record executives.  Friend Mike Weller produced the new design, an image of a cowboy in front of Cane Hill Hospital, the institution “where Terry Burns was confined” (Sanford, 1993, p. 75), which became a telling “version” of Bowie to which U.S. audiences were first introduced. 


[5] A full analysis of Winnicott’s transitional object would be helpful but is too exhaustive for the limits of this paper.  Some considerations “made on the basis of accepted psychoanalytic theory” would be that that transitional object: 1. stands for the breast, or object of first relationship; 2. precedes reality-testing; 3. passes from “(magical) omnipotent control to control by manipulation (involving muscle eroticism and coordination pleasure)”; 4. may develop “into a fetish object and so persist as a characteristic of the adult sexual life”; 5. may “because of anal erotic organization, stand for feces (but it is not for this reason that it may become smelly and remain unwashed)” (1971, p. 12).   


[6]After the end of one institutional hospitalization in 1970/1971 Terry stayed with newlyweds David and his first wife Angie at their artistic commune Haddon Hall for about a month (Bowie’s seminal “Space Oddity” had been written mid-January 1969 and released July of the same year).  It was perhaps his feeling of being understood by the song that drew him to seek refuge with his now-22-year-old-half-brother, though he would repeatedly be “turned away” (Sanford, 1996, p. 58) by the very busy Bowie thereafter.  This symbolized a lifelong desperation: Terry reaching out the brother he heard on the radio and whom he idolized, and Bowie’s distance attributed by Aunt Pat – who maintained a lifelong relationship with the institutionalized brother – to being “afraid of losing his sanity and ‘terrified’ to visit Terry” (Sanford, p. 217).  Shortly before Terry’s successful suicide at age 47 (1984), and despite Bowie’s “neglect” (Leigh, 2014, p. 225), Terry continued to maintain that “David could get him out of Cane Hill” (Gillman and Gillman, 1986, p. 475), and after one unsuccessful attempt (of many) awoke from unconsciousness muttering “‘David would be waiting’ for him at home” (Sanford, 1996, p. 237).  One might imagine that Terry’s last thoughts, lying with his head on the tracks, were of his half-brother.  Though Bowie sidestepped, denied, and avoided much of his childhood and fraternal obligations and implications, his artwork – featuring many portraits of Terry – belies his lifelong “survivor’s guilt” of sorts: a guilt that he had abandoned his mother-brother and failed to be even a marginally adequate “brother’s keeper.”


[7] One particularly illustrative example is given by David’s close friend and guitarist Mark Ronson occurring during Bowie’s last performance as persona Ziggy Stardust (explored in the next section).  Before the show Bowie was struck by a “hoarse shout from his manager of ‘Where’s David?’ According to Bowie’s guitarist, his exact response to the question was to mutter, ‘You tell me’, before surrendering to the frantic cries from the dressing room” (Sanford, 1996, p. 2). 


[8] St. Clair eloquently explains: “Maternal unavailablility can make practicing and exploratory activities brief and subdued.  A child preoccupied with [his] mother’s availability is unable to invest energy in her environment and in the development of other important skills and often returns to her in efforts to engage her.  The child can become insistent and even desperate in attempts to woo her.  This desperation depletes energy from the ego, and the child may revert to earlier splitting mechanisms; serious developmental arrest can result in pathological narcissism and borderline phenomena” (2000, p. 93).  


[9] Akin to Mahler’s necessity of “a libidinally available mother who allows for the unfolding of innate potential” (St. Clair, p. 94), Kohut describes narcissism as “a withdrawal of instinctual energy from external objects and an investment of libido in the ego” (St Clair, 2000, p. 140) by an infant/child due to inadequate mothering.  In “good-enough” mothering (Winnicott’s term, but applicable) grandiose-exhibitionist needs are established when a “selfobject…empathically responds to the child by approving and mirroring this grandiose self” and idealized parental imago needs are met by “permitting and enjoying the child’s idealization of the parent” (St Clair, 2000, p. 143). 


[10] A strong case could be made that Bowie’s first wife Angela consistently met all three Kohutian healthy development needs – grandiose/exhibitionist, alterego/twinship, and idealizing – during David’s early adulthood, and that by providing such consistent responsiveness (barring bad behavior, of course), she helped Bowie shore up “psychic structures capable of dealing with anxiety an so on” (St. Clair, 2000, p. 150).  But for the subject of this paper, here we limit our focus to grandiose/exhibitionist needs.


[11] It does not escape me that Jung could provide guidance in an exploration of Bowie’s artistic cobbling together of a fractured self.  Particularly useful would be Jung’s Red Book tanglings with Philemon (his own flirtation with psychosis) during which a woman “interfere[d] with [him] from within” (1965, p. 186).  Inspired to conduct a longterm dialogue with her in the realm of active imagination, Jung would later conclude from this internal relationship “I came to see that this inner feminine figure plays a typical, or archetypal, role in the unconscious of a man, and I called her the ‘anima’” (1965, p. 186).    



[13] Here one might scrutinize Winnicott’s exploratory writings on Baby’s first sounds as they relate to birth order, thumb, and transitional object (1971, p. 11).  Was “Bewlay” Bowie’s first “Baa” word? A conflation of “brother” (or “brother-mother”) and “Terry”?  While we’ll never know, the possibility is intriguing to consider. 


[14]That Bowie was able to cobble together the Kohutian developmental skill sets he didn’t learn at home was even more shocking in light of his view of analysts at the time. Disenchanted with the deleterious effects mental health institutions and professionals had on his relatives (suicide and institutionalization abounded), Bowie admitted: “I hadn’t been to an analyst…my parents went, my brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles and cousins, they did that, they ended up in a much worse state, so I stayed away. I thought I’d write my problems out” (Sanford, 1996, p. 15). 


[15]While living in Berlin with Pop, Bowie developed The Thin White Duke character, through which one could make a case that he continued to integrate the “idealized parent imago” pole.  At his best, the Duke represented an idealized image of “Father” Europe, the well-dressed, suited, short-haired gentleman of sophistication, charm, and erudition. Internalizing these values allowed Bowie to “see the strength and wonder outside of the self, in others, in order to merge with their growth-enhancing qualities” (Berzoff p. 173).  However, The Thin White Duke also contained its shadow, helped along by Bowie’s frequent cocaine psychosis, containing the destructive mythology of modern colonial Western White man.  One biographer reports that in:

the magical side of the…Nazi campaign, and the mythology involved’; the myth of national regeneration and of the ‘new man’…[Bowie] saw the core of the involvement as the appeal to personal growth through leadership of an all-wise guru, who like Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ dared to stand apart (Sanford 177). 

David’s idealization needs were thus complicated by his obsessive use of cocaine which made him psychotic and paranoid, ultimately bringing about the very thing he feared: madness.  Thankfully after a German orthodontist produced Holocaust victims’ skulls “to demonstrate the dental merits of ‘Nordic blood,’” Bowie “reversed himself” (Sanford 178), completely and remained ashamed of himself and the episode, which he attributed to…a lot of coke. 




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Bowie, A., and Carr, P.  (1993).  Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie.  New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 


Cytrynbaum, S. (2016a, November). Lecture. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

Cytrynbaum, S. (2016b, November). Course Handout. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.


Erchak, Gerald M. (1992).  The Anthropology of Self and Behavior.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Gillman, L. & Gillman, P. (1986).  Alias David Bowie.  New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.


Jung, C. G. (1965).  Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 

Kohut, H. (1984).  How Does Analysis Cure?  A. Goldberg & P. Stepansky (Eds.).  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Kohut, K.H. & Rogers, C.  (1985, August).  American Psychologist


Leigh, Wendy.  (2014).  Bowie.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.


St. Clair, M. (2000).  Object Relations and Self Psychology.  Ontario, Canada: Wadsworth Brooks/Cole. 


Sandford, C.  (1996).  Bowie: Loving the Alien.  London, U.K.: Da Capo Press. 


Winnicott, D. W. (1971).  Playing and Reality.  New York, NY: Routledge. 


Wolf, E. S.  (1988).  Treating the Self: Elements of Clinical Self-Psychology. New York, NY: Guilford Press. 

  © Rebecca F. 2017