That Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy: An Amazing Psychoanalytic Journey

by Kathleen D. Colebank

July 15, 2008


Freud pioneered psychoanalysis as his method for investigating the conscious and unconscious psychic apparatus. Psychoanalysis is an avenue by which the analyst can explore the individual’s compromises and conflicts in adaptation to the demands of social order. Freud, in his analyses of Jensen’s Gradiva ((1907), Leonardo’s childhood memoir (1910), and Michelangelo’s Moses (1914) used literature and art to expand the theoretical concepts of psychoanalysis to include civilization and culture at large. This paper uses the libretto of a modern rock opera, The Who’s Tommy (1969), to examine the sources of Tommy Walker’s intrapsychic alienation, his memories and affect, and the translation of his emotional communication. Modern Freudian psychoanalytic thought is employed to address the challenges and opportunities the analyst experiences when the preverbal, pre-oedipal analysand has incorporated the directive: You won’t say nothing to no one. Never tell a soul what you know is the truth! (The Who, 1969)



Deaf dumb and blind boy, he’s in a quiet vibration land.
Strange as it seems his musical dreams ain’t quite so bad.

The artist, like the neurotic, had withdrawn from an unsatisfying reality into this world of imagination; but, unlike the neurotic, he knew how to find a way back from it and once more to get a firm foothold in reality. His creations, works of art, were the imaginary satisfactions of unconscious wishes, just as dreams are; and like them they were in the nature of compromises, since they too were forced to avoid any open conflict with the forces of repression (Freud, 1925, SE 20: pp 64-65).

Freud (1907) discusses the process by which the creative writer reveals his /her fantasy world through literature. The reader is drawn to the heroic character and feelings of concern, desire, and sympathy are induced as the character’s dilemmas and reactions unfold throughout the narrative. The reader is given entrée into a world of fantasy that is constructed from memory, experience, wish, and desire. As Freud notes, within the creation is threaded the connection of past, present, and future. The Who’s Tommy (1969), a rock opera, is just such a multi-dimensional work of creative vitality. Conceived and primarily written by British rocker and “Who” band member Peter Townshend, it is an enigmatic anthem of the rock generation, an exuberant, manic extravaganza of performance that vibrates with musical passion and pulsates with a raw, aggressive, sexual energy. It is a story that unfolds with both a sense of the real and the surreal. It is aptly subtitled “An Amazing Journey.”

The rock opera opens with hope and beauty. A much wanted child’s birth is heralded with the refrain It’s a boy Mrs. Walker! It’s a boy!  However, tragedy hangs in the shadows. The child is born in the fog of a war that promises to extinguish the voice of the father. The father is a pilot in the Air Corps. An aerial dogfight --- and Captain Walker disappears. Mother’s grief and longing, her ambivalent feelings of love and hate, are unendurable. She slides into melancholia (Freud, 1917). Finally, when she takes a lover, a semblance of what was lost is restored.  Mother and her Lover are very optimistic as the year 1920 comes to a close, and they toast their newly found happiness. I think ’21 is going to be a good year as long as you and I see it in together. Some wishes, though, are not to be fulfilled. In the night, the presumed-dead man returns and finds his wife in the arms of her lover. Consumed by rage, he kills the trespassing “other”. Little Tommy stands as mute witness, watching this violent enactment reflected in a mirror. Finally he is noticed. Captain Walker and his wife turn on their child and stridently command:

You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it
You won’t say nothing to no one ever in your life
You never heard it, how absurd it all seems without any proof
You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it
You never heard it, not a word of it
You won’t say nothing to no one
Never tell a soul what you know is the truth.

This is little Tommy’s primal scene. Traumatized, he regresses to a dissociative, autistic state. In a defiant and defensive act of primitive regression, Tommy becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. This is Tommy’s non-existence, his unrelated-ness to the outside world.  Surrounded by his friends he sits so silently and unaware of anything. The child is further tormented by his pedophilic Uncle Ernie and physically tortured by his sadistic Cousin Kevin. Tommy’s parents are enraged by his schizoid withdrawal. They cannot tolerate his autistic state, as he loses himself to staring only into “his” mirror. They drag the child from one hoped for promise of a cure to another; from religious healers to physicians to gypsy acid queens. Yet there is no “cure”, as the doctor announces:

He seems to be completely unreceptive
The test I gave him show no sense at all
His eyes react to light the dials detect it
He hears but cannot answer to your call.

His eyes can see, his ears can hear, his lips speak
All the time the needles flick and rock
No machine can give the kind of stimulation
Needed to remove his inner block.

 And Tommy continues to non-exist in his encapsulated state, repeatedly uttering his silent and heart-rending plea: See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.

 The rock opera follows the unfolding life of the child Tommy into that of the adult Tommy. In keeping with Freud’s (1907) observations on the style of popular creative writing, Tommy possesses a heroic ego and is able to perform super-human feats. In an act of sadistic torment, his Cousin Kevin stands the autistic child in front of a pinball machine. Magically, Tommy is transformed into a “Pinball Wizard”, and becomes a figure of mythical proportion:

Ain’t got no distractions, can’t hear no buzzers and bells
Don’t see no lights a-flashin’, plays by sense of smell
Always gets the replay, never seen him fail
That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.

Experiencing a “miracle cure” Tommy then gathers about himself disciples and followers who worship me and all I touch. He demands a narcissistic sameness of them; commands that they blindly and loyally follow his precepts. They must pledge their complete acceptance of him as a cult figure, the New Messiah.

I leave a trail of rooted people
Mesmerized by just the sight.
The few I’ve touched are now disciples
Loved as One, I am the Light.

Tommy attempts to introduce the followers to his enlightenment, demanding that they, too, cover their eyes, seal their ears, and mute their voices—you know where to put the cork. He excoriates them for their worldly vices and insists that salvation is found in the playing of a ritualistic pinball game. The followers eventually rebel against the harshness of Tommy’s imposed superego and they denounce him resoundingly.

We’re not gonna take you
We forsake you
Gonna rape you
Let’s forget you, better still.

The rock opera Tommy is rich with the material that the psychoanalyst finds enticing and alluring. There is nothing of the human condition that is not presented in the pulsating rhythm and aggressive stage presentation of this creative work. Delving into the realm of the oedipal conflict, pre-oedipal regression, sadism, sexual abuse, primitive defense mechanisms, narcissistic identification, grandiosity and religiosity, Townsend unveils the opposing nature of the drive forces that fuel his /Tommy’s intrapsychic alienation.

The Unchecked Rule of Thanatos

I overwhelm as I approach you,
Make your lungs hold breath inside.

With Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) Freud introduces the psychoanalytic world to his concept of Thanatos—the death drive. On a massive scale, The Great War gives him clear sight of the war neurosis that gripped the world. In the midst of that conflict, he sees the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and concludes, “Thanatos rules, not Eros.” Freud continues with his research and writing until his death in 1939. However, like the mushroom clouds that rose in the sky over Japan in 1945, Thanatos hangs over every idea, affect, and word.  He becomes even further convinced that life is but a detour on the way to death; it is a vain attempt to forestall the inevitable.  Eros lurches from inorganic matter and the cold, dead hand of non-life drags it back into the tohu v’bohu--the Empty Nothingness. Freud witnesses that Primal Scene.You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it, you won’t say nothing! Thanatos demands acquiescence. In that moment, Freud himself becomes deaf, dumb, and blind.

Freud understands that within the psychic structure of humanity there is a compulsion for repetition.  Within his consulting room he collects abundant evidence that the human organism can exert tremendous amounts of energy to engage in repetitions that result in ample discontent and dissatisfaction. The illogic of the phenomenon stands in opposition to the dictates of the reality principle. The libidinal drive is not in isolated ascendancy. As Freud (1920) concludes, the dark star of Thanatos is the drive force that pulls all of humanity back to the constancy of nothingness.

If Freud stands correct, humanity is alienated at the core. Death, not life, drives us steadily toward our destiny. The violence of human behavior gives ample witness to this assertion.  Fleeing Austria in 1938, Freud lives long enough to have his observations following World War I fully validated. His homeland is invaded. The Holocaust had begins. Death perversely and gleefully stalks Europe—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Freud’s life of exile in London is short and painful, moving inexorably toward the culmination of the theory he propounds in 1920. The world is emotionally ill. Eros and Thanatos are grotesquely defused and there is no illusion that psychoanalysis can provide a cure. In a final act of resignation, Freud dies a scant three weeks after the nations of the world make their formal announcements of war.  However, he had already seen death and destruction in command of the earth.   

The succeeding violence in the world gives abundant evidence of a drive that stands independently: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Waco, Iraq. The human body social reacts with every form of psychological and physical pathology: warfare, torture, terrorism—symbolic communications, enactments of an instinctual drive that demands expression on a global scale, just as it does innately within every individual.

The ability to read symbolic communications, the ability to hear what the body tries to tell us about its conflicts, the ability to understand fantasy and illusion are greatly enhanced when the role of Thanatos in emotional illness is recognized (Meadow, 2003 p.9).

In The Who’s Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind child withdraws from the core of life. He is trapped in a vicious pattern of repetition, internal and external. Tommy's infantile psyche is the source of the internal conflict, and his Cousin Kevin inflicts every form of perverse torture that can be devised in the external world. The games he creates are far removed in aim and tenderness from the “fort-da” game played by Freud’s (1920) beloved grandson. As Cousin Kevin subjects Tommy to his sadistic whim, he represents the perfect discordant counterpoint to Tommy’s masochistic, withdrawn self. With drive energy diffused, Eros plays in the background, as Thanatos commands center stage.

How would you feel if I turned on the bath
Ducked your head under and started to laugh?
What would you do if I shut you outside
To stand in the rain and catch cold so you died?

Maybe a cigarette burn on your arm
Would change your expression to one of alarm.
Drag you around by a lock of your hair
Or give you a push at the top of the stairs.

The Who sing of every torment, every nightmare, and every anxiety dream that wakens the human in a state of cold fright. This is the rock opera on the level of personal connection to pain and humiliation, repetition and rage reaction. They play a metaphor that is a dissonant symphony, a nihilistic reality of a post-modern society in which every manifestation of Thanatos robs the world of harmonious existence. Humanity at large stands at the pinball machine, regressed to a state of catatonic disbelief, dissociated from the intrusion of a disavowed communal self. Through the mirroring eyes of Tommy Walker, we have the opportunity to “see” the etiology human pathology.  See me, feel me, touch me, heal me is the universal plea.

In further dimension, Tommy depicts the absurdity of the psychoanalytic enterprise.  Expelled, not coaxed from the womb, every human begins a journey that can be a grueling and terrifying experience. Given the vicissitudes of temperament, constitutional endowment, and the cultural milieu, the individual immediately begins to experience an excess of sensory stimuli. The internal press is a concise striving—seek pleasure, avoid unpleasure. Dream a state that provides the fulfillment of a wish. Withdraw to the sweet promise of uncomprehending nothingness. How absurd that the psychoanalyst would dare challenge the strength of such an instinctual pull! How illogical to believe that the strength of emotional connectedness can reduce rage, enhance the will to live, and restore a proper balance between the drive forces of Eros and Thanatos. How grandiose that we believe in and act on the magical power of “just say everything!”

The Muse That Saved

She’s got the power to heal you, never fear.
Oh, she’s got the power to heal you, never fear.

For years Pete Townshend claimed no awareness of connection between the thematic material of the rock opera Tommy and his own childhood memories. His parents had been musical entertainers with the Royal Air Force and were wed impulsively. In the city of Freud’s death, their son, Peter Dennis Blanford Townshend was born in the first days of peace following World War II. But peace is not a memory of his childhood years. His parents’ marriage was volatile and Peter Townshend recollects scant contact with his parents throughout the first three years of his life. Touring musicians, they left the child in the care of his maternal grandmother, “Granny Denny,” who Townshend remembers as a severely disturbed woman (Giuliano, 2002).  As Townshend related to Giuliano:

She was in midlife crisis. She was my age today, and I identify very much with this woman who had to look after me. She ran naked in the streets and stuff like that. She was completely nuts. She was a very strict woman and I hated her. I wanted my mum and dad back. I had two years with her before my parents realized they’d left me with somebody that was insane. This is such a bizarre story. . . . they used a four and-a-half-year old boy to try to fix a woman who was going mad. It was an irresponsible act (p.3).

But Granny Denny’s behaviors are not the only irresponsible acts that leave a mark of trauma on the child’s psyche. Townshend relates memories of his mother as a seductress, a narcissistic woman who valued herself by the number of male conquests she could count (Giuliano, 1996). His memory of mum is one of a beautiful, fashionable woman continuously surrounded by a swarm of men. In his interview with Giuliano (1996) he hints at the sexual confusion that her behavior induced. He states that she used him as bait to attract men, and that he was forced to be a part of the deceit. His ambivalence is revealed in his words: “When I saw my father I would feel guilty because I had been in bed with my mother and her lover (p.32).”

Thanatos ruled in the Townshend household. Rage and destruction remained a constant factor in his early life. Townshend remembers both parents as excessive drinkers prone to episodes of impulsivity. Domestic violence was not an unknown factor, and to Pete’s shame, his parents’ extremes were known well to family and neighbors. Toward his father he is ambivalent: Pete was thrilled by his father’s friendships with musicians and the vagabond life of the road that he experienced with him. There is also humiliation over his father’s frequent disappearances and passive isolation exploding into episodes of brutality.  He is confused and frightened by his mother’s sexually seductive and erratically violent behaviors. Many of Townshend’s early recollections are laced with examples of chaotic sex and aggression. The vicissitudes of his environment contribute to his own unexpressed rage, social isolation, and negative self-image. Like his counter-ego, Tommy, he escapes into a world of fantasy. When Pete Townshend goes to the mirror, he is distressed by the reflection he sees. In his discussions with Giuliano (2002, 1996) he revealed that he hated the mirrored image of his physical self—a gawky youth with eternally sad eyes and a hugely protruding nose. In his rock opera, Townshend projects his wish to smash the mirror, as the violent enactment that Tommy’s mother perpetrates.

Enveloped by his parents’ narcissism, Pete Townshend devalues himself. His belief is that never would he satisfy them and no possibility that he could ever be as beautiful as they. He recalls to Giuliano (1996):

My mother was no help either. She seemed to think that anyone who wasn’t beautiful couldn’t be any good. She was gorgeous. My father was very good looking too. How they spawned me, I’ll never know (p.32).

It is into music that Pete Townshend discovers how to channel his rage and displace his aggression. Music is a constant factor in his life, a partial representation of the more congenial nature of his parents. Making music is ego syntonic. Allowed to assist his parents as they toured the clubs and cabarets, he is exposed to every style of musical composition. Music gives him fleeting moments of social acceptance. When Pete acquires his first guitar it is an epiphany moment, akin to Tommy standing before his pinball machine. Don’t see no lights a-flashin’, plays by sense of smell. Echoing Freud’s (1907) observations in Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, Townshend explains:

“The whole thing started with rock ‘n roll, [which] is almost a religion to me. As an art form it has gripped me in a way I can’t explain. You feel that celestial buzz. That’s a spiritual thing, and rock ‘n roll is spiritual in a different way. It makes people equal, it makes people selfless, it makes them forget themselves” (Giuliano, 2002 p. 86).

It would be with three other mates, Roger, Keith, and John, that the ungainly, gawky Townshend would channel his drive energies with an obsession that was unrivaled in modern rock music. Naming themselves “The Who,” the four exuded a livid, seething, aggression that stood in opposition to the mop-headed charm of the Beatles and the sexy-funk of the Rolling Stones. The Who were the intensely bad boys of rock and roll. As Townshend explains the internal dynamic:

In those days I really thought we were going to explode. I thought I was going to die. . . . I never ate. . . .it was all dope, dope, dope and horrible vibes of aggression and bitterness. Out of that we were saying, ‘We are the mirror for desperation, bitterness frustration, and misery’. . . .Ours was a group with built-in hate (Giuliano, 1996 p.32).

When the spotlights shine on The Who, Thanatos plays to a full house. Drums are smashed, guitars demolished. Microphones are hurled in great, threatening arcs, and stage lights stomped into darkness. Feeding both on and into this destructive frenzy, every concert becomes a mélange of extravagance and excess, a swirling, visual primary process, pulsating with nearly uncontained sexual tension and flooded with displaced aggression. Night after night, Townshend kills off the symbolic representation of his mother; revenges himself against his father; and keeps his childhood terror at bay:

. . . the music was literally mind-numbing in volume and aggression and as the set reached its end, Pete Townshend would complete his arm-whirling, thrashing, leaping, kicking, pogo-ing, sliding-across-the-stage-on-his-knees performance by ramming his guitar into the amplifiers, piercing the cabinets and bludgeoning the speakers, banging and banging away until his expensive instrument was in bits. Then he would smash it again and again until it lay in small fragments all over the stage. (Giuliano, 1996 p.32)

This enactment is what every Who fan anticipates, and the wish is always fulfilled. The crowd went crazy as Tommy hit the stage.

Tommy:  Deaf, Dumb and Blind

Nothing to say, nothing to hear, nothing to see.
Each sensation makes a note in my symphony.

Tommy is robbed. His psychic structure is vandalized by the rage of his unknown father. Approaching the period of Oedipal conflict, his emergent ego is shattered to near disintegration. The psychic damage is done to a little boy, four years of age, who bears silent witness to the death of his mother’s lover, and by extension, absorbs a mute understanding of his own fate, should he enact his taboo wish.

The ego drew back as it were, on its first collision with the objectionable instinctual impulse; it debarred the impulse from access to consciousness and to direct motor discharge, but at the same time the impulse retained its full cathexis of energy (Freud, 1925, SE 20: pp 29-30).

In the presence of the destructive power of his father’s aggression, Tommy Walker stands in a terrorized state of psychic paralysis. Hatred and fear overwhelm his emergent ego. As Meadow (2003) explains: “. . . a patient frightened by his helplessness blots out the world around him as he enters a detached, self-preoccupied state” (p.4). Tommy’s near unbearable impulse is to lash out in blind fury, seeking revenge for the cruel, complete, and forever distortion of his child-world illusions. This all-engulfing rage becomes his “Never Experienced” (Meadow 2002) with a life and energy of its own, defended against by the entirety of Tommy’s psychic and physical reserves. Tommy reverts to an infantile world of fantasy, the purpose for which is explained by Meadow (2002):

Fantasy, then, provides an enactment of emotions that have been separated from their original desires. They are the pretense that fulfillment can be achieved (p.15.).

By all means, his aggression has to be contained, his wishes left unfulfilled. It is lex talionis, as Freud (1912) explains in Totem and Taboo: “The law of talion, which is so deeply rooted in human feelings, lays it down that a murder can only be expiated by the sacrifice of another life” (p.154). Tommy is willing to endure almost anything in order to protect the objects whose love he needs. Freud (1924) knows the origin and aim of Tommy’s masochistic attack. There is a great disturbance experienced in his inner being, and Tommy does not know what to do with these increasingly dangerous erotic and aggressive feelings. How can he dare put this swirl of confusion into words, risking the same fate as mother’s other lover. He can not endure an encounter with his father’s killing wrath.

Punishment is the only solution, an enactment of the law of the talion. Guilt and shame for his psychic transgression demand that he is to die symbolically in order for the objects of his rage to live. He is to die so that no expression of his infantile sexual yearning for mother is revealed. He is to die to spare his father from the discovery of who he wants to kill. With this act of contrition he saves himself from his mother’s humiliating rejection and from his father’s inevitable revenge. Succumbing to a state of pseudo-death is his only defense, the only moral solution to his overwhelming arousal. This rehearsal for the grave allays the press of all that is taboo. Tommy and Mummy and Daddy are safe. But all that remains of Tommy Walker is a human shell, a blind, deaf, and dumb reflection of the child who once was. As Adams (1973) suggests, “His capacity for love and lust is impaired, but this seems rather an augmentation of his hatred” (p.93). Pete Townshend articulates Tommy’s unconscious conflict as he alludes to traces of his own childhood memories: lust for a seductive mother and terror of a vengeful father. He keenly knows Tommy’s ultimate sacrifice. Townshend succinctly states: “And there is the answer to the question I’d always carried . . . the father prevails over the lover” (Giuliano, 2002, p.4).

Internal Reflection

I often wonder what he is feeling.  Look at him in the mirror dreaming,
What is happening in his head?  Ooh, I wish I knew, I wish I knew.

Tommy is obsessed with mirrors, his unspoken communication of the primal trauma. Standing rigidly, he stares blindly for long hours, lost in his state of pre-oedipal narcissistic defense.  With the mirror he engages in silent communion, withdrawing his libido from the objects of the external world and cathecting it to his inner fantasy self. In this manner, as Meadow (2002) explains, there is the illusion of ongoing fulfillment. His beloved mirror allows him to “see” only a distorted reflection of himself. Eros and Thanatos are contained and isolated from awareness. The mirror refuses to let Tommy “hear” the internalized echo of his father’s rage-filled voice. Gazing in the mirror, he does not have to “speak” his desire to destroy the object that rejects him as potential lover. The mirror refuses to punish him for his psychic transgression.

Can you hear me or do I surmise
That you fear me, can you feel my temper rise?
Do you hear or fear or do I smash the mirror?

Tommy’s mother does not threaten him directly with the loss of her love. Rather, when she smashes his mirror in rage, it is an act far more ominous and final. She destroys the essence of her child. She destroys the only “object” that provides his world with the illusory reflection of an accepting other; the only “object” that absorbs the seething intensity of his rage. In time, however, Tommy comes to find a different kind of mirror, one that will not be shattered.

Extra! Extra!
Read all about it!
The Pinball Wizard in a miracle cure!
Extra! Extra!
Read all about it!

The Psychoanalyst: Deaf, Dumb, and Blind

Sickness will surely take the mind where minds can’t usually go.
Come on the amazing journey and learn all you should know

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me is Tommy’s repetitive, internalized plea. But how?  By what means can the psychoanalyst engage the patient who is regressed to the dawn of the preoedipal state? How to just “say everything” is a meaningless, absurd riddle that must be solved by both the deaf, dumb, and blind boy and his analyst. How does he put it all into words; how does he make sense out of that which is senseless? How does the analyst come to hear, translate, and interpret the meaning of Tommy’s silent communication? How can the analyst help repair the shards of Tommy’s shattered ego and help restore him to a more complete and syntonic level of functioning?  How does the analytic milieu foster an environment in which Tommy can begin to see and feel and touch and heal his traumatized self?  What can the psychoanalyst do to cut the Gordian knot that pathologically entangles the forces of Eros and Thanatos? How can he be saved from the eternal grave becomes a question of urgency.  How can the psychoanalyst work with Tommy to achieve a fusion of drive energy that will lure him away from the siren call of Thanatos?

Modern psychoanalytic theory is rich with techniques that effectively enhance working with the preoedipal patient. The first necessary expectation for Tommy is defined by Wolman’s (1995) command to a patient diagnosed with cancer, “When you will die, you will be dead. But as long as you are alive, you will live the way you should” (p. 62). The analyst conveys by words and affects the expectation that Tommy has the option to live and eventually will reach an internal state of cooperative interaction between Eros and Thanatos. In the beginning stage of treatment, it is only the analyst who holds this belief, albeit mixed with doubt, frustration, and feelings of hopelessness. Tommy is withdrawn into a borderline catatonic state with his aggressive instincts, like the steady drip of a caustic acid, slowly eating away his life potential. He has little libido to invest in any expectation of life. His communication is not through storytelling, free association, or easily recalled memories of childhood desires, disappointments, and deeds. Tommy engages in stereotypic, repetitive behavior and he invests his sexual drive energy into obsessively masturbating the pinball machine while blocking himself off from recognized perception and reaction to the world around him.  The destructive urges that press for expression and the positive, creative aspirations that hold potential are barred from awareness, staunchly defended against from inside his somatic bunker.

The psychoanalyst begins the treatment process with Tommy as Tommy—deaf, dumb, and blind. He/she doe not assume what Tommy needs but waits in silent and cooperative expectation for the revelation to emerge. Reverie, fantasy, observation—all of the analyst’s receptors are tuned to the opening notes of the symphony. Meadow (1999) reiterates Spotnitz’s belief that “the analyst should not influence the patient by imposing his values, goals, or belief system” (p.3). Spotnitz (1987) suggests that when initiating the treatment process, being deaf, dumb and blind is perhaps of greater benefit to Tommy than we could initially assume:

The less he knows about either its tribulations or potential benefits and the less aware he is of what is actually going on in the relationship prior to its final stage, the more capable he will be of concentrating his energy on the crucial task of verbal communication (p. 141).

As the life of the psychoanalytic treatment is nurtured, a light of cooperation, striving, and relatedness begins to flicker and grow in intensity. Object oriented questions are used to focus attention on the "crucial task" and to pull Tommy toward contact with the analyst and the life inducing force of Eros. The analyst strives not to exert undue pressure on Tommy—and in time, Tommy begins to experience affect without the overwhelming fear of impulsive discharge. The early narcissistic transferences eventually intermingle with the developing, more mature, object transferences. Resistances to treatment—those of the analyst and the analysand—emerge, recede, and re-emerge. Any force that prevents Tommy from putting his rage into words is studied and worked through.
Throughout the course of the analysis, the analyst employs every means to keep the stimulating effect of the treatment work in balance—measuring the dosage of clinical interventions to the perceived need and tolerance level of the patient. Tommy cannot have too much, and too little will be of no benefit to him. Spotnitz and Meadow (1995) compare this psychoanalytic balancing act to the task of being an actively involved spectator at a four-ring circus! As the analyst manages the course of treatment, he /she plays by intuition and plays by sense of smell.

From you I get opinions. From you I get the story
Listening to you I get the music. Gazing at you I get the heat.

Modern psychoanalysts understand both the therapeutic necessity and benefit of being “the mirror” for the preoedipal patient. Tommy turns his aggression upon himself and withdraws his libidinal connection to the people and the world about him. Who could, or would, understand and resonate with his thoughts and feelings? To reveal himself and his internal strivings is too great a risk. However, in order for Tommy now to mature in the psychoanalytic process, he must be able to put all of his thoughts and feelings into words. Still, to reveal this internalized affective state, with its full complement of fantasy strivings, presents great danger. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the analyst to become the mirror that cannot be smashed, no matter how intense the assault. Margolis (1994 / 1983) explains the twofold function of the mirror:

In the course of developing the narcissistic transference, he gradually comes to accept the analyst as his true double, a figure whose ego matches his own . . . . the twin image of his ego presented by the analyst serves as palpable evidence that he is not alone, that a kindred spirit shares his view of life and its encounters. This awareness of fellowship signifies an identification with the analyst’s ego and a consequent enhancement of the patient’s ego (p.224).

As Tommy and the psychoanalyst grow in their experience of one another, something begins to change in the treatment process. Tommy now tolerates more stimulation and is not as easily moved to periods of regression. With time, the analyst becomes aware of the anaclitic countertransference. Something develops that just feels different in the psychoanalytic relationship. Contact is made at the unconscious level, and as Spotnitz states, it is the patient communicating a need to the analyst. "The patient is going to say 'I need those feelings ' " (1999 p. 11). The analyst's emerging feelings of tenderness, respect, protectiveness, curiosity, and delight are all elements that Tommy needed from a significant caregiver and did not receive in his developmental years. These affective communications entice Tommy to emerge from his cocoon of abject terror; help him to experience the full range of his emotions.

Imagine though the shock from isolation
When he suddenly can hear and speak and see.


I’m free, I’m free! And freedom tastes of reality
I’m free, I’m free! And I’m waiting for you to follow me.

Music critics and popular writers ask how true is the story of Tommy to the life of Pete Townshend? What reflects Townshend’s real childhood experiences? How much of the story is artistic license, or as Freud suggests, how much of the rock opera is a daydream—the fantasy production of the creative writer? Is Tommy a metaphor for the alienation of post-modern society? What elements of this work offer commentary on our willingness to follow any messiah who proffers a novel path to salvation? Are the themes of drug abuse, cult followings, and spiritual yearnings singularly autobiographical or are they the reflection of a broader social discontent?  How is it that Townshend could write the lyrics for the entirety of Tommy, except for the two songs that describe the child’s brutal sexual-sadistic trauma? Is Pete Townshend’s inability to articulate these elements a manifestation of some deeply censored or repressed area of his psyche?  Freud (1907) supplies a partial answer to the foregoing questions when he threads the connection of childhood play, dreams, and fantasies into the finished product of the creative writer:

In the light of the insight we have gained from phantasies, we ought to expect the following state of affairs. A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfillment in the creative work. The work itself exhibits elements of the recent provoking occasion as well as of the old memory (p.151).

Charles Lemert (2003) in his forward to Phyllis Meadow’s The New Psychoanalysis offers the analyst another area for reflection:

One aims not so much to reconstruct the truth of these realities as to create a little world in which they can be felt and experienced—ultimately, in another of Freud’s famous locutions, to work them through (p. xii).

Pete Townshend validates the hypotheses presented by both Freud and Lemert.  The mirror reflects the images of Pete, the gifted, self-destructive musician and Tommy, the rage-filled Pinball Wizard. Captain Walker, who defeats the grip of death to reclaim his wife from her lovers—adult and child—incorporates the essence of Pete’s much resented, often absent, RAF-musician father. Through the persona of Mrs. Walker he shares an image of a sensual, harsh woman who has little empathetic connection to the conflicted and tortured life of her child. Townshend’s personal descent into an ambivalent hell of alcohol, drug abuse, and sexual perversion is reprised in the character of the Acid Queen. Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin are created to give voice and deed to his unaware awareness of suspected childhood sexual abuse. Tommy’s “miracle cure” is Townshend’s own salvation through the grace of music; it is his personal fusion of Eros and Thanatos. The rock opera is his vehicle for “working through.” Pete Townshend (2002), in an internet posting, acknowledges that Tommy is his “unmerciful world” of feeling and experience; an emotional creation that communicates Townshend’s amazing journey into the depths of his unconscious:

In my writing in the past—especially Tommy—I have created an unusually unmerciful worlds for any infant characters. I am often disturbed by what I see on the page when I write—never more so than when I draw on my own childhood. . . . But what is powerful in my own writing, and sometimes most difficult to control and model, is the unconscious material I draw on (Townshend, 2002).


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Kathleen D. Colebank "That Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Boy: An Amazing Psychoanalytic Journey". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 21, 2007, Published: July 15, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Kathleen D. Colebank