The Rock Opera Tommy by The Who Illustrates the Psychodynamics of Conversion Hysteria

by Jerome J. Tobacyk

July 9, 2011



This article demonstrates how the rock opera Tommy, written primarily by Peter Townshend of The Who, illustrates the psychodynamics of conversion hysteria. Although the validity of conversion hysteria as a unitary clinical entity is rejected today, an understanding of the historical and theoretical significance of this syndrome is invaluable for the comprehension of virtually all psychoanalytically derived theories of personality and psychotherapy. Indeed, Freud credited the very birth of psychoanalysis to insights garnered from Joseph Breuer’s medical treatment of his famous patient Bertha Pappenheim (pseudonymously known as Anna O.) who was diagnosed with hysteria. Selected excerpts from Tommy illustrate such psychoanalytic concepts as catharsis, cathexis, charismatic leadership, conversion, defense mechanisms, dissociation, narcissism, repression, the return of the repressed, transference, and the psychogenic trauma model. Student ratings provide empirical support for the utility of Tommy in fostering greater understanding of psychoanalytic theory. 





Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me. Sigmund Freud

As outlined in the classic Studies on Hysteria (Freud & Breuer, 1895/1955), Freud formulated many psychodynamic concepts in an attempt to understand and treat patients displaying symptoms attributed to conversion hysteria—a psychoneurosis characterized by emotional excitability and apparently psychogenic sensory and motor symptoms that may resemble various physical disorders. These patients variously displayed psychogenic anesthesias, visual and auditory impairments, speech problems, and motor disturbances—many of which could be hypnotically alleviated or modified.  

Currently, conversion hysteria is not considered a valid clinical entity, in part due to the lack of clinical and causal integrity that characterize the symptoms (Micale, 1993). Today, the symptoms previously attributed to conversion hysteria are variously classified as reflecting somatoform, dissociative, or Axis II personality disorders (Borch-Jacobson, 1996; Micale, 1995). However, Freud’s work with conversion hysteria, in collaboration with his colleague Joseph Breuer, is of great historical significance because it led to such central psychoanalytic concepts as the dynamic unconscious, the psychogenic trauma model of neurosis, transference, and free association. Indeed, Freud himself credited the birth of psychoanalysis to the insights generated from Joseph Breuer’s medical treatment of Bertha Pappenheim (pseudonymously known as Anna O.) from November 1880 to June 1882 who was diagnosed with hysteria (Rosenbaum and Muroff, 1984).  

It is a challenge to clearly explain psychodynamic processes (e.g., catharsis, cathexis, conversion, defense mechanisms, dissociation, libido, repression, return of the repressed, strangulated affect, repetition compulsion) to undergraduates. Approaches to the explanation of psychodynamic concepts in the classroom have included using popular movies and TV shows (Schlozman, 2000) and classroom exercises (Blass, 2001; Miserandino, 1994). Both the abstract nature of psychodynamic processes and the current attitudinal climate that is critical of psychoanalytic thought contribute to this challenge (Auchincloss, 2000; McWilliams, 2000). However, these basic psychodynamic concepts provide an essential conceptual framework that facilitates the understanding of the majority of theories of personality and psychotherapy. In addition, these psychodynamic concepts provide a valuable hermeneutic framework for the interpretation of artistic, literary, and musical productions. 

In order to increase student understanding of psychodynamic concepts, I have successfully used an explanatory framework based on the rock opera Tommy (originally written in 1969 primarily by Peter Townshend and performed by The Who; later produced as a movie, Robert Stigwood Organization, 1975/1999).  Because many students are familiar with some of the popular musical pieces (e.g., “Pinball Wizard”) and performers in the movie version of Tommy (e.g., Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Ann Margaret, Jack Nicholson, Tina Turner), this rock opera provides a memorable conceptual framework for clearly articulating the psychodynamics of conversion hysteria. I play excerpts from Tommy and discuss how selected story-line segments illustrate various psychodynamic processes. This article complements Colebank’s (2009) psychoanalytic study of Tommy as reflecting the personal life history and psychodynamics of the artist Peter Townshend, the creative genius primarily responsible for Tommy. In this article, I provide relevant illustrations of psychodynamic processes from Tommy by using the story-line and musical excerpts.

Before Tommy’s birth, his father (Captain Walker, a Royal Air Force pilot in World War I) is declared missing in action and presumed dead (Overture). 

From “Overture”

Captain Walker

Didn’t come home

His unborn child

Will never know him.

Believe him missing

With a number of men

Don’t expect

To see him again.  


Some months later, Tommy is born (“It’s a Boy”). 

From “It’s a boy”

It’s a boy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy.

It’s a boy, Mrs. Walker, it’s a boy.

A son! A son! A son! 


Shortly after Tommy’s birth, Tommy’s mother, Nora, takes a live-in lover, introduced to Tommy as Uncle Frank. One night, long after the war’s end, Tommy’s father, presumably dead, unexpectedly returns and enters his wife’s bedroom to find his wife together with her lover. In a paroxysm of fright, Frank hurls a lamp at the unknown intruder, striking him in the head and killing him. Tommy, perhaps 3 years old, unwittingly standing in the threshold of the bedroom, witnesses the murder of his father by his mother’s lover. This traumatic event is exacerbated when Tommy’s mother and Uncle Frank confront Tommy shouting: “You didn’t hear it! You didn’t see it! You won’t say nothing to no-one ever in your life!” 

From “1921”:

What about the boy?

What about the boy?

What about the boy? 

He saw it all!


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.

Oh, how absurd it 

All seems without any proof.


You didn’t hear it.

You didn’t see it.

You won’t say nothing to no-one.

Never tell a soul 

What you know is the truth. 


Consistent with the classical psychodynamic model of conversion hysteria, Tommy’s memory of this traumatic event is repressed and the emotional energy (libido) associated with the repressed memory is strangulated. The intrapsychic tension of the strangulated libido threatens to overwhelm Tommy’s fragile ego and so, as an unconscious defense, the libido is partially converted into physical symptoms. In an illustration of the “return of the repressed”, Tommy becomes psychogenically blind (You didn’t see it.), deaf (You didn’t hear it.), and mute (You won’t say nothing to no-one.). Thus, Tommy displays physical symptoms that symbolize the nature of the original traumatic event/repressed conflict. Tommy’s symptoms represent an adaptation that allow him to live, albeit neurotically, in an otherwise psychically intolerable situation. These symptoms are adaptive because the other options open to Tommy (e.g., becoming conscious of the repressed traumatic memory) would likely result in decompensation or in an intolerable family situation (conscious awareness of his mother and Uncle Frank’s collusion in the murder of his father). Tommy displays repetition compulsion by continually presenting the symptoms of blindness, deafness, and muteness in an ineffective attempt to master the repressed trauma. However, the repetition compulsion via symptoms is thematically distant from the content of the repressed conflict, so it does not reduce unconscious conflict and emotion to any significant degree. 

Throughout childhood Tommy remains blind, deaf, and mute (“Amazing Journey”, “Christmas”).

From “Amazing Journey”: 

Deaf, dumb and blind boy

He’s in a quiet vibration land.

Strange as it seems, his musical dreams 

Ain’t quite so bad.


Ten years old

With thoughts as bold as thoughts can be

Loving life and becoming wise

In simplicity.


From “Christmas”:

Do you see the faces of the children,

They get so excited

Waking up on Christmas morning

Hours before the winter sun’s ignited.


Surrounded by his friends

He sits so silently 

And unaware of everything


And Tommy doesn’t know what day it is.

He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is.

How can he be saved

From the eternal grave?



As Tommy grows into young adulthood, he undergoes three unsuccessful curative attempts, each attempt metaphorically reflecting the principal characteristics of one of three primary structural personality systems: (1) Id (use of sexual and aggressive impulses in “The Acid Queen”), (2) Superego (use of ego ideal identification in “Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)”, and (3) Ego (use of reality testing and rationality in “There’s a Doctor” and  “Go to the Mirror”). 

In the first curative attempt Tommy’s stepfather, Frank, attempts to shock Tommy into a cure with a sex and drug experience orchestrated by the Acid Queen (“The Acid Queen”). Metaphorically, Frank relies on Id resources (i.e., sado-masochistic sexuality) to effect a cure, but the intense experience is unsuccessful, illustrating the ineffectiveness of primary process mental activities of the Id in dealing with reality. 

From “The Acid Queen”

Give us a room and close the door,

Leave us for a while.

Your boy won’t be a boy no more

Young, but not a child.

I’m the Gypsy—the Acid Queen

Pay before we start.

I’m the Gypsy—the Acid Queen

I’ll tear your soul apart.


 In the second curative attempt, [“Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker”], Tommy’s mother, Nora, brings him to a faith healing religious service led by a charismatic preacher. 

From “Eyesight to the Blind”

She’s got the power to heal you.

Never fear.

She’s got the power to heal you.

Never fear.

Just a word from her lips.

Ane the deaf begin to hear.


The religious ritual is centered on the worship of fetishistic images of Marilyn Monroe. The faith healing service ends abortively when Tommy unwittingly topples and shatters the cult’s holiest icon, a statue of Marilyn Monroe. Metaphorically, Tommy’s mother attempts to marshal the resources of the Superego (i.e., the ego ideal represented by the charismatic leader of the religious cult) in effecting Tommy’s cure. However, it is clear that the resources of the Superego are not sufficiently powerful to release the strangulated libidinal forces in the repressed conflict.  

Finally, Tommy is taken to a physician, who it is hoped, can cure him (“There’s a Doctor”).  

From “There’s a Doctor”:

There’s a man I’ve found

Could bring us all joy!

There’s a doctor I’ve found

Could cure the boy!

There’s a doctor I’ve found

Could cure the boy!


The Doctor, whose tools are those of scientific medical training, represents the Ego qualities of reality testing and rational problem solving. After extensive scientific testing, the Doctor finds no physical cause for Tommy’s blindness, deafness, and muteness. The Doctor declares that Tommy’s symptoms are psychogenic and that Tommy must look inwardly and heal himself (i.e., Tommy must take personal responsibility for his treatment and become self-aware of the contents of the repressed conflict).

From “Go To The Mirror”: 

He seems to be completely unreceptive.

The tests 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.


There is no chance, no untried operations.

All hope lies with him and none with me.

Imagine though the shock from isolation.

When he suddenly can hear

And speak and see.


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.


Go to the mirror, boy!

Go to the mirror, boy!


The mirror represents the process of self-reflection (as in the Delphic adage Know thyself) and more specifically, the need for the patient to assume personal responsibility in working to achieve his own cure.  It is notable that, among the three curative attempts, only the Doctor (representing the Ego functions of reality testing and rational problem solving) provides Tommy with a glimmer of hope that he can orchestrate his own cure as expressed in the command—Go to the mirror boy!

Finally, Tommy undergoes a catharsis (i.e., an emotional reliving and release of the emotion strangulated in the repressed memory of the original traumatic event). In the video version, Tommy’s mother, distressed by Tommy’s incessant staring into a mirror (representing Tommy’s almost total state of narcissism), accidentally pushes him into the mirror, which shatters. Tommy’s lack of success in curing himself until the mirror is shattered with his mother’s unwitting assistance, may imply that self-reflection alone, without the direction of a therapist/guide, may be limited in therapeutic effectiveness (i.e., that it is necessary to move from a stage of narcissism to a stage of object relations as a prerequisite to psychoanalytic maturity ).  

After crashing through the mirror, Tommy finds himself submerged under water (representing the unconscious) and then swims upward emerging into the brilliant light of the surface (representing the repressed conflict emerging from the unconscious into light of consciousness). After this catharsis, Tommy suddenly can see, hear, and speak again (“Miracle Cure”, “I’m free”).  

From “Miracle Cure”: 

Extra! Extra!

Read all about it.

Pinball wizard in a miracle cure!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!



From “I’m Free”: 


I’m free – I’m free.

And freedom tastes of reality. 

I’m free. I’m free.

And waiting for you to follow me. 


The formerly strangulated libido is released and now at the disposal of Tommy’s Ego and Superego. This massive influx of libido results in Tommy making a developmental progression from an autoerotic state (i.e., a state of secondary narcissism; when he was blind, deaf, and mute/ totally self-involved and cut off from external reality) to a megalomaniac state (i.e., a state of exacerbated narcissism in relation to the ego ideal). This state of megalomania is characterized by an intense desire for power and glory and by feelings of omnipotence, as illustrated in “Sensation”.

From “Sensation”:

They worship me and all I touch

Hazy-eyed they catch my glance.

Pleasant shudders shake their senses.

My warm momentum

Throws their stance. 


At moderately high levels, these qualities (i.e., desire for power, certainty about the authenticity of one’s convictions) are considered a prerequisite for charismatic leadership (Kets de Vries, 1989, 2001). These qualities in a charismatic leader can attract and bind the followers to identify with the leader, internalize the leader’s values, and follow the leader’s vision.  In transformational leadership, a dialectic of transference and counter-transference escalates as the leader acts out the role of a glorified father-figure and the followers praise and emulate the leader, further reinforcing his megalomaniac identity.    

Thus, Tommy becomes the charismatic leader of a new quasi-religious cult, with worshipers seeking meaning and redemption by participating in “Tommy-camps” and re-enacting the “stations” of Tommy’s life that culminated in his miraculous cure. 

From “Sensation”:

You’ll feel me coming,

A new vibration.

From afar you’ll see me.

I’m a sensation.


I leave a trail of rooted people

Mesmerized by just the sight.

The few I’ve touched now are disciples.

Love as One, I am the Light.  


Although it may be rare for persons displaying symptoms characteristic of conversion hysteria to become charismatic leaders (possible illustrations include such religious charismatics as St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order; St. Theresa of Avila, reformer of the Carmelite Order), this story-line segment corresponds to the life of Bertha Pappenheim (i.e., Anna O., described in Studies on Hysteria and arguably the most important patient in the history of psychotherapy). Dr. Joseph Breuer treated Anna O. for hysteria and consulted with Freud about her case (Freud & Breuer, 1895/1955; Rosenbaum & Muroff, 1984);  Anna O.’s real identity as Bertha Pappenheim was revealed by Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer (Jones, 1953).  During the later decades of her life, Bertha Pappenheim made such significant contributions as a pioneer feminist and leader in the field of social work (providing assistance to impoverished Jewish women in Galicia),  that she was honored on a postage stamp issued by the West German government in 1954 (Rosenbaum & Muroff, 1984) . 

Although Tommy’s followers ultimately rebel and destroy the Tommy-camp (a fate not unknown for charismatic leaders), leading to the death of his mother and Uncle Frank, the story ends on a note of optimistic self-affirmation with Tommy climbing toward a mountain summit, metaphorically continuing the process of psychological and spiritual development perhaps toward the development of mature object relations, now that he is free from the infantilizing influence of his mother and step-father. 

In an attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of using Tommy in the classroom, students in an undergraduate course (N = 58) rated the “degree to which the presentation about Tommy helped you to understand concepts in psychoanalysis” on a five-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (made psychoanalysis more confusing) to 5 (greatly helpful). Ninety-one percent of the students (53/58) reported ratings of 4 or 5 on the rating scale. In addition, informal feedback from students consistently displays enthusiasm concerning the use of Tommy to illustrate psychoanalytic concepts. Showing excerpts from Tommy often results in questions and comments about psychoanalytic themes in other contemporary music.   

In summary, the rock opera Tommy is a valuable artistic production for demonstrating psychodynamic processes, particularly those associated with conversion hysteria. Tommy provides students a vivid and memorable presentation, resulting in clearer understanding of basic psychodynamic concepts than is likely through a formal didactic presentation. Tommy often stimulates discussions of such concepts as charismatic and transformational leaders, cults, fads, and mana personality (Rychlak, 1981). Psychoanalytic interpretation of popular artistic products can be used in the classroom to provide rich insights both into psychoanalytic theory and into the human psychological condition.  




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Note 1. Send correspondence concerning this article to the author, Box 10048, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, Louisiana Tech, Ruston, LA  71272;

Note 2. I thank Jeanette M. Edmonds for providing information relevant to this manuscript. 




To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Jerome J. Tobacyk "The Rock Opera Tommy by The Who Illustrates the Psychodynamics of Conversion Hysteria ". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: April 15, 2011, Published: July 9, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Jerome J. Tobacyk