Thursday, 17 August 2017

David Bowie

Oliver James
ISBN 978-1-7822049-0-9 Softcover. 192 pp.

This is a tale of two half-brothers. One of them, Terry, became schizophrenic and committed suicide. The other, David, reinvented himself and became one of the biggest rock stars of the last fifty years. There was a history of mental illness in the family – three maternal aunts also went mad – and a toxic legacy of shared childhood from which David emerged as the favoured son and Terry as the emotionally neglected sibling.

James’s book is part psychobiography and part self-help manual. The author is a practising therapist and a firm believer in ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’. Genes play little part in determining who we are, he says: childhood adversity causes psychosis, not genes. Believing his family cursed by madness, Bowie avoided the same fate for himself by inventing ‘personas’ – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke – and playing them out on the public stage until he reached a state of psychic equilibrium in midlife and made peace with himself. This is a model, James argues, for how we can all develop a dialogue between different parts of the self and reintegrate them, producing new personas and pushing old ones into the background.

James began writing his book before Bowie’s untimely death in 2016, so he cannot be accused of ‘cashing in’. He traces effectively how Terry’s experiences surface in his brother’s lyrics and how personas, Ziggy in particular, enabled ‘David Bowie’ (another assumed identity) to reconnect with David Jones (his birth name). I was less convinced by James’s efforts to turn Bowie’s psychodrama into everyone’s struggle to keep it together. Many of us find something to identify with in Bowie – be it the sense of alienation, the gender-variance, the self-questioning, the restless need like the whale shark’s to keep swimming in order to stay alive. But there was only one Ziggy.

[First published in RnR