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David Bowie, psychosis and positive nonconformity

Writing in his award-winning MindHacks blog, British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell notes that Bowie’s family had a history of psychosis.

David Bowie performing in Vienna in 1996.
REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Although many tributes have been written to singer-songwriter and actor David Bowie since his death at age 69 last Sunday from cancer, few have mentioned an important influence on his life and music — his experiences with psychosis, says British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell.

Writing in his award-winning MindHacks blog, Bell, who specializes in interventions for people experiencing a psychotic episode, notes that Bowie’s family had a history of this mental illness. 

“Two of his aunts were reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and [a] third was confined to an asylum,” he writes. “[And] one of Bowie’s most influential early role models, his half-brother Terry, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and reportedly had marked periods of psychosis.”

Bell explains how this family history is reflected in Bowie’s work:

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Bowie’s brother was admitted to now defunct Cane Hill psychiatric hospital in South London and the experience heavily influenced 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World album with a drawing of the hospital appearing on the original sleeve art.

One of the songs on that album, All the Madmen, vividly describes madness and treatment in the old asylums. …

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the themes of madness pervade Bowie’s work. The title track for the Aladdin Sane album (a play on “A lad insane”) was inspired by his brother, as was the song Jump They Say. Some other references are more obvious, such as in the song I’m Deranged, while some only allude to altered states and psychological alienation, as in The Man Who Sold the World.

In addition, writes Bell, Bowie explained in a 1996 interview that his most famous character, Ziggy Stardust, was based on “the obscure rock star Vince Taylor who Bowie met several times, presumably between the periods Taylor spent in a psychiatric hospital.” 

“Bowie himself was widely thought to have experienced an episode of psychosis himself, some years later, largely due to a period when he was taking very large amounts of cocaine while working on the album Station to Station,” Bell adds.

The science of nonconformity

Over at the website LiveScience, journalist Stephanie Pappas writes about what science tells us about the need to conform — and how that science may explain why Bowie’s positive expression of nonconformity has helped so many people who feel like misfits, particularly many in the LGBTQ community.

Writes Pappas:

Multiple studies have found that people gravitate toward others like them. One 2014 paper revealed that people even like those with voices and speaking styles similar to their own. Even infants choose puppets that like the foods kids like, found research by Yale University psychologist Karen Wynn. A 2013 study out of Wynn’s laboratory showed that babies prefer puppets that are nice to individuals who resemble the kids (in this case, still based on food preferences) and mean to individuals not like the children.

In light of this strong psychological predisposition for conformity, David Bowie was a ray of glamorous, sequin-studded light.

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“When you read accounts of people who remember seeing David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust for the first time, they talk about this sort of awakening,” [Angela] Mazaris, [director of the LGBTQ Center at Wake Forest University in North Carolina] told LiveScience. The rocker’s bisexual alien alter ego portrayed androgyny and nonheterosexual sexuality as beautiful and worth celebrating, she said.

“I think it’s about being able to imagine possibilities for yourself and your identity,” she said. … “He really showed us there are so many ways to be a star.”

FMI: Pappas’ article can be found on the LiveScience website, and Bell’s can be found on his MindHacks blog. Bell also includes a link to a 1998 interview (below) with Bowie for VH1 documentary, in which he discusses his family’s history with mental illness.