Tag Archives: Mental Illness

Kurt Cobain: Beauty Born of Pain

Originally published in April 2015.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.

The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.


Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.

Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.

It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.

I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later  see him  barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.

I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared

While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.

A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.

This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.

He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun

David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”

I agree.

The Echoes of Careless Words


My father, who was absent throughout most of my life, was a difficult and destructive man, and I was probably better off without him in my life for the most part. Still, like most neglected children whose parents ignore them, or don’t respond to their calls or letters, or don’t show up for visits and only call when drunk, I dearly wanted his love and acceptance. I wanted proof from him that I was worthy of love and support, and I did everything I could to entice him to visit me and help me feel that I mattered to him. Yesterday I learned through his own writing that what I feared most was true: I didn’t really matter to him. He didn’t miss me. He told lies about me and sullied my character in describing me to others so that he could justify his lack of concern for me to himself.

My father could be an awful person.

Although he died over two decades ago, I had never gone through the last small box of his papers until yesterday. I thought all that I had left unread were some newspaper clippings and some of his medical records—he had serious health problems throughout his short life for which I had always had great sympathy. I had often used the obvious pain of his disabilities as an explanation for why he self-medicated so frequently with alcohol and drugs. I thought it explained his withdrawn and angry personality. Yesterday I decided I would sort through these last few papers as part of the winnowing I’m doing of all my books, papers and other long-stored bits of memorabilia—why keep duplicate medical records and clippings, I figured? Sadly, among the medical chart notes I found a copy of a letter that I don’t think my father would ever have wanted me to see—at least, I hope he wouldn’t.

In the letter I found, my father wrote of his relationship with me to one of his doctors. He painted a distorted portrait of me, softened the truth about himself, and betrayed a coldness toward me and made ugly and wrongheaded assumptions about my relationships and behaviors that would chill the heart of any child.

Throughout my childhood I tried to prove myself worthy of his love and attention through letters, presents, cards, visits and earnest efforts to make him want to see me. I tried to be clever and witty, which he valued more highly than anything, but that inspired him to tease me about my erudition in insulting ways. He said he believed in thinking independently, but when I held an opinion that he didn’t share, he made mean assumptions about me and decided I was no longer worthy of his concern. When I finally allowed myself to show him five minutes of frustration and anger when I was 21, he turned his back on me and walked away while we were talking, then refused to see, talk to or write to me for four years. I found out later that he even refused to read the film reviews and humor pieces I wrote for Bay Area newspapers during that time. He would not take my calls nor see me when I went to his home to try to talk with him. He lied about me to his friends. And now, all these years later, I had to come upon these lies in written form, and see proof of his disdain for my efforts to contact him and to find ways for us to reconcile.

My father was abusive to the people to whom he owed the most in the world, and his volatility and arrogance caused him to behave in an ugly fashion to many lovely human beings. Though he was usually negligent rather than abusive toward me, finding his cold, self-serving and misanthropic thoughts in written form felt like a hard kick to the stomach. His letters of later years showed his depressive, self-absorbed, self-victimizing thoughts deepening and his beliefs about me becoming even more skewed and unreal. I know there was a large amount of mental illness involved in his warped views about our relationship (and indeed about ALL his relationships with family members and former partners, several of whom he physically battered).

I hope that the ugly letter that I found yesterday isn’t a true indication of his feelings for me in the long term. But since he left this horrible letter among his papers, all I have proof of now is that he was willing to harden his heart against me no matter how much love, kindness and openness I offered to him. All I can say with certainty is that he refused to show love, support or kindness to his only child, realized that about himself, and still didn’t think that my health or happiness mattered enough for him to send me a postcard or make a call for months, sometimes two years, sometimes four years at a time.

I understand now that his deadness of heart toward me wasn’t because I was unworthy of love, but as a child I felt that his love was entirely conditional. It had to be earned over and over. No matter how many songs I sang or drawings I made or letters I wrote to woo him, I would always be found wanting. I now have proof that my own parent thought me so unimportant that he felt moved to write a pompous letter to a doctor he hardly knew about his lack of concern over the four-year estrangement he imposed on me. In his letter, he showed no remorse, only surprise at his lack of feeling over having abandoned our relationship. I imagined during that time and during the decades since that he was at least suffering from our estrangement, as I was, that he was missing me as I missed him, that he thought of me and loved me, as I loved him. Sadly, it appears I meant very little to him for years at a time, perhaps for all time.

I have tried to piece together his mental lapses, his violent temper, his substance abuse and attacks on all the important women in his life. I see that he was mentally ill. All signs point to his having a classic case of borderline personality disorder. But when those with mental illness write of their ugly thoughts with such dispassionate lucidity that their pathological heartlessness is described with the emotionlessness and precision of a mathematical formula, it curdles the blood. That man was my daddy. I was his only child. How could I mean so little to him?

Sickened as I was to read how thoroughly abandoned I had been, the knowledge also frees me from trying to find something worthy and lovable in this man who caused me almost nothing but pain. For over 20 years I have taken comfort in learning of his kindnesses to strangers toward the end of his life, and of his willingness to spend what little he had to feed and clothe poor people who lived in the sad building in which he lived. He owed thousands of dollars to his brother, sister and ex-wives, none of them wealthy people, but he spent the few dollars he had to help those who had less than he did. I thought of his self-loathing and his desire to redeem himself by doing good to those who were worse off than he because he felt himself too debased to ask forgiveness from those whose lives he’d permanently scarred. But after reading about his willingness to sneer at me and at others in my family who sacrificed for him repeatedly, I think perhaps I gave him too much credit for the size of his irregularly beating heart. The pacemaker that kept him going for years was actually standing in for a heart that was more shriveled and more frigid than I ever knew.

I felt sympathy and love for him for so many years, and even if it was misplaced, it helped me to imagine and suffer when I thought of similar pain endured by others who were better people than my father. My compassion for my father’s miseries helped me to care more for others. But to feel more pain on his behalf now that I know how heartless he truly was would only be to harm myself. I will continue to keep my heart open to the sufferings of others and to show them compassion when they fail and make mistakes and inadvertently harm people. We all fall short, and we all deserve mercy. But it is no longer my job to elevate the father who repeatedly and sometimes violently dishonored our family, the father who brought shame and suffering and self-doubt to those in his orbit.

If you have among your possessions letters or diaries in which you or others share thoughts and feelings that would devastate those who come after you and find your words in years to come, please consider carefully whether you really want those words to be found and read by others, even if you are angry with them now. Words can reverberate through future decades and color others’ thoughts of you and beliefs about themselves for the rest of their lives. Those thoughtless words, shared in a moment of spite or weakness or frustration, can last forever and do great harm. Don’t let them poison the lives of others. I can never unsee the horrible words my father wrote about his relationship with me. And while I am strong enough after all these years to recognize that his abandonment and betrayal say ugly things about him and not about me, having to see his illness and carelessness in black and white afresh after all these years is sickening.

Please, if you have writings or other objects that would bring your loved ones great pain after you are gone, consider getting rid of them now, while you can. Finding such things among a dead loved one’s possessions can cause lifelong heartache and taint memories forever. Careless words can echo for lifetimes.