What John Winston Ono Lennon did next

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Anyone who had read Hunter Davies’s authorised biography The Beatles (Heinemann, 1968) knew that John Lennon had been raised by his aunt Mimi; that his father had gone missing from his life early on; and that his mother was dead. Mimi steadfastly claimed to Davies that young John had been “as happy as the day was long”. Arthur Janov, a 45-year-old psychotherapist in Los Angeles, was about to hear a very different story. Janov had written a contentious new book, The Primal Scream, in which he asserted that the neuroses of adulthood are connected to feelings and needs that we suppress in childhood – which can be rendered benign by returning us to a childlike state to give vent to them. In some cases, after Janov’s patients had sobbed and cried out for their mothers and fathers, their childhood re-enactments (‘primals’) would climax with a cathartic scream.

A provocative leap from Freud, primal therapy was still a young concept in 1970. Janov’s Primal Institute had been founded only two years earlier, and his book was fresh off the presses when Lennon was sent a copy in February. Some say he read The Primal Scream in a single sitting. Having made oblique references to his childhood in his songwriting (“In My Life”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Julia”), he wondered if he could interpret his formative traumas through primal therapy, and be cured of a lifelong sadness.

Summoned by an anxious Yoko, Janov arrived at Tittenhurst in March. Today, sounding two decades younger than his 85 years, he tells Uncut what he found. “John was in bad shape. He had a hard time getting out of his room. He was in incredible pain.” Unresolved childhood distress had combined with years of reckless drug abuse, Janov thinks, to put intolerable strain on Lennon’s nervous system. “He was one of those rare patients who have no defences left – none. He was just awash in pain.”

Dan Richter, a primal therapy sceptic, cleared out Tittenhurst’s half-built recording studio so that Janov could use it for his sessions. (“It was soundproofed,” Richter explains wryly.) Though Janov doubts she needed it, Yoko insisted on therapy, too. The symbiotic Lennons were determined to share every experience; this was a couple that literally went to the bathroom together. For Janov, however, the Tittenhurst environment was simply not conducive to ‘primalling’. He sighs: “Usually the day would begin with John and Yoko having a breakfast of raw fish brought in from London. This I found very unappetising. Then we would do some therapy, but there were all kinds of carpenters walking back and forth. It was bedlam.”

Janov tried moving the sessions to London, where, worried they would hinder each other’s treatment, he made John and Yoko stay in separate hotels. Nobody was delighted with this arrangement. Finally, after several weeks in England, Janov was unwilling to neglect his patients at the Institute any longer, and invited John and Yoko to follow him back to LA. To Dan Richter’s surprise, they did. They were gone for the next four months.

Their therapy at the Institute consisted of two sessions a week, some of them alone, some in groups. The rooms had no windows or breakable furniture. Instead they contained the accoutrements of a child’s nursery – teddy bears, dolls, security blankets, playpens. All therapy sessions were filmed for research, including John’s, which he didn’t object to. “We never exploited him,” Janov says firmly. “No information was released about his therapy. The other patients were very respectful. They were all in the pain together, and that’s the way it was.”

Janov currently has an agreement with Yoko that he will speak only in general terms about John’s ‘primals’, for reasons of confidentiality. Lennon had grown up lonely and unhappy – he told Janov – scarred by the knowledge that his parents, not wanting him, had offloaded him on to an aunt. Lennon cried a lot in therapy, but did not, according to Janov, ever scream the words “Mama don’t go, daddy come home.” When I ask if any of John’s ‘primals’ relived the fateful evening in 1958 when a policeman arrived to tell him his mother was dead, Janov says he cannot go into details. Significantly, as millions of citizens beyond the Institute’s toy-filled rooms wondered how on earth they were going to cope without The Beatles in the summer of 1970, Janov seldom heard Lennon mention them, although he did discuss Brian Epstein, a man whose pain he seemed to understand.

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