Love Of My Life: The Life And Loves Of Freddie Mercury
Updated: May 16, 2022
In her most recent book, Love of My Life:The Life and Loves of Freddie Mercury, the writer Lesley-Ann Jones sets out to explore the singer’s complicated relationship with fame and excess, something that has come to define the legend of Freddie as much as his music. Whilst the decadence and overindulgence was undoubtedly a creative motivation for him, there was also a human cost and the question she asks is, how does anyone find their way back to themselves from that?
It was a great fun, and a privilege, to contribute some thoughts to the book. Freddie was one of the defining music talents of my childhood and his death shaped my experience of sexuality, and of being a young adult in a time of HIV and AIDS in the late 80s and early 90s.
In these extracts we explore his developmental background, how the experience of boarding school, the relationship with his parents and his search for deeper connection shaped him:
Rock stars are also driven by self-loathing. This is explained by the psychological theory they call the ‘Narcissistic Wound’. At some point in his past, the individual was demeaned or humiliated to such a degree that he can never regain confidence or restore his sense of worth. A parent or a teacher can casually put a child down in some way, and that child will carry his hurt to the grave. A classmate or companion can be disapproving or censorious, and the effect will stay with him for life. However magnificent he later becomes, the wounded infant will always be inside, churning and aching and reliving the crushing blow of yore. To conquer this he needs constant reassurance, approval and adulation. On these things he comes to depend. Addicted to the fix, he sets himself higher and higher goals, thus justifying his need for ever-increasing approval and fan worship. Whenever he fails - to meet his own standards or those imposed by others - he relives the original anguish, again and again. The vicious circle increases. It becomes the rhythm of his life. He is the hamster in the wheel, longing to jump but terrified to do so. Each successive achievement brings fresh opportunity to heal the ‘Narcissistic Wound’.
‘The two traumas in Freddie’s developmental life are very clear,’ says psychotherapist Richard Hughes. ‘That is, his childhood and his relationship with his parents, and being sent away to boarding school at such a young age. A child sees himself reflected in his mother’s eyes. If she is physically not there, if he is removed from her in some way, he spends the rest of his life both searching for himself and seeking to have his needs met. Which is what we mean by the Narcissistic Wound. It is the seeing oneself reflected in one’s mother’s eyes that creates a sense of self. And this very much defines Freddie. I get a strong sense that he was striving to get his emotional, sexual and physical needs met all the time, frantically and desperately, which led him into some very deep water. All of those who featured prominently in his life and who were mistaken for normal healthy relationships were in fact mother substitutes. It certainly explains his relationship with Mary Austin.’
It also explains Freddie the alpha narcissist.
‘Which is an outcome of a developmental stage, a character style and not a diagnosis,’ cautions the psychotherapist. ‘Narcissism is a good, healthy thing, by the way. It’s a fundamental part of childhood development. It’s about primary validation and what we learn we can get away with. If our needs don’t get met and boundaries aren’t set, they spin of into character outcomes that might not always serve us well. Because Freddie had long felt alienated from himself, he created a “false self”. He started behaving outrageously, in order to get attention and control his environment. Rock stars are not the only ones who do this. We see it in CEOs, heads of companies, heads of state … and we witness people in their lives offering them narcissistic tribute. Almost on bended knee, deferring to then and dawning all over them as if they were a king or a god. Alpha narcissists create homes filled with gorgeous antiques, art and nick-nacks. They surround themselves with beautiful things. Only the best will do. They create an opulent environment around themselves which they then have to find a way of feeling worthy of.
‘So it reaches the point at which Freddie is the king. His god-needs are constantly met, and he come to expect that. This explains why someone like him gets upset when he not given presents. It because he needs things. He can afford to send someone to buy whatever he wants anyway. It’s because he wants and needs to be honoured with material indications of his worth to others. So he immerses himself in people who are the tribute. They can’t supply the material goods because they are not in his league a d don’t have his fortune to spend. He therefore tributes himself with all the spending and the buying, cocooning himself in luxury in his palace.’
Had Freddie been interested in self-exploration, he might have undergone relational psychoanalysis that was emerging during the eighties. But it was a huge commitment. We don’t think Freddie submitted to it. Peter Freestone believes that he didn’t. He was probably, thinks Richard Hughes, too ‘adapted’, and committed to the ‘false self’ and his alpha narcissism, to want to do that work on himself. But he didn’t need to have done therapy to be knowledgeable about it, which he appears to have been. There are many therapy references in his lyrics. Take ‘Somebody to Love’, which could be described as the very anthem of the narcissistically wounded. Here he is, looking in the mirror, trying to find someone to love: it’s all there in that very song. And it is the key to Freddie Mercury. The fact that it was his mother’s favourite of all his songs make it even more fascinating. Freddie lacked the very mirroring in his childhood of which he writes in the song.
At that most crucial developmental stage, his mother wasn’t there to show him how to be. Because he was at school in India, thousands of miles away, while she was at home in Zanzibar.
Then there’s ‘The Great Pretender’. … Oh yes, this is infinitely more than a cover version. The lyrics express him exactly. It’s all about playing games, being left to dream alone, admitting that no one else can tell how lonely he is because he has been pretending too much, and the killer, about wearing his heart like a crown … which could be written with him in mind.
‘It’s that line, “My need is such, I pretend too much”’, says Richard Hughes. ‘He couldn’t create anything that packed the punch of that song better than the one that has been written already. It conveys the sentiment perfectly. It can’t be improved on. So he covers this one.’
Looking at Freddie in terms of the more poetic Jungian approach - a branch of analytic psychology in which the analyst and patient work together to balance unconscious elements of the psyche with conscious awareness and experience, and which uses characters to explain personality types, Freddie clearly conforms to the ‘Hero’ archetype.
‘He is also an “Outlaw” and and a “Magician”, says Hughes. ‘His homosexuality defines him as that. It was still against the law while Freddie was at school, and when he first come to London and enrolled at college. Which we tend to forget. So to a certain extent he was literally an outlaw. The impact of going through your adolescence as illegal is huge.
‘The “Outlaw” archetype creates conflict, causes problems and breaks things down. All of which leaves others feeling shot to pieces. People in the life of someone who routinely behaves that way end up disrupted and destroyed by it. But it feeds his sense of self, and enables him to got out and be the “Magician” character on stage, working his magic and thrilling the life out of an audience until they can barely stand. Being the “Freddie Mercury” character loved and adored by the whole world.’
Throw in his sexuality and the dilemma become denser. Leaving Freud aside (we’d be here all night) and turning to ‘Attachment Theory’, Hughes concludes that people like Freddie with inconsistent childhoods are ‘constantly in fight or flight mode’ when it comes to the feelings brought up by relationships. Please made up for a lack of deeper connection.
We know what Freddie would have preferred don’t we? Part of him would have been happier with a male partner more cultured and refined than those he coupled with. Public-school, perhaps, with a background not dissimilar to his own; although that wouldn’t necessarily have been a deal-breaker. A man of the world with an appreciation of music, ballet and art. Someone familiar with fine wine and cuisine, who was well-read and attuned to the ways of romance. The fact was, however, he was not attracted to the opera-loving ‘dickie-bow brigade. The men he fancied were the Winnies and Jims: rough-edged, plain-talking, basic blokes who wouldn’t know how to behave in an opera house if you gave them lessons. The fact is, he had distilled right down what he needed in life, which was a simple man who could satisfy him physically. All the rest, he could deliver himself! This made Freddie’s male relationships a bit gentleman versus ‘rough’. Which was what got the Beatles’ urbane manager Brian Epstein into so much trouble back in the sixties. And do you remember when Liz Taylor married Jim Fortensky at Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch in 1991? The construction worker was like Richard Burton but without the Shakespeare or the talent. But she no longer needed Burton’s brilliance or profile, as in the end it was she who was the star! Observers took it to mean that this ‘lesser’ kind of guy was her true preference, her basic need. They said the same thing about Freddie. Wouldn’t he have adored the idea of being with somebody more like himself?
But darling, that’s what he already had. He had Freddie.
With thanks to Lesley-Ann Jones
Love of My Life: The Life and Loves of Freddie Mercury. Coronet, 2021.