The Rock Opera Tommy by the Who Illustrates the Psychodynamics of Conversion Hysteria

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This article demonstrates how the rock opera Tommy, written primarily by Peter Townshend of The Who, illustrates the psychodynamics of conversion hysteria. Although the validity of conversion hysteria as a unitary clinical entity is rejected today, an understanding of the historical and theoretical significance of this syndrome is invaluable for the comprehension of virtually all psychoanalytically derived theories of personality and psychotherapy. Indeed, Freud credited the very birth of psychoanalysis to insights garnered from Joseph Breuer's medical treatment of his famous patient Bertha Pappenheim (pseudonymously known as Anna O.) who was diagnosed with hysteria. Selected excerpts from Tommy illustrate such psychoanalytic concepts as catharsis, cathexis, charismatic leadership, conversion, defense mechanisms, dissociation, narcissism, repression, the return of the repressed, transference, and the psychogenic trauma model. Student ratings provide empirical support for the utility of Tommy in fostering greater understanding of psychoanalytic theory.

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me. Sigmund Freud

As outlined in the classic Studies on Hysteria (Freud & Breuer, 1895/1955), Freud formulated many psychodynamic concepts in an attempt to understand and treat patients displaying symptoms attributed to conversion hysteria-a psychoneurosis characterized by emotional excitability and apparently psychogenic sensory and motor symptoms that may resemble various physical disorders. These patients variously displayed psychogenic anesthesias, visual and auditory impairments, speech problems, and motor disturbances-many of which could be hypnotically alleviated or modified.

Currently, conversion hysteria is not considered a valid clinical entity, in part due to the lack of clinical and causal integrity that characterize the symptoms (Micale, 1993). Today, the symptoms previously attributed to conversion hysteria are variously classified as reflecting somatoform, dissociative, or Axis II personality disorders (Borch-Jacobson, 1996; Micale, 1995). However, Freud's work with conversion hysteria, in collaboration with his colleague Joseph Breuer, is of great historical significance because it led to such central psychoanalytic concepts as the dynamic unconscious, the psychogenic trauma model of neurosis, transference, and free association. Indeed, Freud himself credited the birth of psychoanalysis to the insights generated from Joseph Breuer's medical treatment of Bertha Pappenheim (pseudonymously known as Anna O.) from November 1880 to June 1882 who was diagnosed with hysteria (Rosenbaum and Muroff, 1984).

It is a challenge to clearly explain psychodynamic processes (e.g., catharsis, cathexis, conversion, defense mechanisms, dissociation, libido, repression, return of the repressed, strangulated affect, repetition compulsion) to undergraduates. Approaches to the explanation of psychodynamic concepts in the classroom have included using popular movies and TV shows (Schlozman, 2000) and classroom exercises (Blass, 2001; Miserandino, 1994). Both the abstract nature of psychodynamic processes and the current attitudinal climate that is critical of psychoanalytic thought contribute to this challenge (Auchincloss, 2000; McWilliams, 2000). However, these basic psychodynamic concepts provide an essential conceptual framework that facilitates the understanding of the majority of theories of personality and psychotherapy. In addition, these psychodynamic concepts provide a valuable hermeneutic framework for the interpretation of artistic, literary, and musical productions.

In order to increase student understanding of psychodynamic concepts, I have successfully used an explanatory framework based on the rock opera Tommy (originally written in 1969 primarily by Peter Townshend and performed by The Who; later produced as a movie, Robert Stigwood Organization, 1975/1999). …


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