The Wilsons, who formed the core of the Beach Boys, are a good example of a dysfunctional, abusive, family. Because they are famous, a lot of unfiltered data is available to us.
The second son, Dennis, despite all the money he had made, ended up alcoholic, homeless, and an apparent suicide at 39. The youngest, Carl, also had struggles with alcohol, and died at 52 of lung cancer. He had been a chain smoker since age 13. Brian, the surviving son, had a nervous breakdown in his early twenties, and became permanently schizo-affective, a severe form of “mental illness” that combines the worst features of depression, manic depression, and schizophrenia. All three were obviously suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress (PTSD) as a result of their upbringing.
You might say that rock stars often come to bad ends. True; it may also be true that they often come from such dysfunctional families. But here we have a control: the four early members of the group who were not Wilsons. Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks all seem to have avoided any of the same nervous problems.
How do you drive three sons mad? Papa Murry Wilson gives us a bit of a tutorial, thanks to a surviving tape from the recording session for “Help Me Rhonda.” Brian Wilson seems to have deliberately kept the recording tape running as his father showed up and tried to take over the session. One can easily imagine why. He wanted a record for posterity.
The common claim about Murry is that he had a terrible temper. When he got mad, in Brian's words, you felt the devil was there. He once hit Brian with a 2x4, causing him loss of almost all hearing in one ear. This certainly cannot have been good for their peace of mind, but I doubt it was sufficient to cause the range of their suffering as adults. The terrible temper was symptomatic of something deeper: Murry Wilson say himself as the centre of the universe, and his sons as existing, like everyone else, for the benefit of Murry Wilson. As a result, he could be merciless when he was angry, and he used them to vent his anger regardless of their own actions.
This is what drives you mad, because you cannot avoid the rage. A merely stern parent is easy to live with in peace, simply by following the rules. No cause for any free-floating stress in that case.
Murry demonstrates the true problem in the recording tape. He has been invited to come down, he says, “relax,” and listen to them record. But this he cannot stand to do, because it leaves them, not him, the centre of attention. So he tries to take over the recording session, until he is finally taken up on his threat to leave. He is not smart enough to cover up his envy: at one point, he says, “I'm a genius too,” and then “Brian, forget who you are.” The sons are fairly obviously made to feel guilty for their very success: “your damned Capital records.” “Made enough money, buddy?” “So you're big stars...”
Brian is producing the record, and there are about twenty people working under him. Murry begins by attacking Brian directly: “Brian, you’re coming in shrill.” Brian's voice is too strong. Implicitly, Brians should shut up. That presumably slaps him down, publicly humiliating him. To Murry's mind, it must be clear to everyone present that he is the greater man.
Then he makes the rounds, slapping down everyone else in turn. We can’t hear Al, Al is not syncopating, we can’t hear Mike, we can’t hear Carl. Dennis is flat, Mike is flat, Carl has been “loafing for two hours.” That’s everyone; everyone is doing it wrong.
More importantly, for driving someone mad, note that Murry sets things up as a double bind, so that nobody actually has the option to do it right. Having systematically set everyone on edge and made them self-conscious, he then harangues them for not being relaxed enough. “Loosen up. You’re so tight, I can’t believe it.” “Happy, happy, happy.” He does everything he can to shake their confidence, then demands that they “sing with confidence.” He tells Jardine to sing the phrase, and then, as soon as Al starts singing, shouts “no” -- three times in a row. Stop means go; go means stop. He tells Mike to get in closer to the microphone, then tells him he’s too close to the microphone. He warns the boys to never sing for the money, and then says they must fight for their success.
Another prominent technique is to say highly critical-sounding things, ominous things, then pause, then soften them. This seems to be a subtle form of “gaslighting”--in its severe form, maintaining things that are plainly false, or saying or doing something, then later adamantly denying you ever said or did it. It is a way to maintain absolute control over someone, because once you get them to accept the basic premise that your word and will supercede their sense perceptions, there is no remaining check on your control over them. They are forced to depend on you for everything. It is known to be a common technique among sociopaths.
An example: “For the first time in my life …” (pause) “… Brian said come down, relax, so I did.” That makes no sense as spoken. The first words, spoken with emotion, are calculated to jangle the nerves, and set in memory like cement. Then the follow-up allows Murry deniability if challenged.
More examples: “Fellas, I have three thousand words to say…” (pause to wait for shoe to drop) and he says a few. Non sequitor. “We need help...” (pause). “…we need the honest projection that we used to have…” “You can’t compete…” (pause) “… with the brains that are trying to hurt you.” “I’ve protected you for 22 years, but I can’t go on …” (pause) “… if you’re not going to listen to an intelligent man.”
Does Murry know what he is doing? Plainly he does, for when Brian tries something that sounds vaguely similar, he explodes. Brian says, “Let me ask you this...” And before the pause has a chance to register, let alone the question be asked, Murry takes extreme umbrage: “that is an absolute insult.”
And, at this, he storms out of the studio, saying he will “never help you guys mix another song.”
There was no insult. Murry is pre-emptively gaslighting.
Note that, the better to manipulate, and the better to gaslight, Murry encourages an “us against the world” family solidarity. Everything outside the home is dangerous. So, when Brian formed the group, Murry insisted that all three brothers had to be in it, even though Dennis was not really interested. The other three original members were a cousin (on Murry’s side, of course) and two neighbours. Murry became the manager.
“I am protecting you,” he says here, “from many people who are trying to hurt you.” This, of course, preserves his autocratic role as the father. His sons remain his appendages and minions. It would be intolerable for them to move out on their own.
Notice, too, that Murry commonly affects to speak for others was well as himself--a standard bullying technique. He speaks for his wife, their mother, repeatedly, and once claims unsolicited solidarity with the sound technician.
As M. Scott Peck observes, it takes two bad parents to make an abusive family. The second parent must be prepared to enable the first, to allow him or her to speak for both of them, to back him or her up in the bullying sessions. Clearly, this was the case in the Wilson home. Mrs. Wilson, Audree, was an alcoholic. Murry could have his way so long as he kept her supplied.
This enables Murry to threaten the boys at will with the withdrawal of all parental love. Everything must go through him. He uses the implied threat here, when he begins a statement, apparently again non sequitor, “your mother loves you...” and then leaves it incomplete. He is the one who decides whether she loves them or not.
According to those who knew the family, Murry bullied and persecuted Brian the most, then Dennis, and Carl the least. Why? Because Brian was the gifted one, a prodigy, his musical talent apparent from a very young age. He was bound to provoke envy for it. Dennis was the best-looking brother, and no doubt provoked envy on this score. He then proceeded to justify the abuse by becoming the “black sheep” of the family: a standard survival mechanism for the second (sometimes third) son in a dysfunctional family.
The most heart-breaking thing about the clip is seeing how much the boys still love their father. Murry threatens early on to leave the recording session. This would probably be the best solution for everyone but Murry. Yet Brian's immediate reaction is to ask him to stay. It takes quite a bit before Brian finally loses his temper.
It's a wise child who knows his own father. It is hard-wired into all of us to love and to look up to our parents. And to believe that, deep down ,they love us.