From “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” To “I’m Still Standing”
Understanding Traumatic Invalidation In “Rocketman’s” Elton John
By Chris Gearing and Dr. Sylvia Gearing
Hey there, Honky Cat. Two quick notes before you read the following article. First, spoilers for the 2019 film “Rocketman” are discussed below. You’ve been warned. Second, while Sir Elton John is a real person alive on Earth today, this article will focus entirely upon the depiction of Elton John and events from his life from the 2019 film “Rocketman.” This is not a definitive diagnosis, recommended treatment plan, or thorough psychological profile of the real Sir Elton John in any way whatsoever. This article only seeks to discuss certain events portrayed in the film, how they impacted the protagonist, and what we can learn from them to inform our own lives. Thank you for understanding the difference between real life and a movie. Now, on to the show.
Somewhere between the glitz and glam of the bright lights, spectacular outfits, and larger than life rock concerts, “Rocketman” tells a rather simple story. Reginald Dwight (aka Elton John) has a gift for music even as a child, and he meets people along the way that influence his songs, his performances, and his state of mind. He leaves his humble beginnings to become the biggest star in the world before crashing back down to Earth clad in a rather on the nose sequin laden golden orange onesie befitting a fallen angel complete with giant wings and demonic horns. In case you didn’t know, Elton John is not subtle. But that’s also kind of the point, right? The pomp and circumstance are tools to heighten the everyday into something more meaningful. What is more “Elton John” than utilizing spectacle to stir emotions and raise our spirits before breaking our hearts? The film means to entertain us first before teaching us its lessons and sharing its feelings. Show up for the bedazzled LA Dodgers onesie and performance of “Rocket Man” (yes, the movie and the song are spelled differently… go figure), but stay for the theatrically staged group therapy sessions with all of the important figures from Elton’s life to teach us that he’s not the man we think he is at home (oh no, no, no). It turns out, he’s a Rocket Man.
Also, therapy is actually portrayed positively in this film so you KNOW we’re going to talk about it.
“This Boy’s Too Young To Be Singing The Blues”
To begin, let’s knock out a few obvious things: Elton’s parents had no business having a child together and treated him terribly in different but significant ways. As an adult, he was in an exceedingly toxic relationship with his manager and sometimes lover John Reid. Elton turned to alcohol and substance abuse to help him cope with the massive amount of pain he was in as a result of these wounds from his personal life. All of this is right on the surface of the film’s message, but still significant and worth noting. Okay, glad we got that out of the way.
What is different about this particular portrait of Elton John’s life is the overwhelming amount of invalidation present in most of his important relationships. We all have invalidating moments in our lives, some of them fair and helpful (i.e., the facts we are referencing to make a point are false) and some of them hurtful (i.e., our thoughts are ignored or our intentions are misinterpreted). Both of these are relatively common and happen regularly over the course of our normal lives. However, Elton John experienced a rare third category called Traumatic Invalidation.
Traumatic Invalidation is different because this type is extreme, occurs regularly (usually daily), and often comes from our closest relationships. The things we hold most dear and sacred to our sense of self are undermined, attacked, and even shamed. Traumatic invalidation usually focuses on our perceptions of ourselves, our environment, experiences, thoughts and beliefs, emotions, desires, actions, and more. It can lead to feelings of exclusion, worthlessness, and perceiving ourselves as an outsider. These attacks can even make us question our basic worth as a human being.
Traumatic Invalidation is often so impactful because it comes from the most important people in our lives – our parents, siblings, our spouse or lovers, best friends, etc. These are the people we deeply rely upon to feel safe and understood, be vulnerable with, and who have special power over us. We may put on psychological (and sometimes physical in Elton’s case) armor to shield us from the world, but these are the people who know us best. We can be our true selves with them. This kind of emotional betrayal is absolutely devastating. Traumatic Invalidation can be especially damaging from parents since children are so vulnerable already, have no ability to escape or avoid these attacks, and have yet to internally define themselves as a defense against this kind of emotional assault.
“Turn Around And Say ‘Good Morning’ To The Night”
One of the most damaging effects of such extreme and pervasive invalidation is the direct damage to our sense of integrity. We begin to doubt our own thoughts and feelings, and fundamentally question our own credibility. This often tumbles down into severe insecurity and uncertainty in all aspects of our lives. Common effects of Traumatic Invalidation include intrusive thoughts, negative memories, re-experiencing the invalidation (flashbacks), intense feelings of shame, confusion, continuous efforts to get validation from the source of the invalidation, intense pressure to receive validation from others at any cost, avoiding any source of invalidation (even helpful or accurate ones), and the inability to trust others. Chronic emotional dysregulation is a common side effect for survivors of traumatic invalidation. In addition, addiction and substance abuse are extremely common among this demographic including alcohol, drugs, prescription medications, eating disorders, sexual addictions, and more.
Particularly for those who are famous, these vices can go from occasional dalliance to deeply rooted habit in the blink of an eye. The kind of access to money, people, drugs, etc. that Elton had at the height of his early career made nothing off limits. It can corrupt even the most grounded of individuals if they aren’t careful. In Elton John’s case, he lost his sole healthy anchor in the storm when Bernie Taupin leaves him alone at a party at Mama Cass’s house (and seemingly going forward as well). Feeling abandoned and lonely again in a strange land, he lets the wolf in the door when John Reid approaches him and they begin a rather torrid love affair. His infatuation with John Reid soon spirals out of control and Elton gives himself over to Reid entirely – romantically, professionally, financially, and more. However, John Reid soon assumes the role of Elton’s new source of Traumatic Invalidation. Elton reaches rock bottom when he is once again rejected by his mother, meets his father’s new family, and discovers John Reid cheating on him at Elton’s house. After a particularly nasty exchange between Reid and Elton, Elton attempts to take his own life by overdosing and jumping into his own pool.
As he continues to descend into a life of addiction and hedonism, he desperately reaches out for someone or something to hold on to. He tries to reconnect with his mother, he has a short-lived marriage to a straight woman, and he ramps up his prescription pills and alcohol dependence to numb the chronic string of invalidation and pain from everyone he values. Even his best friend, Bernie Taupin, only occasionally checks in on him and while he is concerned – he ultimately walks away every time. Finally, Elton makes his first positive choice in a long time. He checks himself into rehab.
“Looking Like A True Survivor, Feeling Like A Little Kid”
Much of therapy is understanding your own story, how it shaped your life up to now, and making a decision about what comes next. You can’t help but groan a little bit when a screenwriter uses a therapy session as a framing device for someone telling their life story aloud. However in this case, it’s not altogether untrue. Elton faces his past in therapy in his signature melodramatic fashion with big dance numbers, theatrical renditions of his biggest hits, and heartfelt monologues on the turning points in his life. In one final scene, he confronts the major figures of his personal life, not with anger but with compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. He accepts his past, he (literally) embraces who he was and who he has become, he lets go of and banishes his sources of invalidation, and he turns his focus toward his future.
Obviously, films can’t fully develop and realistically render the process of therapy since it can take months or even years for this kind of deep and introspective work to sink in. However, the movie portrays therapy as putting Elton John on the path to recovery. He reconnects with the healthy relationships from his past, lets go of his sources of invalidation, and focuses on his work with renewed vigor. He has a new lease on life which he celebrates with a fun new song (and the end credits sequence) called “I’m Still Standing.” Looks like the Rocketman finally came down to a happy ending.Back to Blog