I was fourteen the first time I heard Nirvana. I couldn’t describe what I felt when I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but today the term I’d use is “emotional honesty”. In that music, I heard a level of pain and anger that was becoming a routine part of my life, but I couldn’t express. I couldn’t talk with my school friends about my home life, but we could listen to Nirvana together, and share something significant.
I remember my feeling of loss when I heard Kurt Cobain had killed himself.
In the mid-90’s, the “War on Drugs” was huge, and Kurt Cobain became a sort of poster child for why drugs were bad. This scruffy, long-haired guy screaming songs about drugs, sex, mental illness and rage epitomized everything wrong with a generation. It was much simpler to think that the drug usage our society had grown so intolerant of started de novo, and was growing because it was being popularized by these screaming kids. It was convenient to frame his story as the ultimate “just say no to drugs” story; talented young musician lost his daughter (temporarily), almost lost his career and ultimately lost his life, all because of drugs. If the music industry and youth culture in general had just cleaned up their act, none of this would have unfolded.
Commentators wrung their hands, wondering what was so wrong with our culture that a generation raised in relative prosperity could harbor so much anger and self-destruction. No one thought the answer had anything to do with Generation X coming of age with an unprecedented belief in equality, an understanding that child abuse was wrong (the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the federal bill that codified this idea, was passed in 1974), but still entrapped in a world where no one was protecting them.
None of the commentators realized how much art comes from those who had their voice taken from them, if only for a few minutes, spending the rest of their life trying to get it back. And if they find it, and can use it to get someone to sing along with them, so much the better.
In a rush to explain a tragedy, everyone got the story wrong. Many people who dealt with Kurt got the story wrong, demonstrating our society’s ignorance of childhood trauma and adult self-destruction. We still get the exact same parts wrong, which has a lot to do with why our national rate of suicide has barely changed in the last 20 years, and our national rate of IV drug use has increased in that time. As we re-telling Kurt’s story, we still getting it wrong, and we’re not learning the lessons we need to.
The Adverse Childhood Experience study was released in 1998. It quantified the connection between many childhood experiences and their consequences later in life, but it wasn’t the first study to link child abuse to mental illness, suicide and drug use. According to Charles Cross’ masterful biography of Kurt Cobain Heavier than Heaven, Kurt had an ACE score of at least four (divorce, witness to domestic violence, psychological abuse and at least one measure of neglect).
The author also presents abundant evidence that Kurt’s score was actually higher. With an ACE score of 4, someone’s odds of using IV drugs are 3900% higher than someone with an ACE score of 0, and their odds of attempting suicide are 1122% higher than someone with an ACE score of 0. Let those numbers sink in; those are actually four digit numbers, not typos. And as someone’s ACE score increases, the odds of each of those outcomes increases as well. Kurt’s story wasn’t one of personal failure despite societal gifts, but rather one of a person succumbing to the laws of statistics.
Charles Cross presents indications, probably unknowingly, that Kurt experienced sexual abuse as a child. Kurt was drawing pornography by the age of ten, and the classmate who recounts the story said he didn’t recognize what Kurt was drawing. Experts call this “precocious sexual knowledge”. In the mid-1970’s, this term was a little more meaningful than it is today, as children had less access to pornography than they do in the internet era. Showing children pornography is a common part of the “grooming” strategy sex offenders use to gain the complacence and silence of their victims.
Kurt was plagued with stomach pain from age ten until he died. He was seen by many specialists, around the world, spanning many years, and no one was able to make a diagnosis. As someone who suffers from somatizations, “body memories”, where a trauma survivor experiences physiological symptoms associated with the panic and terror of abuse, these seem a possible explanation. I have facilitated care for someone with severe somatizations as a result of child sexual abuse, and I can assure you they confound experts. And if a patient doesn’t admit a history of sexual abuse, doctors rarely ask. To someone experiencing somatizations, there is no intuitive connection to the physical pain and the past abuse, so there is no obvious incentive to to disclose to a doctor.
There were alleged sex offenders on both sides of Kurt’s family tree. His great-uncle on his father’s side killed himself before he was to be arraigned for raping a child, and a cousin of Kurt’s disclosed as an adult that he was raped by a maternal great-uncle of Kurt’s. Today, families often allow a known, or-suspected sex offender access to children. When child sexual abuse couldn’t be discussed, giving the abuser the benefit of the doubt and not protecting children was the default setting in families.
As a writer, I believe all art tells a truth, but not always a literal one. So I refuse to place much stock in the literal interpretation of any one Nirvana song, but the evolution of the song “rape me” is interesting. During the creative process we bravely share the darkest parts of ourselves with ourselves (after all, most of the things we hide from others we really want to hide from ourselves), and sometimes realize that sharing that part of ourselves with others isn’t so wise.
The original version [INTENSE trigger warning] is a much more personal, emotional song than what ended up being released, the second video below,, although the chorus of “I’m not the only one” that was added in the final version is haunting on many levels.
Today, every fan who celebrates the start of Kurt’s career also mourns his death. I am among them. But I won’t simply be mourning songs unwritten and concerts un-played. It saddens me to see how little we’ve let ourselves change, despite all we’ve learned, in the last 25 years.
Opiate addicts are seen as degenerates to be incarcerated, not people who have succumbed to broken systems we refuse to fix. Suicide is treated as a dirty taboo, and when discussed, its cause is chalked up to be some random flavor-of-the-month. Statistics and data are ignored. Maternal Home Visiting programs are almost as scarce now as they were twenty years ago. Millions of dollars are spent every year to keep laws against child sexual abuse largely unenforceable. Family court systems are persistently broken and Child Protective Services consistently impoverished. And a largely ignorant public is persistently apathetic.
These are tragedies I’m aware of every day, today being no exception. But today I will also mourn the death of a musical visionary, who in a small way helped me see that I’m not the only one, at a time I truly thought I was.