Repeating Notes of  Infant Trauma
Can Ruin A Life If Not Heard

Hanging himself wasn’t Jackson Maine’s fault. Nor was his drinking. Yes, his brother Bobby said to the heartbroken, Ally: “It was Jack; not you; not me; Jack and no one else.” But, that’s because he didn’t understand. And, really, Jackson had the right idea: “A song is only an octave. Twelve notes and it repeats. Over and over forever.” Yet, that’s not only what happens in a song; it’s also in the musical undertones that play inside a life; octaves of the past; singing their haunting song. Only sometimes you can’t hear the words; especially when your trauma is in infancy; and then persists; seemingly forever. The dissonant chords in Jackson Maine’s life and in A Star Is Born are his infant trauma; playing over and over in his unknown grief; terrors of separation; unconscious guilt; and fears of love.

Infant Trauma/Mother Loss/

“Infant trauma,” you might be asking? What could that have to do with Jackson Maine’s (Bradley Cooper) problems? He’s a drunk; he doesn’t even care that he’s a famous rock musician. That people love him; that wherever he goes everyone knows him. In fact, everyone wants a piece of him (well, maybe that’s not so great, but still…)

As successful as Jack is, you’d think he’d be on top of the world; right? Well, he’s not. All we see is a man who can’t stay away from drinking. Is addicted to alcohol and drugs. A man who doesn’t seem to care about himself, his career; or anyone.

But, does anyone stop to ask: “what is Jack trying to drown out?” The reality is: no one alters their state of mind constantly if they aren’t seriously troubled by something. And, even more of the truth is, most often they don’t even know what it is. That’s where the unconscious mind comes in.  That’s where trauma in infancy exits.

Jackson’s Unknown Grief

And, that’s the way it is for Jack. His mother died giving birth to him. He knows that as a fact. But he has no idea how much it affects every step of his life.

Myth is that babies don’t feel and don’t remember; but that’s not true. In fact, unconscious memory is a very real thing; engrained and living in feelings without words. And, infant trauma; with its terrors of loss and its panics in separations and absences; takes residence deep inside; in the undercurrents of symptoms; one of them alcohol and drugs.

Yes, babies feel; they know when someone has disappeared; even at birth. The familiar womb; feel; voice; is gone. And, there has been no goodbye. A baby’s grief (living later in an adult mind) must be recognized by someone who hears and knows. Otherwise,  love can’t be trusted. And, those hidden and unspoken beliefs that anyone needed (or loved) will suddenly be gone; can ruin a life.

The Goodbye Song

Goodbye is what Jackson is terrified of; in every separation; every absence; every sign he can’t control the comings and goings of the one he loves. This is his trauma; his mother loss; expressed in the final song in A Star Is Born.

And, in his song, we have the words of an infant’s grief; felt only in his fears of love; and in his inability to love himself. The silent octave chorus/the notes repeating over and over in his life-long struggles; and in his ultimate suicide. A song about the mom he didn’t say goodbye to; and couldn’t save.

Wish I could, I could’ve said goodbye

I would’ve said what I wanted to

Maybe even cried for you

If I knew, it would be the last time

I would’ve broke my heart in two

Tryin’ to save a part of you

Don’t wanna feel another touch

Don’t wanna give my heart away

To another stranger

Or let another day begin

Won’t even let the sunlight in

No, I’ll never love again…

Wordless Terrors

These fears; and grief; are resurrected/full force/when Jack falls in love with Ally (Lady Gaga). The refrains of his goodbye song; play over and over; in every separation/each time, he’s sure it is goodbye; that he has lost her too. Drowned out/in his drinking to escape from it all, and even in his death.

With Ally, Jack lives out his early terrors about ever loving again. And, since he was a newborn; those terrors have no words.

Jack was never been able to say “hello” to love. That is, until he meets Ally. Because, if we were to put words to his fears; those words, would be a pleading. Something like: “Please don’t go away.” But, in his baby mind; he’s certain anyone he loves will. 

A Star Is Born begins with another Jackson Maine concert over. And Jack, as usual alone, is on his way to fall in love. He just doesn’t know it yet. And, of course, love is something he’s avoided. We’re beginning to understand why. But, sometimes love is inescapable. And so it is with Jack and Ally.

Alone in the backseat of his limo, it’s a typical hard-drinking night for Jack. Alcohol is the one companion he can be sure will never leave. He chugs a bottle of hard liquor, but what he has isn’t enough. He directs his driver to stop at the next bar. Any bar.

And, there he is, in a transgender bar; and it’s “Drag night.” The “girls” are all decked out and ready to perform. They welcome him; after all, he’s a star. And, there’s Ally; the only other straight person there, an honorary (and return) act. Wow, can she sing. 

“Please Don’t Go Away”

Jack falls in love with Ally on the spot; it’s her voice that draws him in; like the sirens calling to Odysseus; the song of a lost mother’s voice. Jack heard her voice in utero; all fetus’ do; but he never knew her gaze; her arms; her presence.

The terrors of another loss are a repeating twelve-note octave chorus; especially when no one knows; or understands; especially when falling in love unexpectedly happens. And when he lets himself love Ally; he can’t be without her.

Those wordless terrors: “You’re leaving me; you’re never coming back” are a constant refrain in any kind of separation. It’s as if, in his baby mind, he is losing his mother each time she’s away.

When a mother dies in infancy; that trauma-without-words settles into your bones; lives there; and makes you terrified of love. Love means gone. Love is dangerous.

Separateness Means “Gone”

Jack finds a home with Ally; a real home; and a dog named Charlie. But mostly he finds a home in her love for him. A home he’s never had or felt; yet a home he can’t fully embrace or trust; since in all love, there are two different people; two separate ways; and two separate lives. Yes, that’s normal and necessary, of course; but not to the traumatized baby living inside the man.

And, Jack wants certainty. Maybe getting married will make him feel he has her? Of course; that doesn’t work. Another person; even one who loves you; can’t be controlled. Yet, to a traumatized infant; separateness means it’s all over; she’s dead; love is gone. And, from the very beginning; these fears eat away at him. And, Ally, the lure of fame; and Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron) don’t help.

You see, Jack Maine, meeting Ally and realizing her talent, (plus already loving her), takes her on stage at his next show. Against her refusals, he insists she sing her original song. People listen. She’s got it. Ally’s special. He’s made her a star. He doesn’t care about his own stardom. He just longs for love (even if he can’t admit it himself). Yet, the problem is: Jack doesn’t feel special at all.

Because of that, not only does love threaten a “gone-ness” that only a traumatized infant knows; but it also brings misconstrued perceptions of rejections and slights. Plus, unnecessary hurt. “Signs” and “certainties” about being unloved; left; not important enough for her to stay; are, then, everywhere to latch onto. 

Losing Ally/Or Is He?

Beliefs that Ally is turning away are stirred up from the start. Her performance on stage, singing with him, is magical; he wants more. But this isn’t enough for the Ally he sees and loves and offers to the music world. And, she can’t resist the temptation of Rez Gavron, music talent manager; who hears her sing with Jack and immediately wants to sign her. Rez (seeing dollar signs) tells her he can make her big. And, this appeals to a young woman who has tried for years but hasn’t been seen.

It’s as if Jack, who made this happen, disappears in Ally’s mind. Intoxicated by the lure of fame, she excitedly tells him: “Rez really believes in me.” Jack feels discarded. Does she not see he’s the one that got her here; who believes in her the most?

Of course, in Jack’s mind, this is a sign he’s losing her. To him, her excitement isn’t a momentary thing; not personal; just about her own career. No, to Jack, Ally has turned to someone else; partnered up with Rez; pushing him aside. That hurt works its way down to his deepest core; to the baby still living inside Jack; with a dead mom; an old drunk dad; a baby that wasn’t really wanted. 

Separateness/Realities/Or Fears?

In truth, Ally loves Jack; it’s just hard for him to see that; through the fog of his infant trauma. But, Rez is giving her a chance to be a star. And, she wants that too. Yet, little by little, she’s being shaped by Rez … to be someone else; not the Ally Jack fell in love with. Not only that; she doesn’t even look like Ally anymore.

Besides, there are the realities of her stardom (and Rez’s) demands. Plus, she doesn’t travel with Jack anymore. Rez even refuses Ally’s insistence that Jack tour with her. Her concerts; new image takes her over and away from him. She belongs to Rez; fame; her audiences; to her own need for a kind of glamour and glory; that isn’t really her. 

While all this may be true; for a moment, let’s put the realities aside and think about what gets stirred up in a man with Jack’s history. None of it is rational; where old feelings are involved. Ally’s separate life, while it may be just that; links up with Jack’s terror that she’s gone and never coming back.

As Jack’s “home” with Ally begins to slip away; he relives even more fiercely; his birth trauma. A mother gone; unreachable. What is he to do?

The Lure/Of Being Drugged

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die? Yes, but he can’t. And, sure, Jack is tired of trying to fill that void. It is hard keeping it so hardcore.” But when love isn’t to be trusted (at least when you don’t believe it is) there’s only one way, right? An old familiar way to fill in those seemingly unending spaces/when he and Ally are apart.   

So, Jack turns to his reliable “friends.” The only ones there; whenever he needs them. The only things he has to soothe his fears. And, they’re good at it. Yes, booze and drugs have undeniable blotting out and blinding powers. Jack’s terrors of being unwanted; losing Ally; momentarily disappear; as they go down smoothly and do their work.

So, yes, drugs and alcohol; his need for them; certainly ruin Ally’s Grammy award; as he stumbles onstage, pee running down his leg; trying to be with his wife; where he’s supposed to be. Is it jealousy? I don’t think so.

Babies wet their pants too; can’t walk on their own. And the baby hidden away in Jackson Maine’s inebriation; the baby pushed aside and unwanted early in his life; is desperate/trying/pleading to be seen/and helped. But, no one does.

All Ally; Bobby (Sam Elliott), and Rez; in A Star Is Born, see is a drunk; a “fuck up” who refuses to give it up. But, truly he can’t. No one traumatized in infancy can do it alone.

Unconscious Guilt/ “My Needs Kill”

Yet, there’s something else Jack’s escaping from. It’s, really, at the heart of his terrors about loss. So, we mustn’t forget that constantly in the separations; in his fears of loss; in what he drowns out with drink and drugs; is unconscious Guilt.

Although Jack doesn’t completely realize it; there’s a voice inside his mind that tells him everything is his fault. Because his mother died giving birth to him, Jack Maine lives with an unconscious guilt that he killed her. All traumatized baby’s do.

He needed her; was dependent on her for his life. So, what else is he to think? “My needs kill.” How can Jack need anyone? Or feel safe in love? And, when his drinking actually does ruin things; like Ally’s Grammy Award; then it’s particularly hard for Jack to shake this guilt loose.

Yet, Jack wants to be with Ally. He’s capable of apologies. And, he tries to get sober.  He goes to rehab; and tries to get help. He even tells the counselor: “I put my dad’s belt around the fan. I tried to do the deed. The whole fan came down from the ceiling. He didn’t even notice. It stayed on the floor for half a year. I was just shy of thirteen.” But, the counselor doesn’t notice either.

Depression & Suicide

No one knows or sees that Jack Maine has been depressed his whole life; persistently depressed from birth; because of his mother’s death. Quietly, unconsciously, terrified, it was all his fault. And since no one sees and reaches in; Jack’s guilt eats away at him.

Rez becomes that voice of guilt (the one that lives inside him too); that ultimately does him in. Ally stands up to Rez and tells him: “If you can’t make [touring with Jackson] happen, then cancel the whole tour.” She’s getting herself back, but Jack never knows. And, Rez (angry he’s losing his hold on Ally) comes to find Jack; behind Ally’s back.

With his cruel words, he links up with the voice in Jack’s head; that constantly tells him: “Your needs kill everybody you love.” Rez attacks: “We’ve spent this whole time cleaning up your mess. You single-handedly derailed her whole career. Just by staying with you, she’ll look like a jerk.” 

The past doesn’t go away. This is his birth trauma. Jack couldn’t save his mother. In fact, he unconsciously believes he killed her. So, does he even deserve to live? Suicide becomes the only answer.  He couldn’t save his mom. Maybe this way; he’ll save Ally.

Could Jackson Have Been Saved?

Dying, of course, doesn’t save anyone. And, it certainly isn’t the answer. For Jackson, dying only served a fantasy of getting rid of a hated baby inside; a baby he believes kills everyone he needs. No matter how much Ally loves him; Jack hears these strains of a dissonant melody playing in his head: 

“I’m unwanted; I’m too much. She’s left me; I ruin everything; I’d better go. Everyone is better off without me.” Suicide/in its finality/sometimes seems/the only way out.

It may seem that way; if no one hears; or if people like Rez confirm his worst fears. Then, infant trauma leaves a baby self, screaming endlessly. Unable to bear the implosion of all its unspoken feelings and losses; believing it’s all his fault. The devastating fantasy? Death will stop it all.

What Really Helps?

Someone must hear the traumatized baby; hidden away by alcohol, drugs; or all the other symptoms. And, that same someone; must know that babies feel; that infant trauma is real.

Substance abuse programs, for those (like Jack) who do their hiding with alcohol or drugs, have their place as a first step. But, they aren’t equipped to see beneath the symptom. And so … the infant trauma; driving the need for alcohol; or in Jackson Maine’s case, the belief that suicide is the only way out; isn’t touched.

The only way for a life not to be ruined by infant trauma; is for someone to hear the repeating octave notes of that trauma living inside. To see how the particulars of that trauma are threaded persistently through a life; largely in problems with love.

Only, if someone hears and understands; if each note of infant trauma is given a voice and words; and only if the terrified baby hidden away inside is found; does the kind of tragedy we see in A Star Is Born; not have to happen.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.


  1. Nick Shope on June 29, 2020 at 4:57 am

    Amazing review, full of deeper meaning and perspective that captivated me with every single watch of this great movie. Thank you for bringing this detail and thoughtfulness to light in a way the reader can fully grasp what is painfully hidden in his character.

    • Dr. Sandra E. Cohen on June 30, 2020 at 3:33 pm

      Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts. Your comment means a lot to me. That I wrote in a way that was easily accessible is exactly what I hoped for. A Star Is Born was my favorite film of 2018. It moved me just as it moved you. Take care and stay safe in this challenging time.

  2. Britt Kearns on February 26, 2021 at 6:34 am

    Outstanding. I too had a deep awareness of the underlying wounds and message within this film. So much revolved around the concept of healing the divine masculine and feminine within us all. The inner Child must be acknowledged, loved, and healed. When this healing takes place, the merge and integration of self can begin. The separation from self and others begins to bridge and we come to find it was just an illusion all along.

    I work as a healer, seer, and channel. This song came through often ‘lightning crashes’ by the band Live. Please watch the video and mind the lyrics. It is in complete alignment with your message.

    You are a gift.

    • Dr. Sandra E. Cohen on February 26, 2021 at 11:49 am

      Thank you. What a lovely and deeply meaningful comment. I couldn’t agree more about the Inner Child needing to be seen, known, loved, and healed. I’m also very grateful to you for introducing me to the song “Lightning Crashes” and the band Live. Wow, it’s an absolutely gorgeous and moving song. And, what a voice. Take care. Continue the wonderful work you do.

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