WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? No Rest For A Love-Starved Girl

What Happened, Miss Simone, Liz Garbus’ documentary of the brilliant and troubled Nina Simone’s life, ends by diagnosing Miss Simone with bipolar disorder. Does that explain her outrageous behavior? I don’t think so. Those with bipolar disorder are taken over by extremes of moods. But, in my experience, there’s much more to being bipolar than that. Each person has an individual history and reasons for their extremes. A diagnostic category just doesn’t cut it as a method for understanding anyone.

How do you explain it then? What could possibly make Nina Simone destroy her career and treat her fans (and her daughter) the way she did? The answers are complex and all I have are hints from the film. I didn’t know the real Nina Simone. But these clues give me a chance to discuss how I’d think about someone with her struggles.

If I’d had Nina Simone in therapy, I’d keep close in mind what happens to a little girl when there’s all work and no play, living in the worst of racial divides, family deprivations, and Jim Crow times. I’d be thinking about a little girl who couldn’t get enough love. That can make anyone desperate and angry.

When Love Is In Short Supply

Nina Simone opens the film with this invitation into her inner life: “Come with me. We’ll start from the beginning about a little girl. Her name was Blue.” In this summons, she introduces us to the essence of her problems. “Blue” is a telling emotional word, often interchangeable with depression. Nina Simone was blue. She had more than enough reasons to be sad.

What is at the heart of anyone’s sadness must, of course, be discovered in concert with history and fantasy. When I listen to the longing and wistful beauty with which Simone sings, Wild Is The Wind  (although not included in the film), I can’t help but think of how elusive love must always have felt to her, threatening to blow away with the wind. Her “hungriness” for the kind of attention and recognition any child needs, was never satisfied, and she never trusted love. It’s not easy to be the 6th of 8 children in a poor family in rural North Carolina, with parents working and struggling to provide for too many children. She surely felt pushed aside and starved for love.

She was a good kid, a hard worker – a child who began her life as Eunice Wayman playing piano by age 3. Practicing 7-8 hours a day, because she loved the piano and she was good, meant no time for fun with other children. She couldn’t allow anything but intense discipline and focus, not if she was to be the first black pianist playing Bach at Carnegie Hall. That was her dream and she wanted to make it happen.


Talent would have gotten her to Carnegie Hall as a pianist if she hadn’t been black. Her race, too, was responsible for the denial of her application to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Eunice thought she wasn’t good enough at the time. But, when she discovered the racial reality much later, she was not only hurt, she was angry.

Anger didn’t surface, though, until long after Simone was singing. We see it in the film, directed towards her audience. If they were distracted from the rapt attention Simone demanded and required, those who were supposed to be listening became the brunt of her rage. She’d walk off stage. She’d refuse to come back.

Who did her audience represent? I think they became her parents, distracted by noisier siblings, work, and poverty. They were the white world that robbed her of what she was due. That audience who didn’t listen closely enough became the deprivers of love, of interest, of what she needed. She just couldn’t take it anymore.

The accumulated disappointments, the various betrayals, and her deep frustration with having to do what she didn’t want to do created an intolerable trap she couldn’t get out of.  When her virtuoso singing and her husband and manager, Andy Stroud, did get her to Carnegie Hall it was hardly an accomplishment in Simone’s mind. Playing Bach on the piano in that very hall was the only thing she’d actually aspired to do.

Working On The Chain Gang

I committed a crime Lord, I needed

Crime of being hungry and poor …


Working and working

But I still got so terribly far to go

Working On The Chain Gang, in many ways, sums up Nina Simone’s problems. She felt it was a crime to need something just for her. She was at the mercy of what others required. When her family was short on money, Eunice was forced to sing in a seedy bar. She didn’t know she had a voice. But, a pianist wasn’t drawing the crowds and, if she was to keep her job, she had to do what her boss demanded.

That’s when she became Nina Simone – to hide this shameful job from her religious family.  She took a name that wasn’t hers. Yet, in reality, her life was never her own. She was diverted from her path as a pianist by her family’s need for money. She was taken over by where her husband decided to take her career. The peace she had for a short time caring for Lisa as a baby was stolen from her too, by Andy’s control and the demands of her appearances as a sought after performer.

Work was her life. But, it wasn’t for her. She grew to resent everything and everyone who needed anything from her.  Including Lisa.

Mississippi Goddamn

Chain Gang was Simone’s song, working hard and serving time. Anger became her demon. It took her over. She found an outlet and a temporary voice for her fury in Mississippi Goddamn. Racial injustice was certainly something to be angry about. Yet, even such a powerful outlet could never be enough to free her from the deprivations and injustices of her childhood.

If we listen closely to the unconscious sentiments that underlie the song, it’s not only about the racial brutalities of the early 60’s. Nor is Mississippi Goddamn just about Medgar Evers’ death and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963, killing 4 black children. Simone was more poignantly singing about the traumatized and lost little girl inside her.

What Kind Of Help Did Nina Simone Need?

The central question, if we are to understand Nina Simone, is the question her daughter Lisa asks at the end of the film: “What about her heart?” I would suspect that Simone’s heart was broken as a child – long before she became the singer we know and still love. To be left emotionally hungry and discriminated against made Simone suspicious of love. Love was not to be trusted.

This distrust caused her to walk away from audiences, scream at those who weren’t giving her what she felt she needed, reject and demean her daughter who surely came to represent her never-good-enough self.  She was lonely and tortured, at odds with herself; divided by the extremes of moods we often simplistically call bipolar.

Torn between a self-hating dark depression and a frantic need to accumulate enormous amounts of praise and recognition that would seem to mean love, Nina Simone was vengefully angry when she didn’t get it. Yet, no matter how much of that desperate attention she might receive, it could never counteract her deep and lonely sadness. It could never be enough to negate the belief that she wasn’t worthy of love.

When someone’s been emotionally deprived, discriminated against, and robbed of what they deserve – they often turn away from what they need, not expecting to find it. I think this is what happened to Nina Simone. Instead, as also often happens, she found in everyone, exactly what she expected: disappointment, rejection, not a perfectly attuned kind of love.

If I’d had Nina Simone on my analytic couch, I would have searched for that scared and angry little girl buried in her bitterness. I would have given her a place to be angry, a place to be sad. I would have helped her see that what she’s experienced in the past, and what she now expects, isn’t everywhere and in everyone. I would have shown her that, sometimes, when she looks at others looking at her, a filter of self-judgment distorts what she sees.

So, let’s not leave Simone’s diagnosis simply at bipolar. I prefer to call what happened to her an early tragedy. The kind of tragedy we see as psychoanalysts all too often – a lost and left-behind little girl trapped inside her, scared to need anything or anyone; heart broken, love-starved – and never found.

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