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 her behavior 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 be thinking about what happens to a little girl when there’s all work and no play. A little girl 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, herself, opens the film with this invitation into her inner life: “Come with me. We’ll start from the beginning with a little girl. Her name was Blue.” In this summons, Miss Simone introduces us to the essence of her problems. “Blue” is a telling emotional word, one often interchangeable with depression. Indeed, Nina Simone was blue. She had more than enough reasons to be sad.
History and fantasies are where the heart of anyone’s sadness must be discovered. 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, because of this, Nina Simone 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. She surely felt pushed aside, starved for love.
Nina 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 Nina wanted to make it happen.
What Do You Do With Anger?
In the end, though, being black denied her a place at Carnegie Hall. Her great talent as a pianist wasn’t enough. Race, too, was responsible for the denial of her application to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. And, a worse result? Eunice thought she wasn’t good enough. But, when she discovered racism much later, she was not only hurt, she was furious.
Anger didn’t surface until long after Simone was singing. We see her anger, in the film, directed towards her audience. Simone demanded and required rapt attention from her audience. If those who were supposed to be listening were distracted, she became enraged. She’d walk off stage. And, she’d refuse to come back.
Who did her audience represent? Her parents. Distracted by noisier siblings, work, and poverty. Her audience was also the white world, a world that robbed her of what she was due. That audience who didn’t listen closely enough? They were the deprivers of love, of interest, of what she needed. Miss Simone just couldn’t take it anymore.
Accumulated disappointments, various betrayals, deep frustration with having to do what she didn’t want to do were a trap she couldn’t get out of. She did get to Carnegie Hall. Her virtuoso singing, and her husband and manager, Andy Stroud made sure of that. But, it was hardly an accomplishment in Simone’s mind. Playing Bach on the piano in that very hall was the only thing Miss Simone had 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 sums up Nina Simone’s problems. She felt it was a crime to need something just for her. And, Nina Simone was at the mercy of what others required from her. 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. She was a prisoner.
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. 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, her work wasn’t for her. And she increasingly resented everything and everyone who needed anything from her. Including Lisa.
Chain Gang was Simone’s song, working hard and serving time. Anger became her demon. It took her over. And, 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 ’60s. 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 even more poignantly singing about the traumatized and lost little girl inside her.
What About Her Heart?
Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa asks the central at the end of the film: “What about her heart?” Simone’s heart was broken as a child long before she became the singer we know and still love. Simone was suspicious of love. Love was not to be trusted. That’s what happens to a child left emotionally hungry and discriminated against.
Miss Simone’s distrust caused her to walk away from audiences, scream at those who weren’t giving her what she needed. This distrust made her reject and demean her daughter who surely came to represent her never-good-enough self. Nina was lonely and tortured, at odds with herself; divided by the extremes of moods we often simplistically call bipolar.
In a word, a self-hating dark depression and a frantic need to accumulate enormous amounts of praise and recognition divided her. All of it was about the love she couldn’t get. And, Nina Simone was vengefully angry when she didn’t. Yet, no matter how much of that desperate attention she might receive, it was never enough. And, never counteracted her deep and lonely sadness. Nothing could negate the belief that she wasn’t worthy of love.
Emotional deprivation, discrimination, being robbed of what she deserved, made Nina Simone turn away from what she needed, not expecting to find it. Instead, as so often happens, all she found in everyone, was exactly what she expected: disappointment, rejection, and not a perfectly attuned kind of love.
What Help Did Nina Simone Need?
What help did Nina Simone if she’d allowed it? Understanding. And that’s what I, as a psychoanalyst do every day in my office. I understand. And, I would have searched for that scared and angry little girl buried in her bitterness. Offered 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. Mostly I would have shown her that, sometimes, when she looks at others looking at her, her filter of self-judgment distorts what she sees.
So, let’s not leave Miss Simone’s story simply at “bipolar.” What happened to her, I’d prefer to say, was an early tragedy. Nina Simone’s tragedy is the kind I see all too often. She lived with a lost and left-behind little girl trapped inside her. Scared to need anything or anyone. Heartbroken, love-starved – and never found.