“I used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can.”
Getting Better, Lennon/McCartney
John Lennon was many things. MBE, English singer, philanderer, songwriter, wife abuser, musician, activist, Beatle, co-founder of the most commercially successful music group in history, substance abuser, half of the prolific Lennon/McCartney songwriting team, deadbeat dad, and peace symbol.
His mark on the world of music, activism, and politics are undeniable. Through his music he begged us to give peace a chance, he asked us to imagine a world living as one, he implored us to free our minds and join the revolution, and he reminded us that all we need is love. His messages of love, peace, and revolution are as important as they are relevant today. His ability to weave poignant lyrics through music as groundbreaking as it was infectious made his message uniquely enduring.
It is unfortunate that his first family, Cynthia and Julian, didn’t benefit from that love and peace he sang about so earnestly. The wife he was physically and emotionally abusive to, the son he abandoned. The victims of his substance abuse and cold and violent nature. His abusive relationship with Cynthia has been well documented, most strikingly in her book John. In this book, she recollects their relationship from teenagers in art school to their eventual break up when John left her for Yoko and the years beyond when she was struggling to fend for herself and her son. She recounts him hitting her in the face so hard the back of her head hit the pipe behind her because she danced with another man, how she and young Julian had to be hidden to avoid ruining his career, how he was possessive, controlling, and cruel, his lack of interest in creating any sort of bond with his son, his descent deeper and deeper into drugs, his gaslighting and manipulation to allow himself to walk away from his wife and young son and leave them with no money as he became one of the richest musicians of his time, and his failure to consider and include his eldest son, Julian as he built a life and family with his Yoko and Sean.
Julian probably says this best, “Dad could talk about peace and love out loud to the world, but he could never show it to the people who supposedly meant the most to him: his wife and son. How can you talk about peace and love and have a family in bits and pieces – no communication, adultery, divorce? You can’t do it, not if you’re being true and honest with yourself.” As John inspired the world to come together for peace and love he was abusing his wife and neglecting his son. Both of these things are equally true and equally representative of who John Lennon was as a person.
John Lennon, like all people, was a complex man who had within him the ability to inspire and the ability to hurt. Does the damage he did lessen the impact of his music and activism? Does the beauty of his art and the importance of his revolution soften the blows dealt to his wife and son? Is it ok to be inspired to love by someone who was so cruel to those that love him? Should we disregard all of the good he created and inspired because of the anguish he caused his family?
Somewhere in those questions lies the answer, I still haven’t figured it out.