A Psychological Profile Of Janis Joplin
“The greater the feeling of inferiority that has been experienced, the more powerful is the urge to conquest and the more violent the emotional agitation.” —Alfred Adler
Janice Joplin was born January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur Texas to Seth and Dorothy Joplin. Janice was the first born child in a family that would eventually include a sister Laura, who was born 6 years later, and a brother Michael, who was born 10 years later. Janice’s early family life was relatively normal, and as a child she was exceptionally curious and bright. Janice often made up stories as a child and began writing plays while in the first grade, and even at a very young age her creative talent seemed to be developing.
One early story recounted in Myra Friedman’s (1973) book on Janis, recounts how Seth would take the Janis and eventually her siblings down to the post office to look at the pictures of the wanted men as a form of entertainment. Given Janis’s later utter and total disregard for the law and conventionality in her life, one wonders if Janis didn’t develop some kind of sympathy for the “outlaw” from these early experiences, as she certainly began to view herself as existing outside of the bounds of normal society.
In Janis’s words, “The whole world turned on me” when she entered High School, and these years seemed to have an especially profound influence on Janis as well as her later work. Port Arthur was in many ways a rough and even violent city, and as a port town had a number of bars and houses of prostitution to service the men who came to work there. Janis witnessed extreme racism while growing up in Port Arthur, and her tolerance and acceptance of people from other races quickly earned her the nickname “nigger lover” which was one of many that she would eventually acquire in Port Arthur. During this period Janis also gained weight and developed bad skin, and she was often also called a “pig” by the other children in the school.
Following High School Janice enrolled at Lamar State College which she found was much like her High School in Port Arthur, as she again experienced a great deal of rejection here and eventually dropped out. With her parent’s blessing, Janis moved to Los Angeles to live with one of her aunts. Janis eventually moved out of her aunt’s home into a place of her own in Venice Beach and it was during this trip that she began to seriously use drugs including heroin. Having nearly died during her experiences in Venice Beach, Janice again returned to Port Arthur, and eventually decided to return to school, this time at the University of Texas in Austin.
It was during this period of her life where Janis began performing seriously as a musician. She had discovered the blues through listening to records by Odetta and Bessie Smith, and Janis showed an amazing ability to imitate these singers, which was a lifelong talent she had developed even as a young girl. Janis would often play in coffeehouses and other campus spots around Austin, and it was during these formative years where she was able to put together her blues, folk, and rock influences into her own integrated and unique sound. Janis’s favorite place to play was the legendary Threadgill’s where she became close friends with owner Ken Threadgill who was a very positive force in Janis’s life.
Although Austin included many more anti-establishment types than Port Arthur, Janis was still ridiculed and mocked at the University of Texas, and her sense of inferiority as a result of this reached its pinnacle when she was nominated for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award while attending school in Austin. This was the final blow to Janis in Texas, and shortly after this even she packed her bags and moved to San Francisco to pursue a career as a singer.
Janis moved to Haight Ashbury in 1966 which at the time was the epicenter of the 1960’s. Bands such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were also coming up at this time, and the music and freedom made the Haight in the 1960’s for many a magical time and place to be. Janis found an incredible sense of belonging with Big Brother during this time, and their early work as a band represented the raw energy and improvisational nature of rock and Roll that people were beginning to take notice of.
Janice soon began to outshine Big Brother however, and although they were a highly energetic live band, their improvisational style did not translate well in recording sessions. Janice on the other hand took a great interest in the recording sessions, and was committed to recording an album that demonstrated Big Brother’s and more importantly her own unique style. With Albert’s encouragement, Janice eventually left Big Brother, and this act was seen by many in the band, as well as many of Janice’s personal friends, as an act of selfish betrayal.
Janice next formed the Kosmic Blues Band, which she spelled with a K in honor of Franz Kafka, who was one of the many novelists that Janice loved to read. The band was supposed to mark a return to Janice’s blues roots, but her first gig in Memphis, a city rich in the blues tradition, was a disaster as the new band received a very lukewarm response from the Memphis crowd. During her time with Kosmic Blues, Janice, already a regular heavy drug user became more enamored of Heroin. Janice’s Heroin use continued to increase throughout her time with the Kosmic Blues band, and by the time it came to play at Woodstock in the summer of 1969 she was most likely addicted to the drug. In one particularly disgusting story, Janice’s friend and lover Peggy Caserta (who would later go on to write “Going down with Janis” recounts how Janis snuck into the portable toilets to shoot Heroin prior to her performance at Woodstock. In any case Janice’s performance at Woodstock was not thought to be one of her best, and it was at this juncture of her career where her Heroin abuse and continued heavy drinking seemed to adversely begin affecting her music.
Realizing that the Kosmic Blues band was not working, Janice also left this band, and in the last year of her life formed her final band that was known as Full Tilt Boogie. It was also during this period that Janice formed a friendship with Kris Kristopherson who would eventually become her lover, and who also wrote Janis’s seminal hit Me and Bobby McGee which is the song she is most known for today. During this last phase of her life, Janice began referring to herself as “Pearl” which to her represented the tough- talking highly sexed festive side of her nature.
One significant event that occurred at the end of her life was Janice’s ten year High-School reunion. Janis announced her plans to attend the reunion on the Dick Cavett show while also telling the host Dick Cavett that during her time at Port Arthur that her classmates “laughed me out of class, out of town and out of the state, man”. Janis wanted to return to Port Arthur to show those that had picked on her and ostracized her that she had made it after all, while also still craving acceptance from the town that she thought her fame would bring her. Janis was drunk most of the time during the reunion, and because she had made several negative remarks about the town in the national press, her visit did not achieve what she had hoped, and once again she left Port Arthur feeling rejected and unloved.
Upon returning to San Francisco Janice’s Heroin usage had increased significantly, and it was also during this time that she met and quickly became engaged to a man named Seth Morgan who was from a wealthy east coast family. By all accounts Seth was a dishonorable man, and his stormy relationship with Janis did not appear to be based on any kind of fidelity from either party. During Janis’s last months in San Francisco she also reconnected with Peggy Caserta whose appetite for Heroin nearly matched Janis’s. Peggy and many others of Janice’s friends continued to use Heroin with her in her last month, but Janice was using the drug alone in a seedy hotel when she eventually died from an overdose on Oc
tober 4th 1970.
Janis’s death deeply saddened her friends as well as her fans, but many, including Janice herself, did not expect her to live a particularly long life. Her rampant alcohol and Heroin use had set her on a collision course with death that seemed inevitable, and with this in mind, many people considered the idea that Janice Joplin’s death was not in fact an accident but rather a suicide. While a coroner’s report showed that the Heroin Janice had used that night was especially pure, one can certainly speculate that Janis Joplin contributed greatly to her own demise. Despite the fact her death was eventually ruled an accident, it is clear that Janis Joplin’s sad and unhappy life ended as a direct result of her own actions.
Gender Role Preparation perceived through Gender Guiding Lines and Role Models
One of the ways a child makes his or her way in the world begins with an acceptance or a rejection of their gender guiding lines. In this regard, Janis Joplin’s relationship with her mother becomes fascinating to analyze, as Janice and her mother’s interactions were often characterized by a battle of wills and a great deal of turbulence. Janis’s mother, who was a Sunday school teacher, expected Janis to conform to the rules, wear dresses like the other little girls, while also making the family proud with her accomplishments. In this regard Mrs. Joplin had high expectations for her daughter concerning both conformity and accomplishment, and this seemed to send a mixed message to Janis that affected her future ambitions and desires.
Despite Janis’s rejection of the maternal guiding line, she did identify strongly with her father who was an intellectual man who enjoyed reading and was much more accepting and permissive of Janis than her mother. Janis seems to have strongly identified with her father instead of her mother, and this speaks directly to her eventual embrace of many more traditionally masculine qualities in her life.
Janis eventually almost totally and completely rejected her mother’s wishes that she be like the other girls, and therefore rejected the female guiding line in the family which also seemed to have an effect on her sexuality. Although Janis talked a few times of achieving married life with a “white picket fence” she found belonging by wearing pants and acting like one of the boys, and for Janis this included sleeping with by her own account “a couple of hundred” women throughout her life, including one in her High School years.
Much has been made of Janis’s sexuality, and one feminist writer attributed Janis’s drug use and lifelong pain as resulting from being unable to fully come out and experience life as her lesbian self. In essence she made Janis a martyr for lesbian causes, and this idea is provocative and interesting to consider with regard to Janis. It certainly must have been difficult for Janis to reject the feminine guiding line in the family without it having some affect on her sexuality, and therefore it seems highly plausible that Janis may have been predominantly attracted to other women. On the other hand Janis did also sleep with a great many more men than women in her life, but her inability to sustain lasting relationships with these men may speak directly to Janis’s confused and even tormented sexual feelings. Although she often bragged about her conquests with men, one could see this as a dramatic overcompensation for her lesbian feelings, as well as a compensation for her rejection by the boys of Port Arthur when she was young. As a star Janice spoke often about her increased access to “pretty young boys” and one wonders if her often false bravado when speaking about men may have simply been attempts to deal with feelings of childhood rejection and inferiority.
When children reject their parental guiding lines, they may often turn to role models to guide them. In Janis’s case because such a role model was not available in Port Arthur, she found this guidance through emulating and studying the music of Bessie Smith, who had died several years before Janis was born. Bessie Smith was and is one of the most influential Blues singers in American history and Janis felt a kinship with the blues where she was drawn not just to the music but also to the sadness and pathos that produced the music. Janis remarked often throughout her career that singing the blues required suffering, and Janis used this belief to justify and rationalize her Heroin abuse.
Janice did draw strength from visualizing the blues singers that had come before her however, and the anguish and pain in her voice while she was singing appeared to be a true representation of Janis’s often tortured life. Much like the Blues singers she was emulating, Janis did use music to make sense of painful feelings, and the power and influence of Blues singers like Bessie Smith provided for Janis a roadmap of how to process these feelings. Bessie Smith was in fact such a powerful influence on her, that Janis contributed half the money for Bessie Smith’s memorial so she could be properly honored and remembered.
Interpersonal Style perceived through Experience of Family Atmosphere
One thing that Janice seems to have inherited from her mother was a sense of frugality which Dorothy had developed from her experiences seeing her family farm lost to the depression. Janice was not particularly generous with money over the course of her career, and despite her blatant disregard for the rules, friends who went through Janice’s possessions (Friedman 1973) following her death found several “meticulously organized checkbooks, all balanced to the penny.” Janice also always scoured for the cheapest item when she was grocery shopping, and would spend extra time comparing differences in price on items although money was really no object in this instance. Considering Janice’s otherwise highly disruptive life, this seems almost miraculous, and certainly speaks to the fact that Janice respected at least some of her family’s established values.
Another instance where Janice seems to have rejected her mother’s guidance was in the area of spirituality, where Dorothy who was a Sunday school teacher, tried to instill in her children ideas consistent with conventional morality. Janice wildly rejected this idea, and adopted an extremely hedonistic attitude where if something felt good to her she was quick to do it. Janice often expressed this philosophy of the immediate throughout her life, and this ran directly opposed to the family’s religious convictions that there was a life after this one where we received our final rewards.
The family’s experiences with music are also important to consider with regard to Janis’s interpersonal style. At one time Dorothy was such a talented singer that she received a full scholarship for her musical abilities to Texas Christian University. Dorothy continued to sing in the church choir when Janis was little, and the family had a piano to celebrate Dorothy’s love of music. When Janis was young Dorothy had one of her vocal cords severed in an accident during a surgery, and Dorothy could no longer sing as a result of this experience. Seth then sold the piano and this seemed to convey an unusual message to Janis about music, and may have a relationship to Janis’s fear, repeated often throughout her career, that she would loose her voice and therefore her career.
Janice’s eventual embrace of music could be interpreted a couple of different ways. First, that she carried on the family torch passed down from Dorothy, or second, that she took to music because it was something her mother could no longer do. Considering how stormy the relationship was between Janis and her mother, and the fact that Seth sold the piano because it was too painful to have around for Dorothy, it seems possible to speculate that Janis’s music was in some ways a reaction against her mother. The kind of music Janis did go on to produce was certainly far different than the music Dorothy studied in school and perhaps Janice’s embrace of music could be interpreted as both an o
de to, as well as a reaction against, Dorothy’s love of music.
Perspective on the World perceived through Experience of Psychological Birth Order
Janis was the first born child in a family of three, and this also influenced her perspective on the world. First born children are often the responsible and conservative children in the family, and can become in many ways like second parents to the other children. In Janis’s first 6 years of life she behaved much like you would expect an oldest child to behave, as her mother reports she learned to sit and cut her food and eat and talk like an adult at a very early age with amused and surprised Dorothy. Janice was also very well-behaved and had excellent manners, and her mother reports that her behavior was nearly beyond correction in these early years.
Things changed when Laura was born when Janice was six, as not only was Janis now dethroned as the only child, but Laura had health complications which took up even more of her mother’s attention. Interestingly Janis did not at this time become a jealous and overbearing sibling, but instead became very attentive to Laura and cared for as a kind of surrogate parent.
A fascinating switch in the psychological birth order perspective did happen later however, when Janis began to get jealous that Laura appeared to do things that met her mother’s high expectations whereas Janis consistently let her down. Children often find belonging in families by engaging in behaviors that are different than their siblings. In the case of the Joplin’s this happened much later when Janis was in High School, where Janis was now finding belonging as the misbehaving child where Laura assumed the role of the responsible one. Normally this dynamic is exactly reversed, but in the Joplin’s case Laura now assumed the vantage point of the first born child and Janis as the reckless and wild second born.
This pattern continued throughout the rest of their lives, as during her periods of conservative behavior Janis would often ask for Laura’s assistance picking out the proper clothes and seek her advice on style and other matters. Although Laura was six years younger, she seemed to eventually surpass Janis emotionally as well, and her story is very much intertwined with Janis’s even today. Laura eventually earned a PHD in education and became a motivational speaker. She also wrote a book called Love, Janis which provided letters Janis had written home to the family throughout her career, and this book, which was later made into a Broadway production, helped a lot of people reach a greater understanding of Janis Joplin’s inner world.
Self Assessment perceived through Genetic Possibilities
It is impossible to talk about Janis Joplin without talking about her physical appearance, as this was at the root of a great deal of Janis’s inferiority and perhaps even a partial explanation for her extreme talent. Although Janis was by all accounts an average looking girl growing up, she went through a particularly awkward stage in High School where she gained weight and also developed skin problems. In Texas in the 1950’s this must have been particularly difficult, as beauty was certainly a cherished value for women in this time and place, and a person’s self-worth could easily become tied to their appearance which seems to have happened to Janice. Rather than attempt to play a game she felt she could not succeed at, Janice instead chose to respond in the exact opposite manner, and she made her personal appearance a very low priority.
This is classic safeguarding behavior where a person creates a sense of rejection themselves before others have a chance to reject them. In Janis’s case she would put on a brave front when others would call her a “pig” in High School, but then go home and cry about this rejection. It must have particularly painful for Janis to be nominated for “Ugliest Man on Campus” while at the University of Texas, as this was a place where she had finally found some belonging and had experienced some success as a singer.
Being constantly rejected for her appearance, Janis only felt beautiful in her life when she was performing. It was on the stage where her wild sexuality and charisma finally shined, and this for Janis meant the stage became the only place where she every truly felt accepted. Janice spent the rest of her life following High School chasing the “pretty boys” and this seems to be overcompensation for the rejection she felt from the popular boys both in High School as well as at the University of Texas. She made much of her one night stand with New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, even announcing their affair over the microphone while doing a New York concert, and also bragged about sleeping with Jim Morrison, Dick Cavett, and many other men which may have been simply further attempts to prove that she was indeed wanted by the “popular” crowd.
This certainly seemed to be a large part of her motivation to return to her High School reunion where she hoped to show those that had rejected her how she had made it. When Janis was again rejected at her High School reunion it seemed to bring all of her intense feelings of inferiority back to the surface, and have at least some relationship to her final and fatal Heroin binge.
It is also interesting to consider Janis’s engagement to Seth Morgan with regard to the timing of her reunion. Seth, whose east coast pedigree led Janis to believe that he was in fact one of the “popular” boys she had always sought after had also assured Janis he did not want any of her money, and even signed an agreement that assured this. For Janis this may have been a last grasp at fitting in and dealing with the feelings of inferiority her reunion stirred up, and a final attempt at finding the belonging that she so desperately craved.
Openings for Advancement Perceived through Environmental Opportunities
It is impossible to attempt an understanding of Janis Joplin without also understanding the times she came of age in. The 1960’s was a period of great revolution and change, and provided the perfect backdrop for Janis to unharness her raw energy and power through her music. Prior to the 60’s women had no such opportunity, and the classic model of the Rosemary Clooney type lounge singer was a paradigm that Janis helped change and recreate for many future generations. The fact that Janis came along concurrently at the height of the woman’s movement was also significant, as she became for many a symbol for women’s sexual freedom and experimentation that had previously been taboo. Had Janis come along in another era, her brazen sexuality would not have been well received, and Janis was a direct benefactor of as well as a contributor to, the women’s movement.
Range of Social Interest perceived through Other Particularities
In Adlerian psychology, a person’s mental health can be measured by examining a person’s social interest in other human beings. In Janis Joplin’s case her early inferiority produced such violent insecurity that she had a very difficult time getting close to others and maintaining intimacy in her personal relationships. Although Janis was often taken advantage of by others in her life, she relished in thinking of herself as a victim as it confirmed her existing feelings about herself.
For Janis the circumstances of her life must have contributed greatly to her confusion about other people’s motives concerning their feelings for her. Before she was famous she was mocked and ridiculed by nearly everyone she came into contact with, excepting a few select friends she made along the way. She felt inferior in her home life and that she wasn’t living up to her mother’s expectations as to what a woman should be. Then when she became famous suddenly the whole world took an intense interest in her, and it is easy to see why she would doubt the motivations behind this interest given her prior experiences.
No where was this more evident than at Janis’s reunion where she wanted to show the people who had mocked her how important she had bec
ome, while also badly seeking their acceptance. For Janis the Thomas Wolfe axiom that “You can’t go home again” seemed especially appropriate, and all of these conflicting cognitions and emotions must have created a great deal of psychic turmoil in Janis which she numbed by using Heroin.
In this regard, Janis remarked to Myra Friedman (1973) that “her only true friends were the junkies she used to hang out with” and this is a telling statement that speaks directly to the fact that drug addicts often gravitate to each other in a kind of shared misery. The fact that Janis made this remark seems to confirm her low opinion of herself, and how this low opinion affected her interactions with others. Because Janis was so in need of love from others, she surrounded herself with sycophants who would often tell her whatever she wanted to hear, which was a fact Janis was well aware of.
Although many singers from this era including Janis’s one time lover Country Joe McDonald became very involved in political causes in the 60’s, Janice’s message seemed to be more about freedom through breaking off the shackles that society imposed. Perhaps because the 60’s were such a time of freedom, many serious addictions such as Janis’s were overlooked under the guise of free living. The dream of Timothy Leary and others like him that drugs could be a mind expanding tool has not been realized, and many such as Janis developed severe and pathological addictions as a result of this idea. This was the paradox of the pairing of drugs and freedom, as, although the drugs were meant to free a person’s mind, they often made them virtual slaves to their addictions as was the case in Janis Joplin’s life.
Janis Joplin’s life was clearly very sad, and demonstrates the pathology and sadness that exists in someone who, despite achieving considerable wealth and fame, never learns to overcome feelings of inferiority towards the self. Alfred Adler’s quote “The greater the feeling of inferiority that has been experienced, the more powerful is the urge to conquest and the more violent the emotional agitation” seems especially relevant to Janis’s life. In many ways Janis positively channeled and compensated for her feelings of inferiority through her work on the stage, but when the music was over Janis was always left with the same uncomfortable feelings. Several of the books on Janis’s life describe how despondent she would be following a performance, and this may be because the stage was the only place she truly found the love and acceptance she so desperately craved.
Many factors contributed to Janis’s inferiority, and the stars all aligned in a very unique way to create the life that was Janis Joplin’s. Her early and continued rejection by the other children, particularly in High School created a lifetime of negative feelings about her physical appearance, and these feelings were probably exacerbated through her interactions with her mother who wanted her to be more like the other children. Because Janis was not like the other girls, she assumed many masculine traits, and somewhere along the way her feelings about sexuality became very confused. Although there is significant evidence to demonstrate a genetic link to homosexuality, there are also almost certainly environmental factors which can contribute to this, and Janis Joplin’s life seemed to be an excellent example.
Despite Janis’s sexually ambivalent feelings, she many times remarked about a mythical “white picket fence” kind of life that she longed for that would bring her some consistency and stability. But Janice was also terrified of giving up her stardom, as this was also the only thing she had to cling to that gave her a sense of accomplishment in life. She had created the “Pearl” image and now she had to consistently live up to it, and this required a pace that no one could possibly maintain.
Janice was also a product of her times, as more than any other decade before or since, the 1960’s were a time of great change, paradigm shifts, and revolution, and Janis helped define these times while also being swept away by them. The music of the 60’s reflected a large break in society where kids were expected to “never trust anyone over 30” that never quite considered what happened when they reached 30. For Janis, her reckless lifestyle, intense feelings of self-loathing, and raging feelings of inferiority eventually overwhelmed her, and her death at the age of 27 was truly tragic considering the further contributions she may have gone on to make.