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Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and the Understated Tragedy of Divorce

August 18, 2015


Any regular reader of Word on Fire will know that I am a big fan of music, secular music in particular.  It was Bishop-elect Barron who first made it acceptable to write favorably about secular music as a priest, at least for my generation.  His appreciation of and admiration for Bob Dylan let me know that there wasn’t something wrong with me in thinking that Bruce Springsteen was up to something far more important than selling out arenas.  It was also Barron who taught me that one of the best ways to evangelize is to look for semina verbi (seeds of the word) already present among the people one seeks to evangelize.  That means that in order to evangelize the culture, you have to know the culture, and you have to engage the culture.

Last week I engaged the culture by going to see the new documentary about Amy Winehouse by Asif Kapadia at an artsy theatre in Cleveland with one of my ordination classmates.  The film is simply entitled Amy, and although I already knew the ending, I sat in the theatre sighing and wincing for two hours as I waited for it. It’s a good film, but it’s hard to watch, unless you enjoy watching train wrecks.

If you’re not familiar, Amy Winehouse was a wickedly talented pop singer (although she insisted that she was a jazz singer) from England whose unmistakable and inimitable voice helped her top charts, sell records, and win Grammy awards, while stories and photos of her personal life filled tabloids, became punch lines for late night television, and now make up much of this new documentary.  Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning in 2011.

The take-away from Amy shouldn’t be that drinking, drugs, and promiscuity, are bad for you.  Of course, all those things are bad for you.  But for Winehouse, as for most people, such actions are symptoms of a deeper wound.  Winehouse drank, did drugs, and slept around because she was hurting, and that hurt began when her parents divorced when she was nine years old.  She says as much in the film.  Winehouse remembers vividly when her parents split and recalls that her life took a dramatic shift at that moment.  Hence, the most poignant lesson from Amy is that divorce is painful, especially for children.

Divorce is often tragic and it’s always sad because it bears witness that somehow things didn’t work out as the couple had hoped.  No one gets married thinking, “One day I hope to get divorced.”   Divorce points to the reality that something has been lost.

I realize that there are many reasons that couples divorce, and being a GenXer I know firsthand, as more than half of my friends growing up had divorced parents, and today a significant number of my priest friends do too.  Some divorces can be rather amiable, while others are just plain ugly, yet I’ve never had anyone tell me that divorce is easy or beautiful.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that divorced people are bad or that their children are somehow inferior.  It’s a fallen world and life is hard, and relationships can be very difficult to navigate, especially in marriage.  I know many good Catholic people that have suffered a divorce and many wonderful Catholic children of divorced parents who are outstanding disciples.  But what I am saying is that children of divorced parents have to wrestle with a difficult reality that children whose parents are married do not.

A few months ago I watched Cobain: Montage of Heck, the HBO documentary on the lead singer of Nirvana who was considered by many to be the voice of my generation, at least in terms of music.  Like Winehouse, Kurt Cobain died at the age of twenty-seven.  After a long battle with depression and heroin addiction, he shot himself in the head.

Dying tragically at the age of twenty-seven isn’t the only thing that Winehouse and Cobain have in common.  Cobain’s parents also divorced when he was nine years old, and like Winehouse, that split marked a definitive moment in his life.  According to the documentary, before the divorce Cobain was generally a happy child, but after the divorce his personality changed significantly as he became withdrawn, defiant, difficult, and anti-social.  Cobain suffered a wound that pained him for the rest of his life.

Perhaps Winehouse and Cobain overreacted to their parents’ divorce.  After all, we are speaking of two very sensitive artists who felt things on an especially deep level.  But perhaps not.  What both documentaries seem to show is that both Winehouse and Cobain had lost a sense of stability and grounding after their parents divorced, especially as each artist gained popularity and fame.  It was as if there was no safe place to land if they were to fall, and no unified wall of protection offered to them.  Contrast Winehouse and Cobain’s experience with someone like Taylor Swift, who is arguably the most popular musician on the planet. Swift has been able to deal with wealth, fame, and the paparazzi with aplomb, and it seems that this is so because her parents have always been the most stable force in her life, that their arms were always ready to catch their daughter and protect her, together.

After seeing Amy, my priest friend noted that God was entirely absent from the film.  I nodded in agreement.  But then I noted that children first to come to know the love that God has for them through the love of their parents, as the supernatural is always presented through the natural, the divine through the human.  When human relationships break down, particularly in parents of children, so too can a child’s belief in God, who is love.  I’m not saying that children of divorced parents can’t love or that they won’t believe in God, for that would be absurd.  What I am saying is that divorce may make it more difficult for a child to believe in love, to believe that love is real, and to believe that love endures all things, particularly if the love between one’s parents has not endured.

One of the reasons that so many of my good Catholic friends (priest friends included) with divorced parents have been able to flourish is that they found great comfort, consolation and healing through Christ and his Church.  Jesus entered into this fallen world to redeem it, and there is no situation that is out of his reach or beyond his power.  It’s true that Winehouse and Cobain’s lives might have been very different if they had known the Lord’s love, and the love of his family we call the Church.  But it’s also true that we really do come to know the love of God through the domestic church, which is the family, and when the family is hurting, so too is the Church, and so too is the culture.

Pope Francis is coming to Philadelphia next month to speak at the World Meeting of Families.  And he’s heading up the Synod on the Family with his brother bishops later on this year.  I know there is much to discuss, and I’m pretty sure that the agenda is already in place.  One of the big topics on the agenda is what to do about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.  I’m sure the bishops will figure something out in that complex arena.  But I hope that Pope Francis and his bishops also spend some significant time discussing the ubiquity of divorce in modern culture and how the Church can better prepare couples for marriage as well as offer assistance to those couples whose marriages are in need of help.  Perhaps they can figure out a way to bring something like Retrouvaille to the masses, or at least let people know that the Church is here to help, especially for married couples who are struggling.

If the Church is really a field hospital, as Pope Francis has said, then we need to let the world know that we’ve got plenty of open beds and a well-trained staff of doctors and nurses to help heal those who are hurting and restore them to health.