Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Wrestling With Demons: The Spiritual Redemption of Mickey Rourke

Healing the painful past does not mean forgetting it.


Actor Mickey Rourke's recent public comeback in the Oscar-nominated movie "The Wrestler," is really a dramatic tale of rage, redemption and rebirth. But Rourke's personal and artistic resurrection didn't happen quickly or easily. Or without help. 

In the depths of despair during the mid-1990‘s, his once red-hot acting career in self-inflicted ruins, Rourke, now 56, tells interviewer Tavis Smiley, I "heard someone say to me, ‘You need to go get help,' and where I come from, going to a psychiatrist or going to therapy, that don't wash. I've said in the past I would be more comfortable going to talk to a priest than a therapist, and I somehow got the courage up to go and talk to somebody, and man, I needed to." He entered psychotherapy, never dreaming that his recovery and stormy voyage to restore his soul would take so long or be so arduous: " I had to talk to this person three days a week for four years, and then after another five years twice a week, and then it became once a week, and now it's 13 years later, and it's two phone calls a week." What sounds to have been some form of psychodynamic psychotherapy gradually helped bring Rourke back from the brink and into the artistic spotlight once again.

What was Rourke's problem? What personal demons drove him to sabotage a celebrated and commercially successful acting career, drawing him steadily down into his own private hell? In his recent intimate and revealing talk with Tavis Smiley, Rourke himself identifies several issues: profound feelings of abandonment, shame, and, most apparent of all, immense anger. Rourke attributes his chronic anger--really an understatement for what I would describe as pathological rage--to circumstances in his boyhood. His father reportedly left the family when Mickey was six, and his mother subsequently married a police officer with five sons. Rourke was raised in pretty rough neighborhoods in New York and Miami. "And when you have those issues, no matter who you are or where you come from, you don't want to feel that because it's a sense of smallness. So what you do is you make yourself harder, physically, mentally, and it becomes -- you become that. And what happens as the time goes by, you physically and mentally -- it's all about that old school stuff from the street, it's about pride and honor and respect, and you build up an armor. And I was proud of that armor. I was proud of the way, as a man, how I became."

By his own account, Mickey Rourke survived his childhood by creating a tough, rough and tumble exterior, what Carl Jung called a persona, a social mask, behind which a deeply wounded and very angry young man hid. While I do not know Mr. Rourke personally or professionally, in such cases the anger typically starts out as a legitimate and natural reaction to say, being abandoned or abused by one's father or feeling unloved or unwanted, and festers over time into a seething rage: an immoderate resentment, anger, hostility or even hatred of the father, of authority, the world in general, and of oneself. This hatred permeates the personality, radiating rage and wreaking havoc in its wake. This is a fairly common defensive reaction found especially in men to early narcissistic wounding, shame and anger, which underlies and leads to the genesis of pathological anger and rage.

But Rourke seems to recognize that, by early adulthood, this volatile anger had become, for better or worse, an essential part of him. This begs the questions: Would Mickey Rourke have been as successful a boxer and actor had he not felt so angry? Was it not his rage that gave his boxing and acting such powerful passion, punch and intensity in the first place? How had Rourke been able in his early career to channel his anger creatively into acting? What changed later, once he had achieved some measure of professional recognition?

As is commonly the case, Rourke's angry, "hard" persona, his "armor" as he calls it, may have served him well during his youth. But it no longer worked once he entered mid-life. Like Jake La Motta (played by Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, Rourke's raging persona became increasingly self-destructive and self-defeating. Eventually, it crumbled to reveal the vulnerable, hurt little boy hidden beneath the bravado. To some, Rourke may appear not to have repressed his anger so much as flaunting and incorporating it into his intimidating public persona. He wanted to be feared. The best defense is a good offense. But appearances can be deceiving. In my own clinical experience treating such individuals (one of whom I write about in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic), the anger is truly only the tip of the iceberg, having for the most part been avoided along with its childhood roots, and remains mostly unconscious. Such dissociated, unconscious, characterological rage is the most dangerous and destructive kind.

One way Rourke tried to constructively channel this rage as a boy was through his boxing career, to which he returned following the demise of his acting career. I suspect that both the boxing and acting were fueled by and served as socially sanctioned outlets for Rourke's rage. Once he could no longer do either, the rage destructively took over with a vengeance. He drove away everyone in his life. He lost everything he had worked for. He contemplated suicide. This appears to have been the turning point. Desperate and finally admitting he needed help, Rourke was courageous enough to seek psychotherapy, a process to which he himself attributes his slow and painful rebirth as an artist. It's important to note that there were no quick fixes or simple solutions, but rather thirteen long and difficult years of therapy. Not unlike the arduous, seemingly endless worldly and underworldly journey Odysseus was destined to undertake in The Odyssey before being able to return home to his former life.

Hopefully, Mr. Rourke now has gained a better sense of what his rage was really about, a stronger, more stable sense of self, and greater compassion for himself and others. As for all of us, his is an ongoing struggle. We can all learn something valuable from Rourke's terrifying descent into hell and triumphant redemption. For, in fact, some childhood wounding is inevitable. As adults, this emotional laceration may be consciously recognized and placed in a broader perspective via psychotherapy. But therapeutic healing does not mean forgetting. For to become conscious is to remember and to know. Healing from such injuries entails the mature acceptance of the traumatic facts of one‘s emotional mortification, the causes and consequences, as well as a resolute willingness to swallow the following "bitter pill": We cannot change the past nor undo the wound. We can, nonetheless, allow ourselves to feel our rage and grief over this irretrievable loss. We may even--with good fortune, time and grace--find within ourselves the capacity to forgive those who we feel inflicted our agonizing injuries. But we cannot ever expect to totally exorcise such demons. They have taken up permanent residence; become an integral part of us; molded our personality; made us who we are. To deny or try to eradicate them is tantamount to self-renunciation.

The truth is, we need some appropriate anger. We need the daimonic. Without his anger, Mickey Rourke would not be the extraordinary actor he is. This is true of most great artists: Picasso, Pollock, Pacino. The purpose of psychotherapy is not to exterminate our demons. Not to kill off or anaesthetize our anger or rage. But rather, to learn to live happily with them, in a state of what Aristotle termed eudaimonism. And, for this, creativity is the key.

Welcome back, Mr. Rourke.

 

 

 

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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