8 Ways Carly Simon's Memoir Is a Psychological Tour de Force

Carly Simon's memoir 'Boys in the Trees' analyzes complex psychological topics.

Posted Dec 03, 2015

Courtesy of Flatiron Books
Carly Simon's "Boys in the Trees: A Memoir" 
Source: Courtesy of Flatiron Books

I stayed up all night reading Carly Simon's riveting and insightful new page-turner, Boys in the Trees: A Memoir. This is one of those rare books that I had to finish in one sitting. In this memoir, Simon covers so much complex psychological territory with a breezy, conversational writing style and storytelling candor that makes her observations about complicated psychological dynamics easy to digest and relatable.

I devoured this book. I'm still metabolizing all the nuggets of wisdom and the broad spectrum of emotions covered in this memoir. For this hastily written Psychology Today blog post, I've highlighted 8 areas covered in the memoir that broke new ground for me psychologically.

There's universal appeal in how fearless and honest Carly Simon is about sharing her life experiences of struggling with many internal and external demons—in particular, a self-saboteur she wrestles with regularly given the moniker of, "The Beast." 

Carly Simon Is a Legend in Her Own Time

My parents loved the singer-songwriter genre of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I was growing up, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, John Denver, and Carole King were constantly playing in the background. This music defined my childhood and shaped my psyche in many ways. I still listen to songs by at least one of these singers on a daily basis. My music library is dominated by these artists. 

Ed Caraeff/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Ed Caraeff/Wikimedia Commons

Of all the singer-songwriters of the '70s, Carly Simon was my mother's favorite. Whenever my mom was driving the car, one of Simon's earlier three albums: No Secrets, Hotcakes, or Playing Possum would be playing on the 8-Track. In many ways, the early '70s was an idyllic time of innocence and a liberating time to be growing up in America. Having these songs playing in heavy rotation on the radio, 8-track, and turntable defined the era for me. Listening to these songs today still brings back indelible waves of childhood memories

At our summer house on Cape Cod, the music of Carly Simon and James Taylor was always on the record player. The music seemed to spring from their Martha's Vineyard roots and capture things I couldn't put into words about living along the coastline of Massachusetts. One thing I especially loved about this memoir was learning how some of my favorite songs, such as: "Terra Nova," "Anticipation," and "You're So Vain," were created. Below is a video clip of James Taylor and Carly Simon singing "Close Your Eyes" in beautiful harmony. 

In writing about eight ways this memoir was so eye-opening psychologically, I don't want to give away the storytelling gems before you've read them in the book. As a spoiler-alert, I may inadverdently tell you more about this book than you'd like to know before reading it first hand. 

8 Psychological Topics Covered in "Boys in the Trees: A Memoir" 

1. Inferiority Complex

From a young age, Carly Simon had a stammer that she's learned to cope with, but has struggled with throughout her life. Even at the peak of her fame and adoration, Simon appears to constantly feel "less than" despite the external appearances. Her candor about her own self-doubt is presented in a way that can help every reader learn to cope with his or her own feelings of self-worth, or the lack thereof. 

2. Sibling Rivalry

Throughout the book, Carly Simon walks a thin line between being totally honest about how she felt about the dynamics with her sisters without ever really throwing someone under the bus. As painful as it may have been for some members of the Simon family to read about themselves in this book, Simon shares her experiences so wholeheartedly and acknowledges everything with the caveat that her perspective on her siblings was oftentimes exaggerated by her insecurity and low self-esteem

3. Parent-Child Dynamics 

Carly Simon talks candidly about her time spent in psychoanalysis throughout the book. I spent many years being psychoanalyzed on a couch at the White Institute on the Upper West Side, and identified with how much time Simon spends talking about the complex relationships with both her mother and father. I found her observations about father-daughter dynamics extremely insightful for helping me better understand the relationships with my parents, and the relationship with my daughter. I think other readers will benefit from her wisdom about parent-child dynamics, too. 

It seems that, like so many of us, Carly is still trying to make her father proud. As founder and publisher of great books at Simon and Schuster, I can't see how Richard L. Simon wouldn't consider his daughter's latest memoir an autobiographical masterpiece. 

4. Sex and Romance

In this memoir, Carly Simon writes openly about her own sexuality and a wide range of sexual experiences—and the emotions surrounding these liaisons—with the utmost candor. Some of it is heartbreaking; some of it is titillating. Simon is able to write about the power of physical attraction and the love/hate aspects of falling in and out of love with brutal honesty. I had moments of saying to myself, "I can't believe she just said that!" But was always grateful that she had stuck her neck out and made herself so vulnerable. Most interesting to me, was admitting that although she despised "Ronny" she was still attracted to him on some primal level. 

5. Depression and Anxiety

Simon decsonstructs how her own battles with depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. She also touches on how depression has manifested itself in various ways in both her relatives and loved ones. As someone who has been candid about my own struggles with depression over the years, I was grateful, and felt simpatico, with Carly Simon for sharing her own experiences with the "Beast." This memoir helps to destigmatize depression, anxiety, and psychotherapy

6. Wealth and Fame

This book also demystifies the fallacy of the American Dream by showing that becoming rich and famous isn't everything it's cracked up to be. By bringing you behind two generations of 'rags to riches' life experience, the reader gets to view the underbelly of wealth and fame.

Also, by bringing you into her somewhat mundane daily routine during a time of sensational tabloid headlines and fame, you realize how surreal superstardom must be. The ultimate take away for me echoed Arianna Huffington's ideas about the "Third Metric." At the end of the day, feeling content, fullfilled, and worthy of love and belonging has very little to do with external measures of success or achievement. 

7. Creative Process

Throughout the book, Simon sprinkles in anecdotes about how she writes songs and creates music by scribbling down bits of information from a conversation, grabbing a headline from a newspaper... or playing with a melody or chord progression. Carly Simon takes you inside her creative process in a way that I've never read in a memoir. It gave new meaning to songs I've known since childhood. As I type this now, I have these songs playing in the background, with a new appreciation for how each song gestated and came to life.   

8. Equanimity 

The most impressive thing about this book to me is that Carly Simon seems to have let go of so many potential grudges and resentments against herself and others. There's an overall feeling of equanimity and loving-kindness in how Simon writes about the complexities of interpersonal relationships and her own periods of self-loathing. The yin-yang of this book is how Simon walks the tightrope and finds the sweet spot of showing the "dark side" and "lighter side" of both herself and the people in her life by uncovering all the shades of gray within their psyches.  

Conclusion: Facing the "Beast" and Slaying the Dragon

Although Carly Simon handles everything regarding James Taylor with grace and equanimity, the narrative of the book ends in 1983, just when the two are getting divorced. This morning, I was thrilled to stumble upon a video of James Taylor talking to Oprah Winfrey about his own familial struggles with depression and addiction. I'm not sure if it was coincidence, but this interview coincided with the publication of Boys in the Trees: A Memoir. 

As an epilogue to discussing Carly Simon's new book, I've included the video of James Taylor below. In this clip, Taylor shares advice on how he's stayed sober since 1983. Taylor says, "The thing that's going to give you, your body, and your nervous system back, is physical exercise. It makes you feel better. It's the only thing that does. Eventually that just scours the devil out of you. That's the best practical advice I can give. Sweat it out."

As the author of, The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, this was music to my ears. Thank you both Carly Simon and James Taylor for everything, then and now! 

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