Angelina: An Unauthorized Biography
By Andrew Morton
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
If you like a psychological biography, then this one, Andrew Morton's rendition of Angelina Jolie's life, is the one to read. For here he allows Jolie's therapists to take us by the hand and walk us through Jolie's very troubled unconscious mind -- from an injured kid, incapable of understanding why she was "damaged goods," through an adult life where she learned to skillfully create compensatory behaviors that appeared to successfully mask all the rumblings going on beneath. Arguably, Angelina Jolie made this kind of "masked pretend life," that is, "living in bad faith" with oneself, a mega success.
The book begins with the very apt epigraph attributed to Spanish Novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who says that: "One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened, the wounds of the heart are already too deep."
Couple that with an overbearing mother, bent on living vicariously through her daughter, and Meisner's dictum that "Acting is the ability to live truefully under imaginary circumstances," and you have all of the raw material needed to "over-understand" Agelina's troubled, inauthentic, but nevertheless commercially successful life.
After reading the book it will be clear to the reader that Ms. Jolie never became "present" enough in her own life to enjoy all that she had accomplished. Sadly, what was inaccessible to her as a kid, remained so throughout her high profile, complicated, and inauthentic, life.
All a team of therapists can do, no matter how talented, is to either encourage clients to strive to get behind the mirror in themselves and figure it all out, or to willfully adopt behaviors that ignore the mirror altogether and allows one to get on with life by coping inauthentically on an entirely superficial level, as life rushes at them.
In the first case, "self-knowledge" can be turned into the kind of "active self-awareness" that allows one to construct a meaningful inner life, so as to be able to begin to have one's feelings "present" in that life, and to inhabit it with fully attached and meaningful feelings and behaviors.
In the second case, one can construct an elaborate but inauthentic coping mechanism, a mask as it were, that substitutes for a "real being," an outer shell for the real thing -- one that is missing all the connections to an authentic inner life of securely attached feelings, in which one can then populate and occupy them with feelings and behaviors that are congruent with the being he or she wants to become. Masks are useful in that they give a semblance of temporary order and meaningfulness even when it is a closely guarded secret to oneself that they are just convenient lies used to aid coping.
I ended the book convinced that as clever as Ms. Jolie is, as much as she appeared to want to know who she really was, and as high profile as her life was lived, the very elaborate and very sophisticated mask she had created for herself, consistently failed her, as the goal of getting closer to herself and to a more meaningful fear-free, threat-free inner life, just kept receding further and further into the background -- away from her -- as she got older.
In the end, the reasons why she played the games she played on herself -- of cycles of sexual exhibitionism, followed by self-destructive behaviors, followed by mock contrition-- remained inaccessible to her until it was too late for any self-knowledge she may have gained as a result, could have aided in constructing a threat-free inner life: she was who she was.
But perhaps it is just as well that she had enough money and fame, so that, like her mother, she too never had to look back into the mirror at herself. Ignorance of self can be so blissful, especially when the world wants to help you believe that your mask of inauthenticity is real. But, as we all know, the mind always knows the truth: It knows at all times how far away from authenticity we really are. Thus, one has to conclude that Mr. Jolie always knew that no matter how successful she was on the superficial outward level, at the deepest intra-personal level, her life remained an unmitigated disaster.
Mr. Morton surely kept his eye on the ball, making this a fine biography that drills down deeply into the inner workings of an iconic mind.
The story he tells goes somewhat as follows: At five, Angie's mother and father, Jon Voight, broke up: It seems that Jon got "turned out" by a sex siren, whose lovemaking forced him to give up everything for a new world of bedroom calisthenics. Angie was asked how she felt about her dad leaving the family, but of course she was too young to understand or to properly process her feelings. Her young brain, with unformed feelings, registered the things going on above her head as "undifferentiated abandonment."
In the empty space reserved for a more developed mind, she grafted in its place, and as her own, all of her mom's resentments and hatred for her wayward dad. After all, it had been his abandonment that had caused the earthquake in her and her family's emotional and financial lives, had it not? Jon Voight was the culprit, the evil one, the male devil. QED
Her mother's imprint stuck, leading to a life of smoldering resentment, hatred, pouting, and inchoate anger at the devil incarnate, her father. This darkened worldview, clouded and conditioned her evaluation of herself and of her place in the world.
Growing up with an unemployed single mom, in zip code 90210, was not easy for a financially and emotionally abandoned kid with a single mom whose career never quite got off the ground. Angie, to put it simply, out of necessity for survival, became the "show horse" for the family. She was put on the block so to speak, to "model" and "act" to reverse the family's fortune, and thereby, correct the faults of a wayward father.
Under the pressures of a diminished worldview, and a controlling mother, Angie had no stable sense of self, no degrees of freedom to breathe, or maneuver in. A shaky self-concept thus took over her self-construction project. And as a result, her first response to the family trauma was to withdraw, to try to make friends with the numbness inside her soul.
She became shy and awkward, didn't feel clean, pretty or desired. She wanted to hide in plain sight, become small so that no one would notice her. She thought mostly about injuring herself; or about death. She even imagined becoming a funereal director, administering to the dead; she also collected knives and loved to cut herself and to be tattooed. Anorexia followed, and thoughts of suicide were never far away.
Since her mother's rules were lax, allowing her to have a live-in boyfriend at age fourteen, sex became Angie's primary entry into the world of adulthood and into competitive self-assertion. She and her boyfriend had sex without feelings, and instead of seeking to reach an orgasm, they decided to cut themselves with knives instead. It would not be the last time Angie would end up in a bloody mess from sexually-related mutilation of herself and her partner.
Her therapist's verdict was that it was not so much the father's trauma, as it was the control and pressure from her mom that had robbed Angie of a sense of control over her own life. Through her mom, she had learned to dissociate from herself. In Angie's narrative of her life, she had been abandoned by her father and sustained by her mother who had given up her career to raise her.
With her mother orchestrating her every move, and her every feeling, including guilt, hatred of her father, her model of what it meant to be feminine, her career moves, and a diminished self-concept, she could not very well attack her mom, her best friend, ad her savior, so she did what was almost normal in that situation, she began attacking herself.
This lack of ability to regulate internal pressure proved that she existed in a "global undifferentiated state," an emotionally unformed status, in which self-mutilation gave her a sense of control and soothed her troubled psyche. Even though sex seemed like the adult thing to do, it made her feel uncertain, unclean, further distancing her from herself, and thus moved her closer to self-mutilation and a kind of self-punishment that restored her inner sense of moral balance.
Her mother wanted her to become a model; her dad an actor. She tried modeling, hating the idea of becoming a public plastic sex toy. She did it until she couldn't, and then she turned to acting, where at least she could begin to explore her inner turmoil. Sadly, she had learned to "act out" before she had learned to "act." Becoming a macho woman and engaging in bisexuality to underscore this persona, were ways of trying on a new self, a kind of exploration into the unknown self.
For Angie, Planet Hollywood was "dysfunction junction," a place where life followed art; where actors selected roles to help them complete their self-construction projects. It was a 24/7 freak show, where everything goes. Angie got on this treadmill and liked it, even though she got further and further away from understanding herself. Fame and money has a quality of its own. It distorts the "mirror, mirror on the wall" in such a way that if one has to live in blissful self-ignorance, a better place cannot be found than Hollywood. Five stars.
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.