Did Janis Joplin Suffer from Irlen Syndrome?
By Shoshana Shamberg
Janice Joplin was born January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur Texas to Seth and Dorothy Joplin. Janice was the first born of 3 children. Janice’s early family life was relatively normal, and as a child she was exceptionally curious and bright. Janice loved making up stories and wrote plays, as early as, the first grade, indicating an exceptional creative talent at a young age.
In Janis’s words, “The whole world turned on me” when she entered High School, profoundly influencing her later work. Port Arthur was a rough and even violent city. Janis witnessed extreme racism growing up there. Her tolerance and acceptance of people from other races caused her to be scorned as an outsider. She gained weight and developed acne.
Following High School Janice enrolled at Lamar State College, where again she experienced a great deal of rejection and eventually dropped out. Janis moved to Los Angeles and then Venice Beach. Here she began to use drugs including heroin, nearly dying of an overdose. Janice returned to Port Arthur, and eventually decided to return to school, this time at the University of Texas in Austin, where she began to perform as a serious musician. She discovered the blues through listening to records by Odetta and Bessie Smith. Janis demonstrated an amazing ability to imitate these singers and would often play in coffeehouses and other campus spots around Austin. It was during these formative years, she was able to combine her blues, folk, and rock influences into her own integrated and unique sound.
At University of Texas in Austin her sense of inferiority reached its pinnacle when she was nominated for the “Ugliest Man on Campus” award. This catapulted her to leave Texas for San Francisco to pursue a career as a singer. Janis moved to Haight Ashbury in 1966 during the epicenter of the 1960’s hippie movement. Bands such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were emerging as the music for those seeking freedom from the constraints of society. Janis’s helped form the Big Brother Band, but soon began to outshine Big Brother and their improvisational style did not translate well in recording sessions. Janice on the other hand took a great interest in the recording an album that demonstrated Big Brother’s and her own unique style. When decided to leave Big Brother, her friends felt betrayed and again she became the outsider.
Janice formed the Kosmic Blues Band with the intension of a return to her blue’s roots but her first gig, in Memphis was a disaster and she also was a heavy drug abuser by this time. By the time Kosmic Blues performed at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, she was most likely addicted combined with heavy drinking which adversely began to affect her music.
Janice also left Kosmic Blues during the last year of her life and formed her final band, Full Tilt Boogie. During the last year of her life. Janice attended her ten year High-School reunion. She wanted to return to Port Arthur to show those that had picked on her and ostracized her that she had become a success. Some say she still craved acceptance, believing her fame would bring. Janis was drunk during the reunion, her exposure in the media of the negative aspects of growing up there, resulted in rejection once again.
She returned to San Francisco, a heroin addicts and alcoholic, involved in a loveless difficult relationship with a fellow addict and eventually was found alone and dead in a seedy hotel on October 4, 1970. She actually did not expect to live long and her addictions set her on a collision course, some believe was suicide, despite the coroner’s report that it was an accident.
Did Janis Joplin have a medical condition that began long before her adulthood? Could Janis have suffered from a sensory processing disorder or neurological stress condition called Irlen Syndrome, or light sensitivity? Irlen Syndrome is caused when certain spectral bands and intensities of light overload the brain causing attention deficits, learning challenges, stress management problems, depression, anxieties, etc. Often people suffering with this type of sensory stress use ways to avoid the overwhelming stress, in highly self abuse ways, using drugs, sex, alcohol, intense anger, anti-social behaviors, and have difficulty maintaining healthy habits and relationships due to their erratic behaviors.
Janis often described her relationship with her mother as characterized by a battle of wills and a great deal of turbulence. Janis’s mother expected Janis to conform to traditional roles and rules, wear dresses like the other little girls, while also making the family proud with her accomplishments within conservative and conforming guidelines. Her father was more accepting and intellectually curious then her mother, which may have contributed to her embrace of more masculine qualitie,s later in her life and more alternative expression of her sexuality through her bisexual relationships. . .
Much like the Blues singers she was emulating, Janis used music to make sense of painful feelings.
She adopted an extremely hedonistic, impulsive attitude. If something felt good to her, she was quick to do it, suggesting a possible diagnosis of attention deficit disorder or bipolar.
Janis was the first born child in a family of three, which 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 younger children. In Janis’s first 6 years of life, she behaved much like you would expect an oldest child to behave. Her mother reported that she acted and talked like an adult at a very early age and was well behaved with excellent manners.
Things changed when Laura, her younger sister, was born when Janice was six. Now, not only was Janis 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 or overbearing sibling, but instead, was very attentive to Laura and cared for as a kind of surrogate parent. A fascinating switch in the psychological birth order perspective happened later when Janis began to get jealous that Laura appeared to do things that met her mother’s high expectations, whereas Janis’s normal dynamic was the reverse.
In the Joplin family, Laura now assumed the role of the first born child and Janis, the reckless and wild second born, emerging as the rebellious child, possibly a reaction to the conservative upbringing of her parents, and Laura’s compliance and acceptance by her parents. Although Laura was six years younger, she eventually surpass Janis’s emotional maturity. 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. This book, which was later made into a Broadway production, revealed a greater understanding of Janis Joplin’s inner world.
Janis physical appearance also was the root of a great deal of Janis’s inferiority and perhaps even a partial explanation for her extreme drive to use her exceptional talent to gain acceptance and self worth. Although Janis was merely an average looking girl growing up, she went through a particularly awkward stage in High School, where she gained weight and developed skin problems. This is usually a time when beauty and appearance are of prime importance to a teen emerging into adulthood and dating. Rather than attempt to play a popularity and beauty queen game, she knew she could not succeed at, Janice chose to respond in the exact opposite manner. 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, inwardly devestated by 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 believed she had finally found some belonging and had experienced some success as a singer.
Being constantly rejected for her appearance, Janis only felt beautiful when she was performing. It was on the stage where her wild sexuality and charisma shined, and for Janis this meant the stage became the only place where she ever truly felt accepted.
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.
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 feelings of 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.
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. Possibly, the stage was the only place she truly found the love and acceptance she so desperately craved.
Her constant wearing of colored lenses may have served to calm some of her sensory stress and light sensitivity, which may have partially been genetic, and partially a result of neurological damage from abuse of drugs and alcohol. She also may have suffered from clinical depression and attention deficit disorder which was exacerbated by sensory stress. Possibly one of those stressors was adverse and overwhelming exposure to light, especially as a performer, it may have taken its toll.
We will never know because she died in 1980 prior to the discovery of Irlen Syndrome by psychologist and learning specialist, Helen Irlen, in Long Beach, CA. However her signature colored lenses suggest more then just a fashion statement. Tthe tragedy is we will never know if Irlen spectral filters could have helped her to manage her overwhelming and often uncontrollable stress and challenging behaviors, anger, and self abuse.
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. 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.