bookReview: Upping your Ziggy

Oliver James
Karnac, 2016

Reviewer Beth Glanville

‘Following Bowie’s untimely death, many people have pointed out that his music alone was not his greatest gift to us – it was the idea that it’s alright to be many different people,’ James states in the introduction to his most recent book (p.xvi). In Upping Your Ziggy James unpicks and explores the function to David Jones of his multiple personas, through exploring how ‘[Bowie] turned the creation and adoption of personas into a form of therapy …’ (p.108), which he believes supported the prevention of his slide into schizophrenia and/or further mental health issues. ‘Clinically,’ James writes, ‘this is done through drama or art therapy, through which clients discover and explore distressing experiences, assisted by a therapist’ (ibid.). The writer develops this concept in referring to ‘the Ziggy project’ (p.110) as ‘persona therapy’ (ibid.). James writes that ‘[Jones] needed to find a way to express and understand the legacy of his family politics and childhood adversities’ (p.111), and that doing so enabled him to avoid following in the footsteps of a number of members of his immediate and extended family, the fear of so doing having famously dogged Bowie throughout much of his 69-years.

The early chapters of Upping your Ziggy take the reader through Bowie’s background and upbringing, considering Jones’s familial setting and broadly situating the aetiology for mental health issues in the methods of nurturing, or lack thereof, within the family. James details the experiences of Terry, the artist’s older – by a decade – half-brother, exploring how his chaotic and unsettled care contributed to his later institutionalisation following episodes of psychosis. Further along in the text, James explores how ‘if a proper demarcation is drawn [throughout childhood] between real and pretend, sanity prevails’ (p.71), whereas if this demarcation is not drawn ‘the adult [becomes] subsequently at risk of delusional states’ (ibid.). The writer suggests that understanding this phenomenon ‘may provide some of the clues to Bowie’s ability to find sanity through art and to Terry’s slide into delusion’ (ibid), and that ‘although there were times when the pretend and the real came perilously close to merging [Bowie] never lost control for too long, or in the wrong times or places’ (p.89). Comparing the half-brothers, James expounds that ‘inventing Ziggy turned what could have been a delusion of grandeur – that his fame was his destiny – into reality. It meant that he was not imagining things, whereas Terry had imagined that Jesus had chosen him’ (p.99).

James considers the impact on Bowie of being cast as ‘the favoured child’ (p.62), and how the ensuing feelings of guilt connected with holding this position scarred the singer. Following an exploration of the relevant dynamics and experiences in the family background, James goes on to look more deeply into Bowie’s own personality traits, concluding that ‘if Bowie had been assessed by a psychiatrist during his late teens and early forties, he would probably have been identified as someone with personality disorder, on the schizophrenic spectrum … most telling of all, he was often reported to have an air of detachment about him, of dissociation’ (p.69). Crediting the constructive and resourceful role this tendency – or defence – can play, rather than solely considering its maladaptive functions, the author writes that ‘… this capacity to step back from any situation may have saved him from self-destruction during his rise to stardom’ (ibid.).

Chapter 7 explores the spectrum from ‘normal multiple personas’ to multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, thus humanising Bowie’s case and making it feel all the more tangible. The author brings in a number of case studies, and encourages the reader to reflect on their own experiences of employing multiple personas, and the ways in which we all promote our true and false selves, thus normalising and concretising the every day experience of how we adjust to suit varying situations, rather than this being something we either ‘do’ or ‘don’t do’. ‘Although [Bowie] was exceptionally skilled in his manipulations, these are still indicative of the way most of us function’ (p.130), asserts James. In the concluding chapter of the book (chapter 9) the author uses examples from his own experience, both personal and professional, of how we can harness the power of differing personas and ego states to exercise choice over who we are, or want to be, at any particular given time.

Chapter 8 considers Bowie’s sexual relationships, including his marriage to Angie and the later development of his relationship with Iman. James comments on how Bowie ‘show[ed] signs of sex addiction and of a need to boost himself through conquests’ (p.140). James says that Bowie ‘seems to have settled down’ (ibid.) once he met Iman, but asserts that ‘I have no way of knowing whether Bowie had achieved a state of emotional health, an equilibrium, at the time of his death at the age of 69’ (p.142).

This statement (above) sums up for me a sense of frustration with the book, as it has the sense of a text written from a removed position – very close to the story of David Jones and his lived experience, yet not quite as ‘inside’  his experience as I, personally, would like the text to read; to hear an autobiographical account in the artist’s own words would be powerful. The book has a strong feel of being a secondary source, which indeed it is, and while it theorises and expounds many interesting and thought provoking elements and ideas, and draws on more primary sources such as interviews with Bowie and oral stories from those connected with him, again many of these are secondary and removed from the man himself. Often these quotations too have an element of detachedness about them; a sense of coming oh-so-close to the man himself, yet at the same time remaining at arm’s length in a way that can feel immensely more frustrating than being kept at a much greater distance. But perhaps this somewhat jarring experience of mine as the reader is in fact the most fitting and appropriate part of the whole narrative; a narrative about a man with multiple personas, who frequently presented as dissociated and detached from others around him, who was ‘at least when young … a chameleon who changed his personality to suit whoever he was with’ (p.131). He was a man who we never truly knew, and who perhaps never truly knew himself. But, then again, can we ever truly do so?


Beth Glanville is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and EMDR Practitioner at Transport for London’s Counselling and Trauma Service. She has a small private practice in NW London, and is also the Reviews Editor for Contemporary Psychotherapy.


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