Overmedicated into Oblivion: The Case of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson


Mental health is a tricky business.

Mental health is a tricky business.

It takes a team of health care professionals to ethically put a patient in the right place between therapeutic balance and overmedication. A corrupt, self-serving one can destroy an individual with a mental illness.

This brings us to the story of musical genius Brian Wilson. The inception of The Beach Boys’ album, Pet Sounds, started with a panic attack on an airplane. It was that moment in Brian’s life when the feather tipped the scales. After years of dealing with stage fright, he decided he could no longer tour with the band.

With his cousin, Bruce Johnston, filling in for him on bass while The Beach Boys went on tour, Brian stayed home to write an album alongside an arsenal of the best studio musicians in the American record industry, who later became known as The Wrecking Crew. Wall of Sound creator Phil Spector could not hold a conductor's wand to what Master Wilson was doing.

Strings, horns, trombones, saxophones, kettledrums, bobby pins on piano strings, a bicycle horn, and harmonies that sounded like the choirs of Heaven composed Pet Sounds. The album only charted at 10 on the Top 100 in its day, but it was a smash in England.

There is raw emotion in the album. Listening to Paul McCartney's favorite song, “God Only Knows,” you feel nothing but beautiful sadness.

But Brian’s display of musical genius came at a price. As he was making the album, his mental health began to decline.

His father, Murry Wilson, told him that his magnum opus was pure rubbish and that he wanted The Beach Boys to keep singing about surfing, cars, and school.

Murry had abused Brian for years, hitting him in the ear so hard that it took away 96% of its hearing capacity. Listen to Pet Sounds and then think about the fact that the young man who made it only had 1 working ear.

As the years passed, Brian became more secluded and sedated, spending 3 years in bed, according to his own account.

Enter Eugene Landy, a psychologist who misdiagnosed Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic when he actually had depressive bipolar disorder with auditory hallucinations. Landy infiltrated Brian’s life, gaining legal guardianship and ordering him to be medicated around the clock into near nonexistence.

Eventually, Brian met a woman named Melinda Ledbetter who fell in love with him, kicked Landy out of his life, and married him. It was a long road, but Brian found himself again. He became well enough to complete the album Smile, after starting it 40 years ago, to critical acclaim.

When I think of what happened to Brian Wilson, it makes me sad enough to cry. I recently watched the fully authorized movie Love and Mercy that chronicled his story, and it left me feeling miserable for a day.

I also think about the similarities between our mental illnesses. At a dinner once (I forgot to take my meds that day), the sound of the conversation and the plates clanking was enough to make me leave early. The same thing happened to Brian.

Save for a few manic blackouts when I was sick, I was able to live every moment of my life into my mid-40s, while Brian completely lost those decades of his. It hurts me to know that.

This is the sad story of what happens when the practice of psychiatric medicine goes horribly wrong. It should never happen again, but unfortunately, it will.

Jay Sochoka, RPh, feels broken up.

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