The power, which a man's imagination over his body to heal it or make it sick is a force which none of us is born without. The first man had it; the last one will possess it. (Mark Twain)
Psychological Autopsy of Elvis Presley is a book of two parts. It opens with a series of chapters which establish the theoretical framework for the author's consideration of Elvis Presley.
It should be noted that the author is an experienced hypno/psychotherapist, not a clinical psychologist, and presents his analysis in this context.
The "technical" chapters benefit from case examples which illustrate each condition and its impacts. The case studies are used by the author to illustrate how a person’s early (formative) years of emotional and psychological development impact their behaviour, particularly in later life - in particular, how emotional maturity can be stunted by subconscious drivers. Despite this, the "technical" discussions can be a challenge for the reader and, at times, it is difficult to relate the discussion to Elvis, for example when the author discusses Schizophrenia and Tardive Dyskinesia.
For those readers willing to delve deep into Psychological Autopsy there are a number of stimulating ideas and concepts that may strike a familiar chord in either their own life, the lives of those they know or have known, and of course their perspective on why Elvis died.
Ronan's basic premise is that the cumulative impact of loss and trauma can be contributing factors to a person's death, in this case Elvis' death. Put another way, psychosomatic causality - how the psychological affects the physical.
Throughout his book, Ronan discusses a range of psychological concepts and conditions and while not always linking them directly to Elvis (for example, schizophrenia), posits them as considerations in a full, clinical psychological analysis. Interestingly, he also puts biorhythms in the frame.
The second part of Psychological Autopsy of Elvis Presley is the author's consideration of factors affecting Elvis.
The author observes with some potency that “Elvis Presley's life can be seen as one long and dramatic unfolding of tragic ironies”.
Key to the author's consideration of the death of Elvis Presley are:
- emotional trauma;
- Walking Zombie Syndrome;
- Ponce de Leon Syndrome; and
- psychosomatic medicine.
Importantly, Ronan makes the salient point that a medical examiner essentially looks for one primary physical cause of a person’s death, while in reality the cumulative causative factors may be numerous and varied.
In Elvis’ case Ronan argues persuasively that his psychological make-up and life crises had a profound impact on his early death. Traversing a complex and strangely fascinating psychological landscape, Ronan uses case examples and Elvis’ life experiences to illuminate his arguments.
In prosecuting his case Ronan draws on accounts by those who knew to support his analysis, including Priscilla Presley, Dee Presley, the Stanley brothers, Larry Geller and Marty Lacker.
In relation to the emotional and psychological impacts which influenced Elvis the major ones will be obvious to many readers, for instance the loss of his twin brother, Jesse Garon, the end of his marriage to Priscilla, and the seminal importance of the death of Elvis’ beloved mother, Gladys.
Ronan characterises the impact of the latter on Elvis as “the shock of his life” and a “psychological death”. Importantly, Ronan notes that:
“…the most important person in his life died at the very zenith of his success and at the threshold of his manhood, when he was in more of a position than ever before to take care of her and give her everything”.
The loss of Jesse Garon issue is an interesting issue. Several biographies have suggested Elvis was consumed with guilt (“Elvis was plagued by the notion he had survived at the expense of his twin”) and thought/talked about Jesse regularly, while the formal accounts of those closest to Elvis say he rarely, if at all, mentioned Jesse.
“Gladys' death came only several months after Elvis received the very first good critical notices for his performance in King Creole. The good reviews had filled him with a deep satisfaction and sense of accomplishment which stayed with him right up until his mother's sudden death. The contrast of the happiness against the shattering tragedy only jarred him more.
“From that moment on Elvis Presley's entire life was shaded by an inconsolable grief. Grief would make itself felt in virtually everything that he did, in his greatest successes and most abysmal moments of despair. Everything that he was to accomplish in the years to come would be fraught with a feeling that it was somehow transitory and fleeting, that it could just as easily be taken or thrown away.”
There are also various interesting facts about the Elvis story in the book. Some readers will be aware that Vernon Presley had told Elvis and Larry Geller about a “blue light” above the Presley shack in Tupelo on the night Elvis was born. Elvis was thrilled to know this as his favorite color was blue and he had long visualised a blue light in his healings and meditations, rather than the usual white light.
Larry Geller also comments about Elvis and polygamy, and there is an interesting chapter titled The Doctor as Pusher
There is a lot to digest in Psychological Autopsy of Elvis Presley. While similar in content to Peter Whitmer’s The Inner Elvis (published in 1996), Ronan’s book has a different emphasis and perspective. Whitmer’s examination is a broad and detailed psychological map of Elvis, while Ronan ‘s focus is on the impact of events which produced loss and emotional trauma and were likely contributing factors in Elvis’ death. The two authors are consistent on several issues - for instance, Ronan includes themes around Elvis' loss of his twin, Jesse Garon (Whitmer's “twinless twin”) and the closeness of Elvis and Gladys (Whitmer's "lethal enmeshment").
In his concluding chapter the author brings together the various strands of his argument, doing so in the context key elements comprising the power of suggestion, the significance of August to Elvis, and what these meant for his physical and emotional state, and consequently his death.
Ronan also appropriately comments:
The absolute truth is something we may never know. Even if Elvis was alive and this analysis was being considered by him we must deal with subjective truth, both his and mine. An analysis, however, of this sort should never be given as fact.
There are a small number of factual errors in the book including the longstanding and widely reported myth that both Elvis and Gladys died aged 42 (Gladys Presley having actually been 46 at the time of her death).
Due to the techical nature of Psychological Autopsy of Elvis Presley, the inclusion of a glossary would have been beneficial, as would a bibliography/source list for events and accounts/quotations made in respect of Elvis' life.
Verdict: Psychological Autopsy of Elvis Presley is a technically challenging and thought provoking exploration of the psychological conditions and emotional vulnerabilities that shaped Elvis as a person, leading to his loneliness and dependency on prescription medication, and eventually his death. Some readers will find the book hard-going while others will probably dismiss it out of hand. However, its very different perspective to the majority of biographies published about Elvis will be welcomed by those wanting to consider Elvis' life and death in a new or different way. If read with an open mind, readers will find that, in the context of psychoanalysis, there is much to consider and reflect on in our understanding of why Elvis died at age 42.
Comment on this review
EIN will publish an interview with Bill Ronan shortly as well as a second review (by Susan MacDougall) of his book
About the author: William J. Ronan, a licensed independent clinical social worker, examines the facts of Elvis Presley’s journey on Earth to reveal the truths of the legendary rocker’s life and the root causes of his death in Psychological Autopsy of Elvis Presley, subtitled The Elvis Analysis: The Role of Suggestion in the Etiology of Psychosomatic Disorders. No one can escape the legacy of Elvis’ celebrity, but Ronan uses the full resources of his profession to forge beyond the well-known facts and the irrepressible hype. Ronan presents a set of psychological circumstances of Elvis’ death―self-image, relationships, the death of his mother and twin brother, and his own morbid feelings before he died. The author relates these circumstances to several case studies and adds layers of analysis from hypnotherapy, traditional psychology, and biomedical ethics. In so doing, Ronan forces the reader to consider the sheer psychological force that core beliefs play in creating and re-creating lives, and in dooming others to an early end. The book is a journey fueled by facts and original thinking that lead the reader to unexpected revelations. Ronan is a registered Medical Hypnoanalysis Practitioner, Clinical Member of AAMH, American, Psychotherapy Association Diplomat, PTSD Clinician APA Certified and Mindfulness & CBT PESI Certified.