Syd Barrett Asperger syndrome?
The Interesting Case of Syd Barrett - by Lili Marlene
For a number of years I have had fun maintaining and adding to my list of famous people who are, or were, or perhaps were, or perhaps are, on the autistic spectrum. What an fascinating bunch of people! It is a list full of genius, brilliance, eccentricity and original vision. For a long time I've been aware that the enigmatic Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd fame has been identified by some as an autist, but till recently I hadn't realized how widespread this speculation has been. I was intrigued when I recently read his sister's description of Barrett's synaesthesia. I was excited when I found a different description of Barrett's synaesthesia in another publication, from a different source. I knew this could be an effect of drugs, but I also know that there is quite a lot of overlap between my list of famous autists and my other list of famous synaesthetes.
To be honest, I hadn't been in a hurry to include Barrett in my list of famous autists, because his story is so often characterized as a sudden and tragic decline of a charming and extroverted young man into madness and a reclusive lifestyle, and autism just isn't like this. Autism and Asperger syndrome are not types of mental illness, they are more correctly categorized as disabilities that can have positive features, or valuable forms of human diversity. As far as I know, autistic spectrum conditions do not cause any sudden decline in sanity or functioning. These conditions are detectable from early childhood, probably having their origins before birth, and are highly genetically determined. The Syd Barrett story appeared to be a story about bad things that aren't autism. But, I was also aware that intelligent, talented young people who have AS can start out in life looking as though they have the world at their feet, then in their later years end up living as recluses who take a very dim view of human nature.
I am aware that some other synaesthetes might be irritated to discover that Syd Barrett has been identified as a synesthete, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are anecdotes (not many) in which synaesthesia has been misdiagnosed as psychosis or schizophrenia. This possibility is a thing that concerns many synaesthetes, and this is one reason why many synaesthetes will not mention or discuss their synaesthesia. One can imagine that a type of synesthesia such as coloured hearing or coloured music could be misunderstood as visual hallucination. So you can understand that some synaesthetes might be irritated to read that a famous person with the nickname "crazy diamond" experienced synaesthesia. Another reason why some synaesthetes might not be pleased to see Barrett identified as a synaesthete is that many of us are fed up with the joking about LSD and drugs that we often receive when we tell others about our sensory experiences. Synaesthetes are sometimes accused of being closet drug users by very rude and ignorant people. I have been unable to clarify whether any of Barrett's reported synaesthesia was experienced during periods in his life when he was known to have been not using LSD. His synaesthesia could have been nothing more notable than a drug side-effect, which would mean he was not necessarily a natural synaesthete born with an unusual brain. But considering Barrett's early creative talent, his many eccentricities and problems, I believe his brain must have been something exceptional.
Another reason why I wasn't jumping to include Barrett in my lists was my fear that if I started researching an outline of his life, I would find the subject so complex and mysterious that I would become hopelessly bogged down, ploughing through books over a span of weeks or months. That is exactly what has happened.
Syd Barrett's real name was Roger Barrett, and he used his real name for much of his life, which started in 1946 and ended in 2006. He was an English songwriter, singer, guitarist and visual artist, best known as a founding member and songwriter of the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd. Barrett's membership of the band finished after repeated failure to perform during concerts. He had been the main songwriter. Barrett withdrew from public life, but released two solo albums in 1970, full of strange and unforgettable tunes with nonsense lyrics. Pink Floyd went on to become massively popular and commercially successful, their style evolving towards progressive rock, a popular musical genre that would enable millions of dim young men with limited prospects to experience the feeling of intellectual exhilaration without the necessity to read, learn or do anything much. Syd/Roger Barrett lived an apparently simple and solitary life, receiving royalty payments, until he died in 2006, leaving an estate worth over 1.5 million pounds to his siblings. His access to spending money had been controlled by his family (Willis 2002 p. 143). There has been much speculation about why Barrett ceased to be a member of Pink Floyd, withdrew from the public eye, shunned his own fans, left behind the nickname that he had never himself used or liked, and disconnected his home's door bell.
The most established explanation, that he developed schizophrenia as the result of the heavy use of LSD, is the least likely explanation, for many different reasons. Firstly, it appears that there is little or no scientific evidence that LSD causes schizophrenia (or any other serious mental illness). Medical researchers have found a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia, mediated by genetics, and some people have identified dope smoking as the cause of, or trigger for, Barrett's problems, but this cannot be proven. There is also evidence that long-term use of cannabis can cause cognitive deficits, which no one needs. But we needn't bother ourselves with speculation about what might have caused this supposed case of schizophrenia in the absence of any evidence that Barrett had schizophrenia at all. I have not come across any evidence that Barrett suffered from any of the characteristic features of schizophrenia such as delusions or auditory hallucinations ("hearing voices"). In all of the books and articles that have been written about Barrett and Pink Floyd, where is there any description of any irrational belief system, schizophrenic "word salad" or the wearing of any tin foil hat? Pink Floyd members reportedly claimed that Barrett was unusual before he started using drugs heavily (Pareles 2006), undermining the theory that Barrett was a regular guy driven insane by drugs. In addition to an absence of evidence of schizophrenia, there is positive evidence that Barrett did not have schizophrenia. One is obliged to take seriously Barrett's sister's claim that Barrett was examined by psychiatrists and found to be not insane (Titchmarsh 2007). According to the Willis biography Barrett was never sectioned and was never given a diagnosis nor medication by the psychiatric profession, except for the drug "Largactyl" (Largactil?) following two extreme fits of anger, a situation that would not be inconsistent with an autistic condition. Largactil/Chlorpromazine is a drug that has a number of psychiatric and medical indications, including the short-term management of aggressive or severe anxiety episodes, treatment for amphetamine overdose, schizophrenia, hiccups and tetanus. It was once incorrectly believed to be an antidote to LSD.
Barrett had issues but he wasn't schizophrenic or insane. Pink Floyd member Roger Waters is a prominent exponent of the theory of Barrett as a schizophrenic, and this idea has been an inspiration for some Pink Floyd songs. I personally find it disturbing that one can still find many references to Barrett's mythological schizophrenia in books and articles in print and on the internet, and also in filmed interviews. I am sure that if I were to describe the late New Zealander novelist Janet Frame as a schizophrenic author I would promptly have Frame's fans and family's disapproval coming down on my head like a ton of bricks, but all and sundry feel free to apply to the late Mr Barrett a psychiatric label which qualified psychiatrists apparently decided was not correct.
Schizophrenia isn't the only type of mental illness that has been suggested as a diagnosis for Barrett. Bipolar has apparently been suggested as an explanation for Barrett's withdrawal, but I have not found any document outlining this theory. One friend of Barrett's has been quoted as saying "It always felt to me as if he'd fallen into a depression more than anything." (Blake 2007 p. 142). Former band-mate David Gilmour put forward a theory that a combination of epilepsy induced by strobe stage lighting and drugs altered Barrett's mental health (Geiger 2006). A similar fanciful theory involving mescaline and strobe lighting has been put forward (Miles 2006 p. 107-108). Some have argued that Barrett simply had a breakdown due to stress. Biographer Tim Willis has described Barrett's period of withdrawal as ".. an extended nervous breakdown exacerbated by his drug intake .." (Willis 2002). Willis drove home the point that Barrett had been under great pressure from 1965-1972 by including a detailed schedule of Barrett's concert and studio work during this period, as an appendix to the biography. Barrett developed some chronic medical illnesses later in life and died prematurely of cancer at the age of 60. I thought the speculations about the cause of Barrett's breakdown and withdrawal on page 139 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography Crazy diamond were insightful. They wrote about Barrett's belief in total freedom, the loss of his father in his early teens, the easy access to drugs and girls, and his lack of discipline. The teens and early twenties are a period of life when young people need to master important skills, continue to exercise self-control and find a sustainable role within society. Failure to achieve these things is a personal disaster.
I am surprised that I have not come across any argument for ADHD as an explanation for Barrett's problems and childhood oddities, considering his lifelong history of "hyperactive" behaviour, minor conduct problems as a child, his creative gifts contrasting with mediocre academic achievement and his drug-taking behaviour that could be interpreted as irresponsible or impulsive.
One could also speculate that Barrett could possibly have been an intellectually gifted underachiever. I have not been able to find any information about any IQ or scholastic testing or scores. His mother has been criticised for giving him the idea that he was some type of genius. Many would argue that this label was appropriate, considering his creative legacy. The literature about the educational needs of gifted children tells us that gifted kids who are not properly identified, not appropriately educated, or who have hidden learning problems, are at risk of developing self-defeating patterns of behaviour or mental illness, and can become deliberate trouble-makers.
All sources agree that Barrett was a heavy user of illicit drugs when he was young. Later in life he was a cigarette smoker, a chain smoker according to the Watkinson and Anderson biography. He used LSD in the 1960s, but how much is a matter for debate. Heroin is a possibility. Biographer Tim Willis has described Barrett as ".. a fanatical dope-smoker - day and night, year in, year out .." (Willis 2002). Barrett also used the sedative hypnotic drug Mandrax, which was popular as a recreational drug in the late 1960s to early 1970s because it could be used to bring about a state of waking trance, and it was also thought to have aphrodisiac effects. It is easy to imagine how a combination of a pressured work life and illicit drug use could lead to burnout, breakdown or a complete lack of functioning. We are left with the question of why Barrett chose to be a heavy drug user. If a mental health issue was a part of the Barrett story, it could have been a motivation for, rather than the effect of, illicit drug use. Autistic people are particularly vulnerable to anxiety-related disorders, stress, depression and "nervous breakdowns". This could explain why Barrett might have been unable to cope with the same work pressures that his band-mates apparently were able to cope with.
For a long time there has been speculation that Barrett was autistic (Gallo 2006). Willis described Barrett's mind as "... extraordinary ... bordering on the autistic or Aspergic." (Willis 2006). Barrett had talent in the areas of visual art and music, two in a group of talents that are characteristic of the autistic-type mind, and these talents were evident early in life (Barrett learned piano at the age of 8). Barrett could be described as creatively gifted. People who have Asperger syndrome (AS) typically develop a strong, sustained interest in a narrow, unusual subject or interest, and the primary or only motivation is enjoyment or curiosity. Barrett's sister Rosemary has described his interest in Byzantine art "...it was an enormous interest of his and he said it was going to be a book but it was really just a collection of dates and facts that interested him." (Titchmarsh 2007). This project was pursued "purely for his own enjoyment" (Willis 2002 p. 144). It is also worth noting that his painting from his school years to late in his life was done to please himself (Chapman 2010 p.8).
Autism is an inherited condition, and Barrett had many personality traits in common with his father, and some could be interpreted as autistic traits. His pathologist father was also a painter in his spare time and also had a great love of music. Like his son, Dr Barrett enjoyed learning about a subject in great depth, gaining an expert's knowledge of fungi and cot death syndrome (Miles 2006). Fitting the stereotype of a father of an autistic child, he had a scientific/technical career and spent little time alone with his kids (Miles 2006), but according to Barrett's sister, Barrett and his father "... had a sort of unique closeness." (Manning & Dodd 2006, p. 10). In Watkinson's biography of Barrett, an "... exceptionally warm personality" (Watkinson & Anderson 1993 p.13) is cited as a characteristic that father and son had in common, which does go against the stereotype of the cold autist. One would expect family members who are both on the spectrum might have a special empathy, so it was probably a terrible loss for Barrett when his father died of cancer when Roger was only 16. Perhaps it is notable that both father and son died prematurely from cancer.
Two (probably related) characteristics of Syd/Roger Barrett's strike me as particularly compelling evidence of autism; his apparently decades-long habit of bouncing, and his toe-walking during adulthood. Barrett bounced on the balls of his feet during his high school years, a habit that persisted into adulthood (Miles 2006) and Willis has described finding Barrett bouncing on the balls of his feet when he answered his door, at some time during the last years of his life (Willis 2002). Long-term girlfriend Libby Gausden persuaded Barrett to stop bouncing for a while (Willis 2002 p. 45), but that did not last, and neither did the relationship. Numerous mentions of Barrett's bouncing and odd gait can be found in books about Pink Floyd and Barrett. The first-hand description of Barrett's strange walking (in a public place) on page 154 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography by makes it clear to the reader that Barrett was a fundamentally unusual man. Autistic people often have the habit of rocking or jumping about, not just once in a while, but a habit that can last years or even a lifetime. Even the most intelligent and accomplished autists can have such habits - Bill Gates is almost as famous for his leaping as he is famous for his extreme wealth. There is some evidence that Barrett’s unusual habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet while walking might have had advantages over the normal way that people walk and run. A study reported in New Scientist in January 2010 has found that running on the balls of the feet instead of the heels has much less physical impact on the feet, and two-thirds of endurance runners who habitually run barefoot run on the balls of their feet. Barrett was probably barefoot more often than is usual while growing up, because shoes do not accommodate toe-walking.
Toe walking is common during early childhood, but if a child walks on their toes past the age of three years, a medical evaluation is recommended. Toe walking can be a sign of a number of different conditions and illnesses, including autism. In Mark Blake's book about Pink Floyd a person who had seen Barrett in his pre and post decline periods was quoted as saying ".. he was still walking on his tip toes, in the way that he did." (Blake 2007 p. 223). A description of Barrett standing on tip toes, from another associate of Barrett's, can be found on page 30. Toe walking could have been one reason why Barrett had the habit of wearing shoes without socks or laces, sometimes wearing no shoes at all. Toe walking might have damaged his footwear - he was known for wearing elastic bands to hold his boots on after the zippers broke. These habits dated back to his school days. Another odd habit of Barrett's that could be interpreted as a sign of autism was wearing minimal clothing during all seasons, as reported by neighbours (Willis 2002 p. 12). He was apparently not troubled by cold temperatures. Willis has described Barrett answering his front door wearing only underwear. Asperger syndrome (AS) expert Dr Tony Attwood has described people with AS who wear clothing that is not typical for the season as appearing to have "... an idiosyncratic internal thermostat." (Attwood 2007).
During his teenage years Barrett constructed (beautifully) some tetrahedrons from balsa wood, which he hung from the ceiling of his room. This precise and geometrical teenage craft creativity is interestingly similar to one childhood hobby of Prof. Richard Borcherds, winner of a Fields Medal for mathematics, who was identified by autism expert Prof. Baron-Cohen as a person who had AS but was not dysfunctional enough to meet the official diagnostic criteria for AS (Baron-Cohen 2003). In his school years Borcherds had constructed hundreds of unique polyhedra which he hung from ceilings throughout his parents' house (Baron-Cohen 2003 p. 161-162). A tetrahedron is a type of polyhedron. Professor Baron-Cohen would probably classify this hobby of polyhedron construction as an example of systemizing behaviour. Baron-Cohen has argued that autistic people are hyper-systemizers. This hobby is precise and mathematical, and there is an element of experimentation, because one explores the relationship between two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional shapes. Decades later in 1996 Barrett's nephew revealed in an interview that Barrett was exploring geometric and repetitive patterns similar to tiles or weaving in his painting (Willis 2002 p. 144) (interview also available online at Dolly Rocker), a continuation of an artistic theme explored in his youth.
Barrett's polyhedra and geometric painting were not the only examples of systemizing behaviour that Barrett displayed. His experimentation and innovation with musical sound effects was also a form of systemizing. Barrett got novel sounds out of his guitar using ball bearings and a cigarette lighter. His music often featured sounds played backwards. He recorded the sound of a motorbike with the intention of using it in music, and I recall reading about Barrett experimenting with the sound of a clock ticking under water. Barrett was reportedly a pioneer in using a gadget called the Binson Echorette to produce echo effects with his guitar (Watkinson & Anderson 2006 p. 50). One might think that songwriting is a purely creative activity for which there can be no system or set rules, but Barrett's ingenious songwriting system ("structure") is described in Willis's biography. Barrett displayed a more conventional systemizing talent at the age of 15 by building his own amplifier. Systemizers love gadgets, and Barrett was no exception. The biography by Watkinson and Anderson details Barrett's extravagant fascinations with collecting guitars and state-of-the-art television sets during the 1970s. Chapmans’s book Syd Barrett: a very irregular head gives a hint that Barrett might have had the long attention-span that is characteristic of autism – when he visited great art galleries with his girlfriend “he would sit for hours looking at one painting” rather than hang out with interesting people in the cafeteria (Chapman 2010 p. 44). While a lack of verbal ability is not a part of Barrett’s popular image, some accounts hint that he had some problems with verbal expression. Barrett’s nephew Ian Barrett described his uncle taking a long time to describe things in a very precise way (Chapman 2010 p. 366), a trait which apparently runs in the family. Barrett’s sister Rosemary theorized in the same book that because Barrett lived such a solitary life during his later years with no one to speak to, he got out of the habit of speaking and lost verbal ability (Chapman 2010 p. 377).
Reading books about Barrett, one could easily get the impression that his youth was just one big party, but Mark Blake's book about Pink Floyd gives descriptions from two different sources of Barrett's habit of disappearing from or avoiding social occasions which he was expected to attend, without any explanation. He would sometimes bore his girlfriend by taking her for drives to look at landscapes rather than going to parties as planned. Another friend has described how Barrett could "... suddenly withdraw from everything" despite having a great sense of humour (Blake 2007 p. 30). This type of behaviour is consistent with Asperger syndrome. According to some sources quoted by Blake there was also a distance between Barrett and his band-mates, one source saying he thought Barrett was an outsider within Pink Floyd (Blake 2007 p. 78). This is supported by quotes from the biography by Watkinson and Anderson "There was no togetherness because they were always backing musicians to Syd and not a group." (p. 89). In light of this revelation, one does not need to believe in the myth that Barrett was insane to find an explanation for why the other members of Pink Floyd might have wanted to exclude him from their musical group. In Blake's book one can find an anecdote about Barrett refusing, without explanation, to board a bus with other students for an art school excursion (p.25). Asperger syndrome could also explain this behaviour. The noise, smell and crowding of buses and public transport can be a real challenge for autistic people who have sensory hypersensitivity. Further support for the argument that Barrett had difficulty dealing with gatherings of people can be found in the Willis biography and in the interview with Barrett's nephew which can be viewed at the web site Dolly Rocker. It is asserted that Barrett had avoided houseguests by staying in a basement during the 1970s and in the 1990s was still "unable to cope with large gatherings". Rob Chapman’s 2010 book about Barrett gives a complex account of Barrett in social life. One source claiming Barrett was independent socially, getting around but not settling with any particular group. Another source gives an account of Barrett as very choosey about his friends and untrusting, but not without friends. Another source described Barrett as kind, generous and sensitive but also in a world of his own.
Some features of Barrett's behaviour relevant to communication have been cited as evidence of mental illness. These include being verbally uncommunicative, a stare that frightened people and a lack of facial expression; "Trying to talk to him was like trying to talk to a brick wall because his face was so expressionless." (Willis 2002 p. 77). It has also been observed that Barrett's style of communication was of making statements rather than normal conversation, and was strange and fragmented (Willis 2002). A lack of eye contact in noted on page 163 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography. All of these characteristics can be found in people who are autistic. If a person's body language changes, becoming less expressive than before, this could be a sign of mental illness. It could also be the result of an autistic person deciding to stop "acting normal".
There is another characteristic of Barrett's that could be found from his childhood to adulthood that I believe is typical of an autistic personality. Barrett had a great attachment to his home. He has been described as a recluse in his later years, but homebody tendencies were evident as early as his school years, when he would disappear from cross-country running to create paintings at home, and his home's back garden was also his preferred venue for painting during his art school years. There is an anecdote about Barrett walking to Cambridge (his home town) from London, and one friend of Barrett's believed he was out of his comfort zone whenever he was outside of Cambridge. One's home is (or at least should be) a place that offers security, quiet, privacy and protection from unwanted interruptions and intrusions, and these are things that many autistic people have a special need for. Homes and home towns are also places where we can reconnect with memories that reinforce our sense of personal identity, and this can be a comforting thing in a hostile and chaotic world. Some of the most ugly anecdotes about Barrett's behaviour, times when he was clearly very troubled or violent, happened when he was using drugs and also sharing accommodation with a number of other people.
Although media reports almost always describe Barrett as a case of mental illness, his sister claimed he was never mentally ill, but never fitted the norm either. According to Rosemary he spent some time in an institution (but was given no treatment), and was assessed a number of times by psychiatrists over the years and was found to be unusual but not insane (Titchmarsh 2007). Being labelled as mad by ordinary people but pronounced sane by qualified psychiatrists is an experience reported by some adults who have Asperger syndrome. Rosemary quoted in Chapman’s 2010 book about Barrett claimed that “personality disorder” was a label that was given to Barrett after his stay in an institution (Chapman 2010 p. 361). This is the type of label that was given to some autistic adults before Asperger syndrome was recognized.
A lot of evidence can be found to support the autism explanation, but there are some elements of Barrett's life story that could be seen as incompatible with this explanation. I have found anecdotes in which Barrett compared his own social status with that of John Lennon, whose career was more established. This seems very contrary to the lack of concern for social status that is thought to be typical of autists. One could instead interpret Barrett's comparisons as evidence of role model copying, which is a rather desperate strategy used by some autists to deal with the social side of life. As a child Barrett has been described as an extroverted, gregarious joker. He did well in the Boy Scouts, rising to the level of Patrol Leader. Young Roger/Syd excelled in public speaking, poetry reading and played the lead in school plays (Miles 2006). He avoided potential trouble with teachers with smiles and jokes (Miles 2006). This level of ability in social manipulation and personal presentation does not fit the established image of the socially disabled autist. But in contrast, Barrett has also been described as having "... a child-like innocence." (Manning & Dodd 2006 p. 10). Despite his apparent social skills, Barrett was not the perfect child. Despite obvious intelligence his academic achievement in junior school was mediocre, and he was regarded as rebellious student at school and also as a college art student. By all accounts Barrett had a very bad temper. In childhood he was known to break windows and throw rocks at cars when things did not go the way he wanted (Miles 2006). According to an account in Willis' biography, Syd/Roger did not throw rocks alone, so this behaviour could be a reflection of a lack of adult supervision. It is interesting to note that a neighbour of Barrett's during his reclusive years complained that Barrett had a habit of smashing (his own) windows (Sore 2006), so this appears to have been another one of Barrett's almost life-long strange habits. Windows aren't the only parts of homes that Barrett has attacked. In the 1970s he smashed the door of his flat off its hinges, and put his head through a ceiling after a bad review of his last concert. Barrett's life-long capacity for intense anger could be consistent with a condition on the autistic spectrum or possibly epilepsy of the temporal lobes. There is a most striking photograph of Barrett in Blake's book about Pink Floyd. It shows Barrett being "doorstepped" in 2006, wearing minimal clothing, and the look in his dark eyes would have made me step backwards a metre or two. There are many photographs of Barrett from his Pink Floyd years showing eyes that have the most striking expression, perhaps terror, over-stimulation or shell-shock. A Rolling Stone reporter described Barrett's "eyes reflecting a permanent state of shock." (Watkinson & Anderson 2006).
During his teens and early twenties Barrett was involved with a number of girlfriends and affairs (Willis 2002). In addition to these relationships, there was no shortage of groupies hanging around after he became famous. Barrett was very popular with the ladies from his mid-teens till his withdrawal from public life, but it could be a mistake take this as evidence that he had the "social skills" of a normal non-autistic person before his decline. Barrett's good looks, fame and creative intelligence were most likely important elements of his charisma. Surprisingly, one woman who had enjoyed Barrett's company claimed in an interview that Barrett "... wasn't the sort of guy to flirt." (Blake 2007 p. 122). Barrett was a very attentive boyfriend in one of his earlier relationships, but he appeared to place little value on later relationships. He has a deplorable record of smashing up buildings and violence towards girlfriends. There is a theory that autism is an extremely masculinised type of brain. If Barrett was autistic and this theory true, this would mean Barrett would have had very little in common psychologically with the average female, an even greater gulf between him and most women that that between average men and women. This might be the explanation for why Barrett's romantic relationships apparently came to nothing. According to one author, after Barrett broke up with a girl that he had been engaged to, in 1970, there were no more known intimate relationships. Biographers Watkinson and Anderson wrote that one fan of Barrett's who collected Barrett memorabilia was of the opinion that Barrett had at one time had a girlfriend in a relationship that was kept a secret from his family and the media. When speculating about the motivations behind Barrett's choices of lifestyle and behaviour I try to keep in mind the fact that Barrett's finances and contact with the world in general were controlled by his family to a degree that is not clear to me.
Barrett was too adventurous in his use of drugs, and he also showed a taste for adventure in creating his own personal style. He wore black eyeliner during his rock star years and had his hair permed, and wore psychedelic style fashions in fine style. He was the most visually appealing, photogenic and interestingly dressed member of Pink Floyd. I think Barrett's seductive stares at the camera resembled the poses of female fashion models. It appears that Barrett cared little for our culture's disapproval of men making a display of their personal appearance. There are reports of Barrett being spotted cross-dressing. This has been interpreted by some as evidence of mental illness, but I don't think there's such a large difference between wearing drag and wearing the type of gear that Barrett wore as a band member in photo shoots. Barrett's cross-dressing makes one wonder about the theme of Pink Floyd's first single Arnold Layne. This song, written by Barrett, is about a transvestite who stole women's clothing from washing lines. It is based on real-life incidents of theft of underwear, which apparently belonged to female student lodgers staying at the homes of Barrett's and Roger Waters' families. One of the people interviewed in the documentary The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story claimed to know the identity of this underwear thief. Who would do such a thing?
Barrett's fashion-consciousness in his rock star years goes against the stereotype of the geeky, fashion-blind autistic person, and this could be interpreted as evidence that Barrett was not autistic. One could give a counter-argument that Barrett was violating gender norms and distinguishing himself from his peers with his fashion. Autistic people are sometimes conspicuous because they do not adopt fashions typical of members of their gender in their peer group. This can happen because autists often care little about fitting in.
Barrett's sister and biographer Tim Willis have described Barrett as a synaesthete or possible synaesthete "... he would say that a sound was a colour to him." (Titchmarsh 2007). A report that Barrett described (to Rado Klose, an early Pink Floyd member) a C chord as yellow is given in the biography by Willis (page 21). Much later in Barrett's career, during the recording of his first solo album, one of Barrett's comments about the music provides further evidence of synaesthesia; "Perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit more middle-afternoonish [because] at the moment, it's too windy and icy" (Willis 2002 p. 106). Willis wrote that Barrett "drew" songs (Willis 2002 p.21), representations that could have been based on synaesthesia experiences. Barry Miles' book about Pink Floyd gives slightly fuller descriptions of Barrett's visual representations of his songs, in coloured paintings (page 69) and drawings that resembled Venn diagrams (page 83). It would be fascinating to see these creations, if they still exist today. Some types of synaesthesia can be caused by high doses of LSD, so one could dismiss Barrett's synaesthesia as merely the side-effects of psychedelic drugs. My guess is that the way that Barrett apparently used his synaesthesia to represent and describe his music shows that his synaesthesia was a more complex, stable and natural type of synaesthesia. One would need to find evidence that Barrett experienced synaesthesia early in life, before he started taking drugs, before we could categorize him as a natural synaesthete.
As an art school student Barrett had a very well developed sense of colour (Chapman 2010 p.50). One study had found that synaesthetes have an enhanced memory for colour (Yaro and Ward 2007). In his 2010 book Chapman asserted that the imagery in the song Astronomy Dominie by Barrett “conveys a strong sense of synaesthesia” (Chapman 2010 p.156).
Barrett's synaesthesia was not just an isolated personal oddity. Synaesthesia-like experiences were a part of the psychedelic scene which Barrett and Pink Floyd were a part of at the time. People were inventing various devices and systems of stage lighting for the types of venues that Pink Floyd played in, some of them designed to move in time with music. One 1967 concert by Pink Floyd was given the title "Music in Colour". Researchers have reportedly found a possible genetic link between synaesthesia, autism and epilepsy (Robson 2009). It is possible that Barrett had some combination of these conditions. As far as I know, no link has ever been found between synaesthesia and schizophrenia, so evidence of synaesthesia contributes nothing to the case that Barrett was a schizophrenic.
I find it interesting that quite a few of the writers who have been identified as influences on Barrett's song-writing were major figures in children's literature and were themselves unusual people. Lewis Carroll was one of the best known writers in the genre of literary nonsense. He had migraines and epilepsy (possibly temporal lobe epilepsy), an inherited stutter, was a mathematician and never married. Carroll was identified as having had Asperger syndrome in the book The genesis of artistic creativity: Asperger’s syndrome and the arts. Edward Lear was another major writer of literary nonsense. He was also a gifted painter and an epileptic who suffered from depressive episodes. Lear never married. Pink Floyd's first album was named after a chapter of the classic children's book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and this book has been cited as an important influence on Barrett's work. Grahame was an intelligent and eccentric loner who married late in life to another eccentric. Syd Barrett wrote a song Golden Hair based on a poem by James Joyce. Joyce was one of the famous people discussed in the book Unstoppable brilliance: Irish geniuses and Asperger's syndrome.
The world of childhood is an innocent and beautiful world that has a great attraction for many people who have Asperger syndrome. Even though he was not a father, in many ways Barrett was well-connected to the world of childhood - through his strong attachment to Cambridge where he grew up, his personality has been described as childlike, his artistic inspiration from children's literature, and his love of children in contrast with a very reclusive lifestyle. Barrett's sister Rosemary has described Barrett's rapport with children in 2006 in a Sunday Times interview with Tim Willis. The legendary mathematician Paul Erdos and writer/mathematician Lewis Carroll are two famous geniuses who have both been identified as autistic by Prof. Michael Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald 2007, Fitzgerald 2005), who were both single and possibly asexual, and who both demonstrated a love of children and an enjoyment of the company children.
One last detail of Barrett's life that I believe indicates autism is Barrett's evident lack of interest in popular team sport events. All men love to watch the footy, don't they? Autistic people are often the exception to this rule. Autists don't need the crowding and the camaraderie involved with being a sport player or spectator. I believe slow attention-shifting means autistic people are likely to have trouble following the fast-paced action of team sport. Watkinson and Anderson describe in their biography observing Barrett making a visit to a DIY/hardware shop by foot, walking through the deserted streets during FA Cup Final day with an unnatural spring in his step.
I believe Barrett was somewhere on the autistic spectrum because there is such a large quantity of evidence for this conclusion, even though some aspects of his life could be interpreted as evidence against this conclusion. Similarities can be found between Barrett's experiences in Pink Floyd and the career of Australian rock star Craig Nicholls of The Vines, who was given a formal diagnosis of Asperger syndrome in 2004. History repeats. I am not convinced that drugs and autism were the only factors that caused the end of Barrett's musical career. I agree with Willis and many Barrett fans who believe that Barrett chose to leave the music business following years of good and bad experiences, to return to his painting. We can be sure that Barrett experienced coloured music synaesthesia, and very likely other types of synaesthesia. I have been able to find stacks of evidence for Barrett's autism and synaesthesia scattered through many books and articles about Barrett and Pink Floyd, even though most of the authors of these works did not explicitly argue that Barrett had these conditions. In contrast, I have been unable to find any evidence to support the idea that Barrett had schizophrenia while reading these same books and articles, even though most of the authors of these works were of the opinion that Barrett had been mentally ill. Barrett certainly did act in crazy and non-functional ways during one period in his life - this is what happens when people take mind-bending drugs.
The famous painter Vincent van Gogh is another famous person who I believe had a number of features in common with Barrett. Both men were painters who displayed an original creativity. Both have been identified as possible cases of autism. Both experienced synaesthesia. Both have been given the label of "schizophrenic". Both had no luck with romantic relationships. Both had a capacity for unusual levels of anger. Some believe van Gogh's angry outbursts were caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. Both have been the subject of many different theories about the exact nature of their mental conditions.
Barrett's story has often been presented as a cautionary tale to warn against the abuse of drugs. Could his story have been a happier one if different choices had been made? We now know that heavy use of cannabis can damage the brain, and in some people can trigger mental illness, so things might have been different if Barrett had stayed clear of this drug. But it is possible that being an autist in a world that does not accept nor understand autistic people was Barrett's biggest problem, and there would have been no effective help available to Barrett in his teens or twenties, if he had sought it? He was facing the biggest challenges in his life during a time when the psychiatric profession's responses to autism included institutionalisation, misdiagnosis as schizophrenia (with a number of possibly seriously harmful consequences), baseless mother-blaming theories, useless and expensive psychotherapy, and LSD was even used by some psychiatrists as an experimental therapy for autistic children. Barrett could hardly be blamed for taking acid and dropping out, considering the crazy times he lived in. The famous psychiatrist that Pink Floyd members tried to get Barrett to see in a consultation, R. D. Laing, turned out to be a sufferer of depression and alcoholism, whose work is no longer an influence on mainstream psychiatry.
Roger/Syd Barrett played a number of different roles in his life - a wild and creative beautiful boy, the enigmatic wanderer who was the subject of rumours and local legends, and a wonderfully scary-looking chain-smoking millionaire recluse. He proved that one doesn't need to die young, or die at all, to attain legendary status. Now that he is gone, many questions about his life will remain forever unanswered. Don't you love a mystery?
Labels: Syd Barrett Asperger syndrome