Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

'Welcome to the Atrocity Exhibition': Ian Curtis, Rock Death, and Disability

David Church, Graduate Student
San Francisco State University
E-mail: churchofdavid@yahoo.com


Since the 1960's, rock music's countercultural aesthetic has willingly and exploitatively appropriated images and cultural attitudes equating disability with freak show spectacle, linking the figure of the self-destructive rock star to the supposedly tragic and socially ostracized "freak." This tendency manifests itself in many forms, from "freakish" concert performances (e.g., heavy metal acts using persons with disabilities as part of their live stage show) to the excessive mythologizing of dead rock stars. The life of Ian Curtis, singer of the seminal post-punk band Joy Division, provides a useful case study for how ableist values have permeated rock music, metaphorically conflating rock stardom with freakery in potentially negative ways for actual persons with disabilities. There currently exists very little scholarship on disability in popular, non-classical music, but I hope this essay will encourage further work.

Keywords: rock music, freakery, clinical gaze, tragedy, epilepsy, Ian Curtis, Joy Division


Ian Curtis was the singer of Manchester's hugely influential post-punk band Joy Division until his suicide in 1980 at age 23. Diagnosed with grand mal epilepsy just as the band's popularity was increasing, Curtis's distinctive performance began blurring the line between mimicry and actual public performance of his impairment, especially when seizures began taking place onstage. Although audiences were ignorant of his epilepsy, Curtis inadvertently began to be celebrated for performing the very things that may have finally culminated in his death–including a deep depression allegedly enhanced by the side effects of his anti-epilepsy medication. Comparing the life and myth of Curtis illuminates problematic ways that disability is consumed within a culture that stereotypically views disability as tragic, and yet romanticizes the naturalizing drive toward (especially self-destructive) death culturally implied by that stereotype.

"If disabled artists or musicians are recognized living or dead," write Morrison and Finkelstein (1997), "all too often their lives are seen in terms of their medical condition and their imagined ability to overcome personal tragedy," usually without analyzing how the artist's impairment informs his/her work (p. 161). It is difficult to suggest that Curtis was a disability artist because he neither addressed his lyrics explicitly to the disability community, nor publicly announced his epilepsy, nor celebrated the empowerment of persons with disabilities, but his music does tend to strike a strong chord with many persons with epilepsy.

Though his gloomy lyrics reflect an internalization of harmful stereotypes about the "tragedy" of disability, they also portray real and understandable emotions within the disability experience, reflecting the "feelings of isolation and trauma, and a desire not to identify disability as a definition," which may follow for several years after acquiring an impairment (Delin & Morrison, 1997, p. 192). Lubet (2004) argues that an ethnomusicology of disability "would distinguish between disabilities of musical praxis–composition, performance, reception–and disabilities of representation–the rendering of the disabled subject as a theme in musical works." In Curtis's case, the relationship between his music's reception by a nondisabled public and his covertly autobiographical position as disabled subject within the performance constitutes the most intriguing area of exploration.

The clinical gaze

Markotic (2003) shows how Foucault's concept of the investigating clinical gaze can be applied to narratives. According to Foucault, doctors use this gaze to penetrate the body, discovering the hidden pathology unknown to the patient him/herself. Symptoms are read as signs of the body's gradual decomposition toward death, indicating moral decay and physical difference from the concept of a "normative body." Each person's disease exteriorizes this gradual death, and each death becomes a marker of individuality. As Markotic points out, "loss" (e.g., loss of ability, such as "control" or the will to live, in Curtis's work) implies a shift from "normal" to "abnormal," equated with a reproach of the person for not retaining that quality strongly enough. Disability narratives invite readers to assume the clinical gaze, working from either a known impairment or known symptoms, investigating how impairment supposedly symbolizes moral faults. Because death provides a sort of closure inviting analysis of the events preceding it, I believe this same process includes the cultural consumption of Curtis's "rock death," effectively transforming his fans into coroners examining the "collective narrative" of his life and work.

However, my retrospective critical reevaluation inadvertently employs that same clinical gaze, investigating the events of Curtis's life as one would analyze a fictional character, as if trying to "cure" the troublesome enigma that his suicide and legacy have left upon popular culture (e.g., I have ascribed Curtis with depression, a condition never formally diagnosed, yet seemingly obvious from anecdotal evidence and Curtis's own remarks). This pitfall potentially awaits any Disability Studies scholar studying a famous person with disabilities (especially invisible disabilities), for the medical model conflates socially imposed concepts of "difference" with supposed "abnormality." The private Curtis directly addressed his disability experience only in recently published letters (see Middles & Reade, 2006), and his epilepsy was unknown to the public until the publication of Edge (1984), Johnson (1984) and West (1984). While widow Deborah Curtis's (1995) essential memoir deflates the myths surrounding her husband, a supposedly "definitive" biography by Middles and Reade (2006) provides an important contrasting perspective. Both books have their obvious limitations, leaving much up to conjecture, their non-scholarly style liable to reproduce the authors' own ableist attitudes. However, the books remain the best sources of such detailed information about Curtis and Joy Division.

Rock music and freakery

As Chemers (2005) notes, freakery is "the intentional performance of constructed abnormality as entertainment," and the freak show has historically relied largely upon persons with disabilities for its performers. He clarifies that not all persons with disabilities who are performers are "freaks," for the intentional exhibition of bodies as "freakish" primarily employs an exploitative, economic-based thrust. Theatrical exhibition of the non-normative body does not emanate entirely from the audience or exhibitor, but also from the active participation and even artistry of the enfreaked subject. Stephens (2005) distinguishes between "born" freaks (i.e., persons with congenital disabilities) and "self-made" freaks (nondisabled persons appropriating the label to self-promote an "abnormal" performance style). The recent reconceptualization of the "born" freak as "disabled" has led contemporary incarnations of the freak show (e.g., "freakish" rock & roll performances) to increasingly rely upon "self-made" freaks as performers. Stephens (2005) notes the argument that "the body of the 'freak' has no essential meaning in and of itself, but is rather a stage for playing out various pressing social and political concerns."

Consequently, perhaps it is no coincidence that rock music and freakery were conflated during the sociopolitical turmoil of the 1960's (see Fiedler, 1978). Rock music has conceptualized freakery as an underlying metaphor for rebellion against "normalcy," especially within the rising youth counterculture during the 1960's. This tradition has been primarily exploitative, using images and attitudes of freakery for carnivalesque sensationalism and shock value (e.g., equating rock shows with freak shows). The mid-20th Century medicalization of disabled bodies (see Garland-Thomson, 1997) roughly coincided with the 1960's civil rights era and a shift away from earlier opposition to freak shows out of a conservative/ableist sense of "social decency" that sought removal of "freakish" bodies from the public sphere (Chemers, 2005). Medicalization of impaired bodies loosened the term "freak" from its traditional focus on congenital disability (and by association, persons with disabilities in general), allowing nondisabled persons to become "self-made" freaks as part of the countercultural movement. Many members of this counterculture (e.g., hippies) self-identified as "freaks," exploiting the cultural assumption that freaks threaten mainstream "normalcy" because of their perceived (visual) difference. Adopting uncommon or transgressive dress and manners was the most common means for counterculture members to intentionally perform a constructed abnormality (albeit for sociopolitical rebellion, not entertainment), reinforcing the pre-1960's attitude that freakery was an affront to conservative standards of "social decency."

The counterculture's use of the label "freak" served ableist interests by subtly equating freakery with difference and social indecency. This "self-made" freakery merely conflates difference, deviance, and disability by culling the label from earlier, pre-medicalized definitions of freakery as "inborn." Using "freak" as a badge of countercultural pride says more about the time period's prevailing attitudes toward traditional, "born" freakery (i.e., a permanent corporeal state supposedly threatening to "normalcy" and decency) than about the performative, constructed nature of freakery. Therefore, countercultural "freaks" generally shouldered hostility and fear (but not pity) from conservative, "normative" members of society. For a politically deviant counterculture to adopt this self-made ("indecent") freak status also links visual difference with a deviant mentality (i.e., deviant from the norms being rebelled against), one of the oldest prejudicial responses to images of impairment (see Sutherland, 1997). Regardless of progressive/utopian intent, this "deviant" mentality also implies that "freaks" think in excitingly Otherly ways, simply because of their perceived difference.

Formation of a 1960's "freak culture" played upon fears about acquired impairments, for it was posited that anyone could become a countercultural freak by adopting radical attitudes, just as any person can potentially acquire an impairment at any time. The counterculture's conflation of visual/behavioral difference with the threat of deviance reflects and reinforces conservative/ableist society's disabling conflation of any perceived difference (e.g., physical, but also racial, sexual, etc.) with a challenge to normalcy. This deliberate act of becoming a "self-made" freak automatically entails freakery's requisite exploitative and "intentional performance of constructed abnormality." By conflating processes of acquisition (e.g., acquired impairment, acquired countercultural politics) and performance (e.g., active freakery, active political participation), "freak culture" emphasized the fragile boundary between unfortunate binary oppositions like nondisabled/disabled, normal/abnormal, us/them. Despite naively (and temporarily) incorporating images of freakery to symbolize their ambitions for positive social change, the 1960's counterculture unwittingly reinforced many of the prevalent disabling attitudes toward impairment that persist today, linking deviance with freakery with actual impairment.

As these stereotypes intertwined with the counterculture's adoration of rock music, there emerged a romanticization of the self-destructive rock & roll lifestyle, especially when culminating in a "rock death" (Marcus, 1999, p. 57-60)–i.e., a rock star's quite foreseeable death, like a logical, "fitting" conclusion to their lifestyle or art. Playing upon cultural fascinations with suicide, this form of self-destruction became popularized during the 1960's, especially through the "slow suicide" of heavy drug use (e.g., claiming Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin), as an especially taboo way for countercultural "freaks" to rebel by removing themselves permanently from society's power structures.

The "tragedy principle"

This nihilistic act by members of a counterculture viewing itself as freakish demonstrates the effects of the "tragedy principle" (i.e., the disabling attitude that impairment is tragic), which Hevey (1997) says originates from the stereotype of impairment as a social flaw imprinted upon the body itself. Persons with disabilities are made to "hide society's and history's contempt for the disabled person by vocalizing a self-loathing or self-destructive pattern. That is, they naturalize disability as dysfunction, and they consequently act out society's wish or rule by destroying themselves" (p. 210). By internalizing the tragedy principle, persons with disabilities become effectively marginalized to death, either through a "real" (literal) death or a "living death" (i.e., "the deepest possible social fall"), leaving the "tragic" person either deceased or completely absent from society (p. 210). Impairment becomes a social signifier of ostracism supposedly denoting cultural "worthlessness" for the bearer, as if possessing an impaired body is reason enough not to live. This constructed position of social inferiority or ostracism thus becomes linked with death as a form of total ontological absence. A tragic view of disability therefore does not require a literal self-destruction unto death (e.g., suicide), but does require the impaired body's erasure from society.

Hevey (1997) adds that the death or fall of the supposedly "tragic" person with disabilities helps nondisabled people collectively disavow the "ever-present fear for the loss of their own 'able-bodiedness'" within two areas: "the presence of death and mortality," and "health, fitness, and other physical/functional issues pertaining to the ability to work" (p. 211). Death or failure thus dissolves the social presence of impairment, reasserting the conceptual "normative" body's privilege of access and agency on a socio-economic level under the social model of disability. The tragedy principle's prevalence in dominant cultural discourses indicates its important naturalizing function within ableist society, romanticized enough to keep many (primarily nondisabled) people repeatedly investing in the belief.

Because difference (whether congenital or acquired) from "normalcy" is seen by ableist society as unfortunate or tragic, the 1960's counterculture's conflation of self-made freakery with an acquired social deviance (culturally linked, via the traditional figure of the "born freak," to corporeal impairment) was similarly seen as tragic. Rock music, and especially punk rock in later years, appropriated the cultural linking of death and ostracism implied by the tragedy principle, but in an almost celebratory way, signifying the form's rebellious countercultural position. From an ableist perspective, impairment is seen as especially tragic when it affects the young, so its imagined presence (as self-made freakery) in such a youth-oriented musical style (and countercultural lifestyle) encourages a romanticization of rock death. Youthful flirtations with self-destruction rebelliously highlight the corporeal boundaries of mortality–and thus the "tragic" link between ostracism and death seemingly befits the countercultural self-made freak intentionally performing an acquired social "deviancy." The rock star as self-made freak as "tragic" figure must, in order to flaunt his/her rebellion and thus succeed economically within the rock counterculture, intentionally perform the role of "the ostracized" as a point of oppositional pride, paradoxically exhibiting him/herself onstage to avoid being erased from social visibility (as "tragic" figures invariably are).

The implication of 1960's rock death is that "freaks," whether born or self-made, are essentially unfit to live in normative society because of their perceived deviancy, while cultural links between freakery and "tragic" corporeal impairment allow an unfortunate end to be perceived as "fitting" for self-made countercultural freaks like rock stars. Rock deaths are considered tragic but also simultaneously romanticized and mythologized, ensuring a sort of permanence in countercultural lore for even those who have died, thus never being erased entirely from social visibility, despite not being able to perform their "freakish" entertainment in life anymore. [i] This solves the seeming contradiction between the rock star's economic need to perform his/her ostracism and the drive toward death also implied by the tragedy principle. The rock star's "tragic" self-destruction (especially tragic when a young person's great potential is cut short) becomes a cause for his/her posthumous celebration as a genius or martyr who sacrificed him/herself for the counterculture by embodying the self-destructive lifestyle to its fatal limits. Whether in disability narratives or in rock stardom, "tragic" death becomes the fantasy solution for those who seemingly transgress against normative society through their perceived difference. Just as impairment is seen by ableist society as tragic because it can affect anyone at any time, the martyrdom of a self-made countercultural "freak" (a performative role conflating impairment with difference/deviance) like a rock musician relates to widespread countercultural fantasies about rock stardom's accessibility, encouraged by the self-destructive hedonism celebrated as the rock & roll lifestyle. Namely, if anyone can achieve rock stardom, then those who succeed as "freaks" unto rock death supposedly deserve our reverence, being brave enough to embrace their own marginalization to the point of ultimate sacrifice.

These unconscious attitudes connecting freakery and rock death arguably descended to aspiring musicians like Ian Curtis. According to Deborah Curtis (1995), Ian loved rock music romanticizing tortured lives and premature death. Most of his heroes had been 1960's rock deaths (e.g., his idol Jim Morrison) who died "at their peak," while others celebrated rock death or self-destruction (p. 5, 7). His strong desire for attention sometimes led him to inflict pain upon himself for others' amusement as a youth, as some of his heroes did onstage (p. 9, 12). Although his only life plans were for a music career (p. 7), he told Deborah that he "had no intention of living beyond his early twenties" (p. 15).

As 1960's countercultural fashions and attitudes were slowly co-opted by mainstream culture (a fate which would eventually befall punk as well), those signifiers of failed rebellion became objects of scorn for the punk movement. Nevertheless, punk's own countercultural rebellion retained the same links between freakery and rock death, using a new style of anti-fashion and anti-music to create another incarnation of self-styled "freaks." Punk took the darker, nihilistic side of the 1960's rebellion and amplified it, favoring chaos and imperfection over obvious musical talent. Exploitative images of disability were not uncommon in punk music, such as Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten's basing of his stage persona upon Quasimodo and Richard III (see also Hawkins, 2000, p. 164), though pub rocker Ian Dury's success is a notable exception.

An inspiring 1976 Sex Pistols performance "reaffirmed [Ian Curtis's] belief that anyone could become a rock star" (Curtis, 1995, p. 37); hence the fantasy of rock stardom's accessibility, linked to a romanticization of rock death as martyrdom. Curtis joined a band later christened Joy Division in January 1978. His early stage performances evoked self-destructive behavior (e.g., slashing himself with glass) similar to his teenage masochism for others' entertainment, but only at shows when his wife was absent (p. 45). The "tragic" and "freakish" rock star's public or semi-public self-destructive behavior paradoxically allows him/her to rebelliously perform his/her supposed "ostracism" (linked to death), allowing his/her economic success and continuance within the countercultural sphere. Hence Deborah Curtis's (1995) suggestion that her husband formed a self-destructive onstage persona to make the band memorable for early audiences, thus attempting upward countercultural mobility (p. 45).

Curtis's early disability experience

Ian Curtis was an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer starting in September 1977, working closely with persons with disabilities to secure benefits and employment for them (Curtis, 1995, p. 51). Memories of this work affected his outlook toward the later emergence of his own epilepsy. As he said in a March 1980 letter:

I feel it more as I used to work with people who had epilepsy (among others) and every month used to visit the David Lewis Centre as part of my job. All the very bad cases are there for treatment or just to be looked after. It left terrible pictures in my mind.... (Middles & Reade, 2006, p. 201)

He allegedly drew some musical inspiration from this day job. "She's Lost Control," one of the band's most famous tunes, was written around this time, ironically before Curtis's own epilepsy was discovered. It tells of someone trying to help a woman with epilepsy who fears the worst when she is unable to control her seizures, and is rumored to be about a woman Curtis had known who died suddenly after a violent seizure. Though he speaks indirectly in the song as the woman, an additional verse was added in late 1979, perhaps as a way to personalize a song originally written about someone else's disability experience.

Curtis's first grand mal (tonic-clonic) seizure happened in December 1978. He registered himself as disabled and was soon formally diagnosed with grand mal epilepsy, its late onset perhaps resulting from a combination of stressors. When grand mal and absence seizures became frequent, he was prescribed Phenobarbitone, an anti-convulsant that would remain the core of his anti-epilepsy medication, and a series of other drugs (Curtis, 1995, p. 70-71). Like Curtis, about 30% of people using anti-epilepsy drugs still have seizures, though the frequency may be decreased (Duncan, 2003). This is why epilepsy treated with medication–and even periodically stabilized and brought under control–is still legally considered a disability (i.e., there is no "cure").

Although Curtis generally maintained a positive demeanor around his co-workers and bandmates, Deborah Curtis (1995) claims that he grew increasingly moody and withdrawn at home about his condition, affected by progressively "manic" mood swings (p. 72, 101); unlike epilepsy treatments today, mood-inhibiting drugs were less common then and not concurrently prescribed. Those closest to Curtis (including wife Deborah, bandmate Bernard Sumner, friends Vini Reilly and Genesis P-Orridge, road manager Terry Mason, et al.) maintain that the anti-epilepsy medication was responsible for Curtis's suicidal depression (Curtis, 1995, p. 72; Middles & Reade, 2006, p. 110). Depression is a dangerous and well-documented side effect of Phenobarbitone. [ii] As Svoboda (1979) notes,

Any [anti-epilepsy] drug may produce emotional instability, agitation, irritability, restlessness, excessive crying, temper, or hyperactivity. Phenobarbital especially, but not exclusively, has been associated with these symptoms. [...] More severe and persistent hyperactive or emotional behaviors may be accentuations of previous tendencies brought out by the drug or may even be a pre-existing problem that is later blamed on the drug. (p. 130)

Youthful personality traits that potentially added to his depression (self-destructive tendencies, idolization of rock death, wild mood swings) allegedly magnified dramatically after Curtis was prescribed possibly harmful medication for his emergent epilepsy (Curtis, 1995, p. 72).

Representing epilepsy onstage

Curtis's lyrics became increasingly dark and his onstage dancing "had become a distressing parody of his off-stage seizures...an accurate impression of the involuntary movements he would make. Only the seething and shaking of his head was omitted" (Curtis, 1995, p. 74). Curtis's somewhat self-destructive stage persona had arguably begun to reenact his epileptic seizures onstage from early 1979 onward, using his private disability experience as inspiration for the "freakish" performative role of rock star. Reviews of the band's live act "were like psychiatric reports, even using the appropriate terminology and references" (p. 73). Though neither fans nor journalists actually knew about Curtis's epilepsy until several years after his death, descriptors like "spastic" and "epileptic" were used to describe his performance (and the frenzied style of punk rock in general), illustrating rock journalism's casual perpetuation of wider cultural conflations between freakery and impairment in the rock star figure. Reactions to his distinctive dancing also resembled typical nondisabled persons' reactions toward images of freakery; for example, one fan noted, "I had previously spent some time working with autistic and mentally-handicapped children and I could not help but (subconsciously perhaps) liken his movements to some of them. I know that some of the audience, less used to the band perhaps, were amused and maybe even a little embarrassed."[iii]

Ian Curtis's live performance demonstrates his willingness to covertly engage in representations of his own impairment that he refused to acknowledge in public, perhaps from fears of stigmatization. Deborah Curtis (1995) notes how her husband dreaded the effects of his epilepsy, whether from dying in his sleep (p. 72), being arrested by police mistaking his seizures for drunkenness (p. 97), or the reactions it would get abroad (p. 130). Apart from multiple references to the embarrassment caused by his seizures, Curtis himself wrote in a March 1980 letter:

The attacks of epilepsy are beginning to frighten me.... [...] Sometimes I'm afraid to go out somewhere at night for fear of having a fit in a club or cinema. I get more nervous when we play now for fear of it happening, it seems more frequent. I don't think I could ever set foot on stage again if I ever had a full stage attack while playing. It gets more worrying with the American tour and lots of other dates coming up. I keep thinking that someday things will be so intense that I'll no longer be able to carry on. (Middles & Reade, 2006, p. 200)

The bleak lyrics of Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures (1979), made Deborah Curtis (1995) fear that her husband "was retreating to the depression of his teenage years" (p. 85). It became hard for her to separate his stage persona from his self-isolating demeanor at home (p. 86). He refused to discuss the specific inspiration for his lyrics with anyone, though he told musician Vini Reilly that they were basically autobiographical (Middles & Reade, 2006, p. 238). Because epilepsy is an invisible impairment, Curtis was neither visibly impaired nor perceived as disabled during his lifetime. Leaving his lyrics entirely up to interpretation kept the autobiographical elements from being pigeonholed as concerning his private disability experience, keeping his songs more accessible to a wider (nondisabled) public. The songs were instead consumed primarily through their evocation of depression–a more common, identifiable position for nondisabled listeners to take than potentially identifying with Curtis's disability experience (had it been public knowledge). Because his impairment only outwardly manifested itself during seizures, it did not cause environmental access issues (excepting the band's ban on strobe lights at their shows) under the social model of disability. Nor did an invisible impairment seemingly deter his drive for musical success–a drive linked to immortalization through a "tragic" rock death, if his choice of early heroes and statements about not living beyond his early twenties are any indication. Moreover, an invisible impairment would allow his life to seem outwardly "normal," heightening the pressure to maintain "normalcy" and become "cured"–hence his positive façade in public and isolated demeanor at home.

Joy Division's second album, Closer (1980), features increasingly personal lyrics, filled with admissions of desperation and guilt, surely somewhat inspired by Curtis's depression and an extramarital affair. There are recurrent references to unfortunate, unforeseen changes that make life unlivable–which seemingly support reading these songs as reflecting the "tragic" view of disability. [iv] This indication also persists in his unfinished prose writings: "Ever since my illness, my condition, I've been trying to find some logical way of passing my time, of justifying a means to an end" (Curtis, 1995, p. 186).

Experiencing epilepsy onstage

The extremes of Curtis's stage persona (and the realization of his worst fears) became unknown to his wife Deborah, for band members' partners were gradually excluded from live gigs (Curtis, 1995, p. 88). She never witnessed the actual onstage grand mal seizures during 1979-1980, nor did she know about them during her husband's lifetime. She maintains that "it was only by eliminating my presence that he had the freedom to work himself up into giving such a public display of his illness. It was allowed to become an expected part of Joy Division's act [though audiences did not know about the epilepsy] and the more sick he became, the more the band's popularity grew" (p. 114). Overexertion, dehydration, exhaustion, lack of sleep, extreme concentration or repetition, and moderate consumption of alcohol and marijuana (against his better judgment) could have all helped lower Curtis's seizure threshold. Seizures emerged during increasingly frenzied dancing during the middle of a set, to the point of collapse (p. 114). Gigs cut short sometimes erupted into violence because audiences thought it was all part of the act, not a medical concern (e.g., "Joy Division," p. 95). Beside the "painful embarrassment" caused by his onstage seizures, Terry Mason claims that Curtis felt guilty over this violence (Curtis, 1995, p. 118; Middles & Reade, 2006, p. 229).

By mimicking his seizures to the extent that actual seizures surfaced onstage, Curtis physically and lyrically performed his impairment to the point of risking real injury. This blurred line gives Curtis's act a grave authenticity extending beyond mere rock star showmanship and almost into the realm of performance art. Because he never publicly disclosed his epilepsy, his intentional performance of its effects was limited to mimicking the seizures through dance, as part of the rock star's cultural role as one who, like the figure of the freak, intentionally performs his/her supposed deviance from cultural "normalcy." Since actual onstage seizures caused Curtis much fear and embarrassment, "performing" his epilepsy to the point of its actual uncontrollable manifestation would not be his intent. Thus he would seem caught in a paradoxical position: expected as a rock star to perform in "abnormal" and "freakish" ways (accomplished through a self-destructive stage persona mimicking his offstage seizures), yet also an actual person with disabilities desiring to keep his invisible impairment private (therefore loathe to experience actual seizures onstage). We can see Curtis as subtly colluding with internalized countercultural attitudes (linking impairment, freakery, and rock stardom) to secure economic and self-mythologizing success as a rock star, yet unwilling to intentionally exploit his own impairment as somehow "freakish." Rock music's countercultural mythos conflates freakery, impairment, and deviance, intentionally exploiting images of disability (for wider sales) by locating them within the person of the rock star (who is rarely ever truly disabled). In Ian Curtis, however, there is a difficult tension between actual impairment (whether intentionally performed as abnormal or not) and the countercultural role of rock star as "freak" (intentionally performed as a punk rock singer).

Although Curtis speaks indirectly as a person with disabilities in various songs (including "She's Lost Control" and "The Eternal"), the song "Atrocity Exhibition" deals most obviously with his own disability experience. Written in mid-1979, when his onstage seizures began to occur, it seemingly divulges his feelings of being in a freak show, applauded for performing his apparent abnormality. [v] "Welcome to the atrocity exhibition," he would introduce the song at gigs, speaking like a sideshow barker inviting audiences to the spectacle. Despite seemingly wallowing in self-pity, the song becomes a sort of oppositional reaction to the countercultural conflation of rock shows with freak shows. The tension between his metaphorically "freakish" rock star role and the actual incidence of his unintentionally "performed" disability makes it noteworthy that during his last weeks, Curtis told his wife he wanted to leave the band and join a circus (Curtis, 1995, p. 121), one of the cultural sites of the traditional freak show.

Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt by Phenobarbitone overdose in April 1980, Curtis seemed to be recovering and looking forward to the future. Then he was discovered hanged on May 18, 1980, one day before Joy Division's first American tour. Closer and the band's most famous single, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," were both released that summer. The remaining band members subsequently formed the seminal dance-rock band New Order.


Those judging Curtis's lyrics in 1980 blamed his suicide on a failed love affair (one of many possible reasons), not yet discovering his epilepsy. Today his lyrics remain consumed without actively engaging the problematics created by that condition–namely the clinical gaze employed by fans trying to discover the causes and warning signs of his death, which could cast a moral judgment upon him (e.g., for the act of suicide, the extramarital affair, etc.). Even the two films (to date) depicting Curtis's life–24 Hour Party People (2002) and Control (forthcoming in 2007)– reinforce the dynamic of a nondisabled audience curiously watching his onstage seizures, with retrospective knowledge of his epilepsy now activating the clinical gaze. This sort of clinical gaze inspires other films about famous persons with disabilities, biographically reevaluating an individual's cultural legacy almost exclusively in terms of his/her impairment.

Ian Curtis's suicide effectively "legitimated" the dark lyrics some critics did not take seriously. Joy Division's music became permanently colored by his death, aided by the remaining members changing their name to New Order, marking themselves as a different entity. Curtis's death also pushed his invisible impairment into the background, and he is commonly perceived as nondisabled; many casual fans still know nothing of his epilepsy. Depression instead takes center stage in discussions of Curtis's life and work as a far more identifiable condition for nondisabled audiences than epilepsy, associated more with social circumstances and existential angst than a corporeal (and potentially disabling) condition with predominantly biochemical origins. This is also because the romanticization of rock death requires performers who do not seem too (read: physically) different from the countercultural norm. Rock stardom unto death must appear "accessible" (i.e., caused by methods counterculturally available and understandable, such as drugs or depression) for reverence of its fatalities as those who sacrificed themselves as martyrs for the lifestyle. Rock death's inherent martyrdom bestows "genius" status upon talented musicians, giving them the air of myth (see Curtis's various obituaries). In his prose writings and lyrics, Curtis hints at martyrdom's ties to immortalization via rock death. [vi] The clinical gaze seeks apparent clues preceding his demise, transforming them into visible symptoms of externalized (rock) death, a marker of individuality elevating him above other counterculture members.

Because Curtis's heroes were rock deaths, the connection between self-destruction and self-mythologizing was probably somewhat conscious, and Deborah Curtis (1995) suggests that her husband secretly followed a semi-planned self-mythologizing process culminating with suicide (p. 137-38). Naturally, that inference is impossible to ever truly verify, just as concrete causalities and conclusions cannot be confirmed between various biological and circumstantial factors potentially contributing to his eventual death. Despite my reluctance to use Curtis as a "case study," examining his life and work illustrates how images and attitudes about disability are exploited in (nondisabled) popular culture arenas, harmfully conflicting with the actual experiences of persons with disabilities. If during his life Ian Curtis felt the public's clinical gaze peering into an impairment that he longed to keep secret, at least in songs like "Atrocity Exhibition" he was able to return that gaze, if only for a moment.

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Thanks to Alex Lubet, Corinne Kirchner, and everyone who responded to my queries about their reception of Joy Division's music. Due to length constraints, additional notes and quotes could not be included but are available upon request to the author.

i Darker rock subgenres (including punk and heavy metal) have long flirted with taboo images of death, such as celebration of rock death and self-destruction. Due in part to Curtis's suicide, Joy Division is arguably considered a formative group in the gothic rock movement, an off-shoot of British post-punk music (see NME Originals: Goth, 2004). Gothic rock placed a greater emphasis on the performer as depressed and sensitive outsider. Sharing the 19th Century Gothic style's obsessions with death, despair, and horror, gothic rock displays what Hume (1974) terms "Negative Romanticism" (p. 109-11). These links to Romanticism and Gothicism were also being applied to the band by fans and aficionados during Curtis's lifetime, such as the packaging of their 1980 Sordide Sentimental single [see the essay "Licht und Blindheit," viewed December 25, 2005, at http://perso.wanadoo.fr/chabrieres/texts/lichtundblindheit.html].
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ii It has been theorized that bipolar disorder and certain epilepsies share many biological mechanisms in the limbic system, sometimes overlapping or being mistaken for one another (see Svoboda, 1979, p. 164-170). Although Curtis was never formally diagnosed with depression, doctors with current medical understanding of mood disorders would easily come to diagnose a depressive mood disorder.
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iii This comment viewed online August 22, 2005 at Joy Division Central: http://members.aol.com/lwtua/c190480.htm.
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iv For example, "Now that I've realized how it's all gone wrong / gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long / Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway / gotta find my destiny before it gets too late" (from "Twenty-four Hours"). Although analyzing many of Curtis's earlier lyrics is questionable because he pieced them together from his miscellaneous writings, the Closer songs were allegedly written very quickly, as if "in a trance" (Curtis, 1995, p. 111). For further reference and exploration, Joy Division lyrics can be found online at
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v Relevant lyrics include: "Asylums with doors open wide / where people had paid to see inside / For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says 'I still exist' / This is the way, step inside... / [...] In arenas he kills for a prize / wins a minute to add to his life / But the sickness is drowned by cries for more / Pray to God, make it quick, watch him fall." Titled after J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), it shares that novel's preoccupations with the body's temporal materiality, suggesting that Curtis saw himself as "an unwilling spectator" (p. 16) of his own body's "freakish" onstage disablement. This recalls Hevey's (1997) argument that the supposedly "tragic" death or fall of a person with disabilities allows nondisabled people to disavow the ever-present fragility of their own bodies (p. 211).
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vi "Perverse reactions, the failings of mankind. What is your disability? What cross do you bear? Will your crucifixion leave a better place for your children, your children's children," he writes (Curtis, 1995, p. 186).
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Copyright (c) 2006 David Church

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