Why did John Lennon largely ignore his first son Julian?
Written by [email protected] on November 23, 2020
Allow me to preface this answer by pointing out that there is no excuse or justification for John Lennon’s neglect of his first son, Julian. It remains one of John’s most grievous mistakes, and it certainly caused a great deal of pain to Julian.
That said, this question seeks an answer for why, and I can think of a number of potential contributing factors.
For one, as many have noted, Julian was not a planned child. He was conceived just prior to the onset of Beatlemania, when, frankly, John was in a terrible position to be a father. Some of this was beyond John’s control, although he certainly handled what was within his control very poorly. John was always touring and recording and such and was in and out of the lives of Julian and his first wife, Cynthia.
Circa 1967 John met and began a relationship with Yoko Ono. As far as I understand it, John’s divorce with Cynthia was pretty messy, and his early relationship with Yoko was, of course, very intense. John became increasingly focused on his political ideals and efforts of activism. Julian was sidelined.
Flash forward to 1970, when John and Yoko moved to the United States. John continued to be very outspoken politically, and he was eventually targeted by Nixon’s administration. He was stalked and harassed, and his immigration status was invalidated on questionable grounds. He spent a number of years combating this in court and eventually won, but until this was resolved, John would have had great difficulty returning to the United States if he had left.
That is probably the most sympathetic angle: John missed out key years in Julian’s development because he was sort of stuck in the United States. In fact, something similar happened to John’s own father, a sailor whose on-and-off relationship with his son was more or less destroyed after a series of wild mishaps and misfortunes kept him halfway around the world for far longer than he intended. At the same time, it is also true that John did not make much effort to reconnect with Julian once his immigration business was settled, though it is probably true to some extent that the relationship had been irrevocably damaged at that point.
Then, in 1975, Yoko Ono gave birth to Sean Lennon, John’s second son. By all accounts, John was considerably more loving and present with Sean than he had been with Julian. I, among others, see this as a major improvement in John’s behavior, but from the perspective of Julian, who was maybe twelve or thirteen at this point—and was aware of his father loving and caring for another child with an attention that he did not receive—I can see that in some respects it made matters worse. Julian has suggested the possibility that John felt embarrassed and ashamed of his past failures as a father and thus kind of shut out his first family to evade these feelings and focus his efforts where he had a clean slate. Julian has said this is no excuse, and he is right—in strictly descriptive terms, however, I adhere to this version of the narrative.
Something that makes John’s abandonment of Julian difficult to examine is that there is no clear-cut moment at which point John walked out on Julian. I don’t believe that he made the conscious decision to do so—I believe he and Cynthia went their separate ways, and he was genuinely focused elsewhere for a bit before the weeks had become months and years and then almost two decades. It is also true that John was never *entirely* out of the picture, and Julian has remarked more recently that he and John had some good times together in the mid-seventies when John’s girlfriend May Pang (during his separation from Yoko) encouraged him to see Julian and arranged a handful of visits. Perhaps John is not an exceptional case in this regard, and that many parents who abandon their children do so gradually without necessarily strictly “intending” to. I don’t know enough to say, but for what it is or isn’t worth, I do believe that John’s greatest sin with Julian was a severe failure to be proactive in his fatherhood, rather than a conscious decision to abandon his son.
Finally, I need to say a thing or two about John’s infamous “born from a bottle of whiskey” comment (consult Google for an exact quote, but basically John said this about Julian in his 1980 interview with Playboy). Obviously, it was wrong of John to make such a hurtful statement. But I feel this comment is too often stripped from its context and used to make insinuations about John’s private thoughts and feelings that I don’t believe are accurate. If you read the full quote, John provides this as an explanation for his poor parenting to Julian as contrasted with his relatively good parenting to Sean, suggesting that parents are generally better parents when they have planned children than when they have unplanned children (I imagine there is some truth to that). John explicitly states in this quote that he does not love Julian any less for being an unplanned child, and that his intention in saying it so bluntly is to be honest, not hurtful. Of course, it WAS a rather hurtful thing to say, and I need to be clear again in saying that I do not condone or excuse John saying this, regardless of his intentions. But many folks see this as indicating that John never loved or wanted Julian, and I don’t believe that to be true. In my view, John’s comment was thoughtless rather than malicious—one example of how his tendency to be overly transparent was not always a good thing, but not an indication that he hated Julian or didn’t want him. (Of course, I don’t blame Julian for taking it that way.)
I admit that I love John Lennon, and am sympathetic to him, and I’ve done my best to temper that as best I can with an honest admission of the hard truths of the situation. Obviously, whatever his intentions were, John fucked up pretty tremendously in his efforts (or lack thereof) to raise his first son. I’ve given you my take on some potential reasons why.
(It would seem a reasonable “post-script” to point out that of course, we cannot know with certainty the shape John’s relationship with Julian would have taken had John not been murdered. Julian was near grown by that point, so it was too late for John to have had a stronger hand in his upbringing, but Julian may have been able to have had a more meaningful relationship with his father in adulthood. In the same interview in which he made the “whiskey bottle” comment, John explicitly expressed a hope and belief that he and Julian would have “a relationship” “in the future.” Tragically, we will never know how things might have turned out.)
[EDIT (10/14/2020)]: Thank you all for the sustained attention this answer has received! I am happy that this has resonated with so many of you who either love John and struggle grappling with his imperfections or who simply wanted to understand out of compassion for Julian. And also to those who disagree with me or leave snarky comments about how I’m being “too kind.” You’re all welcome! Ha ha.
At some point, I would like to go through and give this post a good polish/edit. A couple of you have brought to my attention where I got the details slightly wrong (notably on the parallel between Julian’s conception/birth and the Beatles’ rise to fame), and I would like to correct what I can, when I can. At the present moment, though, I will simply say sorry for any inconsistencies or inaccuracies, and I appreciate you bringing them to my attention. Please continue to do so, and thanks again for reading!