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Walk the Line: Johnny Cash’s Character Report (Assessment)

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Updated: Apr 27th, 2022


Social work involves the understanding of people’s behavior and why they behave in a particular manner. This often involves the use of various theoretical frameworks to conceptualize cases.

Hutchison (2008) also provides three dimensions of human behavior in his multidimensional model to aid in understanding people’s behavior. These include the biological, environmental, and spiritual dimensions.

These dimensions have to be considered alongside several theoretical frameworks to be able to understand factors surrounding an individual’s pattern of behavior.

This paper thus utilizes Hutchison’s multidimensional framework in conjunction with three theoretical frameworks: biological, feminist and cognitive to analyze the character Johnny Cash in the film Walk the Line.

Background to the film and the character (extracted from IMDb my knowledge of the movie)

Produced in 2005 by James Keach and Cathy Konrad with James Mangold as the director, Walk the Line is an American biographical drama film featuring the early life of Johnny Cash, a country music artist.

The film is based on the lyrics of a song written by Johnny Cash in the 1950s titled I Walk the Line. The role Johnny Cash in the film is played by a renowned American movie star, Joaquin Phoenix.

Through Walk the Line, James Mangold narrates the life of Johnny Cash right from his childhood experience in the rural cotton farms in Arkansas through his career in air force in Germany not forgetting his marriage life with Vivian and his long courtship with June Carter (Walk the Line, 2005).

The film takes a flashback structure, which opens with Johnny’s historic Folsom Prison Concert before the viewer is taken through the “line” Johnny had to walk to achieve his fame.

While in his childhood, Johnny Cash develops an interest in music while his brother Jack Cash is interested in becoming a preacher. He keeps on listening to a radio even after receiving a series of reprimands from his father, Ray Cash.

At the age of 14, Jack is seriously wounded by a wood saw while Johnny is out fishing and eventually dies (YouTube, n.d., scene 1). Ray is angered and blames Johnny for not his absence during the incident. He even out rightly tells Johnny that he should have been the one dead and not Jack.

The first scenes of the film present a troubled relationship between Johnny and his father; something that eventually compelled him to join the air force and leave home for Germany (Walk the Line, 2005). While in Germany, Johnny still dreams of becoming a musician.

Johnny buys his first guitar and soon starts to write songs for his wife to be, Vivian Liberto. John eventually marries Vivian after only one month of courtship.

His contract at the air force elapses, then Johnny together with his wife and daughter moves to settle in Tennessee where he works as a salesman to support his family. Johnny later becomes serious with his music, but his wife finds difficulty in adjusting to being the wife of a musician.

This does not deter Johnny from pursuing his dream especially after meeting someone willing to help him. Johnny auditions for Sam Phillips and is awarded a recording contract with Sun Records. This marks the beginning of Johnny’s life as a music star.

He finds himself in the company of music legends including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on a music tour. This tour also opens another chapter in Johnny’s life. He meets June Carter; the daughter of the famous Carter family who turned out to win his heart.

John sees this as a good opportunity to rekindle romance in his life given that his marriage is already on the rock.

With the help of his tours and June, Johnny gains worldwide fame, but his marriage eventually falls apart, something that drove him to serious drug addiction. June eventually helps him out of drugs and he finally asks for her hand in marriage while at a show in front of the audience.

Case Analysis

Johnny seems to have faced several obstacles along his path to success, but was never dragged down by the obstacles. He finds a way of bouncing back and as the movie ends, Johnny is a happy man who has accomplished all his dreams in life. From the film, Johnny has two significant problems.

He battles with drug addiction for the better part of the movie. His marriage to Vivian also stays on the rock for a long time and eventually crumbles down mainly due to infidelity, drug addiction and his music fame.

Based on Hutchison’s multidimensional approach, Johnny’s story can be explained using the environment, the person and time dimensions. Focusing on the personal dimension, Johnny was born a healthy boy, which allowed him to survive the hardships in his rural cotton farm and even pursued a career in armed forces.

His road to fame is, however, faced with many obstacles, which leaves me wondering whether these hardships influenced his personality.

From the environment point of view, Johnny’s story is influenced by many factors including the family and social life. According to Van Warmer and Besthorn (2010) a person’s behavior is influenced by forces in the family, society and group.

At childhood, Johnny family is composed of an emotionally aggressive father and a loving mother. His marital family presents him with a maladaptive wife, who is against Johnny’s fame as a musician.

The social environment presents Johnny with a couple of peers, most of whom are into drugs. Focusing on time, Johnny’s story is influenced by events in the past during his childhood, events in the present, and his dream for a better life in the future.

His childhood, youth and adulthood experiences must have had a negative impact on his personality, but his dream for fame in the future motivated him to press on.

How did Johnny become a drug addict? Johnny’s drug addiction can be best explained using Berman’s cognitive and behavioral theories. Based on cognitive theory, people develop right from infancy through old age acquiring different beliefs about themselves and the world (Berman, 2009).

One’s behavior is mainly influenced by events during his/her developmental stages that affect his/her mental faculties and psychological functioning as well (Sperry, 2010).

According to Beck (1991), the development of these beliefs is shaped by such important social issues as respect or contempt, success or failure, and acceptance or rejection (cited in Berman, 2009).

These beliefs thus influence an individual’s cognitive characterization of the world and are reflected in a stream of automatic thoughts also referred to as self-talk.

Based on an individual’s cognitive representation of the world, he/she can either develop high self-esteem and efficacy (adaptive) or low self-esteem and efficacy (maladaptive) (Berman, 2009). From the movie, Johnny’s childhood is faced with difficulties.

Along with poverty, Johnny experiences constant verbal abuse from his father, Ray, despite his struggle to please him (Walk the Line, 2005).

Though working hard enough in his cotton farm to provide for his family, Ray’s seems to be angry and emotionally aggressive most of the time (YouTube, n.d., Scene 1).

One such incident of Ray’s aggressiveness that had a significant impact on Johnny’s psychological functioning is illustrated in the early parts of the movie when Jack is cut by the saw mill. Ray becomes furious and soon blames Johnny for his brother’s accident.

He even tells Johnny when Jack finally dies that Johnny should have been the one dead and not Jack. Barely a teenager, Johnny not only has to bear the loss of his brother, but also the guilt forced on him as well as the hatred from his father.

These childhood experiences must have made Johnny become maladaptive. This can, to some extent, explain why Johnny succumbed to peer pressure at the onset of his music career and developed an addiction to pills.

Given the low self-esteem he acquired from childhood, Johnny is unable to question his peers’ behavior, but is rather driven by the zeal to conform to majority behavior. He started experimenting with drugs in his youth, but eventually developed an addiction later in his music career.

Probably, Johnny’s drug addiction was influenced by his desire to escape from the real world. The traumatic experience he had with his father when his brother was involved in a mill accident kept on haunting him and hence drug addiction provided an escape.

Johnny is ever in black attires as if he is going to a funeral throughout the film not because he could find any better costume, but rather because he is carrying the guilt of his brother’s death with him.

Johnny also needed to escape from his crumbled marriage, something he could only find in drugs. From the movie, Johnny’s serious addiction started after his divorce.

From behavioral theory perspective, behavior is learned and can also be unlearned. Experiences in a person’s life can either lead to adaptive behavior or maladaptive behavior (Berman, 2009). Johnny’s childhood life in rural Arkansas exposed him to environment full of conditioning processes.

At home his father’s constant anger and emotional aggressiveness must have conditioned Johnny to develop fear responses. In his village, he constantly watched his peers experimenting with drugs as an escape from the reality.

Given that taking drugs helped Johnny to temporarily get rid of the fear and guilt instilled in him by his father (positive consequence), he must have found solace in drugs and eventually becomes an addict.

Later on in the movie, it takes June’s efforts to help Johnny realize that drugs are not the solution.

Watching his disintegrate partly because of his addiction and June refusing any serious relationship also because of his addiction (negative consequence) forces Johnny to do something about his drug addiction. He eventually quits drugs.

What about problems in his first marriage? Johnny’s marital problems with Vivian can be explained best using feminist theory. It is worth noting that Johnny’s marital problems are largely shaped by external pressures. Johnny has several personal and social identities.

At the social front, Johnny is identified as a famous country music singer, a man who has walked the line of fame through obstacles. At the personal front, Johnny is a drug addict and an escapist.

The time frame of events that have occurred in Johnny’s life right from childhood as already mentioned above also defines his identity. Johnny is thus seen as a famous musician, but also a drug addict escaping from the burden of guilt placed on him by his father.

Vivian, on the other hand, is seen as maladaptive, always bothered by Johnny’s constant absence in the family and his drug addiction.

It is also worth noting that the time frame of courtship between Johnny and Vivian, which only lasted one month, meant that the two got married without fully knowing each other’s personality.

All these define Johnny’s relationship with Vivian and why their marriage is vulnerable to problems. Power also plays a critical role in this relationship. Johnny was brought up in a gendered society where his father made all the important decisions while his mother follows obediently.

His marriage with Vivian is also influenced by gender in that Vivian is expected by the society to obediently follow Johnny’s decisions, whether just or not. It is for this reason that Vivian is expected to be adaptive to Johnny’s constant absence from the home and his drug addiction.

Johnny is also seen to be swayed by emotional pressures into infidelity without minding its effect on their marriage. In short, the gender dimension of the society exposes Vivian to oppression in marriage.

She has to bear with a drug addict and infidel husband while at the same time play the role of a mother to their children. The society expects Vivian to simply be a caretaker in the family, while Johnny has the power to make family decisions.

Since Vivian is not expected to exercise any power at the family level, she has to find other means to make Johnny notice her. Her constant nagging as seen in the movie is not pathological, but rather a psychological way of making Johnny understand to what she disapproves of.

In short, Johnny and Vivian failed to develop their unique marriage, but rather struggled to conform to the feminist status quo. They both failed to consider their personal and social identities, but rather struggled to conform to societal gender norms.


From the analysis above, it is clear that Johnny’s story is influenced both by the factors operating within the person, environment and time dimensions. His problems with drug addiction draws from his childhood experiences and the obstacles he faced in his line to fame.

His troubled marriage, on the other hand, is well understood using feminist theory. Any treatment for Johnny would thus require plans that draw from the behavioral, cognitive and feminist theories as well as Hutchison’s multi-dimensional model.

This analysis shows that people’s behaviors are often influenced by events in their past and present life. It is thus important to understand why people behave in a certain way before reprimanding them.

Completing this analysis was, however, faced with some challenges. There was so much information on Johnny’s case and filtering it out was not easy.

This shows just how challenging it is for social workers to filter the volume of information presented before them in order to develop a perfect conceptualization of the case. Sometimes, clients may not remember details of their past life, hence an understanding of their present may be biased.


Berman, P.S. (2009).Case conceptualization and treatment planning: Integrating theory with clinical practice. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Hutchison, E. D. (2008). Dimensions of human behavior: Person and Environment (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Sperry, L. (2010). Core competencies in counseling and psychotherapy: Becoming a highly competent and effective therapist. New York: Routledge.

van Warmer, K. & Besthorn, S. H. (2010). Human behavior and the social environment, macro level: Groups, communities and organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(2005). Web.

YouTube (n.d.). Walk the line trailer. Web.

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