Matt Foy, Upper Iowa University
This essay examines the thirty-year career arc of professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts by employing a Burkean approach to understanding Roberts’s symbolically resonate performances of mortification. Through performances of mortification both during and following his active wrestling career, Roberts is transformed into a purifying agent for wrestling fans’ collective guilt over systemic “demons” of addiction and human frailty that have haunted professional wrestling and its fandom increasingly since the 1990s.
I want to talk about people who have the world by the tail, so to speak. People that have everything right in their hand they could possibly want. People that have reached the pinnacle of success in their own sports. But what do they do? A moment’s weakness, and they take the devil’s powder, and they run it up their nose. They call it cocaine, say it’s a good time, and their careers are gone…. It’s a shame any man has to be so weak inside.” — Jake “The Snake” Roberts, promo on Maple Leaf Wresting, 1986 (“Jake Roberts Interview [08–16–1986])
“Order leads to Guilt
(for who can keep commandments!)
Guilt needs Redemption
(for who would not be cleansed!)
Redemption needs Redeemer
(which is to say, a Victim).” — Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion (4–5)
Introduction: Two Snakes Entwined
Twenty-five years ago, two contrasting yet inextricable manifestations of professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts grappled to entanglement in the consciousness of wrestling fans. In one corner: the Roberts who appeared on a 1986 episode of the World Wrestling Federation’s Superstars of Wrestling (“Jake Roberts Interview [09–13–1986]”). The WWF, then and still the most popular and influential wrestling promotion in the world with a global audience of millions, is famous for its larger-than-life characters, and Roberts is the promotion’s newest and hottest antagonist. Towering over backstage interviewer Ken Resnick, Roberts sneers confidently and oozes malevolent charisma as Resnick introduces him to the home audience as the wrestler who has climbed “to the very top” of the WWF faster than any man before him.
Roberts launches into one of the mesmerizing promos1 upon which his growing legend will be built:
I am at the top, and I have done it in a shorter time than anybody else, even Hulk Hogan. I have risen to the top, and why? Because I’ve got something else to offer that nobody’s ever seen before. Something that amazes people. It’s a mystery to you.
Unlike the bombastic full-throated interview style of his contemporaries, Roberts speaks deliberately and only occasionally raises his voice, forcing his audience to lean in—too close for comfort to a villain known for dropping opponents suddenly and conclusively on their heads with his finishing maneuver, the DDT.2 This Roberts is the dark antithesis of the WWF’s transcendent hero Hulk Hogan—preaching deceit, self-preservation, and betrayal in contrast to Hogan’s training, prayers, and vitamins—but every bit as irresistible. This is also the Roberts who will seamlessly transition to playing the hero by 1987, captivating a generation of wrestling fans with his promos, smooth in-ring work, and his giant python Damien, whom he carries in a bag and wields to terrorize his antagonists.
But in the other corner is the Roberts who headlined the ill-fated 1999 Heroes of Wrestling event (“Heroes Of Wrestling PPV 10/10/99”). Far removed from peak physical condition, staggering and sounding severely intoxicated, Roberts slurs his words and clings to visibly alarmed interviewer Michael St. John for balance as he cuts an incoherent promo on that night’s scheduled opponent, fellow WWF legend Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart:
You know, you’re a casino (gesturing to the backdrop with the Casino Magic logo). Everybody says, well gosh, it’s a casino, you should gamble. Let me tell you something, Anvil, you don’t want to play cards with me ‘cause I’ll cheat. OK? I cheat. You wanna play 21? I got 22. You wanna play blackjack? I got two of those, too. You wanna play aces and 8’s? I got too many of those, too.
After cursing out the camera operator and finishing his promo, Roberts stalks into the arena to wrestle before an audience of a couple thousand, approximately one-fortieth the size Roberts once enthralled at WrestleMania 3 in 1987.
Meandering toward, away from, and back toward the ring unsteadily, Roberts approaches a fan; he seizes her hands and forcibly fondles his shirtless pecs with them. The match falls apart quickly. Roberts places Damien between his legs and feigns masturbation; the camera feed cuts away. The match is aborted when fellow WWF alumni Yokozuna and King Kong Bundy, scheduled to wrestle later, rush the ring to salvage the event. Neidhart, Yokozuna, and Bundy finish a trainwreck impromptu tag match, nominally involving Roberts, who has removed his trademark snakeskin boots and struggles to stand up.
In his review of Heroes of Wresting, wrestling reviewer Scott Keith wrote the following assessment of Roberts’s performance: “I suppose it would be harsh of me to wish Jake would just choke on his own vomit one night and spare us all ever watching him ruin his life or the lives of the people that care about him ever again, but at the rate he’s going he’s probably not far off” (“The SmarK Retro Repost”). Roberts ultimately outlived Neidhart, Yokozuna, and Bundy, as well as five others on that night’s card. But Keith’s words, a mixture of disgust and sadness, are indicative of the guilt that Roberts has long evoked in the eyes of wrestling fans past and present. Substance-addicted and physically degraded yet nominally evocative of what made him so special, this traumatizing incarnation of Roberts became a wraithlike childhood repression, semi-regularly reemerging long enough for another depressing spectacle of impaired anti-wrestling posted by fans to YouTube (e.g., “Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts Wrestling in the Worst Match Ever”) and a round of fresh guilt over caring enough to click on it.
The tragedy of Jake “The Snake” took a most unexpected twist in 2015 when the world was reintroduced to Roberts in the documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. The documentary depicts Roberts struggling to get sober and rebuild his broken body with the help of DDP, Diamond Dallas Page, former pro wrestler turned yoga guru and entrepreneur of DDP Yoga. The documentary ends with Roberts achieving sobriety for the first time in his adult life, losing over 50 pounds and regaining physical mobility, and being inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) Hall of Fame, effectively bringing wrestling’s prodigal sinner full circle.
What is it that about the story of Jake “The Snake” Roberts that has fascinated observers, even non-wrestling fans, for nearly thirty years? The question may first appear simple enough to dismiss outright: Roberts was a popular performer in a period in which wrestling was booming, and the salacious lows of his descent into addiction make irresistible headlines and discussion fodder. Yet the annals of sports and entertainment history burst with tragic tales of talented performers falling from grace after succumbing to personal “demons”3. And though the genre of rise-fall-redemption narratives in which The Resurrection of Jake the Snake participates is an easy sell to mainstream audiences, the story of Roberts defeating his demons transcended the wrestling niche, bringing the stories of Roberts and Page to mainstream audiences and garnering significant news media attention from outlets that rarely devote attention to professional wrestling outside the occasional spectacular death. Though the form of Roberts’s rise-fall-redemption arc is common among several wrestlers of the era (e.g., Shawn Michaels, Sting, Scott Hall, Lex Lugar), only Roberts’s story appears to have resonated with audiences in ways that transcend both wrestling fandom and the saturated “overcoming addiction” genre of mediated storytelling.
I argue that the transcendent appeal of the thirty-year narrative arc of Jake “The Snake” lies in its power to symbolically cleanse wrestling fans and observers’ collective guilt over the deadly excesses (i.e., “demons”) suffered by professional wrestlers. By employing a Burkean approach to reading Roberts’s public performances, and mediated discourses on him as a performer and public figure, the analysis reveals how Roberts has at multiple points during and after his wrestling career performed symbolically resonate acts of mortification for his sins, doing so in ways that symbolically transform him into a purifying agent for fans’ collective guilt over systemic demons of addiction and human frailty that have haunted professional wrestling and its fandom increasingly since the 1990s.
Narrative Functions of Sin, Redemption, and Mortification
Building on Kenneth Burke’s foundational “Definition of [Hu]man” as a symbol-using animal (Language as Symbolic Action 3–20), Walter Fisher argues that “symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them to establish ways of living in common” (4). Burke identified stories as “equipment for living” (Philosophy of Literary Form 293–304) and suggested that stories can be understood as “strategies for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification [my emphasis], propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another” (304). The stories we choose to tell and embrace fulfill ideological functions: they do something for us as individuals, communities, and societies through their telling. It is through this perspective that I sought out to explore what the public rise, fall, and resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts fulfills. The answer, I will demonstrate through close reading of Roberts's life narrative, lies in purification through mortification.
Burke observed that humans are “moved by a sense of order” (Language as Symbolic Action 15): “If order,” Burke reasoned, “then a need to repress the tendencies to disorder” (The Rhetoric of Religion 314). In our pursuit of perfection through maintaining order, we are compelled to avoid or remedy disorder. When we realize we have become inundated (or have inundated ourselves) with disorder, we experience guilt, which we are motivated to purge through symbolic action in order to restore order and reaffirm the hierarchies that undergird our conceptions of order. We are hailed through hierarchy, authority, and morality to embrace self-repression and to shun and resist symbolic threats of disorder. “If repression,” Burke suggests, “then responsibility for imposing, accepting, or resisting the repression. If responsibility, then guilt. If guilt, then the need for redemption, which involves sacrifice, which in turn allows for substitution” (The Rhetoric of Religion 314). Through acts of substitution—on display in “Rituals [and] dramatic enactments” that “provide us with visible symbols in which hierarchy is built up and in which rejection in atoned for” (Gusfield 33)—social actors collectively undertake this purgation of guilt through processes of symbolic (or in extreme cases, literal) sacrifice. Through the symbolic punishment of a vessel deemed worthy of sacrifice, order may be restored and hierarchy reaffirmed—albeit temporarily, for as Carlson and Hocking observe, we are never able to permanently cleanse ourselves: “there is always something wrong in the world, always a new source of guilt” (206).
Burke identifies two primary avenues by which we undertake our processes of ritual sacrifice: victimage and mortification. Unlike victimage—in which social actors identify a scapegoat, symbolically saddle it with their collective guilt, and sacrifice it so that society may reconvene purified—mortification involves acts of self-sacrifice, which Burke equates to symbolic “suicide” (The Rhetoric of Religion 190) in penance for one’s own sins via the “scrupulous and deliberate clamping of limitation upon the self” (Permanence and Change 289). Moore explains mortification as “a symbolic attempt to purify or atone for pollution or guilt through confession or self-sacrifice for the sake of forgiveness” (312). In Rhetoric of Religion, Burke frames mortification in Biblical language:
“the subjugation of the passions and appetites, by penance, abstinence or painful severities inflicted upon the body,” mortification as a kind of governance, an extreme form of “self-control,” the deliberate, disciplinary “slaying” of any motive that, for “doctrinal” reasons, one thinks of as unruly. In it is a systematic way of saying no to disorder, or obediently saying yes to order. (190)
In order to cleanse guilt, acts of mortification cannot be performed superficially or merely to avoid or alleviate punishment: “It must come from within. The mortified must, with one aspect of himself, be saying no to another aspect of himself” (Rhetoric of Religion 190). In order to understand and contextualize Roberts’s performances of mortification, we must first understand the nature of the guilt those acts might cleanse.
Original Sin: Unholy Unions
“Cocaine, it speeds me up so fast I can’t think about my past. It speeds me up so fast that I don’t have to be responsible.”— Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Beyond the Mat
The 2015 documentary The Resurrection of Jake the Snake opens with Roberts despondently shambling about his modest home. Sitting in a recliner, rounded stomach poking out the bottom of a white A-shirt, Roberts weighs over 300 pounds and suffers from limited mobility. His trademark gravelly voice sounds exhausted and frail. “I was getting tired of people coming to me going, “Didn't you used to be Jake ‘The Snake’? Man, what the fuck happened to you?” The irony of Roberts’s otherwise heartbreaking statement is one would be hard-pressed to find a person who would both recognize Roberts and be unaware of what has happened to him.
The narrative of Roberts’s descent with addiction is well-traveled lore among wrestling fans past and present: his life story reads like a literary tragedy and as equipment for living functions as just that. Roberts’s willingness to publicly and viscerally tell his taboo-laden story positions Roberts as a willing agent of mortification. That he revealed his immense gifts for performance before succumbing to the demons that bestowed them empowers him to serve as a tragically perfect vessel for the guilt his acts of mortification would cleanse.
Aurelian Smith, Jr., the man who would become Jake “The Snake,” was born to his father, influential professional wrestling Grizzly Smith. Roberts was conceived when Smith raped and impregnated the twelve-year-old daughter of a woman he was dating. Roberts’s “demonic” possession by drugs and alcohol seems tragically ordained. He fell into alcohol abuse as early as eleven, a product of living with a “hopeless” alcoholic grandfather (Ackerman) while estranged from his parents. After moving back in with his father, Roberts was regularly raped and abused by his stepmother, who dumped a boiling pot of spaghetti on him for nonverbally acknowledging her abuse (Vela). Roberts alleged that his father was also sexually molesting his sister, who at eighteen married a fifty-five-year-old man before being kidnapped and killed by her husband’s ex-wife.
Roberts’s tragic origin myth as a wrestler begins shortly after high school. While attending a wrestling event with his father, Roberts recalled (Vela):
The alcohol, youth, and ignorance told me that if I wanted to impress my father, the only way I was going to be able to do that is to get in the ring and wrestle one of those wrestlers. So I went up and challenged a guy, and he proceeded to tear my ass apart. Basically after he got through with me I crawled out of the ring and into the locker room on my hands and knees; I couldn’t stand up, I was hurting so bad. And my father was right there at the door, and I opened it up and he looked down at me and he goes, “I’m ashamed of you. You’re gutless, and you’ll never amount to anything,” and turned and walked away. I wanted to die.
Following the incident, Roberts claims he begged the Devil to help him succeed in wrestling: “I would do anything that it took to get where I needed to be, which was the top of the wrestling heap, so I could show my father I was better than he was” (Vela). As in the legends of Jonathan Moulton or Robert Johnson before him, Roberts got his wish, honing his craft in the southern and southeastern territories in the early 1980s before gaining international stardom with the WWF.
Roberts became one of the period’s wrestling icons, his undeniable talents sufficient to transcend his behind-the-scenes struggles with injuries, substance abuse, and a battery arrest for a post-show bar fight (Oliver), all of which would have been unknown to the majority of WWF followers. Roberts left the WWF in 1992 after owner Vince McMahon allegedly reneged on a promised position on the WWF’s creative staff (“Jake Roberts on Why He Left WWE”). After a three-month main-event run in World Championship Wrestling, Roberts traveled the world both as a wrestler and a born-again Christian preacher.
The origin myth and profound impact of Roberts's ascent to stardom is a key substantive component by which Roberts is symbolically transformed into a sacrificial vessel for fans’ collective guilt over wrestling’s demons. Though we often associate guilt as a byproduct of sin, Burke observed in The Rhetoric of Religion that “the circularity is reversible, allowing not just for a progression from crime to guilt, but also for a progression from guilt to crime,” which Burke connected to original sin (224). By virtue of his electrifying talents and the nature of his sins, Roberts was capable of being transformed into what Burke called a charismatic vessel of an “absolute” substance. As such a vessel, Burke writes, “the person transcends his nature as an individual, becoming instead the image of the idea he stands for” (Rhetoric of Religion 277). Roberts’s sins can be read as products of the original sins of the wrestling business—he was to suffer for the sins of the father.
One of the most oft-noted elements of Roberts’s je ne sais quoi as a performer is his ability to entice audiences to suspend their disbelief, to believe his on-screen persona is authentic. In The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, wrestler Chris Jericho said Roberts “casts a spell on you. It’s almost like you get caught in his web.” Page explained: “Jake Roberts is the guy who made me want to watch professional wrestling because, you know what, with Jake you didn’t know what was real and what was fake. You just didn’t know.” Even McMahon, the most powerful man behind wrestling’s curtain of unreality, conceded, “I don’t know that you can separate Jake Roberts the performer from Jake Roberts the person because quite frankly I never knew which one I was talking to. I don’t know that they’re not the same” (Beyond the Mat).
As Roberts explained, his gift for entrancing audiences is born of the abuse he suffered early in life:
At a very young age I was being sexually abused. When you’re in that position, you have to learn how to talk on the fly. You have to learn how to lie on the fly, and you have to make it look believable … because your life is on the line. If I tell the right lie, I won’t get abused today. Guess what? I’m going to come up with a damn good one, and it’s going to seem real. Well, I think that’s what helped me with my interviews. (Cavacini)
That the genius of someone who entertained and inspired so many people is the product of abject disorders of the highest degree—incest, abuse, neglect, addiction—contributes to the guilt-inducing nature of the absolute substance for which Roberts is to stand.
Because Roberts’s tragic origins were not widely known in the 1980s and early ‘90s, fans could enjoy his performances guilt-free. But the guilt Roberts embodied would soon grow impossible to ignore.
Guilt and Mortification, Act I: Beyond the Mat
“Sadly, this did not turn out to be the Roberts fans had come to love years prior: the Machiavellian snake handler had been replaced by a Bible-thumping, sober-living, tubby shell of his former self. (He now wore a sleeveless snakeskin-print shirt, which was obviously a functional decision to hide his middle-age gut but which also served metaphorically as a serpentine hair shirt, an act of penance on the part of the God-fearing Jake for his prodigal heyday.)” — David Shoemaker, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling
Roberts returned to the WWF in 1996, and it is during this period that mass audiences were acquainted with the guilt-inducing image of a suffering, diminished hero. Roberts’s former toughest-guy-at-the-bar physique was now rounded. He began incorporating Evangelical preaching into his character, even exchanging Damien for an albino python named Revelations.
Instead of the cold, darkly poetic prose of the interviews that made him a star, Roberts’s promos now leaned heavily into weakness, vulnerability, and repentance:
Forgive me father for what I’m thinking. You see, you’ve told me, father, that you “let the light shine, Jake. I’ll take care of the rest.” Lord, I’ve been trying to do the very best I can, standing out and saying what I believe in, trying to show somebody else the right way to live. (“Jake Roberts Promo on Mankind [07–20–1996]”)
Roberts’s struggles with addiction became substance for his on-screen conflicts (i.e., feuds) with mixed results. Roberts’s conflict with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin helped launch a new boom period in wrestling—Austin’s industry-shifting “Austin 3:16” promod4 was a direct retort to Roberts’s on-screen piety. But his feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler was memorable for feel-bad moments such as when Lawler beat and incapacitated Roberts before forcibly pouring a bottle of (mock) whiskey down his throat.
Roberts’s in-ring skill had declined, and his born-again persona was met with diminished enthusiasm from fans and skepticism behind the scenes, where he was transitioning from on-screen performer to writer on the creative team (Jake “The Snake” Roberts: Pick Your Poison; Prichard). Roberts fell off the wagon, and unlike in the 1980s his talents no longer transcended his liabilities. He was fired from WWF in 1997, and after a brief stint in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) began toiling in obscurity in independent promotions.
Roberts returned to the public eye in 1999 with the release of the documentary Beyond the Mat, a film that despite its popularity and warm critical reception is best remembered today for its bleak depiction of Roberts’s post-WWF life, and thus constitutes an informative artifact to demonstrate Roberts’s transformation as a mortifying vessel. Released during a period in which professional wrestling had once again captured the cultural zeitgeist, Beyond the Mat director Barry Blaustein set out to depict the lives of wrestlers who were just beginning their careers, at their peak, or on the decline. Roberts was featured as emblematic of the third group, and his portrayal in the film represents one of the first and most visceral mediated depictions of a wrestler struggling to survive.
Blaustein meets with Roberts at an independent show in North Platte, Nebraska. “For a guy who once wrestled in front of 80,000 people in the Pontiac Silverdome,” Blaustein narrates over cuts of Roberts urinating into a bucket and sitting, apparently passed out, backstage, “this was about as far down as you can go in professional wrestling without starting over.” Blaustein stresses: “It was depressing seeing Jake in such bad shape, but once it came time to perform, he could still turn it on.” This tense depiction of Roberts—degraded yet still captivating—reifies much of what in Roberts’s story induces such dissonance in fans. Here, Roberts embodies disorder in that his generation-defining charisma and talents have been rendered impotent due to the demons that entrapped him since his conception.
Beyond the Mat’s guilt-inducing depiction of Roberts foregrounds several recurring elements of Roberts’s mythopoetic arc. Contemporary attitudes toward Roberts framed him as at once (1) inherently brilliant and (2) existentially constrained by his demons. After Paul Heyman, at the time ECW owner, describes Roberts as “one of themost phenomenal performers this industry has ever seen,” Jim Ross, then WWF’s director of talent relations, confirms that Roberts “had [my emphasis] great gifts and great skills in our business.” Ross follows with the following elegy: “If Jake Roberts could control the demons, Jake Roberts could be one of the most influential, creative forces in our industry.”5
Beyond the Mat depicts Roberts struggling to rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter, Brandy. After another independent show in Nebraska, Jake meets Brandy for the first time in four years. What follows is a harrowing exchange in which Roberts admits his tragic failure as a parental figure: “When I was growing up, I swore up and down I would never treat my kids the way my father treated me. And twenty-four years later I look back and say, ‘My God, you’ve done the exact stinking same thing.’” After Jake admits that he “quit learning” how to improve himself, Brandy urges him to begin learning again; “Maybe, if there’s time,” Jake replies, the implication he is pondering suicide palpable. “I don’t know. I just don’t want to hurt anymore. . . . I’m sorry. I don’t know where to go. I’m getting really fucked up inside.”
Years later, Roberts admitted that he resisted suicide “because I couldn’t have done that to my mother or my kids” (Barrasso). From this viewpoint, even continuing to live can be read as an act of mortification: Roberts symbolically sentenced himself to twelve more years of purgatory to wrestle with addiction, a broken family life, and physical agony. Such was his self-imposed punishment for his demons: “I had a life, but I poisoned it,” Roberts lamented in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. “I screwed the fans. I screwed myself.”
Roberts’s professional degradation and personal abjection were revealed to the public during a time of increased public awareness of the real-life struggles of professional wrestlers. Prior to this period, the private lives and human frailties of wrestlers were real but largely obscured from the public save for a small community of enthusiasts. The dawn of the internet and internet wrestling communities (IWC), along with the deconstruction of kayfabe (the code by which members of the wrestling industry shield its behind-the-scenes realities from the public), resulted in wrestlers becoming more willing to discuss, and mainstream audiences and journalists more willing to observe, the private lives of wrestlers. What they subsequently learned was horrifying.
In the years following Roberts’s abject portrayal in Beyond the Mat, Bryant Gumbel would inform HBO Sports audiences that the wrestling industry leaves one in four dead, “victims of a culture defined by indulgence, addiction, and pain” (“DDPTv HBO Real Sports”). Medical researchers (Herman et al.) would seek out factors in what was causing wrestlers to suffer and die before their time. The New York Times (French) reported:
In a 2003 survey of news reports, a medical examiner found that the death rate for wrestlers 40 years old and younger is seven times as great as that of the general population. From 1983 to 2003, 64 wrestlers in that age group died, many of them from heart problems or from complications of drug and alcohol abuse. A rough calculation of more recent numbers, from 2004 to 2007, indicates that at least another 18 under age 50 died as well.
Though the 2007 double-murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit was the most sensational wrestling-related death, the public witnessed a steady stream of wrestlers dying young and/or publicly struggling with hardships from in-ring abuse or out-of-ring addictions in the years following Beyond the Mat. Today, watching a wrestling event from twenty years ago is a trip through a morgue filled with childhood superheroes. For example, the card of WrestleMania VII, the WWF’s highest profile event of 1991, features twelve performers who died younger than sixty and several others who publicly struggled with health or addiction issues—none of the latter group more publicly than Roberts.
Since Beyond the Mat but as far back as his religious-themed ‘90s WWF comeback, Roberts publicly embodied several of his wrestling industry’s systemic issues: physical debility, addiction, depression, poverty, and suicidal thoughts. The degree of his suffering and his candidness in sharing his hardships renders him the most visible living symbol of the excesses and inequities of professional wrestling’s glory days.
Mediated accounts of Roberts’s physical degradation portray the cumulative destruction and concomitant hopelessness of the discarded wrestler’s body and mind: “A series of concussions Roberts suffered while wrestling had causing synapses in his brain to misfire,” The Atlanta-Constitution (Waterhouse) reported. “As a result his hands and feet were stiff and curled.” Roberts also perfectly symbolizes the self-destructive behaviors and the hopelessness from which they spring: “First thing I did every day was get my dope and get my alcohol set up for the day,” Roberts told ESPN (Robinson). “That’s what I was living for, and that’s the only thing I was living on.” “In many ways, he is the sum of his own personal destruction,” Deadspin’s Tom Ley concludes after painting a pathos-drenched portrait of Roberts’s numerous disabilities resulting from wrestling.
Roberts’s own narration of his misfortunes significantly tends to connect his self-destructive behaviors to systemic inequities within the wrestling business without explicitly gesturing toward victimage, as the following monologue from Beyond the Mat demonstrates:
I used to tell myself I’ll never, ever do drugs. Never, no way. It’s for losers. We were wrestling twenty-six, twenty-seven days a month, twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday, catching eight, nine airplanes a week. It was basically a necessity just to continue. You took pills to go to sleep, you took pills because of your pain, you took cocaine to wake up so you could perform. You drank to go to sleep; you took sleeping pills. It’s a trap.
Though Roberts delivers his monologue stoned on crack in the wake of his gut-wrenching meeting with his daughter, he remains committed to self-flagellation rather than attempting to blame others. “I do not feel sorry for myself, OK?” he insists. “If that’s what you’re getting on that camera, it’s wrong. I do not feel sorry for myself. I asked for every damn thing I got, OK?”
The symbolic labor of accepting blame while connecting personal sin to larger systemic issues enables Roberts to serve as a vessel who is appropriately consubstantial with the disorder for which he elects to solicit punishment. Through symbolically resonate acts of “open confession of [his] ‘sins’ and actual or symbolic punishment of them” (Brummett 256), Roberts becomes a mortifying subject who inflicts self-punishment in order to accept and symbolically purge the corresponding guilt.
Mortification, Act II: Symbolic Suicide and Rebirth Through DDP Yoga
“Shame is something you put on yourself. You can’t shame me, man. I have to do it myself.” — Jake “The Snake Roberts, The Joe Rogan Experience
The Jake “The Snake” of the early 2000s was such a poetic distillation of the guilt and disorder with which he is associated that his adult life was closely mirrored in the award-winning 2008 film The Wrestler: the fictional story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging wrestler struggling with drug abuse, his failing body, and his broken relationship with his estranged daughter. “It's sad to say what has happened to Jake is not that original a story for pro wrestling,” director Darren Aronofsky told NPR (Pesca), though he denied taking inspiration directly from Roberts or his portrayal in Beyond the Mat. “We met so many guys who had similar journeys, who were big stars and just didn't take care of themselves and ended up in really, really terrible situations.”
The same year The Wrestler opened in theaters, Roberts was recorded again in one such terrible situation. After allegedly consuming “nearly two dozen” airplane bottles of vodka before an independent show, he stumbled through a one-minute match before exposing his penis to the audience. TMZ reported (“Jake ‘The Snake’ Implodes”):
Backstage, the madness continued. People close to the situation tell us Snake broke his hand punching a wall, then ran into the street crying. An ambulance and police were called to the scene, but Roberts, who refused medical treatment, was not arrested.
Had Roberts disappeared into the night never to return, such an ending could be read as a tragically poetic finale to his literary tragedy, a real-life analog to Randy The Ram’s climactic in-ring heart attack. Yet the thirty-year narrative arc of Jake “The Snake” Roberts had a different final reel.
As depicted in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, Roberts retired from wrestling in 2011 at age fifty-five and was living alone in pain and despair. “Toward the end I got rid of the mirrors in my house ‘cause if I see that I want to punch that son of a bitch,” Roberts recalled on HBO Real Sports (“DDPTv HBO Real Sports”). “I begged to die…. I would curse God when I would find out that another wrestler had died. I’d say ‘why not me, you son of a bitch?’” Roberts attempted suicide by overdosing on valium. “I woke up, and all I’ve done was puke on myself,” he told Joe Rogan. “And I said, ‘What a fucking loser you are.’ You can’t even die right. You’re a piece of shit.”
It was during this nadir that Diamond Dallas Page called Roberts and offered to get him started on a diet and exercise program Page markets as DDP Yoga. Page, an unlikely former World Championship Wrestling heavyweight champion who didn’t begin wrestling until age thirty-five, counts Roberts as a mentor and one of few willing to support him as he trained for a career as an in-ring performer. After a career-threatening back injury, Page incorporated yoga into his rehabilitation, which he credits for getting him back in the ring when no doctor thought it possible. Page’s brand of yoga, which combines elements of Ashtanga yoga and Iyengar yoga with calisthenics and Bruce Lee-inspired “dynamic resistance” exercises, was featured on ABC’s Shark Tank. Though DDP Yoga was rejected by the Sharks, the exposure, along with viral videos of success stories and testimonials from celebrities and fellow wrestlers, helped Page and DDP Yoga become well-known within wrestling- and fitness-dedicated circles.
After accepting Page’s offer “just to get him off the phone” so he could obtain drugs, (“Ex-Wrestler Page”), Roberts dieted down under 300 pounds and, encouraged by the results, moved in to Page’s home in Smyrna, Georgia after Page volunteered to pay Roberts’s bills while he worked to get healthy. Page’s home, alternately known as the Accountability Crib, is The Resurrection of Jake the Snake’s primary setting, the scene that contains many of Roberts’s most resonate acts of bodily mortification: physical mortification through painful exercise, internal mortification through symbolic purgation of impurities, and gestational mortification through clean nutrition.
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake’s most compelling scene of physical mortification occurs early in the documentary when Roberts physically falters within minutes of his first workout under Page’s supervision. Seeing Roberts barely able to stand or stretch with the assistance of a folding chair, Page discontinues the workout. Roberts pursued Page and demanding that he continue the workout: “Had it not happened that way, I don’t know if I would have ever done it,” Roberts told Fox Sports (“Ex-Wrestler Page”). “I was angry and I had just enough pride to get me through that one workout.” This scene sets the tone for Roberts’s subsequent acts of physical mortification through rigorous, often painful, exercise: we view Roberts struggling but slowly gaining strength and mobility, intercut with scenes of Roberts stressing the urgency of the project—“I know this is my last fucking chance at life”—or Page supporting Roberts while admitting to the camera that Roberts is in worse shape than anticipated.
As Roberts performs physical mortification through exercise, he performs internal mortification by symbolically purging his system of drugs and alcohol: i.e., his demons. Within one week in Smyrna, Roberts suffers a relapse with alcohol at the Atlanta airport. The audience watches as Page angrily confronts Roberts; Roberts, after stumbling through the airport and parking ramp without shoes (shades of his humiliating Heroes of Wrestling performance), attempts to escape Page’s car while insisting he is not drunk. The next day, Roberts watches the incident with Page and plaintively acknowledges the mental processes of his addiction.
Roberts begins taking Antabuse, a drug that makes a person violently ill after ingesting alcohol—a public performance of, to recall Burke (Rhetoric of Religion), “‘subjugation of the passions and appetites, by penance, abstinence or painful severities inflicted upon the body” (190). Later in the film, when Steve Yu (Page’s business partner and director of the documentary), suspects Roberts has been drinking and challenges Roberts to ingest Antabuse, Roberts angrily but willingly consents to this act of humiliation, passing the test for the world to see. Though Roberts admits to relapsing on alcohol a few times, by the end of the film Roberts has achieved sobriety and attends weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, having mortified himself through purifying abstinence and compulsory displays of accountability.
Another key performance of mortification is Roberts adapting his dietary intake to DDP Yoga’s strict limitations. The nutritional section of the official DDP Yoga Program Guide includes three phases of nutritional restriction, even the most permissive of which forbids processed foods, fast food or soft drinks, fried foods, and alcohol; advanced performance requires abstinence from grain, wheat, and dairy and eating strictly organic foods. Within DDP Yoga, eating organic foods and foregoing processed foods is both a health necessity and a symbolic act of purification. Page explains to ABC News (Rothman): “I knew I had to get clean, organic food in [Roberts]. When you are dealing with someone at this level, who is an alcoholic, pill head, coke head and crack addict, you need to get real food in that mother——, so he at least starts to feel alive. Not feeling better, but alive.” Page also encouraged Roberts to discard negative thoughts and signifiers, even throwing away Roberts’s T-shirts with negative language: a symbolic purification of perception and attitude (Mooneyham).
Notions of self-denial and self-discipline are familiar elements of dominant Western attitudes toward exercise and physical fitness. French and Brown observe in their discussion of mortification and victimage in attitudes toward women and weight maintenance:
People practice “mortification” through dieting, purging, self-starvation, dehydration, excessive exercising, and other means, including using mealtime and cyberspace as confessionals relating what they do, should, and won’t eat. These efforts at “mortification” reinforce their adherence to the social value of controlling appetite and body size even as their bodies may be perceived as reflecting the [symbolic action] of recalcitrance or laziness. (6)
Roberts is depicted as regularly engaging in what can be interpreted as a campaign of redemptive symbolic suicide. Through continued bodily practice of postural yoga (“painful severities inflicted upon the body”) and purposeful abstinence from ingesting impurities (“subjugation of the passions and appetites”) Roberts embodies a satisfying and guilt-cleansing “deliberate, disciplinary ‘slaying’” (Rhetoric of Religion 190) of the demons he embodied for so long.
It is poetic that yoga serves as the purifying agent in Roberts's redemption arc, for yoga functions generates a rich field of multivalent significance that satisfies both the self-sacrificial and religious elements potent enough to facilitate the most potent exorcism of collective guilt. Neither Roberts nor Page frame DDP Yoga as being religious or spiritual in nature: in his 2005 book Yoga For Regular Guys, Page states, “The yoga I’m talking about is not a religion. We won’t be meditating or chanting “‘Om’” (10). Yet public discourse on Page and DDP Yoga in light of Roberts’s redemption arc lend a quasi-religious frame to Roberts’s mortifications, particularly in light of the dissonance and skepticism Roberts’s audience felt toward his ‘90s evangelical persona.
Bramadat notes that spirituality discourses in contemporary postural yoga frame “practices and perspectives oriented towards an elevation in awareness, wellness, wisdom, healing, and wholeness that typically occurs outside of formal religious settings” (492), all discourses in which DDP Yoga workouts dabble despite the strategic absence of meditation or references to The Lord (Ishvara). Though framing of DDP Yoga as anti-namaste and for “regular guys” would seem a gesture toward separating DDP Yoga from other products in the booming yoga market, DDP Yoga participates in a fifty-year trend of what Jain explains in Selling Yoga as indicative of contemporary postural yoga’s “dominant religio-philosophical mode of consumer culture, which links the self to the body so that the attainment of health and beauty is central to the transformative and transcendent process of self-development” (105). Viewed through the lens of Emile Durkheim’s century-old definition of religion in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life —“a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (as cited in Jain 116), DDP Yoga functions pseudo-religiously and promotes “deep connection between physical and mental discipline, between breath and mind, and even the impact of diet on one’s spiritual awareness” (Malkovsky 3).
Despite Page disavowing religiosity, within the narrative of Roberts’s sin and redemption the program functions as a divine signifier, and contemporary discourses on postural yoga uniquely empower it in this role. Likewise, though Page does not portray himself as a guru of divinity and resists comparisons to transcendental gurus associated with more explicitly spiritual models of postural yoga, within Roberts’s redemption he signifies a redeemer whose “techniques of disciplined self-mastery” are “aimed toward an extraordinary state of consciousness … an ultimate union with the divine” (Godrej 3). “DDP Yoga to me is much more than just doing Dallas’ routine and doing his food,” Roberts confirms. “It’s a way of life. It’s a change in attitude. DDP to me means dedication, desire and positive thinking” (Mooneyham).
Mortification, Act III—An Eternity of Servitude
“I was given an innate amount of talent by God a long time ago…. You guys got a little bit. I’m ashamed to say I wasted a lot of it.” — Jake “The Snake Roberts, during his acceptance speech into the WWE Hall of Fame. (The Resurrection of Jake the Snake)
Jake “The Snake” has remained a public figure since symbolically completing the sin and redemption cycle through acts of mortification. Following his acts of guilt-purgation, Roberts has transformed into a new signifier of mortification: public servant. “When I talk about my addiction and how it controlled me,” Roberts tells The City Pages, “I’ll see someone occasionally push their glass to the side and I think, ‘Alright, there’s one right there. Who else?’” (Strait). Through continuing to tell his story in interviews and his spoken-word performances, his season of mortification continues indefinitely.
Roberts first embodied his new role of sober public servant in The Resurrection of Jake the Snake when he aids Page in convincing Scott Hall, another ‘90s wrestling star plagued by his own demons, to join them at the Accountability Crib. “I really feel like God’s talking to me right now,” Hall states over the phone. With Page’s guidance and Roberts’s support, Hall, too, defeats his demons and is inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2014.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts embarked on speaking tours in which he combines humorous stories from his wrestling days with inspirational messages. The language is often vulgar, and the tone of his stories veers from hilarious to tragic. In one instance, Roberts regales the audience with stories of “Ravishing” Rick Rude being arrested for breaking into a hotel kitchen to steal Saran Wrap for fashioning into a makeshift condom. In another, Damien freezes to death in a car trunk when he is forgotten on a cold night, forcing Roberts to use his decaying corpse in the ring over the course of several shows. Joining him on the road is daughter Brandy, whose presence in Beyond the Mat two decades earlier drove him to tears. Once estranged from all his children, Roberts now has relationships with his children and grandchildren. Roberts has even returned to big-time professional wrestling, debuting with All Elite Wrestling in 2020 as the on-screen manager of Lance Archer, a role he continues to play to fan approval as of this writing. The sordid details of a forty-six-year wrestling career that once evoked guilt and pity have scarred over to signify a new career as a mortifying public servant. “If you really want to get high … if you really want to get the best high you’ll ever get,” he tells his audience while speaking at the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque, Iowa, “it’s not from drinking, it’s not from drugs. Help somebody.”
As this analysis demonstrates, the redemption arc of Jake “The Snake” Roberts uniquely resonates not only due to its uplifting conclusion but because Roberts functions for fans and observers as a perfect sacrificial vessel for the audience’s collective guilt over wrestling’s demons, which Roberts both poetically embodies and played a key role in exposing to the world. The story of Jake “The Snake” is evidence that, despite its marginalized status in the U.S. cultural marketplace as one of the lowest forms of mass entertainment, professional wrestling and the stories and characters it generates function as powerful equipment for living, “proverbs writ large” (The Philosophy of Literary Form 296) that “size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes” (304). Burkean theory provides the critic a powerful analytical perspective from which to better understand how compelling wrestling narratives and characters (and the performers who embody them) resonate with audiences by tapping into their shared attitudes, ideologies, and cultural myths.
1 . In wrestling vernacular, a promo is a speech a performer delivers to the audience intended to develop his or her character or build anticipation for an upcoming contest.
2. The DDT is Roberts’s signature maneuver in which he seizes his opponent’s head, locks it beneath Roberts’ arm, and falls backward, driving his opponent’s head into the mat.
3. Demons is a strategically vague catch-all euphemism professional wrestling commenters often deploy to reference a performer’s struggles with drugs, alcohol, or other vices without specifically naming them.
4. At WWF’s 1996 King of the Ring event, Austin defeated Roberts in the event’s tournament final match. As Roberts was leaving the arena in defeat, Austin cut his now-iconic promo: “You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere. Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16 … Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” That moment helped propel Austin to becoming the most popular wrestler in WWF/E history, and the phrase “Austin 3:16” became WWF’s best-selling merchandise slogan.
5. This tragic dichotomy of Roberts and his demons also serves as an introductory frame to the events of The Resurrection of Jake the Snake. Austin introduces Roberts as having “everything that you needed to be a great professional wrestler and one of the great minds in the history of the business” yet laments, “It’s scary to think what Jake could have done had he been totally straight his whole career.” Chris Jericho says of Roberts, “He’s one of the best, but he’s got a lot of issues that stop him from doing more.”
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