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The Power and Cost of Fame December 31, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in The Power and Cost of Fame.
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Sue Erikson Boland, daughter of the eminent psychoanalyst and author, Erik Erikson, struggled through most of her life to reconcile the larger than life image of her famous father with the fragile and insecure man she knew him to be.  As a result, she believes that she has “come to understand something general about the nature of fame,” which she outlines in an essay entitled “Fame: the Power and Cost of a Fantasy,” published in “The Atlantic Monthly,” (November 1999).

 

Although she has enormous respect for her father’s brilliance and his accomplishments, she believes that his strong need to strive to be famous and enjoy the fruits of such fame had its origin in a deeply felt sense of “personal inadequacy” and “punishing self-doubt.”  She has come to the conclusion that it is “shame,” which she defines as “a sense that the self is deeply flawed or deficient,” that “lies behind an exaggerated public image of strength, confidence, well-being, or benevolence” that characterizes famous individuals; and that what lies behind the powerful drive for fame is “an early experience of shame so overwhelming to the sense of self that to become someone extraordinary seems the only way to defend against it.”

 

In discussing the life of her father and other famous individuals, Boland shows how “abandonment or harsh emotional rejection by one or both parents, which leaves a child feeling deeply defective and unlovable,” and parents whose own narcissistic needs overpower the needs of their children, can be the source for the drive to achieve fame.

 

In the case of her father, Erik Erikson, he was raised by a step-father and a mother who refused to tell who is real father was.  Because of the shame and scandal of having a child out of wedlock and being abandoned by its father, Erikson’s mother she needed from her son “emotional comfort,” and “help in restoring her lost pride.”  She needed him to “ennoble her situation with his special gifts,” and she encouraged his pursuit of intellectual interests at an early age.  Boland concludes that “my father was well trained as a small child to deny his own feelings … but he learned to use his intellect to connect with her … and to gratify her needs.”

 

Boland also discusses the early experiences of Laurence Olivier, whose father was extremely disapproving; Charlie Chaplin, who was abandoned by his father at a young age; and JFK, whose mother, Rose Kennedy, was “cold and unnurturing” and a “management executive rather than a mother,” and whose father, who had been thwarted in his own political ambition, was determined that one of his sons should become President.

 

 She concludes: “This kind of childhood experience can easily give rise to the belief (part conscious, part unconscious) that in order to secure the love and loyalty of important others, the rejected child must be or do something very special … Thus is charisma born.  Becoming someone special – being charming, talented … magnetic – becomes the vehicle for a desperate pursuit of emotional nourishment.”  And she adds: “When a parent’s feelings of self-worth depend on the accomplishments of a child, this reinforces the child’s belief that only his exceptional abilities can be relied on to secure the love of someone important to his survival.”

 

Boland’s fundamental thesis is that the achievement of fame proves to be a hollow victory.  In the case of her father, she goes into detail to describe the depression and anxiety he suffered when he was out of the spotlight and how he never felt satisfied with his achievements.  In spite of a house full of honorary degrees and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, he agonized over the fact that he failed to win the Nobel! 

 

She states: “Behind the performance of the gifted child – no matter how successful … – the original narcissistic wound remains unhealed … Fame is not a successful defense against feelings of inadequacy.  It only appears to be.  This is where the greatest distortion lies in our idealization of the famous.”

 

Boland even suggests that her father’s own brief personal analysis, with Anna Freud, which was cut short by his departure from Vienna, was inadequate for the needs of a leader in his field.  She claims that he never again sought “emotional relief” or “clarification of his feelings” from any other analyst.  The price paid for this was not only Erikson’s own “fear of knowing himself … his limited understanding of his closest relationships and the sources of his own deepest pain.”  It rendered him, according to his daughter, incapable of meeting her emotional needs in adolescence.  His fame also made it necessary for her and her mother to avoid seeking help for him or themselves in order to protect his sacred image. 

 

Boland suggests that the idealization of famous people is inevitable, given human insecurity and the sure knowledge of death.  While it does help to make us feel safe in an unsafe universe, yielding power and authority to idealized individuals can lead to dangerous self limitation and even authoritarian dictatorship.

 

For Boland, true self esteem is achieved where the true self is revealed and not concealed behind an idealized image.  “The real cure for shame is a gradual willingness to expose to others what you are most ashamed of, and the discovery that you will not be cast out …that you are acceptable for who you are.”

 

And from what we have learned about the real Erik Erikson from his own

daughter, one is reminded of the classic refrain: “Physician, heal thyself.”

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