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THE PSYCHODYNAMICS OF EMINENCE, SUCCESS, BEING WELL-KNOWN AND BEING A CELEBRITY
by Robert M. Young
I recently declined art invitation to give a talk in a series on ‘Celebrity’ being presented by CONFER, an organization which presents rather good series for psychotherapists under the rubric of ‘continuing professional development’. The idea for this CONFER series originated from the fact that the main consultant for CONFER had also been a consultant for the 'Big Brother' television series, the most prominent of the recent spate of so-called 'reality TV’ programmes. I had seen part of one of these programmes and was completely put off by its basic dynamic, whereby someone gets voted out every so often until there is a last man (or woman) standing who gets fame and fortune. Indeed, I was asked to be a psychotherapeutic adviser to the series and had declined. It is worth noting that another person consulting to them was exhausted by the work. He did vetting and supporting people who applied and took part, and he became ill from stress and overwork. My reasons for declining were partly my disapproval of the genre, party to protect my professional reputation but also partly fear of getting caught up in the cultural space called 'celebrity'. My fear was that I would like it too much and would get carried away. I said no at the point they said I'd have to appear on the show. I never look LSD in the 1960s, a time when it was not all that easy to say no to it, for a related reason. I feared that I would like it too much and that I would go off my head and not be able to get back to some semblance of normality.
In this talk I want to reflect on some dimensions of being a public person, something I have done in various ways while avoiding it in various others. You may find what I have to say immodest and/or self-indulgent. I'll be sorry if you do. I assure you that I have a serious purpose. Being well-known, eminent, famous, a celebrity or some combination of these makes it very likely that one will be in the grip of certain projective mechanisms, and I think it is important to know where one is and how, if possible, to keep one's head. Being a public person makes it likely that one is in danger of losing one's bearings, something we see a lot among celebrities, of whom it is said that power or fame 'went to his (or her) head’. I am thinking of Caligula, Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Mrs. Thatcher, Saddam Hussein in the domain of world power figures but also Michael Barrymore (a British TV compere with a mad life style), Chris Evans (DJ, another zany British media figure), Frank Sinatra. All of these people became imperious and unable to retain a sense of proportion or accept criticism. It is often said of pop stars that there is no one around them to say no, so they don't have (or attend to) the feedback that normally moderates people and saves them from potentially disastrous and even fatal self-aggrandizement and self-indulgence. Elvis is the most obvious example. John Lennon is another. So are Jimmie Rodgers, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Madonna. Movie stars and other entertainers are also prone to these problems. Think of the self-destruction of Judy Garland, James Dean, Peter Sellars, Peter Cook. Anyone familiar with the life and lifestyle of Elton John or Michael Jackson will have ample evidence of the intemperance, the self-indulgence and the self-idealisation that celebrity can bring. Drink, drugs, promiscuity, tantrums, unbounded sex, impossible vanity are common results. I am an enthusiastic movie buff, pop music fan and student of the lives of eminent or notorious people, so I come across these issues a lot.
Let’s try to look at some of the psychodynamics involved. Why do people bother to seek success, eminence and fame? I once had a girlfriend who was just starting out training as a psychotherapist. She said to me, ‘I want to be known’, by which she meant well-known or eminent. Quite often a major motive for this kind of ambition is insecurity. My earliest memories involve wanting to overcome a sense of inadequacy and to find a way of not being overwhelmed by those around me. I answered back because I was bullied by other boys and by my authoritarian father and was fighting back against being humiliated by people who beat me up and chased me home and by my father, who was a firm believer in corporal punishment for the slightest sign of disrespect. I was something of a physical coward in those days, so I only had my tongue for a weapon. I remember one day in junior high school when some bullies were preparing to put flour or sugar in the gas tank of my motorbikes. A bystander said, ‘I wouldn't do that if I were you. He's got such a sharp tongue and he'll say something that will make you feel so bad that it won't have been worth it’. I thought a lot about that. The bullies didn't do well at their schoolwork; I excelled at it. They were great at sport, and I was remarkably bad at it and always got chosen last for playground teams. So there as no hope for me in football, basketball or baseball, the surest paths to success and popularity in my Texas high school.
Those are some of the negative motivations for my seeking to excel. I didn't want to feel bad in the ways bullies made me feel. On the positive side there were people whom I admired, identified with and wanted to emulate. One was Jimmy Flowers, the state champion at the butterfly breaststroke who was a life-guard at the pool where I spent all day every day in the summers. The bullies were also active there, but in due course I could out-swim them and went on to become the youngest-ever state swimming champion and the one from my school who'd won the most medals -- for the butterfly. Then there were the bullies up the street. They tied me and my friend Henry to a post and shot bee-bees at us. They also tied us in a chair and ran electric currents through us. Across the street from them lived a nice guy who was head of the cadet corps, the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), boy soldiers, an admired high school activity in those days during the Second World War and afterwards, two decades before the US military got a bad name in Vietnam. So I did my best when I was old enough to lake part -- my very best, all the way through high school. I became the head of the cadet corps at my school and Regimental Commander of the annual camp. As a result of that and later membership in the Naval ROTC at university I was offered appointments to both West Point and Annapolis.
I elected not to pursue a military career, but I still had to choose a college. I was afraid I would not get into a good fraternity at a university in my region and would not have enough money to indulge in the life-style of my contemporaries, so I made a smart career move and got a scholarship to Yale, one of the best universities in the country. It also had a famous swimming team, so my achievements made my acceptance more likely. On the other hand, I was not well prepared for the academic work, for example, getting a zero on my first test, so I put my head down and worked like stink until I was in the top tenth and then in the top ten of my class and was elected to an honorary academic fraternity. Next came medical school and a fellowship to Cambridge where I became head of a sub-department and a Fellow of King's College. An academic and clinical career there and at other universities followed, as well as quite a lot of work in television and publishing.
The lesson I draw from my own story is that I can trace lots of my success to desperate efforts of compensation for humiliation, failure or fear of failure. Of course, during all those years I was also having fun, being interested in my work, making friends and having lovers and eventually the gratifications of parenthood and even grandparenthood. I add these experiences so you won't think that ambition is all. Behaving well and making a contribution to humankind should also be mentioned. On the other side, while one is in mid-career, other things easily take second place to career considerations.
I had a reunion in Dallas with some of my high school friends a couple of years ago. They gave a party for me. I had not seen most of them since 1953. In fact, the fiftieth reunion of our class occurred last week, and I was not comfortable about going. A number of my closest friends all had stories not unlike mine. We were some of the elite in our year. One was president of the student council, one was class president, a third was head cheerleader. All three came from backgrounds that were relatively disadvantaged in one way or another and were immigrants into the wealthy suburb where we lived. None came from a locally prominent or wealthy family. How they strove to be popular at school at university and in their careers! All three went to universities in the region and built up contacts while there. They are now leading figures in their communities, professionally, socially and financially. Two achieved national standing in their careers, and one was president of his professional society, while the third got rich as a broker and investor. Actually, all of them are remarkably well off. All achieved prominence by dedicated striving in a part of the world where hard work brings rich rewards. All four of us are well known and eminent, though none of us is famous in the sense of being a celebrity.
Some people will go to any lengths to be or be near a celebrity. Yoko Ono hung out in all weathers outside John Lennon's house until he took note of her. Paula Yates jumped into Bob Geldof's car and promptly gave him a blow job. Marilyn Monroe said of a successful effort to get a film part when she was in mid-career, ‘That's the last part I'm gelling on my knees'. You can come from complete obscurity -- from Hibbing, Minnesota, as Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan did or from Tupelo, Mississippi, as Elvis did or from darkest Ripley, Surrey, as Eric Clapton did or even Brixton as David Bowie did. Working class Liverpool is another unpromising place to be from. However, if your drive to succeed is strong enough you can try and try until you attain at least a measure of fame.
In his book on The Claustrum, Donald Meltzer describes the inner worlds of people who are absolutely, even madly, driven to reach the top. They become authoritarian leaders in institutions, companies, countries: ruthless apparatchiki, tycoons, dictators. Others become ruthlessly careerist entertainers on the radio, in the theatre, on screen and television, on records and CDs. They have a survivalist mentality and are unmerciful to competitors. They absolutely must prevail. What Meltzer has to say about them is that in their inner worlds they are dwelling at the very extreme of the psychic digestive tract, just inside the anus. (This might explain why many of this ilk get called arseholes.) Their ruthless behaviour is a desperate defence against the prospect of schizophrenic breakdown. Meltzer explores the unconscious thought processes of such people with great care and subtlety. When I read this short book my mind was drawn to the biographies of certain public figures.
Let us look closely at some of them. I have chosen the examples I will discuss because they dramatically illustrate traits of personality which are unboundaried, unmoderated and uncontained. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion argues that ‘containment’ is the main feature of a healthy personality. In case you are wondering if I could offer case studies of well-contained personalities, I refer you to an essay at my web site on the personalities of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela (Young, 2000). Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, appears to be such a person (Gourevitch, 2003). In popular culture I refer you to the life and music of the Texan singer and composer, Willie Nelson.
The American tycoon Howard Hughes inherited a large fortune based on the oil drill bit which was used throughout the industry, but he augmented his wealth hugely. He became a playboy, a winner of air races and a film producer who won an academy award for ‘Hell’s Angels' in 1930, a picture about air combat. He co-produced the classic gangster movie, ‘Scarface’ He also produced ‘The Outlaw', in which Jane Russell's bosom achieved immortality. He bought and bankrupted RKO Radio Pictures and designed and built the world's largest seaplane, which flew only once and for only a few hundred feet. He kept a barber on permanent stand-by and parked mistresses all over the place on retainer, as it were, as well as a wife, Jean Peters, whom he rarely saw during their fourteen-year marriage. He owned a big stake in Trans World Airways, and when he sold it he became a billionaire, even more rare in those days than now. After a near-fatal flying accident he became a recluse and settled in a Las Vegas hotel, surrounded by Mormon attendants, the only people who he considered to be honest and trustworthy. None of them gainsaid him anything. All of his business transactions were conducted through intermediaries. All food was handled through elaborate rituals involving Kleenex between the hand and the bowl, Campbell’s soup being the only thing he would eat. In his business dealings he wanted what he waned and bribed politicians of all stripes to influence legislation and government contracts for his companies. It was as a result of Richard Nixon's efforts to discover how much he had bribed the Democrats that the Watergate break-in occurred, leading to Nixon’s downfall. (I'll say here that we might also include the story of Richard Nixon in the annals of ruthless and unprincipled ambition.) Hughes' reclusiveness and his self-encirclement with sycophants were so complete that there was no one to stand up to him and persuade him to go to hospital in good time when his kidneys failed, so he died, omnipotent and pathetic.
The biographer Robert Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes. The first, entitled The Power Broker, was a life of Robert Moses, who became the tsar of public works in New York City where he oversaw innumerable ambitious projects of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and transformed its urban landscape. Appointed to head the parks commissions of New York and Long Island in 1924, Moses expanded the state's park system and built numerous parkways including the Merritt Parkway. With his appointment in 1933 as New York City Park Commissioner and head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Moses built hundreds of new playgrounds and parks, and important highway bridges and tunnels linking the boroughs of New York City. During the next two decades he led a major effort to replace old tenements with public housing projects He was also the main figure in bringing the United Nations headquarters to New York City and for placing it where it is.
Caro says that Moses had the most power over a major city since ancient Rome. By the late 1950s there was strong public reaction against Moses and his aggressive urban reconstruction, much of which occurred at the expense and to the detriment of housing for the poor. He resigned his city positions in 1959 to become president of the World's Fair. Under the administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller Moses lost his New York State job, finally departing from the state government in 1968. Before that, however, had accreted so much power that practically all major public works and redevelopments were under his tyrannical control. Along with this he arrogated to himself special tables at Jones Beach where Guy Lombardo played and at the Inn in the Park, which became a sort of private dining club for him and his cronies. At both of these fashionable eateries he presided like royalty- While giving due credit to Moses’ accomplishments, Caro is unsparing in his depiction of Moses’ imperious and ruthless ways, presenting him as a mixture of public servant and tyrant. The intermingling of arrogance and service is deftly drawn. In his later years it was nearly as impossible to dislodge him as it was to get rid of J. Edgar Hoover, the imperious Director of the FBI, who also belongs in any list of ruthless power brokers.
Robert Caro is now writing the fourth volume of his magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson, a remarkable tour dc force about a man who sought and wielded power with utterly absorbing ambition and skill. As a Congressman Johnson bought elections at will, handing out money from the coffers of a Houston construction company, Brown and Root (now owned by the Halliburton Oil Company, of which Dick Cheney was president, and which is now the favoured firm in rebuilding Iraq,). The result was that many of his fellow-Congressmen were in his debt and in his power. He was once heard to say, ‘I never trust a man unless I have his pecker in my pocket'. Though he was a ruthless wielder of legislative power, Johnson also saw to it that electrification came to the impoverished Hill Country of his constituency in Texas, albeit by way of corrupt awarding of construction contracts. Caro wrote a moving chapter in the first volume (1983) entitled ‘The Sad Irons' about how the coming of electricity transformed the lives of the poor women there. What was sad about the irons is how the arms of the housewives were scarred from burns as a result of heating them over wood stoves. This and many other ways, e.g., no more toting buckets of water from a stream, electricity transformed their lives from ceaseless toil to relative comfort. The subsequent chapter ends, ‘All over the Hill Country people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson’ (Caro, 1990, p. 528).
Similarly, when he was elected (by fraud) to the Senate Johnson soon became the Majority Leader and ran the place as his private fiefdom. He was a consummate wielder and manipulator of power, domineering toward his staff, a serial betrayer of his devoted wife and wheeler and dealer of legislation. He was avowedly a ‘Roosevelt liberal’ but voted as conservatively as his Brown and Root mentors wished until it became evident that he could not hope to be President if he did not do something recognisably liberal. So he turned his unparalleled skills to the project of passing the first civil rights bill in over a hundred years, something no other President had managed since just after the Civil War. It was not a particularly strong bill but it was a beginning. Caro won his second Pulitzer Prize for the volume in which he depicts Johnson as 'Master of the Senate’. Chosen as John Kennedy's Vice Presidential running mate (we could also dwell on Kennedy's story and that of his bootlegger father), the presidency fell to Johnson when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. As President he drank from the poison chalice of the Vietnam War, which eventually outweighed in the public’s mind the positive contributions he made to helping the poor and disadvantaged in his ‘War on Poverty’ and his ’Great Society' programmes. When the public turned away from him because of the unpopular war, it broke his heart. He was entitled to stand again for President but declined to do so and retired to his ranch in Texas, where he drank himself to death within three years.
Johnson was driven by ambition as perhaps no other politician in American history has been. He was among the most corrupt, as well, yet he was responsible for great and liberal legislation in aid of the underprivileged. Caro's account stresses the strong motives born of a deep sense of inadequacy which had led Johnson to aspire so desperately: the economic humiliations his family had suffered when he was a boy in rural Texas and his desperate and ruthless efforts to succeed in school and college. He also details Johnson's total deference to the main holder of power and patronage at each stage of his career, including the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, and the Democratic Leader of the Senate, Richard B. Russell, Jr. His apprenticeships to these well-placed and lonely men paid big dividends. He was as sycophantic toward them as he was imperious toward others. Johnson would go to any lengths to get his way politically and was completely unprincipled about deploying his consummate skills in arm-twisting, horse-trading and outright bullying. He was mocked as a young man in the yearbook of his college for sucking up to the faculty, an attribute which he deployed to get into their good graces and then to get and wield their power.
Nicolae Ceausescu was the communist dictator of Romania from 1967 until his and his wife's execution in 1989. His wife Elena was said to be increasingly the power behind the throne as he became older and infirm. In the increasing absence of any opposition to their regime they lived in a fantasy world of aggrandizement and grand palaces, one of which is the world's second largest building after the Pentagon. At his hunting lodge deer were tranquillized and marched past his hide so he would be sure to get a kill. Elena also benefited from fantastic preferment. When they came to Britain on a state visit she was a warded an honorary doctorate in chemistry by a major university in recognition of her wholly fictitious achievements in research. He was notorious for feeling up the young female attendants who were required to stand around all his residences. Among his fellow communist dictators, in the Soviet Union, Lavrenty Beria, who was head of the secret police and then preceded Khrushchev as premier, was given oral sex by a new young woman every day, and in China Chairman Mao had a fresh young virgin brought to him daily. Among his long list of affairs John Kennedy had a daily swim and dalliance at lunchtime with twin secretaries who he called Bambi and Thumper.
You don't have to be a civic or political leader or even a priapist to be possessed by overwhelming ambition and unbounded bad behaviour. You don’t even have to be ambitious on your own behalf: reflected glory is also a heady potion. Think of Richard Williams, father of Serena and Venus, who hot-housed his daughters into success and fame. They are now one and two in the world tennis rankings. On the other hand, recall the mother in Texas whose daughter wanted to be a high school cheerleader. Another girl stood in her way, so the mother tried to hire someone to murder the rival child. Then there was the American and Olympic ice skater, Tonya Harding, whose supporters injured the knee of her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in 1994. Harding was banned from skating competitions for life. In last week's Guardian there was a story about a father in France who administered poison and soporific drugs to as many as thirty of his sons' tennis rivals. One of their competitors died in a car crash while driving home. It appears that the sons did not know what their father was doing (Guardian, 8 September 2003, p. 15).
I have known a few famous people in my life, and it has been my experience that all are insecure A large ego is not necessarily a strong one. It is just as likely to be fragile. Actors and writers are notoriously so, George Eliot's lover never let her see any reviews of her novels, since they upset her terribly. I was in Cambridge and moved in the same circles as some of the 'Beyond the Fringe' performers. Conversation was never a dialogue. It was as if a set of footlights was lowered and placed between you and them, and you were relentlessly defined as 'audience'. I met one of them years later, and he lectured me on a topic with respect to which I had a world reputation. He urged me to read a certain book. I did not feel able to tell him it was written by a student of mine and dedicated to me. I have also known quite a few academic and psychoanalytic prima donnas in my time - people who preen themselves and dominate conversations. I am thinking of a psychoanalyst who professes to learn from patients but only talks about himself. Another therapist regularly and immodestly importunes to be asked to give papers at major conferences.
Don't get me wrong. I believe that self-esteem in some people is appropriate and also that fragile self-esteem is no guarantee that someone is either arrogant or phony. We have sees a tragic example of this in recent weeks. Professor Keith Hawton, an Oxford psychiatric specialist in suicide, was asked what had contributed to the death of Dr. David Kelly, the UK weapons expert whose suicide led to the ongoing Hutton inquiry. He replied that 'the major factor was the "severe loss of self-esteem, resulting from the feeling that people had lost trust in him and from his dismay at being exposed to the media".
‘Prof. Hawton added: “He talked a lot about it; and I think being such a private man, I think this was anathema to him to be exposed… I think he would have seen it as being publicly disgraced”.
‘He continued: “He is likely to have begin to think that, first of all, the prospects of continuing in his previous work role were diminishing very markedly.
‘Dr. Kelly had begun to fear he would lose his job altogether. That, Prof, Hawton continued, "would have filled him with a profound sense of hopelessness; and that, in a sense, his life work had been not wasted but had been totally undermined'" (Guardian 3 Sept 2003, p. 1).
A number of things strike me about Dr Kelly's death. Some months before, he used the phrase that if there was a war with Iraq, he that an Iraq could see himself being found ‘dead in the woods’ (Tempest, 2003). Some say this refers to his having convinced Iraqis to confide in him about weapons on the understanding that this would avert war. The coming of war might led to revenge against him or to chagrin and remorse on his part. I interpret the phrase as a premonition about how he would feel if he lost face. Surely this is a measure of both the strength and the fragility of his self-esteem. Scientists sometime have to admit that they have made mistaken claims. Occasionally they even have to print retractions. I have never before heard of one committing suicide. This leads me to the tactless remark of a Downing Street official who referred to Dr. Kelly as a 'Walter Mitty' figure. As you may know, Walter Mitty was a character in a James Thurber short story, an ordinary man who lived in a self-idealising fantasy world in which he was a hero of various sorts. You may have seen the film based on the story in which Danny Kaye played Mitty. I have some sympathy for this remark, though not for its timing. David Kelly was in the habit of going to, and perhaps beyond, the limits of secrecy in talking to the press. I believe he thought himself very special and in some ways believed that he was above the fray and not altogether subject to the rules that bind government employees. I am not saying that he was not, in fact, special; we have been told that he was being considered for a knighthood. I am talking about his inner world and suggesting that it was very grand. We can infer from his taking his own life that it, like the lives of several people I have mentioned, was also importantly based on a defence, one which was shattered in. his case. Unless we are mentally ill our self-esteem depends, as I’ve said, on external feedback. We each have our own temperaments, partly from inheritance and partly from very early experience, but the responses of others moderate and modulate our views of ourselves, both positively and negatively. David Kelly got some feedback that was literally unbearable. A letter from his employers at the Ministry of Defence was left unopened when he left home for his last walk. I suspect that he dreaded its contents and couldn’t face them.
I turn finally to George W. Bush Jr. The psychoanalytic writer Oliver James has published an interesting article in The Guardian (2 Sept. 2003) on Bush's psychology. I shall quote extensively from it. I begin by saying that the Bush family are American patricians, It includes generations of eminent right-wing politicians, business men and bankers. Indeed, there is considerable evidence linking the family with Hitler’s regime and with fascist movements over three generations.* Generations of the Bush family went to Yale and belonged to its most elite secret society, Skull and Bones, from which innumerable American political and business leaders and CIA officials have been drawn, including, of course, the present President's father who was head of the CIA before be was President. I also remind you that George Junior became President by means of blatant election fraud in Florida, the state where his brother is Governor.
Oliver James begins, ‘As the alcoholic George Bush approached his 40th birthday in 1986, he had achieved nothing he could call his own. He was all too aware that none of his educational and professional accomplishments would have occurred without his father. He felt so low that he did not care if he lived or died. Taking a friend out for a flight in a Cessna airplane, it only became apparent he had not flown one before when they nearly crashed on take-off. Narrowly avoiding stalling a few times, they crash-landed and the friend breathed a sigh of relief - only for Bush to rev up the engine and take off again.
'Not long afterwards, staring at his vomit-spattered face in the mirror, this dangerously self-destructive man fell to his knees and implored God to help him and became a teetotaling, fundamentalist Christian. David Frum, his speechwriter, described the change; "Sigmund Freud imported the Latin pronoun Id to describe the impulsive, carnal, unruly elements of the human personality. In his youth, Bush's id seems to have been every bit as powerful and destructive as Clinton’s id. But sometime in Bush's middle years, his id was captured, shackled and manacled, and locked away."
'One of the jailers was his father. His grandfather, uncles and many cousins attended both his secondary school, Andover, and his university, Yale, but the longer shadow was cast by his father's exceptional careers there.
‘On the wall of his school house at Andover, there was a large black-and-white photograph of his father in full sporting regalia. He had been one of the most successful student athletes in the school's 100-year history and was similarly remembered at Yale, where his grandfather was a trustee. His younger brother, Jeb, summed the problem up when he said, "A lot of people who have fathers like this feel a sense that they have failed.” Such a titanic figure created mixed feelings. On the one hand, Bush worshipped and aspired to emulate him.
‘Peter Neumann, an Andover roommate, recalls that, "He idolised his father, he was going to be just like his dad." At Yale, a friend remembered a "deep respect" for his father and when he later set up in the oil business, another friend said, "He was focused to prove himself to his dad."
‘On the other hand, deep down, Bush had a profound loathing for this perfect model of American citizenship whose very success made the son feel a failure. Rebelliousness was an unconscious attack on him and a desperate attempt to carve out something of his own. Far from paternal emulation, Bush described his goal at school as "to instil a sense of frivolity”. Contemporaries at Yale say he was like the John Belushi character in the film Animal House, a drink-fuelled funseeker.
‘He was aggressively anti-intellectual and hostile to east-coast preppy types like his father, sometimes cruelly so. On one occasion he walked up to a matronly woman at a smart cocktail party and asked, "So, what's sex like after 50, anyway?"
‘A direct and loutish challenge to his father's posh sensibility came aged 25, after he had drunkenly crashed a car. "I hear you're looking for me,” he sneered at his father, "do you want to go mano a mano, right here?”
‘As he grew older, the fury towards his father was increasingly directed against himself in depressive drinking. But it was not all his father's fault. There was also his insensitive and domineering mother.
'Barbara Bush is described by her closest intimates as prone to "withering stares" and "sharply crystalline" retorts. She is also extremely tough. When he was seven, Bush's younger sister, Robin, died of leukaemia and several independent witnesses say he was very upset by this loss. Barbara claims its effect was exaggerated…
‘She was the main authority-figure in the home. Jeb describes it as having been "A kind of matriarchy… when we were growing up, dad wasn't at home. Mom was the one to hand out the goodies and the discipline." A childhood friend recalls that, "She was the one who instilled fear", while Bush put it like this: "Every mother has her own style. Mine was a little like an army drill sergeant's... my mother's always been a very outspoken person who vents very well -- she'll just let rip if she's got something on her mind.” According to his uncle, the "letting rip" often included slaps and hits. Countless studies show that boys with such mothers are at much higher risk of becoming wild, alcoholic or antisocial.
'On top of that, Barbara added substantially to the pressure from his father to be a high achiever by creating a highly competitive family culture. All the children's games, be they tiddlywinks or baseball, were intensely competitive -- an actual "family league table” was kept of performance in various pursuits. At least this prepared him for life at Andover, where emotional literacy was definitely not part of the curriculum. Soon after arriving, he was asked to write an essay on a soul-stirring experience in his life to date and he chose the death of his sister. His mother had drilled it into him that it was wrong when writing to repeat words already used. Having employed “tears'" once in the essay, he sought a substitute from a thesaurus she had given him and wrote "the lacerates ran down my cheeks”. The essay received a fail grade, accompanied by derogatory comments such as "disgraceful"…
‘The outcome of this childhood was what psychologists call an authoritarian personality. Authoritarianism was identified shortly after the second world war as part of research to discover the causes of fascism. As the name suggests, authoritarians impose the strictest possible discipline on themselves and others - the sort of regime found in today’s White House, where prayers precede daily business, appointments are scheduled in five-minute blocks, women's skirts must be below the knee and Bush rises at 5.45am, invariably fitting in a 21-minute, three-mile jog before lunch.
'Authoritarian personalities are organised around rabid hostility to "legitimate" targets, often ones dominated by their parents' prejudices. Intensely moralistic, they direct it towards despised social groups. As people, they avoid introspection or loving displays, preferring toughness and cynicism. They regard others with suspicion, attributing ulterior motives to the most innocent behaviour. They are liable to be superstitious. All these traits have been described in Bush many times, by friends or colleagues.
'His moralism is all-encompassing and as passionate as can be. He plans to replace state welfare provision with faith-based charitable organisations that would impose Christian family values.
'The commonest targets of authoritarians have been Jews, blacks and homosexuals. Bush is anti-abortion and his fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible would mean that gay practices are evil. But perhaps the group he reserves his strongest contempt for are those who have adopted the values of the 60s. He says he loathes "people who felt guilty about their lot in life because others were suffering".
'He has always rejected any kind of introspection. Everyone who knows him well says how hard he is to get to know, that he lives behind what one friend calls a ''facile, personable” facade. Frum comments that, "He is relentlessly disciplined and very slow to trust. Even when his mouth seems to be smiling at you, you can feel his eyes watching you."
‘His deepest beliefs amount to superstition. "Life takes its own turns," he says, "writes its own story and along the way we start to realise that we are not the author." God's will, not his own, explains his life.
‘Most fundamentalist Christians have authoritarian personalities. Two core beliefs separate fundamentalists from mere evangelists ("happy-clappy" Christians) or the mainstream Presbyterianism among whom Bush first learned religion every Sunday with his parents: Fundamentalists take the Bible absolutely literally as the word of God and believe that human history will come to an end in the neat future, preceded by a terrible, apocalyptic battle on Earth between the forces of good and evil, which only the righteous shall survive. According to Frum when Bush talks of an "axis of evil" he is identifying his enemies as literally Satanic, possessed by the devil. Whether he specifically sees the battle with Iraq and other "evil" nations as being part of the end-time, the apocalypse preceding the day of judgement, is not known…
'However, it is certain that however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoons he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens -- in surveys half of them also agree with the statement "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word”.
'Bush's deep hatred, as well as love, for both his parents explains how he became a reckless rebel with a death wish. He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfil her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self. From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channelled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.
‘As Frum put it: "Id-control is the basis of Bush's presidency but Bush is a man of fierce anger.” That anger now rules the world.’
We have in Bush a glaring example of the confluence of heredity and environment in shaping character and driving people to fame and power. I went to Yale among preppies like George Bush, father and son, and I can assure you that their position in the status hierarchy of the college owed more to their class backgrounds than to their meritocratic achievements. Yale -- as an act of policy and as a shrewd way of ensuring its financial endowments -- accepts some students, regardless of their grades, who are likely to be prominent because of their connections. There was a Ford and a DuPont and a Coors there when I was an undergraduate. In fact, as a recent study of the Yale secret societies shows (Robbins, 2002), they drew by far the majority of their members from people who had attended a small number of elite private secondary schools -- ‘preppies’-- and Andover was ore of the two or three pre-eminent preparatory schools whose alumni were likely to be tapped by the secret societies.
These people were members of a Brahmin caste consisting of fifteen per cent of each class. The rest of us called them ‘spooks’, a term that passed with some of them to Washington to designate CIA agents. On a certain evening in the Spring those chosen were 'tapped' in traditional ceremonies. Someone appeared in your room and boomed, 'Skull and Bones [or whatever other secret society]. Do you accept?' The chosen one as then taken off to a large, imposing, windowless tomb (there are several dotted around the campus), to which they went two nights a week in their senior year and were there groomed for privileged positions in the nation's life. They were sworn to secrecy, subjected to weird rituals and ceremonies and introduced to alumni who were prominent in the nation's affairs. Bush was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and, in spite of his tearaway youth, born to rule. In fact, his business ventures before he became the Governor of Texas were all fuelled by financial patronage traceable to his Skull and Bones contacts. And, of course, his political campaigns were funded by the same elite ultra-conservative economic interest group.
I hope these biographical sketches** have not been too bitty or psychoanalytically under-theorised for you. I drew them to make concrete my explorations of eminence, success, being well-known and being a celebrity. It is an unusual and perhaps even a rare person whose head is not turned by eminence, fame or celebrity. If we look at what's going on from the point of view of psychoanalysis we can invoke the two positions that Melanie Klein offers as the most basic modes of functioning of people's inner worlds. In one, the desirable one, we experience others as whole objects, as people in their own right, as ends and not means. We avoid extremes and try to think and behave in moderate ways. We seek what Aristotle called ‘the golden mean'. The response to guilt is forgiving and reparative rather then persecuting and punitive. Klein called this, rather inelegantly, ‘the depressive position’. Even extraordinary people, to the extent that they can stay as much as possible in this mode of feeling, remain in touch with the ordinary. They remain grounded and, with luck, have some equanimity and contentment about who they are and what they have achieved.
The other position, which Klein called ‘the paranoid-schizoid position’ is characterized, as its name implies, by blaming, by brittle guilt and by seeing things as split into extremes: good and evil, clever and stupid, elite and ordinary. People are seen as part-objects, as means to ends, not as significant others but as audiences, underlings, losers or, at the other end of the split, as critics, tyrannical bosses or feared competitors. Life is experienced as a constant series of possible triumphs or disasters. In this position, survival is under constant threat of catastrophic failure, even and especially at moments, of success and triumph. It is very trying, and it is very difficult, to trust anyone. To embark on a path leading to being a remarkable person is to set out on a perilous, journey. Some are desperately seeking to escape the constraints of temperate living, while a few know that the more they accomplish, the more they need the containment which is the result of advice, critical support and sensible object relations both inside and among one's loved ones, friends, colleagues and advisers.
I want to conclude with a passage from Plato that struck me when I was a philosophy student nearly half a century ago. Socrates is reflecting, in the Sixth Book of The Republic, on how hard it is for a bright, comely and privileged youth to avoid the snares and delusions of fame. He says, ‘And what will a man such as he is be likely to do under such circumstances, especially if he be a citizen of a great city, rich and noble, and a tall proper youth? Will he not be full of boundless aspirations, and fancy himself able to manage the affairs of Hellenes and of barbarians, and having got such notions into his head will he not dilate and elevate himself in the fulness of vain pomp and senseless pride?’ Socrates then asks what will happen if this person is told how hard is the path to wisdom and sets out on it. He will surely be assailed on all sides by those who want to make use of him for their own self-serving and ignoble purposes. The passage ends with a question that I most earnestly I invite you to ponder: ‘And how can one who is thus circumstanced ever become a philosopher?’ (Plato, II, pp. 755-56).
*Web sites linking the Bush family to Nazism:
**I considered discussing the lives of the following figures, but space considerations precluded my doing so: William Randolph Hearst (US media tycoon), Douglas MacArthur, General Douglas Patton, Kerry Packer (Australian media tycoon), Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi (Italian Premier and media tycoon), Jean-Bédel Bokassa (president of Central African Republic, 1966-79), Robert Mugabe, Bernie Ebbers (disgraced CEO of WorldCom), Jeffrey Skilling (disgraced CEO of Enron), Kim Il-Sung (Premier of North Korea, 1948-1994). Each displays the attributes of grandiosity and unbounded behaviour in his public and private life discussed in this talk.
Text of a talk given to the Distance Learning MA students in Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Sheffield on 16 September 2003.
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