Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy

The daughter of an eminent psychoanalyst uses her experience to help us understand the pursuit of celebrity -- its psychological roots, its social meaning, its human cost

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts two and three.)

IT seems inevitable to me now that I should have become preoccupied with fame. My father became famous when I was an adolescent, and his celebrity has loomed over me ever since, affecting me in confusing and conflicting ways. It has sometimes been a source of great pride to be Erik Erikson's daughter, but more often it has overwhelmed my sense of myself -- been demoralizing, diminishing, even paralyzing. Regardless of how it affects me at any given moment, my father's fame is always there to be reckoned with, a powerful force in my life. So I have struggled to try to understand the emotional intensity that is associated with fame as a way of diminishing its power over me.
Of course, I have always longed to feel better understood by the many admirers of my father who assume that they know what it would be like to be in my shoes, who have envied my good fortune at being the daughter of the eminent psychoanalyst. I have indeed been fortunate -- but not in the ways that my father's image would lead one to believe.

And now a book has been written about my father and about our family -- by Lawrence J. Friedman. This is a thorough account of my father's life and work, written thoughtfully and with great respect. But despite Friedman's extraordinary accomplishment in piecing together information gained from archival research and close to a hundred interviews with family members and with people who have known my parents, his description of intimate family relationships and family affairs cannot possibly reflect my own experience -- any more than my description could capture the experience of anyone else, within or outside the family. That the story of my father's fame has appeared in Friedman's words makes it more urgent for me to write of it now in my own words.

Not long after my father's first book, Childhood and Society (1950), was published, I witnessed a dramatic transformation in how people related to him and an equally dramatic transformation in how he related to them. He became the luminous center of attention at most social and professional gatherings, where people milled around him, obviously excited, doing their best to make conversation with one another while awaiting their turn to engage with him. In his presence they became mysteriously childlike: animated, eager, deferential, anxious to gain his interest and approval.

Friends and admirers all seemed intent on idealizing my father, seeing in him someone much more important and powerful than themselves. People would ask me, "What is he really like?" and I knew they wanted their fantasies confirmed, not an honest answer about a real human being. Or, upon first learning that he was my father, someone might say, "Really? Can I touch you?" -- conveying even more directly what magical power they ascribed to his very being. (At such moments I became little more than a conduit for my father's magic; this was one of the many ways in which his fame diminished me and my sense of my own place in the world.)

Illustration by Etienne Delessert

My father was a tall man with an impressive shock of white hair, which gave him a distinctive and dignified look. He had kindly eyes and a gentle face. He appeared to be the quintessential father figure: concerned, compassionate, and knowing. With the advent of his fame he acquired a larger-than-life social aura, a special air of confidence, which nourished people's fantasies about him and suggested that he felt as wise and as comfortable with himself as they perceived him to be. His words, even his most casual remarks, were heard as profoundly meaningful, because of the reverence accorded their source. And people often felt deeply understood by him even in the course of a brief conversation -- the profundity of his empathic responses was magnified by his aura.

Once, when I gave a party for some college friends, I saw the excitement in their faces the moment my father walked into the room, and I saw the transformation in him the moment he became the center of their attention. There was electricity in the air -- a sense that something out of the ordinary was about to happen. And because of the anticipation on both sides, something did happen. It was a charged dance between people with an intense need to idealize and a person who needed just as intensely to be idealized. Once this dance had begun, I found myself wondering why I had ever thought the occasion would be enjoyable for me. I felt deflated by my father's fame -- not enhanced, as I had always hoped to feel, but momentarily invisible.

The idealization that accompanied my father's fame seemed the more mysterious to me because he did not seem personally different after he became famous. To those close to him my father was -- and continued to be -- a life-size human being, suffering from all the same difficulties in living that had plagued him in the years before his celebrity. Despite his brilliance as an analyst and a writer, and his great charisma, he was an insecure man, described as "exceedingly vulnerable" by his friend the analyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson in a reminiscence about him after his death. He evoked in those closest to him a wish to comfort and reassure him; to make him feel that he was worthy and lovable; to help him wrestle with his lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy, his punishing self-doubt.

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