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Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy

Illustration by Etienne Delessert

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

by Sue Erikson Bloland

(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.
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Related links:

Erik Erikson's 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development
A brief biography of Erikson, a description of his theories and of each of the eight developmental stages he identified, recommended reading, and related links.

The Sigmund Freud Museum
Photographs, a timeline of his life, an introduction to his theories, and videos and soundclips of interviews with him. Posted by the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna.

Carl Gustav Jung Homepage
An introduction to his theories, a regularly updated index of new articles about Jungian psychology, a discussion board, notices about seminars and conferences, and related links.

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 -- Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson, 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.

Once, during my adolescence, when Dad and I were alone together, I burst into tears -- brokenhearted over the abrupt ending of a teenage romance. I remember the look of terror and grief on his face -- terror because in the context of the family he did not feel like an adult with the ability to soothe and comfort. For these vital functions he looked always to my mother, who was in his eyes the ultimate source of strength and wisdom within the family (if not the universe), the real healer, the solver of all problems both practical and personal. On this occasion he could not call to her, as he normally would in anything remotely like a crisis, "Joan!" Grief was in his face precisely because he felt so powerless to comfort someone he loved who clearly needed and longed to be comforted by him.

I have recently read a letter that Dad wrote to my brother Jon in the early 1960s, acknowledging how little he had been involved with us when we were children. He wrote,

I left (and always have left) too much to Mom. This ... had to do with my being an immigrant. She knew everything about this country, from the worth of a dollar to the needs of American children. And I honestly believed that I could not be of much use to you.
This is a touching statement about his real feelings as a father, but I don't believe that his being an immigrant was the heart of the matter. I think he felt personally ineffectual long before he came to the United States, and had invested my mother with such authority from their first meeting, in Vienna. (My mother, a Canadian by birth, had lived for a number of years in the United States.)

Indeed, my father's self-explanations often struck me as shallow for a man of such deep insight into the emotional lives of others, and I could not help feeling that his brief analysis with Anna Freud had been inadequate for someone who was to make psychoanalysis his life. It was brought to a premature end when my parents emigrated from Vienna to the United States. He never again sought emotional relief, or clarification of his feelings, from psychoanalysis or any other form of psychotherapy. This reflects, I think, his fear of knowing himself, and it perpetuated his limited understanding of his closest relationships and of the sources of his own deepest pain.

That moment in which I sought his comfort illustrates the dilemma of my relationship with my famous father. On that occasion I had been seduced momentarily by the public image, and had asked for something that I knew (and had always known) he could not give -- as much as he longed to. The pain this caused him seemed to me much greater than my adolescent suffering, and I felt terrible for having reminded him of his feelings of inadequacy.

I also experienced once again bewilderment that the psychoanalyst who had become famous for understanding and helping people (particularly children and adolescents), and for writing about them with such insight and compassion, was so frightened by my adolescent needs. If he was overwhelmed by my needs, what did that say about me? I redoubled my efforts to protect him from any feelings of mine that might bring that pained expression to his face, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.


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

Sue Erikson Bloland is a member of the faculty of the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Illustrations by Etienne Delessert.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy - 99.11; Volume 284, No. 5; page 51-62.