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In the relationship between the public image of a famous person and the private human being there is inherently something profoundly paradoxical. The public image is the reverse of the private person as experienced by him or her self and by intimate others. It might be accurate to say that the public image reflects what the private person most longs to be. It represents an ideal self.
For example, how often have you heard a master entertainer reveal that he or she is shy almost to the point of being socially crippled? David Letterman has talked about what a nerd he felt like in high school, how he couldn't get a date, and how he still feels socially inept, though his television persona is that of a quintessentially cool, relaxed, and witty guy.
Laurence Olivier -- a commanding figure on the stage -- was awkward as a young boy and remembers being looked on with contempt by his peers in school, who considered him effeminate and, he later wrote, referred to him as "that sidey little shit Olivier." In his remarkably candid autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982), Olivier acknowledged that he continued to feel like that unpopular little schoolboy in adulthood, even after he was knighted by the Queen. He was painfully shy and thought his face "weak." He was most at ease on the stage, where he could wear a costume and a facial disguise -- a fake nose or a moustache or a beard. That afforded him "the shelter of an alien character," he wrote, and enabled him "to avoid anything so embarrassing as self-representation" (italics mine). At parties, where he had to appear as himself, he occasionally fainted from anxiety and had to be carried out of the room.
We all know about the deep connection between comedy and tragedy, but I have never heard it spelled out so clearly as in W. C. Fields's pronouncement about his good friend Bert Williams -- that he was "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew." Charlie Chaplin, a symbol of childlike playfulness on the screen, sometimes did dozens of takes for one of the hilarious and seemingly spontaneous little scenes he created. He drove his fellow actors and the rest of the crew mad with his obsessive perfectionism. Those delightful scenes were born of compulsive misery. And, of course, there is Judy Garland, whose brilliant smile lit up the screen and made her one of the most popular entertainers of our time. We now know that she was desperately unhappy behind that smile, and tried many times to commit suicide. Radiant movie stars who have died essentially of unhappiness are not rarities.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Books & Authors: "Darker Than We Want to Know" (January 8, 1998)
"They Don't Know Jack," by Jeff Shesol (December 10, 1997)
Everyone old enough to remember John Fitzgerald Kennedy can call up the vital image that was such an essential element of his charisma. But Kennedy was in truth a sickly man, whose health problems began at birth; Seymour M. Hersh writes in The Dark Side of Camelot(1997) that Kennedy had difficulty feeding as an infant and was often sick. At age two he was hospitalized with scarlet fever, and during the rest of his life there were few days when he wasn't in pain or seriously ill in some way.
How could our image of JFK have been so different from the reality? In some cases his infirmities actually gave him a heightened appearance of health: the cortisone he took to relieve his health problems is said to have swollen his thin, boyish face, making him look strong and robust; the tan that contributed to his appearance of well-being was actually owing to Addison's disease, in which the skin can bronze very deeply when exposed to sunlight. But there were also characterological reasons for Kennedy's powerful aura. Hersh writes,
Kennedy was not merely reluctant to complain about pain and his health but was psychologically unable to do so. "He was heartily ashamed" of his illnesses [an old friend of JFK's told a biographer]. "They were a mark of effeminacy, of weakness, which he wouldn't acknowledge. I think all that macho stuff was compensation -- all that chasing after women -- compensation for something that he hadn't got."This strikes me as a real insight into the public image of a charismatic figure. Kennedy's public persona was constructed around the denial of shame: he considered his ill health a weakness and put on a show of exemplary good health. Laurence Olivier thought his face was weak, so he wore disguises that helped him to play some of the most compelling figures in the history of the theater. Shame, I have come to think, lies behind an exaggerated public image of strength, confidence, well-being, or benevolence. Great talent is often the vehicle for projecting such a larger-than-life image on the public screen.
Compensatory Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Many writers about narcissism (Heinz Kohut, Andrew P. Morrison, and Helen Block Lewis, among others) have suggested that narcissism (or grandiosity) is, essentially, a defense against shame -- with shame defined as a sense that the self is deeply flawed or deficient. To feel shame is to experience the self as small, weak, insignificant, powerless, defective. It is the experience of the self as not good enough.
I think it was just such feelings of inadequacy that impelled my father to seek fame; fame did not simply come to him because he was an extraordinarily brilliant thinker and writer, which he certainly was. But from early childhood on I was aware that his drive to achieve recognition was monumental. When he did anything other than work, he did it because others -- especially my mother -- insisted on it. Family friends learned to treat with good humor his disappearances from picnics or parties to find a quiet place where he could read or write. His brilliance was coupled with an overwhelming need to achieve. I suspect that the full realization of great talent is always fueled by such an intense need. And what, exactly, is the source of this drive? 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.
When a person feels so deeply flawed that he or she cannot imagine ever "fitting in" in human society, a solution is to imagine rising above human society. This is the narcissistic solution to shame: If I am not lovable for who I am, I will have to make people admire me for what I can do -- and that is how I will make sure that I am never abandoned and alone. The ultimate threat of the experience of shame, after all, is that one will be rejected or ostracized as unworthy of human companionship. And the ultimate motive for seeking extraordinary success, power, or fame is to make sure that this most feared rejection never happens.
ET me suggest some of the early-childhood experiences that can give rise to an overwhelming sense of personal shame. One that is common to superachievers is abandonment or harsh emotional rejection by one or both parents, which leaves a child feeling deeply defective and unlovable.
My father never knew his father, or even who his father was. One of the saddest things about that, from my point of view, is that his mother refused throughout her life to tell him the identity of this all-important person. Her stated reason was that she had promised the man she married when my father was three that she would never divulge this information. But her explanation conveys a greater concern for someone else's wishes than for my father's aching need to know. Her unwillingness to tell him even after her husband's death felt to him like a painful betrayal.
My father's way of coping with this emotional wound illustrates, again, the connection between feelings of shame and the need for a grandiose self-image. It was my father's fantasy throughout his life that his father might have been a member of the Danish royal family. Relatives still living in Denmark suggested that this could have been the case, but the truth has always been and continues to be elusive. What is revealing, I think, is that my father found much comfort in the thought that his father might have been of noble birth; thus an abandoning parent was transformed into a source of pride.
The painful fact was that my father's father never made an effort to know him -- if, indeed, he was aware of his son's existence. My father's drive to become famous may well have been, at least in part, an effort to win on a wide scale the attention and admiration that he could not obtain from his father. He may even have had the fantasy that his fame would bring him to this elusive man's attention.
Laurence Olivier's father was present during his childhood but "couldn't see the slightest purpose in my existence," Olivier writes. "Everything about me irritated him.... The slight disgust that he felt at his first viewing of me seemed to me ... to last all my boyhood." Charlie Chaplin hardly knew his father, who abandoned his wife and children when Chaplin was still a little boy. More than one biographer has described JFK's mother, Rose Kennedy, as cold and unnurturing with her children; one called her "a literal majordomo: a management executive rather than a mother." After his bout with scarlet fever, little Jack was sent alone to a sanatorium for three months to recover. That must have been a terrible abandonment.
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. In that sanatorium, Seymour Hersh tells us, Jack, "torn from his parents and left in the care of strangers, demonstrated the first signs of what would be a lifelong ability to attract attention by charming others. He so captivated his nurse that it was reported that she begged to be allowed to stay with him."
Thus is charisma born. Becoming someone special -- being charming, talented (musically, artistically, intellectually, politically), magnetic -- becomes the vehicle for a desperate pursuit of emotional nourishment. It seems the only reliable way to secure care and affection, or to wield any real influence over the feelings and behavior of others. Of course, there is enormous gratification in exercising one's talents for their own sake -- a joy in one's mastery of any highly skilled activity. But I would suggest that extraordinary talent is characteristically fueled by a desperate longing for human connection.
In The Drama of the Gifted Child (1979), Alice Miller wrote eloquently about another kind of abandonment that is common to a great many superachievers. What we need and long for most as children, she reminded us, is to be loved and accepted for the small, fragile, needy, imperfect beings that we are. But when a mother's narcissistic needs are so great that she cannot relate to her child as he really is, she loves her child as a self-object -- that is, as someone put on this earth to meet her needs. Her love may be intense, but it doesn't make the child feel loved for himself. In the context of this crucial relationship the child is actually discouraged from experiencing his own feelings and wishes. Instead he is called upon to develop aspects of his personality, and particularly special gifts, that make his mother (or father or other primary caretaker) feel enhanced. This secures the desperately needed love of the caretaker, but may deny the child knowledge, throughout his life, of his own needs and desires.
My father's mother perceived him as gifted and took pride in his obvious intelligence. She had become pregnant out of wedlock, had been abandoned by the father of her child, and lived far from home during her pregnancy and the first three years of my father's life (before she married my father's stepfather). This was a lonely and scandalous position in the early 1900s. She needed from my father not only emotional comfort but also help in restoring her damaged pride. She needed him to ennoble her situation with his special gifts. She was an intellectual and an avid reader, and shared that passion with him. She encouraged his pursuit of intellectual interests from an early age. He invested his trust that she would not abandon him, as his father had done, in this bond between them.
So my father was well trained as a small child to deny his own feelings, since his emotionally depleted, depressed mother could not be empathic with them. But he learned to use his intellect to connect with her, to empathize with her, and to gratify her needs. It makes sense, then, that as an adult he could be exquisitely attuned to the feelings of others and could, by using his intellect, empathize with and clarify their experiences. Yet his own feelings remained a mystery to him.
When asked "How are you?" he would often look puzzled for a moment, as though unsure how to access information about his state of well-being. And if my mother was nearby, he might consult with her: "Well, Joan, how are we?" A similar consultation might be necessary if food was unexpectedly put in front of him -- perhaps a bagel or a sweet roll: "Do I want this, Joan?" And as for the real sources of his unremitting self-doubt, they remained an enigma to him.
Laurence Olivier was doted on by his mother, who was emotionally deprived in her marriage. She adored her son and had great ambitions for him. He began at the age of five to act out plays on a makeshift stage in the nursery. As long as his mother was at home, he remembers, he "never played to an empty house." As for JFK, we know now to what extent his career was driven, orchestrated, and often paid for by his father, who had been thwarted in his own political ambition. Joseph Kennedy insisted that all his children discuss politics at the dinner table and was determined that one of them should become President.
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. But at the same time it affirms that those talents are a powerful asset in the quest for connection with others. Such a "gifted" child has had the experience of being important to the one whose love he needs most. The grandiosity behind the most extraordinary performances in any field grows out of this early experience of having felt very special to a parent or another primary caretaker.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.