m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

N O V E M B E R  1 9 9 9

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

GREAT talent, then, leads to recognition on a grand scale. And, of course, it is gratifying to be able to command the attention of large numbers of people with a display of one's special gifts and abilities. But behind the performance of the gifted child -- no matter how successful that performance may be -- the original narcissistic wound remains unhealed. This, I believe, is not well understood. 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. We imagine that our heroes have transcended the adversities of the human condition and have healed their childhood traumas by achievement of the extraordinary. We want to believe that they have arrived at a secure place of self-approval; that achieving recognition -- success -- can set us all free from gnawing feelings of self-doubt. We want to believe that if we ourselves could just secure enough recognition and approval from the outside world, if we could feel sufficiently admired, we would be healed and our self-esteem secured. Like the celebrities we admire so much, we would be rescued from the relentless need for validation.

Illustration by Etienne Delessert

But the truth is that the security of the self is never stable. My father never felt that he had arrived safely anywhere. He continued to feel anxious at the height of his success, uncertain that he could maintain the reputation he had won or that he could write again as well as he had written before. His success rested on gifts that he feared might abandon him. And eventually they did.

The famous live with the constant, terrifying possibility that their special gifts or their celebrity will vanish, exposing them as the insecure mortals they are in their own experience. The horror of such exposure is exquisitely portrayed in The Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard's fašade is stripped away and he is revealed as an ordinary man with profound feelings of inadequacy.

Public applause and admiration are intoxicating while they last. More than that, they are addictive, creating an appetite for the heightened feeling of acceptance that comes with being adored and revered. But when the applause was over, my father experienced a letdown, a feeling of abandonment, a depression, that diminished his pleasure in everyday living. After one has been publicly celebrated and is again in the privacy of home, the sense of isolation can be the more acute because of its contrast with that exhilarating moment when one felt like the center of the universe. And there is always the haunting question Will I ever get that kind of affirmation again? Will my next performance (or my next creation) be received with the same excitement as my last?

In a recent television biography of Leonard Bernstein his adult children described the depression that came over him after a concert tour. It was torture for him to be alone. He needed the applause so desperately that it prevented him from composing the serious music he had always believed was in him. The tragedy of his career was that he never felt his work was good enough. He had wanted to be another Gustav Mahler. This revelation touched me deeply, because my father never felt he had achieved enough either. He had wanted to be another Sigmund Freud.

To know a famous person well is to know what cherished fantasies that person has not fulfilled. My father spoke wistfully of the Nobel Prize, believing, I think, that this exalted form of recognition would finally convince him that his work was genuinely important. Yet our house was full of plaques and honorary degrees and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, that had failed to secure for him the true sense of accomplishment for which he longed.

If enormous success like my father's is not a reliable cure for feelings of inadequacy, then what is the road to self-esteem? I would propose that self-esteem is experienced in the context of authentic interpersonal encounters in which the self is revealed and acknowledged rather than obscured by idealized self-images. This is the model of a truly intimate interpersonal relationship, including, of course, the analytic relationship. 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 for making your shameful self known -- that you are still a member in good standing of the human community. You are acceptable for who you are.

When you have created a public image that denies your private experience of yourself -- one that is, in important ways, the reverse of the shameful self -- the contrast between the two creates feelings of personal fraudulence. I think my father suffered terribly because he could not in his intimate relationships be what his image suggested he would be. More than once he expressed the hope that we his children would feel nourished by his success, because he knew that his career had received most of his attention.

Fame does, of course, have a powerful impact on the personal relationships of the celebrity. But it is not so easy to distinguish the effects of fame from the effects of the narcissistic disturbance that motivated the achievement of that fame. My longing to connect with my father was thwarted by his need to avoid feelings of inadequacy -- by the defenses he had developed early on to ward off shame and depression -- and not by his fame.

In the interaction when I surprised both of us by bursting into tears, he was unable to comfort me, and that was painful for both of us. But what made it especially disappointing and confusing was that Dad's fame -- particularly his idealized image as a father figure -- engendered fantasies in both of us: he should be the perfect father, and I should be the ideal daughter that one would expect a perfect father to have. We were both drawn to the illusion of specialness that his public image seemed to offer us. As a result, the experience of disconnection left us both feeling more deeply flawed and ashamed. When we were in public, we often tried to act as if we felt the special connection that we knew his image prescribed. Fame enhances the desire to hide feelings of deficiency. It enhanced the family tendency to hide many things.

More than once my mother explained to me that neither of my parents could consider further psychoanalysis because of their need to protect my father's reputation. She was unwavering in her commitment to his image -- a shared illusion, after all -- and in her distrust that anyone in the field could be counted on to keep their personal secrets. As a result they endured even traumatic misfortune without seeking professional help.

That made it particularly difficult for me to begin my own psychotherapy, years ago. As much as I longed to be the recipient -- finally -- of the kind of nourishment that others had gotten from my father in the analytic setting, I was also plagued with feelings of guilt at exposing his imperfection -- and to a member of his own profession! (The guilt was amplified, of course, by a secret yearning to shout it from the rooftops.) As a result of this emotionally charged issue I had to be reassured more than most about the confidentiality of the therapeutic relationship. I knew how important it was to my father -- and to those who idealized him -- that I not impose reality on a mutually gratifying fantasy that he was the quintessential father.

SO why are we mortals so eager to idealize the famous -- to suppose that the public image is an accurate reflection of the celebrity's private self? Ernest Becker wrote, in The Denial of Death (1973),

The thing that has to be explained in human relations is precisely the fascination of the person who holds or symbolizes power. There is something about him that seems to radiate out to others and to melt them into his aura, a "fascinating effect" ... of "the narcissistic personality" or, as Jung preferred to call him, the "mana-personality." But people don't actually radiate blue or golden auras. The mana-personality may try to work up a gleam in his eye or a special mystification of painted signs on his forehead, a costume, and a way of holding himself, but he is still Homo sapiens, standard vintage, practically indistinguishable from others unless one is especially interested in him. The mana of the mana-personality is in the eyes of the beholder; the fascination is in the one who experiences it.
Freud was the first to illuminate the phenomenon we call transference, whereby we transfer feelings we have had toward our parents to the person of the physician. In transference the grown person experiences the feelings of a child -- a child who distorts his perception of reality to relieve his feelings of helplessness, to make himself feel safe.

Becker expands on this theme: we frail human beings occupy an overpowering universe. We have little control over the forces of nature or life and death. We are born small and helpless, and we continue to feel small, often powerless to affect our fate. Man is the only animal that is burdened with the unbearable knowledge that he will die.

The purpose of setting up figures who seem superpowerful, infinitely wise or infinitely kind, larger than life itself, is to make us feel safe.

The psychoanalyst W. R. D. Fairbairn was one of the first to describe how this process begins in childhood. Every child needs to maintain an exaggerated belief in the competence and benevolence of his parents. Children are quick to deny their own perceptions of reality in order to protect this idealized parental image. When parenting is inadequate or even abusive, the child takes the blame on himself: I am bad, and therefore deserve any mistreatment I get. In this way, Fairbairn points out, the child purchases outer security at the price of inner security.

In adulthood we idealize the famous as a way of sustaining the belief we held as children that we are protected by people more powerful and capable than ourselves in a world too frightening to endure without the comfort of this illusion. I doubt that it is psychologically possible to give up our emotional dependence on heroes. An idealized view of our parents, teachers, mentors, and leaders is an essential force in our sense of emotional well-being and in our capacity for emotional growth throughout our lives. And it plays an indispensable part in social organization and in history. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to acknowledge the cost to interpersonal relationships of this human compulsion to idealize.

I have witnessed the way successful and able adults become childlike in the presence of a father figure, giving over to him their power and authority and diminishing their sense of personal importance in the process of magnifying his. When we grant another person the status of hero, we instinctively protect his claim to superiority by denying our own full potential for empowerment. Too often in history people have exposed themselves and others to great harm by suspending their own judgment in the adulation of a charismatic leader like Adolf Hitler or Jim Jones. And the danger of personal abuse is present in all relationships in which the judgment of one participant is suspended out of a need to idealize the other. Even under the most benign circumstances adulation dulls our awareness of the human dimensions of those we idealize, limiting our knowledge of them and of ourselves as human beings. The cost is a loss of genuine connection between worshipper and worshipped.

But Becker deepens our understanding of what is nevertheless invaluable about transference or idealization as a way of coping with the human condition. He writes that transference is also

a natural attempt to be healed and to be whole, through heroic self-expansion in the "other." ... People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.... If transference represents the natural heroic striving for a "beyond" that gives self-validation and if people need this validation in order to live, then [idealization] ... is necessary and desirable for self-fulfillment. Otherwise man is overwhelmed by his loneliness and separation and negated by the very burden of his own life.... What makes transference heroics demeaning is that the process is unconscious and reflexive, not fully in one's control.
Nor can it ever be. But we can strive to be more aware of idealization wherever it occurs in our relationships -- to make it a less reflexive part of our way of relating. This is the essence of the struggle to release ourselves from our childhood ties to our parents, to individuate, to accept a greater sense of separateness and independence in the world, and to experience ourselves as powerful rather than projecting our power onto others. We can try to be aware of our need to idealize as well as our need to be idealized. How much do we invest in the illusion that fame or success heals? How much do we hide behind the illusion that we are somehow larger than life, out of fear of acknowledging to others how needy and inadequate we sometimes feel?

The need to appear larger than life -- like the need to believe in the superhuman status of others -- helps us to cope in a frightening universe, but it also limits our capacity for intimacy. When feelings of shame are concealed by withdrawal from communication or by the creation of a false or grandiose fašade, the potential for real healing of our childhood wounds, or for the achievement of a more authentic self-acceptance and acceptance of those closest to us, is blocked. Conversely, a willingness to reveal how fundamentally human we really are -- in our feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and shame as well as of personal strength, pride, and self-acceptance -- can help us to feel more authentic to ourselves and to others, and can draw us together in appreciation of what it means to be a member of this flawed but wonderful species.

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

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 - 99.11 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 5; page 51-62.