On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 1999/ 20 Kislev, 5760

Robert Leiter

The corrosive
nature of fame

THERE MAY STILL BE those eager for their 15 minutes of celebrity -- something pop artist Andy Warhol predicted we'd all experience some day -- but they might want to reconsider it after reading Sue Erikson Bloland's cover story titled"Fame" in the Nov. issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

The author's maiden name is the key here. She is one of the children of pioneering psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson, who made his name by challenging several of Sigmund Freud's most cherished concepts of childhood development.


The starting point for Bloland's analysis of the corrosive nature of fame is, not surprisingly, her father. As a trained psychotherapist herself, she now sees what a study in contradictions he was. Once his first book, Childhood and Society, appeared in 1950 and propelled Erikson to notoriety, a change occurred in how he was treated by people and, alternately, in how he related to them.

"He became the luminous center of attention at most social and professional gatherings," his daughter writes,"where people milled around him, obviously excited. In his presence they became mysteriously childlike: animated, eager, deferential, anxious to gain his interest and approval."

As for Erikson, fame only added to his dignified public demeanor. His social aura made him seem"larger than life," with"a special air of confidence" that made people think he was"as wise and as comfortable with himself as they perceived him to be."

It was all a sham, Bloland writes. She describes her father as"exceedingly vulnerable," an"insecure man" plagued by"lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy" and"punishing self-doubt." As an adolescent she found it almost impossible to reconcile this"emotionally fragile man, with the public image of the intellectual pioneer who had challenged the authority of the great Sigmund Freud."

The grown-up Bloland has some interesting ideas on why there is almost always this"inherent" contradiction between the public and private images of famous individuals. She uses other examples -- Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin and John F. Kennedy -- who shared the same crippling doubts with her father.

Because Kennedy was sickly as a child, Bloland tells us that his 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."

In addition, those who have written about narcissism have suggested that it is a defense against shame, against the pervasive idea that"the self is not good enough."

"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 do --- and that is how I will make sure that I am never abandoned and alone."

The rest of Bloland's article looks at the terrible cost extracted, from other human beings especially, when fame is courted so assiduously. It shouldn't be too surprising to learn that the author is writing a book on the subject.

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

11/06/99: Humanizing Hitler
9/21/99: Spock's spectacular voyage
5/26/99: America's new anti-Semites
5/06/99: New York (Times) Jews
4/29/99: To tell the truth
3/17/99: Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder


©1999 Robert Leiter