Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Book Review. In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson by Sue Erikson Bloland, 2005, 219 pages.

Commentors and contributors to TM-Free have been recommending relevant books for some time. I have recently read a few of these, and thought you might enjoy some book reviews. This review is fourth in a series.

Erik H. Erikson, Ph.D., was a renowned psychologist of the "second generation" after Freud. He was a child psychologist, author and theorist. He added to Freud's theories by positing that the social and cultural environment, and not only the intrapsychic environment (inner drives, etc.) influence the child and help determine what sort of strengths and weaknesses the individual will come to have. He also disagreed with Freud regarding the developmental stages of human life, replacing Freud's "psychosexual stages of development" (oral, anal, phallic stages) with "psychosocial stages" (hope, will, purpose, competence, etc.) Therapists today tend to favor Erikson's, rather than Freud's, theory of developmental stages.

This is the autobiography of Erik H. Erikson's daughter, who grew up in the giant shadow cast by a man idolized by the psychological community of his day. His public face, seen through movies, lectures, interviews, and books, radiated a "compassionate paternal authority" as the "quintessential parent and provider of emotional nourishment to the young." But Bloland grew up with the "real" Erikson, and he was very different.

Bloland went on to become a psychologist herself, and her life experience "in the shadow" of her father led her to specialize in the study of fame. Here are some of the things she discovered:

1. A person's public face can be very different from their private face.

2. They can exhibit greatness in their public life and mediocrity in their private life.

3. Fame does not heal core issues, such as loneliness and insecurity.

4. Fame does not imply inner greatness.

5. Unresolved issues can lie surprisingly close to the person's area of expertise.

Bloland got to see the all-too-human side of her father, who was a distant and mediocre parent. He was insecure and uncomfortable in social situations, and most comfortable and capable of intimacy only when he was at work or discussing his work. He had low self-esteem, didn't turn to therapists when he had personal problems, and lied to his children to save himself the awkwardness of having to deal with their feelings.

Bloland also observed a "system" by which people were eager to idealize Erikson as a godlike figure. Sometimes when she introduced herself to psychologists as Eric H. Erikson's daughter, they would say, "May I touch you?" Erikson abetted their idealization because he was brought to life by their adoration. The family also abetted in preserving his public image. Bloland's mother, for example, would not confide freely to her best friend because "it would hurt Dad's reputation."

Bloland discovered that sometimes fame is an outcome of a painful childhood. While childhood trauma often makes people less functional, sometimes it causes the child to bury him/herself in a study or practice in order to avoid the intolerability of home life. Mikhail Baryshnikov, the ballet dancer, who was raised by his curt, cold soldier father, is an example of this. Or sometimes a child will fanatically pursue a field in order to make a connection with a parent who is otherwise unavailable. Charlie Chaplin fell into this catagory, pursuing acting to connect to his mother, who was an actress before she descended into mental illness.

Fame can be an addiction. It produces a "high." The public's adoration can temporarily fill the void left by parental neglect. The comedian Jerry Lewis reported that applause sounded like "Good baby, good baby." But like other drugs, the sense of well-being only lasts briefly, and then the person is left to face their inner pain again. They need another dose; and like other addictive substances, the person needs ever larger doses to feed their emptiness. They never feel they've ever really made it, (although they believe their role models have.) For that reason, retirement is problematic for them, for they never have a sense that enough has been accomplished.

Fame does not provide healing, because the person experiences the fame as directed towards their public persona, not their true being. On the other hand, even minor criticism, is experienced as a critique of the real self. The more spectacular the grandiose image, the more self-contempt and shame the person may feel for the extent of their duplicity.

The anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker wrote in his book The Denial of Death, "We must have heroes...because the real world is simply too terrible to face without them." We are born helpless and vulnerable. It is intolerable to believe that our parents will not protect us. Idealization lets us feel safe enough to grow and discover our real self. But the people we idealize are only slightly different from ourselves. The price we pay, noted Erich Fromm, the social psychologist and philosopher, is that we diminish our belief in ourselves, which heightens our anxiety and helplessness.

Bloland says that we never fully lose the tendency to idealize others. Despite her expertise on fame, she found she could hardly breathe when she met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Bloland suggests that what we need to do is to continue to examine our idealizations, and ponder how they may be inhibiting our growth. She says a particularly useful approach is to notice our anger at how our idealization deprives us of ourselves.

I read this book wondering if it could give me some insight into Maharishi. Does Maharishi match the template of someone pathologically driven by the hunger for fame? Like Erikson, Maharishi's charismatic, saintly public face differed greatly from his "off-duty" persona. I had to read comments from former members of his staff to learn what an "average," "human" sort of person he was in private.

Like Bloland's family, we who idealized Maharishi covered for him to keep him looking good. We didn't ask him the embarrassing questions, we made excuses for his inconsistent behavior. Like Erikson's admirers, we thought his touch could bless. "Will you touch my coral beads?"

Like Bloland's fame seekers, Maharishi never felt he had accomplished enough. He kept adding ideas, teachings, beliefs, organizations, titles, plans to his movement. Two months before his death at age 89, he was still expanding his dream. Like other famous people, he believed that his role model, Guru Dev, had achieved true greatness. (Incidentally, Guru Dev did not seem afflicted by the hunger for fame.)

Did Maharishi experience criticism to be directed at his true self, as Bloland writes? Possibly. I recall on my Teacher Training Course in 1974, a student told Maharishi that Maharishi was mistaken about something. Maharishi drew himself up to his full height and anger flamed from his eyes. "I?! I am mistaken about something?!" he demanded.

Bloland noted that a great deceiver feels shame around their deception. Could this explain why Maharishi felt contempt for those who idolized him?

Bloland says that sometimes fame springs from an unhappy childhood. We know little about Maharishi's childhood, but we do know that he had an older brother who was so bullying that Maharishi left home at an early age to live with an uncle.

Finally, Bloland notes that unresolved issues can lie surprisingly close to the area of expertise. I am reminded that, despite Maharishi's supposed expertise in the area of ayurvedic medicine, when he had a heart attack, he turned to western medicine.

So what do you think? What need or needs drove Maharishi? The desire for fame? The desire for power? Sex? Money? To feel loved? To feel like a good person? To spiritually uplift humanity? To create world peace? Revenge? What?

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