Monday, May 30, 2005

In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson by Sue Erikson Bloland

In the Shadow of Fame is a psychoanalytic memoir by the daughter of one of the twentieth century’s leading psychoanalysts, Erik H. Erikson, the famous author of Childhood and Society and Identity, Youth, and Crisis, books that I saw on many desks and bookshelves when I attended college in the 1970s. Like her father before her, Bloland has become a psychoanalyst, but it took her many years to embrace this career. She spent much of her youth trying to escape the family fame.

According to Bloland, her parents suffered from addiction to achievement and desire for renown. Though her father was famous as a healer attuned to the mental health of individuals, he and his wife were unable to cope with their own problems. When her younger brother Neil was born with Down’s syndrome in the 1940s (he was called a Mongolian idiot at the time), her parents sent him to an institution immediately and told their children and friends that he had died at birth. This lie led to further lies. Not knowing what was wrong with her parents, the author felt that she had lost favor with them. About this time, Childhood and Society became a best seller, her father and mother spent more time focusing of his career, and the author was sent to boarding school.

Now that she is a psychoanalyst, the psychology of fame is the author’s specialty, and she discusses her studies of the famous, especially Lawrence Olivier, in this book. Her conclusion, that fame does not validate a person’s self worth, that fame does not bring happiness to troubled individuals, may sound cliché, but in a society in which celebrities are worshiped and many people long to be chosen for reality television series, it bears repeating. Bloland can verify that the byproducts of fame can be unpleasant.

Bloland, Sue Erikson. In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 067003374X.

Unabridged compact disc: Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc., 2005. ISBN 078618230x

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading this fascinating book about fame and its mixed blessings, by someone in a position to know. (Found this blog by doing a Google search on the book's title, by the way ... you have achieved your own version of fame!)
You can't get through any education program without being exposed to Erikson's 8 stages; Erikson and Piaget were both regular discussion topics in my M.Ed program in Wisconsin.
Bloland makes some important and, as you suggest, quite timely observations about fame - especially the tendency, or even need, among humans (particularly Americans, I think) to treat the "celebrities" in our culture as near gods and goddesses, no matter how mediocre or fabricated the genuine talent behind the persona. The author likens this tendency to our own childhood need to idolize our parents and, in adulthood, to eventually wrestle with and overcome this perspective before one can fully "grow up." I think our culture's obsession with famous people, and the frantic ways we seem to consume celebrity gossip - not just for entertainment but often as a genuine search for moral or emotional guidance in our own lives ... Mary Kate & Ashley as role models, if you will ... suggests a kind of cultural immaturity in this country. I'm not sure it is replicated as idiotically in Europe.
Mostly, though, I was moved and not a little disturbed by Bloland's all-too-brief, and not very empathetic, comments about the missing brother, Neil, who was shunted away into an institution because of his "disability" (Down Syndrome). I understand that 1940s attitudes toward these "Mongoloid" children were far less enlightened and humane than they are now. The advice the Eriksons received - and embraced - by the medical experts of the time - to send him away to an institution - was probably common. But still (and here's my own idolization of intellectuals and psychogists slipping through) I am thoroughly disgusted by Erik and Joan's refusal to accept this child and treat him with any humanity for 21 YEARS! And I am equally disgusted by Bloland's lack of any real curiosity about or empathy toward this individual who was her brother. She does not seem to wonder (very much) what kind of man he grew to be, who his caregivers were, what kind of environmenet the institution provided, what he enjoyed about life, or even what he looked like! How many other "inconvenient" children of famous or accomplished cultural leaders spent their lives without knowing their families? Dr. Erikson apparently felt a lifelong deprivation from his real father's lack of interest in him. This helped propel his groundbreaking work in identity. Yet he lived his entire life unconcerned that his own son suffered a similar fate? Unbelievable. Hypocritical. Unforgivable. And Bloland seems only interested in exploring Neil's effect on her family and on her own identity exploration. She never stops to ask how the family's treatment of this individual may have affected HIM. He was born, he was ignored, he died after 21 years. And she helped to bury his ashes. Her parents went on with the dinner in Italy, and she went on with her life. Talk about narcissistic self-absorption!
Bottom line: I commend her sincere attempt to share her special insights about fame, achievement, psychology, stunted emotional growth (hers and her parents'), and eventual self-discovery with her readers. There IS a lot of wisdom here. And I will recommend this book.
But I don't think she goes far enough in her explorations, and she apparently she still has a lot of personal "work" to do before I'll trust that her voice is truly honest.
Perhaps that will be the topic of her next book!
- a fellow librarian