Book Review: The Fame Game

In this moving memoir, the daughter of celebrated psychologist Erik Erikson meditates on how fame and ego shatter the foundations of family life.

“In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson” by Sue Erikson Bloland. (Viking)

By Debbie Porter

Sometimes, the lives of the famous resemble fairy tales: an individual comes from obscurity and prevails through great effort, talent, and perhaps some help from a magical godmother. In her memoir, Sue Erikson Bloland, daughter of the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, draws a distinction between the fairy tale heroes of the past and the real-life heroes of today. The former represent man’s struggle to overcome hardship. Today’s superstars are about attaining fame. “In the Shadow of Fame” insists that celebrity is no magic wand, despite our culture’s belief that it is.

Sue Erikson Bloland grew up as the daughter of a couple whose lives bore an almost eerie resemblance to a fairy tale. Her father never knew his biological father, but he grew up certain that he did not belong in the constraining Orthodox Jewish community of Frankfurt, Germany in which his mother, a Danish Jew, settled. His blond hair, blue eyes and eventual six-foot stature were only the most obvious features that marked him as different. Erik’s fantasy that his father was really a Danish nobleman probably was not too far-fetched, although his mother never revealed the truth.

After university, Erik chose the life of a bohemian artist. Depressed and exhibiting “borderline” personality characteristics, he was saved by the invitation of a friend to go to Vienna and teach in a school for children of the circle surrounding Sigmund Freud. The psychologist and his daughter Anna recognized Erik’s talents and helped launch his brilliant career.

Erik met his future wife, Joan, a talented and beautiful Canadian woman, at a masked ball outside Vienna in 1929. The two recognized immediately that they shared a sense of alienation from family and community as well as an unshakeable belief in their own special gifts. When the couple moved to California, they changed their name from Homburg to Erikson. Bloland’s father became Erik Erikson — Erik son of Erik. No small wonder he built his reputation on the study of identity formation.

Even before Erikson’s fame was established with the publication of “Childhood and Society” in 1950, he and Joan were the center of a charmed circle. As the merely mortal child of two seemingly infallible, god-like creatures, Bloland struggled with both not measuring up and facing the reality beneath the fairy tale fa?e. Her memoir is a deeply personal account of her life as well as a presentation of her work on the psychological characteristics of the famous.

Bloland studied the personal histories of such famous figures as Laurence Olivier, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Charles Lindbergh, Virginia Woolf, and Marilyn Monroe and found the common threads that unite people driven to great heights. One wishes that the book were more about the psychological roots of extraordinary achievement and less about Bloland’s journey. But “In the Shadow of Fame” clearly serves a therapeutic purpose for its author when it details the split between the public perception of Erikson and what she knows.

Erikson was a serious psychologist who became a pop-culture hero, mainly for his insight into the development of identity. The public, as well as those who knew him personally, idealized him as the perfect father. Even people of extraordinary achievement became childlike in his presence, hoping for his notice and approval. Erikson reacted to the worship by becoming more emotionally responsive with strangers than he was with his own children.

A preoccupation with work, self-doubt, social discomfort, and irritability characterized Erikson’s daily life. He and Joan had trouble addressing emotionally charged issues within the family, of which there were many. The biggest, most destructive secret was the existence of the couple’s youngest child, born with Down syndrome. The Erikson children as well as the couple’s closest friends had been led to believe that the child, Neil, had died at birth.

In reality, he had been institutionalized. Bloland learned about her brother when she was thirteen, but neither she nor her two brothers ever met Neil, who died at the age of 21. Even after the Erikson children learned of their brother, the subject was off limits. The parents exerted pressure on the children to uphold the public image of Eriksons as supremely confident and competent individuals. Neil’s existence seemed to threaten that.

Bloland’s book is not another angry expose of famous parents by one of their children. Throughout, she writes in respectful and loving terms about her parents. More interestingly, the strains of growing up in a family in which public image and private reality were often at odds appear to have shaped her life and work. This book tries to make sense of the dichotomy.

In its examination of the lives of famous people, “In the Shadow of Fame” outlines the patterns characteristic of overachievers everywhere. Common to most of those the author studies is an early tragedy or emotional hardship and a bond with a parent who made them feel intensely special. Bloland writes that “there is no better fuel for grandiose ambition than the experience of being very special to a narcissistically needy parent.”

The worshipping parent attempts, through the child, to heal some wound of his or her own. The child grows to feel loved not for himself, but for his talent. Later, the public provides the approval. When the applause dies down, these individuals become anxious and depressed and need further proof of their worthiness, every bit like a drug addict who needs another hit to regain the euphoria. The famous also famously prefer the unstinting approval of an audience to the difficulties and vulnerabilities inherent in intimate personal relationships.

Bloland and her brothers avoided the “family addiction” to life in the limelight, in very much the same way children of alcoholics sometimes avoid drinking. At the end of his life, Erikson, like many others who rely on their accomplishments for a sense of self-worth, felt himself a failure. He had neither won the Nobel Prize nor founded a school of psychoanalysis. Paradoxically, it was only in mid-life, when she pursued a career in psychoanalysis, that the daughter could make the only kind of true connection to her father that was possible — through work. In her book, Bloland movingly attests that happily ever after never happens in the fame game.

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