More on parents and success

Thanks to Freda Zietlow for pointing me to this piece in the Wall Street Journal on the dysfunctional families of future presidents.

As you guys already know, in one chapter of my book I’m looking into the subtle and unsubtle ways that parents influence the future success and failure of their children. Hamilcar played a huge role in the life of his son Hannibal (my main character), and not just while Hamilcar was alive.

Now, the Journal‘s Sue Shellenbarger has this to say about US presidents and their parents:

The families that have produced U.S. presidents … show a striking tendency to be deeply flawed. The childhoods of past presidents have been marked to an unusual degree by absent fathers, mothers so overinvolved that they could easily have been the original helicopter parents, and in some cases outright dysfunction…

Childhood events that would destroy most children seem somehow to spark greatness in leaders-to-be, says Doug Wead, author of two books on presidents’ families. As two candidates with highly unusual family backgrounds vie for the presidency, Mr. Wead even sees Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama — to different degrees and in starkly different ways — fitting a pattern he describes as “Mama’s boys with absent fathers who were perceived by the sons as high achievers,” he says….

Some presidents’ families have been famously dysfunctional. Thomas Lincoln abandoned 9-year-old Abraham and his sister, 12, for several months in their frontier cabin right after the death of their mother, while he went to find a new wife, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of “Team of Rivals,” a book about Lincoln. When Thomas finally returned with their new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, the couple found them “wild — ragged and dirty,” seeming barely human, the stepmother later wrote…

In another notably troubled family, Bill Clinton’s father died before Bill was born; his stepfather was a womanizer and an alcoholic who beat his mother, Virginia, according to biographer David Maraniss. Although Virginia, a warm, nurturing woman, made her son the adored centerpiece of the family, President Clinton said later that he often pined for his birth father…

Even the McCain family, with its tradition of distinguished military service, fits the pattern of an absent father and an overinvolved mother who fills the gap, Mr. Wead says. Sen. McCain’s father was a respected four-star Navy admiral and commander of Pacific forces in the Vietnam war, but he was mostly absent from home during Sen. McCain’s childhood. Sen. McCain reflects pride in his father and was taught to regard his long absences “not as a deprivation, but as an honor.”…


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8 thoughts on “More on parents and success

  1. What you seem to imply is that neuroses, born of childhood family dysfunctions, are what fuel the power drives of children when they become adults.

    The same might go also for all the great artists, poets, novelists, composers, and anyone who has left large footprints in history.

    Are there any of them, whether famous presidents or great artists, who had wondrously happy and secure childhoods, bathed unceasingly in love by uxorious mothers and fathers?

    Freud said, in so many words, that Civilization was the sum total of its discontents – meaning, I suppose, its neuroses. So, would anything marvellous ever have been done, or created, if everyone was always happy, happy,happy?

  2. I think Wead’s and Goodwin’s observations are a fascinating study of presidential aspirations. Personally, I am glad I am the daughter of a teacher and a farmer. Although I believe my aspirations are as high as any of the presidents–albeit in different areas. Each of us makes choices for our own lives, whether for better or ill.

  3. Thanks for that link, Mary.
    And Jeremy, which poets, composers, artists and novelists do you think would illustrate this theme best? I’m researching some, but always looking for more ideas.

  4. You asked “…..which poets, composers, artists and novelists do you think would illustrate this theme best………?”.

    I assume the theme to which you refer is “……….childhood family dysfunctions, are what fuel the power drives of children when they become adults………..”.

    Why I used this phrase were my memories of the many books I’ve read of the lives of famous people, most of whom had to battle adversities while growing up, and somehow were able to transcend them.

    Many famous people had to deal with the deaths of siblings – a not unusual happening until relatively recently. It doesn’t require too much imagination to see how traumatic the death of a sibling must be to a sensitive surviving sibling.

    A quite recent president who had to deal emotionally with the deaths of siblings was Richard Nixon, who lost two brothers before he was 21.

    George W Bush had a younger sister die, which supposedly was the genesis of many of his psychological problems, particularly his sadism.

    Ronald Reagan’s father was an alcoholic.

    As for novelists, Scott Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, a syndrome associated with many writers.

    Ernest Hemingway, also a heavy drinker, committed suicide by shooting himself, the result of severe depression. Hemingway’s father also committed suicide by shooting himself. And Hemingway had two siblings who committed suicide. Talk about a dysfunctional family.

    Beethoven’s father was an alcoholic, and his mother died of TB when Ludwig was 16.

    Study the lives of anyone who has become famous, and it seems, for all intents and purposes, they all had difficult childhoods to a greater or lesser extent.

    Some psychologists, notably John Bradshaw, concentrate on the family as a unit, rather than the individual, since our family is the most important influence in who we become.

    Bradshaw used the term “homeostasis” to describe how a family achieves balance. Most families achieve it neurotically, through its individual members assuming the roles in it, which, ideally, they should not assume. eg a child or mother becoming the role of father. A son becoming the husband (metaphorically of course).

    Bradshaw also noted in many families, one of the children is an especially high achiever, to balance the family, all of whose other members are psychological basket cases. Thus homeostasis is achieved.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve known people who were outstanding achievers, but whose parents and siblings were all alcoholics, or chronic welfare cases.

    Concerning the movers and shakers in our world, what roles did they play in the families they grew up in? Were they predominantly the sons or daughters who, through their abnormal drive for excellence, enabled their families to achieve homeostasis?

  5. Doug Wead’s books, All the Presidents Children and The Raising of a President actually have a chart that shows the presidents and even nominees and how each family experiences a death either as a provocateur to their political career or as a result of the stress of the campaign. It is really stunning. Almost every single president.

    After the death of Eddie, Lincoln tells his law partner that he is running for congress because it hurts to bad to go home and walk through the same rooms. He tells and audience that if they don’t elect him it won’t hurt so bad because he know worse pain. The theory is that death of a child is almost liberating in some perverted way because nothing can hurt worse and so fear of losing and other pride factors are nullified. Amazing stuff.

    And thanks for the Upstairs site. Fun stuff.

  6. I’ll bet the article was a comfort to road warriors reading the WSJ on an airplane and rationalizing their absence in the name of selling office furniture (or whatever).

    To be on the safe side, I’m going to go home tonight and drink martinis until I fall asleep on the couch – for the kids.

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