Oliver JAMES : « They F*** You Up – How To Survive Family Life »

Published by Bloomsbury, 2003.

Son goes far when dad goes early. History and statistics prove that, far from being a handicap, the premature loss of a parent can inspire feats of creativity and power.

A third of the 600 people who have more than one column devoted to them in the Encyclopaedias Britannica or Americana suffered early parental loss. 35 per cent of (49) prime ministers and 34 per cent of (40) American presidents, including Bill Clinton, received this crucial advantage.

In contemporary surveys of entrepreneurs, 30 per cent had lost a parent before they were 15, compared to 8 per cent in general population.

40-55 per cent of eminent British writers were bereaved in childhood. Many French writers also lost a parent early, including Stendhal, Zola and Molière. Of the 35 greatest French writers in the 19th century, 17 were bereaved young.

In science, it’s orphaned Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, in popular music John Lennon or Paul McCartney.

Wherever a study has been done it shows far higher than normal rates among outstanding achievers. Why ? The bereaved boy almost always feels guilt. He is made insecure by the temporary loss of love and attention while the remaining parent grieves. If he has lost his father he feels inadequate and is in danger of being assailed by self-loathing because he cannot replace the breadwinner, the source of stability and the partner in the marital bed. The astonishing feats of diligence and intelligence that result are a struggle to repair damaged self-esteem and prove his worth.

The mastery of insecure feelings, especially depression, is a springboard for immense compensatory energies. The most common reaction is to develop a formidable determination to trust nobody and to seek maximum control of his environment so he will never be let down again.

Taken to their logical conclusion, the combination of rage and desire for mastery become totalitarian. They amount to a personal mission to wrest life’s outcome from fate, to cheat destiny and, at the same time, to impose their will on everyone else. Here is the charismatic dictator with his « will to power » or the revolutionary who is prepared to use violence to force the world into his mould. As a child this individual chooses to believe his orphaned status marks him out from his peers as special, rather than handicapped. He sees himself as « chosen » and in later life nothing can stand in his way.

Such men usually lack any insight into their personal despair and insecurity and project all their problems on to the body politic or into ideological systems of thought.

But the arts and sciences can also express a desire for mastery. The novelist or poet has total control over his characters. The composer dictates what sounds should be made by which instruments. On top of that, in all arts there is an element of controlling other humans by engaging their emotions – most often, the ones the artist cannot cope with himself.

Where the father was never known by the child it can create the sense of a gap to be filled. Jean-Paul Sartre observed what his father’s absence meant : « I was not. I was not substantial or permanent. I was not the future continuer of my father’s work… in short, I had no soul. » Filling this vacuum by writing about the nature of nothingness was Sartre’s life work. Yet there is a thin line between high achievement and despair or criminality.

Adult criminals (32 per cent), patients suffering from depression (27 per cent) and juvenile delinquents (30 per cent) are also far more likely than average (8 per cent) to have lost one of their parents before the age of 15.

The critical difference between disaster and genius is the mother or mother-substitute. It is essential that after the loss she is passionate about her son, makes him feel he is special.

There are the examples among high achievers, from George Washington who was « very close » to his mother, to Josef Stalin who as a child was « close to only one person : my mother ».

However, maternal devotion is not enough. She must also be exceptionally competent and disciplined. Washington’s mother was « active, capable and resolute », while Stalin’s was « a woman of severe and determined character, firm and stubborn, puritanical in her ideas, inflexible in her manners and very demanding towards herself. »

Several other environmental factors apart from parental loss predict high achievement. Historically, being a boy was obviously one. Being the eldest is another. Having a family that is in some way socially marginal, such as being an immigrant, is another. But none of these is as powerful a predictor as parental loss.

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