The psychopathology of fame and the death of Michael Hutchenceby Raj Persaud / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Psychologists and psychiatrists have neglected the study of fame, possibly because it is difficult to recruit celebrities for experiments. But the list of the famous who have died young from suicide or suicidal behaviour includes River Phoenix (23), Jimi Hendrix (27), Kurt Cobain (27), Jim Morrison (27), Janis Joplin (27), Sylvia Plath (30) and Marilyn Monroe (36). Michael Hutchence, the rock star, has once again drawn attention to the psychopathology of fame.
The standard view in psychiatry has been that the kind of personality which pursues-and attains-fame may be one already predisposed to psychological problems, even before the stress of celebrity sets in. This personality type, the narcissist, was first described by Freud in 1914. Michael Beldoch, the psychoanalytic writer, has since summarised the evolution of the narcissist: “Today’s patients, by and large, do not suffer from hysterical paralyses of the legs or hand-washing compulsions; instead it is their very psychic selves that have gone numb or that they must scrub and rescrub in an exhausting and unending effort to come clean.”
According to the latest edition of the diagnostic bible of the American Psychiatric Association-the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-narcissists exhibit extreme self-absorption and fantasise about unlimited ability, power, wealth and beauty. Narcissists tend to be exhibitionistic and they frequently express a need for attention. In relationships, narcissists tend towards exploitativeness; they fail to empathise with others. The paradox for the self-absorbed is that they hold in contempt the very individuals upon whom they are dependent for positive regard and affirmation. The Freudian explanation for the origins of narcissism focuses on the fact that all infants start out narcissists-completely self-absorbed-but eventually learn that love and praise must be earned through socially acceptable behaviour. But this principle is never properly learnt by narcissists. Freudians join with Marxists in suggesting that modern society might be particularly prone to producing narcissists because making our children happy has become the main aim of contemporary family life. Our alienation from the world of work and society outside the home means that we have turned inwards on to our children-depending on them for our own reassurance as to our lovableness and worth. This puts children in a very powerful position.
Recent research into the link between self-obsession, fame and suicide has contradicted these ideas, however. It suggests that the real psychological hazard is the effect of becoming well known, not the personality…