The psychopathology of fame and the death of Michael Hutchenceby Raj Persaud / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 type seeking fame. Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, analysed the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, the rock star who committed suicide, and Cole Porter (one of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th century), as well as the short stories of John Cheever (who won the Pulitzer prize in 1978), to find out whether there was an increase in self-referential statements (such as use of pronouns “I, me, myself, mine”) in their writings before and after they became famous. His hypothesis is that famous people become more self-conscious, and therefore self-obsessed, as a result of the increased attention they receive, and this is reflected in their work. Introspection can lead to mental illness because increased self-consciousness makes one more aware of one’s failings. Schaller argues that famous people are prone to focus on themselves because other people are more aware of them. People who enter a room where everyone turns to look at them usually feel self-conscious; famous people experience that all the time. When ordinary people become self-conscious they can usually retreat from the situation; the well known may not be able to. It is this which increases the likelihood of self-destruction. Also, when ordinary people find a mismatch between who they would like to be and who they are, they can lower their ideals. Schaller argues that celebrities have more difficulty lowering their expectations of themselves, both because of their ambition and because of the expectations imposed on them by others (fans and admirers). Schaller did find an increase in self-reference in the writings of his famous three people. This increase was particularly significant in the cases of John Cheever and Cole Porter. Schaller’s paper was published in the Journal of Personality before Michael Hutchence’s death and so did not include Hutchence’s lyrics in his analysis. But would his theory apply to Hutchence’s situation? The ratio of personal pronouns to all pronouns is found to have increased from 0.47 in his first album’s lyrics to 0.51 in his last. But this is too small an increase to be attributable to anything other than chance. What is most interesting about Schaller’s analysis is how high the ratio of personal pronouns to all pronouns is for Michael Hutchence and Kurt Cobain, even before they became famous. Self-obsession is already so high in some people that it is difficult for it to get higher. Rock stars seem peculiarly self-absorbed even before the onset of fame. One explanation is the relative youth of rock stars compared to other performing professions. The conclusion? Too much attention when you are too young is bad for you.