There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
I recently tuned in, quite by accident, to the PBS broadcast of the film “E.O. Wilson: Of Ants and Men” (9/29/15). I was soon transfixed by the unfolding story of Edmund Wilson as a boy, aged seven, whose parents were in the process of divorcing (at a time when that was most uncommon), and whose reaction to this personal catastrophe was to immerse himself in the study of the natural world around him. Already, at the age of seven, Wilson was spending long hours alone in nature, where he felt more of a sense of belonging, it seems, than he felt at home.
In fact, in the same year that his parents were divorcing, Wilson had quite a terrible accident while fishing, and did not bother to go home to be cared for. A fish he pulled abruptly from the water hit him in the face, damaging his right eye. It is reported that “he suffered for hours, but he continued fishing…because he was anxious to stay outdoors.” The suggestion is strong that he sought refuge from a home life that promised little comfort, and his greatest solace came from just being in nature, even when he was hurt.
Shortly thereafter, Wilson was sent away to a military academy for boys, an institution which he remembers as a “carefully planned nightmare.” He returned to his study of nature when brought to live eventually with his father and stepmother
The fishing accident cost Wilson the sight in his right eye, and this loss of stereoscopic vision was to determine the focus of his life-long career as a naturalist. Unable to see animals or birds at a distance, he could, nevertheless, focus very clearly on small insects. He soon became completely enthralled with the social behavior of ants, admiring their ability to develop highly complex societies, and to function so harmoniously in doing so. (Harmony was likely in short supply in his own family life.)
Wilson knew by the time he was nine that he wanted to become a biologist, and he eventually propelled his obsession with insects into a distinguished career at Harvard, where he studied, taught and wrote about, not only the social behavior of ants, but the profound insights that the study of ant behavior offered for the understanding of human behavior–its essential nature and its origins. Along the way, he stirred up enormous intellectual controversy (with his assertions about the genetic origins of human social behavior), won two Pulitzer prizes, and, his colleagues agree, “changed the way all of us view the world.” It is no exaggeration to say that Wilson has been one of the most important thinkers of our time. And I believe his story is indicative of a pattern in the lives of many great achievers in human history.
In his book entitled Greatness: Who Makes History and Why (1994), the psychologist Dean Keith Simonton comes to a profound conclusion about the nature of genius. Ultimately, he proclaims, what distinguishes geniuses from their colleagues of lesser achievement is the “huge motivational forces” that drive their work, and that far eclipse the efforts of others. (P. 140) Most essentially, they share a “monomaniacal preoccupation” with their chosen pursuits. Simonton does not claim to understand the source of the “huge motivational forces” he has identified. This, he suggests, “is one of the great mysteries of psychology.” (140)
I don’t think Edmund Wilson would be at all offended at the suggestion that his obsession with ant social behavior has been “monomaniacal.” And I would suggest that the childhood he describes in “Of Ants and Men” is typical in some major respects of the kind of childhood that has promoted a “monomaniacal” devotion to work in many extreme achievers. Clearly, one avenue of solace for children who suffer parental loss, neglect or abuse (what we would call “relational trauma”) is the adoption of an obsessive interest or activity which provides distraction and relief from emotional pain as well as an escape from demoralizing family circumstances. Functioning in some ways as a substitute for a more nourishing connection with parents, these preoccupations take on an enormous emotional intensity that lasts a lifetime. They are life saving. At the same time, the isolation of the desperate child provides an opportunity for intensive “practicing” of the skills needed to pursue his or her interest with exceptional success.
Wilson, of course, began very early to study ants. Napoleon was sent away from his family home in Corsica to a military school in France when he was nine. Alone and very lonely in France, he buried himself in books, reading voraciously about military history. Mikhail Baryshnikov threw himself into an obsessive study of dance at the age of ten, when his mother committed suicide, leaving him alone in the care of an abusive father. He spent every free hour of his remaining youth in the dance studio relentlessly practicing his art. Ansel Adams retreated from an intolerable family drama into the darkroom, becoming remarkably skilled at the development of photographs by the age of 14.
Clearly, some kinds of childhood trauma are more likely to have a disorganizingand debilitating effect on the functioning of a child than they are to have amotivating effect, so there is still much to be understood about the circumstances under which early relational trauma has the potential to trigger an exceptionally focused and driven pursuit of a passionate interest.
Two recently released films, “Listen to me Marlon,” about Marlon Brando, and “Pawn Sacrifice,” about Bobby Fischer, illustrate beautifully the delicate psychological balance involved in the childhood scenario I have described. In both films, we see the connection between childhood trauma and the genius that was fueled by it, but the emotional damage has been too great for either of these tortured men to be able to live stable, gratifying lives.
Perhaps one of the most moving and uplifting aspects of “E.O. Wilson: Of Ants and Men” is the impression we get that Wilson has led a deeply satisfying (though at times embattled) life as he continues–into old age—to pursue his childhood obsession. He describes himself as a “happy man” who has lived in a disastrous century (referring primarily to the destruction of the earth’s biosphere) without losing his optimism. At the end of the film he sits looking out over the recently restored Gorongosa Park in Mozambique, and his boyish delight in that primordial natural setting is touching, indeed. “We pursue dreams that go back to childhood,” he says. “Mine was simple. I look for lost worlds.” He is referring to the vast, hidden world of insects, which has fascinated him all his life, but I could not help thinking about the world that was lost to him when he was seven.
Sue Erikson Bloland, LCSW, is faculty and Co-Director of Admissions at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanaysis. Her memoir, In the Shadow of Fame, was published by Viking Penguin in 2005, and she has published articles on the connection between childhood trauma and fame, or the achievement of “greatness,” in The Atlantic Monthly, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, and Psychoanalytic Inquiry.