When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected the President of France, I told my family and friends that his rise was yet another confirmation of my oft-repeated theory: children from broken homes and a difficult childhood succeed against all odds to script success stories. This does not mean that the reverse is true: to be famous and successful, one must have a troubled childhood. Neither is it true that all children from broken homes will be successful. But there is certainly something about adverse childhoods and broken homes and their propensity to throw up national and international icons.
A caveat before I delve into the issue further: the article does not have many Indian or Asian examples. That’s not because such cases do not exist here but because Indian leaders and Asian icons are less forthcoming about these aspects of their lives. Such leaders may well have had de facto broken marriages or may have faced abusive behaviour as children, but the Asian family ethos doesn’t permit discussions on divorce or remarriage in the public domain unlike in the West.
Earlier in this column, I have analysed the seven elements of charisma. I concluded that former US President Bill Clinton has them in large measure. And, what’s his background like? His father died in an accident three months before his birth and the surname he uses today is of his stepfather who was a gambler and an alcoholic. His step-father regularly abused his mother.
Luckily, Clinton spent most of his childhood with his grandmother. But his family troubles were deep-seated: his mother married for the third time and, to this day, his stepbrother has frequent trouble with the law due to drug abuse. Yet, Bill Clinton became the third youngest President of the US. He won scholarships to fund his education. He got the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and later joined Yale University. Clinton was 32 when he became the youngest governor of Arkansas. By the time he was 54, he had served two terms as US President.
President Sarkozy’s father left his mother after 10 years of marriage and three sons and four years after the French President’s birth. His father refused financial help to his mother. Sarkozy has publicly said that having been abandoned by his father shaped much of what he is today. "What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood." Those insecurities included a perennial shortage of money and Sarkozy’s short height (5 feet 5 inches). Sarkozy, a divorcee, became the youngest ever-mayor in France and had a meteoric rise in the Villepin government. He was its Interior Minister.
From the world of entertainment and media, many more striking examples are available, mainly because stars are more forthcoming on these issues and subject to greater scrutiny. Beatles star John Lennon was born during a German air raid in World War II. His father, who was in the merchant navy, was not present during his birth. John’s mother had an illegitimate daughter from a Welsh soldier (John had no clue about this) and then started “living in sin” with another man. John did not meet his father from the age of five till he became famous as one of the Beatles over 20 years later! Lennon’s success as the leader and main pivot of the group is well known. He ruled the charts for years and was voted among the first ten in the list of the Greatest Britons.
Charlie Chaplin’s parents separated in 1892, when he was three. His father was an alcoholic and hardly had any contact with his son. He died when Chaplin was 12. His mother had mental problems and was frequently admitted to an asylum. Chaplin, despite a difficult childhood, rose to be one of the finest actors and had an outstanding career in the entertainment industry spanning over 65 years before he died at 88.
Oprah Winfrey was born out of wedlock. Her father hardly lived with her. She has said that her cousin, an uncle and a family friend repeatedly molested her from the time she was 9 years old. Oprah became pregnant when she was 14 and ran away from home. Today, Oprah hosts a hugely popular talk show. The show will be celebrating its silver jubilee in three years. Hundred million people watched her show with Michael Jackson in 1993.
There are more examples. Pierce Brosnan who played the lead role in James Bond movies, was abandoned by his father when he was a year old. One of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf, was born to a woman who had been widowed and had remarried. One of her half-sisters was mentally challenged; her mother died when she was 13 and her father a decade later. She is supposed to have been sexually abused by her half-brother and went through depressions and mood swings. But she went on to become an all-time great essayist and novelist.
Only two examples from India: one from the world of literature and the other from Bollywood. The brilliant writer, Arundhati Roy, has said she does not want to talk about her father whom she has seen only a couple of times. Her parents divorced and she is herself now in her second marriage. She left home when she was 16 and lived in a squatters’ colony. Her writings have a razor-sharp edge. Both Karisma and Kareena Kapoor have made a name for themselves in Bollywood but their parents separated long ago.
I may be generalising too much but these examples prove that it depends very much on the individual as to what one makes of adversity. But some of these troubled childhood profiles do raise a tantalising question about the correlation, if any, between success and a troubled childhood.
Abhishek Singhvi is an MP, National Spokesperson, Congress and Senior Advocate