Is It Very Lonely at the Top? A Psychological Enquiry Into the Solitude of Fame

How mentally demanding is it to handle fame and constant attention? Is being famous always an experience to be cherished?

Asked to comment on his lifelong camaraderie with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the great Latin American author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that their friendship was a union between the solitude of power and the solitude of fame.

Why would a successful man, who had earned so much fame even before he reached 35, choose to end his life? It is the answer to this rather naïve question that the nation wants to know.

There are two problems here. A. It’s premature to try to answer it. And B. It’s somewhat undignified and even obscene to dig out personal and professional details of one’s life to make sense of one’s tragic death.

When the hurlyburly’s done, the question that we can ask, instead, is how celebrityhood and fame (often distinguished in terms of longevity; the former momentary, the latter long-lasting) affect a person psychologically. How mentally demanding is it to handle fame and constant attention? Is being famous always an experience to be cherished? The answer, my friend, is hidden in Garcia Marquez’s quip.

Human beings’ obsession with fame has been the subject of intense artistic and social scrutiny over the years. John Hinckley shot US President Ronald Reagan to be famous enough to impress actress Jodie Foster. How to handle fame, however, is a discourse that remains shrouded in opacity. This is primarily because the ones who attain fame naturally ceases to live a public life.

We only get a peek into their mental world when they open up about their ‘depression’. And that happens seldom, at least in India. In today’s world, the issue becomes more important than ever since anyone can attain fame in a matter of days, if not hours, thanks to reality shows and YouTube videos.

Handling fame is by no means an easy task. Donna Rockwell of the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, a well-known celebrity mental health expert, conducted a study speaking to 15 American celebrities in this regard, which she published in 2009 under the title Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame.

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Rockwell calls sudden fame an irreversible existential alteration, much like death. ‘Once a person has transitioned into fame, as in death, there is no turning back’. She sought to look into questions like – What was it like to be famous? How do individuals cope with fame? Is the loss of privacy a cherished experience? Etc.

The study unequivocally concluded that most celebrities found ‘themselves ill-equipped for and struggling with the deluge of attention that comes with fame… The individual is left to find his or her way through an unfamiliar labyrinth-like world. From an initial desire to become successful, the celebrity experiences personal confusion and a loss of ownership of life…’ Rockwell comments that such persons find themselves alone on the ‘island of recognition’ where “there’s a loneliness that happens because you are separate.” This, Garcia Marquez’s calls, the solitude of fame.

The study further finds that the constant glare of spotlight adversely affects the person’s relationship with immediate family, endangers his or her sense of safety and gradually gives birth to mistrust of everyone who adores him or her. Such a person often takes recourse to what Rockwell calls character-splitting, that is, he or she creates a public self and a true or private self. But inevitably, the latter succumbs to the former.

Bangalore-based psychologist Dr Ananya Sinha, assistant professor at Christ University, told The Wire, “Being famous and leading the life of a celebrity attracts public fascination and fantasy. It involves a tightrope walk between a need to experience one’s authentic self and not disappointing others as that might lead to the risk of losing his fame and celebrityhood. This chronic stress may be a risk factor to depression (although not a causal factor) among celebrities as their lifestyle makes them vulnerable to self-doubt, self-criticality and sensitivity to criticism. Social support is an antidote to depression, in the absence of which the risk factor increases. Depression is a medical condition, and can be mild, moderate or severe. Severe depression is often accompanied by suicidal thoughts and is best treated with a combination of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.”

Satyajit Ray took up the issue of stardom, fame and its pitfalls in his 1966 masterpiece Nayak (The Hero).

“Ray was driven by a desire first to investigate the psychology of such a star, secondly the psychology of his adulators and detractors,” wrote Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. By casting Bengali cinema’s peerless superstar Uttam Kumar in the lead role, Ray gave the film an air of hyperreality. The central narrative is built around Arindam’s (the protagonist) account of his own career and its ups and downs to a young interviewer (Aditi, played by Sharmila Tagore), while he is on his way to New Delhi to receive a prestigious award.

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Aditi asks, “In the midst of having so much, don’t you feel there’s something missing in your life? Some emptiness somewhere?” Hesitant at first, Arindam soon finds comfort in her company, as he can come out of his superstar image and open up to her. In a series of cathartic conversations, Arindam brings up myriad issues that haunt him, and issues that he has nobody to share with – his leaving theatre for films, his alcoholism, his refusal to stand by an old friend to keep intact his stardom, his pettiness in settling scores with an old hapless colleague, and his affair with a married woman which led to an ugly fistfight with her husband.

The crowning glory of the film is a dream sequence, one of the best cinematic moments in Ray’s entire oeuvre, in which Arindam sees himself as drowning in a heap of notes. There are clear hints in the film at Arindam’s suicidal thoughts and also the fact that having a non-judgmental listener in Aditi enables the helpless superstar tide over those thoughts and stagger back to life, caught in the movie through the metaphor of a train journey.

In one of his most haunting poems, A Day Eight Years Ago, the great Bengali poet Jibanananda Das talks about an act of suicide and the indefinable vulnerabilities in the inner recesses of the self, far beyond the public eye, that may drive one to the act. Incidentally, Jibanananda’s death in 1954 in Calcutta in a tram car accident is deemed by many as suicide. In a moving passage in the above poem he wrote:

“A woman’s heart—love—a child—a home—these are not everything,
Not wealth nor fame nor creature comforts—
There is some other perilous wonder
Which frolics
In our very blood.
It exhausts us—
Fatigues, exhausts us.
That exhaustion is not present
In the morgue.
And so
In that morgue
Flat out he lies upon a table. “

(Translated by Clinton B Seely)

Indradeep Bhattacharyya teaches literature and is a former journalist based in Kolkata.

If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.