From famous to infamous: Psychiatric aspects of the fall from grace

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It’s an all-too-common news item: The crash and burn of yet another politician, celebrity, or prominent individual. It’s painful to watch someone who spent years to achieve the status of a household name suddenly, and often ignominiously, lose it all. This is the equivalent of a human train wreck.

Some adversaries (who doesn’t have a few?) will rejoice or express schadenfreude, but many people will experience some empathy or sorrow as they witness the implosion of a celebrity. Fans, followers, or voters may grieve as the object of their respect and adulation falls off the high pedestal of fame. What starts as a drip-drip of rumors and innuendos soon eventuates in a denouement. And with time, as additional public figures fall from grace, the previous casualties will become mere footnotes in the annals of human self-destruction. Their loss of face, shame, and wrenching emotional and financial toll will be forgotten from the public’s collective memory, but the embers of bitterness and regret will continue to smolder in the hearts and souls of those who inadvertently contributed to their own social or professional demise due to a mistake, error of judgement, or plain old-fashioned stupidity. For the fallen, forgiveness and redemption are hard to come by.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen over centuries, and they include historical figures such as kings, military leaders, religious leaders, and politicians. The fall from grace in the past often led to executions, excommunication, or persecution. In the contemporary era, the oppressive “cancel culture” will mercilessly discard anyone, regardless of stature, after only 1 “wrong” tweet. In the digital age of mass communication, being “cancelled” is a frequent fall from grace and is the equivalent of being ostracized from millions of denizens on social media, which can spell doom for one’s career and social interactions.

The list of those whose careers ended calamitously include many familiar names, but I will only cite their prominent roles (you can easily guess their names!):

  • emperors, kings, presidents, prime ministers, and political demagogues
  • congressmen, senators, governors, and mayors
  • Nobel Laureates (a Medicine and Physiology winner went to prison for pedophilia, and a Peace Prize winner fell from grace for supporting a military dictatorship)
  • Cardinals and bishops in various countries (for sexual or financial crimes)
  • billionaires, often for erratic personal lives
  • sport legends, including decorated athletes and coaches of college and professional teams
  • world chess masters
  • Wall Street moguls
  • Hollywood celebrities, including actors and directors, some with Oscars and related recognitions
  • television news anchors and commentators
  • comedians of various stripes
  • CEOs of major media companies
  • talk show hosts watched by millions
  • celebrated musicians (classical, pop, rap, or blues)
  • university presidents
  • others in esteemed positions (including some psychiatrists).

Why is this so common?

From a psychiatric perspective, the most compelling question is why is the fall from grace so common? What are the transgressions, flaws, and shortcomings of successful individuals whose reputations end up smeared or who lose everything they worked for? Why do high achievers, talented and successful, at the apogee of fame and fortune, lose it all with nary a chance for recovery

The answer is all too obvious: human frailties. Successful persons are by no means immune from poor judgment. They can be as error-prone as the rest of us mortals. Having robust cognitive intelligence can be undermined by stunted emotional intelligence or poor interpersonal or social judgment. In Freudian terms, famous people who crash and burn may have a “Swiss cheese superego” that allows their id to viciously weaken their ego. From a neuroscience perspective, their limbic system conquers their cortical circuitry with relentless innate forces, including:

  • fervent sexual appetite, compounded by the cockiness that comes with fame
  • felonious paraphilias, such as pedophilia or public indecency
  • intense greed that clouds one’s judgment (a trait exhibited by some ultra-rich persons)
  • narcissism, either inborn or acquired with unexpected success and power
  • impulsivity and recklessness, with injurious words or actions.
  • substance use.

Consideration should be given to psychopathology. Some may have a personality disorder. Others may be both blessed and cursed with hypomania that leads to high achievement but also to foolish and impulsive behavior.1 Some may have maladaptive social skills seen in autism spectrum disorder (recently, a very prominent and innovative billionaire casually announced that he has autistic traits). And others my have limited coping skills to deal with fame and fortune and unwittingly end up shooting themselves in both feet.

Continue to: But perhaps the most common thread...


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