“That privilege and degree of power and social and financial capital that these families have means that they have an enormous advantage to be what I call high-level and high-impact transmitters of trauma,” says Meera Atkinson, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Notre Dame Australia and a trauma researcher.
I’ll always remember one of them said, ‘You can’t control how many idiots you have as children’.
Michael Gilding, author of Secrets Of The Super Rich
By this, Atkinson means that if powerful people become addicted to power and making money – possibly as a result of trauma they’ve inherited from their ancestors – they can end up acting out in impulsive ways that, because of their influence, threaten the wellbeing of those of us lower down in the pecking order.
“My speculation is there is some order of obsessive-compulsive acting out here,” Atkinson says of people like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, who have denied or minimised the effect of climate change. “What else can really explain the sort of headlong rush ahead, into continued climate crisis [denial]? What could be powerful enough to create blinkers around something as vital as the environment we live in, that sustains us, [and the need] to make sure it’s habitable?”
As a result, governments and people in positions of leadership need to re-think who they consider successful, and stop privileging the wealthy just because they have power, she says. “[Because] when we don’t tax families like the Rineharts and the Murdochs, then what are we doing here? We’re creating monsters that then do the damage,” she says. “The most privileged, the Kennedys, the Packers, the Rineharts, if [where they live] goes under [water]” – due to climate change – “they can colonise another place. They’ve got that kind of money. But other people are not going to have those options.”
But what is intergenerational trauma, exactly? And how does it relate to dynasties?
“Trauma’s absolutely passed down [through generations],” says Dr Laura McLauchlan, an honorary environment and society lecturer at the University of NSW who has studied intergenerational trauma. This can be on the genetic level, with studies that have shown that one generation’s personal experience – say a war, or other traumatic experience – can be passed down to the next, through gene markings that are switched on or off, leaving offspring with dispositions aimed at helping them survive. For instance, one study shows that grandmothers in Holland who endured a famine passed down a predisposition to put on weight and store carbs to their maternal granddaughters.
As for the members of powerful dynasties, many have posited that they – who have frequently been berated and pressured into becoming ruthless money-makers, whether they like it or not – inherit trauma, either on the genetic level or through neglectful parenting.
Mary Trump, niece of former American president Donald Trump and a clinical psychologist, has written that her “malignantly dysfunctional” family, led by her late grandfather Fred Trump, destroyed his sons and, by extension, has helped break down American democracy.
Fred Trump, who she says was a high-functioning sociopath, ridiculed his son, Fred Jr, for his desire to become a pilot, rather than joining the family’s real estate business. He would be “nothing more than a chauffeur in the sky”, said Fred. (Fred Jr descended into alcoholism and died in 1981 at 42.) And he taught his son Donald to be a “killer” and a “king”, and “destroyed” him by crippling his “ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion”, as Mary Trump wrote in her 2020 book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man.
Even Donald Trump has said he “regrets having put pressure on him [Fred Jr]” to join the family business, as their father did. “I think the mistake that we made was we assumed that everybody would like it. There was sort of a double pressure put on him.”
It’s a scenario that has plagued some of Australia’s ultra-rich, too, says Michael Gilding.
“I interviewed people who grew up in really quite dire, poor situations, but their appetite for risk was relentless and just continued throughout their whole lifetime,” says Gilding, author of Secrets of The Super Rich. In many cases, the children of barons did not share their parent’s passion, which led to their alienation from them. “There are lots of you know, situations, where the people I interviewed often described quite traumatic situations of alienation between parents and children in that regard.
“When all is said and done, building a large fortune requires concentration, attention and focus,” says Gilding. “And it doesn’t necessarily leave a lot of time for a generative relationship or a kind of nurturing relationship. And so that intimacy can be missing…. I’ll always remember one of them said, ‘You can’t control how many idiots you have as children.’” (This wasn’t the case for everyone he interviewed, and many magnates had stable family businesses and healthy family relationships, he says.)
So how has Caroline Kennedy, the new American ambassador to Australia, dodged these common dynastic landmines? A woman who was only five years old when her father was assassinated, 11 years old when her uncle Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and therefore more qualified than most to be acting out from trauma?
A Harvard Law School graduate who has held numerous political positions (most recently, the American ambassador to Japan), Caroline Kennedy has three children. One is a filmmaker, another a New York Times environmental journalist and the third a Harvard Business School graduate. Her fortune is intact.
The difference between her and the children of other dynasties, says Neal Thompson, probably comes down to parenting.
Caroline’s father John F Kennedy might have grown up, like many dynasty members, never needing to earn a cent. His power-obsessed father Joe Kennedy, was a millionaire even during the Depression. But JFK was raised largely by his mother, Rose, who instilled in her children the necessity that they be of service, says Thompson. “It was clear to them that because they came from privilege, there was an expectation that they do something with it. That they do something useful, either in public service or politics. She was the one who reminded them what it was like for their grandmother to face these [American] newspaper ads that said, ‘No Irish need apply’. [Who told them] ‘Hey, you come from poor immigrants [from Ireland] who came to a country that didn’t want them.’ Don’t forget that.’”
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