Bereavement, Creativity, and the Phaeton Effect

A study published in the Journal of Psychohistory explored predictions made from Lucille Iremonger's Phaeton theory (1970), which argues that individuals who show exceptional personal achievement in certain fields frequently have experienced childhoods that were marked by parental loss through death and desertion. Three groups were examined: eminent American writers, presidents of the USA, and the 100 Americans who were judged by Life magazine to have been the most influential in 20th century society. Bereavement was common in the childhoods of these outstanding individuals, but was also high, or even higher, for those individuals who achieved somewhat less eminence (less successful writers, and presidential also-rans). More than half the total set of the presidents and also-rans were orphans. Eminent Americans showed substantial although lower levels of parental loss, and nearly three-quarters had experienced difficult childhoods that were marked by some form of loss. Eminent Americans, like the presidents, tended to be first-borns; they also showed elevated levels of divorce, suicide, and name changing. The results provide support for the Phaeton theory, but suggest that the child's struggle to overcome other losses than bereavement may also promote eminence, as may the presence of significant mentors.

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