Michael H. Stone


VTR Date: June 13, 1984

Psychriatry professor Dr. Michael H. Stone discusses "the poverty of the rich."


GUEST: Michael Stone
VTR: 6/13/1984

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Rich or poor, it’s all the same; but rich is better. That’s an observation probably most of us would make. And yet perhaps out of sheer psychological necessity, out of the need to narrow the gap between rich and poor, between them and us, to fight off the ravages of sheer envy, we’ve also always protected our psyches with such bits of reassurance as, “You can’t buy happiness”, and, “You can’t take it with you”. Indeed, if you were brought up on the movies of the 1930s as I was, you remember the solace that depression stricken Americans got from “My Man Godfrey” and “Meet John Doe”, and so many other films that seem to equate virtue with poverty and meanness, unhappiness or at least ennui with the idle rich.

Well, Daniel Goldman wrote a most fascinating article recently called “In Emotional Problems the Rich Resemble the Poor”. And we were so interested by that subject that we discovered how much had been written about the cycle of poverty of the rich by Dr. Michael H. Stone, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Stone, thank you for joining me today. It is a fascinating subject, it seems to me. Obviously you’ve devoted so much time to it and so much of our writing you feel the same way. I like that title, “Affluenza” that people sometimes use. And in one of the papers that you wrote, you wrote, “Parental deprivation in certain families of the super rich may be carried to an extreme seldom encountered paradoxically except among the very poor”. I wonder how you explain that.

STONE: Well, I think that there are so many ways in which the very rich, you know, can create a family environment that seems to be adequate for the needs of the children, yet where they themselves are absent to a large degree. They can consulatize their absence, if I can put it that way, in a way that people in other circumstances can’t. And I’m thinking in this regard of a family where the parents went away for six months out of the year leaving their three or four children in the care of various household servants and nannies, and then even when they were home all of the meals were taken with the household help and I think the family only had dinner with their children at Christmas and Easter just about. So that they were brought up in very comfortable circumstances and yet their parents were practically strangers.

HEFFNER: Then in terms of emotional well-being you really do mean it that the richness, wealth, affluence, no guarantee that children will be better off.

STONE: No guarantee. I would want to say the there must be many families of the very wealthy who are as caring and loving as other people are to their children. But it’s just that in those homes where let’s say the parents don’t have much of a comfort, you know, that being parents, they have a lot of ways of escaping that are not open, you know, to other people, and so that you get this strange paradox.

HEFFNER: Are you talking only about the super rich, or are you talking perhaps about something that has afflicted American life generally where physical, material well-being may not be conducive to emotional well-being?

STONE: It may have, I think one could generalize to a little wider stratum than just the very, very wealthy because certainly there are homes where people don’t have many millions, like the kind that I was talking about , where there are still many opportunities to set up things in such a way that the children appear to be well cared for and appear, you know, to be comfortable, and yet there isn’t much interchange with the parents who are free to be off any number of other places doing any number of other things, leaving their children very little time for direct interaction with them.

HEFFNER: One might ask, “So what?” What about surrogate parents, as you suggest? They supply the nannies, they supply the substitutes. Not sufficient?

STONE: I don’t think it’s sufficient really where the mothering and the fathering slip beneath a certain level. I think it’s hard to specify that level, but certainly there have been generations of children brought up in homes where they were comfortably well loving and involved parents who had nannies available to the children and other household help. That there’s a balance between all of them as to who spends how much time etcetera with the children. That all works out. It’s where mother is practically unavailable or where the father is almost never seen that even the best nanny can’t altogether compensate for what the child longs for so much from its actual parent.

HEFFNER: Well, of course I do understand that you’re talking about rather extreme cases. The super rich are not that much with us. But again I wonder whether you might generalize further and suggest that as we enjoy our material well-being more and more, as we find ourselves in the middle class traveling more, absenting ourselves, finding those surrogate experiences for children, that we’re not dumping upon them the potential for somewhat the same kinds of emotional problems that you describe as related to the super rich who are not cared for.

STONE: I think that is true to a lesser extent along some kind of racial, the way that I think you’re hinting at. In other words, the people who have incredible resources can do it much more fruitfully and in a much more thorough going way if they’re so disposed than cold people of comfortable means but not quite in that league. There we get into problems that I think are relevant to the current generation, particularly the kinds of problems that are spoken of under the umbrella of narcissism in the sense that there are many, many people who have troubles I the sense of who they are, what they want to do in this generation that seem not to be so much the case in the earlier generation. I mean, partly it seems to have to do with having been left too early and for too long a time to their own resources. Many, many children, not just of the super rich, though, who haven’t had the opportunity to identify strongly with the values and interests of the parents, who had been left with all manner of other means to busy themselves for hours at a stretch without very much interaction with the parents who develop a sense of not being cared about and ultimately I think what often happens in the whole personality a sense of rootlessness, not being grounded to any particular interest and set of values. That seems to be perhaps the trouble of the time. So it’s related in a not-too-distant way to the subject we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: Of course I was wondering when this word “Affluenza”, you’re saying that it isn’t really affluence but it is what seems to go with great riches, great affluence, and that is the absenting of the parent, the parent absents himself, herself from the family scene. You’re not talking so much, I gather then, about the impact of having material things, of ruling the roost as too young, things we didn’t have when we were young.

STONE: No. I think where affluence of less than this stratospheric kind can be a hindrance, and I think I maybe alluded to what I’m about to say in one of those articles, is a situation where a parent then proudly makes it known to the child too early in the game that that child has a big pile of money waiting for him when he gets to a rather young age. So that the child grows up feeling that if it works, fine, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine too. And it’s essentially stripping the child of the motivation to achieve things on his own and to become maximally productive. But I think it could be a great hindrance. And I’ve seen several children who were amongst my patients who had a difficulty with the role of the kind of over-eager supply of too many things by the parents.

HEFFNER: And yet that was real to them. I mean, they grew up in a world of affluence. The probability is they would never have to leave that world. Why did it make for difficulties in adjusting later on? I mean, if you start rich and you end rich, what difference does it make?

STONE: Well, in terms of material things that the kind of home you live in, maybe it doesn’t make so much difference. But it may make a difference if the child’s source of pride does rest on a foundation of academic achievement and achievement in the business or the professional world. And if the child compares himself or herself to others who have gone ahead in those areas, and if this particular child has had its drive kind of undermined by, you know, by not so much being given things along the way but by the promise that when he reaches a comparatively young age he won’t have another worry for the rest of its life. That diminishes the drive to accomplish…perhaps comfortable but with a sense of inner emptiness in not having really learned much, not having really mastered any particular craft. And that can be a big handicap.

HEFFNER: Of course, it brings us naturally to the value of deprivation or the value, at least, of a struggle. Is that something that you formulate for your patients or for yourself as you deal with them?

STONE: Yes. It may be that I’m too much a product of our own American work ethic to be able to see what’s on the other side of all this, but I can’t say that I see much that’s good in a life of vanity and emptiness where there aren’t tasks to master and so on. So that I see that there is a real tendency to get into psychological difficulties if one has gone throughout one’s whole childhood and not really developed an interest and kind of furthered that interest.

HEFFNER: Because of certain eternal verities that you see? Suppose for instance, we were to say that ours, increasingly, is an affluent society and the notion of “affluenza” really doesn’t hold water because around us we find plenty and in our lives we don’t have to struggle as perhaps in your generation and certainly mine we did. What difference does it make then, in terms of our sense of our own identity if we move into a world for which we’ve been prepared, we’ve been prepared to avoid the struggle, not to have to deal with struggle, and we move into a world that is new, it is different, it’s different from the one that you and I knew. Why would that create a disharmony psychologically speaking? I mean there is a harmony then. You start again with the notion that you don’t need to struggle and you end up with it. Are you concerned that perhaps there are eternal verities, a basic human need to strive and to struggle?

STONE: Well, I think there is the basic human need to strive and to accomplish. I don’t think Adam was cast out of Eden as if that was a terrible blow and a great loss despite the way we tend to depict that, because we all think it would be nice not to have to work but the fact of the matter is that work in the larger sense of mastering the environment, learning what there is going on around us and how to deal with it is essentially our survival. And if the whole generation suddenly became very complacent about it it would be other groups of people who would be less complacent because they had less, you know, who would conquer I suppose and be the ones who pushed us aside. And that’s looking at it not in terms of the individual now but in terms of the whole culture. So I certainly think that people need, you know, to alter the environment. But the individual also has that need, because as I say the tendency without that is not to have identified strongly with anything, to be rather rootless, to choose for mates or for friends people based on rather superficial things and to have a life that seems peculiarly empty. A life that is somehow devoid of the rich cultural…

HEFFNER: Opportunities that come from struggle, as you suggested in making points again where the natural products of a different kind of culture which may well be dying. I wanted to ask you what’s one of the symptoms that seem to manifest themselves when indeed you find a patient whose richness ahs been psychologically destructive?

STONE: Well, where it’s been destructive then I find this kind of anomie or rootlessness, lack of the supreme sense of identity, and often a depression. Doesn’t always have to be manifested as sadness and weeping, but a kind of depression, the sense of not mattering, you know, to anyone, not caring about one’s life. In fact, in more extreme instances I have seen people who have mattered so little to any important person let alone the parent as they grow up in these rich but paradoxically poor environments is that they had thrown their lives away, meaning that they have either, if not directly committed suicide, which I’ve seen less often, that they have gotten into accidents, found a lifestyle with drugs and chicken races on motorcycles and the highways where they had multiplied the chances for disaster. Partly to give themselves a strong sensation to fill the inner void, and partly out of the sense of not mattering to anyone, a kind of identification with the parent who doesn’t care about them. It’s as though, “Well, I don’t care about myself, either”. And so they treat themselves in a harsh way living out in their own lives what happened between parent and child.

HEFFNER: You’ve been working on this theme for a long time, I know, and I wondered whether you find an increase in this emotional damage or you find that we’re getting better hold of it, better understand it.

STONE: I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I never know how to answer it because it’s a phenomenon that hasn’t been appreciated for terribly long, and that means that we don’t have very good data on how much this was present let’s say in the 20s or the 30s, so I don’t really know. I know from novels and from what people talk about that there was, I guess, an epoch in the 20s, the flapper generation, where there were a lot of people who were probably raised in similar circumstances. But I would suppose there might be a little more of it now simply because the proportion of people who are quite well off I think is greater than it was the case let’s say at the turn of the century.

HEFFNER: You mean the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer?

STONE: I don’t know if the poor are getting poorer. I think it’s the absolute numbers of people who have very, very substantial means is increasing in a measurable way.

HEFFNER: As I read through some of the case histories in your various articles, I had the feeling, and perhaps I am wrong, that there seems to be more young women than young men among the patients. Is that a fair statement of the facts?

STONE: Well, it’s a fair statement with respect to my own personal experience. Whether that’s a reflection of anything in the culture of these particular families, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: What do you think?

STONE: I think that it’s only partly a reflection of these particular homes. I think there is a factor that has to do with these homes. There’s another factor that has to do with the greater readiness of women to acknowledge emotional troubles when they experience them, and so they more readily go for help than men will. So that’s a plus for the women. On the minus side I think many of these women in particular in some of these homes are raised with an ethic or a value system if I can call it that, that all they have to do is be pretty and catch a man, and not have to know anything about how the world works, not have to get much of an education, not have to learn a trade or learn how to do anything. Now, it doesn’t always work out that, even if the girl herself goes along with that philosophy, she can after all ignore the temper of her times and want to work and have a fine education like other girls that she gets to be friends with and so on and to go against the parents’ values. Or she may embody the parents’ values but for other reasons have a difficult time living it out. In either case, she’s more at risk than the fellows who’ve been often carefully taught to know how to handle the reigns of daddy’s business as it were. The girls grow up feeling rather empty. And it’s the emptiness and special sense of deprivation that I think leads them to depressive symptoms and ultimately to seek psychiatric help.

HEFFNER: Is there safety in numbers, where there are more rather than viewer children…is there less likelihood to be this kind of emotional impact of too much money?

STONE: I can’t say. My guess is that it doesn’t make much difference. I’m only thinking that some of the homes of the more drastic examples that I put in my articles were homes where there were four and five and six children.

HEFFNER: You know, I must say, as I read these pieces I couldn’t help but think of a theme that is so current these days, and that’s child abuse. And I wondered whether at times in reading some of them whether I wasn’t, one couldn’t have retitled this “A Series of Articles on Child Abuse”. And it was rather shocking. Am I naïve in this respect? Is it a function of the very rich, too, to be such child abusers?

STONE: Well, I think of abuse as a sin of commission. And neglect or deprivation or not being there for the child as a matter of omission. Abuse to my way of thinking has more to do with brutalizing the child physically, molesting the child sexually. I don’t think that the rich or the super rich do that more than people of other socio-economic classes.

HEFFNER: Which leads me to ask whether they do it less because they are freer to find surcease from what parents may consider the burdens of child rearing. I mean, as you’ve suggested in your pieces, they have a way out.

STONE: Well, I think although there are instances of both physical and sexual brutalization amongst the cases that I have written about, there are beginning to emerge now some reasonably reliable data about these matters over the last few years. A man by the name of [?] has done some epidemiological studies of this sort. And it would appear that to be somewhat less in the way of I think physical brutalization than perhaps somewhat less sexual molestation in upper-income versus lower-income families, but not so much as, it isn’t as if there aren’t any in the upper reaches. There is still a good measure, but not as much as in people who live in more strained circumstances.

HEFFNER: Dr. Stone, you comment in these pieces about what perhaps may be the greater difficulties for a therapist, for a psychoanalyst, for a psychotherapist in dealing with the very rich, with the children of the very rich. What should be difficult about that? Envy?

STONE: Envy on the part of the therapist? That can be a factor. That’s from the therapist’s side. Form the other side oftentimes where there’s apparent or both parents that are very, very used to getting their own way, and if they are attached to the child in a particular manner, they like the child to be…is willing to do what the parent wants and so forth, a child may be very…about that, maybe in psychotherapy partly to free himself or herself from that kind of attachment. The farther a child moves away from what the parent wants the more the parent may feel disappointed or threatened. Now, an average parent just bears that with good grace, or with bad grace as the case may be. But very wealthy parents are used to being very domineering and controlling as some of them are, certainly some of the ones that I had to deal with are. They may simply put the kibosh on the treatment. They will cut off the child and make it difficult for the treatment to continue. Or do something else to intrude upon the therapeutic relationship. I know other reasons exist. I think I hint about the other demonic things that happen where a particularly possessive parent…really went to the ends of the earth just about literally to hire…people to get evidence against the…


STONE: …which, you know, should even get the evidence you wanted, the fact that if you came to know what she was up to scared the…away so she got her way anyway. So the very capacity for controlling the large is much greater.

HEFFNER: I like the expression you used because it takes me back some years, putting something, putting the kibosh on something. Do you find that in cases dealing with the children of the very rich more frequently than in other cases something does happen to treatment, it is not continued, it is not brought to the usual conclusion? I mean, is there dropout more frequently?

STONE: A little more frequently. I wouldn’t say that is was very much greatly more frequent a problem. But of course the ones where they do drop out, they may have become the instances that I drew together in some of those articles. I don’t want to paint the picture that it happens with anything like absolute regularity.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting. One thing, of course, historically of a family like the Rockefellers with all of those megabucks who treated their children obviously in a way that helped them understand their own responsibilities, gave them very definite senses of themselves, and it’s so extraordinary to read these pieces and realize how widespread this, well, as the newspaper article that brought us together indicated, that the emotional problems of the rich are just the same or they’re not absent.

STONE: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And that leads me back to the more, shall I say sociologically oriented question, having to do not with the absence of a parent, per se, although as we all are more affluent we do leave the home somewhat more, but to the question of the impact of having things is upon an individual growing up having things available to you and whether that does really make us into a different kind of people. And I wondered what your feeling is about the absence of struggle in that way. You’ve stated it before, but I wonder if you can enlarge upon it in terms of what you think might be happening to us as a people, although psychiatrists, I know, don’t like to do that.

STONE: No, we don’t, because we are so used to more abnormal slices of the whole population continuum that we really don’t always know as much as you might fancy we know about ordinary…But I can imagine a situation where a family had a lot and could make many things available, you know, to the child. If at the same time there was a sense of being therefore the children and if the children got pretty plainly the picture that they mattered a lot to those folks and they begin to develop interests and have a sense of solidity that came from having been loved and so on, then those advantages could become extraordinarily useful to the child and of course lead to the child being able to develop certain interests much earlier than some other children. But in another home where there weren’t those attitudes…just random purchases of whatever was in F.A.O. Schwartz’s window, then I think you could get a different kind of a situation.

HEFFNER: We’ll have to feel sorry for the rich perhaps and remember that love and the work of the items that they have to have in their home life. Thanks so much for joining me today, Doctor.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.