In the present paper, the personality of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is discussed from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The main emphasis of the psychoanalytical discussion of this prominent personality is placed on his relationship with the father, and the elder brother Joe Jr. and how they have influenced his value system, life path and place in the American history. In other words, the complexity of relationship between those three people is analyzed as main psychoanalytical context for JFK’s life and activity. John Kennedy is analyzed in accordance to the classical Freudian psychoanalytical model. The emphasis is placed on his value system, work priorities, personal characteristics and his impact on lives of other people and country in general. Appropriate conclusions are given in the end of the paper.
Key words: psychoanalysis, John Kennedy, Oedipus complex, ego, superego, struggle
Psychoanalytical Profile of John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Before getting straight to the analysis of JFK’s psychoanalytic profile, it is crucial to emphasize the family environment and time when he was born in respect to his brother Joe Kennedy Jr. The difference between two brothers was two years, which according to Freudian personality development stages referred to Joe’s anal and phallic stages. Although the family environment in the Kennedy family was favorable for the birth of a second son, his place was initially different from the first child (Barnes, 2005). This was conditioned by two aspects. First of all, father Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. was the elder son in his family, he was a successful businessman and politician; in other words, he was a winner, and taking the second place was treated as weakness and loss. Subsequently, the first child in his own family was the greatest hope and was supposed to continue father’s path and ambitions. In this case, naming his first-born son after himself is quite a vivid proof of his ambitions and narcissist inclinations (Dallek, 2003). Therefore, the Joe Jr. was raised in the atmosphere of adoration and connivance until the birth of another child – John.
Although attention to the first-born child remained superior, in his perception most of the immediate attention was given to the new-born infant. This became even more crucial in further development – the inborn, life-long competition of two brothers was mainly conditioned by the difference of their birth (Hellmann, 1997). Joe’s phallic stage, when sexual differences and maturity are comprehended, corresponded to John’s oral and anal stages, when self-confidence and creativity are developed and should be encouraged by parents. Irrespective of the age difference John was basically following the programme of Joe Jr. and was seen through the achievements of his brother (Barnes, 2005). Particular feature of Kennedy brothers’ Oedipus complex is that while Joe Jr. could identify himself with the father and consider him as his rival for mother’s attention, John had constantly to oppose himself two both his father and his elder brother. In other words, he was always in competition with those two figures in his life (Hellmann, 1997). While Freudian classic model is considered to be exquisitely sexual, its wider psychoanalytical interpretation suggests that inability to resolve successfully Oedipus complex in the early childhood results in various forms of psychological dependence (Levine, 2000). In the case of JFK, he depended greatly on his father’s opinion and ability to compete with his brother.
The competition between siblings is, in fact, a normal phenomenon, particularly when the difference in age is not more than a couple of years. In further personality development, this competition and rivalry are suppressed by the development of super-ego and comprehension of the needs of other people (Renik, 2006). Under normal circumstances, guilt for the desire to win at all costs and possible initial hatred for a sibling occurs. This happens under conditions of active participation of parents in normalization of siblings’ relationship. During the latent and genital stages, both brothers were likely to overcome their competition due to the different interests and social skills (Debbie & Smith, 1999). This did not take place due to their father’s narcissist and pragmatic inclinations. His self-identification with elder son made him want to shape winners in his sons, which inevitably was affecting the younger John, who had no indulgences even as an excuse for his poor health. In other words, father’s desire to win triggered this competition and remained the Oedipus complex unresolved between brothers, particularly for both of them. Characteristic feature of Kennedy’s situation was that the long-termed inability to resolve the conflict between brothers resulted in the complex’s transformation and shift from the mother as a central object of possession to winning of father’s respect and love. In other words, two brothers were fighting in order to equal with their charismatic father and his place in the world (Debbie & Smith, 1999).
Characteristic feature in brothers’ behavioral patterns was that they expressed their desire to win and match each other in two different but complementary modes. While Joe Jr. was acting from the position of power and leadership, always challenging his younger brother, John had developed the second type of defense mechanism described by Freud - identification of himself with another same-sex personality, which is not his father/brother (Levine, 2000). The need for self-identification resulted in youth searches conducted in the family-free environment, which was possible at the Choate School in Wallingford. Although being in the shadow of his brother and his incredible performance as a football player, John managed to express himself through rebellious, asocial actions, which in its turn contributed to the balancing his inner struggle between ego and Id (Dallek, 2003).
Although from strictly psychological perspective of personal independence, competition with brother may seem quite exhausting for the developing personality and leadership, it formed John Kennedy better than any other factor of his life. This eternal competition made him the President of the United States and a prominent figure in the American history. Now it should be explained how. First of all, knowing from the early years that physical weakness and illnesses are not excuses for the losses, John learned that his physical condition is irrelevant for the aim achievement (Barnes, 2005). All that mattered was a success and victory. Being under a constant pressure and hiding his inner self from the public and family audience made him a good actor and his smile even more unforgettable and eyes even sadder, since he knew the price of victory (Dallek, 2003).
Concerning John Kennedy’s field of public activity, it was also conditioned by his family position and relationship with brother and father. First of all, public position of John was dictated by the social status of Kennedy family. Being one of the pillar families of the American society, Kennedy’s were targeting not lower than the state and national politics. Form the early childhood, children were raised in a clear comprehension of socially acceptable behavior and restricted frivolous actions. Subsequently, superego in the face of the head of the family suppressed free will of family members’ egos (Debbie & Smith, 1999). John was not an exception, particularly, since he was the second son and after Joe Jr. death in August 1944 became the eldest. It was unarguable that the Joe Jr.’s function of running for the highest political posts in the country would be transferred to John (Renik, 2006). Under conditions of strong superego in the face of the family, John still had a chance to rebel against those prescriptions, but his ego was deeply wounded by brother’s death – desire to win was substituted by guilt of former competition spirit and even some envy always felt to Joe Jr. (Levine, 2000). This quilt was more motivating for following brother’s path than father’s desire. From that moment, John was struggling even harder towards victory and success, since he had no one else to compete with but his inner self-perception and self-identification with the dead brother. In other words, the Oedipus conflict had changed from external to internal one – John was trying to gain father’s respect and love of the eldest son by performing the role of Joe Jr. (Barnes, 2005).
Irrespective of the inner complexity of John Kennedy’s motives and desire to prove himself to his father and family, his public activity should not be seen just as role playing. His moral values and equal attitude to people were true. Kennedy’s social policy and equal attitude to all American citizens was still new for his time and policies of both parties. Although his speeches and some public actions like live translations from his residence were exquisitely electorate motivating, his policies and motivations were dictated by his inner comprehension of human nature – its vulnerability and ability to do impossible when it is needed or when the fight is the right one (Barnes, 2005). From a certain perspective, it may seem that the last paragraph is like praising of John Kennedy as flawless and unselfish person what is rare for a politician. In fact, he was that kind of person, at least as much as politician and the President of the USA can be. His lack of narcissist inclinations (inevitable component of strength and political power) was mainly conditioned by his life of sufferings and constant physical struggle for each smile given to public, each step taken towards strengthening of the American foreign policy (Dallek, 2003). He could not conquer the superego and make it follow the orders of the ego and id because, he was raised in obedience to the supreme an even divine superego – power of social morality and prevalence of family traditions.
Undoubtedly, John Kennedy had charismatic leadership in his appearance, but it was not dictated by the blood running in his veins. It was conditioned by the life he had conducted, life full of struggle against inner fears, ghosts of the past and future and inborn need to win and get fame for his family. John Kennedy represents the American royalty with its rules and hidden secrets, which were to be remained away from the public eyes just as his id was hidden from the superego (Hellmann, 1997). Hiding the inner self and the depth of his character can be proved by the fact the knowledge of his illnesses became public long after his assassination. His strength and resistance to the circumstances were not entirely evaluated before the discovery of his physical weakness and health vulnerability (Renik, 2006). Unlike individuals with the messiah complex, who believe that they are destined to save humanity or are eager to sacrifice themselves in the name of sociality, John Kennedy was just following his moral and value codex, the path given to him by destiny. It was not even his path but his brothers. The second son was practically doomed to live two lives for both of them. The complexity of this burden was one of the main reasons why John Kennedy remained as enigmatic figure in American history (Hellmann, 1997).
The overall impact of John Kennedy on the American society and people who were close to him or knew him was in exemplarity of life complexity and ability to be grateful for each moment given. Physical and social environment are essential for an individual’s development, but his own desire to win are even more important. It is arguable was his desire to win conditioned exquisitely by father’s narcissism, brother’s Oedipus complex or his inner id desire to survive no matter what. In any case, John Kennedy’s life and death show the American society that strength is of inner origin and that humanity is not always corrupted by power and political influence and that duty is above personal interest (Renik, 2006). From the strictly psychoanalytical perspective, John Kennedy embodied a complex personality development conditioned by unresolved childhood conflicts of siblings’ competition as a form of Oedipal complex, which unlike most of the cases did not result in harmful self-destructive actions, but instead had given additional impulse and desire to act and survive. If Freud were making an analysis of John Kennedy, he would probably conclude that irrespective of all social conditionality and complexity of family relations, John Kennedy’s id was the strongest in the sense that he survived and won against all odds. His inner pillar or charisma was overwhelming his ego and superego of his father and society.
Overall, it can be summarized that a psychoanalytical profile of John Kennedy is based on his self-perception as the second son in the patriarchal family, where the eldest son was the hope of the family’s victory. Thus, the main superego motivation of his actions was the desire to gain father’s respect and love and match achievements of the elder brother, who in his turn was trying to look more victorious against a background of the younger brother. Irrespective of the stimulus of such competition, the main driving force of John Kennedy’s success and life performance was the desire to survive and to be able to change something in the world. In other words, his instinctive part of personality was stronger than all imposed rational of ego and social norms of superego created by his father. Although he did not rebel against his father’s will, particularly after death of his brother, John still rebelled against imposed superego. His rebel was in succeeding against all odds of physical reality and doing it in his own way. In the American history, John Fitzgerald Kennedy will remain an embodiment of victory of humanity over physical limits of human existence.
Barnes, J.A. (2005). John F. Kennedy on Leadership: The Lessons and Legacy of a President. New York, NY: AMACOM.
Dallek, R. (2003). An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. San Francisco, CA: Brown and Company.
Debbie, H. & Smith, M.V. (1999).Personality Development: A Psychoanalytical Perspective. London, LD: Routledge.
Hellmann, J. (1997). The Kennedy Obsession: The American Myth of JFK. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Levine, M.P. (2000). The Analytic Freud: Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. London, LD: Routledge.
Renik, O. (2006). Practical Psychoanalysis for Therapists and Patients. New York, NY: Other Press.