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Successful Children Who Lost A Parent — Why Are There So Many Of Them?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - 11:09 AM

She was 9 when it happened. She says she was at school, in the school yard at recess, standing by the fence, when a thought passed through her "like the barest shadow of a mood." All of a sudden, and for no clear reason, she found herself thinking of her "Papi," her father, who'd been drunk, self-destructive and difficult for as long as she could remember.

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It turns out, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor found out later, that as she was having that thought, her Papi, lying in a nearby Bronx hospital, was dying. He died that same afternoon. "Deep down," she writes in her autobiography, "I'd known for awhile that this is where Papi was heading." Drink killed him, and perhaps, the hint of him in her head was his "saying goodbye." When she got home, she says she "ran down the hall and threw myself on the bed. I was sobbing, pounding my fists, when [her aunt] entered the room. 'Sonia, you have to be a big girl now. You have to be strong ... ' " For her, that was a turning point. Without a father, with a mother numb from grief, she writes, "the only way I'd survive was to do it myself."

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There's a similar story in The New York Times this week. This one is about Bill de Blasio, now running to be mayor of New York City. His father, Warren Wilhelm, was also an alcoholic, also difficult. From him, de Blasio says, "I learned what not to do." His father was constantly drunk, often angry. The two didn't get along. When Bill graduated high school he changed his last name from Wilhelm to de Blasio-Wilhelm, to honor his mother's side of the family. Then, when his dad killed himself at a motel in Connecticut (Bill was 18), Bill dropped his dad's name entirely.

'Eminent Orphans'

Losing a parent is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child. The world goes topsy-turvy. The psychologist Felix Brown reports that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood than the population as a whole.

But for some people, Malcolm Gladwell points out in his new book , the death of a mother or father is a spur, a propellant that sends them catapulting into life. Because they are on their own, they are forced to persist, to invent, to chart their own way — into a curious category Gladwell dubs "eminent orphans."

There are, he reports, a lot of them. Historian Lucille Iremonger discovered that 67 percent of British prime ministers from the start of the 19th century to the start of World War II lost a parent before the age of 16.

Almost A Third Of Our Presidents

Twelve presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — lost their fathers while they were young.

A psychologist, Marvin Eisenstadt, poured through a number of major encyclopedias, looking for people whose biographies "merited more than one column" — and of 573 people, Gladwell reports, "a quarter had lost at least one parent before the age of 10. By age 15, 34.5 percent had had at least one parent die, and by the age of 20, 45 percent. Even for the years before the 20th century, when life expectancy due to illness and accidents and warfare was much lower than it is today, those are astonishing numbers."

Cause Or Correlation?

Gladwell doesn't come out and say that losing a parent early increases one's chances of success later. But in study after study, among those who have succeeded, the incidence of "eminent orphans" is oddly high. The correlation shows up for scientists here and here. It shows up in a study of "father absence" among eminent poets here.

This is a touchy subject. Nobody wants to say that catastrophe is a career booster; common sense says the opposite, that children with intact families get more love, protection and support, which ought to be an advantage later on. But it's also true that kids with missing parents need extra muscles, grit and self reliance — also ingredients for success.

The surprise here is the proportion of highly successful people who lost a parent early. Their achievements, of course, may have little or nothing to do with how many parents they had at home, but looking through Gladwell's footnotes, it is puzzling to see so many of them at the top of their professions. This suggests, ever so slightly, that pain trumps love at the start of the race. That's a notion that makes me wince.

Is later eminence worth such a price? Because the price is high. Gladwell ends his book with a short sketch of a remarkable French war hero, Andre Trocme, who refused to turn Jewish refugees over to the Nazis during the occupation, who defied them openly, to their faces, even when he was under arrest. His refusal to lie, to back down, to even bend a little is a puzzle, but Gladwell offers this hint of explanation.

'It's Because You Left Me ... '

When Trocme was 10 years old, he was in a car accident. His father drove too fast, the car spun out of control and his mother was thrown through the air and landed, lifeless, 30 feet from the wreckage. Andre saw the body and suffered a hurt so great, the pain, the unfairness of it all, gave him a dark, almost black courage. He had seen the worst. After that, nothing frightened him.

Many years after the accident, he wrote a letter to his dead mother, a confession:

"If I have been a fatalist, and have been a pessimistic child who awaits death every day, and who almost seeks it out, if I have opened myself slowly and late to happiness, and if I am still a somber man, incapable of laughing whole-heartedly, if it's because you left me that June 24th upon that road.

"But if I have believed in eternal realities ... if I have thrust myself toward them, it is also because I was alone, because you were no longer there to be my God, to fill my heart with your abundant and dominating life."

Parents, we all know, can hurt. But losing them hurts more. The hurt is there. It's how we handle it that makes the difference.


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Comments [9]

IndyLady from Indianapolis

I agree that "kids with missing parents need extra muscles, grit and self reliance" and those can be precursors to success. But after losing my father in the mid-60s when I was 12, that grit and self-reliance resulted in reluctance to trust others, keeping me socially awkward as well as angry at God. That's a hard thing for kids to figure out - who they're mad at and how to trust those who try to reach out to them. Some make it out of that despair and are able to succeed - some don't. Yay for those who do - and not just the famous ones.

Dec. 05 2013 01:02 PM
L from US

I was orphaned by domestic violence when I was twelve. My brothers and I were split up. I lived in foster homes and group homes and moved every six months. I only found stability when I was 17 and on my own. I was given $200 and I had to survive. I usually worked more than 1 job at a time and took college classes whenever I could. I have traveled the world, built my own house and am at the top of my profession as a financial advisor. But, my best achievement is I am compassionate. One has a choice to turn hard, which is the easy choice, or to actively chose to use your experience with pain to help others who are suffering. In my observation, family, is often a blessing and a curse. A lot of brilliant people have been destroyed by dysfunctional families.

Nov. 29 2013 12:24 AM

why the continued promotion of malcolm gladwell?? smells of jonah lehrer...
please find scientists who are good storytellers and stop relying on storytellers who pretend to do science.

Oct. 29 2013 06:24 PM
Wes Mallett

In response to Isaac's comment. In the book, Gladwell states that the difference in life expectancy from that time period until modern times was accounted for in the study and analysis. Pick up the book though, it is a good read, and there are many other unexpected surprises to be found. I've read 4 of Gladwell's 5 books in the last three months, and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

Oct. 22 2013 10:12 PM
Rene from Washington DC

This idea is also missing the number of orphans who didn't do well.

To make up some numbers to show what I mean, let us just say of 100 really accomplished people in the public sphere 25 were orphans; and let us agree that this is astonishing.

But how many total orphans are there? And what happened to the rest of them? So, if there are 7,000 orphans, and 25 become superstars, and 3,000 do ok and 2,975 end up in jail, alcoholic or dead by 45, the 25 number isn't looking so very good.
The outcomes in foster care and in kids who come out of orphanages in foreign countries, and those stats are horrible (early death, incarceration, suicide, joblessness, addiction, homelessness, abandonment of their own kids). Just google searching this topic brought up studies that say the death of a parent in childhood is a negative experience, and the death of parents, into adulthood, emotional has a negative impact.

My children came to me through foster care, and in the various settings where I have met kids who have had trauma in childhood, there seemed to me to be a disproportionate number who came from families with a mother who died. These were not kids in care, or adopted, or foster kids, just kids whose mom died and that loss caused some serious emotional challenges -- "maladaptive coping behaviors".

I think perhaps Mr. Gladwell may be wrong on this. You are both making an assumption that these folks would not have been extra-ordinary without dead parents. Dunno. They may have been even more extra-ordinary.

Parental death is not a positive experience in the long term life development of a human, even if a few of us are able to overcome it or use it to motivate ourselves.

Kids need parents. A lot.

Oct. 19 2013 01:31 PM

i have been quite successful despite the fact that both my parents
died before i was born.

Oct. 19 2013 04:02 AM
Isaac from State College, PA

I am a little troubled by the lack of actual stats cited for people who lost at least one parent during youth from before the 1900s. For example, in Middlesex, Virginia in the 17th century, 73% of youth had lost at least one parent by the time they were 21 or married (whichever came first) (The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society).
It was often the default assumption in the 1700s that only one parent would likely survive to see children married.
Even by the 1850s, life expectancy at age 20 was only around 55 years (it's more like 75 today) ( I'm having a hard time finding basic numbers for parent loss during that time, but you will notice that, of those twelve Presidents, 8 were born before 1840.
Basically, we need the numbers to contrast against, especially since we're talking about many people who were born when deaths of parents were commonplace. For example, think of how many seminal historical figures who would actually get extensive Western encyclopedia entries - especially politicians, scientists, and explorers - would have been born pre-1900s).
Show us the numbers and let us decide how astonishing they are?

Oct. 18 2013 07:48 PM

Wow, according to, it's 2% by time their eighteen in America.

Oct. 18 2013 05:29 PM

What percentage of people (all people) lose a parent by the age of twenty? I'd like to compare it with the 45 percent you cite. Thanks :).

Oct. 18 2013 05:18 PM

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