Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood reminds us of the utter failure of money and privilege to guarantee happiness or a sense of well-being. Though born “well-to-do,” Eleanor’s mother had little to do with her; and her father, an alcoholic, was likewise never dependably available. Even more devastating, her mother died when Eleanor was eight; and her father two years later.
Orphaned by age 10, Eleanor was then reared by her grandmother, tutored privately, and eventually sent to an English finishing school, where she learned French and the value of independent thinking from a noted feminist headmaster.
By age 17, Eleanor was serving as a social worker in the East Side slums of New York City. It was 1902; the same year she met and enjoyed the romantic attention of her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who not only would become her husband and the father of their six children, but also a senator, a governor, and finally President of the United States, the only one ever elected to four terms.
Of interest to Thinkwriter at this time, however, is the identification of Eleanor Roosevelt’s worldview by way of her four earliest childhood recollections.
So, let us begin….
In memory #1, Eleanor Roosevelt recalls being doted on and held high above a crowd of her father’s cronies - an exhilarating experience - or if at all frightening, one that proved to be exciting rather than threatening. As her father picks her up off the ground and holds her high in the air, she readily sacrifices herself to please him. Over the years, she remembers the incident with pleasure and longs to be in that one-up position always – adored and appreciated by the man of the house – the man with the power.
When a person is “one-up,” he or she can do for others; when “one-down,” a person needs others. Recall that FDR’s paralytic illness provided Eleanor the opportunity to be “one-up” and also to have her own mind. Eleanor served as a stand-in for him, making appearances on his behalf and otherwise representing him before and during his New York governorship, as well as when he would become President of the United States. He needed her. In fact, the helping activity she supplied, beginning in the early 1920s, set the stage for what would later be the most active role of any First Lady in history – a position of power fully supported by her incapacitated husband during a time when few women even had careers.
Note in memory #2 that immediately after witnessing others slide down a deep descent, Eleanor chooses to stay on the high road (as she did throughout her life). She chooses to go it alone rather than to place herself in jeopardy, thus remaining “one-up” rather than dependent on the others. She is saying, in effect, “I take the road that is right for me.”
In memory #3, Eleanor recalls the physical pain of coming down Mount Vesuvius and the effort she put forth to hide this discomfort from her father. Once again, she sacrifices herself to do what her father needs her to do. Symbolically, the pain of losing high ground also represents the grief experienced when anything ends – be it an experience, a project, a relationship, even one’s hopes and expectations – a phenomenon considered so uncomfortable for some people that they choose to over-schedule and over-commit rather than to experience the pain of “coming down.”
In memory #4, Eleanor recalls being stuck in a convent before she was six years old. She remembers the upside down value system of the convent experience wherein swallowing a penny resulted in receiving good attention. Feeling alone and abandoned, Eleanor attempts to be recast as someone in need of care in order to regain a one-up sense of value; however, she is soon punished for telling a “tall tale.” Even so, the results work to her favor.
Thinking back on this memory as an adult, Eleanor would have had the knowledge of her mother’s death two years later. Whatever punishment she received would have been a small price to pay for the opportunity to be at home in the final years of her mother’s life.
Of note also is the similarity of this experience to children who appear to have a school phobia. Many times it is not school that is feared. Rather it is the fear of leaving home that is the problem. Some children fear leaving home, because of what might or would likely happen in their absence.
In Eleanor’s case, living in a convent also involved exposing all her inadequacies. She had not received adequate “mothering” and was also more serious minded than other girls her age. In fact, she had been given few, if any opportunities to play with other girls. She couldn’t speak French, was awkward in appearance, and worse yet, there were no men in the convent. Her most positive childhood experiences involved her father; and what hope did she have of seeing him while living in a convent? Thus, she was totally dependent there – not needed by anyone and longing to feel of value.
Thus, we see that Eleanor’s worldview, as evidenced by her early memories is “I have to be needed.” “Taking the low road” was against her principles, but it wasn’t what motivated her behavior, nor was the act of “seeking attention” the incentive for her actions. Rather, when we look behind the curtain of Eleanor Roosevelt’s early memories, we find that her sense of value was based on the idea that she had to earn a place in the affection of others. Although born wealthy and privileged, life’s most valuable asset, love, was not simply afforded her.