He has been called the most significant President of the 20th century. Ronald Reagan’s devotion to the American people and his unwavering commitment to managing both domestic and foreign affairs with sincerity, composure and efficiency provided a beacon of hope in an era that was marked by economic turmoil on the homefront and an impending threat of nuclear war.
An analysis of Reagan’s life history, from a psychological standpoint, seeks to reveal the significant factors and influential events that may shed light on how he acquired the distinctive characteristics and how the interplay of how these factors subsequently shaped the extraordinary person he became. It is necessary to consider the influence of heredity, certain family issues, social systems and environment on psychological development. Ronald Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in the small midwestern town of Tampico, Illinois to Nell (mother) and Jack (father) and older brother Neil.
Jack Reagan was a salesman, a staunch Irish- Catholic, a Democrat, despised bigotry and racial discrimination, supported blue collar workers and instilled in his sons the same values. Possibly more influential to Ronald’s psychological development was that his father was also an alcoholic (Gilbert, 2007). This was very difficult aspect of Reagan’s childhood and he struggled to cope with his reality and make sense of his father’s behavior. Ronald's mother, Nelle was a very patient and nurturing woman who doted on her sons.
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She can be credited for familiarizing Ronald to theater and the stage by sharing with him her love of acting, as she was an actress herself. Being on stage and performing proved to be enjoyable for Ronald, so much so that he went on to star in various Hollywood movies. He even confessed that, “for a kid suffering childhood pangs of insecurity, the applause was music” (Will, 1990). She made a concerted effort to help them recognize that their fathers alcoholism, while upsetting and hard to understand, was a disease.
Nelle was sympathetic in helping her sons deal with their father’s affliction and urged them not to blame their father for succumbing to the disease. She functioned as the constant source of unconditional loving care that seemed to lessen, though not completely diminish, the impact of Jack’s disease (Gilbert, 2007). She reminded her sons how evident their father’s love was when he was not drinking and helped them to maintain love and respect for their father in spite of his weakness.
Nelle was a faithfully eligious woman and frequently made visits to families in need, the sick and went out of her way to lend a helping hand to anyone she was able help. Her generosity, kindness and unconditional love had a profound impact on her sons and masked some of the pain and disillusionment associated with their fathers’ alcoholism (Gilbert, 2007). For Reagan, growing up in an environment marked by the staggering paradox of his parents left an indelible impact on his life. His mother was the dependable parent who provided consistent love and guidance.
In contrast, Jack Reagan’s alcoholism caused his sons considerable grief and confusion as to why he was unable to conquer his disease. Nelle Reagan wanted to protect her sons by rationalizing Jack’s behavior hoping they would not develop resentment towards their father. These efforts by Nelle, while well intentioned, served to create the illusion that the Reagan home environment was less dysfunctional than it truly was. According to Psychodynamic Theory, her behavior could be interpreted as reflective of an unconscious need to protect her children.
Making a consistent effort to assure her sons that their father was the victim of a disease and powerless against his alcoholism could be classified as an illustration of both denial and rationalization. Denial is defined as, “the persons refusal to acknowledge external realities or emotions” (Kowalski and Westen, 2009). Rationalization can be identified as, “explaining away actions in a seemingly logical way to avoid uncomfortable feelings” (Kowalski and Westen, 2009). The Reagan family moved many times as a result of Jack’s inability to maintain work.
This made it difficult for Ronald to build friendships which inevitably took a toll on his social skills as a boy and his ability to have meaningful relationships as an adult. As a child, Ronald Reagan was an introverted child with low self esteem (Gilbert, 2007). This is highly characteristic of children with alcoholic parents. Many individuals in Reagan’s close knit inner circle observed his reluctance, even inability, to sustain intimate and meaningful relationships with very many individuals. This is consistent to what research suggests about children who grow up in families in which at least one of the parents is an alcoholic.
According to an article in the International Journal of Social Sciences and General Studies, “since the family is the context in which children usually learn to express their feelings, to love and express affection and to trust and share intimate aspects of their lives; it is understandable that many adult children of alcoholics have significant problems with psychosocial adjustment. They show extreme difficulty in sharing themselves in intimate ways with other people” (2010). It seems unlikely that Ronald Reagan, or any child who endures such unfortunate experiences, would ultimately be an actor or the president of the United States!
However, the attention that Reagan sought was passive attention. He did not necessarily have to interact with audience members or constituents on a level that forced him to create any intimate, personal bond with these persons. Rather, he was able to operate from a secluded platform where he was able to control people’s perceptions of him. While he proved to be an effective leader and loved President, his childhood and subsequent development were certainly noticeable and undoubtedly affected how he operated as the leader of the free world.
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