Chelsea As Adult

by paul lowinger
December 28, 2001

Did the World Trade Center disaster benefit any Americans? Yes, maybe Chelsea Clinton who was in New York during 9/11 and got to write about her reactions to it in Talk. This was her first article and marks her emergence as a public figure in her own right at twenty-one as she goes off to Oxford. Also 9/11 gave her a reason to call on her former boyfriend for “hugs” which he delivered. So maybe he benefited too. The other beneficiaries were Chelsea watchers like myself who before Chelsea’s article had only second hand accounts and rumors for our psychological picture of Chelsea.

Chelsea says she was innocent before 9/11 using the neologism “innocences” to describe her state of mind. Although she’d seen the victims of war, famine and natural disaster in her travels with Hillary and Bill, it hadn’t really affected her personal outlook. Before 9/11 she was “feeling good about where I was in my life and where I was going.” She had graduated from Stanford in June and was moving on to Oxford in October to study international relations.

Chelsea was staying with her best friend Nicole Davison in an apartment near Union Square in lower Manhattan a few miles from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Her friend went to work but phoned shortly afterward to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Chelsea turned on the television and watched the second plane hit. Now Chelsea was fearful and lonely and wanted to talk to her mother in Washington but couldn’t get through.

After watching the 9/11 spectacle again on TV, she left the apartment in a “panic” looking for another phone so she could try the call to her mother again. She wandered south toward Ground Zero hoping to find an available working phone since everyone was fleeing north but she couldn’t find one. As she saw the streams of people, many ash-covered, tearful and frightened she became more depressed, erratic, emotional and confused. On the terrifying streets, she heard an explosion, she saw fires and someone said that one of the towers had fallen. Although later she didn’t remember where she had been, immediately afterward she recalled a few landmarks and people said that she was only twelve blocks from Ground Zero.

Chelsea describes the symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when she says, “...I find myself returning to the day itself.” Her ”...sense of security is gone and...for some moment of every day, I have been scared...by...an uncertainty about my place in the world..” Many who were at or near Ground Zero on 9/11 had similar reactions so Chelsea is not unique but this is a unique opportunity to study Chelsea. PTSD is defined by anxiety and depression in response to the exposure to a man-made or natural disaster with flashbacks that revive the trauma. Later at Oxford, Chelsea’s response to the 9/11 tragedy includes an aversion to peace demonstrations, a preference for the companionship of Americans instead of foreigners and a sense of personal dislocation.

Those who developed PTSD after Vietnam were a minority among the veterans who who served. (PTSD was called neurocirculatory asthenia in the Civil War, shell shock in World War I, traumatic war neurosis in World War II and argueably, Gulf War syndrome.) The vets have had panic attacks, depression, rage reactions, flashbacks and substance abuse for years after Vietnam while Chelsea’s symptoms have lasted only about two months so far.

The people with the most vulnerable ego defenses are the most likely to succumb to PTSD. For example, the successful use of Denial as an ego mechanism may block PTSD along with other mechanisms like Repression, Intellectualization and Sublimation. Ego defenses can’t be measured but their failures are often quite observable like Marilyn Monroe who committed suicide or unhappy Princess Di who developed anorexia. (See Hillary’s Ego Defenses and Bill’s Ego Defenses for an explanation.)

PTSD offers an understanding of life development because it usually signals a personal loss or stress earlier in life. I don’t know what that event was for Chelsea but typically PTSD occurs on a stage set by childhood trauma. In more general terms, Chelsea does have an unresolved Oedipal development and such a complex may be significant in the development of PTSD along with other influences including genetic, physical and environmental factors. In other words, we can look backward from Chelsea’s PTSD to the vulnerablities in her life experiences and her ego development that led her to PTSD.

We don’t have enough information about Chelsea to predict the outcome of her PTSD but I’d speculate that the forces of self-healing will prevail, maybe with psychotherapy and an antidepressant like Prozac.

What do Chelsea’s own words say? Chelsea’s Oedipal formations are explicit. Her fears and confusion need assuaging so she calls her mother in Washington in the morning of 9/11 but fails to connect until the afternoon. Chelsea’s difficulties in phoning her mother stand in contrast to the simplicity of her call to her father in Australia and his arrival home at Chappaqua the next day.

On Thursday of that week, she tours lower Manhattan with Bill during tear-stained hours of high emotion with the families searching for their lost loved ones. Chelsea is “overwrought” and she explains her “horror” in her first-ever interviews on camera. The following week Chelsea goes to Ground Zero with Bill; Hillary has already been there three times, once with President Bush. Chelsea is “proud” of Bill and “unspeakably proud” of Hillary. Split your own hairs here.

In Arkansas, Chelsea told the school nurse when she needed an aspirin, “Call my dad - my mom’s too busy.” When Chelsea was seven, Bill told her he might not be able to go to Disney World if he ran for President so she said, “Well, then Mom and I will go without you.” The Oedipus complex is never settled; it can be manipulated by the players to satisfy their changing emotional needs.

The orthodox Freudian Oedipal explanation says that Chelsea’s unconscious seeks a sexual connection and a baby with her father or his surrogate to replace the missing penis. But feminist psychoanalyst Shalala Chehrazi says the solution of a girl’s Oedipal dilemma is to identify with her mother and so to satisfy her sexual needs with a mother-approved surrogate whom she could marry and then have a baby, another identification with her mother. Mr. Hugs is the Oedipal focus of these equations. In the first scenario, mother and daughter are murderous rivals while in the second they are allies. All this is unconscious and influential as Chelsea’s daily life moves among different alternatives. (See Hillary’ Oedipus Meets Feminist Theory for more on this.)

Another game in the 9/11 casino is Chelsea’s phone call to her boyfriend seeking “hugs.” They have agreed to a separation as she goes off to Oxford while he returns to Stanford for his senior year. Reason trumps love as Chelsea says their separation is a rational solution. No matter what was decided or how the decision was made, this is Chelsea’s theater. So she writes a script of sacrifice in the interests of what? Order, study, lower phone bills, a new lover and absence makes the heart grow fonder. All and each may be the rationale for a decision that’s really an emotional one.

The proposed sacrifice by Chelsea of future intimacy with Mr. Hugs is the sadomasochism of Chelsea’s psyche and maybe Mr. Hug’s too. It is sadism because Chelsea’s infliction of no contact with Mr. Hugs involves her pain and a sexualized response to it. And of course, masochism too because her suffering is also sexually stimulating. Her sadism and masochism involve suffering by Chelsea both as the victim and as the perpetrator while Mr. Hug’s suffering amplifies the overall S and M effect. (The theory of sadomasochism as an unconscious mechanism appears in Hillary’s Sadism and Masochism and Bill’s Sadism and Masochism.)

This is not meant to say that Chelsea is a sadomasochist although this is a prominent personality characteristic of both her parents. For Chelsea, it is one of several normal mental mechanisms. But watch for Chelsea’s unconscious sadomasochistic trends as a force in her future behavior.

Chelsea’s article offers the reader personal details and emotions as well as a look at her personality so the effect of her mother’s scoptophilia on Chelsea is diminished. Hillary’s scopotophilia is the sexualization of looking. Chelsea was a part of this process as a teenager who was hidden with the rationale that this would protect her privacy. Chelsea isn’t a scoptophiliac and her words say that it’s alright for her to look at anyone and for anyone to look at her. (Scoptophilia is explained in Hillary as Mother and Chelsea as Orphan)

Chelsea’s emotions after 9/11 are predominately depressive as is the case in PTSD. She has gloomy thoughts, fear, loneliness and tears and her venues are funerals, memorial services and the morgue.

I hear no anger from Chelsea amid the words and emotions of her hysteria. It is striking that the terrorist acts of 9/11 have produced no rage or hostility in Chelsea. Chelsea identifies with America but America is angry and vengeful toward Osama bin Laden who personifies the terrorists. America’s bombing of Afghanistan began three weeks after 9/11 while al-Qaeda, the terrorists’ network is targeted by American forces inside the U. S. and elsewhere. American anger leads some to demonize Islam and Muslims.

We get an oblique look at Chelsea’s anger as she visits the New York family of high school friend August Zach who has joined the Marines and will report as a lieutenant to Quantico in November. Some, maybe even Chelsea said it was a waste of his Cornell degree to join the Marines but now Chelsea feels he is protecting her and America. She asks, should I enlist in the Marines? Her strained answer is that she and the others outside the military are also serving by pursuing their studies and their careers like banking.

Why does Chelsea avoid her anger about 9/11? The reason is in Chelsea’s personality. She never developed a temper like her parents who were often outspoken in their anger at each other as well as their enemies and sometimes their friends too. Chelsea’s anger turns inward so when she was angry at a boyfriend and her Dad during the Monica crisis in 1998, it was said that she went to the emergency room for stomach pains that were psychosomatic. (Hillary and Bill’s anger are discussed in the sections on their ego defenses, their sadism and masochism and also in Bill’s Death Instinct.)

High tempers were well developed in both the Clinton and the Rodham families as we read about Chelsea’s parents and her grandparents too. There were plenty of psychological factors as well as reasons in reality for these parents, grandparents and even the great grandparents to express anger and rage.

What was different about Chelsea? She had an ego defense, Inhibition that blocks awareness of emotions, anger in this case. Ego defenses develop along with other attributes of personality but they also have constitutional bases. When more is known about Chelsea, we can make a list of her ego mechanisms of defense and the psychosexual stages that influenced their development.

Chelsea explains her passivity saying that the young are “powerless” but then she releases her generation, “Give blood, mentor and celebrate America’s greatness.” This is a rather anemic update of “make love, not war,” the slogan of her parents’ youth. Chelsea’s new patriot in the 01’s cries, “I regret I have only one pint of blood to give and one hour a week to mentor for my country.” These homilies end with the proverb that is the title of her mother book, “It Takes a Village To Raise a Child” and then Chelsea’s tangent with activism and anger is gone.

Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose’s best known rhyme focused Chelsea’s concerns so she quotes it:

Chelsea says the fallen Humpty Dumpty stands for her worry about the the damage of 9/11 and the overwhelming problems of reconstruction.

Humpty Dumpty was an egg and so he is a symbol of the the earth and of life itself in numerous tales of creation. The rhyme itself has a firm hold on the popular imagination appearing in different European languages over thousands of years. The words are recited by adults and children using rhyming, warm emotion and sharing to transcend death and loss according to psychoanalyst Stewart Gabel. Humpty Dumpty addresses the conscious and unconscious pain of universal tragedies. It uses symbolism, metaphor and humor to mobilize psychological defenses against these sad and fearful events. So the healing for Chelsea begins with this verse.

A darker and narrower interpretation of the power of Humpty Dumpty’s fall is offered by psychoanalyst Tom Petty who says that it is symbolic of the destruction of a child’s rival, often a new sibling. Nine year old Chelsea asked her mother, “Why doesn’t Daddy love you anymore?” in 1989 as if to place blame on her mother for Daddy Bill’s straying from Hillary and from Chelsea too. It was then that profigate Bill was having a “serious” romance with Marilyn Jo Denton Jenkins that threatened a divorce as described in Gail Sheehy’s book about Hillary. Here again, I await more biographical details about Chelsea’s life.

Notice that Chelsea is her own person psychologically. She has two conditions that neither of her parents have: depression and PTSD. Her depression and PTSD after 9/11 may be transient but they indicate a pathway in these responses to stress. Chelsea doesn’t have Hillary’s scoptophilia. Her sadomasochism is reactive and transient rather then a established pattern like that seen in both her parents. Nor does she have her parents’ narcissism. Bill’s and Hillary’s overt hostility and anger seem to be absent or still latent in Chelsea. But Chelsea who won high honors in her history degree at Stanford has Hillary and Bill’s perfectionism.

Media-Shy Chelsea Clinton Ends Her Silence - By Howard Kurtz Washington Post, November 9, 2001

Add/View Comments to this page.

By the author of Bill Clinton Meets The Shrinks