The Psychobiography of Hillary Rodham Clinton

by Paul Lowinger

Psychohistory ... Oedipus ... Oedipus Meets Feminist Theory ... Sadism and Masochism ... Oral and Anal Development ... Frigidity ... Psychopolitical Choices ... Burden ... Bibliography ...

Hillary's Psychohistory

The psychohistory of Hillary Rodham Clinton is a challenge since the sources are limited. The biographies of Hillary lack information about her early development although they offer some childhood particulars. We have no maternal autobiography like Leading With My Heart by Virginia Kelley, Bill Clinton's mother. On the other hand, Hillary has written a book which is sometimes personal and even intimate as it offers a potpourri of child rearing, child psychology and public policy about children. It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us is about Hillary's beliefs and experiences so it qualifies as a psychological script to be deciphered. A brief public controversy about this book revealed that Hillary's own role in its writing was primary. Hillary's biographies and the books about both Hillary and Bill also contribute to my study.

The question persists. Why study Hillary? The primary goal is to understand the Clinton presidency and Bill Clinton himself which can't be understood without a Hillary analysis. Her own influence on the culture of the nineties is also significant so as she becomes more real we illuminate ourselves and our times.

Hillary's Oedipus

Hillary was Daddy Hugh's girl but what does this mean?

Hillary with family

She was Hugh Rodham's victim who wanted his love and approval even as she tried to escape his stinginess, irascibility and perfectionism. The victim survived and was marked by an identification with the aggressor. Like Hugh the adult Hillary became irritable, demanding and the family breadwinner but that's getting ahead of her story. When she brought home a report card with all A's, Daddy replied that it must be an awfully easy school. We're not told what Dorothy Rodham said when she saw the grades maybe because this wasn't important or perhaps Mother Dorothy was also hard to please. It was Dorothy who said there was no room in the house for cowards when little Hillary ran home after an attack by an "obnoxious girl." Forced to confront her attacker, she won the battle and now had the respect of the neighborhood players, says biographer David Brock.

A curmudgeon was the way one Hillary biographer, Norman King described Hugh while another, Roger Morris finds him guilty of the "psychological abuse of his children. Chief Petty Officer Hugh Rodham was a drill instructor who trained recruits in the Navy during World War II. Afterward he became a successful businessman in Chicago who moved his family to Park Ridge, an upper middle class suburb from a city apartment three years after Hillary was born. He was a regal presence in this family; Hillary says it was like the television sitcom, Father Know Best. But the humor was lacking according to Dorothy who said of Hillary, "She had to put up with him." Of course, Dorothy did too.

The current picture of Hugh as a genial task master is a sanitized version of his behavior thirty years earlier. After his death, he was characterized as "confrontational" by Hillary's brother Tony. Family symbols were Hugh's new Cadillac every year and the elegant Georgian suburban home on the corner which was ice cold each winter morning because Hugh turned off the heat at night. Was this a family purification or atonement ritual led by Hugh, the high priest who wanted to turn off the libidinal night dreams?

Hillary's Adult Oedipal theater in Little Rock is a drama of the new Queen, the law partner and First Lady of Arkansas, earning the family income while Bill governs and philanders. Enter daughter Chelsea who was needed to stabilize the governing family who would otherwise divorce. Or so we are told by Governor Clinton who was tearful at a press conference announcing his withdrawal from the Presidential race in 1987 to spend more time with his daughter. Hillary wiped away a tear too. Did the Clintons stay together to become the Presidential family? This was a time when the Clinton candidacy was fearful of a womanizing disclosure story in the local newspaper which didn't appear. It is reported that Bill had to disclose this threat to Hillary and their marriage to justify his remaining in Little Rock till the l992 Presidential race.

Hillary's Oedipus Meets Feminist Theory

It is convenient to begin the description of Hillary's development with the Oedipus complex because this is a crucial event. Also, an examination of the Oedipus complex is often the most direct route to hidden conflicts and the sources of anxiety. The fateful and incestuous union between the mother Jocasta and the son Oedipus was a symbol for the desire of the daughter for the father and the death of King Laios at the hand of Oedipus represented the daughter's jealousy of the mother. The use of a male centered myth for understanding women's development emphasizes the sexist bias of Freudian psychology.

Freud and his followers debated among themselves for decades about how Oedipal events form the female personality although the explanation of the male Oedipus complex achieved a prompt consensus among Freudians. More recently women analysts and feminist psychologists amended Freudian theory removing penis envy, vaginal orgasm, girls' castration fears, feminine passivity and the weakness of the female superego from the Freudian stage. The gender-free constructs of id, ego, superego, the unconscious, ego defenses, instincts, bisexuality and psychosexual stages remain unchanged. The result is a compromise, a new psychology with the centrality of the mother in human development (for both girls and boys) permitting a mix with the older gender-biased Freudian ideas. The pre-Oedipal mother before the age of three has a greater influence of on both sexes and the effect on girls is more important and more prolonged then on boys.

Feminist psychologist Nancy Chodorow explains, "... the earlier criticisms of Freud's bigotry and phallocentric theories could still stand without ... being obliged to discard psychoanalytic theory in its entirety." She concludes that both the traditional ideas and the new theories can be used to understand the female (and male) Oedipus complex. I will use this feminist psychoanalytic theory with some asides to older concepts like penis envy.

The investigation of Hillary begins with the questions about her image, character and behavior which puzzle us. We immediately recognize her energy, intelligence, organizational and leadership abilities, political and professional ambition, charisma, social and religious motivations and family commitment. This needs to be balanced with her chronic anger and impatience, temper outbursts, her anxiety as a "worrier," a victim of a philandering husband, her role the family breadwinner who cut some ethical corners and as the icy "Sister Frigidaire," a label from her high school newspaper. These are the complexities and polarities that we explore with Hillary's psychohistory.

How do the explanations of Hillary's problems fit in with the old Freudian and the new feminist Oedipal models? First, the Freudian Hillary. She was fixated in her love for her father according to the Freudian explanation of this universal and fateful event after her Oedipal disappointment when she discovers at four or five years of age that she doesn't have a penis. So penis envy moves the Freudian Hillary from the mother-love of the pre-Oedipal years to a father-love which is never really resolved.

"If someone has a female boss for the first time, maybe they can't take out their hostility on her, so they take it out on me." Ibid.

"Hillary can separate personal emotions from the goal and task ahead in a way few women can." Betsy Wright in "Hillary the Pol," by Connie Bruck, The New Yorker, May 30, 1994

Penis envy, a Freudian universal means that her mother is held responsible by Hillary for the loss or absence of the treasured organ and the daughter will replace it with the father's penis and by having his baby. This wish is repressed and held in the unconscious where it mobilizes jealousy and death wishes for the mother and so threaten a loss of the mother's love. The process by which this is resolved is the development of the conscience or superego, which in the classical Freudian tradition is incomplete in the girl so her newly formed superego is weak because she fears the loss of the mother's love. According to this theory, Hillary's connection to Dorothy is intact; she remains ambivalent about boys because of her tie to Hugh and so she is uninterested in dating and make-up.

Then at eleven the view of Hillary as "teacher's pet" emerges from biographer Donnie Radcliffe. This was when her sixth grade teacher, Elisabeth King transferred so she could continue to teach Hillary for two more years at intermediate school. In the class picture Elisabeth has her hand on Hillary's shoulder. A school girl "crush" on a teacher and vice versa points to homosexual feelings which may become conscious and sometimes overt at puberty.

All the early phases of development, oral, anal and Oedipal involve bisexual feelings and these remain mostly unconscious. This is a look at Hillary's childhood and adolescent feelings not an attempt to uncover a historical infatuation. Maybe these emotions were repressed and forgotten or perhaps her unconscious presented them in disguised dreams or even in daytime questions like, "Do I love Elisabeth? Does Elisabeth love me? What if Elisabeth was my mother?" The homosexual impulse often reflects the negative Oedipus complex beginning about age five when a rejection by the girl's father is accompanied by death wishes against him and a revival of the earlier love for the mother. Again this an explanation of maturation, not a theory about female homosexuality. Here it seems to be a vehicle for Hillary's escape from her frustration in the unresolved Oedipal link to Hugh before her next important pubescent event, the appearance of Don Jones.

"My strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children have caused me to bite my tongue more then a few times during my own marriage and to think about what I could do to be a better wife and partner. " Ibid.

"I'm a Rorschach test." Hillary Clinton in The Unique Voice of Hillary Rodham Clinton edited by Claire G. Osborne, Avon Books, 1997

Don Jones was the new 30 year-old youth minister of Hillary's Methodist Church who arrived when she was thirteen. Don drove a fire-engine-red Impala convertible, played Dylan on the guitar and offered the modern theology of Niehbur. But most important, Don Jones was a different kind of father because he was not a father-aggressor.

Don's emotional impact on Hillary's libido was to sublimate her teenage eroticism into art, theology and social concerns. But maybe she told her diary that she was in love with Don or pondered the question? The teacher's pet, compliant Hillary was to give way to the new argumentative Hillary. Soon she had "...a temper you would not believe" according to the New Yorker profile by Connie Bruck who tells us that Hillary's staff is "terrified of her." Roger Morris describes how Hillary "ate him (Bill) for breakfast." She was elected to high school and college class offices and by the late eighties she was mentioned as a candidate for governor of Arkansas to succeed Bill. But it was the thirteen year old Hillary who completed the transition from conformity to a controversial leader.

How does the feminist Oedipal Hillary differ from the Freudian Hillary? Hillary's basic gender identity is a response to her early pre-Oedipal mother and the relative security in this relationship was fertile for the transition to the Oedipal attachment to Hugh. Again Chodorow clarifies, "...women experience themselves as part of a relationship triangle in which their father and men are emotionally secondary, or at most only equal in importance to their mother and women." The relationship to father Hugh was not a threat to the relationship to mother Dorothy or a murderous rivalry; it was a part of family development.

The homosexual attraction to the teacher Elisabeth gives the pre-Oedipal mother a new identity without Dorothy's flaws, her passivity in the face of Hugh's sadism and her own aggression when she sent Hillary back to the Park Ridge streets to face the belligerent playmate.

Don's arrival added to Hillary's experience of love for men and so Don amplified the Oedipal-Hugh attachment. Don, the new youth minister at the Church showed Hillary and other suburban teens the hidden emotional world of art, politics and religion by reading e e cummings and T. S. Eliot, going to Chicago to hear Martin Luther King , seeing Picasso's Guernica mural about the Spanish Civil War and meeting black and Hispanic youth from Chicago's inner city. These experiences of good and evil, words, images, passion and hell and heaven revived the repressed, primal and unconscious forces of Oedipal conflict.

Hillary's intellectual and religious stimulation in the long private sessions in Jones' office were a metaphor for and a reactivation of the sexuality of the Oedipal relationship. Were these new erotic feelings unconscious, conscious or even overt? Maybe all three.

The Oedipal era with expressions like "I want to marry daddy," is typically is resolved at six and is followed by a latency period which lasts until the onset of puberty. Don Jones was the marker for earlier sexual events in the Oedipal period that Hillary may not recall or understand. Such events are as ordinary as mutual manipulation while playing doctor with a younger brother or a sexual overture by an uncle or a cousin or even just hearing a story about this happening to a girlfriend.

The relationship with Jones was the visible admission of her earlier Oedipal love for Hugh which was not extinguished. The feminist psychoanalytic theory of Chodorow explains the female drama: the quality of a girl's sexuality is determined by her relationship with her mother. The mother's unconscious as well as her behavior are a major factors in the development of heterosexuality in girls. This cultural motivation stands in contrast to Freud's instinct-determined and biologically controlled Oedipus complex. In the feminist psychoanalytic story, the gradual resolution of the female Oedipus complex doesn't involve the daughter's hatred of the mother and her superego is just as strong as that of the male. But as a women, her superego is different, more concerned with affectional relationships and less with male abstracts and absolutes. This theory of personality growth doesn't exclude instinct nor does it require it. Penis envy isn't needed to explain the process of development but it isn't banished.

Hillary's Sadism and Masochism

Does Hillary's identification with Hugh's aggression lead to sadism? The expression of aggression is derived from the life or survival instincts, the psychic energy devoted to satisfying the nonsexual needs for food, shelter, work and identity. Not all aggression is sadism which refers to cruelty or destructiveness as pleasurable. In the usual course of events, the life instincts including aggression become sexualized while the sexual instincts are tinged with aggression. The instincts don't have free play, their expression is controlled by the ego representing parental rules and reality and the critique of the conscience or superego where guilt is generated.

Hillary learned to play the victim role for Hugh's punishment followed by her rescue and solace when he took her to Chicago's skid row and the dark and dangerous Pennsylvania coal mines where he had worked. Hugh's implicit or explicit threat to leave her there predetermined that he would rescue her, a frightening moral lesson from "Mr. Reality Check." Hugh's aggressiveness toward Hillary can be called sadism, a mixture of Hugh's sexual and aggressive instincts producing more pleasure then pain for Hugh. Hillary's identification with Hugh made this behavior her own so she became a sadist. Bill refers to her as the "dragon

Hillary's sadistic impulses produce guilt and so they are turned against herself as masochism, self-inflicted punishment and pain that is experienced as pleasurable. The two are joined together as sadomasochism. Hillary's sadomasochism like Hugh's is also derived from aggression and is expressed as both masochism and sadism. Hugh's sadism as a curmudgeon is a family legend but his masochism is only briefly visible in Hillary's account of his youth when he suffered broken legs falling off a truck on which he was stealing a ride. This prank called delinquency by Hillary was Hugh's masochistic fate.

Hillary attacks her adversaries while she suffers as a victim of womanizing Bill , the sniping media and a hostile Congress. The emotional energy for Hillary's aggression and sadism comes from the identification with Hugh as aggressor and sadist. Are Hillary's frustrations with Bill, the media, the Congress, her critics and Hugh justified? Of course, but the psychological question is really how and why do aggression and sadomasochism play such a prominent role in her responses?

Hillary's Oral and Anal Development

Orality, the first of the Freudian stages of development is described by Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson as producing a person's Basic Trust while an impairment during this phase leads to Basic Mistrust. The first year is characterized by an early passive incorporation or sucking followed by a later active incorporation or biting. Despite many changes after this stage, Hillary still exemplifies this lack of trust. There is a catalog of oral pessimism from the words of her Village book: bone disease, bombing, sexism, misgogyny, suicide, a distraught baby, powerlessness, skid row, death, math anxiety, hurry, a frightened grandmother, delinquency, accidents, desperation, difficult children, suffering, divorce, shortcomings, sexual abuse, a sharp tongue. parental indifference, a cold house, cowardice, teen drinking and smoking and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, murder, violence, fainting and the list goes on. The list of positives is much shorter and less graphic: sports, work, opportunities, support, discipline, guidance, love, prayer, parenthood and village. The question isn't what Hillary thinks or says about children but how she says it. Yes, this is a crude and involuntary Rorschach.

The anal stage Erikson calls Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt when he discusses the emotional consequences of bowel and bladder training and the increased muscular coordination and activity. Conflicts about elimination and self-control in two and three year-olds may lead to anal fixation resulting in a person who is stingy, stubborn, compulsive and acquisitive. The list of words from Hillary's book illustrate the conflicts about this phase as well. Most of the words are in the category of Shame and Doubt while only a few reflect Autonomy.

Hillary's Frigidity

The Sister Frigidaire image opens a door on Hillary's frigid character. The formation of character is specially influenced by the forces of sexual and aggressive unconscious instincts which press the ego for gratification. Hillary's aggressive and sexual drives were unacceptable according to her external reality and her conscience. The reaction is frigidity but this is more then just a defense because the character itself is altered in the interest of harmony. The solution was the type of frigid character with a loss of flexibility described in textbooks like Otto Fenichel's The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. Hillary's frigid image alternates with her charisma and her rational appeal both during high school when the icy nun image was generated and today.

"I'm proud of my marriage. I have women friends who choose not to marry, or who married and choose not to have children, or who married and then divorced, or who had children on their own. That's okay, that's their choice. This is my choice. This is how I define my personhood-it's Bill and Chelsea. Ibid.

I watched Hillary's television biography and the l992 Inauguration video which show her facade of smiles alternating with visible coldness especially when her affect is contrasted to Tipper Gore or Barbara Bush. It's like contrasting the affect or emotional tone of Al Gore, usually rigid and distant to that of Bill Clinton, predominately cuddly and warm. Novelist Erica Jong, a Hillary admirer writing in the Nation explains her as "...cold and too controlled...she gives off an aura of discipline and ferocious tenacity..."

Hillary's Psychopolitical Choices

Are there public policy consequences for Hillary's unique mental life? How do Hillary's creative tensions mirror her politics in the culture of the nineties? This dialogue has been opened by David Brock in The Seduction of Hillary Rodham who says Hillary was the naive victim of Bill's "Ozark mob" referring to Hillary's involvement in seamy Arkansas politics, Whitewater and commodities trading. Brock is not a disinterested observer but a right wing muckraker and the author of The Real Anita Hill, an anti-feminist book about the woman who received an American Bar Association award from Hillary in 1992.

Hillary's governmental policy commitments follow rather closely her earlier social activism: children's needs, the social safety net for the poor, education and health. As Arkansas' First Lady she spearheaded a major reform of the state's educational system which required an additional sales tax. She held hearings on the reform throughout the state and eventually it passed with the addition of a teacher competency test which was the price for voter approval. The teacher's union and the civil rights leadership opposed the testing of teachers as demeaning and racially biased against black teachers. The increased teacher salaries, smaller class size and the new educational programs such as foreign language and advanced math in the high schools were an advance for the poorest educational system in the nation. Hillary's child welfare agenda was expressed by a new nursery school program based on an Israeli model using parents as educators. Health was added to Hillary's agenda in the White House where she headed the task force that wrote the legislation for Bill's major campaign issue after the economy.

Not all the people want child welfare, education and health because their price tag means new taxes and also because they have come to represent Big Government, the opposite of the traditional family role in the care of children, the local control of education and the customary fee for service medicine. This is often the ideology of the Republican Party and particularly the Radical Right. On the other hand, no one favors their opposites, ignorance and illiteracy, child neglect and death and disease. Or do they? Yet, they are there in the sibling envy and murderous rage of the voter' unconscious. This sadism may be expressed in political behavior as they receive pleasure from their aggression against children, education and health care. Of course, the voters also feel guilt but that's a kind of pleasure too, masochism.

Hillary's activism stirs the psychological depths as well as political complexities which exceed the recent interests of First Ladies like Barbara Bush's campaign on literacy, Nancy Reagan's Just Say No to Drugs and Rosalynn Carter's mental health concerns. The similarity to Eleanor Roosevelt is compelling but her husband's policies were often different from Eleanor's and FDR had not campaigned saying, "Buy one, get one free."

Does Hillary as a victim affect Hillary as the aggressive policy leader? Was the 1993 attempt at a new national health policy affected by the balance between Hillary who was a cold sadomasochistic aggressor and the Hillary who was charismatic, compassionate and innovative? Was Hillary selected to lead the campaign for managed care because it was risky and might fail? If it succeeded, Bill would get the credit for helping people and fulfilling his major campaign promise on health care. If it failed in Congress which happened, the blame would be Hillary's and Bill would move on to meet his goal with lesser initiatives like making private health insurance portable between jobs and including preexisting conditions in coverage.

"Like most mothers, I am the designated worrier in our family." -It Takes A Village by Hillary Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 1996

Why didn't Hillary make the more radical and comprehensive single payer Canadian plan her legislative goal? The general understanding was that Hillary preferred this plan but she rejected it as politically unfeasible. So the perception of a congressional rejection of the more rational single payer solution obliged Hillary to masochistically give up her reasoned and emotional preference for an expediency that turned out to be futile. Was this a repeat for Hillary who lead the successful struggle for education reform in Arkansas which required an increase in the state sales tax. The use of the teacher competency test to sell the package was also a sadomasochistic maneuver, politically clever in its covert racist appeal to white voters. Hillary sacrificed some civil rights credentials to get the white votes for a higher tax and better schools while Bill retained his popularity with the black voters and became the education governor The unconscious was operating in synch with the political world. The health crisis in Arkansas about Medicaid funding worsened while Bill was Governor but Hillary stayed out of the fight that time. Sometimes there is a choice.

Hillary's Burden

What are the consequences of this evaluation? First, that Hillary isn't in full control when she is angry, cold and isolated. Her anger and her withdrawal, justified or not are determined by her Basic Mistrust and the Shame and Doubt and a frigid character. Or maybe her control is excessive and she lacks flexibility .

Second, we need to know more about how these trends developed. Neither she nor her mother have written their stories but we know from Hillary's book that her mother Dorothy was eight when her parents separated and she was sent to live with her grandparents. Dorothy's mother was fifteen and her father seventeen when she was born and they were immature and neglectful parents. Dorothy traveled at eight alone by train from Chicago to Los Angeles with her three year old sister. The grandparents mistreated Dorothy so she left them at fourteen doing child care for room and board so she could finish high school. Sometimes such events are reflected in the next generation. Hillary is a conscientious mom but still Chelsea is quoted as saying to the school nurse, "Call my dad, my mom is too busy."

Finally, Hillary's periodic image makeovers from a successful professional career woman using her own name to a cookie-baking tea-serving hostess using Bill's name reflects more then just political expediency. Hillary is an energetic and magnetic leader who offers a policy for children but despite these qualities her anger, pessimism and coldness are not lovable. Is this reasonable or fair? Of course not but it's better to confront the spectacle of the public's unconscious communicating with Hillary's unconscious then to pretend it's all politics, misogyny or anti-feminist bias. They are there but that's not all.

In the White House, Hillary seeks self-understanding and inspiration from New Age feminists, therapists and theologians like Rabbi Michael Lerner, psychologist Jean Houston and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. But a prescient note from Hillary's law school experience is that one of her teachers at the Yale Child Study Center was Anna Freud.


References (excluding quotes)

  • Brock, David The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, Simon and Schuster, 1996
  • Carpozi, George Clinton Confidential, Emery Dalton Books, 1995
  • Chodorow, Nancy Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, Yale University Press, 1989
  • Jong, Erica "Hillary's Husband Re-elected!" The Nation, Nov. 25, 1996
  • King. Norman Hillary, Birch Lane Press, 1993
  • Radcliffe, Donnie Hillary Rodham Clinton, Times Warner, 1993

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    Bill and Hillary in Group Therapy .... Hillary as Cinderella ... Escape From Chicagoland ... Moral Masochism and Monica Lewinsky ... The "unofficial" Hillary Clinton ...

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    An excerpt from Bill Clinton Meets The Shrinks, by Paul Lowinger
    Copyright 1998 by Paul Lowinger