How do people move forward from a trauma, or from guilt? In my latest reading of Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, Fawn Brodie talks about Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for President in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson accidentally shot a young girl while thinking that a rifle was unloaded, and he felt horrible about it afterwards. Brodie states that Stevenson had a “pervasive melancholy and self-doubt barely hidden behind his good humor and wit” (page 311). When a woman wrote to Stevenson saying that her son accidentally killed a friend, Stevenson wrote back to her, “Tell him that he must live for two.” When Stevenson was complaining to a friend of his about his troubles during his 1948 campaign for Illinois Governor, Stevenson stated, “and so on and on, to the end of time, or until my sins are expiated.”
Stevenson still managed to live his life. He accomplished things, and he had romantic relationships. But, according to Brodie, there was a pain within him.
According to Brodie, Nixon, too may have felt guilt after the death of two of his brothers. Brodie states on page 100:
“Robert J. Lifton, who has done much research on survivor guilt, finds that many survivors suffer from a ‘psychic numbing,’ a diminished capacity for experience, whether of joy or grief. They fear they have survived ‘because someone else died, or that they have ‘killed’ the other person in some symbolic way by failing to sustain the other’s life with needed support, help, and nurturance.’ This may have been a factor in numbing Nixon’s already warped capacity for elation, especially seen in his election victories. In a more profound fashion it may have deadened his general sensitivity and self-understanding, and contributed to the sense of meaninglessness and unfulfillment in his own life.”
UPDATE: Later in the book, Brodie talks about how other people’s deaths paved the way for Nixon to advance. His brother Harold’s death from tuberculosis freed up money for him to go to law school. The deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., may have propelled him to the Presidency. In the case of MLK, Brodie states, his assassination drew more people to the law-and-order candidate, Nixon. Brodie wonders what Nixon must have felt about this. On page 507, she says: “What one does not know is whether or not Nixon suffered an anxiety that the fate helping him was demonic and not divine.” Brodie also mentions the suicides of two authors who were writing books about Nixon, books that were not particularly negative about him.