We like to think that history's greatest geniuses have some kind of superhero origin story -- like Newton and his apple, or Einstein failing math (neither of which are true, by the way). But the unvarnished reality is that genius often comes as a result of depressing, horrifying childhood trauma. For example ...
5Salvador Dali Created His Persona Because His Parents Wanted Him To Be His Dead Brother
Salvador Dali was more or less the Andy Kaufman of the art world. When he wasn't painting melting clocks and elephants on stilts, he was conducting art lectures while wearing a full SCUBA suit, at one point almost suffocating for the sake of a joke literally nobody understood. Whether you think the founder of surrealism was a genius or a total nutcase, there's one thing you can say for sure: There was only one Dali.
The Awful Childhood:
Well, that's not quite accurate. "Salvador Dali" was originally the name of the artist's brother who died before his second birthday, nine months before the famous Salvador was born. His grief-stricken parents then went ahead and gave Salvador his dead brother's name, because why let it go to waste?
All kids look the same until they grow their baby mustaches, anyway.
You might assume this was the result of poor imagination combined with family tradition (his father was also named Salvador). But his parents' obsession went way past homage driven by simple mourning, and began to plumb the depths of abusive psychosis. They started dressing Salvador in his brother's clothes, making him play with his brother's toys, and generally addressing him as though he were their dead toddler come back to life.
The weirdness didn't stop after Dali had beaten his brother's longevity, either. Throughout his entire childhood, they maintained that he was the reincarnation of their dead child, and didn't hold back when it came to telling him that. Now, we're not psychologists, but we're reasonably confident that's the kind of thing that irreparably damages a person for life. Nobody likes being told they are their ghost brother. As if to prove our point, Dali once painted a portrait of his dead brother in his hypothetical adult form. Of course, his brother's face was made of cherries floating over some dystopian hellscape, because this is still Dali we're talking about.
Also, did you spot the hidden penis?
When asked about the painting, Dali said "Every day, I kill the image of my brother ... I assassinate him regularly, for the 'Divine Dali' cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being." That's artist speak for "I'm not my goddamn dead brother."
Dali occasionally admitted that his eccentric work and behavior was all a desperate effort to assert himself as a unique individual who existed in his own right, rather than as a replacement for someone else. In one of his writings, he said, "All the eccentricities that I commit, I do because I wish to prove to myself that I am not the dead brother, but the living one."
Man, it'd be nice if we could find one lighthearted eccentric who didn't owe their quirky personality to child abuse.
4George Washington's Mother Was Forever Unimpressed
Even though we print George Washington's face on our currency, celebrate his birthday every year with a day off work, and named both a state and the nation's capital after him, there's still one person he was never able to impress: his mother.
Robert Edge Pine
Who may or may not have been George in a bonnet.
The Awful Childhood:
Of course, many powerful figures grew up under the harsh guidance of one or more parents. But that disapproval usually lets up after someone achieves genuine, going-down-forever-in-history greatness. For instance, you'd imagine that once George Washington helped found an entire nation and became its first trusted leader, Mary Ball Washington would finally stop bringing up the time he shit his pants in Sunday school in front of all the neighbors. Sadly, this was not the case.
While Washington was out kicking the asses of various opposing nations during his military career, Mary Ball was only really interested in how much money he was going to send back home to her. And this wasn't a case of a poor kid hitting it big and buying his mom a house -- the Washington family was kind of loaded. Mary Ball loved getting that sweet, sweet paper more than she cared about whatever war her son was out fighting. She was like a kid who gets a birthday check in the mail and throws the card away without reading it.
She never noticed whose face was on the bill.
While Washington was fighting in the French and Indian War, his mother sent a letter to him on the front lines. It wasn't to offer encouragement or to tell him that she was proud of his service to the nation -- she simply requested that he send her some butter and a Dutchman. You know, while he was out.
That's not wartime code for something, by the way. Mary Ball wanted her son, who was busy fighting in a war, to send her 1) groceries, and 2) a living Dutch person to be her indentured servant. In the most polite manner possible while bullets were flying over his head, Washington sent her a letter back patiently explaining that whatever butter was available was needed by the army, and that human slaves were very difficult to capture and send through the mail.
Harper & Brothers
"Best I can do is instructions on how to give yourself a Dutch oven ..."
Later, while Washington was engaged in the arguably more important Revolutionary War, his mother responded with the kind of loving support you'd expect from the parent of a soldier: She petitioned the Virginia legislature to lower her taxes, because her son was, like, someone really important. And when Washington was finally declared president of the new independent United States, she didn't bother attending his inauguration. That's 100 times worse than not showing up for your kid's little league game -- which you'll recall happened in every '90s movie with estranged parents.
You have to wonder how much of his work -- that is, helping create the world's greatest superpower -- was a result of the poor guy trying to get her approval. Or maybe she had told him specifically not to found a superpower, and he did it to spite her. After all, that's close to what happened in this next one ..