Iconic People Who Had Shockingly Horrifying Childhoods
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 ...
Salvador 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.
George 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.
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.
"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 ..
Ben Franklin Invented America Because His Brother Was An Asshole
Ben Franklin is arguably the most famous of the founding fathers to never become president (he's sort of the Dan Marino of Colonial America). His work as a printer and newspaperman in Philadelphia gave a vital platform to the ideas that were the driving force behind the American Revolution, and he went on to invent half the stuff that made America great, and heroically bang half the population.
And almost certainly banged her.
The Awful Childhood:
Young Franklin began his newspaper career as an apprentice to his older brother James. And by "apprentice" we mean "indentured servant," which was the tradition of the time. See, in 18th-Century pre-independence America, young boys were basically forced into unpaid labor by their fathers, whose job it was to "dispose" of their sons when they came of age (and yes, "dispose" was the term they used). Franklin's father, after several failed attempts to choose a career for his never-going-to-amount-to-anything-son, eventually dumped him on James's newspaper business, effectively saying, "I'm out. You deal with him now."
Young Ben swept pig droppings and moderated the comments section.
But James was less than happy about the arrangement. For one thing, he insisted on signing Ben up for a much longer term of unpaid work than was customary -- a contract which Ben agreed to, since he was 12 years old and lacked business acumen. And then, even though Ben showed a lot of promise as a writer, James refused to ever publish any of his work.
Eventually, Ben found a way to get around his brother's petty assholery by writing articles under the pseudonym "Silence Dogood" and slipping them onto James's desk under cover of night. James loved these articles and published them in his paper to massive critical acclaim. Of course, it wasn't long before he discovered the true author was his own kid brother. If this was Hollywood, this is the point at which James would embrace his brother and admit his stubborn foolishness. In actuality, he beat the shit out of Ben, kicked him the hell out of the business, and then ran around Boston making all the other papers promise never to publish any of Ben's work.
Hence Ben's famous adage, "Early to bed, early to rise, ow, shit, not in the face."
Ben Franklin, now homeless and unemployable, fled to Philadelphia, where he established his own printing business, and the rest is history. As for how this all impacted his later role as one of the fathers of the United States, he would later write that his hatred of the tyranny of the British monarchy evolved from his hatred of the tyranny of his asshole brother. That's kind of like if FDR went to war with the Nazis because Hitler reminded him of his dickhead brother Chet.
Ada Lovelace Became The First Computer Scientist Because Her Mother Didn't Want Her To Have Too Much Sex
You might not recognize the name "Ada Lovelace," and if you do, you might be confusing her with a porn star. But Countess Augusta "Ada" Lovelace was the only (legitimate) child of poet, aristocrat, legendary horndog, and fantastical madman Lord Byron, and the first computer nerd in history. Due to her work on the first prototype of the computer way back in the mid-1800s, she's generally considered the first computer scientist. Not the first female computer scientist, mind you, but the first one ever, period.
She coded the first-ever game of Minesweeper.
The Awful Childhood:
Of course, in those days, it was next to impossible for a woman to get a career in math, because the only math a woman was expected to know was the correct number of children she was supposed to bear her husband before succumbing to disease. Luckily for Ada, she was the child of one of history's most legendary misogynists, inspiring her mother to raise her in a less conventional direction.
Ada Lovelace was the one human product of the short-lived marriage between ladies' man Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, herself a math prodigy who, if we're being honest, was way out of Byron's league. Shortly after Ada was born, her mother resigned herself to the fact that Byron was an incurable man-whore and left him, taking Ada with her.
The moment was captured in this portrait titled "#Fuckboy."
But Anne Isabella was frightened that Lord Byron's libertine tendencies might be genetic, and that Ada might be cursed to a life of banging everything that moved. The solution, as she saw it, was to smother Ada with math until her sex drive turned into a bent-backed old man with eyeglasses and a pocket protector. You see, at the time, the leading theory was that sexual feelings were generally due to a deficiency of science education, and the only cure was an injection of egghead book-learnin' directly to the brain. Anne Isabella's idea was that educating her daughter in math and science would "temper her Byronic blood."
That's how, due to her mother's probably unwarranted fear that Ada would turn out to be as much of a slut as her father, she wound up being one of the first women to be allowed to attend nerd parties in any capacity apart from the waitress. That's how she met Charles Babbage, the guy who first came up with the idea of the computer -- or the "analytical engine," which is the stupid name he decided to call it. Babbage might have had the idea, but it was Ada who figured out how to make it work. So it can be said that the invention of the computer is due in part to Lord Byron being a terrible absent sex maniac of a father.
No one tell Anne Isabella that Ada is technically responsible for internet porn and Tinder.
Napoleon Became Emperor Of France Because A Military Governor Was Banging His Mom
First things first: Napoleon Bonaparte, First Emperor of the French, who came to power after the orgy of head-chopping that was the French Revolution, was not in fact a Frenchman. The dude was as Italian as Roberto Benigni, born on the island of Corsica only a year after Italy handed over ownership of it to France. So sure, technically Napoleon was French, but he was a midseason trade rather than an early round draft pick.
An artistic depiction of his father, based on historical descriptions.
So how did the son of a pair of Italians become the icon of French nationalism? It's because the man who introduced Napoleon to the French military was most likely bonaparteing his mom.
The Awful Childhood:
That man was Charles Louis de Marbeuf, the French military governor of Corsica. He had what we will call a close personal friendship with Napoleon's mother, Letizia. He was also the boss of Napoleon's dad, Carlo. Nice.
His name was French for "Douche Douche of the Douche."
Although it's not absolutely confirmed that Marbeuf was getting it on with Napoleon's mom, most historians consider it to be pretty damn certain. For instance, Marbeuf kept sending Carlo away on "business trips" to Versailles, while promising to "take care" of his wife while he was away. At one point, Marbeuf even took Napoleon's entire family on vacation to Bastia. At the last minute, as they were all boarding a boat home, Letizia told everyone she was going to stay in Bastia alone with Marbeuf for a few days, and sent Carlo back to Italy with little Napoleon and his brother. We imagine that was probably the quietest boat ride in history.
So determined was Marbeuf to have unhindered access to Letizia that he greased the wheels to have the young Napoleon Bonaparte accepted into a top-notch military academy, all to get him out of the way. On top of probably knowing that the only reason he was at military school was so that Uncle Marbeuf could continue crushing his mom, Napoleon was bullied relentlessly for his Italian heritage (if the bullies weren't calling him "BonerFart," they were bullying incorrectly).
It didn't help that his mom also used to bang Ben Franklin.
That's a whole lot of anger and rejection to pile on a kid. Reportedly, Napoleon was so understandably messed up by it all that he vowed to become the greatest military commander of all time just to show them, and to show everyone. Oh yes, he was going to show them all.
J.C. Breen lives and works in New York City. To read some of his short fiction, or his first novel (free of charge), go here
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For more famous acts of pettiness, check out 5 Petty Feuds That Shaped The Modern World and 5 Iconic Works Of Genius Crapped Out To Prove A Petty Point.
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