Recently I saw snippets of the American Master program about Johnny Carson. I have yet to watch the full two hours. I keep trying to catch the online video, but for some reason it is unavailable. I hope it gets fixed soon. If you haven't watched it and plan to, I recommend you read this afterward as this post may contain spoilers.
What I got from what I saw and some additional research was that the main thing that drove Johnny's ambition was to receive his mother's approval, the prize that always eluded him. The heartache of this relationship spilled over in his life off-camera. He was not the fun-loving person you saw on the screen. Personally, I do not believe that was a facade, but the real Johnny--the alive part that had joy. He could not be that person anywhere else in his life.
In the sixties, Harry Harlow, an American psychologist, performed the famous wire monkey experiments. The controversial nature of them would not go over well today; however, these experiments tell us a lot about how offspring are affected by lack of maternal warmth.
Young rhesus monkeys were separated from their mother and given surrogates made of wire, some with terry cloth and some with bare wire. The monkeys who received mothers with terry cloth fared better than those who had bare wire. The latter became psychologically devastated, rocking themselves in a corner and unable to function.
I would venture to say that necessary maternal warmth for raising psychologically healthy human children goes far beyond a warm body to snuggle against but also an attitude of love and validation. I would guess that Johnny was raised by a bare wired monkey.
Some people who are not psychologically astute or may have their own childhood wounds they are shielding will suggest that perhaps Johnny should have "gotten over it." However, that is nearly impossible. For when that wounding begins, one gets stuck in a childhood stage they cannot get past. It's like your brain is permanently wired in a certain configuration. Unless some kind of rewiring takes place, how can you move out of that stage and get beyond the wounding?
Johnny's case is an excellent example for all of us. We may believe worldly success will heal that primal heartache, but he showed us that so long as deep inside he remained a wounded little boy, it made no difference at all. I see so many accomplished people everywhere I go, and I wonder how many of them are driven by the same heartache Johnny was that never seems to heal.
Of course, in cases of being raised by a wire monkey one may go the other direction and become an underachiever too, verifying one's sense of being worthless. Perhaps such a person can't face the heartache of knowing he/she will never feel valued no matter what is accomplished, so what's the point in trying? No one can predict how each child will respond to lack of maternal warmth, and the pattern starts very young. The response also can vary from child to child in the same family.
Whenever Johnny accomplished something, he would call his mother in hope to finally hear words of approval. He never got them, and so he went out and accomplished more and called again. He couldn't face the fact he was never going to get his mother's approval. He was stuck in that childhood stage and could not see his mother for who she was, a woman--for whatever reason--who could not express maternal warmth.
After she died, he found a box at her home with newspaper clippings tracking his career. He cherished that box and kept it in his closet for the rest of his life. Clearly, his mother, Ruth, was proud, but, tragically, Johnny discovered it too late--and not in the way offspring need, with warm, loving eyes of a living mother.
A Mongolian documentary film, The Story of the Weeping Camel, also demonstrates the effects of lack of maternal warmth, both for the mother and child. A mother camel has a difficult birth, so she rejects the baby and will not allow him to nurse, nudging him away aggressively. Throughout the whole film, the baby is crying and is unwilling to accept being bottle-fed. For him there can be no substitute.
Eventually, a ceremony is performed to soothe the mother and allow her to accept her offspring. I was happy to discover that ceremony was uploaded on YouTube. When you watch it, you won't believe it. It's truly transformative. I just rewatched it, and I cried as I always do. The response of the mother demonstrates that as much as the baby camel was heartbroken by the separation, the mother was suffering too though she was the cause.
I feel like holding Johnny in my arms. I feel for his pain. And I feel for his mother, Ruth, who I would guess hurt every time she hurt him. I wish there had been a simple ceremony to have brought them together like the camels. I wish the whole human race had such a ceremony, but alas--we don't.