Why Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle makes people weep
Unassuming yet quietly confident, the astonishing rise by the Scottish singing spinster is a tale of two egos, says Coline Covington
Several patients - both women and men - have told me about the moving success story of [Britain's Got Talent singer] Susan Boyle with tears pouring down their cheeks. As one patient put it, "I’ve spent most of my life trying to be so good, to do the right thing, to be perfect and it’s been such a waste of time, a waste of life.
"Susan Boyle has broken through all that stuff and has gone ahead and done what she's wanted to do. She doesn't have to be somebody she's not."
Max Clifford, the publicist, points out that the "magical moments which we as a nation love" are those that challenge our assumptions and prejudices. Boyle has challenged the stereotype of what it takes to be a successful woman - Cinderella has not been transformed into a Princess, she has been a Princess all along, but without the material trappings of one.
A dumpy, 47-year-old Scottish singleton, Boyle is the epitome of an old maid"I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living." These are the opening – and extraordinarily apt - lyrics of Susan Boyle's astonishing and unexpected rave performance last week on Britain's Got Talent. A dumpy, 47-year-old single Scottish woman, Boyle is the epitome of the old maid who has long gone past her sell by date. She lives alone with her cat, Pebbles, openly professes that she has never been kissed, is unemployed and has spent most of her adult life doing charitable work and, more recently, caring for her mother who died in 2007.
The youngest of nine children, Boyle developed learning difficulties as a result of being deprived of oxygen at her birth. She was bullied throughout her childhood by other children, although very much protected within her family. Music had always been important in the family and Boyle grew up singing and never stopped.
She has sung in small theatrical productions, in the church choir and is well known in the local karaoke circuit. But she was going nowhere with her career. Her mother had first suggested that she should audition for Britain's Got Talent following the success of Paul Potts and it was perhaps her mother's belief in her that played an important part in helping Boyle's dream coming true.
Boyle made it clear when she first appeared on stage that "I've always wanted to perform in front of a large audience." She was sassy and uninhibited, while at the same time maintaining her professional cool. She was doing something she had always wanted to do and she was giving it her best. After her success, she said she felt "quietly confident" and when asked about her future, said emphatically that these were "baby steps" and it was just the beginning. Boyle remains modest and realistic, commenting on the mistakes she made in her performance that she needs to learn from.
In psychoanalytic terms, Boyle's performance highlights the difference between the ego ideal and the superego. The Austrian psychoanalyst, Annie Reich, explains, "The ego ideal represents what one wishes to be, the superego what one ought to be."
The ego ideal is initially based on an idealised image of the parents that the child internalises and that is gradually modified as the child grows and incorporates other characteristics from his environment that form a model to aspire to. In healthy development the superego tempers these aspirations by reminding the ego of its limitations – it keeps the ego grounded.
When there is a disturbance in the child's early relationships and the child does not have a good sense of himself and of being loved, this can impair the development of a strong ego and the child may become susceptible to a megalomanic ego ideal along with a demanding and punitive superego.
The child attributes the fact that he is not loved to his failure to fulfill the parents' wishes of who they want him to be. These are the conditions in which an ego ideal is imposed from without. The child does not aspire to an image that is a mixture of his good feelings about himself and his idealisation of his parents; instead the child identifies with and strives for an image of who he ought to be because he feels he has in some way failed to obtain his parents’ love. Inevitably this is an image of perfection that is unattainable and the harsh superego will settle for nothing less.
The cult of the celebrity is today's primary example of an ego ideal imposed from without and it has an utterly crippling effect on ordinary development. What is so moving about Boyle's trajectory of success is that she demonstrates the victory of the ego ideal that is genuinely based on "what one wishes to be" as opposed to an imposed ideal from the outside that is predicated on "what one ought to be".
There is a difference between wanting to perform in front of a large audience and wanting to be a celebrity. Boyle's success is not that she has been a victim who has vanquished her enemies, but that she has the courage to be herself. We cry because we see in her the seeds of our own liberation. ·
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