New Internationalist

Croesus And The Crackpots

Issue 259

new internationalist
issue 259 - September 1994

Croesus and the crackpots
Trevor Turner diagnoses the madness of money-mania
and prescribes the only effective medicine.

When I was a junior hospital doctor in the mid-1970s a rich man was admitted to my ward. He came to hospital driven by his chauffeur and insisted on a private room. He seemed somewhat bemused by the detailed tests that we carried out. He was in gross heart failure, possibly due to the neglect of the – probably private – doctors he had been attending for some months.

‘See you on Monday,’ he called out as I left, not understanding that as duty physician I would be on call throughout the weekend until Monday evening at least. Over the weekend he was difficult towards the nurses. Another patient – a dying butcher – and his family wished to use the private room but the rich man refused to move. It took the full magnificence of Matron to get him out of his room even for a few hours.

By the Monday we were exasperated. Our consultant physician had been finding out from more senior colleagues just what would be the right thing to do in such circumstances. ‘It’s very simple,’ he reported back. ‘You have to treat the wealthy with utter disdain.’ He then proceeded to be extremely rude to our rich patient and got him off the ward without any complaints. The moral is that the wealthy can only despise other people. And so you have to despise them back.

Yet there is no real psychiatric literature on how the minds of the rich work.

Terms like ‘megalomania’ and ‘Croesus Syndrome’ hint at some kind of psychological understanding but have no diagnostic validity. This is partly because those rich enough to see private psychiatrists also demand omerta as part of the deal – silence is golden, at least from the doctor’s viewpoint – and partly because money turns people into all sorts of shapes and psyches.

By mere serendipity some case notes from the most expensive private asylum in Victorian Britain have survived. They detail how psychotic plutocrats passed their days, attended to in a plush, hotel-like atmosphere. According to the proprietor, the biggest problem was getting them to do anything at all. He lamented that ‘anything in the way of manual labour’ was ‘against their will’. Even gardening or going for walks were virulently opposed. One spoilt young psychopath required six attendants, domestics and maid servants just to get her dressed and down to breakfast.

Another patient, Lord Frederick H, ‘went into the cricket field yet refused to play’. Some inmates did have ‘a very decided liking for bicycle polo’, which needed ‘such skill and direct attention’ that their ‘mental idiosyncrasies had little scope for action for the time being’.

Family histories were unreliable, since ‘with us, mendacity is added in probably greater degree... than is usual in most institutions’. In other words, wealthy lunatics were idle, deceitful and distracted only by the trivial.

If we consider those born rich they seem to come in two major – but not mutually exclusive – versions: the degenerate and the miser. Their mental deficit lies in never having known what it is to want something and not to have it. It is as if they were experimental rats with electrodes implanted in the pleasure lobe of the brain and wired up to a self-stimulating button. All they can do is go on and on having what they want. This is of course the royal road to addiction, to whatever ‘clicks’ in your personal endorphin system.

Moneyed tastes, whether for private yachts or cocaine or designer jeeps, also have a pervasive quality, leading to their acceptance by the not-so-rich. This can only derive from the semi-mystical and perverse belief that the wealthy somehow know more about pleasure. When there’s no limit to your personal desire, monsters cavort through your consciousness and things become stale as soon as they are breathed upon.

A version of this degeneracy can be seen in the life of Howard Hughes. He spent his latter days lying in a specially air-conditioned chamber obsessed with fears of infection, employing round-the-clock shifts of Mormon aides to deal with the threat of random flies coming anywhere near him and – God forbid – depositing their germs even in his atmosphere. As he lay there embalmed in his obsessional ruminations, what did he do with his time? He chose to watch the adventure yarn Ice Station Zebra 150 times or more.

As a shrewd reviewer of his life has pointed out: ‘The rich are different... because they can pay other people to sustain their nightmares.’ Any unchecked obsession will magnify into laughable states of delusion.

Of course, these beliefs are also amenable to straightforward psychiatric treatments, but that would mean accepting that you are psychologically unsound. And who, amongst his minions, was going to tell Howard that he was a crackpot? In a world distorted by narcissism, by the hyper-individualist catechism of ‘I want it therefore it is good for me’, who is to say anyone is out of their mind?

The miser operates with a similar degree of obsession. Whether born miserable or acquiring misery through experience this characteristic is an important mechanism in the process of staying rich. Some of the wealthy have become dominated by the mere process of getting and keeping money. Nothing is allowed to interfere, even though this means performing tasks of astonishing dullness.

The habits and statements of several wealthy men I met in my youth because of my father’s work as a banker have haunted me for years. They should have been resonant with wisdom. But the truth only reached me much later via the strange, much-publicized death of Robert Maxwell. For not only was Maxwell rude, overweight and tasteless; there was also an extraordinary nullity in his soul. Like the rich men of my youth he didn’t seem to read books, or go fishing, or enjoy exotic hobbies. He simply liked making deals.

Maxwell fell off his yacht – it was hired – in suspicious circumstances. But the question is not: ‘Did he jump or was he pushed?’. The real question is: what was he doing, all alone save the crew, on a large pleasure boat designed for playboys, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in pain and in misery? The answer seems to be that he was counting his money – or rather his lack of it – and trying to work out how he could go on keeping all his deals in the air for another few hours.

Such lives are difficult to imagine, but this does not seem to stop us from fantasizing constantly about our own prospects of wealth. The football pools, a lucky inheritance, the national lottery, they all serve to make worklessness a real possibility. People crossing into such a world are envied, admired and portrayed as having their dreams come true. As a device for warding off social dissent it is as powerful as the medieval church, with its promise of paradise for the faithful.

There is a platitude about money not making you happy, but you don’t hear those with money repeating it. The assumption that wealth brings happiness is built into the system and the myth is constantly reinforced by every image that the rich can employ. We may despise our own desire to be rich – we may even work against its processes – but what do we put in its place? There has to be a potential paradise, or we all go mad.

The paradox is that we know excessive wealth will alienate us from our world. We know that it will enable the merest trace of an obsession to grow to monstrous proportions. We know that being able to do anything will make nothing interesting. We know that William Hearst – as factionalized in the film Citizen Kane – went stark staring mad, that Onassis’s daughter committed suicide, that ‘The Great Gatsby’ was eternally unhappy, that Elvis died on the toilet, obese and drug-ridden, and that everyone, but everyone, deserted the fabulously-rich Shah of Iran.

Such biographies are morbidly fascinating but cannot counter the insidious, day-to-day propaganda of satisfied people having possessions. Perhaps avarice – a fine old sinful word – is in itself a form of brain disease and such people should be locked away in new asylums for the socially dangerous. They could be joined by that army of wealthy kleptomaniacs who regularly nick the dinner service from Concorde, or towels from the Savoy. The Queen’s grandmother, Queen Mary, wife of King George V, regularly stole bits and pieces from her aristocratic hosts when she visited them. They could only grin and bear it, while making sure that the best stuff was hidden away before she arrived.

The psychopathology of the rich still awaits its full exegesis. But whether we decide they are obsessionals, phobics or simply more afraid of dying than most, we should remember that there is only one therapeutic approach. When dealing with the rich always be unutterably rude. To do anything less is to collaborate in their delusional systems and to set back the cause of a sane and social humanity.

Dr Trevor Turner is a consultant psychiatrist who works in the East End of London.

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