Fear of the Family Ghost

“I am haunted,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, by “fear of the family ghost, which seems to seize on me with clammy invisible hands to avenge my desertion of its tradition of gloom.” Russell traced this fear to his family’s efforts to persuade him, when he was a young man, that he shouldn’t have children because of “madness in the blood.”

Even before that, his solemn, orange-free, parentless childhood probably didn’t help. “They all drifted in and out of the rooms like ghosts,” a friend of his later said, “and no one ever seemed to be hungry.”

Having been warned at a young age to watch myself for signs of insanity, some years ago, I was obsessed — I don’t think that’s an overstatement — with Russell. In many ways, he was deeply humane and empathetic. “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind,” he wrote in the preface to his autobiography.

But despite his compassion, he was an ardent eugenicist, at one time proposing color-coded “procreation tickets” and fines for mismatched ticketholders who dared to have children. Whether or not his “family ghost” of genetic madness was real, his fear of it reverberated far beyond his own life.

The image above is from Sam Dingman’s Family Ghosts podcast, the title of which which brought Russell’s fears to mind. I discovered it through Dani Shapiro’s Family Secrets. I’ve been listening to both shows and wanted to bring them to your attention.

Keeping it short this time, and sending all good wishes,

Maud