Steven Spielberg overcomes his demons

If you want to know what’s it like to be Steven Spielberg, there are three ways to intuit his psyche: 1) have a panic attack; 2) have a row with a parent; 3) feel shame over some aspect of your identity.

Because, at least according to a recent 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl, those are the defining forces of Spielberg’s life, the vehicles that have driven his ambition, animated his movies and helped him evolve into an ostensibly well-adjusted adult.

Well, sort of.

“You’re a nervous wreck,” Stahl suggested at the beginning of the 13-minute segment which aired Oct. 21.

“Yes, it’s true,” Spielberg said coyly. “It’s much more of an anticipation of the unknown… it’s just kind of a level of anxiety having to do with not being able to write my life as well as I can write my movies.”

Ah, the perennial problem of the artist: How to reconcile the artist’s soul, with its depth of feeling and profound understanding, with ordinary human life. As countless writers have proclaimed (and they would know since many consider themselves artists), artists are sometimes simply unfit for life. In his essay on the evolutionary benefits of art (if there are indeed any), Adam Kirsch quotes from Nietzsche, who coined the pithy phrase “Art dangerous for the artist.”

It is more than that one’s art can be all-consuming, but that an artist has a certain temperament and certain cravings that conflict with societal standards.

According to Nietzsche’s “Human, All Too Human,” the artist craves excitements and danger, “believes in gods and demons, imbues nature with a soul, hates science, becomes unchangeable in his moods like the men of antiquity” and therefore finds himself at odds with others and inevitably dies in sadness.

But Spielberg is smarter. He told 60 Minutes he copes with existential angst by telling stories — though he admitted it doesn’t quite abolish the affliction: “Well, it’s commercial,” he said, invoking Hollywood’s capitalistic upside. “I don’t want to lose it.”

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Spielberg said he considered his mother, Leah Adler, a “big sister” and his father, Arnold, a workaholic. When they divorced, he blamed Dad (“I did pin it on him,” he said). Years later, his anger towards his father was expressed in his work and many of his subsequent movies featured disappointing or absent fathers. “E.T.” he said, was an attempt to tell a story about his parents’ divorce. But it would be years before he’d learn the truth: that it was really his mother who fell in love with one of her husband’s friends, because she was oh “so unhappy” (Arnold forgave her, he told Stahl, because he was “in love with her”).

But the demons of distant Dads and divorce had implanted themselves in young Spielberg, and so invested was he in the original dad’s-at-fault narrative, he admitted: “Even after I knew the truth I blamed my Dad.”

For the artist, easier to tell a story than surrender one.

“Even though my mother was like an older sister to me, I kind of put her up on a pedestal,” Spielberg said. “For some reason it was easier for me to blame [my father] than someone already exalted.”

Even a Hollywood icon needs an idol.

The gentlemen Spielberg eventually reconciled and the director then made movies painting fathers as heroes. “I stayed angry for too long,” Spielberg said, lamenting the “many, many wasted years” he and Arnold were estranged. By the time of their reconciliation, he had learned a thing or two about facing demons — his movies, by gosh, were full of them: sharp-toothed sea creatures and extinct clawed-carnivores come to mind — and through his work, he was able to expurgate the long-held family narrative that stifled his soul. For the creator of brave characters, helplessness would not do.

Spielberg would also have to contend with another source of deep shame — his Jewishness. Having grown up in “an all non-Jewish neighborhood,” as his mother described it, Spielberg felt like an outsider. “People used to chant, ‘The Spielbergs are dirty Jews,’” Adler told Stahl. “And one night, Steve climbed out of his bedroom window and peanut-buttered their window.” Throwing her head back, she added, “which I thought was MAR-velous.”

Stahl asked Spielberg how he dealt with such “anti-Semitic attacks.”

“I denied it,” he said.

“Denied what? That you were Jewish?” Stahl asked.

“… My Judaism,” Spielberg affirmed.

“Were you ashamed?” she continued.

“Um-hm. I often told people my last name was German, not Jewish,” he said. “I’m sure my grandparents are rolling over in their graves right now hearing me say that, but I think that, you know, I was in denial.”

You can guess what he did when he overcame that plight: he made a little movie called “Schindler’s List.”

With “Schindler,” he explored one of the darkest blights on human history; with his next film, “Lincoln,” he illuminates another dark period — the era of slavery and civil war in the United States — but concerns himself mostly with its happy ending. “Lincoln” is not about the degradations of slavery, but Abraham Lincoln’s resolve to end them. His dogged pursuit of congressional approval to end that injustice is the movie’s primary focus, though it bespeaks its larger theme about the conflicting motives of one man.

“It’s about leadership and about telling the truth… about how you feel,” Spielberg said. “He was living with two agendas and I think there’s darkness in there.”

It’s difficult to hear him say this without wondering from whence it comes. Perhaps it is evidence of Spielberg’s psychological sophistication, the way he has worked to integrate his artist’s soul with his “ordinary” life (he has long been married to the actress Kate Capshaw and has six children) that he is able to extol the virtues of emotional truth. In Lincoln, he sees a great man whose soul was bound up in confusion.

If once he felt a similar discord, Spielberg seems to have found his footing. He has learned to live with the past without letting it beset him and found fulfillment in work and in life. Though it is exceedingly rare, he is both the artist who creates and the man who can love.