Thoughts on Walt Disney and Parenthood

If Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination were about anyone else, it probably wouldn't have been as fascinating a read as it was. (If it were about anyone else, it would also have a pretty misleading title.) But Disney is such a compelling person, his story so unlikely and extraordinary and American that every little morsel of information about him somehow becomes hyper-interesting. In the end, of course, one feels like the reporter trying to figure out Charles Foster Kane: it's impossible, and the more you learn about Disney, the more enigmatic he becomes. On that point, I greatly admire his serious biographers for the sheer will that must be necessary to peel back the steel layers of "Uncle Walt" forged by the Walt Disney Company, and tease out a fallible human being inside. That can't be easy, and it can't be fun. (On that point, an aside: Of late, Apple seems eager to borrow the Disney mold, and shamelessly rewrite Steve Jobs into a kind of sagacious, enlightened Uncle Steve. The most visible, laughable example I can think of involves the covers of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography: Before and after. Meanwhile, poor Isaacson has been pilloried for what is very likely an accurate depiction of Jobs—one that's consistent with every other pre-cancer biography out there. Jobs was a horrible man who happened also to be a visionary. He could be monstrous to those under his employ, and was profoundly selfish with his personal fortune. He wasn't Yoda, and he sure as hell wasn't Walt Disney, who was a genuinely good person. That doesn't mean Jobs wasn't a great businessman or genius, but let's not pretend he was anything other than what he was: a powerful, miserly asshole.)

I think a lot about Walt Disney and how he might fare today. Lately, I think about what his childhood would be like in 2016. Disney wasn't a great student, and dropped out of high school in order to join the Navy during World War I. (The Navy turned him away because he was 16, and so he lied about his age and managed to get into the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He would eventually drive ambulances in France.) Today, I suspect that Disney would have been given a prescription for Concerta at a young age, and would have gone on to earn an MFA in studio art. I doubt he would have forged his birthday to go to Afghanistan. He would have listened to his father, and I believe he would have gone on to be the best foreman at the O-Zell jelly factory.

It raises the question of how important were the wrinkles in Walt Disney's character. Had Elias succeeded in ironing them out, would Walt have conformed thoroughly? Or beneath the surface of any young person, is there something more durable than that, and consequently, is it a parent's job simply to get out of the way? (This makes psychoactive drugs an even more terrifying enterprise: if I make some catastrophic parenting decision, I might create a problem but I won't likely rewrite my child's makeup. But medicine acts at a chemical level—it is changing someone's brain, and by design. So which are the defects and which are the blessings in disguise? Choose wisely and good luck!)

Elias wasn't exactly Ward Cleaver, and he certainly wasn't trying to create Walt Disney the Entertainment Colossus. So is it all dumb luck, genes, and disposition? As a parent, I wonder which is the more unsettling prospect: that I'm invaluable, or that I'm irrelevant? Am I one bad decision away from quashing the next Walt Disney, or was the die cast at childbirth? Alternatively, is it going to come down to how the wheels align, and either they do or they don't?

After 100,000 years, how has our species not yet determined the proper and foolproof rearing of children? How have we not at least answered the big questions? (E.g.: If you do this your child will become a drug addict.) Parenting on some level is an almost laughable endeavor—"After 100,000 years, I've figured it out." As a father, I operate under the assumption that I should give my daughter enough guidance for her to find her own path, and that I should help correct her worse impulses, but not all of them, because some friction with society is essential if she's going to move ahead. A strong work ethic is imperative, and instilling that ethic is fraught with peril.

Here I would consider such childhood hardships as Walt Disney was forced by his father to endure: the newspaper route, most notably and notoriously, foisted upon an 8-year-old in the sub-zero Missouri winter. It haunted Disney through adulthood—but you can't argue with the results. I couldn't intentionally traumatize my child even knowing it would lead her to greatness. Is that a moral failure? Sacrificing immortality, essentially, for her joy today? Again, this is something to which I'll never know the answer, which is a small comfort. I'll labor under the assumption that I am right, though, which has taken me this far in all other pursuits. Ultimately, the variables of personality are just so wild and plentiful that to even consider them is to stare into the abyss.