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A Mad Man, Indeed: The Psychology of Don Draper

Let's psychoanalyze Don Draper on the couch of his own office.

When last we saw our fearless antihero, Don Draper, he was standing face to face with his crumbling, dilapidated childhood home. Surprisingly, his three children were by his side as he took these first tentative steps toward admitting his past life. In the episode's final moments, he shared a knowing glance with his oldest (and somewhat estranged) daughter, Sally.

In Season 7 of Mad Men, which launches this Sunday on AMC, we hope for some closure on the real Don Draper and the secret life he created for himself.

Draper was named #1 Most Influential Man by online magazine Ask Men in 2009 (ahead of real people, mind you), and Comcast has christened him one of TV's Most Intriguing Characters.

And rightfully so. Draper is the perfect character study for Drama 101, introduced to us in 1960 as the dapper, charming creative director for the fictional NYC advertising firm Sterling Cooper.

But as the series unfolds, it’s hard to ignore Don’s cynicism, arrogance, and womanizing tendencies. He drinks and smokes too much. He’s cheated on both of his wives (many, many times). He's left his children home alone (to deal with an intruder, no less), and Sally once caught him having sex with a neighbor. And let's not forget that he was basically fired in the last episode.

But perhaps most telling is that Don Draper's name is actually Dick Whitman, a Korean war deserter who switched Lt. Donald H. Draper’s dog tags with his own and created a new life for himself.

We love him. We hate him. And we definitely don’t understand him. Many questions remain, but perhaps the most puzzling of all is simply: who is Don Draper, and why is he the way he is?

From short snapshots throughout the series, we learn that Dick Whitman was born to a 22-year-old prostitute who died giving birth to him. Beaten regularly by his father, a farmer, Dick was frequently called a “whore’s son” by his stepmother. After his father's death, his stepmother moved them into her sister’s bordello.

During a drug high midway through Season 6, Don recalls a long-repressed memory. Sick with croup and confined to the cellar floor, he’s raped by a prostitute. When his stepmother finds out, she beats him with a wooden spoon and calls him “dirty.”

Adult Don shows many signs of abandoned child syndrome, a condition that develops from the loss of parents or sexual abuse. The abandonment may be physical (lack of parental contact) or emotional (when the parent withholds nurturing affection). In the case of Don, he’s a victim of all four of these.

When abandoned children are raised with a chronic sense of loss, internalizing their fear becomes the only way they can manage. Symptoms include guilt (the child believing that they did something wrong to bring on the abandonment), feelings of insecurity, and the belief that nobody can be trusted.

Though not formally recognized in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the update does include it as a condition that may be a focus for clinical attention. This chapter, wedged at the end of the book, addresses child physical, psychological, and sexual abuse as well as parent-child relational problems. The DSM-5 does not recognize child abuse as a mental health disorder since it's not an innate, "hardwired" affliction, like depression or schizophrenia. Rather, it's caused by something external, making child abuse only a secondary consideration during diagnosis—not a cause.

Which is unfortunate, as Don is a textbook example of how the powerful effects of childhood abandonment can permanently root themselves into adulthood. The death of Anna during season four—wife of the real Lt. Don Draper and to whom war deserter Dick becomes legally married (though not romantically attached)—devastates him, reducing him to a flood of tears. Don miserably declares to copywriter Peggy that Anna was "the only person in the world who really knew" Don. On top of being kicked out of the house by his wife Betty and facing conflict at work, Don spirals into alcoholism.

Perhaps the strangest manifestation of Don’s childhood neglect came, unexpectedly, during his affair with neighbor Sylvia Rosen in the last season. Though we’ve seen Don with many women, he was uncharacteristically sadistic toward her, locking her up in a hotel room and telling her she existed “only for [his] pleasure.” Disgusted and humiliated, she finally broke it off, telling him: “It’s easy to give up something when you’re ashamed.” Don is positively dumbfounded, adopting countless tactics to get her back. But once again, just as Don seems to have complete control over a situation, he finds himself insecure, abandoned, and struggling with feelings of guilt.

Research over the past decade has begun to uncover how stress and maltreatment in childhood confers risk for depression, smoking, alcoholism, and many other physical and mental health disorders into adulthood. More recently, epigenetic markers, or heritable changes in genetic material that do not actually change the DNA sequence, have emerged as strong candidates that bring about these risks. Epigenetic changes are so powerful, in fact, that children of parents who survived the Holocaust have altered stress hormone functioning, suggesting that childhood trauma can even have effects across generations.

The ambiguous teaser for this Sunday’s premiere simply shows Don Draper in 1970, dapper and cool as ever, stepping off a TWA flight in slow motion. At this point in the series, he’s revealed his broken past to his colleagues, his clients at Hershey’s Chocolate, and his children. His latest wife Megan is irate that he’s turned over a potentially successful new account to a colleague to expand to the west coast. And he’s on mandatory leave from work, where he was once an esteemed leader and partner.

Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, though famously infuriated by the prospect of the plot being spoiled in any way, has certainly communicated one thing to us viewers: Don Draper (or Dick Whitman, or whoever he is) is a self-destructive man with a traumatic past.

Whatever his fate by the end of the series, it’s quite likely that it will be driven, in large part, by his childhood abandonment.


Also published at The Conversation UK.

More from Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D.
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