Sueño No. 1: “Articulos eléctricos para el hogar” (1950) | Grete Stern / Public domain

His daughter’s senior thesis seems to have cut Bill Ackman to the quick. She’d gone to Harvard, just like him. But his thesis, submitted in 1988, critiqued the university’s admission quotas and their impact not just on access to education (in his study, for Jewish students in the 1920s and Asian American students in the 1980s) but on who achieves “elite status” in American society. He went on to make billions as a hedge fund manager. His daughter, who graduated in 2020, submitted “The Concept of Reification in Western Marxist Thought.”

Three years later, Ackman became famous on social media for attacking former Harvard president Claudine Gay for her handling of the campus response to events in Israel and Palestine, and then for mild instances of academic plagiarism, only for Business Insider to report that Neri Oxman, an artist and Ackman’s second wife, had likewise plagiarized portions of her dissertation and publications

Ackman went scorched earth in response, never once recognizing the hypocrisy of his attacks on Gay, writing multiple 4,000-word tweets in response (including one that he retweeted the next day, declaring it “the best and most important thing I have ever written”). He at one point defended Oxman copying definitions without citation directly from Wikipedia by pointing to the fact that MIT’s academic integrity policy nowhere explicitly mentioned Wikipedia (as though it should require a list of every single source one is not allowed to plagiarize from). 

Despite Oxman’s request that he stop tweeting, Ackman insisted that he had to protect his family and kept going. This begs the question, was this ever about academic fairness? Given that Ackman told New York Magazine that he felt like his daughter had been inducted into a cult of anti-capitalism, it’s tempting to conclude that his assault on Harvard is, deep down, about family. 

There has been something oddly Schreber-esque in his behavior throughout the spiraling affair. While Ackman’s paranoia lacks the depths of delusion of Daniel Paul Schreber, the German judge whose memoir recounts his belief that he alone was responsible for the pleasure of god, who changed his organs at will (a memoir that Freud drew on to theorize psychosis), Ackman’s obsessive drive to document everything publicly, insistence that he was uniquely being persecuted, and utter lack of awareness exhibits at least some of the traits of a paranoid psychosis. 

His highly personal political crusade has eerie parallels with that of Elon Musk, another obscenely wealthy father with a daughter interested in Marxism. Both have attempted to publicly take on “woke ideology” (especially diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives), the former focused on his alma mater and the latter in public discourse writ large by way of Twitter. 

Musk claims to have been nonplussed by his daughter’s transition and found her identification as “a fervent Marxist” unbearable: he blamed her high school. In 2022, his daughter filed to legally change her name, gender recognition, and birth certificate. “I no longer live with or wish to be related to my biological father in any way, shape or form,” she wrote in the petition. Musk bought Twitter that same year; some have even claimed that he ultimately did so because he saw it moving in a similarly “woke” direction. Both Ackman and Musk responded to their daughters’ intellectual development by moving quickly to the political right and using their vast wealth to try to attack the social currents they felt were at fault.

And while of course we should be extremely careful of making clinical judgements from public statements, we can perhaps be forgiven for playing at psychoanalysis on the grounds that Musk and Ackman are wealthy jerks and Freud analyzed both Schreber and Woodrow Wilson (the latter quite harshly) despite having neither as patients and knowing them only as public figures.

What to my mind is especially interesting about Ackman and Musk is the outsized scale of their responses to their daughters’ interest in Marxism. Both men reacted by attacking the entire system they felt was responsible, followed by a very expensive (financially and reputationally) public campaign.

Instead of a pathological relationship with their parents (although that may be at play too), what threatens their psychological stability is their daughters’ intellectual independence. While Freud did very little to theorize psychosis, focusing instead on neuroses where the patient still maintains their relation to reality but responds in an unhealthy way, for Lacan what structures psychosis is the “foreclosure” of the “Symbolic” father, which causes the psychotic to lose their symbolic relation to reality. Real events or feelings come to take on outsized meaning, often of grand conspiracies against the individual. To have a symbolic father requires not an actual father (the “Real” father) but, on the contrary, the death of the real father—or at least the loss of his power—and his replacement by the symbolic law. (Lacan here builds on Freud’s Totem and Taboo, which illustrates this dynamic with the story of a band of brothers killing the primordial father and replacing him with communal law.) The law replaces the direct violence of the real father with the mediated and symbolic violence of the community. For Lacan, the elevation of the symbolic father over the real father is what allows us to detach from our mothers and find order and meaning in our own experiences, to enter into a larger world of meaning beyond the immediate family. Without this step, we are lost in mental chaos.

We could perhaps then surmise that what defines Musk and Ackman’s psychosis is no longer primarily their relation to their own symbolic fathers, but their relation to that of their daughters’. The problem is their inability to die, to give up some patriarchal power; their desire to continue to exist as real parents is in conflict with their desire to become a stand-in for the law that is not solely theirs. They want both to be loved and the sole source of meaning. Musk summarized this all too well in a recent tweet declaring he wanted “never went to therapy” inscribed on his gravestone. He admits in this way that he would rather really die than to become one among others who are subjected to the symbolic law—here, in the form of going to therapy.

They desire complete unmediated authority and are unwilling to let those around them become part of an exterior world with other authorities (including their Marxist teachers and peers)—and so they lash out at the entirety of the outside world. In this way they aim to be simultaneously real fathers and also symbolic fathers, not realizing that it is impossible to maintain both positions. Caught between two interpretations of fatherhood, they teeter dangerously on the edge of letting go of reality.