Books

09.15.13

The Reluctant Rockefeller Speaks Out

Eileen Rockefeller, great-granddaughter of the founder of Standard Oil, tells Sandra McElwaine the story she didn’t want to tell: her struggle to find her identity, her mother’s psychological problems, and how the clan is getting on now.

Eileen Rockefeller is the first woman in her family to write a memoir about her world-famous clan. In Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself, she has produced a surprisingly candid and insightful account of an emotionally wounded girl, the youngest of six highly competitive and disinterested siblings, who lived in lavish homes with two glamorous, preoccupied, and distant parents.

Throughout the story she deals with her deep sense of isolation and her search for recognition and self-worth beyond her wealth and iconic name. As a daughter of David and Peggy Rockefeller and great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, she struggled to establish her own identity and confidence. But she succeeded through mind-body therapy, social and emotional learning, and a love of nature and the outdoors. Coming into her own as an adult, she created a niche within her circle of 22 cousins, many of whom changed their names to avoid scrutiny. She serves as founding chair of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and co-chair of her family’s generational association.

With her businessman husband, Paul Growald, and two grown sons, she lives on an organic farm in Vermont and spent six years rummaging through her past to reveal the dysfunctional and complex relationships and the ultimate healing that took place within her fractured and intensely private family.

“It took 61 years to become myself, so I don’t think six was so long to write,” she says.

You wrote that this is a story you didn’t want to tell.

Yes. Well, that’s one of the first chapters, and what I meant by that was that in assuming the mantle of Rockefeller, I felt subsumed by the enormity of accomplishment that had gone before me. So every time in any high school paper, college paper, where I had attempted to write anything about my family, I would just feel overwhelmed by how much had been accomplished, and no matter what I did I would feel so small. So I’ve always found, in public speaking, if you put the thing you are most afraid of right out there in the beginning, you can move past it, and that’s why I called the chapter “The Story I Didn’t Want to Tell.”

You must have had a lot of psychiatric help to get through all of this.

Yes. Luckily my mother had established a culture that therapy was not only good but probably necessary in a family like ours. It certainly was her salvation, and so she, to her credit, encouraged each of us to seek help in whatever ways made sense to us. I trained in my 20s to become a transactional analysis therapist and ended up doing other things, but I think I’ve had enough therapy to have earned a Ph.D.

No one is going to skip a meal, but my children’s generation needs to have a job or live simply.

Did you feel like an only child growing up?

For two years I felt like an only child, because I was really the only one at home. I certainly didn’t feel I belonged. I mean, temperamentally I was different, and in addition there were three years between me and my next older kin.

And 10 between you and your eldest brother.

Yes, we’re very close now, but we’ve had to work very hard on that relationship. I think it was more that the four in the middle formed a very close-knit clan, and my oldest brother, David, and I were the bookends.

Your mother had many dark periods. Was she bipolar?

No, she was never diagnosed as that. She did suffer from clinical depression. That was as far as they knew how to diagnose it at the time, and that was for a period of 10 years, of which 5 were my first 5 years. Understandably that had a big impact on me and on my relationship with my mother.

But you loved her so much.

Oh, well, yes, I’ve come to realize that she also loved me very much. She just had only so much to go around, so I had made a kind of unspoken contract with her that I would care for her, in return for her care of me. And when she was able to give it, there was just no one better. She was all sunshine. But when she got in her dark moods, she was very much removed and could be angry.

And I gather her salvation was the sea?

Yes, it was.

Sailing in turbulent waters?

Yes, isn’t that an interesting metaphor? I never thought of it quite that way before. Yes, she sailed in turbulent waters, but it was the turbulence that helped her feel present and alive and brought her back to her senses. [Her mother died in 1996.]

How did your mother and dad get along?

Oh, they were very much in love, they were married 55 years, and they had so much fun together. You know every couple has its arguments, but they had so much fun together. They loved all the same things. They loved being out in nature, taking walks, driving their horse-and-carriage, horses. They loved sailing together. They had all the same taste in art and in friendships—in all the arts—and they liked to travel.

Was he very loving to you kids?

I’ve always felt that we had a cozy relationship. I did with both of my parents, interestingly. I say in the book, I taught them to hug at a time when hugging wasn’t yet fashionable.

How did you do that?

Well, it was when I was living alone, living at home alone with them, and I think it came about as a means of distracting my mother from her black-cloud moods. I just remember her at the head of the table with such a heaviness, so I would try to steer the conversation to things that would cheer her up. One time after dinner we stood up, and something I had said had somehow brought them closer together, and I said let’s have a family hug, and we did. And it was a comfort to them, and it certainly felt good to me too.

And that was the first time?

Yes.

You and your father became very close over collecting beetles.

Well, it was a point of connection for each of my siblings at one time or another. The fact is that it was actually one of my father’s passions that we could connect to as children. For one thing, when we were lower to the ground, it was easy to see them, and he helped train our eye. But we had a lot of fun showing him the beetles in our bottles. And he didn’t ever learn how to play in the sense of playing ball or soccer, no he didn’t feel comfortable in sports.

How old is your father now?

Ninety-eight, and he still drives a pair of Morgan horses himself. His trainer sits behind him, but he holds the reins. He’s amazing.

And how many in the entire family?

About 250. It may be more.

And what do you call this new generation?

We’re the cousins, and the new generation calls themselves the Fifth/Sixth, meaning just that, that they are all the members who are 18 and above, from either our children or grandchildren.

And their views are sometimes very different from all of yours?

Well, every generation adopts its own culture, and my generation was a product of the ’60s, and we were very involved in anti-war causes, anti-nuclear, and environmental. But the Fifth/Sixth have taken up the mantle of both environmental and more heavily weighted towards business, partially because the money can only spread so far.

Has the money diminished a great deal over the years because there are so many of you?

No one is going to skip a meal, but my children’s generation needs to have a job or live simply.

Because there are so many of you?

That’s correct, absolutely, yes.

So the money has not dwindled, it’s just ...

Disbursed.

You wrote you were embarrassed by your name and changed it for a few years, but isn’t it a big plus?

It’s an extraordinary plus, it will get you through the door. But then you have to prove your own worth to continue whatever it is you are trying to do. So it has extraordinary convening power, you’re right. I could call up anybody, the chancellor of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and get a meeting. But had I not had something of value to say, that would have been the end of it.

It also commands a sense of respect.

It’s true, and I think there’s just been a very solid value system that’s been passed down through the generations, and the fact that we meet twice a year on the family estate has really helped keep our family together and to reinforce the values that are deserving of respect.

Was there a problem with your family when you married Paul Growald, who is Jewish?

No, my father was just so glad that I’d married someone who believed in God, it was totally fine. And my mother said to me, “You’ll never be Jewish.” But I now think that what she really meant was that, in the same way, she never totally felt like a Rockefeller. I don’t think she meant that as any kind of anti-Semitic comment, she just didn’t quite understand, or didn’t believe I could feel fully comfortable. And to some extent she was right. With religion, even if you join or expand to another religion, there are simply going to be cultural differences.

You say that you have expanded to Judaism.

Yes. Well, I mean actually I don’t go to church or synagogue very much, but I would say that the rituals of Judaism feel more in sync with who I am than those that I found inside a church, with the exception of the hymns.

Of all the people you have met, was Mandela one of the highlights?

Absolutely, meeting Mandela was the highlight of my life. He was just such an extraordinary man. But the real highlight was to have our sons hear this great man talk about what’s important. It was a really wonderful experience. His two messages to them: one was travel because it will give you perspective, and then the other was, of course, the importance of education.

How do your siblings feel about the book?

Because I vetted each of the chapters relating to every single person who was mentioned, there will be no surprises. I know that they are pleased for me. In a family of six, each person has a different style and a different way of being in the world, and mine is probably more public than some of them would choose. But they are mature enough to appreciate that this is my path.

And your dad?

My dad is very proud, and he loves that his picture is on the front cover.

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“Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself.” By Eileen Rockefeller. $28; Blue Rider Press; 336 pages. ()