The Hidden Motives Behind the Balloon Boy Hoax

If self-knowledge were an easy thing, Socrates would not have spent his entire life pursuing it. And yet, most people believe that they know themselves and understand their motives. While it is true, as people say, that we need a lot more transparency in government, few people are even transparent to themselves. Rather than being rational and self-determined, they are driven like a log in a sea of emotional longings, symbolic interests, dogmatic beliefs and vague ideas. To hide from the unsettling suspicion that they are not the autonomous beings that they imagine themselves to be, they fabricate various explanations and justifications for their actions.

For example, were you to ask the average golfer why he spends time hitting a little ball, with a stick, into a whole, he might explain that it’s good exercise or that it’s relaxing or that it provides a chance to socialize with his buddies. Those might certainly may be his ostensible motives. The truth of the matter is that 99.9% of golfers are completely unaware of their real attraction for the game. (For an insightful analysis, read: “Golf in the Kingdom,” by Michael Murphy — Penguin Books, 1972.)

Friedrich Nietzsche offers a much darker example of the effort to mask hidden motives. He discusses a murderer who also steals, simply to have a rational motive to offer to himself and to other people, for why he murders. After all, murder for murder’s sake is beyond the pale of reason and sanity. But murdering, as part of a theft, seems to make some sense. I.E., it involves the profit motive. Perhaps, Nietzsche had in mind Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, from his novel “Crime and Punishment.”

In any case, we often construct a motive for ourselves, when we do not really know our real motives or our real motives appear too dark or too insane to be acceptable. Some years ago, a comedian captured the often absurd claim that we are the willful source of our actions. Upon tripping on the floor and landing flat on his back, he exclaimed: “I meant to do that!”

The Balloon Hoax
This brings us to a recent news story about six-year-old Falcon Heene, the balloon boy, of Fort Collins Colorado. Falcon had supposedly accidentally gone up in his father Richard Heene’s balloon/basket. For hours America and the world was transfixed as police helicopters sought to rescue the boy, as he supposedly traveled across Colorado. When the balloon finally landed, everyone was surprised to discover that Falcon was not in the basket tied to the balloon. They then learned that he was hiding in the attic of his parent’s house. There was a collective sigh of relief.

Ah, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The police soon deduced that the father, Richard Heene, a reality TV star, had created this whole drama. His motive? He was hoping that the publicity would allow him to launch a reality TV show, about his family.

What sort of person is Richard Heene? A narcissist? A sociopath? He would appear to be a bit of both. After all, for the sake of his acting career, he caused police, emergency squads, and military personnel to devote a great deal of time and money to what was a mere fabrication. Ultimately, the taxpayers would have had to foot the bill. Furthermore, for the sake of his career, he involves the other members of his family in a falsehood to the authorities. What sort of father raises his children to believe that marketing oneself is all important, that it trumps honesty and concern for the common weal?

As is often the case with narcissistic sociopaths, Mr. Heene didn’t expect to get caught in his lies, and when he did, he simply denied it. Furthermore, this effort to bend reality is really a sign of the times. Daniel Henninger, in an article, from the Wall Street Journal, entitled “We Are All Balloon Boys Now,” contends that the incident is a sign of our times. Fakery is everywhere, particularly in politics, but American citizens are finally catching on.

We began by stating that people are often driven by longings of which they themselves are unaware. There’s no denying that Richard Heene desperately craves fame, and that he would sell his soul to the devil if he could star in his own reality TV show, for that would confirm that everything really was about him. That might appear to be a sufficient motive to explain his boy-in-the-balloon charade. All the same, the narrative that Mr. Heene created is worth examining, as one would examine any story, myth, or fairy tale. For there is, as we shall see, a mythic truth underlying his fabrication.

Icarus 2009
What, then, can we say about Richard Heene’s tale of a young boy adrift in a balloon, at the mercy of the winds? The boy in the balloon story represents Richard Heene’s own childish self, which has lost all connection to concrete reality. I.E., Richard is as self-inflated as a helium balloon, floating through life, with his head in the clouds, adrift from reality.

Thus, the inner drama was not really about his actual son, Falcon. In the mind of Richard Heene, his balloon boy story was, symbolically, about whether or not he, Richard Heene, would land safely or, like Icarus, go crashing down to earth. To land safely would have meant no longer being self-inflated, but developing into a “down-to-earth” adult.

Alas, the protagonists of such self-created Icarus dramas inevitably end up crashing. Rock stars do it through deadly drug abuse. Financiers, like Barnard Madoff, do it by overextending themselves and then going bankrupt. Richard Heene’s way of crashing was not nearly so disastrous. He might serve time in jail and his wife might too, for he dragged her in as an accomplice. He will also have to pay back the money that the police, the military, and other search crews spent on this wild-goose-chase. Certainly, the general public views him with a good deal of contempt, as the vile and reprehensible publicity-whore that he is. In Icarus dramas of this sort, the protagonist arranges his own punishment and this is no exception.

In any case, Richard Heene has, indeed, been motivated to get his own reality TV show, but underlying that desire has been an unconscious wish to stage, for the world to see, his descent to earth from the heavens of vainglorious dreams. The world now sees that he has come down to earth, but ironically not as he intended. Mr. Heene didn’t intend to crash land in jail.

The Icarus myth might also offer us a clue as to the public’s fascination with this story. It is not just with little Falcon and his dysfunctional family. It’s really been about what will happen when, symbolically speaking, the bubble of delusion begins to deflate. Will we gently glide to earth? Or will we come crashing down? Some, who have witnessed the balloon-boy drama, have pictured themselves adrift — in a symbolic sense — in that high-flying balloon/basket. They are concerned that their dreams will burst like a bubble and that they will come crashing down one day. For others, the balloon story has evoked a disturbing image of America dangerously adrift. In regard to the latter, the crash will come both economically and politically. It’s only a question of how disastrous it will be.

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