Fox News president Roger Ailes casts a reality distortion field so immense that even simple childhood stories stand no chance of escaping it. Reviewers (and readers) of Gabriel Sherman’s new Ailes biography have quickly latched onto an anecdote, conveyed to Sherman by a former Ailes associate, regarding how Ailes’s father, Robert Sr., intentionally let him fall from his bunk bed in order to teach him a lesson. It’s almost certainly a lie.
Here’s the anecdote, located on page 7:
The cruelest lesson Roger would speak of occurred in the bedroom Roger shared with his brother. Roger was standing on the top bunk. His father opened his arms wide and smiled. “Jump Roger, jump,” he told him. Roger lept off the bed into the air toward his arms. But Robert took a step back. His son fell flat onto the floor. As he looked up, Robert leaned down and picked him up. “Don’t ever trust anybody,” he said.
Sherman is careful to source the anecdote to Stephen Rosenfield, an associate at consulting company Ailes owned in the 1970s. “Ailes told it to him several occassions with pain in his voice,” Sherman writes. (Rosenfield, referring to Citizen Kane, deemed the anecdote Ailes’s “Rosebud story.”) Ailes himself told the same tale, albeit in a different setting—with him leaping from a brick wall, not a bunk bed—in a 2006 conversation with the New York Observer:
“Come on, I’ll catch you,” the elder Mr. Ailes said, as his son remembered it, and motioned with his hands. “Come on, jump.” The boy took a breath and leapt off the wall, toward his father’s waiting arms. Mr. Ailes withdrew, letting his son fall to the ground. “He picked me up,” Mr. Ailes said, “and he said: ‘Never assume, and don’t necessarily trust anybody.’
There are several good reasons to doubt this ever happened, at least in the way Ailes has repeated it over the years. For one, the story is a very well-known trope. The earliest version of the story that we could locate appears in The Rockefeller Inheritance, a biography of the Standard Oil magnate published by Doubleday in 1977. Since then the fable of a father tricking his son into jumping—and later warning him not to trust anyone—has showed up in several hundred books (and, more recently, nearly every obituary of British actor Peter O’Toole). Here’s a small sampling:
- “The boy jumped. He crashed to the ground and lay there, winded and bruised. His father went racing down the stairs and ran up to him. ‘That was your first lesson in business, son. Never trust anyone!’”
- “I jumped and my dad stepped backwards so that I would land on the floor. I can remember lying there crying and him looking down at me saying, ‘Let that be a lesson in life, Son. Never trust anyone, not even your father.’”
- “Granddad sat my then five-year-old father up on the mantle, held out hisarms and told him to jump. As my father leaped into the air, the old man stepped back and Dad splattered onto the floor. Granddad smiled and told him, ‘Never trust anyone.’”
- Jump, the father says, I’ll catch you, and when the child jumps, he drops his hands and lets the child fall to the earth. There, that’s a lesson to you, he says, never trust anyone.
- Lance did as he was told, but as he took his boyish leap of faith, his father moved away, and Lance crashed onto the rocky pathway below. […] His father looked down at him: “Let that be a lesson, son,” he intoned, “you can never trust anyone in life.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy example of the fable appeared in an academic study penned in 2008 by a tenured professor of psychiatry at the University of Milan, who described the tale as a key component of a psychotic subject’s enabling narrative.
The professor, Tullio Scrimal, writes that a patient of his was “assailed by delusions of persecution and firmly believed he was at the center of a complex secret service operation that controlled his every step in order to incriminate him.” (Which basically describes Ailes.) When asked for evidence of the secret operation, the patient supplied the Ailesian fable. “Never trust anyone!” the father supposedly told the patient. “If your father, who loves you, lets you fall, imagine what strangers might do to you!”
It is easy to understand how such a fable could be incorporated into the personal narrative of the patient. Thus, if one begins with a biological vulnerability and arrives [at] the point of decompensation, the psychotic episode seems to be a coherent development of a life lived constantly in fear and mistrust of others.
Personal narrative responds to the irrepressible need of the mind to construct a sense of reality that is coherent with the past stories and with current cultural schemas of the individual.
To be sure, Ailes’s father was abusive, and regularly beat his children—a fact corroborated by divorce records Sherman located in the course of writing his book. But it’s nevertheless a matter of public record that Ailes lies constantly, almost reflexively. He lies about everything. He enlists others to lie on his behalf. The scope of his deception extends to making up things George Washington said. Manufacturing a childhood myth in order to bolster the narrative of one’s hardscrabble upbringing—a story intended to affirm his out-sized political power—is classic Ailes. And Ailes is, more than anything else, a shameless liar.
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