The Imposture Status and the Family Romance Fantasy; A Review of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird

“You free yourself from the oppressive presence of everyday existence by substituting your own little fictions.” ~Jerzy Kosinski

By substituting “little fictions,” Kosinski concealed his terror and painful sense of insignificance that had dominated his life. He also imposed his fictions on others and thereby sought to prove that they, not he, were vulnerable and helpless. These are the explicit behaviors made manifest in a person’s repertoire of human language and behavior which reveal the secrecy of unspoken traumatic experiences and abuse in their psychological development.

Kosinski’s psychology and childhood experiences are remarkably consistent with Louise Kaplan’s (1986) portrayal of the developmental transformation that culminate in imposture.

Kaplan connected the family romance to imposture:

Every imposture is an enactment of ….the redemption aspect of the family romance. The impostor must impose his false personality and achievements on others again and again in order to maintain the illusion that he is not small and insignificant, that he is worthy of his mother’s admiration, that, moreover, he is entitled to trick the father, overthrow him, and rob him of his powers [p. 298]. (Kaplan, L.S. (1986), Adolescence: The Farewell to Childhood, Northvale, NJ: Aronson.)

The types of personalities that create the family romance fantasy of imposture, may be at high risk for committing suicide. The act of “creating” an alter-ego identity is a defensive move to protect one’s true identity which is a way to escape from real and imagined threats to his true self. These individuals may view suicide as an affirmation to his “power to choose” in an otherwise uncontrollable and chaotic world, a final assertation of control. In Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps he wrote: “The definitive act of defiance and of superiority over the human condition is to defeat Nature with her own weapon, is to bring about death at will” (p. 231). In Cockpit, Tarden (the main character) keeps a cyanide pellet with him at all times so as always to have the means to defy and escape from the control of the oppressive State. He says, “I sensed freedom only when my fingers stroked the foil-wrapped pellet in m pocket” (Kosinski, 1975, p.16).

On May, 2, 1991, Jerzy Kosinski killed himself. Although he had contemplated suicide for most of his life, his suicide was undoubtedly tied to the devastating impact of allegations reported in the Village Voice articles that succeeded in debunking the veracity of his basic account of himself. (Sloan, 1996, p. 5).

What we can learn from Kosinski’s life and art is the fact that early childhood Painted-Bird-300x300.jpgexperiences from hostile environments have long-standing side-effects for the human psyche. Kosinski’s early childhood experiences with societal forces that were telling him he wasn’t “good enough,” that in fact, as a Jew he was “unworthy” and as such deserved extermination. His novel, The Painted Bird, expressed a family romance fantasy of a child’s wishful elevation to a high social class or level of sophistication, the fantasy sensitizes children (and adults for whom the fantasy still serves an organizing role) to class as well as to other hierarchical divisions. In, The Painted Bird, Kosinski compared the boy’s more noble background with that of the peasant he is surrounded by and forced to live with, where the local peasants are described by him as “isolated and inbred.” While the boy speaks a “language of the educated class, a language barely intelligible to the peasants of the east.“ This represents parallels very closely to the German nation’s notion of the “perfect ideal family image.” (Santner, Eric L. (1990) Stranded objects: Mourning, memory and film in postwar Germany. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press.)

Kosinski’s adoption of a superior stance derives from his identification with an idealized set of parents. His customary descriptions of his parents are consistent with this. Kosinski elevates his family status to that of the aristocracy with the defensive aim at trying to restore his injured sense of self. His father, for all intense purposes was a bright and intelligent man. He was a relatively successful business man involved in the textile industry as both manager and shareholder. His father pursued an interest in language and was fluent in six. These pursuit became the basis of Kosinski’s later inflated claim that his father was a professor and a language scholar.

Kosinski’s mother, Elzbieta Liniecka Lewinkopf, nee Elizabeth Weinreich, was born in Lodz on January 6, 1889. Elzbieta retained an air of refinement, flaunting her higher social status and urban sophistication, despite their demoted circumstances. She never relinquished her habit of giving orders. Unlike the peasants in their new communities, Elzbieta paid careful attention to her appearance, always trimming and polishing her nails and wearing perfume. As an adult, Kosinski always claimed that his mother was a “concert” pianist despite the fact that she had seldom performed publicly.

Thus, although he was not separated from his parents in real life, Kosinski identified with the boy in The Painted Bird because, like him, he felt that he had lost the parents he once had and with whom he continued to long to be reunited.

Kosinski’s imposture life is related to real early repetitive, traumatic exposure to threats to his life during the war (Krystal, 1997, 2000), where he was forced to hide his identity and constantly move from place to place. Storytelling was a skill he acquired which helped ensure his survival. As a result, he was never able to relinquish the strategies he had employed to protect himself. In misrepresenting his past, Kosniski returned to a tactic that had assured his survival as a child and restored a sense of continuity with his early imposturous self. Paradoxically, by adopting a fictitious past, he simultaneously severed the tie to his true history and thus concealed the vulnerable and frightened child he felt himself to be. Furthermore, his assumed identities kept others from getting close enough to know him. He was afraid that, if he let himself become too intimate with anyone, he would become vulnerable to the other’s control. Psychoanalytic theory consider this persistence of imposturous lies in adulthood as also shaped by fantasy.  In the end, he viewed suicide as the sole enterprise that could liberate him from the web of fiction he had woven throughout his life.


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