As a psychologist with a private practice focusing on young adults, I watch The Kardashians reality show through a different lens than my peers. Some devour the show like cotton candy, stuffed into your mouth and savored like a drug. "You can actually feel the pleasure hitting your brain," said one friend. Others see a bowl of mixed nuts on a crowded bar, covered in microscopic fecal matter, to be avoided at all cost.
I follow the Kardashians as if they were a family in therapy, sitting on my couch, working through their substantial issues. I listen intently for the subtleties of their communication, hidden alliances, desperate cries for attention, validation or connection. Fortunately, much of what is said on the show is not veiled or hidden. As a credit to the family, they often go off script and reveal themselves to the world with startling authenticity.
This was the case when Rob Kardashian, the only son in a family of five girls, began to open up about his father, the deceased lawyer Robert Kardashian. Robert Kardashian was one of the lawyers for OJ Simpson during his infamous murder trial. In 2003, Robert Kardashian Sr. died of esophageal cancer; Rob Jr. was just 16 years old. During one touching episode, Bruce Jenner recalled how Robert Kardashian, on his deathbed, asked him to look after the Kardashian children: Courtney, Kim, Khloe and Robert, providing for them financially and emotionally. While Bruce, as the step-father, seems like a positive role-model for the Kardashian clan, his relationship with Rob seems to lack real emotional depth. Rarely have I seen an episode where the two are connecting in a meaningful way.
As a therapist, I wonder if Rob really ever got over his father's death and allowed Bruce into his life. It seems that Rob has not fully dealt with his "father hunger," the natural longing to fill the hole left by a deceased father. The Kardashian daughters seem to have done this, finding men to marry and feeling close enough to Bruce to have him walk them down the aisle. The Kardashian daughters were adults when their father died, which perhaps lessened the psychological blow of his loss.
Beth Erickson PhD, in her book Longing for Dad: Father Loss and Its Impact, sheds light on this "father hunger" and the psychological considerations when one loses a father so young. Just at the moment when Rob was separating developmentally from his mother and turning towards his father for guidance and wisdom, his role-model was gone, leaving Rob alone and helpless. Who would take Rob to Laker or Dodger games, to fish or to show him how to tie a Windsor knot? Erickson writes that fathers create just such connections as a way to initiate sons into manhood. I suspect Bruce tried to connect with Rob, but for whatever reason, the bond didn't cement.
In one touching episode, Rob broke down emotionally to his mother about how much he missed his father and how lost he felt. I found it heart-wrenching as he cried, speaking longingly of his father. Rob's mother, Kris Kardashian, was warm and comforting, but she knew this was a wound she could not heal. Kris held him as he told her he wanted to pursue a career as a lawyer. I thought that was admirable, considering his celebrity status and the privilege that already surrounded him. And then it struck me. As a lawyer he would symbolically be close to his father, and perhaps from heaven gain his father's respect. That validation, transmitted from father to son, creates self-confidence and allows a boy to move forward with courage.
Rob seems stuck in his life, waiting for something to happen or for someone to come and guide him. When Khloe married Lamar Oden, the professional basketball player, Rob was immediately drawn to the strong male presence in his life. The two bonded quickly. It was no surprise when I heard that Rob had actually moved in with his sister and Lamar. Was this the father figure that Rob longed for? Lamar seemed to affirm Rob and validated him as a man, even when his sisters and mother couldn't. Rob appeared to be doing better during this period of time. Unfortunately, Lamar had emotional problems of his own and wasn't a stable father figure or mentor to Rob.
Rob's other brother-in-law, Scott Disick, has many exemplary qualities necessary to be a role-model. He has confidence, intelligence, a good work ethic, a willingness to work on his own issues and an apparent concern for Rob. Scott, however, lacks the one quality necessary to be a good mentor or surrogate father -- humility. A good parent puts the wants and needs of the child first. It's obvious to me, and probably to Rob, that Scott cares more about Scott than anyone in his near orbit.
Interestingly, Kim seems to be the source of much of Rob's anger. She's the most successful of the siblings and a direct reflection of Rob's inability to make something of himself. Perhaps Rob thinks that if his father were alive, he would have his guidance and support to be a more successful young man. Dr. Erickson writes that "A father is the gatekeeper to his son's healthy masculinity." Without Robert Kardashian to guide his son, Robert Jr. wouldn't be able to cross over the threshold to manhood. I believe Robert Sr. knew this instinctively when he asked Bruce to fill this role.
Erickson also writes that "men that did not have a father to initiate them into manhood become very dependent on women to take care of them and even define them." But what happens when the women in your life are not capable of supporting you? I wondered if Rob looked to his mother and sisters for affirmation but found them lacking. Either because they are simply not men or too self-involved, the women in Rob's life seem unable to support his development. On the show he often complained that they thought of him as a "loser." To her credit, Kim empathizes with her brother's "father wound" so beautifully. In one televised family therapy session, Kim cries, telling the therapist that her mother "doesn't know how to raise a son that well. That was Dad's thing, and now that Dad isn't here... it's like no one's fault."
I stopped watching the show in recent years, but kept an eye on the tabloids. They reported that Rob had a drug problem. Rob gained weight, etc. My interest, however, was really peaked when I saw that Rob had left Kim's wedding in Italy a day early. The tabloids said that there was a dispute over his significant weight gain, and that Kim didn't want him in the wedding photos. Regardless of the reasons, I could sense that Rob needed help and that his situation was getting worse.
Not knowing him at all, and, only gathering information from television and tabloids, I can only theorize what Rob Kardashian is going through. Losing a father is not something I thankfully ever experienced. My father did suffer that event, though, at the age of five. I know that loss had a tremendous impact on his life.
I'm a sensitive person, which is probably why I was drawn to a helping profession. My heart goes out to Rob, and my hope is that he gets the help he needs. As a psychologist, I have worked with young men with a variety of issues, including the loss of a parent. I have seen young men blossom simply by receiving the affirmation they so desperately needed.
If Rob were on my couch, I would allow him space to grieve his father. It's not just his father's physical absence that needs to be acknowledged, but the meaning of that loss in his life. I would help Rob see how lost he feels without him and how difficult it is to move forward without his father's guidance and wisdom. I would validate this dependency and praise Rob for trying so hard amidst the confusion and chaos. Through a process called "Empty Chair," Rob would get to address the "unfinished business" with his deceased father, who is imagined in an empty chair in front of him. Through this conversation, Rob might realize that he has already received tremendous gifts from his father. Perhaps he would learn that his father "has his back," loves and supports him, whether a success or failure, as a lawyer, teacher or businessman. Mostly though, throughout Rob's time with me in therapy, I would validate and affirm him. By doing this over weeks and months, the hope is that Rob could begin to affirm himself, revealing the path to self-confidence.
Having lived in Los Angeles, I can testify to the wonderful male therapists in that city. Finding a male therapist shouldn't be difficult; finding one that Rob respects might be more challenging. Like shopping for clothes, it's important to try out different therapists and find the one that's a good fit. In the end, I'm confident Rob Kardashian will find his way, hopefully guided on the path by a male therapist who welcomes him, "father wounds" and all.
Follow George Sachs, Psy.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drgeorgesachs