Fame And Fabrication: Inside Heene's Irrational Mind Richard Heene is a man "literally addicted to getting attention and fame." Commentator Jake Halpern details Heene's classic case of fame addiction — and insists there's no reason he should get off easy.
NPR logo Fame And Fabrication: Inside Heene's Irrational Mind

Fame And Fabrication: Inside Heene's Irrational Mind

Six-year-old Falcon Heene is shown with his father, Richard, outside the family's home in Fort Collins, Colo. David Zalubowski/AP hide caption

toggle caption
David Zalubowski/AP

Six-year-old Falcon Heene is shown with his father, Richard, outside the family's home in Fort Collins, Colo.

David Zalubowski/AP

Consider the following plan: A man has a hot air balloon, which he launches into the sky — unmanned. Then he calls the authorities and says, essentially, Gee, I think my 6-year-old son might be on board. Then, the man calls back a few hours later and explains, What do you know? My son was just hiding — don't sweat it! The purpose of this plan, apparently, was to create a media frenzy and help get the family onto a reality TV show. The plan is outrageous, sure, but mainly it's incredibly stupid and short-sighted. What was Richard Heene, also known as father of "Balloon Boy," thinking? Did he really think this would work?

Heene wasn't thinking rationally because — and I'm not just being glib here — he is a fame junkie, someone who is literally addicted to getting attention and fame. Anyone who has ever been in the limelight, even for telling a good story at a cocktail party, knows there's a rush that comes with commanding everyone's attention. It feels great when people hang on your every word and laugh at your jokes. This kind of positive feedback taps into something that scientists call our "reward-aversion system." Ever since the dawn of man, the reward-aversion system has played a key role in human evolution. It punishes us with pain when we harm ourselves, and it rewards us with pleasure when we do things that help us survive and reproduce. This is why eating food, having sex and even being accepted by our peers feels so good.

All of these activities prompt the brain to release a variety of chemicals or neurotransmitters, including dopamine and endogenous opiates, which ultimately make us feel great. This phenomenon has led some scientists to observe that the brain is, essentially, a giant pharmaceutical factory that releases chemically potent uppers. Over time, many of us find ourselves craving the activities that trigger these chemical releases. In order to get a fix, we feel driven to eat chocolate constantly or bet $1,000 on a Yankees game again and again and again. Indeed, scientists now believe that there may be a whole range of activities that can, over time, change the chemistry of people's brains and create internal chemical dependencies. One addict's craving for gambling or eating chocolate — or even getting attention — may be physiologically as real as another's craving for heroin or nicotine.

I once interviewed Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She says there are two things that define addiction — whether a person can bring himself or herself to quit and how well he or she functions in society. For example, you couldn't say that Bill Gates is "addicted" to making money or being famous, because his desire for these things doesn't appear to debilitate him as a CEO or as a figure in his family. "But if Bill Gates was compulsive about making money or getting fame at the cost of his integrity, his family or his health — and he couldn't quit despite wanting to do so — that could be described as an addiction," Dr. Volkow told me.

Jake Halpern is the author of Fame Junkies. Courtesy of Jake Halpern hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Jake Halpern

True addicts get locked into a destructive cycle in which they come to depend on an activity or a substance for pleasure and comfort. Gradually, the addict's set of priorities — or "value hierarchy" — begins to change as the addiction itself becomes more important than other values such as work, friends or family. Eventually, even if addicts desperately want to quit, they find it very difficult to do so.

Now, once again, let's consider the case of Richard Heene. It appears that he enjoyed fame briefly while participating on the TV show, Wife Swap; seemingly, he liked the taste of it and became desperate for more — so desperate that his "value hierarchy" began to shift. I believe he stopped thinking logically about the practicality of his plan, the trouble he was causing and even the welfare of his child because — above all else — he wanted the high, the rush, the euphoric moment when the world was paying attention to him. Perhaps he sensed, on some level, that his plan was risky, even reckless, but the craving was too strong.

I'm not exculpating him — far from it. I'm just saying let's face the facts: Heene shows all the traits of an addict, and, somewhat ironically, the media's coverage of his story — even these very words that I am typing and that you are reading — are giving him one hell of a high.

Jake Halpern is the author of Fame Junkies.