EILEEN ROCKEFELLER is an author, public speaker, and venture philanthropist. Her recently published memoir, Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself, details a journey of finding herself amidst one of America’s most storied families.
Eileen is a pioneer in catalyzing the fields of mind/body health and social & emotional learning. In 1983 she founded the Institute for the Advancement of Health to further scientific understanding of mind/body interactions in health and disease. In 1994 she co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, to promote social and emotional learning in schools from K-12th grade.
In 2000, Eileen became the founding chair of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, now the largest philanthropic advisory service in the world. She has served as co-chair of her family’s generational association, and has led discussions around the philanthropic values that have helped to keep the Rockefeller family together for seven generations.
Eileen received her BA in geography from Middlebury College in 1974 and her MA from Lesley College in 1976. She and her husband have two grown sons and live on an organic farm in Vermont.
1. The Rockefellers are widely known to be an intensely private family and, in fact, you are the first Rockefeller woman to write a personal family memoir. Why did you write BEING A ROCKEFELLER, BECOMING MYSELF?
I grew up as the youngest of six children in a very intense, public family where everyone on the outside felt they knew us even before they met us.
My first objective in writing my memoir was to tell stories about what made me who I am, like building a cabin with my mother and siblings on an island in Maine, or stopping boys from beating a squirrel in Central Park. The second was to help others become themselves. I tell stories that show how family is the first mirror through which we see ourselves.
2. From the stories you have written it sounds as if you believe family is the foundation for a healthy society. Do you agree?
Yes. When I first meet people I often ask about their family. Everyone has one. Families are the incubator of society. They mirror how we feel about ourselves and shape how we act. Whether we are rich or poor, the ways we have suffered or benefited from our family experiences reflects or distorts our true nature and influences how we contribute to society. My stories are a window into one well-known family that I hope will help readers see their own more clearly.
Growing up I had many material comforts and luxuries, things that most people can only dream about. Some people might say I won the lottery at birth. But my parents were unable to give me the time and attention than I needed. In Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself I tell about living in houses where fifty or more people passed through each day, where I learned to care for others as a way of helping me feel less lonely. In my chapter called “Heart Talks” I recount how my husband and I gave our sons the quantity and quality of time and attention that I didn’t get. We also modeled how to express emotions and resolve conflicts in healthy ways.
3. You write, “Wealth sometimes requires that one keep others out.” You describe your mother changing the locks on her doors to keep her own mother out. In what ways has the Rockefeller wealth impacted your friendships and your trust of people?
In my chapter “Setting the Stage” I describe how my mother lost friends when they were turned away at our family estate gates. She later changed the locks on our house to keep her mother from sneaking in to make expensive long distance telephone calls.
As a child I was shy about my last name and fearful of strangers and intruders. I often felt like a turtle trying to hide in its shell. So I learned how to read people’s motives and to protect myself by being attentive, vulnerable and compassionate. Showing my emotions just enough to seem vulnerable gave me a false sense of protection.
It took ten years into my marriage and announcing that I wanted to leave my husband, Paul, before I learned how to trust him and others enough to open the final door to my heart.
4. In 1981, as the founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, you were a pioneer in bringing credibility to the field of mind/body health. You had many choices of what to do with your life. Why did you choose this field and start an organization to promote it?
As I tell in my chapter, “Launching the Mind/Body Field,” I discovered the relationship between mind and body from a young age. I hated school to the point I often got sick as a way of avoiding it and getting my mother’s attention at the same time.
Twenty-five years later, when I met my mentor, Norman Cousins, editor of the renowned “Saturday Review of Literature,” author of the best selling book, Anatomy of an Illness, I recognized that the relationship between mind and body was denied by most doctors and scientists. I saw the need to prove beyond doubt this connection and to raise the credibility of the field as a whole.
I used my family name and connections to convene some of the pioneers, most of who had been struggling in isolation. My aim was to include one or more scientific advisors who were respected by any doctor in America. I built a supportive community including the President of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Lewis Thomas, MD, and the founder of psychopharmacology, Joel Elkes, MD, and founder of psychoneuroimmunology, Robert Ader, PhD. We gave one of our youngest advisors, Dean Ornish, MD, the first grant for his now well-known program in reversing heart disease.
5. In your book you say, “Fear kept my learning to a minimum except in the area of emotions. Feelings were not talked about in my family, and admitting them was considered a weakness.” You went on to launch the emotional intelligence movement and its efforts to integrate social and emotional learning into schools and, in fact, introduced Daniel Goleman to the subject of his best selling book Emotional Intelligence. How did one inform the other?
I developed a strength out of my fear of failure in school with strong social and emotional skills. They helped me in my marriage and family and in my philanthropic work.
In 1994, I co-founded CASEL, a national organization to promote social and emotional learning in schools from pre-K – 12th grade. It was built on the premise that along with the “three R’s,” good people skills are essential for success in life.
We have to pass a driver’s test to go on the road, yet when it comes to parenting there are no schools or tests, and scant support for how to do a good job and not cause harm. Healthy families provide the foundation for a healthy and safe society.
6. In your memoir nature, like your island in Maine, and animals, like your pet turtle, seem as important as some of the characters. You and your family are all conservationists and you speak often of the “healing power of nature.” What do you mean by this?
We all belong to the family of life. It feeds and supports us. In my chapter, “The Smallest Count” I quote my father speaking of the hundred fifty thousand beetles he has collected all his life, saying, “If you know a little about nature, you can know a little about things everywhere around the world.”
My siblings and I grew up caring for animals. We spent a lot of time outdoors in nature. We learned compassion from our pets, like the orphaned deer we rescued and the crow my mother stole from its nest. From these experiences and more, we found that our actions can and often do impact others.
Whether watching an osprey nudge a stick into its nest atop a cliff, or a spider weave her web between two twigs in the pine forest, my stories show how my own life and family are tiny threads in the larger web of life.
7. What is the meaning of “community” to you? How was it defined in your family, in your life growing up, and how do you define it today?
Family is everyone’s first community. Eating meals together is one of the most important things parents can do to help their children succeed in life. I illustrate the power of family dinners in my chapter “She Shot the Rabbits.”
Every family needs a community of support. In another chapter, “Passages,” I describe my extended family’s twice-annual reunions where we meet, play, eat and honor each other’s milestones. Doing projects, sharing stories, and celebrating holidays has kept our family together for seven generations. These are all things any family can do, regardless of their wealth.
8. You write disarmingly and with an open heart about your marriage of thirty-two years. What do you hope others will gain from your disclosures about some of the troubles you’ve overcome?
Even the best marriages are messy. Paul and I hope that in reading my chapter, “In The Fire,” about our near break-up and reconciliation after ten years marriage, that others might be emboldened to fight to save their own marriage or relationship when times get tough.
Couples are annoyingly vivid mirrors for one another. When something angers us about our mate, in reality it is usually about something deeper from our past that is getting stirred up. We found that facing and dealing with conflict openly and looking at the root causes of our hurt and anger strengthened our marriage rather than destroying it. We hope that others will find comfort and courage from our story.
9. Your wealthy Rockefeller family and your husband’s middle class Jewish family both had clear expectations about how to spend money and focus your energies. What did you learn from your families about spending your money and your time that you have tried to pass on to your children, and how did you do it?
My husband and I spent much more time with our children than my parents and siblings spent with me. We also differed from my parents in showing our kids how to express their feelings openly. We showed them by using words to disagree, and how to fight fairly with us, and each other. We also set clear limits for them. As described in my chapter, “Putting the Heart Into Practice,” after my sons learned to translate feelings into words they were able to help resolve conflict with and between their peers.
As parents Paul and I repeated some of the modeling around money that we both had learned growing up. We rarely fly first class and don’t drive fancy cars. When our boys were growing up we expected them to do chores, like washing dishes and cleaning up after meals, making their beds and feeding the cat and chickens. We gave our sons an allowance, showing them how to keep a ledger, and we continued my family’s tradition of spending one third, saving one third, and giving away one third. This developed a conscientiousness and respect for money that they both have to this day.
10. You write about your fear of your mother’s moods, her emotional plummets, her anger, and about worrying that she didn’t love you. What did you learn from your relationship with your mother?
In my chapter, “Cultivating Love,” I tell how I could never fill my mother’s leaky love bucket. I discovered, in telling her she was a wonderful mother, even though I didn’t entirely feel it, that I helped her come closer to being the mother she wanted to be. As I continued to explore the roots of my emotional outbursts, I learned to fill my own love bucket, and gradually gave to myself what I wanted from my mother and others.
11. You come from a powerful legacy. How do you differentiate yourself from your Rockefeller legacy?
I’ve learned that it’s not the size of our bank account but the size of our heart that matters most. Rich people can feel scarcity even with an abundance of money. Love has no end. I found my own identity by daring to express my feelings and connecting with others outside my family. Eventually, this helped me find my way back home.
One of many parts of my legacy that I embrace, modeled by my parents, is treating everyone with respect, and as equally valuable. I have also differentiated from them by expressing my feelings to break through to the truth as I feel and see it. Perhaps this is what people mean when they say I’m “so down to earth.” It can sometimes make for uncomfortable moments, but I’m willing to take risks and be open. Through connections I find value and meaning in the larger community of life.
12. You say in your book that you have “expanded to Judaism.” What do you mean by this and how has the blending of Christian and Jewish traditions been an enhancement and/or a challenge in your relationship and family?
Before we married, Paul and I agreed we would raise our sons as Jews in order to balance his small family’s long held traditions and my family’s prominence. I “expanded” to Judaism prior to having children, but we did not give up a Christmas tree or celebrating that holiday with my family, and I still enjoy some of the inspiring sacred music that I grew up with along with my father’s family toasts. Paul and I share the values of family, philanthropy, service, and love of nature. We have differed over the extent of observance in our family, but I’m glad our sons both had Bar Mitzvahs, and Friday night blessings at home over candles, wine, and bread at the start of the Sabbath. I love how the Jewish holidays and traditions begin with the cycles of the moon, giving balance between God, family and nature.