Larry Harvey: The founder of the Burning Man festival on adoption, uncontrollable rage - and how Freud became a father figure


Adam Jacques@adamjacques88
Sunday 26 January 2014 01:00
The annual Burning Man festival has delayed its gates from opening after severe rainstorms
The annual Burning Man festival has delayed its gates from opening after severe rainstorms

Wilderness environments bring out the best in people At Burning Man [the annual week-long cultural event , held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada , which Harvey co-founded in 1986], people come prepared for survival in an extreme environment, and as you're all in the same boat, you bond. There was a fellow who came out a few years ago, a wealthy lawyer, who brought all this newly bought high-end survival kit, laying everything out along the floor. Then a wind came and whipped them into oblivion; he had a nervous breakdown. But a giant dust storm brings home everyone's mortality, and you come together: replacement items began to appear. He was overwhelmed by other people's kindness.

I was raised to be radically self-reliant I was raised on a farm; my parents were farmers, though my father was a carpenter by trade. He regarded any unnecessary conversation as mouth-flap. I would have put my arm in a fire to get praise from my parents but I never felt I pleased him. But what I learnt to do was stand on my own two feet.

Being adopted means missing a level of intuitive rapport with your family Of course plenty of biological offspring say they feel no connection to their parents, but being adopted for me meant that substrate feeling of "I am you" was lacking. Years later, my brother, who was also adopted, and I both admitted how we felt like exchange students: everyone treated us well, but we didn't quite fit or belong.

My son was the perfect miracle to me Being adopted meant I'd never met anyone genetically connected to me. My son had this look as a baby, a sort of "You will respect my boundaries." People who came up to hold him would get this look and I thought, "Oh my god, that's the look I've given people my whole life." It was so deeply affirming and reassuring to see it. Though of course he wasn't me at all; that's the big mistake that parents make.

Sometimes children ask for more than you have to give I raised my son as a single father and one night I remember being alone with him as he cried and cried, and couldn't be comforted. His need seemed to be devouring me and I surrendered to a very angry impulse: I tossed him three feet into this closet filled with wall-to-wall mattresses. It was a shocking act, and there's no social reward for confessing being enraged by a baby.

The dead don't really die They linger on as part of you. Once when I was repainting a friend's house, I summoned up my father's presence and talked to him. I wasn't hallucinating and he wasn't there, but somehow, pouring out all this grief, disappointment and yearning, I was able to talk to him in a way that I never could when he was alive.

I can't write without the help of tobacco Somehow the chemistry of tobacco got mixed up in my addictive compulsion to write during my teen years, so when I quit smoking for eight months last year, I couldn't write one line. I had to postpone every writing job I had until I brought back the cigarettes.

Freud is one of my heroes I started reading his work while going through something of a midlife crisis and each night I'd look down at his photo on the inside flap for 10 to 15 minutes: even through the dry rhetoric and his speciality in narcissistic illness, I'd see this benevolent-looking figure with white hair and he became the father I didn't quite have: it was classic transference.

Larry Harvey, 65, is the co-founder and executive director of Burning Man. He will appear at the Being a Man festival, which runs from Friday to 2 February at the Southbank Centre (

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