The Psychobiographer’s Dilemma

By: James William Anderson, PhD, Northwestern University

Midway through his psychobiography of Gandhi, Erik Erikson (Gandhi’s Truth (1969) pp. 229-254) stopped and wrote a lengthy letter to the Mahatma, who, of course, had died years before. Erikson ad41i-wKWs+mL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_mired Gandhi but was troubled by him also and felt he could not go on with the book without expressing what he found bothersome. That letter put the spotlight on the psychobiographer’s feelings about the subject being studied. In an essay, Erikson (Life History and the Historical Moment (1975 ) p.145) used the term “countertransference” to refer to those feelings; he was making a parallel to the psychoanalyst’s feelings about a patient.

From early in the history of psychobiography, there has been a recognition of the author’s countertransference. Sigmund Freud (Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910), Standard Edition, Vol. 10, pg. 130), in the first psychobiography worthy of that name, his study of Leonardo, noted that often “biographers are fixated on their heroes in a quite special way. In many cases they have chosen their hero as the subject of their studies because—for reasons of their personal emotional life—they have felt a special affection for him from the very first. They then devote their energies to a task of idealization, aimed at enrolling the great man among the class of their infantile models—at reviving in him, perhaps, the child’s idea of his father.” He added that such a relationship with the subject could undermine the biography’s accuracy: “To gratify this wish they obliterate the individual features of their subject’s physiognomy; they smooth over the traces of his life’s struggles with internal and external resistances, and they tolerate in him no vestige of human weakness or imperfection. They thus present us with what is in fact a cold, strange, ideal figure, instead of a human being to whom we might feel ourselves distantly related.”

An equally dangerous possibility comes from disliking and denigrating the subject. In the introduction to his co-authored psychobiography of Woodrow Wilson (Freud and Bullitt, Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1967) p. xv), Freud confessed that: “the figure of the American President . . . was from the beginning unsympathetic to me, and … this aversion increased in the course of years the more I learned about him and the more severely we suffered from the consequences of his intrusion into our destiny.” Freud claims that his emotions “underwent a thorough subjugation;” but nonetheless he participated in an almost laughable psychological vilification of Wilson.

Hence it has long been obvious that psychobiographers face potential danger if they idealize or denigrate their subject. But there is a whole other aspect to the author’s relationship with the person they are writing about.

Leon Edel (“The Biographer and Psycho-Analysis,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (1961) 42, p. 461), the acclaimed psychobiographer of novelist Henry James, provides an entrée into the topic. “Our dilemma is that to write a good biography we must identify ourselves with our subject in some degree; how otherwise re-experience his [or her] feelings, his problems, his struggle?” Edel notes.   “We must try to measure the world through the subject’s eyes and to penetrate into that world. But in becoming this other person for the purpose of biography, the biographer risks everything.”

Yes, the relationship of psychobiographer to subject may lead to a highly biased study that depicts the subject as anything but a human being with blood running through the veins. But the value of a psychobiography also revolves around that very relationship.   Psychobiographers are motivated to write about the subject because of some kind of close connection they experience. Todd Schultz (Handbook of Psychobiography (2005), p. 114), for 41L3OXwmLNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_example, writes that his subject, photographer Diane Arbus, attracted him because he shared with her an interest in eccentricity and authenticity, traits that Arbus, as well as the subjects of her photos, possessed in abundance.   Schultz notes that “like Arbus, I felt that by some convoluted magic [eccentrics] succeeded in being more real, more committed to their own intensification of personality, [more] absorbed in their fakery, whereas I, and my friends, simply felt fake” (p. 114). Having a connection of that sort can enable psychobiographers to understand, as if from the inside, what it is like to be the subject.

So the solution of avoiding bias by choosing a subject whom one views blandly and neutrally does not work. Without strong feelings, few biographers would put in the time to write a psychobiography, and if they did they would write a passionless study devoid of any deep insights.

The best strategy for psychobiographers is to develop continually their self-knowledge, to admit and to examine their feelings about their subject freely to themselves and to others whom they trust, to acquaint the readers with their relationship to the subject, and to remind themselves that they can only make their best attempt at depicting the subject while realizing that their portrayal will not be the ultimate truth.

In looking at this topic in the newsletter of the society, I realize that there are echoes in the wider qualitative literature of all the themes I have touched on. I thought it would be of value to readers of the newsletter to hear about what has emerged in the psychobiography literature.

James William Anderson, PhD is a regular contributor to the SQIP blog. Please stay tuned for future posts that focus on psychobiography. Learn more about his work here.

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