This was recently published in the journal CLIO’S PSYCHE (2018). I was interviewed by Paul Elovitz.
Todd Schultz: Psychobiographer of Creative Lives
Paul H. Elovitz
William Todd Schultz, PhD, was born in Portland, Oregon. He earned a BA in philosophy and psychology from Lewis and Clark College, and then from the University of California (Davis) he earned a PhD in Personality. He served as a visiting instructor at Lewis and Clark College and as visiting assistant professor at the University of Portland. Currently, Schultz is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Pacific University, where he has taught since 1996. His classes include Abnormal Psychology, The Mind of the Artist, Personality, Psychobiography, and History & Systems. He’s written numerous articles, including “Psychobiography: Theory and Practice” (American Psychologist, 72, 2017, 434-445) and “The psychobiography of genius” (Handbook of Genius, Guilford, 20-32). Prior books include full-length psychobiographies of Diane Arbus (“An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus”) and Truman Capote (“Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers”), as well as a biography of musician Elliott Smith (“Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith”). Schultz presently curates and edits a psychobiography book series for Oxford University Press titled “Inner Lives.” Schultz has delivered many presentations; his most recent speaking engagement was a Distinguished Speaker Talk at the Western Psychological Association Convention, titled “The Mind of the Artist” (April 2018). He’s received several awards and grants, including the Shearing Fellow Award (2016), the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Media (2015) and a Faculty Achievement Award at Pacific University (2015). In June and July Professor Schultz (WTS) was interviewed online by Paul H. Elovitz (PHE).
PHE: What brought you to psychobiography?
WTS: I come from an abusive family, an abusive father. Like a lot of abused kids, I lived in a state of red alert, and it was critical that I get good at reading people, especially my dad, as a means of self-protection. So, some of my interest in personality/psychobiography relates to a need to understand and predict the personality of the individual who was harming me. From there, in therapy as a kid, I focused on understanding myself—also, my mom, my mom and dad’s relationship, and certain things my siblings did, the gestalt of influences having something to do with how I was feeling inside and what I was struggling with. I started to dissociate, as a defense. I was always very dreamy, living in my head, imagining and daydreaming. I got interested in art and artists, especially music, and eventually literature as well. Now I write, or have written, psychobiographies of artists—so again, the interest in art goes back to my childhood and the situation in my family.
Up to around age 19 or 20 I had no clue what psychobiography was; I’d never heard the term used. But I wound up at UC Davis, where I got my PhD. This was an iconoclastic, very unconventional department and faculty in the year 1988. Charles Tart studied altered states of consciousness, Tom Natsoulas wrote opaque, hyper-specific theoretical articles on phenomenology, and Dean Simonton did historiometric analyses of greatness. On the other side there were people researching pigs and goats and primates. An incredibly rich, stimulating, free atmosphere.
To my good fortune there was also Alan Elms, who became my major advisor, mentor, role model. Alan started in Stanley Milgram’s lab and worked on the obedience studies, but he’d shifted, of late, to the study of single people—in other words, psychobiography. Elvis Presley really obsessed him. Psychobiography made sense for Alan because he’s a gifted writer and in psychobiography he could put that gift to use, he could be more creative. Anyway, Alan offered a psychobiography seminar, I took it, I felt an instant SHAZAM, and the rest is history.
PHE: I have the highest regard for Alan Elms who writes so well and avoids pathologizing his subjects. What courses did you take with him and what was he like as a teacher and mentor? Which of his ideas had the greatest impact on you?
WTS: Alan and I were perfectly matched. We both loved literature, Nabokov, and writing. He modeled a crafty way of being a non-academic psychologist (psychologist, in the sense that what he did—psychobiography—was sniffed at by all the method-centered folks yet still, nominally, psychology). I think what Alan really wanted to be, in his heart of hearts, was a writer. Me too! With psychobiography, you were able to get away with writing in a more narrative, more literary fashion—artfully, in other words.
I also liked Alan because, as a mentor, he was hands-off. He wasn’t always steering you, micromanaging, or checking-in. He pretty much left you alone so long as you weren’t violently clueless or something. He had a light touch. As a loner this suited me fine. Alan was quiet, reserved, an introvert (I’d guess), but he had this mirthful countenance, a sly, charming smile, like he was secretly thinking merry thoughts 24/7. His movements were slow and deliberate. One thing about Alan: he never did anything fast. For instance, I could not imagine him running. He adores and is very proud of his daughters. His passions include Elvis, science fiction, and he’s crazy about politics. I have not spoken to him since shithead Trump became president, but I’m certain he’s got hundreds of thoughts about Trump and who he is and how he came to be and what it means for America.
I don’t think Alan loved being a teacher, but I’m not sure. We never talked about it. I was his teaching assistant for his courses on Personality and Psychobiography. I loved those classes. He taught them with great care and close attention to detail. You knew that he had done his homework. He didn’t have miles of charisma, but he had miles of real wisdom. I really love him as a person and as someone who profoundly altered the course of my life and I am grateful Fate delivered me into his hands at a time when I could have gone astray. It wasn’t his ideas that affected me. It was more HOW he went about things, his quiet excellence, his soft-spoken power. He delivered. I try to do the same.
PHE: What book are you working on now?
WTS: I’m working on a book about personality, creativity, and the creative process. It’s not a psychobiography, but I do discuss a lot of artists as a way of illustrating ideas, from Frida Kahlo to David Bowie.
PHE: What is your primary affiliation?
WTS: I have three jobs. First, I’m a writer. I write books on artists. I doubt I’ll ever write academically again. Too many constraints are placed on voice. I find it stultifying. Plus, I want to reach a wider audience, an audience of non-experts. Second, I’m an editor. I curate a series for Oxford University Press called “Inner Lives,” short psychobiographies organized around a central question. To this point subjects have included Truman Capote, John Lennon, Philip K. Dick, George W. Bush, and Bob Dylan. We have two more books in the pipeline (neither by me), focused on opera diva Maria Callas and Gloria Steinem. Third, I’m a college professor. I teach at Pacific University, about 45 minutes west of Portland. My classes include Personality, Abnormal, and Psychobiography. I’ve been at Pacific since 1996. It’s a small liberal arts college with an average class size of around 20.
PHE: What special training was most helpful in your researching creativity and in doing psychobiographical work?
WTS: I don’t feel like I had any special training. I mean, nothing extraordinary. At UC Davis I took one psychobiography seminar from Alan Elms, a graduate seminar, and as I said before, I was his teaching assistant for his psychobiography classes. This was in a time, by the way, when Alan’s own book, Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology (1994), did not exist, although Mac Runyan’s, Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in Theory and Method (1984) did. So, a lot of the approaches were Freudian. In his undergrad classes, Alan was teaching the chapters that would later make their way into his book, like the “Land of Oz” and the Nabokov material. We read Erikson too, Ghandi’s Truth (1969). I remember there was this guy who talked to our class who was fixated on proving the thesis that Stalin was gay. I think he actually published a book titled “Was Stalin Gay?”
Anyway, I don’t think you can be taught how to do outstanding psychobiography. I’ve come to that conclusion through years of trying with my own students. The number one thing that good psychobiography requires is creative perception, an ability to notice things, the smallest, most marginal of details, plus a gift for connecting what had been disconnected. Even before that, it requires a talent for coming up with a fresh angle on a life, asking a question that hasn’t been asked before. A great example is Alan Elms and his chapter on why Elvis had such a hard time performing the song “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” People just have this kind of creative perception or they don’t. You can’t really show them how to be creative—and psychobiography is VERY creative. I find most psychobiography essays boring because nothing hatches. Nothing is illuminated. Nothing is revealed that wasn’t already known or guessed at. You can’t really tell a person, “here is how you can be more illuminating.” It seems to be a gift, or if it’s not a gift, I just suck at teaching psychobiography.
I’ll say one more thing. The chances of you doing good psychobiographical work increase if you’ve got the theoretical cement. I was always a theory nut. From my college days I was obsessed with Freud, then I got into object relations, then R. D. Laing, then Henry Murray. I love the total lunacy of Melanie Klein, especially her focus on the death instinct. But then I also really deeply investigated modern personality science, what Dan McAdams refers to as the three levels of personality: traits, characteristic adaptations, and scripts. Theory knowledge helps with the shedding of light. My PhD is in personality, so I think that set me up really well for going in a psychobiographical direction.
PHE: Have you published, or do you plan to publish an autobiography that will reflect on your inner life?
WTS: Everyone tells me to because my family was and is so toxic and insane. Just to give you a glimpse, my dad used to say the secret to his life was that he always needed someone to hate. In 1976 my sister hijacked an airplane, along with her Croatian husband, and they put a bomb in a locker in Grand Central Station that killed an NYC police officer. Anyway, it goes on and on. But the answer is yes. I’m going to write a memoir about my 20 years working in a locked inpatient psychiatry unit (I detest psychiatry, which I believe to be essentially bankrupt), but it’s also going to include details on my own psychological history. I’m about 30,000 words into it now, so I think I’m around halfway done. By the way, I started out writing fiction.
PHE: How did your early life impact your work and your choice of subjects?
WTS: I think my early life has shaped my work in a lot of ways. Of course, I’m just guessing here, because we all have blind spots, and it’s the blind spots that are most formative. We’re in the dark a lot of the time. Anyway, I come from a family that lied and distorted. It was an atmosphere of enforced delusion, grandiose delusion. This made me maniacally fixated on truth, maniacally revolted by falsehood. So that is one effect, a good effect, I like to think. I’m driven to get to the bottom of things, to expose buried secrets, to shed new light. This is probably why I’m attracted to psychobiography, which is about revelation, illumination. Psychobiography is exposure.
Here’s another element. People always ask me: what draws you to tortured artists? You seem so sane and normal? I never had any fabulous answer. I just wanted to do what I did. I just wanted to make things. The why part I set aside. I worked, and that was that. But one day I realized, or think I realized, that it wasn’t so much the torture that drew me in, but the families that produced the torture. I’ve written books on Arbus, Capote, and Elliott Smith, and what they all had in common, and what I had in common with them, was fucked up families. Family trauma. Family secrets. Abuse. Rejection. Clotted silences. Pathological narcissism. Hate. Grandiosity. A profound lack of self-awareness. I wasn’t writing about depressed and suicidal people because I was depressed and suicidal—suicide has never crossed my mind—but because of the circumstances that made them that way. I knew these families because I came from one. I sympathized because I’d been there.
I think you need to love your subject. Not blindly, but empathically. Being a victim of emotional abuse myself, I was always very very sensitive to cruelty, to people who suffered. The thing I’m most proud of in my work is my capacity to sympathize. It’s so key. It came from trauma and from going crazy myself. I know what it feels like to be haunted, to battle, daily, with severe emotional pain, the feeling that your mind has become an enemy.
PHE: How do you see the study of inner lives, which is what psychohistory is mostly about, developing in the next decade?
WTS: I’m not an expert on psychohistory. If it’s focused on historical actors, like Trump, and the effects these actors have on the world, then I guess I’d see it as psychobiography. If it’s a psychological study of group behavior, then I’d see it as a social psychology group-level case study.
PHE: What is the importance of childhood to the study of inner lives and psychohistory?
WTS: It depends on the childhood. Some childhoods are pretty unremarkable, so it would not make sense to focus on them. I focus on childhood a fair amount, but that’s because the people I’ve studied more or less pointed me in that direction. It’s the life that determines where you zero in.
PHE: What do we as scholars need to do to strengthen our work and gain acceptance for the study of what you call the inner life and psychobiography and what I mostly subsume under psychohistory?
WTS: I don’t have any drive to make psychobiography more accepted. I used to, when I was younger. I was more evangelical then. I’ve always said, and I still believe this, that mainstream psychology is method-centered. It’s less about figuring out what the important questions are and hypothesis-formation (a creative task) and more, much more about hypothesis testing. I don’t see that changing. Psychobiography is art. That’s how I see it. It’s interpretation. It’s subjective. For those reasons, it makes most experimental psychologists uneasy, or maybe anxious. They see it as psychobabble. I disagree, but I’m too busy to argue with them. I just follow my obsessions and devote myself to doing work of the highest quality I can make it. I’m grateful for whoever reads it. If it’s not someone’s cup of tea, I’m fine with that. I’m not a joiner anyway. So if psychology doesn’t want me in its club, so be it. Being an outsider suits me.
PHE: What is your psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic experience and what is its influence on you as a student of inner lives as a psychobiographer? How has it changed your vision of the world?
WTS: I went pretty crazy from about age 13-17 and didn’t really feel reliably stable until many years later. I think of it now as a Laingian form of rational madness; that is, a strategy for living in an unlivable situation, where the situation was a monumentally toxic family. Going nuts got me the help I needed and possibly literally saved my life. I saw a gifted, broadly psychoanalytic psychiatrist twice per week for three to four years. I believe he very intentionally became a replacement father, doing the things your dad is supposed to do, but mine didn’t do. For example, he taught me to drive and let me use his car for the Junior Prom. He came to my different performances as a singer and loaned me records he thought I might like. He advised me about which college I ought to attend. If I had not met this psychiatrist I would have dissolved. I wouldn’t have been able to see the difference between reality and the distortions my family foisted on me.
Naturally, my dad hated my psychiatrist. My dad would drop me off for appointments then wait in the parking lot, reading Homer or Housman. When my session finished and I crawled back fearfully to the front seat, my dad would mumble something like, “What did your faggot psychiatrist say today?” So, you see what I was up against as a kid. Lately I feel a need to name it for what it was—abuse. I’m not certain what effect all this had on me as a psychobiographer. Possibly it sensitized me to suffering and it made me aware of the nature of interpersonal toxicity and what it can do to a person. It put me, by absolute necessity, into very close daily contact with the workings of my own mind and questions about defenses, motives, strategies, hidden needs, etc. In contrast to my dad, my psychiatrist modeled for me a sort of patience, love, and wisdom that I aspire to always—just basic loving kindness with penetrating insights.
PHE: Regarding asking about your inner life, in my recently released first history of psychohistory, The Making of Psychohistory: Origins,Controversies, and Pioneering Contributors, I reveal much of my inner life. Most academics certainly do not reveal theirs.
WTS: I think it’s a good thing to be open about yourself.
PHE: Like you, I teach at a small institution with small classes. Despite my 350 publications and having won a teaching award, I have not and will never be promoted to full professor because of prejudices against psychobiography and psychohistory generally. How did you manage to be promoted to full professor?
WTS: At my school there’s no bias against psychobiography. Also, I write books that, luckily enough, get lots of attention in lots of major publications from the New Yorker to Vogue to Vanity Fair to the LA Times to the Wall Street Journal. I’ve made a switch that’s uncommon—from academic writing, which I don’t think I’ll ever do again, to writing that is called, in publishing, full trade. Plus, I do get really good teaching evaluations and my university puts a lot of emphasis on high quality teaching.
PHE: How can we recruit new people to the field of psychobiography?
WTS: I guess I’m not that interested in building the field of psychobiography. I don’t like the idea of recruiting people. People are either drawn to it or they aren’t. You can’t talk them into it. You can’t convince them to do something they don’t already strongly want to do. It’s a growing field, I think that’s clear. I mean, I manage an entire book series on the subject, with Oxford University Press (it’s called “Inner Lives”). So I say, just let it grow naturally and organically.
PHE: I hear you. But there are people who, when introduced to the concept, become excited by the prospect of knowing in depth about others, and often themselves. Some may see it as part of their life’s work, as you did at some point as a result of your encounter with Alan Elms. To a great extent what I do as an advocate of psychobiography is to first, validate an interest that is already there, second, provide a place to deepen the psychobiographer’s understanding when s/he presents at the Psychohistory Forum meetings, third, provide a sense of psychobiograhical community, and fourth, provide a scholarly journal in Clio’s Psyche where they publish without the usual academic constraints of lots of footnotes, a long bibliography, and arguing from the authority of the leaders of the field. I guess I’m more concerned with the field of psychohistory than you.
What books were important to your development?
WTS: The most important book for me was Alan Elms’ Uncovering Lives. Alan is such a beautiful writer. He’s conversational, clear, interesting, inviting. I love his style. He writes like a writer. He writes to be read. Also, he’s never boring, and he avoids deadening jargon. When I was comingup Mac Runyan’s Life Histories and Psychobiographywas a touchstone, of course. It lays out the field. It takes on the epistemological questions. His essay on why Van Gogh cut off his ear is absolutely required reading. I really liked Henry Murray and Gordon Allport too, mostly because, like Alan, they knew how to write. They wrote creatively. Their prose had a fizz to it. They did psychology artfully. I was never a big fan of Erikson—too thick, too much ponderousness to fight through. I like concision. I’ve learned about concision over time. I had to find it. Freud was my first crush. I adored everything he did, especially the meta-theoretical stuff. I read him extremely closely in college. I got to know him really well. Jung, on the other hand, turned me off, though I like his idea of the compensatory function. I used to meet all these people who told me they loved Jung, then I found out they never read him. They liked the idea of him or something. I loved R. D. Laing. I can’t stand psychiatry so I liked how he carved it up. I enjoy Melanie Klein, especially when she’s at her craziest. Silvan Tomkins is brilliant but pretty unreadable. Most of my strongest influences aren’t psychologists. I love Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Larkin, Philip Roth, Janet Malcolm, Walter Kirn, Robert Hughes. Those are the people I look to for inspiration.
PHE: Good luck with your current book on creativity and thanks for an informative interview.
WTS: You’re welcome!