This was for a literary journal in Croatia (where my sister and brother live). It’s a nice distillation of lots of different ideas and assumptions when it comes to psychobiography and the kind of work I do. It came out around 2 or 3 years ago.
Q: The first question is an obvious one: What exactly is psychobiography?
Well, it is a way of doing psychology. It isn’t a typical way by any means, but it is a way. Essentially, psychobiography is a form of case study. Psychological theory and research are used to make sense of an historically significant figure, usually someone from the arts or from politics.
Q: Like Hitler?
Yes. Or George W. Bush. Or Van Gogh or Picasso or Elvis Presley. I’ve published psychobiographies of Diane Arbus, Sylvia Plath, James Agee, Jack Kerouac, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Roald Dahl, and others.
Q: How do you choose a subject?
The subject seems to choose me. It’s interesting. The person sort of arrives, more or less unbidden. She introduces herself, like a dream image. She says “hello.” First I get interested in the art—that is always how it begins. I’m drawn to the art—like Arbus’s photographs, or Plath’s poems, or Jackson Pollock’s paintings. The art fascinates me, for reasons I never entirely understand and don’t really even want to. Then, like so many people do, I get interested in the person who made the art. I begin to wonder, Why is she drawn to the kinds of images she produces? Why this content or subject matter, as opposed to some other? For instance, why did Diane Arbus take so many pictures of freaks, or of twins and triplets? These questions lead me into an analysis of the life, and the way the life shapes artistic preoccupations. I start to look for particularly salient life events, conflicts, themes, relationship patterns, sequences of affect. Then, very slowly, over time, going back and forth between the art and the life, I begin to see how the two connect. I superimpose the life on the art and vice versa, until they illuminate one another. The art is the dream, so to speak, and the life holds the dream’s solution.
Q: Many of these people are tormented—for instance, Sylvia Plath. And Arbus.
Very true! Who knows why. The people I like to write about are haunted and doomed, at the mercy of sad secrets. They’re obsessed. I really respond strongly to obsession. Some, like Plath and Arbus, actually end up committing suicide. Again, I’m not sure why I find such people so compelling; I just do. Plenty of other people do, as well. It’s the tragic narrative. It’s the hero archetype, like Orpheus traveling down into the underworld, the unconscious, in a sense, then emerging again with newfound knowledge. All these people looked hard at the darkness, and shined a light on it for others to see. But they paid a price. They risked their life for their art. I think Plath died for her art. I find that perversely inspiring.
Q: But wouldn’t it have been better if she’d lived?
Better for her. But for the art? I don’t know.
Q: So are you diagnosing these people?
Never! No. Absolutely not. A lot of people think that’s what psychobiography is about, but that’s a misconception. Diagnoses are ways of NOT understanding someone. They have an allure, but it’s phony, like a fake diamond. They seem to provide closure, but not truly. A diagnosis is a shorthand. It answers nothing. It is a description—a label—not an explanation. It’s just another name, something else to be explained. There’s a word for this sort of practice. It’s called pathography. And in good psychobiographies pathography is something to be strenuously avoided. It goes nowhere while seeming to go somewhere. When you think about it carefully, the process is totally circular. If someone were to ask me, say, Why does my son hear voices and think that the FBI can read his thoughts? I might answer, Because he is a schizophrenic. Then if the same person asks me, utterly reasonably, Well, how do you know he is schizophrenic? All I can say, now, is that he hears voices and thinks the FBI can read his thoughts. There is no stepping out of the circle. It’s a dead-end.
Q: If you aren’t diagnosing, then what ARE you doing?
I’m looking at personality dynamics, patterns. Mainly I’m looking at motives. The question is always WHY. You start with the WHAT—the facts of the art and the life—but the terminus is the WHY. Why did Van Gogh cut off his ear, for instance. I could say, Because he was crazy. But you see how that isn’t really an answer. The answer lies in the life.
Q: So why did he do it?
Q: Van Gogh. Why did he cut off his ear?
I don’t know! But I do know it’s too easy to say he did it because he was crazy. Maybe he did it to keep his brother Theo from leaving him. It happened around Christmas time, and Theo was planning to be away. Maybe he did it, unconsciously, to mimic the scene at Gethsemane. He was very Christ-identified. He gave the ear to a prostitute, and said “Keep this object carefully.” Maybe he did it as a sort of symbolic self-castration… I don’t know. But saying he was crazy does not get at the WHY question.
Q: Can we ever really know why anyone does anything? For sure?
That’s a deep question. People are mysterious. Infinitely mysterious. People are also complicated, especially people who tend to be the subject of psychobiographies. You can take the position that every interpretation of a life is equal, that it’s impossible to decide between competing explanations. I see the sense in that, but finally I have to reject it. Some interpretations are clearly better than others. Some are even demonstrably wrong.
Q: What makes an interpretation right?
Evidence mainly. Good interpretations are based on a range of solid evidence. The evidence, from a variety of sources, converges on a coherence-producing solution. Cogency is achieved. Most of the time the problem with bad interpretations is that they fail to adequately account for the evidence. They leave things out. They ignore or side-step contradictions. One of the nice things about psychobiography is that it’s public. At any time anyone might question your conclusions, assert doubt. That is actually a good thing. It leads to progress. Conclusions get more and more convincing over time as other opinions are brought to bear.
Q: But does anyone ever do anything for just one reason? Let’s say I write a poem. Aren’t I doing so for lots of reasons, all working together?
Yes. No doubt. As Freud said, people are overdetermined. It’s always a concert of reasons that gives rise to a particular outcome. This is an important point, actually. Psychobiographers never put forth one reason, one answer, one solution. What you seek, instead, is a family of motives. Exactly. But again, some members of this “family” of motives are better—more convincing—than others. Some can even be thrown out. The question is: To what degree is each motive supported by evidence? Obviously some motives are going to be more illuminating than others. Some are primary, some are secondary, and some explain very little.
Q: What do most psychologists think of psychobiography? Do they support it? Are they critical?
I find most psychological research dull. Academic psychology is not about a person, but a process, a part-process even. For instance, memory recall. And most psychologists do experiments that are carefully controlled, with subjects who are anonymous. These subjects trot dutifully into a lab, and a measure is taken based on some experimental manipulation. What gets isolated is what I always like to call a little hiccup of mind. Relevance and true usefulness is traded for scientific precision. As a friend of mine Alan Elms said once, I defy anyone to assemble all those statistical body-parts and then be in a position to cry out, “It’s alive!” In other words, the person, the living breathing person, gets lost in the rubble. Psychobiography is very, very different. For one thing, it is interpretive. When we want to know why someone did something, we need to interpret. Life is all about interpretation. Also, psychobiography looks at the full life. The complete biography… A lot of psychologists, those who are archly and insistently scientifically-minded, find psychobiography to be too subjective. Their whole aim is to excise the subjective element from investigation. I regard that as simply naïve. One of our best tools is our own subjectivity. We need to make use of it—thoughtfully, judiciously–not side-step it. So yes, many psychologists are critical. But then, obviously, I am critical of psychology. It works both ways.
Q: So what are you working on now?
A full-length psychobiography of the photographer Diane Arbus. It’s slow going. Arbus is a tough nut to crack for some reason. I’m just beginning to get a good handle on her psychology, and the subjective origins of her work. She was fascinated by freaks and sex. So to write about her requires going down into some very dark stuff, not to mention her suicide, which is likewise depressing.
Q: Do your subjects often depress you?
Yes, definitely. I have to fight it constantly. You can’t spend a large amount of time rummaging around in a mind that is stricken without having some of that agony rub off. I have to cast it aside at the end of the day as best I can, but it isn’t easy. It’s all good, though. One side-effect of doing psychobiography is that it forces you to learn about yourself, which is always a positive thing. Psychobiography improves your talent for understanding people, and one of the people you wind up understanding better is you.
Q: If I wanted to learn more about psychobiography, what books should I read?
I’d start with my Handbook of Psychobiography. It’s a good introduction, with sections on method, and political figures and artists. The other two must-read books would be Alan Elms’s Uncovering Lives and William Runyan’s Life Histories and Psychobiography. I also maintain a website with a lot of useful information. The web address is www.psychobiography.com.
Q: Is the future bright for psychobiographers?
I think so. That’s my hope. There does seem to be a lot of interest in the field, both inside and outside of academia. People seem drawn to compelling lives, and probably always will be. The key is for younger scholars all around the world to start taking the subject up, trying their own psychobiographical interpretations of major figures. The tools are out there. Examples of good psychobiography exist. Like with everything, the primary task now is to perfect the craft, to refine and sharpen it as much as possible. I’m not sure psychobiography will ever enter the mainstream of psychological research, but I do see it growing more and more influential, more and more acceptable as a way of doing psychology. I know I’ll keep working at it. It’s what I do. I can’t help myself!
Q: Thank you for sharing these ideas.
You’re welcome. Thanks for asking me.