What is psychobiography? First let me say what it is not, because what it’s NOT is what most people think it IS.
First, a link to a five minute clip in which I talk a bit about the field HERE
- Psychobiography is NOT pathography. If you come across a psychobiography whose aim is to diagnose a person, chances are GOOD that it is BAD. People are not diagnoses. A diagnosis is a name—a label—not a true explanation. What we want to know is how someone became who she is, not what her DSM-derived “disease” might be. I talk a lot about this subject in chapter one of my Handbook of Psychobiography. You can check that out for more detail.Here’s a little illustration I use in my psychobiography courses. Say a mother tells a psychiatrist, My son hears voices. Why? The psychiatrist answers, Well, sorry to say this, but it’s because he’s a schizophrenic. Mom replies: Oh. Well, how do you know he’s a schizophrenic? Psychiatrist says, Because he hears voices.
- Psychobiography is NOT biography, although all psychobiographies make use of biographical data, obviously. In biography the aim is to tell the story of a life, to be as comprehensive as possible. In most psychobiographies, one focuses instead on one facet of a life, a single mysterious question, such as why Elvis Presley had such difficulty performing the song Are You Lonesome Tonight? (the Handbook of Psychobiography contains a chapter on this very question, by Elms and Heller). Psychobiography is primarily a way of doing psychology by focusing on single cases, single lives. Biographers do not aim to do psychology, at least not primarily. They want, instead, to set down the record of the life. Biographers, therefore, are chiefly descriptive; psychobiographies are more explanatory, more interpretive. Biography is about the WHAT, psychobiographies are about the WHY, the question of motives.
- Psychobiography is NOT all about finding some childhood origin for adult behavior, it is not “originology.” Childhood is often key. In childhood we develop particular patterns of response that can persist for a lifetime. Childhood can set an emotional tone or leave behind certain dynamics that become partially determinative. BUT—childhood is not everything! It is a part of the picture, but not the whole picture. Adolescent or adult experiences can be just as important as childhood experiences in shaping the contours of a life, so they can’t be neglected. If one argues, for instance, that Elvis’s personality can be understood simply in terms of his relationship with his mother Gladys and how she treated him when he was a small boy, this is an oversimplification. No doubt Elvis’s boyhood has SOMETHING to do with who he became; it just does not have EVERYTHING to do with what he became. So, good psychobiographies avoid simplistic formulations such as those met with in originology.
- In a related vein, psychobiography is NOT a search for single causes of behavior. As Freud once said, everything we do is overdetermined, a function of a concert of reasons, not one reason operating in isolation. One looks, therefore, for multiple causes. Take the case of van Gogh cutting off his ear (again, for more on this subject, see the Runyan chapter in the Handbook of Psychobiography). Why did van Gogh do it? Because unconsciously he was mimicking the scene at Gethsemane, and engaging in a symbolic castration, and hoping via self-mutilation to keep his brother from leaving him at Christmas-time, and copying a practice common to matadors in bullfights who cut off the animal’s ear and give it to a woman of their choosing (van Gogh took his earlobe to a prostitute named Rachel). All such reasons explain, perhaps, a portion of the variance. No single reason will ever do.
- Psychobiography is NOT naively person-centered. True, the main aim in psychobiography is to understand personality. That goal is front and center. But the person can’t be divorced from his context—political, historical, social, economic, etc. Psychobiographers do focus on the personal, but this does not mean that they deny the influence of societal factors.
- Psychobiography is NOT always and only Freudian in nature. Freudian theory is one lens with which to view a life. It is not the only lens. Dan McAdams, for instance, recommends looking at personality from three different vantage points at least: invariant traits derived from the Five Factor model of personality, characteristic adaptations (goals, motives, beliefs, strategies, mechanisms of defense, internalized object relations), and individual scenes and stories (see chapter four, Handbook of psychobiography). Recently McAdams has added two other levels of analysis: biology and culture. The fact is, any theory or line of research (for instance, on attachment theory) may be used to make sense of any one individual. Those who assume that all psychobiography is Freudian are, simply put, naïve.
So, with that said, WHAT IS PSYCHOBIOGRAPHY?
Psychobiography is the analysis of historically significant lives through the use of psychological theory and research. Its aim is to understand persons, and to uncover the private motives behind public acts, whether those acts involve the making of art or the creation of scientific theories, or the adoption of political decisions. Some figures who have been the subject of a great number of psychobiographical books and articles include Hitler, Sylvia Plath, Freud, Jung, Gordon Allport, James Barrie, Gandhi, Luther, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, van Gogh, Clinton, Bush, and Saddam Hussein.
To get a really good idea of what psychobiography is and how to do it well, and to read a number of examples of psychobiographical research, check out these books:
- Schultz, William Todd. Handbook of Psychobiography
- Schultz, William Todd. An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus.
- Schultz, William Todd. Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers.
- McAdams, Dan. George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream.
- Elms, Alan. Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance Between Biography and Psychology.
- Runyan, William. Life Histories and Psychobiography.
- Ogilvie, Dan. Fantasies of Flight.
- Alexander, Irving. Personology.
- Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood. (Flawed but still well worth reading.)