Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology

Paperback | September 1, 1996

byAlan C. Elms

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Psychobiography is often attacked by critics who feel that it trivializes complex adult personalities, "explaining the large deeds of great individuals," as George Will wrote, "by some slight the individual suffered at a tender age--say, 7, when his mother took away a lollipop." Worse yet,some writers have clearly abused psychobiography--for instance, to grind axes from the right (Nancy Clinch on the Kennedy family) or from the left (Fawn Brodie on Richard Nixon)--and others have offered woefully inept diagnoses (such as Albert Goldman's portrait of Elvis Presley as a "splitpersonality" and a "delusional paranoid"). And yet, as Alan Elms argues in Uncovering Lives, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, psychobiography can rival the very best traditional biography in the insights it offers. Elms makes a strong case for the value of psychobiography, arguing in large part from example. Indeed, most of the book features Elms's own fascinating case studies of over a dozen prominent figures, among them Sigmund Freud (the father of psychobiography), B.F. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, L. FrankBaum, Vladimir Nabokov, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Saddam Hussein, and Henry Kissinger. These profiles make intriguing reading. For example, Elms discusses the fiction of Isaac Asimov in light of the latter's acrophobia (fear of heights) and mild agoraphobia (fear of open spaces)--and Elms includesexcerpts from a series of letters between himself and Asimov. He reveals an unintended subtext of The Wizard of Oz--that males are weak, females are strong (think of Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Lion, and the Wizard, versus the good and bad witches and Dorothy herself)--and traces this in part to Baum'schildhood heart disease, which kept him from strenuous activity, and to his relationship with his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, a distinguished advocate of women's rights. And in a fascinating chapter, he examines the abused childhood of Saddam Hussein, the privileged childhood of George Bush,and the radically different psychological paths that led these two men into the Persian Gulf War. Elms supports each study with extensive research, much of it never presented before--for instance, on how some of the most revealing portions of C.G. Jung's autobiography were deleted in spite of hisprotests before publication. Along the way, Elms provides much insight into how psychobiography is written. Finally, he proposes clear guidelines for judging high quality work, and offers practical tips for anyone interested in writing in this genre. Written with great clarity and wit, Uncovering Lives illuminates the contributions that psychology can make to biography. Elms's enthusiasm for his subject is contagious and will inspire would-be psychobiographers as well as win over the most hardened skeptics.

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From Our Editors

Psychobiography is often attacked by critics who feel that it trivializes complex adult personalities, "explaining the large deeds of great individuals", as George Will wrote, "by some slight the individual suffered at a tender age - say, seven, when his mother took away a lollipop". Worse yet, some writers have clearly abused psychobi...

From the Publisher

Psychobiography is often attacked by critics who feel that it trivializes complex adult personalities, "explaining the large deeds of great individuals," as George Will wrote, "by some slight the individual suffered at a tender age--say, 7, when his mother took away a lollipop." Worse yet,some writers have clearly abused psychobiograp...

Alan C. Elms is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Personality in Politics and other books, as well as many articles in popular magazines and professional journals.
Format:PaperbackDimensions:328 pages, 8.86 × 5.75 × 0.94 inPublished:September 1, 1996Publisher:Oxford University Press

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195113799

ISBN - 13:9780195113792

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Table of Contents

Part One Why Psychobiography?1. The Psychologist as Biographer2. Starting from ScratchPart Two The Heart of the Theorist3. Freud as Leonardo4. The Auntification of C. G. Jung5. Allport Meets Freud and the Clean Little Boy6. Skinner's Dark Year and Walden TwoPart Three Into the Fantastic7. The Thing from Inner Space: John W. Campbell, Robert E. Howard, and Cordwainer Smith8. Darker than He Thought: the Psychoanalysis of Jack Williamson9. Asimov as Acrophobe10. The Mother of Oz: L. Frank Baum11. Nabokov Contra FreudPart Four Beneath Politics12. Carter and Character13. The Counterplayers: George Bush and Saddam Hussein14. From Colonel House to General HaigPart Five Other Methods, Other Lives15. Going Beyond ScratchNotesBibliographyIndex

From Our Editors

Psychobiography is often attacked by critics who feel that it trivializes complex adult personalities, "explaining the large deeds of great individuals", as George Will wrote, "by some slight the individual suffered at a tender age - say, seven, when his mother took away a lollipop". Worse yet, some writers have clearly abused psychobiography - for instance, to grind axes from the right (Nancy Clinch on the Kennedy family) or from the left (Fawn Brodie on Richard Nixon) - and others have offered woefully inept diagnoses (such as Albert Goldman's portrait of Elvis Presley as a "split personality" and a "delusional paranoid"). And yet, as Alan Elms argues in Uncovering Lives, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, psychobiography can rival the very best traditional biography in the insights it offers. Elms makes a strong case for the value of psychobiography, arguing in large part from example. Indeed, most of the book features Elms's own fascinating case studies of over a dozen prominent figures, among them Sigmund Freud (the father of psychobiography), B.F. Skinn

Editorial Reviews

"Professor Elms has gotten to the heart of the problem of biography: how to apply psychological understanding without bogging down in detail or drowning in theory. With quick wit and splendid erudition he dissects the lives of major figures in science, politics, literature, and the arts,bringing into focus what happened to their families and personalities before they became famous, and making the subsequent behavior of these people much more understandable. The book cuts across conflicting schools of thought--e.g. operant conditioning and psychoanalysis--to explain how prominentpeople may think, feel, act, and suffer. It's a landmark contribution to the integration of clinical and biographical studies of human development."--Peter Ostwald, M.D. , author of Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius and Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap into Madness