A psychobiographer cannot spend months or years studying someone without developing a deep relationship with the person being written about. And to a significant extent, the quality of the psychobiography rests on that relationship. Sigmund Freud co-authored a study of Woodrow Wilson; he felt he could be objective despite hating Wilson. W. W. Meissner also faced the problem of objectivity when he, a Jesuit priest, wrote a psychobiography of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the revered founder of Meissner’s priestly order. Years before writing about Lyndon Johnson, Doris Kearns Goodwin had had an intensely ambivalent personal relationship with him. Admiration drew Erik Erikson to writing about Mohandas Gandhi, but, halfway through the manuscript, he encountered writer’s block as he became disturbed by some of the Mahatma’s behaviors. Psychobiographers have to manage their emotions. But they cannot simply take a distant, dispassionate stance towards their subjects. They have to engage with their subjects, put themselves in their subjects’ shoes, and develop empathy with their subjects. Otherwise, they have no hope of learning about their subjects’ inner lives. The topic of this talk is the psychobiographer’s dilemma: how the author can use one’s relationship with the subject so that it enhances rather than undermines the psychobiography.
James William Anderson, PhD, a long-time scholar of psychobiography, is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University in Chicago and Evanston and a former president of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society. Jim’s book, Psychobiography: In Search of the Inner Life, will be published later this year by Oxford University Press.