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Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology [Paperback]

Alan C. Elms

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Book Description

Sept. 1 1996
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 "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. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, L. Frank Baum, 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 includes excerpts from a series of letters between himself and Asimov. He reveals an unintendedsubtext 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's childhood 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 his protests 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 Booklist

The tradition of formal biography is rooted in Plutarch's Lives, and for many years, biographers strived for objectivity, decorum, and a certain amount of reticence regarding the murkier aspects of the personalities and lives of their subjects. That all changed with the advent of psychology. Once biographers began to delve into their subjects' psyches, a new and often controversial genre, psychobiography, was born. Psychobiography has flourished over the past 20 years, but like all endeavors, it has yielded dross along with the gold. Elms evaluates good and bad psychobiography and offers suggestions for improving its quality, validity, and usefulness. He believes that psychology has a permanent place in the pages of biographies, but that it must incorporate an "eclectic diversity" of interpretations and avoid reductionism. Elms proposes a responsible methodology for psychobiography and provides some instructive examples of his own in analyses of such figures as B. F. Skinner, L. Frank Baum, Nabokov, and various science-fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov. Leaving the literary world, Elms enters politics and discusses Jimmy Carter and George Bush. In each instance, he considers the ethics, viability, and great value of high-quality psychobiography. Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Psychologist Elms wants to transform bestselling, warts-and- all biographers (``pathographers,'' as Joyce Carol Oates has labeled them) into sensitive, thoughtful chroniclers of textured lives. Sounds impractical--but Elms is mighty convincing. Part of Elms's (Psychology/Univ. of California, Davis; Personality in Politics, not reviewed) book is a how-to: The best biographers, he says, draw on many theories, not just Freudian psychoanalysis; rely on scientific method rather than speculation; look for psychological health as well as pathologies; and explain individuals in terms of their complexity, rather than reducing their motives to single sources such as greed or vanity. After explaining the principles of good biography, Elms practices what he has preached in brief psychobiographical studies of politicians (George Bush, Saddam Hussein, and Alexander Haig), science fiction/fantasy writers (including Isaac Asimov and L. Frank Baum), and psychological theorists (Freud, Jung, B.F. Skinner). The most convincing application concerns Jimmy Carter; with the benefit of 18 years' hindsight, Elms reevaluates the analysis he made nine days before the 1976 presidential election. He was especially prescient in evaluating Carter's faith: While other biographers worried about whether a born-again Christian would turn a secular government into a revival meeting, Elms understood that Carter should not be defined solely by his religious beliefs. Elms writes throughout with wit as well as insight. He comments that he had long been tempted to use Woody Allen as a subject for psychobiography--``except that the connections between his life and his work looked too simple...all up there on the screen.'' But, Elms notes, after Allen transformed his fantasies into reality by falling in love with Mia Farrow's teenage daughter, he appeared ``rather less simple than before. Or maybe he's so simple that his sudden simplemindedness itself requires an explanation.'' One of the best books ever written about biography, psycho- or otherwise. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you like Psychobiography... May 11 2000
By Kristen B Brooks - Published on Amazon.com
Psychobiography is a sometimes suspect practice heavily rooted in Freudian psychology. This, initally, may deter some from embracing psychobiography as a valid form of biography, let alone a pshychological analysis. Yet, Alan Elms manages to not only allay some of the hesitations and frustrations surrounding psychobiography, he also convinces us of some valied points of development of many, and varied, individuals. From Issac Assimov to Leonardo DaVinci to President Bush, Elms manages to allure us into accepting psychobiography with both his solid research basis and his witty style. His analysis of Freud, and especially of Freud's violations of his own proscriptions for psychobiography, is particularly illuminating and, in many regards, comical. Elms avoids drowning in theory, but manages to apply enough at apropos moments that we are secure in the knowledge that this is, indeed, and psychologically based approach. All around a good book for those interested in psychobiography.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must have for psychology students! Nov. 24 2013
By G. Smart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Very interesting well composed guide to the examination of personalities! Elms keeps a layman's vernacular but represents the paradigms well.

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