UNCOVERING LIVES by Alan C. Elms

UNCOVERING LIVES

The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 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.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-19-508287-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1994