The field of psychobiography has grown since Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson’s pioneering work. Still, despite an impressive array of works written on a range of influential political and cultural figures (e.g., Truman Capote, Diane Arbus, Philip K. Dick, and Bob Dylan), the field continues to be critiqued for being heavy on speculation and light on empirical proof. This is a consequence, in part, of Psychology’s (generally speaking) ongoing discomfort with unified theories of personality. Indeed, the era of the grand theory of personality, such as the ones conceptualized by Freud, Jung, Erikson, Adler, Horney, and Maslow, was long ago dismantled by postmodernity and identity politics.
But psychobiography, when it’s done well, doesn’t try to explain everything about who people are and why they do what they do; nor does it reduce the complexity of a life to a single theory. It’s after the salient themes of a life and the psycho-dynamics behind them in hopes of capturing the psychological “fingerprint” of a person. The personality psychologist Henry Murray wrote that we are all in some respects like all other people, like some other people, and like no other people. Psychobiography tackles this last piece, the part of a person that’s unique and that may resist easy intelligibility. It asks why someone is the way he or she is in specific areas of life—then draws on psychological theory and experimental research to address the question. If done well, the particulars of a life cohere around the claim(s) made about a subject after a scrupulous examination of evidence.
This approach to studying lives is especially important at the present moment in time (January 2017). Psychological theory has gotten lost in what the psychiatrist Peter Kramer calls “biological materialism.” Determinations about who someone is are frequently based on genetic or neurochemical criteria. Diagnostic and physiological terminology dominates mainstream Psychology. The mid-twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt warned of the sociopolitical dangers of expressing scientific concepts in a purely mathematical and cryptic language. To do so meant divorcing science from the political world of human beings, because human beings would no longer see themselves in their science. Where is the human being in DSM-V symptomology and diagnoses? Do we find the human in neural firings and serotonin? Or within the atomizing pitfalls of identity politics? All of these approaches of course are valid; but more holistic approaches like psychobiography help trace out the larger contours of a person’s life and locate its gravitational centers.
In addition to giving psychological theory a more human shape, psychobiography offers us conceptual lenses through which to better understand each other. We live in the “selfie” age, an age in which photos and videos are posted, blogs composed, and messages tweeted as means of expressing ourselves to anyone interested in experiencing us with the click of a button or the swipe of a screen. On the one hand, these digital emanations permit an unprecedented level of fluidity and experimentation at the level of identity, allowing us to express different facets of our personalities, or to cultivate new personae altogether. But sometimes it seems that social media has actually created more distance and misunderstanding between people (e.g., cyber-bullying, false news stories, identity theft, cyber-narcissism, pseudo-mutuality, and pornography).
Psychobiography tries to bridge some of this distance by exploring the dynamics of inner lives. According to Buddhist legend, The Buddha once observed that everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. He added the moral imperative to be kind because the battle was almost universally an internal one and so challenging to see based on observables alone. Psycho-biographers examine the inner lives of people in hopes of finding the origins of their regressions and scars, and illuminating the conscious and unconscious ways that people learn to maneuver through—and at times transcend beyond—the unique circumstances of their existence. By better understanding the humanness of another, we better understand our own humanness, and then a measure of the estrangement that separates us from ourselves, and from one another, may very well be lessened.