What Are Psychobiography and Psychohistory?

Psychobiography and psychohistory each have deep roots in American psychology.

Posted Jul 09, 2020

Mary Trump’s about-to-be published memoir of the Trump family is understandably getting a lot of attention. Mary Trump, the niece of the president, is a psychologist, and she applies the tools of the trade in her analysis of Fred Trump Sr. (the president’s father), Fred Trump, Jr. (the president’s older brother and her father), and Donald Trump himself, who she considers to be “the world’s most dangerous man.”

The book, Too Much and Never Enough, can be fairly classified as a work of psychobiography—a literary genre in which an author uses psychological theory to analyze the life of a historically significant individual. That genre, along with psychohistory—a work of history which utilizes psychological, often psychoanalytic insights—each have deep roots in this country. 

Freud himself used psychohistory (or applied psychoanalysis, as it was also called) in his 1910 biography of Leonardo da Vinci (“the excessive tenderness of his mother had the most decisive influence on the formation of his character and his later fortune,” he wrote of the genius), and Erik Erikson’s two works of psychohistory, Young Man Luther and Gandhi’s Truth, were at the time considered the best of the genre.

Not just Freudian theory but Jungian personality types have also been used to write psychohistory. In her 1924 The Re-creating of the Individual, for example, Beatrice Hinkle borrowed Jung’s psychological types to analyze historical figures and even nations, an interesting and, she believed, useful application of psychoanalytic theory. For example, she suggested that had people recognized that Teddy Roosevelt was the perfect extrovert and Woodrow Wilson the quintessential introvert, they could have anticipated many of their decisions and, perhaps, helped make the world a more peaceful place. 

Likewise, Hinkle suggested, it was important to know that Germany was an introvert and England an extrovert, making the Great War an almost inevitable consequence of two rivals with different personalities pursuing the same goal. (Hinkle viewed France as a mature introvert and the United States, with its “emotional idealism,” “speculation with tomorrow,” “general optimism,” and “consideration of life as a game,” an adolescent extrovert.) Greater international understanding would be the natural outcome of this kind of insight, she argued, elevating psychoanalysis to a whole new level of importance.

A.A. Brill, the NYU professor who had the weighty task of translating Freud’s books from German into English, also liked to use historical figures to illustrate personality types of his own design. For Brill, George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson were all “schizoids,” while Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, and Benjamin Franklin were “syntonics.” Schizoids, Brill explained at the 1924 American Psychiatric Association convention, were independent and at times confrontational, while syntonics were social and cooperative. 

While one could quibble with Brill’s classifications (did Teddy Roosevelt really have a “sunny disposition,” as he attributed to syntonics?), he seemed to be saying that the course of history was influenced by the personalities of a country’s leaders, Brill seemed to be saying, an intriguing application of psychology not just circa the mid-1920s but even today.

With psychoanalysis increasingly attacked by critics in the 1930s, however, it did not help when Brill, then the country’s most famous psychoanalyst, decided to give a paper called “Lincoln as a Humorist” at the American Psychiatric Association’s 1931 convention. Lincoln and other famous figures from the past had already been posthumously psychoanalyzed, but Brill took psychohistory to a new level with his reading of the "Great Emancipator." Lincoln was, according to Brill, a “schizoid manic personality,” suffering from what we would today call bipolar disorder

Brill stopped short of calling Lincoln insane, a good decision in retrospect given the ruckus he caused with his already contentious diagnosis. “Two contrasting natures struggled within him,” Brill argued, Lincoln’s dark side inherited from his brute of a father and his light side derived from his cheerful, affectionate mother. The president’s habit of telling the occasional dirty joke was an outlet for his “sexually aggressive” personality, Brill added, this too something that definitely did not endear him or psychoanalysis in general to those who already considered the field suspect.

By the 1970s, more biographers found Freud’s and Jung’s theories powerful ways by which to paint a compelling portrait of a well-known person. Contemporary authors were taking the approach to a whole new level, seeing in psychoanalysis an ideal set of concepts to analyze complex, controversial figures of the day. Bruce Mazlish, a historian at MIT, wrote psychohistories of both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, each a potential goldmine of psychological insight given their big personalities. 

David Abrahamsen, a New York psychoanalyst, also wrote a psychohistory of Nixon, the ex-president’s personality profile apparently too juicy to resist. “His self was splintered, broken, but many pieces of his personality still hung together,” wrote Abrahamsen in his Nixon Vs Nixon (An Emotional Tragedy), adding that the man “was not a whole person.” At the time, Mazlish was collaborating with another writer on a psychohistory of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, positing that the peanut farmer’s becoming “reborn” in the sixties was actually a “third birth,” the first his literal one in 1924 and the second occurring in 1953 when his father died.