Counseling Today, Features

The art and craft of psychobiography

By Joseph G. Ponterotto February 27, 2014

Big-hair“There is something a little mesmerizing about locating mysteries in people’s lives, then fleshing these mysteries out and, finally, shedding what intensity of light one can on them.”

 

The quote above is from William Todd Schultz, noted psychobiographer of Truman Capote (among others) and editor of theHandbook of Psychobiography, published in 2005 by Oxford University Press. To me, this quote highlights the draw of psychological biography to the mental health professional. Counselors, both by nature and professional training, are interested in the life stories of others. We are pulled to understand the inner psychology — the thoughts, feelings and behaviors — of our clients, and we are often curious about the personalities of significant figures in human history.

Psychobiography represents a specialty area that applies psychological theories and research tools to the intensive study of an individual person of historic significance. Most often, psychobiographies focus on recently deceased or long-deceased public figures who had a lasting impact on society. That impact may have been for the good of society, as shown in Erik Erikson’s profile of Mahatma Gandhi (1969), or it may represent the worst of human nature, as in Walter Langer’s portrait of Adolf Hitler (1972) or Theresa DeSantis’ psychobiography of still-living serial killer Joel Rifkin (2002).

Psychobiography as a cornerstone of the psychology profession is often traced back to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic profile of Leonardo da Vinci in 1910. Freud ignited a strong interest in psychobiography among his analytic colleagues; applied psychoanalysts went on to author the majority of early 20th-century psychobiographies. By midcentury, however, and coinciding with the burgeoning influence of Harvard University’s Psychological Clinic, the theoretical anchors and research methods of psychobiography expanded significantly. Harvard psychologists Gordon Allport, Henry Murray and Erik Erikson all promoted the intensive study of the single person in holistic framework, and all produced important psychobiographical work. In the present century, interest in and production of psychobiography by psychologists continues, and the field is witnessing a flourishing of diverse theories and research methods used to anchor psychobiography.

It is interesting to note that psychologists still write the overwhelming majority of psychobiographies. This article is, in part, an invitation to professional counselors to apply their professional skill set to this fascinating research endeavor. I want to highlight why counselors are well-positioned to conduct psychobiography, the benefits of psychobiographical research to individual counselors and to the profession as a whole, and the specific steps to gaining competence and engaging in psychobiography.

Counselors make good psychobiographers

Professional counselors have the ideal skill set to conduct psychobiography. First, of course, counselors have a strong interest in understanding the inner psychological drives and motivations of others. Second, through their training and clinical supervision, counselors are highly self-aware and can objectively bracket out their biases in a comprehensive and objective study of a public or historic figure. Third, counselors are schooled in the practitioner-scientist model and are highly skilled at balancing a controlled empathy for their historic subject with the scientific search for truth and understanding of the individual. Fourth, counselors are expert in considering their subject of interest within a socio-cultural-historical context, and they are careful to interpret the experiences of others from the most relevant cultural and historical vantage points.

Finally, counselors’ specific academic training provides clusters of competence ideally suited to psychobiographical research. Among the core areas of competence for counselors as outlined by popular accrediting bodies and state licensing and certification boards are in-depth knowledge of the following:

  • Psychological theory and history
  • Human development over the life span
  • Neuropsychology (including behavioral genetics)
  • Assessment, measurement and testing
  • Group dynamics
  • Understanding the family
  • Qualitative and quantitative designs in case study research
  • Ethical issues and responsibilities in research
  • Multicultural considerations, including the historic influences of oppression and privilege on individual life stories

Collectively, these core training competencies equip counselors well for psychobiographical research, which most often demands accessing this entire cluster of competence.

Benefits of engaging in psychobiography

A number of clear benefits accrue to individual counselors, to the counseling profession at large, to counselors’ clients and students, and to the general public when professional counselors engage in psychobiographical research and writing.

First, for the profession at large, well-conducted and reported psychobiographies promote the visibility of counselors through exemplary research scholarship. Psychobiographies are widely read because they focus on historic figures who capture the fascination of the public over multiple generations. Interest in psychobiography extends across multiple professions, including history, journalism, sociology, political science, psychology and psychiatry, as well as to the lay public.

Second, exemplary psychobiography informs and educates the general public about historic figures who have helped shape society, for good or bad. Psychobiography teaches psychology to the public through its explanation of the often complex and layered factors that anchor humans in their beliefs, feelings and actions. Psychobiography is also the means through which each generation connects psychologically with generations past. It is motivating to consider that Erikson’s detailed psychobiography of Gandhi was used in the 1960s civil rights movement as a model for nonviolent resistance to oppression. Psychobiographies of both creative and ingenious individuals, as well as those at psychological risk, have also informed myriad early intervention programs in schools and communities.

Third, psychobiography engages the curiosity and skill set of the individual counselor, thus promoting our own personal and professional development. In addition, counselors who present and publish psychobiographies may receive national visibility and other opportunities.

Finally, engaging in psychobiography holds the potential of making counselors better clinicians. It leads us to more fully understand behavior in socio-cultural-historical context, encourages us to consider transgenerational influences of both trauma and resiliency, and promotes the use of mixed methods research (quantitative and qualitative) and a variety of assessment tools and procedures. These skills prepare us for more depth and breadth in conceptualizing our clients’ lived experiences, challenges and strengths.

Steps to engaging in psychobiography 

Counselors interested in engaging in psychobiography as a research and writing endeavor can follow the seven steps outlined here.

1) Reflect on a historic figure who has long intrigued you and whose personality or impact on society has fascinated you. The figure can be deceased or living. Carefully research what has already been written about this historic figure and then identify any remaining mysteries about her or his life. One or more of these mysteries can form the focus of your research. Contemplate what you could bring to the psychological understanding of this individual given your long-term interest in the subject and your in-depth training and experience as a professional counselor.

2) Develop knowledge and competence in the field of psychobiography through your own study of the specialty area and a review of both flawed and exemplary psychobiographies. The box on page 56 lists the four methodological primers that were most helpful to me in my development as a psychobiographer. Each of these key sources is replete with examples (both good and bad) of methodology in psychobiographical research.

3) Take the time to read both classic and modern psychobiographies. Classic psychobiographies include the influential, though markedly flawed, psychoanalytic profiles of da Vinci by Freud and of President Woodrow Wilson by Freud and William Bullitt (first published in the United States in 1966). These studies were considered flawed, both on the basis of author bias and lack of rigorous research methods.

Psychobiographies considered exemplary, both in theoretical anchor and comprehensive coverage, include Erikson’s profiles of Martin Luther (1958) and Mahatma Gandhi (1969). Erikson’s work on Gandhi received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Modern psychobiographies tend to be multitheoretical and have included psychological profiles of Diane Arbus, Truman Capote, Bobby Fischer, John Lennon, Barack Obama and George W. Bush (see box on page 58). After reading a few recent psychobiographies, consider publishing a review of the book on Amazon.com, or reach out to a magazine or journal that welcomes such book reviews.

4) If time and availability permit, consider taking (or designing) a course in psychobiography. Working with an established psychobiographer will provide the structure and methods needed to begin your own venture into psychobiographical research and writing.

5) As you identify a subject of interest for your psychobiographical research, consider collaborating with others who hold a strong interest in the psychology and personality of this figure. Given the interdisciplinary nature of psychobiography, consider colleagues outside the field of counseling, perhaps in history, political science or journalism. Each profession brings an overlapping as well as a distinct set of skills for psychobiography research.

6) Consider a narrow focus for your first psychobiography. Developing a comprehensive life-span psychobiography of a historic figure, either living or deceased, can be a multiyear process. At times, psychobiographers instead focus on a single event, time period or unanswered question in the life of a historic figure. For example, William Todd Schultz focused his short biography of Truman Capote on the question of why the famed author never completed his book Answered Prayers. Dan McAdams, in his recent profile of George W. Bush, focused specifically on understanding why the president launched a military invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Tim Kasser devoted his psychobiography of John Lennon to the question of what led to his writing of the influential song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Psychobiographical profiles can be published as full-length books or as articles targeted for academic journals and popular magazines. Counselors have the research and writing skills to tap into any of these publication outlets.

7) Consider the ethical issues related to psychobiography (a topic not addressed much by the field). Because the majority of psychobiographies focus on individuals who are deceased, the majority of psychobiographers have not submitted their research ideas and proposals for formal review and approval by an institutional review board. Unfortunately, neither the American Counseling Association nor the American Psychological Association specifically addresses psychobiographical research in their ethical standards. The lack of professional association guidance on this matter led me to begin developing a set of rights and responsibilities for psychobiographers (see box above for a list of key references on ethics in psychobiography).

I believe it is important for counseling researchers to attend thoughtfully to ethical issues and challenges that are likely to arise in psychobiographical research. Ethical issues are less salient when the subject of the psychobiography has long been deceased and has no family members surviving. Ethical issues are more salient when the subject is recently deceased and survived by extended family, friends and associates who may read the psychobiography. The ethical issues are most paramount when writing about historic subjects who are still living because the final psychobiographical report could affect the subject’s reputation, legacy and career livelihood.

One counselor’s journey into psychobiography

This is my story of how psychobiography captured my imagination, reinvigorated my research program and enhanced my clinical skills.

I have always been interested in biography, psychobiography and cultural history. Since my teenage years in the early 1970s, I have also been a chess player and fascinated with the life of the first American-born world chess champion, Bobby Fischer. After more than three decades as a counselor educator, I decided to apply my counseling research skills to unveiling the answer to perhaps the biggest lingering mystery in the chess world — what had happened to Bobby Fischer. Millions of chess fans worldwide had become enamored with Fischer’s creative genius at the chessboard, only to be disappointed when he forfeited his world championship in 1975 and then disappeared from the chess world. They were ultimately horrified by the vitriolic anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiment that characterized his later years (Fischer was himself Jewish).

Soon after Fischer’s death in January 2008, I began my research into the mystery of his life. Initially my plan was to write a brief psychological assessment article with the goal of determining whether Fischer may have suffered from mental illness and, if so, which particular illness. The literature was already replete with hypothesized mental disorders that Fischer may have suffered from, and there was already a strictly Freudian psychoanalytic profile penned by Reuben Fine, who was both a psychoanalyst and a chess grandmaster. However, a thoughtful, modern and comprehensive forensic psychological profile, or psychological autopsy, on Fischer was lacking.

Eventually, my narrow plan of research for a psychological assessment of Fischer expanded into a full life-span psychobiography. Truly understanding Bobby Fischer required knowledge of his family and genetic history, the international chess world in the 1950s through the 1970s, and the socio-historical-cultural context of Fischer’s life (1943-2008). Initially, my research methods focused on archival document review, including previous biographies of Fischer, audio- and videotaped interviews with the chess champion and accounts by journalists.

In time, I began to contact Fischer’s friends, select family members, journalists who had covered his life for decades and Frank Brady, whose biographies of the world chess champion, Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy and Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, are considered definitive biographical works. I was very pleased, and even honored, when the overwhelming majority of individuals I contacted agreed to talk with me, either by phone, via email or in person. I believe my status as a faculty member and mental health professional gave me some credibility as a psychobiographer, thus facilitating the process of securing interviews.

As document reviews led to personal interviews — which then led back to new document and archival sources — the iterative process of psychobiographical research was in full motion. My research also led me to access FBI files on Bobby Fischer’s mother, Regina Fischer, which I acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. She had been under suspicion of being a spy for the Soviet Union because she had lived and studied in Moscow from 1933-1938 and was a member of the Communist Party in the United States for a number of years. I also acquired medical and death records and traveled both domestically and internationally to complete my research.

Ultimately, the research took roughly four years to complete and resulted in a book, A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer: Understanding the Genius, Mystery and Psychological Decline of a World Chess Champion, published by Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd. in 2012. Currently, I am continuing this research, now with the help of master’s and doctoral students in counseling who also are interested in psychobiography and the study of both prodigies and at-risk youths and adolescents.

The benefits of entering the world of psychobiography have been significant to me, both personally and professionally. On a professional level, it was very fulfilling to combine my interest in counseling, history, culture and biography with my lifelong passion for the game of chess. Becoming a psychobiographer markedly expanded my research and teaching skill set, given the interdisciplinary tools and theories used by psychobiographers. A good number of our counseling students are interested in psychobiography, and we are now working together to design an interdisciplinary psychobiography course with particular appeal to counseling, school, clinical and forensic psychology students.

An unexpected and exciting outcome of my research and writing was being presented with opportunities to consult for both a Hollywood movie production company and a theatrical rendition of Fischer’s life. I interacted with movie producers and a playwright, read screenplays and scripts, and wrote psychological character profiles of Bobby Fischer and select family members.

Importantly, as a practicing mental health counselor and psychologist, I believe my clinical stance has been strengthened through psychobiography. It has led me to attend more thoughtfully to the sociocultural context of my clients’ and their ancestors’ lived experiences. Furthermore, as a clinician, I now count as one of my specialty areas working with chess players of varying strengths to help ensure a healthy life balance socially, academically and vocationally, while also promoting continued chess development.

My research has also led to close acquaintances with individuals who knew Bobby Fischer very well. These associations have enriched my personal and professional life. Furthermore, my professional network has expanded markedly through my work on the Fischer story, and I now count as close colleagues professionals in journalism, biography, history and elite chess competition. I invite readers to email me and our psychobiography research team at Fordham University using the contact information below.

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Classic methodological primers on conducting psychobiography

I believe these four publications are must reads for any psychobiographer. All three authors continue to be active in psychobiographical research, and each is considered a pioneer in modern psychobiography (post Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson).

  • Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in Theory and Method by William McKinley Runyan, 1982, Oxford University Press
  • “Psychobiographical methodology: The case of William James” by James W. Anderson in Review of Personality and Social Psychology, edited by Ladd Wheeler, 1981, Sage Publications
  • “The methodology of psychological biography” by James W. Anderson, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Autumn 1981
  • Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology by Alan C. Elms, 1994, Oxford University Press

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Select modern multitheoretical psychobiographies

  • A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer: Understanding the Genius, Mystery and Psychological Decline of a World Chess Champion by Joseph G. Ponterotto, 2012, Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd.
  • An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus by William Todd Schultz, 2011, Bloomsbury USA
  • Barack Obama in Hawai’i and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President by Dinesh Sharma, 2011, Praeger
  • George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream: A Psychological Portrait by Dan P. McAdams, 2011, Oxford University Press
  • Lucy in the Mind of Lennon by Tim Kasser, 2013, Oxford University Press
  • “The ‘genius’ and ‘madness’ of Bobby Fischer: Understanding his life from three psychobiographical lenses” by Joseph G. Ponterotto and Jason D. Reynolds, Review of General Psychology, December 2013
  • Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers by William Todd Schultz, 2011, Oxford University Press

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Key references on ethics in psychobiography

  • “Case study in psychobiographical ethics: Bobby Fischer, world chess champion” by Joseph G. Ponterotto, Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, October 2013
  • Extended note on the history of ethics applied to psychobiographical research: Supplemental online material to “Case study in psychobiographical ethics: Bobby Fischer, world chess champion” by Joseph G. Ponterotto, Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, October 2013
  • “Saddam Hussein is ‘dangerous to the extreme’: The ethics of professional commentary on public figures” by John D. Mayer and Michelle D. Leichtman, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, January 2012
  • “The APA’s ethics code and personality analysis at a distance” by John D. Mayer, posted June 27, 2010, “The Personality Analyst” blog at PsychologyToday.com
  • “What should biographers tell? The ethics of telling lives” by Jerome G. Manis, Biography, Fall 1994

 

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Joseph G. Ponterotto is a licensed mental health counselor and psychologist in New York state and coordinator of the mental health counseling program at Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York City. He is the author of A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer: Understanding the Genius, Mystery and Psychological Decline of a World Chess Champion, and maintains a small private practice in New York City. Contact him at Ponterotto@Fordham.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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