Making the fantasy fit

Subject to Biography
October 15, 1999

Several years ago, while I was working on the post-humous biography of Laura Ashley, an analyst friend suggested the dress designer would have been an ideal candidate for analysis. Ashley suffered lifelong phobias both of the dark and of water, for example, and had many obsessional characteristics.

Yet, without some deeper understanding of her early life and her relationship with her mother and her siblings, how could I explore her unconscious mind? How could I ever know the root of her phobias or understand how she dealt with them and what was the significance of her death from a fall in the dark at a time of great personal turmoil in both her private and professional life?

These were just some of the questions that beset me throughout the writing of that book, and yet ultimately in print I indulged few of the theories chewed over with my analyst friend for fear of producing little more than "psychobabble".

I was only too aware of how many biographies in recent years had used blunt psychological instruments to crack open wounds of childhood, not always succeeding. And so I was intrigued to find out what Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who is a practising psychoanalyst as well as the biographer of Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud, had to say about how psychoanalysis could help biographers.

Young-Bruehl developed the idea for her book after hearing fellow author Diane Middlebrook talk about her forthcoming biography of the jazz musician Billy Tipton. When Tipton died in 1989 aged 75 he was discovered to be a woman, a fact that he had apparently concealed from his wives and lovers.

This led Young-Bruehl to question what was the central motivation for people to write biographies and how important it was for subject and biographer, of whichever sex, to find each other and find that their fantasies fit together as though by design. She believes that a biographer can enact with his or her subject a version of this fantasy complex:

"Researching and writing the biography, you have in your mind 'the subject' who lived an independent life - and left all the traces of it that you are collecting and fashioning into a portrait - but who is you and yours for the duration of the work." She also points out that biographers - and this happened to her - sometimes have a crucial dream in which the subject appears and announces that she or he has been waiting a lifetime for such a perfectly fitted biographer.

But she warns that although the majority of biographies are written by those with character traits similar to their subjects', many biographers do construct their subject, forcing him/her into the biographer's type rather than discovering any similarities in the process of writing.

"Only the discovering mode, not the forcing mode, seems to me to involve empathy; indeed forcing a person into your likeness is an excellent definition of lack of empathy. But at any rate biographers are drawn to subjects who are like themselves usually in ways the biographer is not consciously aware of."

In spite of the title, most of the book is a compilation of essays and lectures written over the past ten years that, interesting though they are in charting the historical background between psychoanalysis and feminism, have little to say about the biographer's art.

Subject to Biography is about writing women's lives in the broadest possible sense and has most to say about eating disorders, whether or not they are a new version of 19th-century hysteria and how the feminist hostility towards psychoanalytic psychopathology has been particularly sharp in this area. In the five years between 1978 and 1983 half a dozen influential feminist books - of which Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978) is perhaps the most famous - and a stream of articles on obesity, anorexia and bulimia were published, setting the terms for the ongoing feminist project of exploring the sociocultural roots of female mental illnesses.

There is some rapprochement between feminism and psychoanalysis, although complex and incomplete. But in a memorable chapter titled "What theories women want", Young-Bruehl outlines the positive aspects of the new psycho-analysis and the emphasis now on the mother's centrality to the child.

"The new psychoanalysis," declares colleague Janet Sayers, "has been turned upside down. Once patriarchal and phallocentric, it is almost entirely mother-centred. Its focus has shifted from the past and individual issues concerning patriarchal power, repression, resistance, knowledge, sex and castration to the present and interpersonal issues concerning maternal care and its vicissitudes, identification, idealisation and envy, deprivation and loss, love and hate, introjection and projection."

This book is not an easy read: there is, inevitably, some repetition, no developing thread and it is far from jargon free. Nevertheless, it remains true that biographical insight can be sharpened by a knowledge of current psychoanalytical thinking - but amateurs, especially biographers, interpret at their peril.

Anne Sebba is the author of biographies of Enid Bagnold and Mother Teresa.

Subject to Biography: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Writing Women's Lives

Author - Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
ISBN - 0 674 85371 7
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 282

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