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article imageTruman Capote is highlighted in psycho-biography 'Tiny Terror' Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Feb 24, 2012 in Arts
When legendary writer Truman Capote had the very first hints of his anticipated work "Answered Prayers" published in Esquire Magazine in 1987, many were both elated and disappointed. Psychology professor William Todd Schultz remembers that time.
Schultz was at the University of California at Davis pursuing his PhD then and became fascinated by the excerpts. Yet even more so by the life of Capote as he got more acquainted with the flamboyant personality through his writings like "In Cold Blood," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Other Voices, Other Rooms." Capote was to become for Schultz his first psychological biographical subject.
More commonly referred to as "psycho-biography" Schultz admitted his first attempt was "lousy" as he became even more enthralled by the prospect after taking a course in psycho-biography from UC Davis professor Alan Elms.
Elms now retired but still active, serves on the editorial board of several publications like "Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences," In the subject of personality theory and the applying of established psychological concepts to a given biography, Elms has over 40 years of field and clinical research in his background. Serving as chair of the psychology department at UC Davis for three years, Professor Elms, has published over two-dozen articles, treatises and books on or related to the subject of personality and human behavior.
Elm's work and teaching at U.C. Davis has earned recognition and esteem. While he is pleased to serve as professor emeritus from time to time, in his retirement Elms prefers to pass along the benefits and continued advancement of his work to former students who are now colleagues like Schultz. "Anyone who's interested in pursuing a career in psycho-biography, whether as a college professor or as an "independent scholar," should first take a look at the works of William Todd Schultz," says Elms at his web site.
Schultz is very pleased that he has become an authority in the field alongside Elms. Yet, as Elms says when giving career advice, "I have never encouraged anyone to aim for an academic career primarily in psycho-biography." The reason being, "since very few psychology departments look for faculty with expertise in that area. But if you're really passionate about becoming a psycho-biographer, we can give you some sense of career paths that might enable you to practice this worthy profession," said Elms. He said that in recent years more scholars are using some aspect of established theory to examine a given subject in their literary works. "One such example in the negative sense is Hitler," said Elms when he was contacted by phone.
Personality analysis through psycho-biography is "a way of looking at a entire individual, how trends develop and manifest over a lifetime," said Elms. He noted that while he has studied psycho-biographies for years, over the course of most of his career, "I am not the founder of it," he laughed. "Actually it started with Sigmund Freud," said Elms.
Elms noted that Freud was analyzing historical figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and others who contributed to the burgeoning field of psychology like Erik Erikson continued with it.
When this reporter talked to Schultz by phone from his office at Pacific University in Portland Oregon his enthusiasm about the subject of psycho-biography was overflowing as he mentioned Oxford University Press has an entire series of psycho-biographies, entitled "Inner Lives Series." Schultz serves as the series editor and noted that there will be three more psycho-biographies forthcoming. For now in addition to "Tiny Terror" the "Inner Lives Series" also has a psycho-biography on former US President, George W. Bush, by Dan P. McAdams, PhD, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
McAdams talked with this reporter briefly by phone and said he was not pleased with one of the reviews Schultz' book had gotten. Andrew Alexander in his review of "Tiny Terror" did not recommend it.
"I found the review confusing," said, McAdams. "Because while he does not recommend Schultz' book, he then praises it," said McAdams. As with Schultz, the idea of applying established analytical theory to a person's life was fascinating to him. And, like Schultz, McAdams made use of the classroom to see how an audience would respond to it.
Students in both McAdams' classes as well as Schultz' classes on personality research, enjoyed the approach. With this type of response both noted they were confident to proceed. Although McAdams insists Schultz has more experience at writing psycho-biographies than he does. "I have only done one so far and that is the one on George W. Bush," said McAdams.
Elms mentioned in his conversation by telephone with this reporter that the most common psycho-biographical subjects are politicians, because they cause the most impact. And, like them or not, people are always trying to figure them out.
McAdams confessed right away that he is not a fan of the former president. "I did not vote for him and I disagree with Bush in many ways," he said. But, he did say that by using methods and formulas that have been established for more than 100 years, "I am committed to science," said McAdams.
Analyzing a public figure is most accessible because public records are usually extensive. With Capote there are biographies and dozens of interviews along with his writing. Yet as McAdams pointed out, with George W. Bush, the amount of material is mountainous. "I was not able to interview Bush personally, that is next to impossible, said McAdams, but there is enough information out there."
Like Schultz, doing the research, collecting the data, reading through all available sources is what took up most of the time. All total about three years, yet "writing the psycho-biography took only about six months," said McAdams.
Each book in the series is intended to be compact, less than 200 pages. Schultz said that his choice of Capote was not only because of his own fascination with the famous writer but also because "students in class really responded to Capote as a subject forming lively discussions," he said.
Schultz prefers to focus on artists where as McAdams is intrigued by political figures like Bush. "I did my best to rally the use of scientific theory to shed light upon his life," said McAdams. By just sifting through the information that is part of public record, McAdams asked, "why did Bush make the decisions he made?"
McAdams admitted he had a lot of bias going into the book-writing project. "I had to hold back my negativity to look at his life, it was a challenge," said McAdams. Being objective according to McAdams is a loaded term. "Pure objectivity is a myth," said McAdams. Yet by striving to be objective McAdams admitted he was able to "steer in the middle of the road" on his subject.
Schultz said, that he too was very careful not to get too caught up in the already established biased aspects of Capote as a celebrity. He also had to put aside much of the admiration for Capote as an icon. For in many ways, Capote was ahead of his time in terms of social mores and norms. "I did not look at issues like mental illness or alcoholism as much as actual physical needs," said Schultz.
According to Schultz, Capote's greatest fear was abandonment. "That had a monumental impact upon him," said Schultz as he stressed that he was noting this from interviews and statements to the press that Capote made in public. "I am taking Capote at his word, even if at times what he said was embellished. I am looking at the facts," said Schultz.
"I am very proud of Todd," said Elms, who is very pleased to have helped others besides Schultz to flourish in the field of psycho-biography.
"Is there another psycho-biographical book in the works?" This reporter asked as he was curious. "Yes, in fact I think there are several within me to write if I can live that long," said Elms. "Currently, I am working on a book about Paul M.A. Linebarger (also known as Cordwainer Smith)," he said. Linebarger is perhaps best known for his book about psychological warfare. "Few people know that Linebarger also wrote science fiction," said Elms. To learn more about Elms visit his more-up-to-date web page.
Both Schultz and McAdams (as well as Elms) are excited about the "Inner Lives Series" of psycho-biographies. With his experience and expertise in writing psycho-biographies on such well-known creative people like photographer Diane Arbus and writer Oscar Wilde, to name a few, Professor Todd William Schultz is eager to see the series completed. For more information about "Tiny Terror - Why Truman Capote Almost Wrote 'Answered Prayers'," and the "Inner Lives Series," see the Oxford University Press web site.
More about William Todd Schultz, psychobiography, Tiny Terror
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