Living the Bad Life – biography subjects behaving badly can drive biographers crazy

Deirdre Bair | Posted on 04/01/08

If there is one single word that can set off a group of biographers on a spirited debate, it is compassion. Writing a biography is a complex matter, and those who attempt to capture the elusive otherness of a stranger are often at a loss for words when someone asks what compelled them to do it. I have heard some biographers describe the attraction as akin to entering into an arranged marriage for however long it takes to write the book; by others as signing a binding (in every sense of the word) contract that requires them to probe the inner recesses and hidden depths of someone else’s life, no matter how unsavory they turn out to be; and by still others as having to give up all sense of one’s own true self and take on the trappings of another, no matter how schizophrenic the experience.

All this implies that something happens between the first glorious moment when the biographer, whether a first-timer or seasoned pro, has the initial “eureka” moment of knowing there is quite a story here and she is the best person to tell it, and sometime later, when the crushing realization hits that this story is not the one she thought she would be writing. A rash of emotions flood the biographer, from dismay to outrage, and even anger: how dare this subject be so — you can fill in the blanks here — nasty, puerile, evil? The life the chagrined biographer envisioned at the outset was not supposed to unfold in such a mean-spirited, negative manner, but she knows that if she intends to present an honest and objective portrait, this is the story she has to tell. And it is here that compassion enters the picture.

The dictionary definition describes the word by breaking it down into two separate parts, the first being “the deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another,” while the second is “the inclination to give aid or support, or show mercy.” Both figure largely in the writing of any given life and both highlight the dilemma that confronts the biographer who emphasizes one part to the detriment of the other, or who thinks it best to eliminate one part or both. If a reader has even a whiff of suspicion that the biographer’s portrait contains an agenda, hidden or overt, he can’t help but be skeptical. The reader deems the tale skewed and therefore flawed and suspects just enough to distrust it, and by extension the teller.

Most readers expect the biographer to have entered into an unwritten contract with the person whose life she is writing, that she will be fair, just, and honorable. The biographer usually explains this to readers in an introduction, telling what — to use Leon Edel’s version of how he came to write about Henry James — “impelled [her] to the writing of a given life.” By giving the reader insight into her method, she hopes to form a bond of trust. I can illustrate this by describing my own case, where my reason for writing a life was something different for each of the four I wrote. With Samuel Beckett, I wanted to know how this upper-class Anglo-Irishman became so fascinated by the down-and-outs, the legless, armless, and limbless, that he created a body of work that changed theater irrevocably. How did Simone de Beauvoir, the dutiful daughter of the French minor nobility, become the feminist who wrote The Second Sex and change the way half the human race (women, and perhaps most of the other half as well) lived their lives? What compelled Anais Nin to write hundreds of thousands of words with herself as the only subject? And with C. G. Jung, I could think only of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that every great person has disciples and usually “Judas writes the biography.” What was there about the founder of analytic psychology that led to scores of biographies, all of them scathing and scurrilous, filled with allegation and innuendo and very few real facts? What about this man inspired so much fear, cruelty, and downright hatred?

In my portraits, I strove so hard for that elusive quality known as objectivity that I was actually pleased when readers and reviewers would say they could not determine whether or not I “liked” the person I was writing about. As if that mattered, I said to myself, for I was convinced that, having played no part in the lives of the people I wrote about, what I thought about them was extraneous. But still, I do admit that the reader is right to wonder not only how the biographer treats the facts of the life, but also why she chose those particular facts to tell and why she might have left others, equally valid, out of the picture. The problem arises for the biographer when the facts she includes become so distasteful that she abandons objectivity, the much-vaunted quality insisted upon by all. And when objectivity is absent from her portrait, compassion is either in short supply or totally absent. Every biographer will tell you that, when it comes to understanding the person being written about, objectivity is paramount and, by extension, compassion must be included.

Picture, as many Victorian scholars and critics did, an illustration showing a steep mountain of virtues that writing a life is required to impose: objectivity claims the pinnacle and integrity shares the ledge just below it, with compassion right up there poking and nudging as it tries to claim its share of the perch. This was a noble depiction, but it didn’t last for more than a decade or two. As the nineteenth century ended, critics were bemoaning that biography had descended from its lofty heights to become little more than writing about the lives of “dwarfs, contortionists, pirates, and cheats.” Lytton Strachey, who did much to change the genre, said it most succinctly: “Discretion is not the better part of biography!” The “warts and all” school of life writing was in the ascendant, and since then we’ve been overdosed with so much salacious detail that a synonym for the genre has become “pathography.”

Of course no life is pure hagiography and no one merits a life written to portray Saint So-and-So, the good and the great, but neither should a biography be a forensic foray comparable to a root canal, as the biographer digs out the dirt in every dark and moldy crevice. And if the life does tend to veer more in one of these directions than the other, the biographer is supposed to have integrity in sufficient quantity that, when combined with compassion, we get a written life that comes as close to the “truth” as we can find in this post-modern age in which nothing is alleged to have any fixed or “real” meaning.

All the biographers I know agree that this is a true description, and yet every one of them takes a different perspective when approaching the task. Biographers come from many different areas within the writing community, from journalists to historians to scholars of literature and politics. They are drawn to biography through a kind of enchantment; they are captivated by an elusive something about their subject, be it the extraordinary adventures that comprised a vivid and dramatic life, a body of creative work, or a specific action that changed something about culture and society. Some quality, often floating and undefined at the beginning of the project, attracts the biographer and makes her willing, indeed eager, to commit years of her life to investigating and writing about someone else’s.

One biographer told me how she compared herself to a bright and shiny red balloon when she began to research the life of a distinguished artist, and how, as her information piled up into one sordid activity after another, she felt herself becoming shabby, fading, and slowly deflating. She and I both share great respect for a saying by the English critic Desmond MacCarthy, one that has become the mantra for how we write non-fiction in general, but especially for our attitude toward biography. MacCarthy said the biographer must be “the artist under oath,” which we interpreted as our duty to be the historian of record who must also produce a narrative that stands among the very best creative non-fiction. We believe that truth has to be told in a page-turner.

All this pertains to the biographer’s attitude and it’s all very fine in principle, but what is the biographer supposed to do when she finds herself stuck with a subject who shows little or no compassion or has none at all? What is she to do when the subject is nothing short of a monster, cold, callous, and unfeeling? Should the biographer write a book that passes judgment in a way that either exonerates or condemns? Or is this where she equivocates, parrying every thrust as she tries to explain how and why the subject behaved as he did? It is not a simple black/white equation.

What happens when the biographer shows too much compassion toward a subject who had none? What if the initial showing of compassion colors everything the biographer writes in the rest of the book? And most of all, what happens when, midway through the research and writing, the biographer realizes she abhors the subject? There’s a fine line here between literature and life, and the problem is how to determine what should carry over from one to the other.

I had the opportunity to consider all these questions last year, when I was a visiting professor at Bennington College. In an introductory lecture I gave to faculty and students, the distinguished biographer of Leni Riefenstahl posed the question this way: “What do you do when you find you despise your subject?” He was then approaching the end of a decade’s “wrestling” with the life of Hitler’s filmmaker, and his anguish was evident to me and others in the audience. I thought of it again when I read a perceptive review of the book that described how well it captured “the biographer’s nightmare, trapped for a decade with a loathsome subject.”

My initial response to the question was terse: Either write fast enough to keep your animosity from showing, or give the advance back to the publisher and abandon the book. But I left out so much when I fired off this cold, judgmental reply. I left out all the emotions that hit the biographer when the subject turns out to be something other than a model citizen, far closer to a monster (sacred or otherwise). I didn’t talk about the sheer dismay, the anger and outrage (“how dare he/she do such dastardly, heinous things?”). I didn’t describe the confusion and worry about how to present the information, or whether to write about it at all. It’s a problem if the subject is still alive, such as the one I faced when writing about the humiliating attacks of boils and cysts Samuel Beckett suffered as a young man (I included them in the biography because they figured so largely in his fictional characterizations). If the subject is
dead, there is the very real concern that the heirs and executors might raise legal issues (as the Jung heirs tried to do when they insisted that my biography did not present the view they wanted the world to have of their illustrious grandfather).

Although I didn’t use the word compassion when I made my reply to my Bennington audience, I realized afterward that I was describing my attitude about what a biography should legitimately reveal and what it should equally legitimately conceal. I talked about this several months later in a biography seminar that was founded many years ago at New York University by the distinguished biographer of John Keats, Professor Aileen Ward, and which I have attended in the many years since its inception. I raised my questions after a talk by the biographer of Ayn Rand, who was responding to queries from biographers of Dorothy Parker and Harry Houdini about the difficulty of presenting an objective portrait of a nasty, prickly personality. The biographer of Ross Lockridge said perhaps compassion was not the correct description we sought, and perhaps we needed to return to the classic definitions offered in English departments everywhere, of sympathy and empathy. Into the spirited discussion jumped biographers of Peggy Guggenheim, Henry Miller, Theodore Roosevelt, and Frank O’Hara. Some argued that compassion was the wrong quality, for it implied that the biographer was shading the written life in order to make an unlikable subject’s distasteful behavior palatable to readers — the “sharing another’s suffering” part of the definition — while others argued that the “artist under oath” had the moral obligation to present the subject’s behavior in what we abbreviated to an “on the one hand/on the other hand” light that illustrated the “giving support or showing mercy” part of the definition. Our group found itself arguing whether the biographer should content herself with a simple narration of the subject’s life, leaving it to the reader to pronounce final judgment, or whether the biographer’s obligation was to act as judge and jury and pronounce what the subject’s fate would be in history — at least until the next generation of cultural historians comes along to take a revisionist view of it.

Our conversation veered from the sharp and the witty, to the incisive, the critical and the sarcastic, but ultimately we found ourselves speaking softly and carefully as we thought of the tremendous responsibility we, as biographers, carried. We may not have arrived at a consensus definition of what this responsibility should consist of, but all agreed to the idea that compassion should be part of our deliberation.