Elms uncovers secret lives of famous politicians, writers

December 4, 1994
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Alan Elms, psychology professor at UC Davis, has written an interesting book ``Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology'' (Oxford University Press, $25) but those who know what his next book's going to be about can't help but ask about it.

``Tell me something about Elvis,'' I asked Elms during an interview last week.

``Albert Goldman was wrong on both counts,'' he replied, ``but that will be another book.''

Goldman, you may recall, wrote a highly unflattering book about Elvis Presley a few years ago that included a diagnosis of the rock star as a split personality and a delusional paranoid.

Elms says Goldman is a good example of an author who tried to employ a psychobiographical technique and failed utterly.

Goldman attempted to augment his Elvis biography with a serious psychological analysis when all he really did was shove this famous person into a pathological pigeonhole, said Elms.

(If you can't wait, Elms has written an essay on Elvis that's included in a book by Davis resident Geri DePaoli, ``Elvis + Marilyn.'' DePaoli will be signing copies of that book at noon on Dec. 17 at The Avid Reader in downtown Davis.)

Elms says bad psychobiographers are usually scornful of alternatives to the theories they choose. Good psychobiographers are usually open to several interpretations and give detailed evidence for choosing whatever theory they back.

An example of a good psychobiography is Doris Kearns Goodwin's ``LBJ and the American Dream.'' Bad would be Fawn Brodie on Richard Nixon or Nancy Clinch on the Kennedy family.

Elms say a good psychobiography can rival the very best traditional biographies in the insights it offers in fact, the best biographies today include psychobiographical elements.

In ``Uncovering Lives'' Elms uses examples of his own work taking closer looks at Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Isaac Asimov, L. Frank Baum, Vladimir Nabokov, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Saddam Hussein and Henry Kissinger.

He includes a wonderful how to chapter literally, how to gather the clues, published and unpublished, that when painstakingly assembled will form a portrait of the person you want to write about.

And again, he gives us clues about his Elvis work-in-progress.

``I never requested an interview with Elvis Presley, but I did address a series of questions to him and his managers fairly early in his career. I got answers, too, from Colonel Tom Parker's top assistant, Tom Diskin...but his protectiveness toward Elvis was already quite clear.''

In the years since the death of Elvis, Elms says he's dreamed several times that he has interviewed Elvis at length.

``Alas, I'm never able to remember his answers when I wake up,'' Elms writes.

Elms has been working on his Elvis book on and off for 10 years, as well as other works of scholarly research, fiction and even poetry. He is a member of the Davis Writers' Group and acknowledges that group for helping him with ``Uncovering Lives.''

Indeed, Elms has a strong interest in fiction. He says he's about 80 percent of the way through a psychobiographical novel called ``Jung in Africa,'' which he put aside when he got the contract for ``Uncovering Lives.''

``I now plan to go back to it,'' said Elms. ``I'm trying to stay as true to his character and events as possible.'' Carl Jung did take a trip through East Africa and down the Nile to Cairo with three interesting traveling companions over a six-month period. That much is known, but Elms is filling in the blanks with a reasonable yet fictional account.

Elms went to high school in Kentucky, spent his undergraduate years at Penn State and went to graduate school at Yale.

``But for me, California was the promised land,'' he said. His family lived in San Diego for a while when Elms was in grade school. He wanted to get back to the West Coast. So after teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for three years, he came to UC Davis in 1967.

After all these years on the job, he says there are still professional drawbacks for those starting out in psychobiography.

``One of the realities of writing a psychobiographical thesis is this--you may have difficulty getting a job in psychology,'' said Elms.

Still, a recent UCD graduate student who wrote his thesis on the alcoholic, self-destructive writer James Agee was able to land a university job.

``It is getting somewhat easier to be a psychobiographer in the psychology field,'' said Elms. ``We're developing clear guidelines about what is good research and what is not.''

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