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Biography vs Psychiatry

July 9, 2010

Can biographers draw conclusions about their subject’s personality, or is that the preserve of psychiatrists and psychologists? Did David Marr have the right to assert, in the recent Quarterly Essay Power Trip, that Kevin Rudd is ‘driven by anger’?

 On a recent ABC TV Q&A program, Professor of Psychiatry Jayashri Kulkarni chastised David Marr. ‘You are not qualified to diagnose anybody … You have actually taken my patch … This is not right.’

‘I am a biographer,’ cried Marr, ‘Biographies are studies of character and career.’

I’m sympathetic to the Professor’s critique of our voyeuristic interest in the inner lives of others. We invade their privacy and jump to superficial conclusions based on chance observations, when we actually have no idea. But should this shut down all discussion of the character and style of those who seek to govern our country?

 ‘Driven by anger’ may have been a step too far. Reading Marr’s essay we find many other facets to Rudd’s personality. Perhaps Marr also makes too much of a possible link between current behaviour and an unhappy childhood, although Rudd is the one who stresses the connection. But these sins are venial, not mortal. More important is that Marr’s skill as a writer illuminates for us how Rudd behaves and how it affects other people, and the consequences for effective government. The ‘driven by anger’ comment was prompted by a furious dressing down of Marr by Rudd. It is not so much a diagnosis as an observation, an example of how Rudd’s conduct affects others. (The subsequent overthrow of Rudd is a separate issue – Marr himself has condemned the way it was done.) 

So while I agree with Jayashri Kulkarni in regretting the tendency toward voyeurism and amateur analysis, I don’t believe Marr is guilty of it. His skills in biography were applied to a person we needed to know about because of his position. Maybe Marr did fall victim to a mild case of narrative fallacy – the tendency to impose a story on a set of observations – but the same could be said of most of us, including some psychiatrists who, despite their skills, struggle to pinpoint the most appropriate diagnosis for their clients.

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