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A Presley Pathography

Alan C. Elms

[Some twenty years ago I began working with Dr. Bruce Heller, a friend and clinical psychologist, on a study of Elvis Presley. I had been collecting Elvis biographical data for a long time, and was eager to obtain more for our joint project. When I heard that a major biography of Elvis was scheduled for publication in late 1981, featuring a psychological analysis of Elvis as well as much new information, I proposed to my editors at Psychology Today that I review the book for them. They were a little dubious--I don't think they'd published anything on Elvis before--but they got me a set of advance page proofs from the publishers, McGraw-Hill. Those page proofs were the main thing I wanted from the deal, but nonetheless I was disappointed when my editors told me they weren't going to run my review. The review itself was fine, they said, but the book sounded so bad they didn't want to waste space on it. They paid me a $100 "kill fee" and gave me permission to publish the review elsewhere. I knew the editor of the biggest and best Elvis fan magazine, Elvis World, so I offered him the review for free. He happily scheduled it for the next issue, but he ran out of money first, so the review never got published there either. Here it is, unrevised since 1981, in print for the first time.]

In 1958 the psychoanalytic journal American Imago published a paper titled "A Note on the Analysis of the 'Elvis Presley' Phenomenon." The paper included such insights as this: "By identifying with the undulating Elvis, the adolescent is vicariously experiencing the sexual stimulation which is suppressed by society." As the first psychological study of Elvis Presley, the paper was hardly a strong beginning. But Elvis had been a national phenomenon for only two years, and better papers would surely follow.

In the same year that Elvis emerged on the national scene, the first major work of modern psychobiography had been published: Alexander and Juliette George's Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House. During the next quarter-century, psychobiography became almost as controversial as Elvis Presley, if not quite as popular. Important psychobiographies were published on figures as diverse as Martin Luther and Lyndon Johnson, Lawrence of Arabia and Ludwig von Beethoven. Even relatively minor but psychologically intriguing figures, such as Whittaker Chambers and Sylvia Plath, were given close scrutiny. Psychobiographical scholars became increasingly self-conscious and methodologically sophisticated. The clinical theories on which they often relied made important advances. The study of individual lives became fashionable again, even among psychologists who had never before looked at fewer than forty research subjects for longer than one experimental hour. But in that 25-year span, not one other paper was added to the published literature on the psychology of Elvis Presley.

Why this lack of scholarly attention to such a well-known figure? Had Elvis proved to be merely a musical flash in the pan? Hardly. He went on to sell well over half a billion records, and even after several ups and downs in his 23-year recording career he was still putting out hit singles and albums when he died. He was profoundly influential on several waves of younger musicians, ranging from Buddy Holly to John Lennon, Phil Ochs to Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Costello.

Was he simply not broad enough in his cultural impact to deserve such attention? During an era when recorded rock 'n' roll became the aesthetic core of a mass adolescent culture, Elvis was the supreme practitioner of rock. In a time of political quiescence, he became the symbolic rebel who gave young proto-activists their first taste of opposition to hypocritical adult values.

Was he lacking in psychological impact--only an entertainer who never really touched the deeper emotions of his fans? His death provoked worldwide mourning more intense than for most presidents and kings. Even after death he has continued to touch people in unexpected ways. Recently a Boston Globe columnist, a respectable and literate woman in her mid-thirties, reported being "astonished" at her reaction to a new film biography of Elvis. "Watching it, I realized that he had helped shape not just my preferences in music but my values and my attitudes toward life in general, especially, heaven help me, my taste in men." She is far from being alone. Not only did many women of her generation come to see Elvis at some level as what they wanted in a man; many men came to see Elvis as the kind of man they wanted to be--tough yet emotionally vulnerable, with a physical grace beneath that somewhat crude exterior.

So why, again, have the psychobiographers ignored such an important figure? Mere importance is not enough for most psychobiographers; it has to be the right kind of importance. Sylvia Plath as creative artist, yes; Walt Kelly as creative artist, no. Richard Nixon as political leader, yes; Joe Hill as political leader, no. Lawrence of Arabia as charismatic figure, yes; Elvis Presley as charismatic figure, no. Even in our purportedly egalitarian era, scholars have a hard time dealing with the popular but irreverent or low-culture or openly vulgar individual. Academic respectability rules the choice of psychobiographical subject almost as if Sigmund Freud had never shown us what deep commonalities lie beneath the veneers of respectability and vulgarity alike.

Elvis has begun to attract a modest amount of scholarly attention: a yearly conference at Memphis State University, a volume of sociological and cultural interpretation from the Mississippi State University Press, a study of mass-media responses to Elvis's death. Greil Marcus's brilliant book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, which in 1975 presented the first serious consideration of Elvis's role in American culture, will soon be published in a revised and expanded edition. But the psychological sources of Elvis's creativity, of his complex personality, of his powerful appeal to masses of fans, remain largely unexplored.

Now comes a big book by a former professor of popular culture, an expert on Thomas De Quincey and Lenny Bruce. Albert Goldman's publishers tell us he has written the "definitive biography" of Elvis, 600 pages of "stunning revelations" about Elvis's psyche and sexual behavior. Perhaps the carefully detailed, psychologically astute biography warranted by a figure of Elvis's stature has finally arrived?

Far from it. Goldman holds firm to elitist academic attitudes, but charges ahead without the slightest sign of scholarly biographical skills. He despises what he calls Elvis's "white trash" cultural background, his "hillybilly" relatives, and at least two of the three musical traditions at the core of Elvis's original rockabilly style--southern country music and white gospel. Goldman assembles a biography from the meanest incidents and most shameful details he can find. He believes his informants most eagerly when they tell him the nastiest things they can remember--or imagine. Even in treating apparently innocent incidents, as when Elvis tells his grandmother goodbye before a concert trip, Goldman lunges for the ugliest interpretation of motives, the vilest depiction of character and appearance. (Elvis's grandmother is here described as "the senile bride of the Murnau Nosferatu.") Goldman often fails to identify the sources of his sensational charges--perhaps with good reason, since several of the sources he does identify appear profoundly biased. An account of Elvis's sex life with his wife Priscilla, for instance, is based largely on the second-hand testimony of Mike Stone, with whom Priscilla cuckolded Elvis before their divorce. Lacking both in detailed citations of sources and in clear criteria for judging the validity of biographical evidence, Goldman's narrative becomes impossible to trust on virtually any point of fact.

For a writer so fascinated with his subject's sexual life, Goldman appears to know remarkably little about sexual anatomy and physiology. He says Elvis was "a pervert, a voyeur," who often refrained from intercourse with the women who came to his bedroom. Why? Well, besides being ashamed of his uncircumcised penis, Elvis "complained also that when he engaged in intercourse, the foreskin, pulled back and forth in the grip of the vulva, would fray and tear, sometimes emerging bloody." That passage says little about Elvis, who was anatomically unlikely to have had such problems with his foreskin or with "the grip of the vulva." But it says much about Goldman's sexual attitudes and knowledge. Goldman goes on to claim that Elvis was able "to go through so many women without ever once contracting venereal disease," because even when he did "have intercourse with an unfamiliar woman, he would never allow himself to ejaculate inside her." Goldman offers no verifiable evidence to support the latter part of this claim; one hopes no naïve reader will act upon the basis of the former.

For a writer who sprinkles his narrative liberally with psychopathological diagnoses, Goldman appears to know astonishingly little about personality or pathology. His central psychological proposition is that "from adolescence onward, Elvis exhibited with increasing clarity all the signs of a split personality. His behavior patterned itself into two sharply opposed selves, which embodied two radically different fantasy systems, one inspired by an extravagant notion of goodness, the other by a no less exaggerated idea of evil." Goldman intermittently summons up images of a "Bad Elvis" or a "Good Elvis," even a "Jekyll" or a "Hyde," to explain puzzling aspects of Elvis's behavior.

This is not just bad psychology; it's bad pseudo-psychology. Perhaps we should not expect Goldman to be on top of current devel0pments in object relations theory or self psychology. But as a professional biographer he should by now have familiarized himself with the rudiments of twentieth-century psychodynamic theories and major alternative approaches to personality. Simplistic Jekyll-Hyde dichotomies derive from mass-entertainment fantasies, not from attentive observations of real people. Indeed, the "facts" upon which Goldman bases his account of Elvis's split personality development seem to have been drawn largely from the fictionalized ABC-TV biography, Elvis! In that film, Elvis is depicted as often visiting the grave of his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon, with whom he carries on illusory conversations. Goldman repeats these stories about Elvis and Jesse without citing a source. He claims that Elvis's awareness of this "spirit brother" provided the foundation for the supposed personality split. But several people who were particularly close to Elvis say he never made any significant reference to Jesse and probably didn't know where he was buried. George Klein, one of Elvis's oldest friends, says he told the producers while the film was being made, " 'I was with Elvis for 28 years and I mean once or twice in 28 years I heard him mention Jesse Garon.' And they said, 'Well, we had to have something to sort of tie it together.' "

As the book progresses, Elvis is described not only as a "split personality," but as an "extreme narcissist" and a "delusional paranoid" with "one basic disease: total incapacity to deal with reality." He is said to display "schizzy behavior," "bizarrely infantile behavior," "crazy compulsive behavior that characterized everything Elvis Presley did." At various points he is reported to suffer from a "crisis of self-loathing," "deeply ingrained self-doubt and self-derision" with a "resolutely self-hating and self-castigating core," a "deterioration into homicidal madness," a "profound capacity for self-delusion and self-escape," a "deep, self-destructive gloom," and a "decline into infantilism and drug invalidism," resulting in his becoming a "hapless wretch." One is left wondering, as Freud and Albert Schweitzer wondered about the old-fashioned pathographies they criticized as early as 1910, how such a totally warped personality could at the same time be so creative and charismatic.

Goldman does certain things well. His few detailed accounts of specific musical performances are ingenious and entertaining. (However, his assumption that Elvis initially chose to record songs by inferior black performers, so as to inject his own performances with an "enabling charge of contempt," is wrong-headed musically, biographically, and psychologically.) Goldman has a keen eye for opulent stage productions such as Elvis's Las Vegas shows, and his own characteristically overblown writing style matches them well. Finally, he (or his assistants) interviewed a lot of people for this book. Some of the most important people in Elvis's life were unavailable, or refused further cooperation after they made a reading of Goldman's intentions. Other interviewees gave Goldman what they thought he wanted, or what would make them look good. But several--including Natalie Wood, Nancy Sinatra, and a nun named Sister Loyola--offered what appear to be straightforward accounts of their interactions with Elvis and his family, and Goldman presents these accounts without embroidery. They come as a relief, as glimpses of real human beings and perhaps of a real Elvis, amid Goldman's elaborate constructions of tinsel and mud.

After I chaired a symposium on Elvis Presley at the 1981 convention of the American Psychological Association, a distinguished personality psychologist collared me in the hotel lobby to indulge in some friendly jeering. "So now you've decided that instead of studying the psychology of great men," he said, "you're going to study the psychology of common men!" Well, sure, Elvis was common. But when common men or women raise themselves to the level of genius, they are surely worth study, whether they become geniuses of mass culture or of high refinement. In looking at Elvis, we need to consider not only his obvious commonness, but the mystery of his genius. Albert Goldman has strained mightily to show just how common Elvis really was. The origins and functions of Elvis's genius have escaped him.



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