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The story of biographers

The CIA director's affair shows that there's no clear code of conduct for writers

india Updated: Nov 12, 2012 22:48 IST
Emma G Keller

The story of biographer Paula Broadwell, whose affair with General David Petraeus resulted in his resignation from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recently, has got everyone talking about the official code of conduct at Langley. But what about the other side? Is there a code of conduct for biographers? If there is, it’s a lot less clear. Academics refer to biographies as ‘The Study of Another Self’, which might explain how the process of writing one resembles an affair.

First, there is the intense and at times all-consuming focus on one other person. Then there is stuff you hope the larger world won’t find out about. There’s the courtship, when you write emails and place phone calls you hope the public will never see or hear as you woo your subject. There’s flattery, seduction, and attempts to establish intimacy that you realise are a means to an end, but that if seen by others would be embarrassing and humiliating — to you. An authorised biography, where the subject cooperates with the writer, allows an intimate relationship between the two to develop.

Many years ago, I wrote a biography of Winnie Mandela. It was completely unauthorised, to the point where I was given to know by Mrs Mandela’s team that proceeding with it was a dangerous enterprise. But she never interfered with the process, never told anyone not to talk to me, and when asked, talked about it with a kind of disparaging acceptance that I found a relief.

Still, as I pored through her documents, dug through boxes of belongings and read letters she had long abandoned, I felt a sense of sympathy for her. I was violating her privacy. I also learned that the more your subject is humanised by whatever contact you establish, the more compassion you feel.

Harry Hurt III took on another big-name target when he wrote a biography of Donald Trump, Lost Tycoon: Many Lives of Donald J Trump at a low point in Trump’s professional career. Hurt believes that the ideal relationship in biography is when you could have access to your subject but not be beholden.

Unauthorised celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley put that well when she said there’s a point “where the biographer either sells his soul for the cozy dinners or bails for the truth.”

Authorised biographies often involve an element of betrayal — having wooed and flattered and listened to your subject with sympathetic attention, if you’re good at your job, you’ll regain your independence and end up writing at least something your subject won’t like.

Things are easier when the subject is dead. In that case, Walter Isaacson had it easiest of all. He wrote an authorised biography of Steve Jobs with extraordinary access while Jobs was alive. But Jobs never read the book, which was published after he died.

In an interview after the book was published, Isaacson explained the tension involved in writing. “When writing about a living subject who is willing to give unlimited interviews, you end up knowing countless times more than you do about a historical figure. And what you know can just as well be a source of sympathy as well as a provocation to unmasking. Perhaps that [sympathy] was a flaw caused by getting to know him,” he said.

Paula Broadwell didn’t betray her subject while writing the book or promoting it, possibly because of the kind of relationship the two had developed. Reviews of her book call it ‘hagiographic’ and full of ‘hero worship’. The betrayal, however it came, came later.

In the end, biographers are much like spies. They seduce their subjects into telling their secrets, which they then use for their own purposes. When they are done, they cast their subject aside, ready to move onto the next. In that sense, the relationship between the director of the CIA and his biographer was beautifully symmetrical. The Guardian