How Do We Know Who We Are?

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

It is not by happenstance that Arnold M. Ludwig begins his inquiry into selfhood with a twenty-page investigation into the life and poses of actress Marilyn Monroe and concludes with a conversation with the biographer of Harry F. Truman, for whom the former president “never put on an act.” “Because of this fit (of parents and community), HST didn’t have to hide behind a public facade or invent himself anew,” concludes Ludwig. He finds Monroe possesses all nine criteria for a borderline personality disorder but also transcends the clinical diagnoses her biographers, except for Gloria Steinem, have exploited.

Between these polar opposites in dissembling, the author draws on his own experience and that of twenty-one professional biographers to trash what he sees as the assumed partitions between selves that are deemed “true/false,” “authentic/inauthentic,” “fulfilled/unfulfilled.” HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE SELF takes the reader through the labyrinth hall of mirrors we term the self and demonstrates how malleable, elusive, and paradoxical it is.

Written in an inviting style for which Ludwig credits his editor at Oxford University Press, this informal psychiatric compendium only occasionally reads like a textbook or self-help manual. Even a pop-style segment on the disguises of love is redeemed by its conclusion: “Every person we deeply care about increases our commitment to living and makes the prospects of our dying even more difficult to contemplate.”

Ludwig treads lightly on the sometimes fashionable bashing of Sigmund Freud. He claims Freud’s doubts about his own seduction theory, while demoralizing, also led him to understand that the fantasy (of abuse) may be as vital as its actuality and represents psychic truth as well.

For a psychiatrist, Ludwig inexcusably misuses “schizophrenia;” he has little of value to say about neurological illness and nothing about medication. For all of his prodigious reading, not all of which is adequately documented, Ludwig remains firmly anchored in postwar existentialism. He suggests that the major failing of psychotherapy is its inability to enable clients to confront the potential meaninglessness of existence and the finiteness of self.