Mrs. Eddy through a distorted lens; Mary Baker Eddy: An Interpretive Biography of the Founder of Christian Science, by Julius Silberger Jr., MD. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $12.50.

Historians in general tend to be extremely wary of the application of psychoanalytic concepts to history and biography. Even such respected examples of the genre as Erik Erikson's "Young Man Luther" have been shown to have crucial errors of fact. As Yale Prof. Robin Winks has commented, the use of psychological evidence in biography is legitimate only when the biographer is "firmly grounded in the discipline of history first." But to move in the opposite direction -- from psychoanalytic concepts to the historical evidence -- is, he suggests, "more difficult."

In this highly "interpretive" biography of Mary Baker Eddy, Dr. Julius Silberger, a practicing psychiatrist rather than a historian, has attempted just such a movement. The results confirm both Professor Winks's judgment and the suspicions of other historians such as Prof. Hugh A. Trevor-Roper about the potential abuses of psychobiography.

As this eminent historian once put it, psychohistory is "vitated by defective method. Instead of proceeding from demonstrable steps, from fact to interpretation, from evidence to conclusion, psychohistorians move in the opposite direction. They deduce their facts from their theories; and this means , in effect, that facts are at the mercy of theory, selected and valued according to their consistence with theory, even invented to support theory."

Dr. Silberger's book is relatively free from psychoanalytic jargon, but it falls clearly within the category of psychobiography.For it offers a simplistic theory of Mrs. Eddy's psychological development which purports to explain virtually her entire motivation and career. This theory revolves around the idea that through her response to a midlife crisis, she managed to subordinate a chronic dependence on others sufficiently to galvanize what he describes as her own latent capacities for domination.

There is nothing particularly novel about this assumption. Similar views have been advanced by several critics, perhaps most explicitly in recent years by Sir George Pickering in his 1974 book "Creative Malady." Going back even further, Dr. Silberger is indebted for most of his material to three extremely one-sided early biographies, by Milmine, Dakin, and Bates/Dittemore, the last of which was published nearly half a century ago.

Actually, his book is little more than a rehash of their material in terms of his own psychological theory -- which is largely indebted to their version of Mrs. Eddy's life in the first place. For example, he follows Dakin in accepting without question sensational newspaper stories of the early 1900s, without any examination or even acknowledgment of the evidence (including the testimony of two leading forensic psychiatrists who examined Mrs. Eddy in connection with a court case) that shows them to be completely untrustworthy.

So hasty is the author to support his thesis that even when drawing on his preferred sources, he tends to get them wrong or to miss important concessions made by the same writers. For instance, in making the often-repeated statement that Mrs. Eddy taught her first students from Phineas P. Quimby's "Questions and Answers," he overlooks the grudging admission by Bates/Dittemore that the "Questions and Answers" from which she taught was an entirely different one from Quimby's. This fact has been documented in detail by later writers and is easily verifiable by any serious researcher.

But serious research and critical verification of sources are just what are lacking in Dr. Silberger's book. He would have done well, in particular, to take seriously the point made by the renowned German church historian Karl Holl that the all too seminal Milmine biography of 1909 is clearly "a collection of accusations" in which, "despite the verifications adduced, most of the statements are readily recognizable as gossip or slander."

Dr. Silberger chooses simply to ignore the fresh evidene of such recent work as the full- scale scholarly trilogy on Mrs. Eddy by Robert Peel, which bears time and again on the points he is making. He rationalizes his omission on the ground that Peel approaches Mrs. Eddy's life from the perspective of the history of ideas, whereas he himself is interested in her "character and personal psychology." Quite apart from the factual inaccuracy of this statement, it reveals the central weakness of his own approach. For his book betrays throughout an elementary ignorance of and indifference to the religious ideas and convictions which by any reckoning played a crucial role in Mrs. Eddy's history as the founder of Christian Science.

Even some of her severest critics have not shown such cavalier disregard for the evidence. For example, the noted Oxford historian H. A. L. Fisher, in his 1930 book "Our New Religion," despite his generally reductionist treatment of Mrs. Eddy and Christian Science commented honestly. "Prayer, meditation, eager and puzzled interrogation of the Bible, had claimed from childhood much of her energy. . . . The great ideas of God, of immortality, of the soul, of a life penetrated by Christianity, were never far from her mind."

As John Garraty has observed in his book "The Nature of Biography," "The infinite complexity of the mind of man gives the biographer a tremendous power, but also burdens him with a great responsibility." Whatever the theoretical merits or demerits of psychobiography, the fact remains that the present author has not fulfilled this responsibility. To put it most simply, he has not done his homework. And given the book's obvious dependence on a small number of extremely biased sources, it certainly does not fulfill the publisher's irresponsible claim on the dust jacket that it is an "objective" biography which "stands apart from polemical approaches to Mrs. Eddy's life."

Whatever one's views of her teaching, it cannot be denied that Mary Baker Eddy raised Christian and metaphysical issues of the greatest magnitude and had a major impact on American life. Indeed, among her contributions was the founding of the newspaper in which this review appears. Undoubtedly there is room for various biographical approaches to her. But as with any important religious thinker and leader, her life cannot validly be considered apart from its involvement with the issues she raised and the contribution she has made.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.