Mack Retraces 12 Years of Research for T.E. Lawrence Biography
Harvard University Gazette
April 22, 1977, Vol. LXXII, No. 28
“This is the Harvard News Office calling. May we send a photographer and writer to you in about half an hour?”
“Sure, but why?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Don’t I know what?”
“You’ve just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.”
Dr. John E. Mack, Professor and head of the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry at the Cambridge Hospital, and Director of Education at the Cambridge-Somerville Mental Health Center, had worked for 12 years on his biography, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence. His research had led him-on a camel-to the fabled Gulf of Aqaba; aboard the British rails to Oxford and its Bodleian Library; and through the winding, cobbled lanes of Delvin, County Westmeath in Ireland and to Tremadoc in Wales, where Lawrence of Arabia was born.
For Dr. Mack, a practicing psychoanalyst, this was his first biography, although lie is the author of a classic psychiatric text, Nightmares and Human Conflict, and is the editor of Borderline States in Psychiatry. The 47-year-old New York City-born physician, lives in Chestnut Hill with his wife, Sally, a psychiatric social worker, and their three sons, Danny, Kenny, and Tony.
Amid the happy hubbub of telephones ringing (“The New York Times is on hold,” “Bob Coles just called to say, ‘TRIPLE CONGRATULATIONS'” “The Associated Press wants to know when you were born.. .”) , Dr. Mack was interviewed by the Gazette.
Q. As a psychoanalyst, what was Lawrence’s special appeal to you? How were you “hooked?”
A. I became hooked by Lawrence because he was extraordinary for a public figure, a military commander, in the degree to. which he was involved with exploring his own inner life. Lawrence, himself asked what was propelling him, what was the meaning of what he was doing, what was his own purpose in getting involved with the Arab revolt, how did it relate to his own personal de velopment. He was interested in the rela-tionship of his adult actions to his youth-ful readings of chivalric romances: how they related to his concerns with the Crusade, his ideas of heroism, redemp-tion, renunciation, self-sacrifice. He ex-plored all of this in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and in his correspondence. He also had a great gift for psychological insight.
Q. How did you react to his extraordinary self-exploration?
A. I felt that here was something that could overcome the familiar accusation that the writer is imposing psychological interpretations on a person who is dead and about whom there is no data. I felt this accusation would no longer be valid if the information on Lawrence were used critically but thoroughly. Also, Lawrence was sufficiently our contemporary that I was able to conduct extensive interviews with people who had known him very well.
Q. How did you get in touch with these people, most of whom were in England or the Middle East?
A. Initially, I wrote to Lawrence’s older brother who had been a medical missionary. I approached him as one physician to another, who had felt very much affected by his brother’s life and suffering and struggles, and was interested in talking with him. I also met Lawrence’s younger brother, an archaeologist who was his literary executor, who was extremely helpful to me in gaining access to embargoed papers at the Bodleian Library and worked with me conscientiously over the next decade to enable this book to exist.
Q. Were there any problems with Lawrence’s brother when it came to your writing about some of t he more intimate of his personal problems-for example, his apparent need for being whipped?
A. Yes. There were, some rough moments for him when the flagellation episode—which he had known about—came up. He became troubled when the details of it were put into one long chapter. He was troubled about the possible effects that chapter might have. But he never swayed in his support and I have enormous gratitude to him and to his wife for their steadfastness.
Q. In the hundreds of interviews you conducted for the book—from Lowell Thomas to Basil Liddell Hart to Howeitat tribesmen in Jordan—how do you think your psychoanalytic background affected your handling of the material?
A. I think that understanding of motivation, of the bringing to bear of the conflicts in one’s life and to one’s public actions can be appreciated by such a study. I feel there is a need to know more about the psychological development, strengths, vulnerabilities, of leaders,
Q. Is there a single theme in the book that you feel particularly benefited from your psychoanalytic training?
A. Yes. The whole question of heroism and Lawrence’s need to be heroic. Lawrence’s mother and father never married. He was the second of five illegitimate sons who was raised in a very strict home. His parents were members of an evangelical sect of the English Church and Lawrence was early impressed by this God-fearing, Bible-reading environment.
But he was also aware of a degree of conflict between this very strict obedience to God and the Bible and the fact that his parents were living in sin. Like many children, he fantasized that his father had once been part of a heroic race of aristocratic giants, and he was encouraged in such fantasies by a mother who felt that she, too, had fallen from a state of grace. She sought to redeem, through her chil-dren, her own fall. One son did indeed become a medical missionary, another provided Christian teachings in India, and T.E., though not consciously, seemed to need to redeem his family’s fall from grace.
Lawrence sought, through his public actions, to restore the heroic image that he grew up holding in his mind. I’m not saying that he deliberately set out to do this, but I do believe that this was a force behind his public actions. He studied Arabic, became an expert in military history , and he adapted this information to leading a glorious campaign.
Q. So you think that your psychiatric training predisposed you to make these connections between Lawrence’s childhood fantasies and his adult public life?
A. I think psychiatric training and experience in working with psychological histories is helpful in terms of the necessity for interweaving the themes that occur in Lawrence’s life: the childhood fantasies about the heroic past from which he is descended, the desire to redeem a fallen family state, the desire to liberate a people and thereby recapture the chivalric ideals, in which he had become steeped from adolescence. Psychiatric training does not help you in learning history—that you have to do on your own—but it does help you in interviewing.
Q. How does being a psychiatrist make the kind of interviewing you were able to do different from the kind of interviewing that, say, a journalist might do?
A. That’s a very difficult. question. By being a psychiatrist I may have been particularly sensitive to his personal relationships. You can tune in to the quality of the attachment between a particular person and Lawrence, in terms of what it was that was meaningful to the person about his or her relationship with Lawrence. It was often then possible to enlist his former friends as collaborators in the project.
Q. Did you encounter any suspicion toward you because of your being a psychiatrist?
A. Yes, but the funny part of it is that despite people’s suspicion, they nevertheless would end up pouring out a great deal of information saying, “Well, since you’re a psychiatrist, you’d certainly be interested in this. . . .”
Q. What are some biographies that you’ve liked?
A. Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoi Justin Kaplan’s biography of Mark Twain, Alexander and Juliet George on Woodrow Wilson. Erik Erikson’s work is, of course, crucial to this whole field, and I owe him a great debt.