The Life and Ideas of James Hillman Vol. I: The Making of a Psychologist
by Dick Russell
Eminent American psychologist James Hillman is known most widely through his many books. The Oprah Imprimatur helped The Soul’s Code become a best seller in 1996, and his next book (The Force of Character) also spent some time on the lists. Hillman had devotees long before that, however, thanks to Re-visioning Psychology (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), The Myth of Analysis and more than a dozen other books.
But except for a few remarks and references (notably in his last book, A Terrible Love of War in 2004, which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle) he didn’t write directly about his life, and neither did anyone else. I exchanged emails with Michael Ventura, his coauthor on We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, who thought Hillman wasn’t interested in his own biography being written.
Since Hillman centered The Soul’s Code on other people’s biographies, this seemed at least ironic. But he asserted that a person’s biography (especially childhood) was overemphasized, and psychological biographies were of little use. Still, the barest outlines of his life were intriguing: for example, he was Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich during Jung’s lifetime, and an American in a bastion of European intellectuals.
In his last years (he died in 2011) it turns out Hillman was cooperating with a biographer, and a highly unlikely one. When you think about who would write the life of the founder of archetypal psychology, the most subtle, sophisticated and successful post-Jungian approach, you don’t necessarily think immediately of a sports writer who coauthored books with wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, and wrote about JFK assassination conspiracy theories.
So this long volume turns out to be surprising on several scores. It is remarkably well written in every respect. The prose is graceful, the narrative and description are well-proportioned and involving, and Russell solicited and presents interesting commentaries from Jungian analysts at key moments. Russell also excerpts relevant passages from Hillman’s writings, and furnishes scholarly footnotes. This appears to be a careful and well crafted biography, done with creativity and taste.
The other surprise is what a remarkable life James Hillman lived. It began in America’s first entertainment mecca of Atlantic City (Russell’s description of the city in the early 20th century is fascinating.) Hillman's parents owned and ran prominent and fashionable hotels, where notables in many walks of life stayed (including Eleanor Roosevelt.) Young Jim met and listened to the talk of visiting movie stars, politicians and intellectuals. He rode in a car beside Amelia Earhart.
Hillman’s family also had roots in Jewish religious life; his maternal grandfather was a prominent American rabbi. With World War II underway, Hillman got an early admission to the Jesuit Catholic Georgetown University, where he became interested in government and politics. He traveled to Central America and hitchhiked across the U.S. before being drafted into the Navy in 1944. Because of weak eyesight he was assigned to the hospital corps, and began learning therapy by treating disabled veterans.
But it wasn’t his first choice of career. He turned to broadcast journalism in Europe and then to a literary career as a novelist. He eventually attended Trinity College in Dublin, in the environs James Joyce immortalized, and among his closest friends were the future novelist J.P Donleavy and poet Patrick Kavanagh.
About halfway through this volume Hillman makes his circuitous way to Zurich, first as student and then an analyst and the founder as well as first Director of Studies. He’s made a very fortunate marriage to a Swedish woman who was beautiful, intelligent and rich.
Hillman’s few but important meetings with Jung in the last year of his life are documented. So are the hothouse politics of the Jungian community, which eventually fan the flames of a scandal when Hillman engages in sexual relations with a patient. His chief antagonist is his own analyst and mentor, who himself had seduced a patient—Hillman’s own wife.
This episode is handled without sensationalism or moralizing either way, along with Hillman’s own thoughts about it later. The book ends with Hillman about to return to America in the late 60s, deposed from his position in Zurich and ready to confront changing times in his native country.
Along the way, Hillman’s writings are ably described, enriched by contexts of the time. Though Hillman was an inspiring and beloved figure to his students, patients, and colleagues, there are probably many more who know him chiefly and perhaps only through his books. He applied his creativity and literary craftsmanship to these writings in a genre that he more or less invented. He often noted the roots and history of words, and language and story were key elements in his psychological approach. Among the few personal comments in his books were assertions that he felt himself to be above all a writer. So it is that Hillman continues to have new readers, while we profit from re-reading his work.
This volume enriches that reading experience, and like the best biographies it tells us a lot about those years (the 1920s into the 1960s) in the world.
The book is clearly printed on not exceptionally good paper, and the sections of photographs are well done.
For some reason the publication of this biography was delayed for something like a year, which for me meant the difference between reviewing it for a print periodical or only here online. That’s too bad, because it doesn’t seem to have received many reviews, and it deserves them.
Of course, people with prior experience and interest in James Hillman constitute the readership that was waiting for a biography. They shouldn't be disappointed. But others could find a way into Hillman’s work through this book.
Hillman was surprisingly involved in the wider world in a fascinating time, the 1920s through the 1960s of this volume. From a hotel in Atlantic City to James Joyce’s Dublin to Jung’s Zurich! He introduced the jitterbug to Ireland! It’s a fascinating tale, fostering insights into a creative new psychological method with roots deep and true. This book is not sensationalistic and though it’s not necessarily for everybody, it could well be a rich reading experience for more than the already initiated.