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Elvis: Nothin' but a Twinless Twin

Book Review

The Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography of Elvis Aaron Presley

By Peter O. Whitmer

New York: Hyperion, 1996. 480 pp.

ISBN 0-7868-6102-9. $22.95 hardcover, $12.95 paperback.

Review by Alan C. Elms

Almost since his first moments of fame in 1956, Elvis Presley has been the object of psychological speculation. Journalists repeatedly asked psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose Elvis or his fans or both. Such questions became even more insistent after Presley's early death in 1977. Remarkably, however, little serious writing about the psychology of this major musical and cultural figure has been published until recently. The more factually reliable biographies (e.g., by Jerry Hopkins, Peter Guralnick) have said little about his psychological development; the biographies that have attempted more psychological analysis (e.g., by Albert Goldman, Elaine Dundy) are weak in theory as well as fact. Now we have the first book-length "psychological biography" of Elvis, by clinical psychologist Peter Whitmer.

A full-scale psychobiography of Elvis, given his complex developmental history and the shortage of reliable information about it, is an ambitious undertaking. Whitmer is even more ambitious: while analyzing Elvis, he simultaneously proposes a sweeping psychology of the "twinless twin." Twinless twins are individuals who were born with a twin but whose twin died or was otherwise separated from them in early childhood. Whitmer sees every twinless twin as displaying the same distinctive psychological pattern:

"The twinless twin wants to prove his uniqueness, to stand as an individual. Yet he is also powerfully pulled toward being reunited with the dead twin. . . . To win the mother's love, he must grieve for the dead twin. Yet at the same time, to establish self-love and his own security, he must compete with the very person he is compelled to mourn." (p. 66)
Elvis Presley was of course a twinless twin; his brother Jesse was stillborn. Whitmer alludes to unpublished research on other twinless twins, but in this book Elvis is the primary (and nearly the only) example. Using a psychobiography to advance a particular theoretical position or to exemplify new ideas about a psychological syndrome is not unprecedented; Freud did it in his discussion of Leonardo's homosexuality, as did Erikson in describing Martin Luther's identity crisis. Freud encountered serious problems in seeking to obtain accurate information about Leonardo's early development; much of Erikson's analysis rests on unreliable second-hand accounts of what Luther told his followers about himself. Whitmer's book suffers from similar difficulties.

Elvis was a twinless twin, but how did he feel about that status? We don't really know, since he didn't talk about it in public, didn't write about it, and seldom referred to it even in private. According to various members of his inner circle, stories of Elvis talking or listening to his dead twin were mostly invented by scriptwriters for the first television drama about Elvis, several years after his death. Whitmer's main informant about Elvis's supposed obsession with his twin was Larry Geller, Elvis's sometime hairdresser and "spiritual adviser." Geller has written or co-authored at least four books on Elvis, and over the past 20 years he has put a lot of words in the dead Elvis's mouth. Perhaps Elvis really did become fascinated with his twin as he and Geller talked about mystic aspects of twinship. But Geller's largely unverifiable reports constitute a slender foundation for the weighty structure Whitmer has erected upon them.

That structure consists of a set of interrelated explanations of all major aspects of Elvis's private psychology and public behavior, in terms of the hypothesized core psychology of the twinless twin. In synthesizing black and white musical styles, for example, Elvis had "the fuel to make one form of music from two seemingly disparate parts that no one but a twinless twin could provide. Much of the origins of Elvis's creative genius resided in Jesse [the stillborn twin]; his memories, his haunting presence, his dictation to Elvis of a musical destiny" (p. 65). Elvis's lifelong psychological enmeshment with his mother derived from his "intrauterine bonding" with his twin: "Elvis simply and naturally transferred all his tactile and sensory needs from Jesse and invested them in his mother" (p. 79). Elvis's early-career preference for pink-and-black costumes and cars came from the same source: "He had taken into his public persona an aspect of both himself and of Jesse. The color pink, soft as an infant, and black, harsh as death, seems a perfect autobiographical statement for him to make: it did not say 'look at me' as much as it said 'look at us'" (p. 123). And so on throughout the book.

One of the book's merits is that Whitmer interviewed a number of the key players in Elvis's life, as well as quite a few members of the supporting cast, rather than depending largely on previously published accounts. Whitmer is aware that for a biographical subject such as Elvis--perhaps especially for Elvis, given his status as worldwide cultural icon--not all informants can be trusted equally. Indeed, on the book's first page Whitmer refers to "literally dozens of a unique form of modern-day Elvis impersonators: those who purport to have knowledge, yet whose veracity is, at best, dubious" (p. ix). But though Whitmer says he spent "more than three years of separating the chaff from the seed of hundreds of interviews" (pp. ix-x), he gives no indication of how he decided which was chaff and which was seed. Perhaps his clinical intuition was sufficient for him, but it's not enough for the reader--particularly when several of the most-cited interviewees appear, from other sources, to have strong reasons to exaggerate and to reshape their accounts of their interactions with Elvis.

When Whitmer gets away from a direct focus on Elvis and the twinless twin syndrome, and instead characterizes the people around Elvis, he stands on steadier ground. His discussion of Elvis's parents and their respective contributions to a dysfunctional family system is generally astute, though he may be over-pathographizing them. His depictions of Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and of Elvis's future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, are insightful as well. Whitmer's interviews with various media professionals who worked with Elvis, such as Steve Allen (host of an early TV appearance by Elvis) and Steve Binder (producer of Elvis's 1968 television "comeback special"), are straightforward and informative. These sections suggest that without the insistent effort to explain all of Elvis in terms of the twinless twin, this book could have been biographically much more solid, and psychologically much more persuasive.



Reprinted by permission from Contemporary Psychology, 2000.

Copyright © 2000 American Psychological Association.


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