Understanding Barack Obama

Book Review – The Riddle of Barack Obama: A Psychobiography by Avner Falk 

The psychobiography is a unique and complex literary genre that is open to criticism for various reasons.  Firstly, employing psychoanalytic theory ‘at a distance’ , that is without examining the subject via an established psychotherapeutic relationship, can, critics say, lead to flawed and deeply erroneous conclusions.  Secondly, and more fundamentally systemic, some doubt the value of psychoanalysis in any context.

Such background noise evidently did not deter Dr. Avner Falk, an internationally renowned clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and scholar, from embarking on the ambitious and difficult task of writing a psychobiography of President Barack Obama.

In his book, Falk brings together primary and secondary information from a plethora of sources, including Obama’s own biographical writings and numerous media interviews.  In doing so, he charts Obama’s unique upbringing in the US and Indonesia, and explores in much detail his subject’s fraught relationship with an absent father and a complicated mother.  In doing so, Falk uncovers the unconscious drivers that challenged and shaped Obama’s emerging personality.

Falk follows Obama through college, as a community organiser, lawyer and senator and teases out the psychologically important aspects of his work and career choices.

As a father, Falk understands Obama to be a loving, caring and consistent presence in the lives of his wife and daughters, in stark contrast to the pattern laid down by his own father.

Falk, in this excellent study of a complex man, shows that Obama scores highly on the positive-psychology school’s character strengths and virtues.  He is therefore courageous, interested in learning and is concerned about issues of justice and fairness.  Having overcome a difficult childhood, Falk also scores Obama highly on empathy and paints a picture of a man who is both psychologically resilient and well-balanced.

Falk’s book, which successfully combines scientific enquiry with observation, is incredibly interesting.  However, it does suffer from poor editing and repetition, particularly at the beginning.  That issue aside, Falk has succeeded in presenting a compassionate and compelling insight into the psyche of the 44th President of the United States that deserves to be read widely.

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