The Personality Brokers Book Review

I struggled with The Personality Brokers:The Strange History of Myers-Briggs And The Birth of Personality Testing written by Merve Emre. Biographies were my bread and butter as a grade-school reader. I have read several this year, although some were a bit fictionalized. The Personality Brokers is my least favorite. But I did not expect it to be.

Subject Matter

Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs-Myers are the subjects of The Personality Brokers. After suffering multiple miscarriages, the elder Briggs compensated by focusing on her only surviving child, Isabel. Emre provides great detail in the early successes of Katherine Briggs both as a mother and as a published writer.

The dual biography is also adept at giving the reader a glimpse of how the Myers-Briggs personality test sprang to life. Katherine Briggs is portrayed as a determined woman with eccentricities. The odd behavior is reflected in her studies of children other than Isabel as well as her infatuation with Jung’s philosophy as well as with Carl Jung himself. It was not surprising to discover her diagnosis of dementia.

Isabel Briggs-Myers survives her mother’s child-rearing experiments. But she does not escape the author’s contempt. Merve Emre depicts Isabel as a Jill of all trades and master of none. I think this is a bit harsh. Briggs-Myers developed the personality assessment mid-20th Century. While women were beginning to work outside the home in part due to WWII, it was by no means common. Briggs-Myers worked tirelessly to promote the typing still in use today.

Merve Emre

The author was previously unknown to me so I did a bit of research. She is an alumnus of both Harvard and Yale and currently attached to Oxford University as an Associate Professor. So her credentials are weighty.

Her background is in English. This explains why I can find no fault in the writing itself. My criticism stems from my belief that biographies are historical in nature. As such, I am uncomfortable with an author freely interjecting personal bias. Throughout The Personality Brokers, Emre shows disdain.  For example, after quoting Briggs-Myers from a letter comparing a need for personality evaluations and careers to the fit of shoes, Emre writes:

Here was a fairy tale with a perfectly modern twist—the glass slipper screened, scrutinize, and labeled before it ever touched Cinderella’s foot, the employer restless to find the right match; the whole thing an example of the same romantic capitalist pursuit that Adorno had denounced. (p.135)

A further glimpse into the motivations of the author is found in the final chapter. During a course to become certified in “type” in hopes of gaining access to personal papers of the mother-daughter duo she writes:

Other times I played an extreme version of my ENTJ self: Brash, snobby, impatient, cocksure, a real bitch. I wanted to see who I could irritate and, more telling, how the conflicts that might arise between me and my fellow types would be resolved. (p. 265)

The Personality Brokers

I plan to look for other books involving the subject matter of The Personality Brokers. Merve Emre did pique my interest in both the Myers-Briggs exam as well as the women behind the letters. I would like to discover more about the field as well as the individuals.

My experiences with the different types is limited. While I concede that Emre has legitimate criticisms of Myers-Briggs, I disagree with her tactics and conclusions. Literary criticism, or criticism of any type, when tied to an agenda, loses its’ bite.

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