Essays History Literature

Interleavings: Serendipity and Auto/Biographical Process


Why write biography: Dr. Siegfried Berthelsdorf provides an answer

I spent a good part of today searching for page numbers for footnotes in an essay I’m finishing up. The writing’s finished but my citations aren’t. No one’s fault but my own. Did I really think I would remember the page number to footnote 19 or to footnote 23 or to footnote 33? Nonetheless, good things came from my search, not the least of which is an answer to the question “Why write biography?”

To find answers to the footnote questions I went through my 2003 correspondence with Siegfried Berthelsdorf, M.D., the first psychoanalyst to set up practice in Portland, Oregon. He had been in seminars with Dr. Edith Buxbaum, the subject of my biography, and had other professional contacts with Seattle analysts so I wrote to him with a series of questions. He was very kind and sent me two lengthy and quite lovely letters.

In the first of his Dec. 13th letter, he wrote a paragraph that I should have long ago taped to the bookshelf next to my desk:

Courtesy of The Oregonian

Dear Doctor Helfgott:

You are to be admired for your willingness to tackle such a demanding job as a biography. It must take an enormous memory to recall, file, and reconstruct notes of what fragments of information come from wherever, where you have placed them in the unpredictable accumulations, half finished bits and conflicting fragments from Lord knows what or how reliable a source. Yet a biography is very much in order of Buxbaum, as how else can the many who follow in her work be aware of who has gone ahead in the past, who made what contributions that we use without recognition of the creativeness of the predecessor. Sic transit gloria … [Thus passes the glory of the world] …

Needless to say, my memory does not hold all that I’d like it to and reconstructing half-finished bits and conflicting fragments is, as today’s work reflects, a tiresome job; but in the end it’s worth it, especially for the connections I make along the way.

Dr. Berthelsdorf died on June 16, 2011 at the age of 99. Here is his obituary.

If you knew Edith Buxbaum, or any of her psychoanalytic and social worker contemporaries, and would like to share your experiences of them for my research into Seattle’s early psychoanalytic history, please email me: eahelfgott2 (at) I am interested in correspondences, recollections, photographs, tape recordings, ephemera in general.