16 February 1998

People read biographies and autobiographies to help them come to terms with life issues beyond their control such as birth, sexuality and death, according to a University of Queensland academic.

In his new book The Meaning of Lives: Biography, Autobiography and the Spiritual Quest (London and Washington: Cassell PLC 1997), Associate Professor Richard Hutch from the University's Studies in Religion Department examines the popularity of books about other's lives.

'People read these books to learn about how other people have dealt with forces and events beyond their control, especially mortality. People are more fearful of death today than ever before. They want role-models to follow, which is like seeking out a ?patron saint' or ?spiritual guide',' Dr Hutch said.

In the book, he examines several biographies and autobiographies in close detail including the late anthropologist Robert Murphy's autobiography The Body Silent and Brian Keenan's autobiography An Evil Cradling (1993).

In The Body Silent, Murphy describes his coming to terms with his approaching death after diagnosis with a spinal tumour while in An Evil Cradling, Keenan describes his four-year solitary confinement and torture in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Many other lives are also presented in Dr Hutch's book.

'These books show us that we delude ourselves when we think we control our destinies. What we think in our minds is so different to what our body serves us. The lesson is to take life as it is and live with daily suffering as it occurs. It is more a sensuous rather than mental process. I call it a ?spiritual quest',' Dr Hutch said.

'In An Evil Cradling, Keenan learns to cope with his daily torture by focusing on the pain and pleasure he experiences through his senses. This is not only a mental event, but also an embodied one. He comes to self-understanding through his suffering. Christian and Buddhist ways of dealing with life are suggested.

'The spiritual quest involves acceding to the ageing, dying body as a force to be reckoned with, rather than clinging to the illusion that we are in control of life.'

For more information, contact Dr Hutch (telephone 07 3365 3010).