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I dentity

Creating Self in Narrative

Edited by
Dan P. McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, and Amia Lieblich

American Psychological Association • Washington, DC

Copyright © 2006 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Identity and story: creating self in narrative / Dan P. McAdams,
Ruthellen Josselson, and Amia Lieblich, editors.—1st ed.
p. cm. — (The narrative study of lives)
Includes indexes.
ISBN 1-59147-356-X (alk. paper)
1. Self. 2. Identity (Psychology) 3. Narration (Rhetoric) 4. Psychology—
Biographical methods. 1. McAdams, Dan P. II. Josselson, Ruthellen. III. Lieblich,
Amia, 1939- IV. Series.

BF697.13492 2006
155.2'5— dc22 2005032036

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A CIP record is available from the British Library.

Printed in the United States of America

First Edition

Contributors vii
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 3
Dan P. Me Adams, Ruthellen Josselson, and Amia Lieblich

I. Unity Versus Multiplicity 13

Chapter 1. Multiplicity and Conflict in the Dialogical Self:
A Life-Narrative Approach 15
Peter T. F. Raggatt

Chapter 2. Between "Being" and "Doing": Conflict and

Coherence in the Identity Formation
oi Gay and Lesbian Orthodox Jews 37
Tova Hartman Halbertal with hit Koren
Chapter 3. The Raw and the Bland: A Structural Model of
Narrative Identity 63
Gary S. Gregg
Chapter 4- Creative Work, Love, and the Dialectic in
Selected Life Stories of Academics 89
Dan P. Me Adams and Regina L. Logan

II. Self Versus Society 109

Chapter 5. Identity Light: Entertainment Stories as a
Vehicle for Self-Development Ill
Kate C. McLean and Avril Thorne
Chapter 6. Silk From Sows' Ears: Collaborative Construction
of Everyday Selves in Everyday Stories 129
Monisha Pasupathi

Chapter 7. Making a Gay Identity: Life Story and the

Construction of a Coherent Self 151
Bertram ]. Cohler and Phillip L. Hammock

III. Stability Versus Growth 173

Chapter 8. Constructing the "Springboard Effect":
Causal Connections, Self-Making, and Growth
Within the Life Story 175
Jennifer L. Pals

Chapter 9. The Identities of Malcolm X 201

John Barresi
Chapter 10. A Narrative Exploration of Personal Ideology
and Identity 223
Ed de St. Aubin, Mary Wandrei, Kim Skerven, and
Catherine M. Coppolillo

Chapter 11. "Where Is the Story Going?" Narrative Forms

and Identity Construction in the Life Stories
of Israeli Men and Women 249
Rivka Tuval'Mashiach

Author Index 269

Subject Index 275
About the Editors 283


John Barresi, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Bertram J. Cohler, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Catherine M. Coppolillo, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
Ed de St. Aubin, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
Gary S. Gregg, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, MI
Tova Hartman Halbertal, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Phillip L. Hammack, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Ruthellen Josselson, The Fielding Institute, Santa Barbara, CA
Irit Koren, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Amia Lieblich, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Regina L. Logan, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Dan P. McAdams, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Kate C. McLean, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Jennifer L. Pals, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Monisha Pasupathi, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Peter T. F. Raggatt, James Cook University, Townsville, Queenslanc,
Kim Skerven, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
Avril Thorne, University of California, Santa Cruz
Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, Bar-Han University, Ramat Gan, Israel
Mary Wandrei, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI


We thank the many people who reviewed manuscripts and provided

substantive input for this volume. In particular, we thank Jonathan Adler,
Adital Ben Ari, Michael Bamberg, Jack Bauer, Donald R. Brown, Susan
Chase, Elizabeth Cole, Robyn Fivush, Ken Gergen, Mary Gergen, Laura
King, Shadd Maruna, John McLeod, Dan Ogilvie, Suzanne Ouellette, Abi-
gail Stewart, David Winter, Stanton Wortham, and Tamar Zilber for their
hard work in reviewing manuscripts. We also thank two anonymous review-
ers obtained by the American Psychological Association, who both provided
very valuable input, and Ed Meidenbauer for his insights and encouragement.
Finally, we thank the Foley Family Foundation for their support of our ~>ook
series on the Narrative Study of Lives and for establishing the Foley Center
for the Study of LLVCS at Northwestern University.


David Bakan, Psychology, York University

Mary Catherine Bateson, Anthropology, George Mason University
David Bearison, Psychology, City University of New York
Ruth Behar, Anthropology, University of Michigan
Yoram Bilu, Psychology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of
Donald R. Brown, Psychology, University of Michigan
Susan Chase, Sociology, University of Tulsa
Gelya Frank, Anthropology, University of Southern California
Mary Gergen, Psychology, Pennsylvania State University
Harold D. Grotevant, Family and Social Science, University of Minnesota
Ravenna Helson, Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
Gil Herdt, Anthropology, San Francisco State University
Hubert Hermans, Psychology, University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands
James E. Marcia, Psychology, Simon Fraser University
Jean Baker Miller, Psychoanalysis, Stone Center, Wellesky College
Elliot Mishler, Psychiatry, Cambridge Hospital
Richard L. Ochberg, Boston, MA
June H. Price, Nursing, Farleigh Dickinson University
Gabriele Rosenthal, Sociology, Gesamthochschule Kassel, Germany
George C. Rosenwald, Psychology, University of Michigan
William McKinley Runyan, School of Social Service, University of Califor-
nia, Berkeley
Abigail J. Stewart, Psychology and Women's Studies, University of Michigan
George E. Vaillant, Psychiatry, Dartmouth Medical Center
Guy Widdershoven, Philosophy, University of Limburg, the Netherlands


We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell. Had William
James (1892/1963) been a narrative psychologist when he wrote his much-
quoted chapter on the self more than 100 years ago, he might have conceptu-
alized his famous distinction between the "I" and the "me" as that between
the self-as-teller and the self-as-the-tale told. James imagined the I as a
stream ol consciousness, but what is consciousness if not an inner narration
of experience? The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote, "Consciousness
begins when brains acquire the power, the simple power I must add, of
telling a story" (1999, p. 30). The 1 emerges, many developmental psycnolo-
gists suggest, in the second year of life as a narrating autobiographical :;elf—
a nascent sense that one is a narrator of one's own experience (Howe 6k
Courage, 1997; Tomasello, 2000). The I tells a story of the self, and that
story becomes part of the Me.
The stories we tell about our personal experiences grow in complexity
and detail as we move through childhood and into the adolescent: and
young-adult years (Fivush & Haden, 2003). It is not until adolescence, some
researchers and theorists have argued, that we are able and motivated to
conceive of our lives as full-fledged, integrative narratives of the self (Haber-
mas & Bluck, 2000; McAdams, 1985). The timing corresponds neatly with
the emergence of what Erik Erikson (1963) described as the period of identity
development in the human life course. According to Erikson, adolescents
and young adults in modern societies are challenged to formulate meaningful
answers to the twin identity questions: Who am I? How do I fit into the
adult world? Beginning in adolescence, we address these identity questions
in many different ways: through exploration and commitment, for example,
in behavior, attitudes, feelings, and goals (Marcia, 1980). A key part of the
process is the construction of a self-defining life story (Cohler, 1982; Giddens,
1991; Maclntyre, 1984; McAdams, 1985; Polkinghorne, 1988; Singer, 2004;
Singer & Salovey, 1993). We use the term narrative identity to refer to the
stories people construct and tell about themselves to define who they are
for themselves and for others. Beginning in adolescence and young adult-
hood, our narrative identities are the stories we live by.
Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative is the fourth book in
our edited series, The Narrative Study of Lives, published by the American
Psychological Association. The series showcases the best and most innova-
tive research and scholarship using narrative methods and theories in the
empirical study of human lives. For the purposes of the book series, we
conceive of "narrative" in a broad sense, encompassing approaches and
traditions that focus on personal experience as expressed or communicated
in language. Included in our purview, then, are case studies, life histories,
autobiography, psychobiography, ethnography, discourse analysis, and other
related approaches and traditions that tend to emphasize qualitative over
quantitative analysis, hermeneutics over positivistic frames, idiographic over
nomothetic points of view, and inductive over hypothetico-deductive strate-
gies of inquiry. Narrative inquiry rests on the assumption of the storied
nature of human experience (Sarbin, 1986), a standpoint that has attracted
burgeoning interest over the past 15 years. The first three volumes in the
series focused, respectively, on narrative studies of life transitions (McAdams,
Josselson, & Lieblich, 2001); the teaching and learning of narrative research
(Josselson, Lieblich, & McAdams, 2003); and the relationship between
narrative and psychotherapy (Lieblich, McAdams, & Josselson, 2004).
For this fourth volume, we have gathered together an interdisciplinary
and international group of creative researchers and theorists whose work
addresses some of the most important and difficult issues in the study of
narrative identity. We have organized the 11 chapters in this volume in
terms of three implicit dilemmas or debates that run through much of the
literature on narrative identity. The first dilemma concerns the extent to
which narrative identities espouse unity or multiplicity in the self. The second
involves the relative contribution to narrative identity of individual self
agency on the one hand versus the impact of society and social context on
the other. The third pits the extent to which narrative identities display
stability and continuity of the self versus the extent to which they show
personal growth and development.



Erikson saw identity as serving an integrative function in human lives.

Adolescents and young adults seek to develop an arrangement of the self,
Erikson argued, that provides their lives with some measure of unity and
purpose. Similarly, McAdams (1985, 1997) argued that internalized and
evolving life stories—what we call narrative identities—function to organize
and make more or less coherent a whole life, a life that otherwise might
feel fragmented and diffuse. Life stories, therefore, may be seen as bringing
different aspects of the self together into a unifying and purpose-giving
whole. Other narrative theorists, however, have underscored the extent to
which life stories express different, multiple aspects of the self (Gergen,
1991). For example, Hermans (1996) suggested that narrative identity itself
is akin to a polyphonic, multivoiced novel. For any given person, many
different selves (what Hermans called "I-positions") express their own dis-
tinctive voices. To the extent there is integration, it lies in the shifting
and dynamic dialogue among the voices, an ongoing conversation among
autonomous selves.
The first four chapters in this volume address the issue of unity versus
multiplicity. In chapter 1, Peter T. F. Raggatt describes his innovative life
narrative approach to research, wherein he underscores multiplicity and
conflict in the stories people tell about their lives. Raggatt follows in the
footsteps of Hermans (1996) and certain other narrative psychologists who
argue that people's life stories are less integrative and unifying than we
might expect. These theorists take issue with McAdams and others who
see the primary purpose of narrative identity to be the integration of modern
selfhood in the adolescent and adult years. Adopting more of a postmodern
frame, Raggatt describes case studies he has analyzed to show that contempo-
rary social life is too complex and inconsistent to afford the kind of neat
identity consolidation that Erikson once envisioned. Instead, people con-
struct multiform narrative identities that often pit opposing images of sell
against one another.
The theme of opposition within narrative identity is central to the
analysis provided by Tova Hartman Halbertal and Irit Koren in chapter 2,
as they describe their provocative study of gays and lesbians who are also
Orthodox Jews. The men and women in their study construct sexual and
religious selves that are fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed to each
other. Like Raggatt, Halbertal and Koren describe the conundrum faced by
people whose lives and inclinations deviate dramatically from accepted
cultural scripts and the psychological ingenuity that they ultimately display
in crafting stories to live by.
Whereas the authors of chapters 1 and 2 are skeptical of the idea that
modern people can readily integrate lives into narratives that affirm unity

and purpose, the authors of chapters 3 and 4 suggest that integration can
still be discerned in the midst of multiplicity. In chapter 3, Gary S. Gregg
shows how oppositionality in life narratives can express a certain kind of
coherence of selfhood when narrative identity is viewed in structural and
dialectical terms. Gregg undertakes a line-by-line analysis of a fascinating
interview transcript wherein a middle-aged man describes his work as an
engineer and businessperson. Gregg shows that multiple images of the self
are related to each other in terms of their oppositionality, like thesis and
antithesis in a dialectic. The dialectical nature of narrative identity is the
central theme for Dan P. McAdams and Regina L. Logan in chapter 4.
McAdams and Logan examine the stories of creative work and personal life
told by accomplished academics. Even though these stories spell out stark
oppositions in the lives of their subjects, McAdams and Logan maintain
that a certain kind of unity of selfhood can still be discerned. According
to the authors of chapters 3 and 4, then, narrative identity can sometimes
be seen as expressing multiplicity in unity, and unity in multiplicity.


Although Erikson always maintained that identity is constructed in

a complex psychosocial context, many identity researchers (especially in
psychology) have tended to see identity as something of an individual
achievement (e.g., Baumeister, 1986). The emphasis, furthermore, in many
studies of narrative identity is on the individual's own construction of the
self, as told by the participant to an interviewer or relatively neutral observer.
At the same time, many researchers and theorists have emphasized the social
construction of life narratives (e.g., Rosenwald 6k Ochberg, 1992; Shotter &
Gergen, 1989; Thorne, 2000). Stories are performed in the presence of
certain audiences. Different situations call for different kinds of stories.
Stories emerge in ongoing conversations and within evolving social relation-
ships. Different societies privilege different kinds of stories (and storytellers).
History and culture shape the stories people tell about themselves. Narrative
identity, therefore, emerges out of a doubtlessly complex but poorly under-
stood interplay between individual agency and social context.
Chapters 5 through 7 address the issue of self versus society. In
chapter 5, Kate C. McLean and Avril Thorne turn the reader's attention
away from the serious and dramatic life stories often described by narrative
researchers and toward the lighter and more entertaining kinds of tales
that people tell in everyday conversations. Not only do these simpler tales
sometimes express important themes in narrative identity, but they also
underscore how crucial social context and social relationships are in the
development of the self. McLean and Thorne side with theorists who priori-


t:ize social context, audience, and performance in the construction of narra-
tive identity. Many different kinds of stories are told in daily life, each
performed according to the dramaturgical exigencies of the given social
situation. Psychologists who overlook these daily performances in search of
the big, deep, and integrative story of a person's life in full miss important
opportunities to examine the construction of identity in situ.
Moriisha Pasupathi in chapter 6 picks up the idea oi narrative perfor-
mance. Pasupathi's research program, through which she distinguishes be-
tween reflective and dramatic modes of life telling, examines the many intri-
cate ways in which social setting and social relationships shape the stories
that people tell about themselves. Like McLean and Thome, Pasupathi
privileges daily storytelling in natural situations over the full expression of
narrative identity in lengthy interviews and in clinical work. For these
authors, societal norms, encoded in the social ecology of everyday life, have
a profound effect on the construction of narrative identity. The emphasis
in chapters 5 and 6, therefore, is more on the way in which social factors
shape the story told than on what kind of story of the self ultimately gets told.
In chapter 7, Bertram]. Cohler and Phillip L. Hammack adopt a more
macro view of social context in their examination of the life stories told
by three different generations of gay men. This affecting and beautifully
argued chapter documents the powerful role of historical events and changing
social mores in the narrative construction of sexual desire. Like Halbertal
and Koren, these authors examine the identity challenges faced by people
whose sexual preferences for same-sex partners force them to construe narra-
tive identities that defy the master narratives set forth by society. Whereas
Halbertal and Koren focus their attention on deep and irreconcilable con-
flicts within life stories, Cohler and Hammack document how those con licts,
as well as many other features of the life stories told by gay men, are deeply
contoured by historical events and changing societal expectations.


Erikson argued that identity is a configuration of the self that develops

over time. Identities are not fixed and frozen. Although certain aspects
of human temperament, for example, may show life-long stability (e.g.,
extraversion, neuroticism—see McCrae & Costa, 1990), identity is expected
to change with age and with changing circumstances. At the same time, if
identity were to change from one moment to the next, if it were to show
no stability whatsoever, then many psychologists would not find it to be a
very useful concept. When it comes to narrative identity, furthermore, one
would expect that some degree of stability would be found. A person's life
story or stories should show some stability from one day to the next, and

(relatedly) those same stories should express some themes of stability and
continuity in a given life. Life stories may sometimes contain plots that
account for how a person has indeed "remained the same" over time (Haber-
mas & Bluck, 2000). Nonetheless, life stories also describe change, develop-
ment, and growth, and we would expect that life stories themselves should
change and develop over time.
The last four chapters in the volume take up issues related to stability
and growth in narrative identity. In chapter 8, Jennifer L. Pals examines
how midlife narrators express both continuity and change in their narrative
accounts of negative life scenes. Of special interest in her analysis are
examples of what she calls springboard effects in narrative identity—stories
of transformative and redemptive life changes. Pals is one of a growing
number of narrative psychologists (e.g., Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005;
King & Raspin, 2004; Singer, 2004) who aim to discern just what kinds of life
stories are associated with psychological health and psychosocial maturity.
Among the important themes emerging in this literature, as documented
in Pals's research on midlife adults, is the importance of working through
negative life experiences and ultimately finding redemptive meanings for
them in the life story (Maruna, 2001; McAdams, 2006).
In chapter 9, John Barresi examines continuity and change in the life
story of Malcolm X. Barresi suggests that the developmental course illustrated
in the autobiography of Malcolm X—a story that has been reshaped and
reworked in many different ways to become a strongly contested cultural
narrative—is less linear than a traditional Eriksonian analysis would suggest
and rather assumes the form of a circle. Barresi focuses on the public records
and published works of a famous individual in history in this instance.
Barresi's study recalls the tradition of psychobiography (Schultz, 2005)
through which the investigator seeks to construct an interpretive, third-
person narrative to make psychological sense of an individual life. Whereas
most of the chapters in this volume consider the ways in which people make
sense of their own lives (implicit first-person accounts), Barresi examines how
others have made sense of Malcolm X, at the same time offering his own
narrative interpretation on that life.
In their study of the role of personal ideologies in narrative identity
in chapter 10, Ed de St. Aubin and his students (Mary Wandrei, Kim
Skerven, and Catherine M. Coppolillo) show how normative and humanistic
belief systems provide consistent themes that run through life narratives
over time. Whereas narrative identities express considerable change and
growth over time, a story's ideological setting can make for strong counter-
vailing themes of stability and continuity. The extent to which a person
perceives life in terms of stability or growth is also a central idea in chapter
11, written by Rivka Tuval-Mashiach. In her study of midlife Israeli men
and women, Tuval-Mashiach asks, "Where is the story going?" Some stories


show steady progression; others show stability or decline. Like Gregg in
chapter 3, Tuval-Mashiach adopts a structural approach for making sense
of narrative identity. Picking up themes from many of the other chapters
in this volume, she shows that the different forms of narrative trajectory
are strongly shaped by gender and social class.
Over the past 15 years narrative identity has become a major topic of
inquiry among researchers in personality psychology, social psychology, life-
span human development, clinical and counseling psychology, and sociology.
We hope and fully expect that the provocative chapters we have brought
together in Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative will stimulate thinking
and research about narrative identity and advance the larger social science
conversation regarding the nature, meaning, and development of self across
the human life course.


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The telling of a definitive life story presents some serious dilemmas

(Bruner & Kalmar, 1998; Freeman, 1993). Can one's narrative identity be
captured in a single, grand, synthesizing story? Consider your own response
to a request to "tell your life story." Taken seriously, the question might
prove impossible to answer satisfactorily. Part of the problem is in the
singularity and finality of the phrase your life story—as if there could be a
definitive account. The phrase presupposes a narrative that is linear, inte-
grated, and coherent, with all the facts about your life neatly tied together
with a golden thread, a single narrative voice. I think this assumption is
problematic. A reasonable retort such as, "Which life story would you
like to hear?"—or even the thought, "Of which self should I speak?"—are
suppressed or circumscribed in the phrase your life story. The story you tell
will probably be but one story from a number of possibilities, and therefore
the life story could never be encompassed by a monologue. In what follows

Thanks to Amanda Middleton and to "Charles," who willingly gave up his time and his stories. The
research was supported by Merit Grants to the author from James Cook University, Townsville,

I argue that the life story is really more like a conversation of narrators, or
perhaps a war of historians in your head. This suggests that we must pay
close attention to the synchronic, and not just the diachronic, in our efforts
to understand the emergence of a narrative identity.
What evidence is there for problems posed by narrative alluded to
here? One place to look for evidence that might carry some weight is among
skilled and expert storytellers who address their writing talents toward their
own autobiographies. For example, in his diaries the acclaimed eighteenth-
century biographer James Boswell wrote of being "possessed by a double
feeling" (Boswell, 1791, cited in Koch, 1999, p. 3). In the journals he kept
throughout his life Boswell identified an array of underlying and opposing
personifications or voices, including the "married man," the "unfaithful
husband," the "writer and wit," and the "devout Christian" (Koch, 1999).
In more recent times the writer Joyce Carol Gates observed in response to
a question about her own identity development that "each angle of vision,
each voice yields ... a separate writer-self, an alternative Joyce Carol Dates"
(cited in Gergen & Gergen, 1988, p. 31). And the novelist Philip Roth
has observed in his attempts at self-narration that "with autobiography
there's always another text, a counter-text, if you will, to the one presented"
(cited in Freeman, 1993, p. 132). For all of these authors, instead of one
story, there are an array of possible starting places and stories that are
oriented in space as well as time.
These testimonies present a serious challenge to narrative psycholo-
gists, particularly those engaged in the study-of-lives tradition. If we assume
these writers are experts in the exposition of storied selves, then it brings
into focus some problems for investigating and understanding identity by
narrative means. The primary function of narrative articulated in the human-
ities and social sciences has been one of integration (McAdams, 1985b, 1993,
1996). The individual constructs a life story to "reduce the multitude of
motley information about the self to manageable personified categories"
and to "provide our lives with a sense of inner sameness and continuity"
(McAdams, 1985b, p. 127). In support of this view, there is a long tradition
that perceives the task of successful self-work to be attaining an integrated
ego identity around a stable center or core (e.g., Erikson, 1959). Although
the development of coherence in self-representations (whether in the form
of scripts, schemas, or stories) is obviously important for functioning, the
assumption of a core self underlying all this might be misleading, particularly
if we lend credence to the evidence of celebrated storytellers such as Boswell,
Gates, Roth, and others. My point is not that integration is somehow wrong-
headed. Individuals clearly derive happiness and a sense of purpose from
the experience of integrating past, present, and future into synergistic wholes.
However, the tendency to normalize and even reify these experiences as
the quintessence and sum total of identity development might not be condu-

cive to a more nuanced understanding. To meet these challenges we may
require a theoretical framework and a set of methods for study that can
admit of multiplicity, conflict, and even contradiction in the structure of
the self, including the storied self.
One way to attack this problem might be to allow for multiplicity in the
way individuals go about constructing a sense of selfhood. In the remainder of
this chapter, then, 1 show how life stories can be used in the study-of-lives
tradition without the assumption of a definitive or single story line, and
hence without assuming a singularity of identity or even of selfhood. In
what follows, relevant theory is distilled and a method is introduced that
is designed to examine narrative aspects of a plural or dialogical self. The
method, called the personality web protocol, combines life-story interview-
ing with a quantitative approach to examining multiplicity in narratives
about the self. In the second half of the chapter, a case study is presented
to illustrate both the method and the narrative formation of a diaiogical
self. The case comes from a research program examining in depth the life
stories of midlife adults who are confronting or have confronted conflicts
over identity.


Just as skilled storytellers have been perplexed by questions about: the

origins and integration of identity, so have philosophers and social scientists.
In The Will to Power, Neitzsche (1887/1968) wrote, "The self is the fiction
that many similar states in us are the effect of one substratum. . . . [T]he
assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just
as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and
struggle is the basis of our consciousness in general?"(pp. 269-270).
This summation anticipates the contemporary dialogical position on
the self. Many current writers acknowledge the Russian literary theorist and
critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1929/1984) as the first thinker to develop an explicit
argument that the "mind" is not a contained center but a product of dialogical
relations (Hermans, 2001a; Hermans & Kempen, 1993; Sampson, 1993).
This view is at odds with a long tradition, beginning during the Enlighten-
ment, which has constructed the self as contained and autonomous, with
the evidence principally being our continuity of consciousness and our
apparently singular embodiment (Danziger, 1997). Even William James
(1890) made efforts to capture the unity of self through reference to the
first person "I" of consciousness. But James also made a highly influential
distinction between the "self as subject" and the "self as object." For James,
the self as subject—the 1 of consciousness—had singularity, continuity,
volition, and embodiment. The self as object, on the other hand, was the


socially reflected "me," and there could be many of these "social selves"
(James, 1890, p. 282). These ideas ahout the simultaneous unity (the I) and
multiplicity (the me) of the self have provided the grounds for much recent
debate (e.g., Katzko, 2003).
In the Bakhtinian dialogical view, the I is not defined as a stable and
continuous point of consciousness but as a product of dialogical relations
in a field or landscape of I-positions (Bakhtin, 1929/1984). For Bakhtin, all
inner speech was the product of dialogical exchange with the outside world.
He developed the concept of voice as the manifestation of a particular
ideology or perception of reality that was mediated by language. The individ-
ual interacts with the world via a repertoire of such voices or speech genres.
This dialogue could be manifested interpersonally across the boundary of
self and world but also intrapersonally as the play of internalized voices as
inner speech. Bakhtin found inspiration for his theorizing in Dostoevsky's
artistic insight that narrative and the storied self can be understood synchroni'
colly in terms of multiple and simultaneous storylines (Bakhtin, 1929/1984).
Recall that the problem of multiple origins was precisely the one that Philip
Roth identified in his efforts to write an autobiography (cited in Freeman,
1993). Bakhtin gave theoretical form to these insights in his seminal analysis
of Dostoevsky's "polyphonic" novels (Bakhtin, 1929/1984). For Bakhtin,
Dostoevsky's creative world, evoked in his novels, is a kind of mirror on
the multiplicity in our psychological lives. A growing number of social
scientists think that this artistic vision has great potential (largely unrealized)
as a vehicle for advancing our understanding of narrative identity. The
Dutch psychologist Bert Hermans has perhaps been most influential in
translating Bakhtin's insights into psychology. Hermans wrote,

[We] conceptualize the self in terms of a dynamic multiplicity of rela-

tively autonomous I-positions. In this conception, the I has the possibil-
ity to move from one spatial position to another in accordance with
changes in situation and time. The I fluctuates among different and
even opposed positions, and has the capacity imaginatively to endow
each position with a voice so that dialogical relations between voices
can be established. . . . Each of them has a story to tell about his or her
own experiences, from his or her own stance . . . resulting in a complex
narratively structured self. (200la, p. 248)


If our subjectivity is the product of shifting voices that are in conversa-

tion or conflict, and if the storied self is really a "war of historians," then

the idea of positioning becomes important. How are voices positioned in a
dialogical self? The concept of positioning emerged first among social and
discursive psychologists interested in developing conceptual tools to analyze
discourse (Harre & Van Langenhove, 1991; Hollway, 1984). Taking the
conversation as the proper object of analysis for the social sciences, Harre
and Van Langenhove (1991) used the concept of positioning within dialogue
as a "dynamic alternative to the more static concept of role" (p. 395).
"Positioning," they wrote, "can be understood as the discursive construction
of personal stories that make a person's actions intelligible ... as social acts,
and within which the members of a conversation have specific locations"
(p. 395). Positioning is also defined as "a metaphorical concept through
reference to which a person's moral and personal attributes as a speaker are
compendiously collected." Thus one may be variously positioned in an
exchange as dominant or submissive, dependent or independent, comforting
or threatening, and so on, according to the flux and flow of conversational
dialogue and the context in which it is embedded.
Considering the formation of a dialogical self, we can ask whether
the idea of positioning in conversation can be applied to the internal
representations and social exchanges of such a self? A conversation or any
dialogical exchange will involve the discursive positioning of the interlocu-
tors. If the dialogical self is fashioned after the metaphor of a conversation,
then positioning should take place by a means analogous to that in dyadic and
group interactions. Harre and Van Langenhove (1991) defined a position, in
the dialogical sense, as "a set of 'locations' on a variety of polar pairs of
moral attributes" (p. 398). What is noteworthy is the combination of an
empirical conceptualization of positioning in terms of constructivist, binary
scales, with the idea that positioning takes place in a space defined by the
moral order. Indeed many theorists of the self would concur that narratives
of self are positioned in a matrix of social and moral relationships. "The self,"
Gregg wrote, "is performed as a kind of contrapuntal dialogue of voices [that]
. . . debate and dispute among themselves the moral basis of the . . . social
order in which they find themselves positioned" (1991, p. xiv). Positioning
implies that conflict and opposition may be a normal part of our subjectivity.
Harre and Van Langenhove also made a broad distinction between personal
and social positioning. Social positioning is governed by contemporary soci-
etal expectations and prescriptions that, as it were, bear down on the person
in all directions from the outside. Personal positioning, on the other hand,
is not conferred directly from the social order—it is generated from internal
dialogues, in which the person grapples with the problem of "the good" and
their "orientation in moral space." Later I address questions about the moral
and political formation of the self, understood through processes of both
personal and social positioning.



What empirical evidence is there for multiplicity in the self? I will

consider the question here specifically from a narrative and personological
approach, but the question has been addressed from a variety of subdiscipli-
nary perspectives, including clinical casework (Cooper, 1999),
cognitive-experimental psychology (Cohen & Eichenbaum, 1993), and so-
cial psychology (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Only a relatively small group of
personality researchers have broached the question of multiplicity in an
empirical way using a narrative approach. The work of McAdams (1985a,
1993), Gregg (1991), Hermans (2001b), and Rosenberg (1988) is notewor-
thy. In McAdams's widely known life-story model of identity, "imagoes"
are defined as semiautonomous personified guises or images of the self. In
interviews conducted with 50 midlife adults, McAdams (1985a) demon-
strated the presence of an array of often opposing imagoes in his informants
(e.g., master—servant, adventurer-housewife). For Gregg (1991), self-
representations comprise a multiplicity of symbolically constituted, affect-
ively charged, and often opposing identities that share Gestalt-like proper-
ties. Gregg suggested that our higher order cognitions, including those having
to do with how we experience the self, function in an analogous manner
to Gestalts, which are polarized and multistable (Gregg, 1991). Gregg, like
McAdams, used an in-depth interview approach, and his case descriptions
provide vivid illustrations of oppositional voices in the self through the
vehicle of narrative.
By contrast, Hermans (ZOOlb) and Rosenberg (1988) have taken a
more constructivist approach in which elements presumed to be constitutive
of life narratives (e.g., people, attributes of self, attributes of others, events)
are elicited to form a grid that can then be analysed quantitatively. Hermans
(ZOOlb) has developed a methodology he calls the personal position reper-
toire, in which the participant nominates from an extensive list of dialogical
positions (e.g., idealist, fearful, creative, vulnerable) "those positions which
she recognises herself, and which play some role in her life" (Hermans,
2001b, p. 326). Relationships between particularly salient and problematic
positions within this large set are then explored at greater depth in clinical
interviews and by collecting ratings data.
The work of Rosenberg (1988) is of interest because of his use of
innovative scaling and clustering methods that produce a spatial representa-
tion of linkages between self versus other constructions. Rosenberg uses a
hierarchical clustering algorithm that was designed expressly for these pur-
poses (see De Boeck & Rosenberg, 1988). Although this approach is not
typically combined with a life-narrative interview, the adaptation of quanti-
tative clustering strategies provides a promising method for exploring the
structure of self-representations. In my own work, I have attempted to

combine both the qualitative depth that is only available by the long road
of doing interviews with a more constructivist approach in which elements
taken from a person's repertoire of narrative representations are metrically
scaled and clustered using multidimensional scaling algorithms (Raggatt,
2000, 2002). The objective is to develop a methodology that can help
illuminate the contrasts and oppositions theorized to be present in a dialogi-
cal self.


How can a dialogical conception of mind be brought to bear on empirical

studies of narrative identity? The work of McAdams (1993) and Gregg
(1991) is moving in this direction, although it does not venture too far
into the conceptual terrain defined by Bakhtin or the expert storytellers
who are so perplexed by their multiple origins. Even so, the narrative research
literature, when addressing problems of research methodology, often points
to the "problem" of multiplicity. For example, Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach,
and Zilber have observed that
a life story that is provided in an interview (or any other particular
setting) is ... but one instance of the life story. . . . The particular life
story [presented] is one . . . instance of the polyphonic, versions or
possible constructions ... of people's selves and lives. (1998, p. 8)

This harks back to the problem of telling a definitive life story. Perhaps
an approach that allies dialogical theory with a narrative-based research
method can help provide an alternative paradigm for pursuing the problem
of identity. Although the emphasis is on plurality, the integrating power of
narrative, in the sense used by McAdams, is not denied in this approach.
Rather, the position is taken that one way to study the storied self is in
terms of multiplicity and plurality, and we should see where this leads.
I make two core theoretical assumptions in my own work: (a) that
there is no definitive life story that can account for narrative identity and
(b) that identity is dispersed in a moral landscape defined by often conflicting
narratives—for example, the good versus the bad voice, the optimist versus
the pessimist, and so on. Two additional assumptions address methodology.
One concerns a narrative approach to research and the other a constructivist
approach: (c) that identity can be read in narrative as a polyphony of texts
or stories (narrative assumption) and (d) that certain people, object's, and
events are the signatures for those texts, acting as icons or landmarks for
life stories (constructivist assumption; Raggatt, 2000, 2002). I call these
landmarks attachments. Following Bakhtin, it is proposed that identity devel-
ops initially tn a process of dialogue between the individual and the host


culture. The individual appropriates meaning from the culture in the form
of important attachments, to people, events, valued objects, environments,
and even orientations to our bodies (i.e., an embodied identity). Over time
this dialogue becomes increasingly reflexive as the individual interacts with
the world and appropriates new attachments, new stories, and new voices.
Each narrative voice has its own constellation of attachments.


The Personality Web Protocol (PWP; Raggatt, 1998) was designed to

help individuals explore the landscape of the dialogical self by eliciting life
narratives and their constituent attachments. The PWP combines qualitative
interviewing with the collection of written protocols that allow quantitative
analysis of narratives. The first procedure is to elicit the person's most
enduring attachments using four easily understood categories: people,
objects-in-the-world, events, and body orientations. Narratives about the
self that are associated with each attachment are then discussed in some
detail in an audiotaped interview. In a second procedure, a series of clustering
analyses are used in which informants sort their attachments into distinct
groupings, by strength of association. Each of these clusters is 'given a self-
descriptive label by the participant. The rationale for this strategy is that
by sampling the individual's most important attachments and then having
these grouped by association, a way is opened to distil the landscape of
narratives that give form to the dialogical self. Hence, the methodology
begins from a constructivist approach (the generation of a set of valued
attachments), and then moves to a narrative mode of analysis by examining
the associations to each of these attachments in greater detail. In this process,
narrative details unfold using the attachments as cues.

Interview 1: Exploring Attachments

Table 1.1 presents the taxonomy of attachment types that was used
as the basis for developing the PWP. The taxonomy was constructed to
capture the informant's central life concerns in the social (people), physical/
environmental (objects), temporal/historical (events), and embodied domains.
An affective dimension was also explored by eliciting attachments associated
with both positive and negative emotional valency. In the first interview,
each attachment is explored at some length using a semistructured interview
format. The goal is to tease out the context, history, and significance of each
attachment for the person's experience of self. For example, the following
questions and probes were used to explore important positive figures in the
participant's life:

• I want you to identify two people who are positive figures in
your life. Beyond merely being a role model, a positive figure
is someone who has inspired you, occupied your thoughts, and
guided your actions. The two figures must come from differ-
ent dimensions of your experience: (a) a person you know
and (b) either a public figure whom you have never met, or a
fictional character from a story or other product of the
• I would like you to relate a brief story about each of the figures
which typifies the figures' good qualities.
• Imagine it were possible right now to have a conversation with
each of the figures. What would you choose to talk about?

The probes for negative figures were similar. Negative figures were
defined as "more than mere stereotypes of evil or human weakness" and as
"people who have occupied your thoughts and influenced your actions, but
with whom you associate strong negative thoughts and feelings." Objects-
in-the-world are defined broadly as "including your most private mementos,
and your most important material possessions." Objects are divided into an
additional series of subcategories (see Table 1.1). Events are broken up into
peak and nadir experiences, following the method of McAdams (1993). For
objects and events, the only structured interview probes were to (a) elicit
temporal orientation and (b) ask interviewees to "reflect on the associations
and connections you draw from the object (event, etc.)." Finally, interviewees
were asked to "think about particular body parts that mean different things
to you" and to discuss the meanings associated with four such parts (e.g.,
legs, eyes) that were respectively "liked," "disliked," "strong," and "weak."
I have found that the first interview may take as little as 2 hours or
as much as 4 hours to complete and may therefore be divided into several
sessions. A week before the first interview, I provide participants with a
copy of the interview protocol in the form of a booklet, with space to make
notes about responses. I have found that by using this approach, informants
give richer and more elaborated responses in the interview sessions.

Interview 2: Synthesizing Narrative Voices

In the second interview, ratings are elicited so that multidimensional

scaling (MDS) can be used to cluster the 24 attachments elicited in the
initial interview. The procedure requires the participant to assign proximity
values to all possible pair-wise combinations of the attachments, using a
9-point Likert scale. The informant is asked to indicate the "degree of
association in your thoughts, feelings, actions and experience" for each, pair
of attachments, where 7 to 9 indicates a strong association, 4 to 6 a moderate


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association, and 1 to 3 a weak association. This procedure yields a triangular
matrix of ratings for input to MDS. Using this approach, dimensions and
clusters of self-relevant attachments can be identified based on the quantita-
tive judgments provided by the informant.1
After completing this quantitative task, the participants are asked to
group the attachments into separate clusters or "self-relevant facets" m a
subjective and qualitative fashion. The participants are asked to try and
limit the number of clusters they make to between two and six (in other
words, to make large-broad rather than small-specific clusters). No restric-
tion, however, was placed on the number of clusters that could be created.
A self-relevant descriptive label for each cluster was then elicited from the
informant (e.g., "dominant self," "religious voice," "adventurer"). Pair-wise
ratings were then elicited between each of these cluster labels and the 24
attachments produced by the participant. Collecting these ratings allowed
the cluster labels to be fitted as properties within the MDS solution.
The pair-wise ratings data (attachments with attachments, and attach-
ments with cluster labels) can then be input to the scale program of the
Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS; SPSS Inc., 1999). Typi-
cally, an interpretable two-, three-, or four-dimensional solution is produced,
containing up to 30 scaled data points (the 24 attachments, plus between
two and six attachment cluster labels). This scaling procedure effectively
produces a multidimensional semantic map of the individual's self-relevant
attachments (an example follows). Although this map represents the web
of associations among an interviewee's attachments (people, objects, events,
etc.), remember that it also includes scaling of the self-relevant cluster la.bels
provided by the participants when subjectively sorting their attachments.
This means that interpretation of the MDS space began with the participants'
own efforts to sort through and label clusters of attachments. In the case
study that follows, I illustrate the potential for this approach by showing
how the clustering of attachments maps on to specific narrative voices in
the individual portrayed.


Charles is 37, forthright, and articulate. 2 He runs a successful small

business. He is involved in the gay liberation movement and identifies as

In statistical terms, MDS relies on a Euclidean algorithm for deriving the coordinates of a set of
points (the 24 attachments) in a space of r orthogonal dimensions, where the rank order of distances
hetween each point in the spice conforms to the rank order of distances between the elements in
the original ratings data (see Kruskall & Wish, 1978). The spatial representation produced by MDS
is intended M help identify the underlying psychological (symbolic) activity that produced the
ratings in the first place.
All identifying details in the case material have been altered to preserve anonymity.


a gay rights activist. He has twice run for election to public office on a gay
ticket. Although he has not been elected, he polled well beyond expecta-
tions, Charles feels his life has been enriched by the commitments he has
made to gay rights issues. But Charles's success has been hard-won. Because
of his sexual orientation he has encountered powerful forces of resistance
in his community. The PWP methodology provides a window into these
issues, and into Charles's dialogical self. After Charles had listed his attach-
ments, discussed them in the interview, and clustered them, four distinct
narrative voices were identified. These voices are in active dialogical conflict
around themes of gender and sexual orientation, humiliation, heterosexual
oppression, and redemption.
Exhibit 1.2 presents a summary of the attachments reported by Charles,
grouped into voices of the self. Alongside each attachment in the table, to
help summarize its meaning, I have included brief descriptive quotes or
paraphrases, taken directly from the interview material. Figure 1.1 (which
should be read in conjunction with Exhibit 1.2) shows Charles's MDS
solution in two dimensions, using the attachments discussed in the interview.
Note that for this solution, Kruskall's stress 1 = 0.12, and R2 = 0.75, indicating
a satisfactory fit between the scaled distances in the solution and the original
input ratings. Charles identified a "humiliated self," an "activist," and a
"wild self in his sorting of attachments. These clusters are clearly represented
in the MDS solution. In the solution there is also a fourth small cluster
associated with masculinity, which includes Charles's associations with his
father and with being in the Navy (see Figure 1.1). I call this cluster the
"voice of manhood," because this was a theme Charles returned to repeatedly
during the interviews. The MDS plot indicates that these four clusters define
two dialogically opposed narrative voices: the humiliated self against the
activist (dimension 2), and the wild (gay sexual) self against manhood
(dimension 1). In what follows, material from the interview transcripts is
used to help illuminate Charles's dialogical voices in his own terms. I begin
with the "humiliated self versus the "activist" opposition, because this has
the longest history and was the most elaborated on in the interviews.

The Humiliated Self Versus the Activist

The humiliated self plays a pivotal role in Charles's developmental

life narrative. Charles tells of confronting a moral crisis over his sexuality
and of ultimately gaining redemption and legitimation in the face of painful
humiliations experienced in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Charles
recounts a succession of disturbing episodes involving ritualized rejection
and shaming. These form the core nuclear scenes of the humiliated self (see
Figure 1.1).

Charles's Web of Attachments Grouped Into Voices of the Self
1. Humiliated self
Rejected by father after Age 8: "made to feel I'd let him down"; guilt
football match
Discharged from navy Age 17: admitted homosexuality; fear, shame,
Excommunicated from Age 19: "attempted to 'cure' myself"; "they said I was
church demonically possessed"
Quentin Crisp Gay activist, but also a negative role model: "his
extreme femininity was a negative influence"
Crooked face "Barbara Streisand nose"; "Prince Charles ears"; "lips
and teeth that aren't aligned"
2. Activist
Armistead Maupin Age 15: first gay public figure discovered; "his stories
influenced my life"
Running for public office Fear; pride; "gained respect from society"
as .gay candidate
Attending New York City Coming together of my world; met A. Maupin;
Gay Games achievement, success, pride
Strong face "Craggy"; conveys "strength of character"
Home Symbol of success
3. Manhood
Father "Masculinity is what I have taken from my father";
father was sports champion as young man
Joined navy Age 15: "I was a man"; "I felt I was conquering the
Men in military uniform Aggressive, hard, heterosexual
4. Wild Self
Recurring sexual fantasy Various homoerotic themes, memories, and images
Having sex in jeans
Having sex in boots
Body tattoo "To celebrate my body"

Charles grew up in a struggling working-class family, living in trailer

parks through much of his childhood. Charles showed little inclination for
sports, and his most significant early memory is of being rejected by his
father, a keen sportsman and onetime amateur boxer, after an uninspiring
performance in a school football match. After this early humiliation, Charles
grew up feeling that he had to make amends with his father.
I felt really pressured by my father for most of my life to perform in a
whole lot of things, to be a man, to succeed, to be strong, pressure that
I didn't take on too well ... .1 always felt sad and bad about that, that
I had let him down. And really the sport thing had nothing to do with
me, it was all about him, and I felt guilty 'til I was almost 18.


DIM. 2
2.0 Strong face

NYC Gay Games * Business

* role model * Sex in Jeans

1.0 # Home Sexual
Ran for election * O
* fantasy

Armistead Maupin *
0.0- DIM.
Tattoo *
Men in uniform # Sex in boots
Father * O Back * * Underwear
MANHOOD * Quentin Crisp
-1.0 Joined Navy *
* Crooked face
Excommunicated # Rejected by father after
From Church # football match

-2.0 Discharged from Navy *

1.0 2.0

Figure 1.1. Charles's Web of Attachments in the Multidimensional Scaling Solution:

Dimensions 1 x 2. Kruskall's Stress 1 =0.12; Multiple R2 = 0.75.

At 15, seeking the chance to "become a man," Charles left school

and joined the Navy. At first, things went very well.
I was a man, the navy wanted me. I was 15 ... my father was just
happy that I even got through the interview process. ... It was a good
time for me. I felt like I was conquering the world, I was going to go
and fight for my country. ... I like being a man, those things don't
frighten me. In a fight I can defend myself, I am proud of that. It's not
a bad thing.

Being accepted into the Navy gained Charles his father's approval and
was, for him, a rite of passage into manhood. But it also signified the
awakening of Charles's sexual interest. Charles planned to make his career
in national defence, but this dream was cut short at age 17 after a liaison
involving a ship's officer. In an inquiry, Charles admitted his homosexuality
and was honorably discharged, although under duress. Charles says that
being discharged reopened the earlier wounds of humiliation associated with
his father (see Figure 1.1), and this initiated a painful search of the self.
Charles left the Navy shamed and frightened and looking for a new life.

Confused about his sexual orientation, Charles sought a "cure" in a
branch of the charismatic church. He describes what ensued.
In my attempt to "cure" myself after 1 was forced to leave the navy, I
questioned a lot of things about myself and I went through the usual
thing of trying to change and I became a born-again Christian. . . .
They attempted for a year and a half to cure me by getting me to
repeatedly write out passages of the Bible. . . . Of course ... I continued
to fall from grace, I was honest about my falling from grace, and they
eventually said that I was demonically possessed. Then one Sunday
afternoon at a church service in front of 450 people, it was a big church
assembly . . . [the pastor] asked everybody to stand and turn their back,
and ne asked me to leave the church ... I was excommunicated. And
as I was walking out down the center isle and nobody would face me,
1 was thinking that a lot of these people had grown to become very
good friends of mine over the time. I was devastated. [The pastor] went
into a spiel about how if I was seen on the streets they were to cross
the road, I was not to be communicated with in anyway. Yeah, so, the
church was a major negative influence on me.

This was the third profound experience of humiliation described by

Charles. His experiences of rejection and marginalization—by his fa:her,
the navy, and the church—are touchstones sparking the dialogical resistance
expressed later in the activist voice. At the time (late adolescence), the
view that Charles's sexuality was "wrong," "immoral," "dirty," and "bad"
seemed to be affirmed by these experiences. Later, Charles came to know
from wider experience what can happen under conditions of extreme
You can only tell a person that they are bad for so long . . . before they
start believing it, even though they still fight. It actually eats into the
core of their psyche. But I will not let them do that to me. A lot of my
homosexual friends, who don't feel that strong or capable (and I know
that they are), some of them have lost their lives as a result of feeling
that way. [emphasis added]

The activist is represented in a series of attachments related to Charles's

role in the gay community (see Figure 1.1). Charles consciously identifies
his activist voice as a dialogical response to the moral conflicts engendered
by his experiences of humiliation. The activist voice recounts stories of how
he has triumphed over his detractors, proving that he is not a bad person.
The voice draws on gay liberation role models such as Armistead Maupin,
on stories of running for election as a gay candidate; on peak experiences
such as attending the New York City Gay Games and on Charles's home
(a material symbol of his legitimacy). The activist voice is also embodied
in Charles's "strong face," signifying his commitments and strength of


purpose (see Figure 1.1). But note that Charles also says that he dislikes his
face for its "crookedness," and this embodies the humiliated self. Here, then,
is evidence that parts of the body, and in this case even the same part, can
stand for multiple, conflicting representations of self. Charles emerged from
his humiliations as an advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian groups. By
recasting himself as a fighter of a quite different kind to the navy man,
Charles shows he is worthy and subdues the voice of humiliation.

The Wild Self Versus Manhood

Charles's wild self is uninhibited and allows him to give free rein to
his love for men and gay culture. The attachments associated with this
voice delineate Charles's private sexual world, including some of his sexual
experiences and fantasies, his body tattoo, and fetish objects including
boots and jeans (see Figure 1.1). In opposition to Charles's gay sex life are
attachments associated with strong masculinity—his sporting father, his
time in the Navy, and images of strong men in uniform. On this more
private and less public level of narrative, there is conflict involving Charles's
strong sense of manhood, which comes up in opposition to his sexual
orientation. Charles strongly resists stereotyped constructions of his gay
identity as meaning he is feminine. On the contrary, Charles wants to be
a "man's man." These conflicts are best exemplified in the interview material
in which Charles talks about Quentin Crisp (a "feminine" gay activist).
Talking about Crisp leads Charles to explore his views of manhood.
My other positive figure was both positive and negative at the same
time and that is Quentin Crisp. He was such a flamboyant feminine
figure, which is why he is both a positive and a negative role model
for me. . . . He is positive because of his strength of character . . . but
his extreme femininity and eccentricity was also a negative influence.
It was like I only wanted to take pieces of him. . . . I've always been extremely
proud that I am a man, my maleness is totally different to my sexuality,
they are not connected except for the fact that I think my maleness is
so much more important to me as a homosexual than what it would
have been to me as a heterosexual, [emphasis added]
The conflict (and opposition) between Charles's manhood and his
sexual interest and between his humiliation and his activism is transfigured
in the "feminine" figure of Crisp. Note in Figure 1.1, for example, that
although Crisp was a prominent gay rights activist he is positioned not with
Armistead Maupin but in a middle zone between the activist voice and the
humiliated voice in Charles's MDS solution. Hence, Crisp is a symbolic
marker for Charles's conflicts. He is a touchstone in the dialogue between
Charles the activist and Charles the humiliated homosexual and between
Charles the man and Charles the "wild" gay person. Indeed the text quoted

is evidence that this is a dialogue with a long history. Back when Charles's
activism was emerging in his twenties (and Crisp was still alive), Charles
"only wanted to take pieces of the feminized gay activist role model. Today,
little has changed. Charles continues to have a strong investment in asserting
his masculinity. For him the powerlessness of the humiliated voice is over-
come not just in his activism but in a vision of strong, agentic masculinity.
In short, Charles's dialogical voices reveal a complex landscape of opposing
narratives. These voices talk to one another across the life course, evidenced
in this case through the figure of Crisp. At the social and cultural level,
Charles's activism is a redemptive story of overcoming marginalization,
rejection, and humiliation. At the personal and psychological level, Charles
continues to wrestle with conflict over identity in his private domain—in
one voice, a "wild" gay man, in another, a fighter and navy recruit.



Personal positioning refers to how individuals privately organize, evalu-

ate, and narrate their lives in a moral framework. Social positioning arises
from societal definitions and prescriptions that bear down on the person from
the outside, shaping their experience and their stories. Social positioning will
be more marked when there are power differences in social hierarchies or
dichotomies—for example, boss versus subordinate, straight versus gay,
White versus Black. The dominate term (e.g., straight) is defined as having
properties lacked by the opposite term, with the result that individuals and
groups can often be silenced or oppressed (Hermans, 2001 a). It is clear from
the case material that these processes were operating in the life of Charles
and that his life has been given form by the impact of social positioning.
Charles tries initially to adjust to a heterosexual world by himself becoming
heterosexual and then reacts in opposition to that futile challenge. His
humiliation and the response to it (activism) were socially produced. Ini-
tially, he fights against his homosexual desires in response to a social collec-
tive that forbids them. Later, he becomes a gay rights activist to redress the
distortions and imbalances encountered in the society around him. Here
we can see some evidence for integration, but this dynamic of change over
the life course can also be interpreted dialogically. The voice of the ac:ivist
is a dialogical response to the socially produced positioning of self as "humili-
ated homosexual."
But these are not the only positions in Charles's landscape of narratives.
In a different set of voices Charles's sense of masculinity and his sexual
orientation are conflicted, not directly because of social pressures from
outside but seemingly from pressures within. For Charles his "maleness is


totally different to [his] sexuality," and so he only "wanted to take pieces
of the feminized gay activist Crisp. Charles's conflict between his manhood
and his wild (gay) self is played out at a personal level as he grapples with
the problem of the good and his orientation in moral space.
Having drawn out this distinction between the individual and social
construction of narrative identity, two final comments are warranted. First,
personal and social positioning are obviously not independent processes.
There are clearly complex transactions involved in the formation of
identity. However, some individuals may be more or less influenced by social
forces, depending in part on their placement in macro-social stereotypes
and hierarchies. Second, both social and personal positioning dynamics
appear to be present in Charles. One way to interpret this is that it casts
doubt on extreme forms of both self-contained individualism and social


Identity is an open-ended, dialogical, and narrative engagement with

the world, having multiple origins and trajectories. In this chapter I have
tried to set out the rudiments of an approach to the assessment of persons
that keeps faith with this vision.
In the dialogical approach, a conversation is taken as the primary
metaphor for the self. With this view narrative identity is more like a
cacophony of competing interests or warring historians than it is like a
nucleus with a single voice. It is frequently assumed in the narrative tradition
that mental health corresponds to a coherent narrative account of one's
life. Traumatic events or mental illness can disrupt well-being by disrupting
the coherence of the life story so far (Crossley, 2000). This emphasis on
the integrating function of narrative is important; however, issues of com-
plexity or multiplicity that can emerge when life narratives are explored in
depth may recede from focus. The question of owning a singular and inte-
grated life story is not so straightforward. Even in an ultimately generative
life such as that described by Charles, what comes across is not so much a
singularity of voice but rather a deeper level of complexities and conflicts
among voices that bubble beneath any surface story. (For additional case
material, see Raggatt, 2000, 2002.)
There are a number of challenges for personologists and narrative
psychologists in the future. First, we must develop models of the self and
of narrative identity that can better deal with complexity and even contradic-
tion. Second, if we are to better understand individual differences, we need
to direct our attention to the characteristic narrative styles that individuals
bring to the complex process of authoring (and reauthoring) their lives. For

example, Me Adams (2000) has drawn a distinction between "contamina-
tion" and "redemption" scripts that might prove useful in this regard. Distin-
guishing between the dynamics of personal and social positioning, discussed
earlier, may also be helpful. The PWP methodology can potentially assist
with these objectives. It provides a structured approach, and can be a
powerful tool for facilitating the process of self-exploration. Indeed, after
the interviews Charles remarked that he was better able to articulate and
clarify the private dimensions of his sexuality and masculinity using the
PWP. As a framework for assessment, therefore, the approach offers a rela-
tively efficient means to the kind of in-depth analysis of the self demanded
by the dialogical approach.
This chapter began by noting the perplexity of skilled storytellers when
they come to tell their own life stories. About which self should they speak?
I have argued that the problem of identity can be approached by a lie wing
for multiplicity and conflict in the self. The approach described offers some
promise as a generative paradigm for psychology, particularly for narrative
psychology and the study-of-lives approach. Yet the discipline has largely
left these ideas to the novelists, biographers, and artists, perhaps because it
is so difficult to study a human subject that is shifting positions, caught
between conflicting stories. I argue that there is merit in approaching the
subject on the subject's own terms—whatever they may be.


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Identity synthesis as the exclusive or even dominant model of identity

formation—its ultimate validation and goal—recently has been challenged
by theorists of identity. Alternative modes of identity, which within a
synthetic paradigm might by classified as underdevelopment or even person-
ality disorder, are seen using these new frameworks as highly functional and
coherent structures of self. Identity development within religious gay and
lesbian individuals provides a striking instance of resonance with this theo-
retical trend.
This chapter focuses on individuals for whom the very notion of
identity synthesis, its usefulness as a model to account for their experience,
must be called into question. It attempts to hear and to locate the subculture
of Orthodox Jewish gay men and lesbian women who claim an identity
dualism so deeply embedded that they experience and understand it as
divinely bestowed. Previous studies of religious homosexuals have generally
tended to present this identity conflict as moving toward synthesis, with

the religious element often exhibiting flexibility in the face of a sexual
orientation seen as more intrinsic and therefore less negotiable. For Orthodox
Jewish gays and lesbians, however, we find that this is not the case: Religion
represents a far more encompassing web of beliefs, values, ritual practices,
and social and familial connections that cannot easily be uncoupled from
the individual's deepest sense of being. Precisely because of the profound
and pervasive impact of religion on their overall identity formation, Ortho-
dox Jews provide an extreme (and heretofore invisible) counterpoint to
previous assessments, a revealing window into the spectrum of cases in
which the conflicting claims of same-sex attraction and other deeply held
valuative frameworks face each other in all their irreducible and irreconcil-
able differences.



In recent years, religious gays and lesbians, traditionally an all but

silenced population, have begun to emerge into public discourse. Mainstream
thinking in the political, religious, and educational spheres has been forced
increasingly to confront what previously had been seen as an oxymoron.
The number of psychologists being called in to help religious gays and
lesbians in clinical settings is growing exponentially, although there has yet
to be much formal research done on this population. The process of sexual
identity formation in general, and homosexual identity in particular, has
been explored and reported at length (see, e.g., Cass, 1979; Coleman, 1982;
Peacock, 2000; Raymond, 1994; Troiden, 1993; Yarhouse, 2001); little has
been written, however, about religious gay and lesbian development. Seminal
identity theorists such as Erikson (1950, 1968) and Butler (1990, 1993)
who have written about sexual identity at length have little to say about
the intersection of sexuality and religion. Thus Yarhouse (2001) noted
correctly that "there has been much less discussion of identity formation
insofar as how personal and religious valuative frameworks influence identity
acquisition." Regarding sexual identity development in particular, Yarhouse
added that "religion is often simply neglected or reduced to 'spirituality'"
(p. 336).
When many people are confronted with conflicts between sexuality
and religion, they either yield to a teaching in which they do not believe
or feel they must abandon their religious heritage. Yarhouse (2001), discuss-
ing cases of conflict between same-sex attraction and other valuative frame-
works, concluded somewhat more hopefully that "perhaps, on measures of
mental health ... it matters most not whether a person pursues a particular


path of identity synthesis but whether their identity synthesis is congruent
with their broader valuative framework" (p. 339). Evident is a trend followed
by most sexual identity theorists attempting to come to terms with the
relationship of religion to sexual development—in other words, a reliance
on the Eriksonian synthetic model (Erikson, 1968) as the accepted template
on which to build and adjust for factors Erikson himself did not address.



Recently emerged studies about Catholic gay identity note a dualism

similar to that of Orthodox Jews and describe a process of inner reconciliation
and eventual synthesis. Yip found that "many gay Christians manage to
move on in their journey of sexuality and eventually develop a positive
personal identity that incorporates both their sexuality and their religious
beliefs" (1999, p. 49). In a different study of religious Catholic nonheterosex-
uals, Yip maintained that "the majority of the respondents had personal
identities that harmoniously incorporated their sexualities and Christian faith"
(2002, p. 203; emphasis added), despite a seemingly intractable opposition
between the two. This harmonious self-synthesis, according to Yip, was
made possible by the fact that "the self, rather than religious authority
structures, serves as the primary component of the framework within which
the respondents engage in the doctrinal and practical reinterpretation of
issues affecting their lives" (Yip, 2002, p. 201; emphasis added).
Yip's account of his respondents' identity process is consonant with
the traditional Eriksonian model of identity necessarily moving toward a
stance of integration, continuity, and sameness. His assertion or assumption
of a singular self as the dominant reference point for identity—"the ultimate
reference point for the respondents' religious faith and practice" (2002,
p. 201; emphasis added)—which achieves harmonization between vying
elements—may accurately describe the identity progression of his respon-
dents. It contrasts sharply, however, with our findings among Orthodox
Jewish gays and lesbians who, although for the most part eventually achieve
a baseline acceptance of their dual identities, nonetheless continue to experi-
ence these identities in stridently dualistic terms. In this sense, our partici-
pants' accounts resonate with Holmes's (1999) description of aboriginal gays
leading "complex hybrid lives, lived in multiple ways" (p. 191). In their
interviews, there can be found no concept of a singular self through which
conflicting claims on their identities are mediated and processed, much less
synthesized. The picture that emerges is rather of two mutually exclusive
selves that, following formative periods of intense conflict and struggle,


manage ultimately to achieve a working coexistence within the same body
and mind. In contrast to Butler (1990) and other constructivist theorists,
both of these identities are experienced and described by our participants
in essential terms.
It is our intention to situate these reports within a theoretical frame-
work that neither accepts nor rejects this experience of essentialness but
rather gives an account of how it may have arisen, or at least been signifi-
cantly reinforced, within this particular identity conflict in this particular
cultural context. This framework is narrative in the sense of locating partici-
pants' personal, individual narratives—the accounts they gave of their iden-
tity formation as Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians, stretching from child-
hood to the present day—within the context of their culture's master
narratives about sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.
All pedagogies are historically located within the range of discourses
of a particular time and place. Our formulation of the "master narrative"
is, in part, a reference to the ways that some stories of what sexuality
(and, indeed, life more generally) is like come to be accepted as "normal"
or "obvious." (Epstein & Sears, 1999, p. 3)

The relationship between participants' personal narratives and the

master narratives of Orthodox Jewish culture is the central axis of inquiry
for this chapter. The notion of positioning these narratives dichotomously,
or seeing them as separate at all, is challenged, ultimately generating the need
for a re-envisioning of individuals' identity processes and a reformulation of
structures of self at which they have arrived.



The temptation to view as atypical any identity conflict that does not
result in eventual synthesis is a testament to the power of the Eriksonian
developmental model, both as a reflection of the urge for integration and
resolution and as a historical—theoretical reference point. In the past 10
years, however, a number of theorists have posited models of the self that
challenge the premise that identity conflict must move inexorably toward
synthetic resolution. Coined by various authors as "the dialogical self (Her-
mans, Kempen, & van Loon, 1992), "the mutable self (Cote, 1996), and
"the protean self (Lifton, 1993), these models share the insight that the
self need not be viewed as abhorring dissonance, requiring consistency and
coherence as prerequisites for survival or even psychic health. The dialogical
self, for example, "contrasts with the notion of the self as the center of


control" (Hermans et al., 1992, p. 29). The dialogical self is based on the
assumption that
in contrast with the individualistic self . . . there are many ] positions
that can be occupied by the same person. The I in one position can agree,
disagree, understand, misunderstand, oppose, contradict, question, and
even ridicule the / in another position. (Hermans et al., 1992, p. 29)

These claims of identity pluralism can be demonstrated best in situa-

tions of inner conflict, which "can potentially move the question of inner
consistency to the forefront and create difficulty in the iormation of a
coherent identity" (Schachter, 2004). This difficulty often highlights the
central function of what Lifton referred to as the Protean Self "for bringing
together disparate and seemingly incompatible elements of identity and
involvement in what I call 'odd combinations'" (Lifton, 1993, p. 7). The
coexistence of these "odd combinations" is understood in many cases to be
"simultaneous, in the multiplicity of varied, even antithetical images and
ideas held at any one time by the self, each of which it may be more or
less ready to act upon—a condition sometimes referred to as 'multimind'"
(Lifton, 1993, p. 8).
Multimind is a salient characterization of what emerges from our Ortho-
dox homosexual participants' accounts, and this chapter is a close study of
the process of development that brought the participants to that mindset—
highlighting the pervasive role of culture in identity development, and
sexual identity in particular.
To this end. we highlight the classical rabbinic and contemporary
Orthodox perspectives concerning homosexuality. We also pay close E.tten-
tion to how these traditions conceive of identity choice and the nuances
and complexities regarding homosexual being and doing. Turning to the
interviews themselves, we flesh out some of the more knotty and vexing
challenges of identity formation faced by Orthodox gay men and lesbian
women—the complex negotiations among deep-seated self-knowledge, pas-
sionate faith, rigorous religious commitment, and mutually exclusive commu-
nal demands through which they make sense of their identities in relation
to the traditions, texts, practices, communities, and lifestyles that often
seern irreconcilably conflicted but that they nonetheless claim as inexorably
their own. We try to understand the developmental trajectory that is experi-
enced when there exists little tesonance, indeed extreme friction, between
two defining elements of self: sexual identity on the one hand and socio-
religious context on the other. For purposes of illustration we describe some
of the processes of self-discovery to which this friction gives rise: the forms
taken by emerging acceptance of sexual identity, how gays and lesbians find
they can and must articulate themselves to their communities and to God


as they find themselves both essentially religious and fundamentally homo-
sexual. We conclude by suggesting that neither one of these identities is
assimilated into the other—that there is neither synthesis nor resolution
of the fundamental opposition between them—but that the dialogical pro-
cess of ever-intensifying communication and deepening mutual understand-
ing itself takes on the dimensions of a primary identification that creates
the possibility for their viable coexistence.


Following Schachtcr (2004), we present narrative representations of

identity conflict in a culture context (Bruner, 1990; Mishler, 1979) contain-
ing opposing elements. To this end, we used a qualitative, narrative method-
ology involving in-depth interviews with a sample of gay and lesbian Ortho-
dox Jews. This methodology allows insights into participants' subjective
perspectives on themselves and their experiences and provides rich informa-
tion regarding their social milieu (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994) were particularly
appropriate for the goals of this study. Because Orthodox gays and lesbians
have so seldom made themselves available for this type of study, it was
important to develop a picture of their lives that was as rich and nuanced
as possible. The narrative methodology was similarly useful in reminding
us to take heed of the highly personal and unique ways in which participants
came to structure their identities given the opposing forces influencing their


This study used a sample of 18 adult men and women aged 25 to 30.
They were residents of New York or Jerusalem, were engaged in a variety
of occupations, and defined themselves as both Orthodox and gay/lesbian.
This age cohort was appropriate for our study because it generally represents
a more advanced stage of religious and sexual identity formation, combining
a broadened perspective on earlier developmental dynamics (the interview-
ees had all "come out," at least to some extent, and had already passed
through the exploratory stage of identity formation generally associated with
adolescence) with a still-sharp lens into the present world of gay and lesbian
religious young adults. Unlike the generation immediately preceding them,
this is the first generation of Orthodox Jews to feel that it was possible
(albeit far from easy) to come out publicly, or at least in limited social
circles, as religious gays and lesbians.


This sample was generated through several methods. We placed ads
in the Jerusalem "Open House"; contacted Moach Gavra, a group of Ortho-
dox gay men who come together to study religious texts; placed ads on Web
sites addressed to the religious gay and lesbian community; and relied on
word of mouth.
We conducted open-ended, phenomenological interviews (Seidman,
1991), which took place wherever the interviewee felt most comfortable.
Interviews were conducted in Hebrew. Discussions were unstructured and
lasted between an hour and a half and three hours, enabling both interviewer
and respondent sufficient time and comfort to explore complex lines of
inquiry and consider questions and answers thoughtfully and deeply (Jossel-
son, 1994; Lindlof, 1995; Polkinghorne, 1988).


The analyses of the interviews were based on the process of grounded

theory development (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), thematic analyses, and the
interpretive method known as the Reader's or Listener's Guide (Gilligan
et al., 1988). The Guide format calls for multiple readings of the interviews
to sort out distinct themes and voices within the narratives respondents
present. This technique makes it possible to tune into the nuances of the
speaker's relationship to his or her own words, with the narrative she or he
has constructed about him- or herself—nuances of which the speaker may
be aware only vaguely, if at all. It allows us, for example, to zero in on the
elements of the speaker's developing self she or he still finds too frightening
to stand by (see Gilligan et al., 1988).
Several themes emerged consistently from participants' narratives:
(a) knowing and not-knowing—in other words, preventing themselves from
knowing; (b) the challenges involved in coming out to family, friends, and
community, as well as the ramifications of coming out, the personal responses
to those ramifications, and attempts to manage them; (c) internalized homo-
phobia, derived both from mainstream Western culture and the Jewish
"master narrative" of homosexuality; and (d) choice and nonchoice of reli-
gious and sexual identity.


As Orthodox Jews, we the interviewers are familiar with the religious

terminology of both the texts and the lived experiences of our respondents,
as well as the rabbis they quote and the social context in which they live.
We did not require extensive explanations of the aspects of the narratives


relating to religious Jewish life. As heterosexual women, however, we are
attuned to the implications of being in part members of the group we are
studying and in other ways total strangers (see Lomsky-Feder, 1996; Sciarra,
1999). During the interviews themselves, we were acutely aware of observing
struggles, pains, and joys we do not share, because we were learning from
them about their experiences and their world.


The prospect of creating a coherent, reconciled identity as a gay or

lesbian Orthodox Jew poses serious, fundamental challenges. First among
these is the commitment to upholding a tradition that delegitimizes, con-
demns, and (at least theoretically) punishes homosexuality. It is important
to understand the central, visceral, and dynamic role these religious texts
and opinions play in the lives of all Orthodox Jews, including those gay
and lesbian Jews who choose to remain (or become) Orthodox. Integrating
biblical and rabbinic imperatives with internal experience is the central
project of gay Orthodox Jews, in the context of which Jewish legal (halakhic)
and meta-legal texts, spanning centuries of rabbinic discussion and debate—
which may strike the lay person as esoterica, convoluted abstraction, or
hair-splitting legal jargon—are in fact principal mediators of attitude and
custom, communally and individually, and primary sources of inspiration
and instruction in the daily life of Orthodox Jews. As such, it constitutes
a defining element of the religious gay or lesbian individual's identity
Ancient and modern Jewish legal writings on homosexuality are exten-
sive. Jewish religious communities not only adhere to biblical law (most
relevant being the sexual prohibitions found in chap. 18 of Leviticus) but
also to a vast rabbinic literature that elaborates, interprets, and expands on
these founding precepts. In fleshing out the major themes in the Jewish
canonical literature, as well as the views of some contemporary Orthodox
rabbis and scholars who have been influential in framing the terms of the
current discourse, what we find are two strains of thought that are as distinct
from one another as they are internally complex: One views homosexuality
as an illicit act people perform (which we refer to as "doing") but not as
an inherent trait; and one that sees homosexuality as definitional to a
person's identity (we refer to this as "being"). Although neither of these
perspectives can be said to cast homosexuality in a positive (or, for that
matter, halakhically permitted) light, both are bivalent in that they can
be understood to represent either sympathetic or condemnatory voices,
depending entirely on the speaker and the stance he or she chooses to take.



The discussion among contemporary Orthodox Jewish rabbis aoout

homosexuality has been shaped and informed by an evolving political and
social context. As community leaders, rabbis have had to address immediate
and pressing questions presented to them by a rapidly (and in some cases
radically) evolving milieu in which homosexuality has become almost wholly
normative, largely destigmatized within the dominant secular culture, and
progressively embraced within other movements of Judaism. This shift in
political and social climate is in fact only the latest manifestation of a
broader historical evolution in the way homosexuals—and the nature of
homosexuality itself—are viewed by mainstream culture. It is a trend most
crisply observed and succinctly formulated by Foucault (1980).

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a

category of forbidden acts; the perpetrator was nothing more than the
juridical subject ot them. The Nineteenth-Century homosexual became
a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being
a type of life.. . .Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality
when it was transposed as one of the forms of sodomy onto a kind of
interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been
a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species, (pp. 42—43)

Implicit already in Foucault's formulation is the double-edged nature

of this trend toward viewing gays and lesbians not merely as "perpetrators,"
as doers of "forbidden acts," but as a distinct category of "soul," as a "species."
On the one hand, the acknowledgment that homosexuality is not an aberra-
tion, that it expresses an interior dimension of the individual's identity that
is integrated with his or her past and his or her childhood can be seen as
a gesture of (or at least forming circumstances conducive to) increased
empathy, understanding, and respect. This indeed can be seen not merely
as a top-down trend, a definition imposed on gays and lesbians by the
societies in which tbey live, but as an interplay between shifting societal
awareness and gay and lesbian individuals' own insistence on a more encom-
passing self-definition. On the other hand, once an individual ceases to be
viewed as a temporary aberration, it is equally possible that he or she will
now come to be viewed as a permanent aberration, and the tendency to
view the gay or lesbian individual not only as a person but as a "case history,"
a bizarre new and not-quite-human species, carries a hint of how this new
holistic, being perspective can just as easily be turned against gays and
lesbians. Indeed, Foucault understood this trend as forming the backdrop
for a distinctly modern new persecution of the peripheral sexualities.


The premodern, doing perspective with regard to homosexuality as
understood by Foucault carries a similar and complementary dualism. The
negative connotations attendant to a perpetrator of criminal acts is fairly
clear. However, one who commits criminal acts does so by choice, and,
given sufficient desire and will, can presumably choose to stop. This negative
attribute is both localized and chosen. Far better, one could argue, to be
viewed as a temporary, voluntary criminal than as being held helplessly in
the thrall of a permanent criminal soul. Of course, this element of choice
can also easily be turned against the homosexual: What can one say of a
person who has the choice to behave properly and morally and instead
chooses consistently to commit crimes?
Modern halakhic discourse has been clearly—although incompletely—
influenced by the broader Western trend articulated by Foucault (1980).
On the one hand, the halakhic process's conservative tendencies (in the
legalistic sense of favoring precedent) demonstrate a strong inclination
toward the more biblically rooted doing perspective. At the same time,
however, a strain of modern rabbinic thought has expanded its focus to
address homosexuality as category of being—expressing legal and meta-legal
opinions not only about the banned homosexual act but regarding the
homosexual him- or herself; in other words, the spiritual and psychological
essence of individual gay men and lesbian women. Although Foucault places
being and doing in a linear, mutually exclusive relationship with one another,
Orthodox Judaism—with its contemporary incarnation with one foot firmly
planted in what Foucault called the ancient canonical codes and the other
in more modern times—holds being and doing concurrently as viable ways
of understanding homosexuality.
Moreover, whatever the various and complex motivations of their
proponents, these two perspectives are used to dualistic (and dueling) effects.
Those who insist that homosexuality should still be viewed a series of acts
(doing), aligning themselves with biblical and rabbinic tradition against the
gay community's self-definition and the modern social reality articulated by
Foucault, do so to both sympathetic and condemnatory ends. This is the
case as well for those who adhere to the claim that homosexuality is a result
of an essential trait that cannot be overcome (being).


Given the dualism described, it is not surprising to find that all of

our study participants faced serious obstacles in the development of their
identities as Orthodox gays and lesbians, beginning at the earliest develop-
mental stages. The abundance of recent research on general gay and lesbian
identity formation has mapped a developmental trajectory that begins with


(a) a general sense of feeling different (Troiden, 1993), known as precon-
scious awareness (Colt-man, 1982); it moves to (b) manifestations of dissocia-
tion and stages of coming out to oneself; then culminates in (c) a crisis
point at which she or he realizes that her or his sexual identity could he
labeled as homosexual and understands the import of the severe stigma that
this label bears (this stage entails a struggle with the perimeters of self-
definition with an eye toward external characterizations); and eventually
moves to (d) stages of integration, affirmation (Troiden, 1993), and identity
synthesis (Cass, 1979).
During our interviews we heard the first three of these basic stages
of development taking shape among emerging Orthodox gay and lesbian
identities, although with important, culturally conditioned differences that
contributed to a sharp divergence with regard to the fourth (d). Because of
both the encompassing and highly normative nature of halakha—its regula-
tion of every aspect of personal and public life through a voluminous and
ever-evolving legal and meta-legal canon—its awareness infuses Orthodox
communities and homes and minds, on levels ranging from the unconscious
to the stridently overt. For young Orthodox Jews who find themselves
with nascent, preconscious forms of homosexual awareness, this chorus of
authoritative voices, stretching back millennia and speaking unequivocally
into the present, often drowns out any such self awareness before it can
begin to find footing in conscious thought.
It was not surprising, then, to find an ongoing dissonance in our
participants' descriptions of their earliest three stages of homosexual
awareness between knowing and not knowing—in other words, various
levels of denial or even dissociation. For them, these stages entailed a
dialectical pattern or accruing self-knowledge as homosexuals, while at
the same time working hard to undo this knowledge—to not-know. This
attempt at repression was the first stage in a dialogical process through
which the sexual and religious selves began to assert and communicate
the content and the demands of their respective identities. At this stage,
the religious identity was challenged by inchoate same-sex awareness and
maintained dominance by virtue of both its temporal primacy and its
ability to communicate compellmgly the dangerous nonviability ol the
emerging sexual preference.



By the time in their lives at which we met with our participants, they
could speak openly of how the self-knowledge with which they eventually
had managed to come to terms had previously signified certain danger,


isolation, and pain. Understandably—accompanied as they were by an
increasing awareness of the potential traumatic consequences and steep
costs of this dawning knowledge to their most significant relationships
(family, community, God, even self) these messages were frequently ignored
or repressed (see Warner, 1999; Weis & Fine, 1993). One participant,
Ghana, aged 25, poignantly illuminated this initial stage of denial and its
complex, simultaneous interplay between knowing and not-knowing by
describing the following dream.

The image that I had in my head was that of Joshua as he surrounded

the walls of Jericho and blowing the shofar and the walls coming down,
and those huge walls just crumbling down in my mind, and what was
behind them were these huge 20-meter neon letters saying: "You are a
lesbian! You are a lesbian!" I never really thought of myself that way,
but it was the truth.

Ghana's identity was announced to her in a dramatic and powerful

way, a resounding voice of truth sufficiently strong to topple the walls of
ignorance. She needed her identity to be written out in huge neon letters
so that she could neither claim to misread nor feasibly ignore it. Even so,
she explained, "I didn't really think that way about myself—and I spent
the next 5 years trying to prove that it wasn't true. Now, I am a lesbian. I
know that now."
In her description of the dream, Ghana's homosexuality was revealed
to her by an external source; she was not yet able to accept it for (much
less proclaim it) herself. The initial moment of self-revelation is also a
moment of intense self-alienation, opening a fissure between what she knows
intuitively and what she is willing to accept. Initially, she is approached by
an external, impersonal, indeed inanimate (albeit emphatic) voice insisting
that "you" are a lesbian. Only after 5 years of aggressively attempting to
hold that knowledge at bay could she finally use the integrated first-person
pronoun to accept "lesbian" as a term of self-identification.
The dream Ghana discusses is one of miraculous victory in battle, yet
her own battle for self-integration was far more arduous and drawn out. Her
world of associations is biblical, and within this metaphorical battlefield she
instinctively finds a framework to describe her feelings. The same biblical
imagery is infused with inspiration and fraught with danger, inasmuch as it
reflects a powerful world view with which she passionately identifies, yet
which at the same time rejects a central dimension of who she is. She sees
her imprisoned consciousness as a walled city akin to Jericho, and the
neon sign overwhelming the naturalistic biblical scene evokes the garish
flamboyance associated with popular images of homosexual culture. This
starkly contrasting dynamic can be understood as a representation of her


increasing subconscious resistance to biblical norms—the wrenching conflict
of cultures and visions of self, even at this early stage of denial—in vivid
(i.e., neon) terms. It cannot go unnoticed, however, that it is the shcfar,
the quintessential biblical symbol of human freedom, that heralds the break-
through to this new stage of awareness. It also should not be forgotten that,
just as in Ghana's dream Jericho represents the enemy, so too within the
context of the biblical story Jericho is the enemy of the Jewish people: the
first enemy, the first stage in the process of vanquishing the Canaanite
idolaters and settling into the Promised Land. Significantly, this moment
in the biblical story precisely parallels the stage of identity formation in
which Ghana presently finds herself, and it is therefore telling that she
identifies the triumphal, liberational force within herself with Joshua, who
led the Jews to victory in defeating countless enemies and breaking unprece-
dented new ground. Although the neon signs clearly represent a disruption
in the classical biblical scene, the courage and inspiration that makes this
disruption possible is drawn directly from the biblical source.
It can be said, then, that in addition to the powerful external and
internal voices holding Ghana's self-awareness at bay, her dual knowledge
itself gave rise to a sense of sheer identity confusion that placed seemingly
natural enemies—traditional Judaism and homosexuality—as allies on the
same, winning team. It is not difficult to imagine the despair faced by a
young person, for whom this internal alliance is so natural and deep-seated,
on realizing the extent to which externally, in the world in which she
lives, it is considered riot only unspeakable and unthinkable but impossible,
ludicrous, absurd. At this early stage, when in any event identity-related
knowing is inchoate and protean, the motivations for not-knowing seme-
thing about oneself that is both potentially devastating and cognitively hard
to grasp are overpowering. In Ghana's case, it took half a decade for her to
allow herself to know that which she battled so intensely to keep walled
up within the fortress of not-knowing.
Tal, aged 28, likewise spent many years in this suspended state of
simultaneous knowing and not-knowing. She spoke of always feeling differ-
ent when her friends were interested in boys and she was not. She recalled
a dream during late adolescence (see Weis & Fine, 1993) in which a woman
entered her room, then her bed, "and then I realized that this is what I
wanted and I understood and I was really scared, really scared ... 1 knew
what that was." Notwithstanding this initial burst of clarity, it was several
more years before Tal managed to translate her knowledge into a fuller
lesbian identity. It is noteworthy that even in describing this revelation,
she used the demonstrative pronoun "that" rather than any specific i:erm
denoting lesbianism. This type of linguistic distancing characterized much
of her interview, and her struggle between knowing and not-knowing can


be illustrated sharply by cataloguing her preference for the nonspecific third-
person pronoun.
ignored it.
I completely ignored it.
I fell in love with a woman and it was real, you know, but s t i l l . . . .
It was there, it was certain and unambiguous . . . but I still ignored it.
I went out with other men, I completely ignored it.
. . . even though I knew that this is it. [emphasis added]

In contrast to Ghana, who was able to speak the word "lesbian" only
by addressing herself in the second person, Tal spoke from the "I," yet
obfuscated her identification with lesbianism via the unspeakable and un-
namable "it." What we find is a kind of conservation-of-distancing mecha-
nism, wherein the speaker either uses the first person or speaks directly of
her homosexuality. To use both in concert would create a stronger, more
unequivocal form of identity knowledge than our participants were prepared
to allow.


Despite the strong incentive to remain in a perpetual state of sexual

not-knowing, all of our participants eventually felt impelled to acknowledge
the inexorable reality of their same-sex attraction. There has been much
discussion among researchers about the extent to which sexual identity is
fluid and adaptable versus inherent and fixed (see Birke, 1996; Lampert,
1994; Money, 1987, 1988; Okley, 1996; Usser, 1994). What has emerged
from this discourse has been a kind of spectrum on which our participants
found themselves experiencing their sexual orientation as an inherent and
nonnegotiable fact—an experience of intrinsic being rather than a series
of chosen behaviors. What makes their process of identity formation distinct
from that of individuals who have dominated previous studies—for whom
religion has generally played a less central role—is the matching of their sense
of an inherent sexual identity with an equally inherent, and nonetheless
antithetical, ontological reality: their religion. In other words, neither their
Orthodox Jewish nor their gay identities were or are experienced in terms
of choice. As one of the men said, "I was born gay, and I was born religious."
It must be acknowledged that within the psychological discourse on
homosexuality and sexuality in general, the notion of choice is complicated.
Whether homosexuality is an innate trait or an acquired one—whether one
can choose his or her sexual identity at all—has been discussed at great
length (see Garents & Kimmel, 1993; Lampert, 1994; Money, 1987, 1988).
We will not add to the ongoing debate between constructivist and essentialist


views. We do not take a position on the nature of identity formation per
se, but rather listen to the ways gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews experience
and describe their lives; and we observe the developmental patterns that
emerge from these self-perceptions. Almost uniformly, we heard them speak-
ing about themselves as essentially both religious and gay.
Rachel, aged .30, an ultra-Orthodox American woman living in Israel,
is married to a man. She spoke about both her religiosity and her lesbianism
as aspects of her core self, and she described two experiences that brought
about these realizations.

So one, was the tirst time 1 was with a woman physically and I just
said: "oh this is it, now the world makes sense to me, just everything
makes sense, this is it" . . . and the other time I had this experience-
was one of the hrsi times I studied Chumash [Torah], and i could hardly
read Hebrew, and as I am reading it 1 thought, I have been here before,
this is sueh a hig part of me, it was completely an experience of "this
is it." I didn't know exactly what this "it" was, hut I knew that ir has
to be a part oi my life. . . .They both hit me at the same places—to
the core.

Tal also related to the strength of her gay and religious identities as
equivalent. She defined her religious identity not as an emerging discovery
about herself nor as a choice but rather as a defining element of who she
is. She formulated her religiosity as a tautological truism: "I am religious
just because I am religious." Expressing a parallel experience of his parallel
identities, Amiram, aged 28, expressed his God-given dilemma in terms of
a lament.

"You are stuck with both of them. . . .Whatever they say, this is not
from choice. 1 am not planning to tight with myself or change myse.f,
there is no point, I will never change, and to become straight I wdl
never in this life become straight. This 1 know. This is the hardest test
for me to withstand—you are torn from the inside, the Evil Desire is
so great and "just this" you say, it had to come in my sexuality. How
many gays are there in the whole world, and from them how many
have to be born religious, and I had to be that kind? Why me.'

A distillation of Amiram's complaints opens a window to his still-

unreconciled self-perception.

You feel like you are in a war with your hands tied.
There is nothing you can do.
You don't wan: to give up on anything.
You don't wan: to give up on the religion.
You don't want to give up on the mitzvoth (the religious laws).
And I do not want to give up on me1. |emphasis added]


Noach, aged 27, described what he perceived to be the ultimate impossi-
bility of reconciliation.
There are those who say, "I will not stay religious, I will throw it all
out," but that is also a cop out. It will not bring inner peace at the
end. On the one hand, being religious is not peaceful because you want
something and you cannot have it; on the other hand, to be not religious
brings no peace because religion has certain values, and it is hard to
break off from 20 years of education, all of a sudden to change everything.
It is a huge difficulty and whatever you do it will always come back to
you, no matter what you do. [emphasis added]

Noach felt certain that leaving one of his identities would not bring
him inner peace, that in fact "it. . . will always come back to you, no matter
what you do." Even if one were to forfeit one or the other, this cop out
would not work as a long'term solution: Both identities, gay and religious,
would eventually have to somehow find expression. This profound inner
dualism is what marks Orthodox gays and lesbians—and others who not
only feel the external pressures of the antigay valuative frameworks in
which they live but who internally identify with the values these frameworks
represent to such an extent that rejecting them is simply not an option—
as distinct from gay men and lesbians for whom the pressure to be something
other than what they are derives from sources that can ultimately be external-
ized, analyzed, critiqued, and abandoned in part or in whole. For our partici-
pants, the identification with Jewish tradition was as axiomatic as the attract-
ion to members of the same sex.



The lonely journey of negotiating with the religious world has, for our
participants, taken different forms. Many began by consulting with rabbis
to find a way to resolve their predicament: Either to help them become
heterosexual or to help them find a way to remain gay or lesbian within a
religious framework. In both cases, they were left wanting. On the whole,
they left those meetings full of guilt, reproach, and with a tool kit of bizarre
methods toward a "cure." Eventually these conversations broke down, as
faith that the religious leaders' ability to help them was progressively attenu-
ated and often, ultimately, abandoned. This alienation from the religious
establishment led to crisis points out of which new modes of identity synthesis
were attempted. Yehezkel, 28, made a series of statements about the Jewish
perspective with regard to homosexuals, born out of his conversations with
rabbis, which evidence an emphatic prominence of the harshly condemna-


tory being perspective and encapsulate the experience of many of our partici-
pants in relating to religious authorities.
It is thought of as if you are tainted.
If you transgress the Sabbath then you did a bad deed, but: it doesn't
reflect your whole personality. Here, if you did a sexual act it means
your whole life, your whole outlook, it means you are secular, it means
beginning that slippery slope downhill.
I am considered an abomination, [emphasis added]
In the course of countless conversations with local rabbis, Yehezkel
has not only developed a vivid rabbinic self-porttait but internalized this
perspective to the extent that he addresses himself in the second-person
voice of those very rabbis. He unpacks the difference between doir.g a
transgression like not observing the Sabbath and being homosexual, which
becomes "your" entire definition in their eyes. The only first-person state-
ment he makes is a passive affirmation of their bleak assessment of his
current status and worth.
Once a person has internalized an image of self as abominable, as
tainted, as secular—which for someone who sees him- or herself as essentially
religious represents an even more profound and disorienting level of self-
negation—how does one go about building an identity that is positive
and integrated?
Roi, aged 25, has carved out an approach of mutual affirmation and
strategic limitation.
At one point when I accepted that I live with this contradiction, I
understood that I want to live in both of these worlds. I can love a
man and live with him but not transgress the specific law that is very
clear and straightforward.
Roi's solution was to live with a man, to continue loving him but
refrain from anal intercourse, which he understands as the core of the
prohibition. He distinguishes his inner life—his love, the objects of his
love—from his physical expression of this love. Roi is committed to coming
to a compromise with regard to his identity that respects and expresses both
of his intrinsic commitments. In formulating this particular compromise,
he clearly takes his cues from the doing perspective as it has filtered down
to him through Orthodox culture. His decision represents simultaneously
an acceptance of this perspective's essential precept—the forbiddenness of
the same-sex act—and a subversion of its complementary assertion, the
nonexistence of homosexual being. In his tone can be detected a note of
defiance against a perspective that insists there are no homosexuals, just
heterosexuals performing homosexual acts. Just as those advocating the doing
perspective limit their acknowledgment of homosexuality to its physical
expression, Roi uses that same standard to circumscribe its jurisdiction over


his identity. By accepting the claim made by halakha over his physical
behavior, he remains within the parameters of Jewish law, thereby affirming
his Orthodox identity while simultaneously affirming his gay identity by
asserting his meta-legal freedom to "love a man and live with him." His
sexual identity is also circumscribed through a commitment to abstinence.
Whether this particular, rigorous balance between the demands of
antithetical aspects of self results in a workable identity synthesis will only
be proven through time. What is clear and significant is Roi's commitment
to come to some workable synthesis, and the model he has chosen—as well
as any future trials and errors he undergoes—represent groundbreaking in
the area of gay identity formation.
Amiram, like Roi, maintains the innateness of both his gay and Ortho-
dox identifications. In developing them, however, he makes a different set
of distinctions, taking what amounts to a more social-activist approach.
He does not challenge or criticize God, in whose judgment he ultimately
has faith, but whose role in defining the practical and evolving reality of
Jewish life he understands as secondary. Rather, he takes issue with the
caretakers of Torah, the contemporary rabbis who he feels have not at-
tempted to understand, much less constructively address, his predicament.

It hurts, it just hurts. I am not angry at God, I am angrier at society.

They [the rabbis] have to start looking out for us, what even the halacha
minimally would allow. I do not want to go to a counselor. I want to
go to a rabbi and say I am gay. But then he will also say, "Just go marry
a woman." . . . Don't they understand that it is impossible, the world
is not built that way?

Although frustrated with the religious establishment's status quo,

Amiram continues to express the essentially religious aspect of his identity: "I
do not want to take my kippa [skullcap] off, or to stop observing dietary laws."
Rather than simply accepting and working within the status quo,
Amiram takes a level of ownership over his valuative framework and critiques
it, while remaining within. The implications of his distinction between the
rabbis as social engineers with a degree of flexibility in what issues they
choose to engage and God as a voice of absolute compassion and truth, is
interesting and can be unpacked as follows: Throughout history, the rabbis
have modified and adapted laws in response to social and economic develop-
ments (e.g., abolition of slavery, banning of polygamy), but they steadfastly
resist making any changes in regard to homosexuality. In short, Amiram
feels that the rabbis have failed him.
For example, when he expressed his feelings of same-sex attraction to
his rabbis, Amiram was succinctly told, he said, to "go marry a woman." In
the face of this not-uncommon advice, Levado, a gay Orthodox rabbi (1993),
asked, "Don't they care about the women we would marry?" As shown in


the case of Ghana, the ostensible protection of family values results more
often in the destruction of actual families and the tearing of the communal
fabric, as fraudulent marriages damage everyone involved and emanate shock
waves that must be absorbed by extended family, friends, and community.
Noach was given a different spin on the same obscure directive, in-
structed by various rabbis with whom he conferred to "go sit and study."
Sitting and studying seemed so silly—what does that have to do with
my problem? I can't concentrate. . . . One Rabbi kicked me out of his
house. Others, however, related to me in some way. On the one hand
I felt they understood; but then their solutions seemed just so silly.

When Noach's dialogue with the rabbis had run its course, he reached a
point of crisis. His sense of profound alienation from both his religious and
sexual identities is evident from the following series of helpless questions.
I looked for answers:
How will God accept me?
How can I connect to Him?
What should 1 do? How can 1 exist as a kosher Jew with this . . . ?
1 felt I was in jail, where there was no way out.
Whatever I have tried to do never worked out.

These questions initiated the first phase of what became an ongoing,

direct, personal conversation with God, and out of this conversation a model
of identity synthesis began to take shape.
The question is what should I do? A compromise? Do some sexual acts
but not others? Oh God, I will do some things but to a limit, I cannot
refrain completely, so let us make an agreement. I won't be completely
trai/[nonkosher]. Everybody puts some limits, so if before I would sleep
with a man five times a week so now it will be three times a week, and
the two times I don't I sanctify to you, God. The three times is for me.
1 do not have a halakhic permission, but this is the direction I am trying
to look for.

Noach accepts the category of sin and his accountability within the
framework of Divine commandment and Jewish law. What is interesting is
his attempt to maintain, even after giving up on rabbinic guidance and
authority, a viable relationship with the very God whose religion (and it
is important to note that the God with whom Noach converses remains a
particularly Jewish God—a God who cares about which sexual acts a person
does and refrains from doing, and speaks the language of kosher and traif
rather than an abstract spiritual being) he understands to reject his sexual
orientation, while remaining a source of profound personal dialogue and an
offering of compromise and respect. In a sense, Noach can be seen as going
"over the heads" of the rabbis, whom he sees as unwilling or unable to


address his difficult identity concern. Lacking recourse on the management
level, he takes his case directly to the highest authority and attempts there
to iron out a workable compromise. Although acknowledging that none of
his current solutions are halakhic, he does not reject or exempt himself from
the halakhic system, which he affirms as fundamentally valid but feels has
not yet evolved to a point of being able to responsibly address his situation
and concerns.
Like Amiram and Noach, Michal finds her way to a sharp distinction
between religiously dictated social norms—in other words, the rabbinic
insistence on relegating homosexuality to the sphere of perversion and
taboo—and "religion"/"God," which connotes an inherent moral-spiritual
truth to which the dysfunctional (this is the clear implication) religious
establishment has not yet caught up.
If the halacha would want to deal with it they would find a way out.
All of a sudden women are allowed to do things that a generation ago
were not allowed, like learning Torah. The halakha changes, but in this
issue the halakha just decided not to deal, just like in the whole world. . . .
I have no problems with God: the halakha today has nothing to do with
God. It is the religious community. One has to distinguish between the
religious establishment and religion.
An alternative route to identity synthesis involved an expansion of
the term religious to include appropriation of rabbinic tradition through
personal study and interpretation, which in turn allowed for a sense of
reconciliation with sexual orientation and practice. Shlomit, for example,
no longer discusses her sexuality with rabbis. She decided to study herself
and found a way through her own interpretations to live in both worlds.
She recently married her girlfriend, creating a ceremony for herself and her
partner out of Jewish sources and traditions.
It is hard to be a lesbian in the religious society but not from the halakhic
perspective. Nevertheless, I am not willing to give up on the religious
world. That is my world. If they will tell me to give up the religious
world or the lesbian world I will give up the lesbian part. The religion
is me! God is my first love. What I am is first of all a religious person:
my beliefs, my way of life, my views are first of all religious. There are
no compromises, none. ... I have studied and I can explicitly say that
I can be a religious person and I can be a lesbian and be whole with it.


Hermans et al. (1992) posited that "the dialogical self can only be
fully understood when its cultural constraints are acknowledged." It is indeed
within an intricate context of culturally specific constraints that we sought


to examine "how preexisting polarities within one cultural and ideological
setting manifest themselves in the identity formation process of the individ-
ual" (Schachter, 2004). The very biblical and rabbinic laws these young
Orthodox homosexuals treasure, and the corresponding lifestyle to which
they are committed, prohibit homosexual behavior. Contemporary rabbinic
writings are laced with derogatory language with regard to homosexual
people arid acts. The communities that are organized around these laws
reject homosexual behavior and ostracize those identifying as gays and
lesbians. The gay and lesbian community, meanwhile, evinces hostility and
suspicion toward religion and those identifying with its precepts—all the
more so toward individuals living by those precepts and espousing them as
positive valuative frameworks, encompassing guidelines for morality and
For individuals who live with such a multiplicity of compelling, ulti-
mately irreconcilable voices, the notion of identity synthesis is far more
than merely nonresonant: It is an oxymoron. In fact, the familiar positioning
of synthesis as the touchstone of identity formation, its assumption as identi-
ty's telos, is a framework that our participants' accounts strenuously called
into question. To say that they did not achieve a harmonious synthesis of
their religious and gay identities is not to say that they have not come to
terms, to greater and lesser degrees, with who they are: It is not to say that
they lack fully developed identities. It is rather to assert that this self-
acceptance, even in its final stages, resisted characterization as synthesis
(Shlomit: "There are no compromises, none") at the same time that it
affirmed a sense of self that accepts the valid coexistence of both identities
(Shlomit: "I can be a religious person and I can be a lesbian and be whole
with it")—without one requiring the eradication or even conformism of
the other for its own survival or health. In fact, the model that emerges is
distinctly dialogical, and resonates clearly with the theoretical model that
likens different I positions residing within the same mind and body to
characters in a story.
The character takes on a life of its own and thus assumes a certain
narrative necessity. Each character has a story to tell about experiences
from its own stance. As different voices these characters exchange
information about their respective Me's and their worlds, resulting in
a complex, narratively structured self. (Hermans et al., 1992, pp. 28, 29)

In the case of our participants, homosexual and religious identities

seem indeed to be involved in a constant process of negotiation that posits
the intrinsic validity of both as each learns about the other's experiences,
exchanges information about these identities, and thereby comes to iearn
its requirements for viability and health as it strives to create a psychic
landscape conducive to coexistence.


This process of negotiation is far from abstract: It can be traced, for
example, in the paradoxical role played by religion as simultaneously a
source of confusion and pain and as a path to resilience and acceptance
that helped to mitigate that pain. Instead of abandoning the valuative
framework that rejects their sexual identity, or vice versa, the Orthodox
gay men and women we interviewed allowed their religiosity to push them
to understand their homosexuality as an integral element of their religious
destiny, which in turn has required them to delve into sexual and religious
identities all the more profoundly. In turn, the desire of their sexual identity
to understand the other identity that so stubbornly holds it at bay has led to
a deepening and intensification of our participants' bond to Jewish tradition,
which became more personalized and nuanced than it might otherwise have
been. This evolving relationship between these two mutually exclusive,
highly defining aspects of identity—in other words, the dialogical process
itself, in turn serves as a source of inspiration, consolation, and strength to
a self otherwise exposed to all manner of humiliation, torment, and despair.
For individuals living fully within extremely committed yet mutually
exclusive internal and external worlds, identity synthesis begins to seem
less unachievable than simply irrelevant. The notion not only of an identity
synthesis's attainability but its desirability is challenged. When multiple
identities coincide with a mature self-structure, the lived necessity of an
alternative theory of identity—one that goes beyond the emphasis on
synthesis—becomes manifest. The emphasis shifts from identity synthesis
to identity coherence.
Although this dialogical model of coherence bears its own set of
challenges and difficulties, this is far different from characterizing it as a
problem per se. Disparate identity elements can at times find themselves in
intense conflict, but can also positively reinforce one another, embracing
and celebrating various resonant dimensions. In the case of our participants,
both religion and sexuality are sites of profound celebration, not merely
suffering and angst, and all of these facets contribute to the rich and particular
coherence of individual identities. Ultimately, identity coherence is neither
a substitution nor an opposition to synthesis but rather an alternative model
for understanding how certain individuals manage the various highly devel-
oped aspects of themselves.


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The psychological study of identity is currently split between two

approaches: one drawing mainly on information-processing models (Higgins
& Bargh, 1987; Kihlstrom & Cantor, 1984; Markus & Kitayama, 1991;
Markus & Wulf, 1987); the second viewing identity as constructed in life-
story narration (Bruner, 1990; Gregg, 1991, 1998; McAdams, 1985, 2001;
Rosenwald & Ochberg, 1992; Sarbin, 1986) or in imaginal "polyphonic"
dialogue (Hermans, 1996; Hermans & Kempen, 1993). Researchers taking
either approach, however, have tended to search their data for relatively
simple and explicit self-characterizations, in the form of trait attributions,
schemas, scripts, themes, and so forth. To do so they seek to eliminate
ambiguity in the data they elicit from research participants, either by requir-
ing them to provide unambiguous responses in the first place (information-
processing approaches) or by resolving ambiguities and contradictions in the

This chapter analyzes data collected as part of Targets for the Worksite Prevention of Alcohol
Abuse, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Robert Wjod
Johnson Foundation; Dr. Sol Levine, Principal Investigator, Dr. Thomas Mangione, Project Director.

course of analysis (narrative approaches). Structuralist analysis of narratives,
however, suggests that individuals construct identities by the same implicit
and figurative processes that use ambiguity to create metaphoric, ritual,
poetic, and musical meaning.
Empson's classic Seven Types of Ambiguity (1966) described the crucial
role of ambiguity in creating meaning, and Nowottny (1962) showed how
poetic meaning arises in loose juxtapositions of concrete symbols and abstract
concepts, which create a semantic space of meaningful ambiguity. In his
generative theory of music, Bernstein (1976) argued that in contrast to
linguistic meaning, only some of which is figurative, musical meaning is
entirely figurative and created with the precisely structured ambiguous rela-
tions of tonal music's octave system. Anthropologists and literary theorists
have explored the implicit and figurative construction of selves for several
decades. Levi-Strauss recognized the musiclike structure of cultural meaning
as early as 1975 in his The Raw and the Cooked (from which I take my title).
Ortner (1973) called attention to the pivotal role played by complex and
emotionally rich key symbols, such as Christ on the Cross or Tibetan wheel
images, which condense multiple, often ineffable meanings. Turner's (1967)
studies of Ndembu life-status rituals showed how symbols of bodily substances
and processes (milk, semen, blood, decay) are arrayed to delineate initiates'
new social roles, with the juxtapositions of nature and culture establishing
implicit dimensions of identity. Ohnuki-Tierney (1990) traced the ways
Japanese culture has used the monkey as a polytropic symbol to reflect both
divine and bestial aspects of human nature. All of these approaches suggest
that identity has something akin to what Levi-Strauss (1963) termed a deep
structure, from which multiple and sometimes conflicting surface structures
may be generated.
In this chapter I show this layered organization of identity by performing
a Levi-Straussian structuralist analysis of an interview conducted for purposes
other than studying identity and in which the narrator offers no explicit
self-descriptions and tells only fragmentary stories. I argue that identity is
organized simultaneously as (a) a deep structure underlying a set of homolo-
gous binary oppositions, as proposed by Levi-Strauss (1963, 1966, 1967,
1975) in his studies of myth and (b) articulated in a formulaic plot-episode
structure, as identified by Propp (1968), Lord (I960), and Raglan (1979)
in their studies of folktales and oral epics. Criticized for reifying texts and
ignoring their history and social contexts, structuralism has gone out of
academic fashion. But it need not commit either of these errors, and it
remains a powerful tool for analyzing narrative self-representation. It is
important to emphasize that structuralism provides one of several textual
analysis strategies, which by no means is sufficient by itself. In my own
studies of longer life narratives, I have adopted Ricoeur's (1970) double
hermeneutic approach, and combined structuralist analysis with both psy-

chodynamic interpretation of emotional tensions and existential interpreta-
tion of the authentic moral imperatives that orient lives. I present the
following analysis to show how powerful structuralist analysis can be for
identifying implicit structures of identity.
I adopt structuralism's surface structure—deep structure model rather
than just speaking of implicit meanings, because it offers a fuller account
of the cognitive organization of identity. This model does not hold that
identity resides in the deep structure rather than in the narrative surfaces
but rather in the generation of surface structures from deep structure. In
this respect self-representation resembles musical meaning, which musically
trained listeners derive less from surface cues, such as changes in pitch,
tempo, volume, and texture, than from apprehension of the underlying
structure (Tan & Spackman, 2005)—ultimately derived according to
Schenker's (1954) theory from a kernel consisting of a single tone and
its overtone series. A structuralist-inspired layered model can enable both
information-processing and narrative approaches to move beyond their cur-
rent limitations.


A researcher from a prestigious university introduces herself to the

secretary of Mr. Bororo, a vice president of Technical Materials, a Fortune
500 developer of industrial and aerospace plastics. The secretary rings her
boss, who emerges to greet Ms. Sherente with an informal air that hints he
views her arrival as a welcome break in his pressured day. ("Bororo" and
"Sherente" are not their real names.) He leads her into his corner office
and she briefs him on the study: of corporate alcohol policies and programs
in which his company and six others have agreed to participate. Ms. Sherente
is in her early 40s, attractive, and slightly flirtatious within the bounds of
professional comportment. Mr. Bororo is approaching 60, tall, dynamic, and
challenging. She turns on her tape recorder, and over the next hour he
gives an unusually candid, entertaining, and informative interview. Halt-
ingly, then boldly, and then defensively he tells of a heavier-drinking subcul-
ture at his otherwise tee-totaling company, mostly among those whose jobs
take them on the road in sales, engineering, and trouble-shooting teams.
Mr. Bororo counts himself as a member of this group, and as he describes
it he also constructs and presents an identity to Ms. Sherente.
This construction is little evident on first reading, especially because
the interview has a jumpy quality that renders Mr. Bororo's views unnervmgly
incomplete and inconsistent. The researcher's questions cause some of this,
but Mr. Bororo also shifts continually among the groups he contrasts as
heavier- and lighter-drinking, and thus among the qualities he imputes to


his group of traveling trouble-shooters. And although these groups occupy
separate boxes in the Tech-Mat organizational chart, in practice they some-
times overlap. Mr. Bororo's root contrast sets blue-collar employees, whom
he sees as most likely to abuse alcohol, against the company's engineers,
whom he sees as too temperate to party with much vigor. These of course
are stereotypes, which is precisely the point: My analysis will focus on his
use of stereotypic representations to construct, by contrast, his own identity.
I use the term "representations" deliberately. Representations may be
concepts, images, or metaphors, but they are explicit, whereas the structure
of meaning that emerges from their use is largely implicit. My analysis
therefore will move from the interview's explicit surface structure of represen-
tations, in which he provides colorfully phrased information about drinking,
to its implicit deep structure in which he locates himself within a corporate
cultural geography. My point will be to demonstrate how Mr. Bororo prac-
tices what Levi-Strauss (1966) terms "the science of the concrete," fashioning
a system of binary oppositions (raw vs. bland) "mediated" by third terms
that sketch the contours of his character (a man who controls forces of
disorder), and that he simultaneously traces the sort of formulaic plot-episode
sequence identified by Propp (1968) to cast himself as a heroic character.
This mediating position appears constructed not so much as a golden mean
between opposites than as a synthesis of some features of each pole that
continues to contrast with both poles by virtue of salient nonshared features,
especially as it is developed by the hero narrative. I set out not to prove
Levi-Strauss or Propp right about the nature of Mind but only to show that
identity self-representation requires a structural model.


I first parsed the verbatim interview into discourse units consisting of

lines, stanzas, strophes, and parts following Gee (1991). I also followed Gee
in viewing the text as a discourse rather than as a narrative or a dialogue,
because it contains a great deal of prepositional as well as storytelling speech
(Bruner, 1986), both of which contribute to the author's self-construction
(Gee, 1996). Because it is too lengthy for phrase-by-phrase analysis, I focused
on the construction of meaning from stanzas, strophes, and parts (I will use
vertical bars to indicate line breaks within stanzas, not as Gee does, to
demarcate phrases within lines). I also omitted passages detailing the com-
pany's operations and policies. I then used two methods to build an analysis
from these units, one focused on the text's syntagmatic (diachronic, sequen-
tial, temporal) dimension, and the other on its paradigmatic (synchronic,
synonymic/contrastive, spatial) dimension. This distinction, developed by
Saussure (1966) and propounded by Levi-Strauss (1963) and others (Culler,

1975), derives from the observation that, for example, the s in "The jaguar
shows the boy fire" gets its third-person-singular-present meaning both in
agreement with "the jaguar" (a syntagmatic relation) and in contrast to a
set of other possible suffixes, -ed, -ing, and '(paradigmatic relations).
Meaning in a narrative, and in the construction of an identity, similarly
entails relations along these two dimensions.
To describe the syntagmatic dimensions, I draw on Propp's (1968)
theory of plot structure in folk tales. Like Levi-Strauss, Propp has argued
that narratives are componentially constructed, but his work focused not
on an atemporal structure of contrasting "mythemes" but on sequences of
generic plot episodes. An alcohol policy interview is hardly a folk tale, but
Mr. Bororo's answers nonetheless sketch a storyline of heroic identity. To
identify paradigmatic relations, I draw on Levi-Strauss's (1963, 1967, 1975)
theory of binary oppositions in myth, treating each part of the interview
as if it were a myth episode and searching for the primary contrasts Mr.
Bororo uses to construct meaningful events and relationships. I say "meaning-
ful events and relationships" in contrast to "information" (Bruner, 1990)
because I will not be concerned with the facts Mr. Bororo provides but rather
with the contrastive relations by which he traces the cultural geography of
his corporate milieu and by which he locates himself as an intriguing feature
of its terrain. These contrasts will prove to take the form of binary oppositions
mediated by third terms that implicitly define the identity Mr. Bororo
performs for Ms. Sherente. I do not believe meaning must always take this
form, but the Bororo-Sherente data fit Levi-Strauss' schema surprisingly well.

Interview Text

The verbatim interview should be read before the analysis, but space
limitations prevent its inclusion in this chapter. Selected strophes appear
before the analysis of each part, but I sometimes quote portions of the
interview not presented in this chapter. The full text is available on the
Web site of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives (http://www.sesp.


Ms. Sherente: If you'll just start off and tell me a little bit about the
history of the company from your perspective, particularly in relation-
ship to the alcohol policy.

The lack of a suffix means "I," "You," "We," or "They," present tense.


Strophe 1, stanza 1: Let me just basically describe what we do, | and
then I'd like to digress a little bit into the different philosophies of the
operating groups, | and then explain some of the data they ultimately
receive. | I'm essentially responsible for all of the operations policies
for North America. [Stanza 2 omitted.]
Strophe 2, stanza 3: We have a very unusual culture within the company
| in the sense that it grew from the dream of a fellow who was nondegreed,
| who was aggressive, | who was, I think, truly a salesman and a peddler.
Stanza 4: My experiences with him in the early stages of my career
were somewhat elite | in that I was in the back of the manufacturing
shop which probably is no more. | He was semiretired. | He used to
come in to get parts made for his antique car.
Stanza 5: Then, of course, we have since dramatically moved away from
that background | into having degreed engineers run this corporation. |
In fact, I think one could say from a management perspective, without a
fairly significant engineering degree, 11 think the prospects for somebody
moving into very senior management, on the administrative side, are
fairly remote.
Stanza 6: With that said, however, we really have two distinct cultures
within the group, possibly three, | and I think X division will develop
more along the lines of Y division, | but the X division is a group that
has come to us basically through acquisition. | As a result we've tried
to change cultures; we've tried to blend employees into the mix.
Stanza 7: Although, I think, we've been successful, nevertheless they
tend to regard their population as being extremely important on the
technical side, | both with degrees, particularly engineering degrees are
certainly more honored | if one were to go to a technical plant and say,
"Jeez, we have a problem. What do we need?" | It's give me another
process engineer or give me another project engineer.
Strophe 4, stanza 8: As a result, engineers are engineers. | They tend
to be, from an academic standpoint, more serious, certainly more analyti-
cal. | They are clearly individuals who are upper decile in terms of
intelligence, | and realistically portray themselves in a very professional
manner at all times.
Stanza 9: It doesn't mean they drink or don't drink. | But they tend
to come from a climate where, I think, doing book work in college was
more important than hitting the frat house, or down at the corner bar.
| It's not true of our sales force, | but that's certainly true of the group
that runs Division Y per se.
Strophe 5, stanza 10: As a result, I don't think you will see at the
exempt level the alcohol issues that are present in other parts of the
corporation. | On the nonexempt level, I think if that happens, it would
be traditionally [a matter of] where the plant sites are located. | Clearly
we have a lot of plants in the South [where] there is the good old boy
syndrome which I'm sure you're very familiar with. | It in fact exists
out there.

Story Episodes
Episode Main theme
Initial situation Unusual or special birth (Raglan's scheme)
Lack Hero lacks or desires something
Departure Hero begins quest to redress lack
Donor Hero tested, usually by future "donor" of powers
Magical agent Hero acquires use of magic from "donor"
Struggle Hero and villain struggle
Victory Villain defeated
Redress/attainment Initial misfortune or lack liquidated
Return Hero returns
Pursuit/chase Hero is pursued
Rescue Hero is rescued
Wedding Hero marries and ascends throne

Stanza 11: If you look at State B and you look at State C, | where by
the way we did experience significant illegal drug problems within the
company, | without question.

These four strophes lay out the terrain Mr. Bororo traverses during
the remainder of the interview. Strophe 2 introduces what becomes the
central theme of the interview: the contrast of engineering and sales-
manufacturing cultures, which he later will associate with lighter and heavier
drinking styles. Stanzas 3 and 4 sketch an origin story, in which he traces the
company's original but vanishing culture to the "dream" of its "nondegreed,"
"aggressive," "salesman," "peddler" founder. Mr. Bororo says he had the
"elite" experience of knowing this man personally in now-mythic time and
space—"in the back of the manufacturing shop which probably is no more."
In stanza 5 he describes the company's ascendant aristocracy of "degreed
engineers" who now so dominate the company that executives (like himself)
who lack "a fairly significant engineering degree" have little chance of
advancing into "very senior management." I term this stanza "The Lack,"
in reference to Propp's folk tale schema (see Table 3.1), according to which
it sets the hero off on a quest.
Stanzas 6 and 7 develop the contrast of engineering versus sales cultures,
and the important stanzas 8 and 9 draw out its implication for drinking.
He begins with a mildly denigrating rhetorical flourish—"engineers are
engineers"—and then sets their "serious," always "professional" manner
against the salesman type's love of the "frat house" and the "corner bar."
With this contrast, he conveys important information about differences in
drinking between occupational subcultures. He then shifts abruptly to a
new theme: alcohol (and especially drug) abuse is less likely to occur "at


the exempt level" than among hourly employees, particularly in Southern
plants where a "good old boy syndrome" prevails. This appears to (implicitly)
clarify his identity; whereas he earlier associated himself with the heavier-
drinking manufacturing culture, here he establishes himself as a West Coast
executive (where the corporate headquarters is located), which sets him
apart from the alcohol abusers.
In part I, then, Mr. Bororo sketches the cultural geography he inhabits.
Paradigmatically he defines two oppositions: between headquarters execu-
tives and hourly employees in the plants; and among executives, between
degreed engineers and salesmen/peddler-types. Syntagmatically, part I shows
something of a musical structure: He sounds a brief prelude, states a theme
(engineering vs. sales), develops the theme, and introduces a second theme
(exempt vs. hourly employees). Read literally, little plot appears in his
descriptions of the company's subcultures. But read figuratively, part I sets
up a mythic story line, an origin story in which Mr. Bororo's corporate
person is born in the dream aura of the founder, followed by the revelation
of a lack—that is, a lack of "a fairly significant engineering degree"—that
subsequently sets off a quest for the honor accorded to engineers. In the
last strophe, Mr. Bororo in fact begins to turn to the dangerous terrain
that lies out in the field (Southern plants plagued by drug problems), and
subsequent episodes tell of his departures from home to struggle with threat-
ening forces.


Ms. Sherente: What would you suspect about the alcohol problem?
Strophe 1, stanza 1: The alcohol problem is a real tough issue for us.
| It's a tough issue for us here at headquarters. | I would suggest that
virtually anyone employed in hometown in any position of line
Stanza 2: including sales, | with the exception that I don't think our
MIS group travels very much, | I don't think our bean counters travel
much, | clearly our audit people do,
Stanza 3: but if you think about the line people, | the engineering
groups, | the sales people, the market type of functions, | who travel
extensively . . . . [Stanzas 4—6 omitted.]
Strophe 3, stanza 7: Once you get away from here, once you go to the
road, that is part of the culture. | Your options are limited. That becomes
what becomes socialization. | There are groups within who travel 80%
of the time, and that's a job requirement. | Our traveling plant techni-
cians, our start up people, or our construction crew.

Stanza 8: The first thing they do is scout out a town and find a bar. |
That's the Tech-Mat bar. | That's where we'll hang out. | That's what
we'll do. [Stanzas 9—11 omitted.]
Stanza 12: Now rarely will you ever see anybody at an exempt level
even acknowledge that they've ever brought drugs there. It isn't done.
| It isn't like somebody slipping off and doing marijuana in the corner.
It isn't done. | But boy, having a few beers and staying up to 2:30 or
3:00 in the morning swapping stories, that's great, | and seeing if you
can get up early and wander in and still make the 8:00 breakfast call
is part of the culture. It's here. That's real.

Ms. Sherente asks about alcohol abuse, and Mr. Bororo's initially
halting, repetitive response makes up part II, which develops a single new
theme: Drinking forms part of the on-the-road culture of executives who
travel. He stutter-steps his way up to stating this theme, but in strophes 3
and 4 he hits his stride and enthusiastically describes drinking on the road.
Note that the paradigmatic contrast of travelers and stay-at-homes parallels
that of salesman types versus degreed engineers in imagination but not in
fact. That is, the travelers who show their stamina by drinking, playing
cards, and swapping "war stories" until the wee hours are to the bean counters
who stay at home as the college students who "hit the frat house" and
"corner bar" were to the engineering students who kept their noses in their
"bookwork." In part I Mr. Bororo emphasized the engineers' "professional
manner at all times" ethos, implicitly defining the salesman types as less
formal and reserved. Here his language ("guys" and "gals") and setting of
scenes ("Let's go out and have a few beers") emphasizes the informality,
machismo, and near-delinquency of the travelers, implicitly redefining the
stay-at-homes as bland and perhaps overly reserved. The contrast of types
thus remains constant whereas the facts change: Here he travels with the
livelier team of trouble-shooting engineers, while the boring accountants
stay home.
Indeed, after placing himself in the thick of the drinking party—in
the hospitality suite, where "the beer and the hard liquor will never run
out" (strophe 4, stanza 10), he returns to the theme he introduced at a
similar point: at the end of part I: exempt-level employees do not take drugs.
With the boundary between his behavior and real delinquency reestablished,
he signs off by stating his enthusiasm for the challenge of partying the night
away and still making the "8:00 a.m. breakfast call." Paradigmatically, then,
part II introduces a new contrast—travelers versus stay-at-homes—which
parallels that between engineers and salesmen types, and then reasserts the
contrast ot hourly versus exempt statuses to fence off substance abuse from
his group. Syntagmatically, it follows the special origin and lack episodes
of part I with a departure from home that leads him into remote lands, to


struggles he can characterize as war stories, and to tests of stamina and


Ms. Sherente: In your opinion, why do you think people develop

drinking problems?
Strophe 1, stanza 1: I think it's habit forming. | You get out and it's
expected. | If you travel alone, as I say, your options are limited. | I
think people tend to socialize that way. | They have to watch and make
sure it's under control.
Stanza 2: A lot of us hope that maybe we can get booked to a college
town, and go to a sporting event, let's go to a ball game. | No matter
what it is. That includes going into even the high school games if we
can. | Going to a high school football game is to try and keep folks out
of the gin mill if it's at all possible. | People can develop those problems
because they're traveling, and well, it's stress's oiler [i.e., alcohol].
Strophe 2, stanza 3: It may be not unusual for you to be on a plant
site if you're an operations type working on a problem, | and we have
a plant that craps out or a production unit goes down, | and we have
an outage, | we may say, "Get on a plane, forget what you're doing here,
wrap it up by six and move out."
Stanza 4: By the time you get there people are waiting. | "What's
happening? Why haven't you been here? | Look, this is what you've to
get at"—and people go after you. | And as a result, it's a reliever, or
presumed to be a stress reliever. That's what happens.
Strophe 3, stanza 5: Now how many true alcoholics do we have? | A
difficult question. | The ones we've accused, and the ones we've gone
after, the ones we've taken the hard stance with in terms of [taking
off] our gloves, | we've been very, very successful. Extremely successful
actually. [Stanzas 6-7 omitted.]
Strophe 4, stanza 8: Let me go back one step. | As I said, Division Y
tends to be a lot of degreed engineers. | They were nerds and cooled
off in a college environment, very academic. | Our manufacturing busi-
ness group was not built that way. [Stanza 9 omitted.]
Strophe 5, stanza 10: We hire from the street; we promote from within;
we move people up. | They become assistant plant managers, then plant
managers, and become technical. | The Q facility is run by Mr. Sampson,
who's nondegreed. His assistant is nondegreed. | Again, I don't mean
to demean a blue-collar or white-collar mentality, | but our business
group tends to have folks who grew up in a corner bar environment.
Stanza 11: They feel pretty comfortable with it, because that's what
Pop did. | Pop used to work at the mill or at the yard, | and Pop always
stopped and had a cold one before he got home. | Or put Mom out and
had a cold one. That wasn't a problem. [Stanzas 12—19 omitted.]

Strophe 9, stanza 20: [On dealing with alcohol abuse] You need some-
hody who's got a little bit of vision, | not a senior guy. Senior guys are
uninteresting. | Who the hell pays attention to the senior guys when
you've got to get the job done?
Stanza 21: You need somebody who's got a little bit of purer fuel to
stand up and say what they think, | who's one of the drunks, who can
afford to say, | "Hey, my name's Kenny so-and-so. I've taken a pledge
to have somebody saved." | You need that.
Stanza 22: I think if you can get the driver of the year, or the mechanic
of the year | to stand up and testify a little bit on one of these things . . . .

After discussion of company organization, Ms. Sherente again asks

about alcohol, and Mr. Bororo's near-monologic response makes up part
III. Her question challenges him to assemble a theory from the facts and
contrastive relations he has set forth, which do not cohere very well. He
works throughout part III to fit them together, and his efforts show the
combinatorial bricolage central to Levi-Strauss's theory of meaning: The
bricoleur labors not systematically as would a scientist but as a handyman,
jerry-rigging a solution with the materials he finds at hand: stereotypic
social categories.
Strophe 1 elaborates on the twin dangers travelers face in the field:
loneliness and crises of broken machinery and angry managers. Both lead
toward the siren song of the gin mill, which provides companionship and
"stress's oiler" (alcohol). Approaching the specter of alcohol abuse, he again
shifts to a new theme, in which he—as part of the company's responsible
we—attacks true alcoholics, "the ones we've taken the hard stance with,
in terms of taking off our gloves." Stanza 5 draws a solid boundary between
occasional heavy drinkers like himself and true alcoholics, whom his prosecu-
torial metaphors construct as virtual criminals. Stanza 6 softens this law-and-
order rhetoric toward a kind of tough love posture, but stanza 7 introduces the
importance of public confession, perhaps echoing Alcoholics Anonymous
philosophy and deepening the alcohol-as-criminal construction. He develops
this confession theme in stanza 9, arguing that what the company needs is
a "driver of the year" to speak out on alcoholism. Especially in contrast to
his later description of the protective silence his team of crisis managers
give each other about their drinking escapades (see part V, strophes 1-3),
this distinguishes alcoholism as a blue-collar crime or sin redeemed by public
confession. It also makes explicit the contrast he often makes implicitly:
The senior guys are bland, "uninteresting," not worth listening to; the hourly
employees are raw, made of "purer fuel," and can "stand up and say what
they think."
In strophe 4 he sets out to reconcile his thesis that alcohol abuse
primarily occurs among hourly workers with the example he gave of an
executive who is an alcoholic. He does this in stanzas 10 and 11 by suggesting


that plant managers are vulnerable to alcohol abuse because of their working-
class origins. In contrast to degreed engineers, whom he describes as "very
academic" and "nerds," the cadre of older plant managers "moved up," "off
the street," from blue-collar backgrounds. They "grew up in a corner bar
environment," where "Pop used to work at the mill" and "always stopped
and had a cold one before he got to the house," or maybe Pop "put Mom
out and had a cold one." He notes that plant managers "are more comfortable
with a beer in their hand, in shirt sleeves," than "at some formal cocktail
hour" and concludes that therefore "We [e.g., his manufacturing division]
are fertile ground for problems" (strophe 5, stanza 13). But again finding
himself too close to the danger, he repositions himself in a we situation
that controls the potentially out-of-control: ["We do not tend to let folks
get into real deep trouble" (strophe 6, stanza 14).]
In strophes 7 and 8 he introduces a theme he echoes at several later
points: that some individuals have "predilections" (strophe 7, stanza 16)
for alcoholism. These passages provide a stunning example of the mythic/
ideological sculpting of interpretation. In response to a question about
whether work factors could cause alcohol abuse in someone who does not
have a drinking problem, he firmly replies, "There's no doubt about that."
But he immediately qualifies this with, "If there's a predilection to it, it's
going to happen" and then gives an example of an executive he perceives
to have such a predilection. He describes this man as "slow," as someone
who came "up from the ranks" and doesn't really belong in the headquarters
(he had "been in here doing some work for us"), and in the end he puts
him in a line-up: "[if] I gave you ten people in a room, he'd be the one
you'd pick as a potential problem" (strophe 8, stanza 19). We could say
that Mr. Bororo succumbs to the fundamental attribution error: Although
his in-group of travelers drink heavily because of their situations, out-
groups (engineers, peddler types, workers, and managers from blue-collar
backgrounds) drink the way they do because of the sort of people they are.
The example he gives shows the potential alcoholic as constitutionally
slow, from the wrong side of the tracks ("up from the ranks") and visually
identifiable. This is not merely an information-processing mistake, however,
but an effort to fashion an ideological clumping of his milieu in response
to the suggestion that work factors might put individuals at risk.
Degreed engineers versus salesman types; stay-at-homes versus travel-
ers; exempts versus hourly workers—with these paradigmatic oppositions
Mr. Bororo charts the geography of his corporate culture. The first term of
each pair connotes control or overcontrol, depending on the context, and
the second term connotes noncontrol or release from control. And these
connotations provide the deep structural compass points with which he
tries to establish his position with regard to drinking. Syntagmatically, part
III continues the hero's adventures in the field, where he struggles with out-

of-control forces—"a plant that craps out," an "outage," the "true alcoholics,"
reunions of hard-drinking plant managers—and restores order. These mis-
sions put him at risk, as loneliness and stress soften his ears to the cg.ll of
the gin mill, but his story shows he can take it while others cannot.


Because of space limitations, all stanzas have been deleted from this
part, in which Mr. Bororo reaffirms the presence of true alcoholics in the
company by telling of a friend who died in a drunken car crash. Ms. Sheiente
has listened with increasing alarm, and begins to question him about what
managers might do to moderate such excesses. After he describes efforts to
discourage drunkenness at plant managers' meetings, she pushes the issue:
"What do you think it would take to turn around that culture?" Mr. Bororo
appears to feel accused, and responds in a more argumentative tone. Part
IV provides the researcher with useful inside information: At least some
executives have been concerned that the company encourages alcohol abuse,
but he explains (in the omitted passages) that they have done little about
it. His unsolicited diagnosis by division redraws familiar terrain: groups
dominated by degreed engineers are clean, except for the salespeople, while
his group, which has promoted from the streets, has problems. One of the
clean groups has no "back-slapping good old boy network"—which again
associates a Southern stereotype with a penchant for abusing alcohol.
Syntagmatically, alcohol abuse potentially presents the top corporate officers
with a challenge, and Mr. Bororo subsequently insists that "we" can rise to
the challenge and maintain control.


Ms. Sherente: Could you tell me a little bit about the barriers to
identifying somebody with a problem early enough to get them the
kind of help they need?
Strophe 1, stanza 1: A major barrier is that if you drink with someone
yourself, | how do you accuse somebody of having a problem? [Remainder
of Stanza 1 omitted.]
Stanza 2: Where do you start? | Where do you end? j What's your
Strophe 2, stanza 3: I mean, some of the classic vintage Tech-Mat
stones have a lot to do with both drinking, | particularly on planes,
| particularly with what happens thereafter, | and with associations
with customers.


Stanza 4: I mean, they are handed down as treasures, | and it involves
a lot of VP's and so forth, people who are now VP's. | So where does
so and so get off telling me I've got a problem? | I've seen him or I've
seen her, Wow!
Strophe 3, stanza 5: The guy, as an example, who runs our whole
technician group, | the group that I started out with. | I love him. He
is a friend. | I mean, we carried him across lawns to protect him.
Stanza 6: How is he going to say, | "Hey, I've heard some stories about
you traveling last week. | What are you doing?"
Ms. Sherente: Is it part of the corporate culture to protect?
Strophe 4, stanza 7: Sure, you have to protect. | We need to protect.
| We all look out for each other, everyone here. | That's what I'm saying.
Stanza 8: There's cabs. | There's designated drivers now. | There are
folks who watch. | We don't go out, as individuals or collectively, to
go get blitzed. | That's not the intent.
Strophe 5, stanza 9: But we have a lot of fun together, | [telling] war
stories, vignettes, | histories, tall tales. | We just take great pride breaking
in the new people, or the rookies
Stanza 10: and explaining this is what's happening. | And occasionally
you drink a few beers | while you're telling a story. | Those stories aren't
about people getting drunk.
Stanza 11: | They're about fixing plants, | handling strikes, and start-
ups. | But you've got control. | You're watching the control panel.
[Stanzas 12-28 omitted.]
Strophe 14, stanza 29: We bought Plastech Corp, an acquisition last
year. | The first thing we did was go out as an acquisition team, | Joe,
myself, and three other fellows. | We needed to find out what we had
bought on in Plastech.
Stanza 30: Bob looked at me, "What do we do?" | A cocktail hour for
key employees. | Back at the hotel, we called the Marriott, lined some-
thing up. | Four or five of us entertained 10 very key people at Plastech.
| We found out more in those 3 hours than we knew about them
for months.
Stanza 31: After that we knew where to send the auditors looking, |
and it wasn't evilly done. | It wasn't done with any forethought or
malice. | It was a way we could get people to relax in an environment
Strophe 15, stanza 32: and say, "Hey, you know about this project? |
You're working on it—is it really that attractive? | Is this membrane
system going to work? Do you really have good contracts in Russia? |
Hey, get the money out of Russia."
Stanza 33: It works. | It works. | So you've got somebody now heading
the division who believes that it's an effective way. | It's always control.
[Stanzas 34-35 omitted.]

Ms. Sherente follows up by asking about managers' reluctance to tackle

alcohol abuse, and Mr. Bororo responds by elaborating on the heavier

drinking he has been party to in his division. His account gives more
explicit character to the in-group he implicitly locates in contrast to degreed
engineers and hourly workers by making two main points. First, his group
is bonded partly by drinking experiences and shared possession of the tall
tales they make up from them, about which they protect each other (How
could one of them "get off telling me I've got a problem?"). Second, to
correct the impression that they go out "to get blitzed," he emphasizes—
using engineering imagery—that "you've got control. You're watching the
control panel." The we he places himself among thus control forces that
threaten to get out of control: On the job they fix plants, handle strikes,
and start up new facilities; off the job they drink, tell war stories and tall
tales, and still get business done, make the breakfast call, arid stay on the
fast track.
After volunteering that "females tend not to be included" (strophe 6,
stanza 14), Mr. Bororo says women can find honored places among the
travelers—especially if, like a colleague to whom he refers, they can ["drink
the rest of them under the table." Abstainers can join too, so long as they
tell stories and "play the war games."] But when Ms. Sherente says she: has
heard his division described as the company's "cowboys," he responds with
a dismissive "I don't think so" and he subsequently speaks with a more
formal and distanced voice. He also escalates his forthrightness when he
describes how he and his division head threw a cocktail party for the
executives of a newly acquired firm to gather the intelligence they needed
to make quick decisions about it (strophes 11 and 12). "We found out more
in those 3 hours than we knew about them for months," he says. "It was a
way we could get people to relax in an environment.... It works . . ." he
explained, adding pointedly, "It's always control."
Paradigmatically, these strophes implicitly reassert his earlier contrast
of exempt employees versus blue-collar workers, especially by noting that
the previous day's conference, replete with stories about the night's partying,
was "very controlled—all management. I didn't see anybody slipping off to
the corner bar" (strophe 5, stanza 11). Syntagmatically, part V tells of an
initiatory bestowal of power and its generational passage. Mr. Bororo ex-
presses his love for the head of the technician group "I started with," the
donor (in Propp's scheme) who brought him into the executive inner circle.
Mr. Bororo says "we" now "take great pride in breaking in the new people,"
the "rookies." As he had "elite" experiences with the company's founder
and his dream, here too he metaphorically imputes an aura of specialness
and sense of magic to the handing down of classic company stories as
"treasures." And then in the final strophe, he and his division head deploy
their power to carry out an intelligence-gathering cocktail-party mission,
and return with the goods ("After that we knew where to send the audi-
tors looking").



Ms. Sherente: Do you think if they did some surveying in the company
and found some very strong indicators that people were worried about
alcoholism and that there really was more of it than the company was
willing to admit, that it might make a difference?
Strophe 1, stanza 1: Yeah, it would. | We're analytical. | We're engineers.
| If there's a problem, we'll fix it.
Ms. Sherente: How are you going to fix this?
Stanza 2: I don't know. | We'd fix it. | Wefixeverything. | That's what
we do: fix. | We're the best operators in the world.
Stanza 3: We may run around like crazed dogs figuring out how to get
something done, but we'll fix it. | We'll fix it if it costs a zillion dollars.
| That's our culture: If it breaks we'll fix it. | And now we'll usually stop
it from breaking. [Stanzas 4-5 omitted.]

Throughout the interview, Mr. Bororo leaves it unclear whether he

thinks his company has serious alcohol abuse problems. And his own position
in the we of the higher-risk drinkers and in the we of those who go after
and control the heavy drinking of others becomes increasingly ambiguous.
So in part VI Ms. Sherente presses him about executives' unwillingness to
acknowledge the extent of alcohol abuse. Challenged again to exert control,
he resolves the ambiguity of his stance and identity by repeating a single
theme throughout all five stanzas: "we're engineers," "we're analytical." This
locates him solidly among the engineers who control the forces of entropy
and chaos, whether these be mechanical, human, or liquid. Ms. Sherente's
aggressive questions push him into this stance, but fixing things is what the
travelers have always done, and what their war stories and tall tales celebrate:
"We're the best operators in the world," he boasts—a boast with which
many industry analysts would agree. Remarkably, this sliding of his identity
into the corporate we figuratively returns him home with the lack annulled.
His assertion "We are engineers" thus ends the story (although the interview
continues for several more minutes).


In the course of this interview, Mr. Bororo repeatedly draws on a small

set of binary oppositions to outline the geography of his corporate culture:
degreed engineers versus salesman/peddler types; stay-at-homes versus travel-
ers; executives versus blue-collar workers; west coasters versus southerners.
The qualities he associates with these categories construct them as social
stereotypes that implicitly explain (to anyone sharing his system of cultural
understandings) why the first type of each opposition is less likely and the

Paradigmatic Structure
Overcontrolled Undercontrolled
Bland Raw
Group: degreed crisis managers blue-collar
engineers and sales people workers
Location: stay in travel stay out
[West Coast] [South]
Substance: none alcohol drugs and
Character: nerds, interesting, uncouth,
boring exciting, "pure fuel"
high stress
Speech uninteresting, war stories, confession,
silent tall tales, testimonial
[book work] treasures [slang]

Control the

second type more likely to abuse alcohol. He uses these contrasts to convey
valuable information about drinking, and we can see him as an amateur
epidemiologist struggling to identify three risk factors: working in sales,
working in jobs that require travel, and growing up in a blue-collar environ-
ment. But he also seizes the opportunity to perform for Ms. Sherente, and
he uses these oppositions to clump his social world into types of people that
serve as self-definitional landmarks.
The core oppositions do not mesh very well with each other or with
many of the facts he presents, and so he works throughout the interview
to combine, modify, and recombine them to produce a more coherent map.
His efforts look a little like he is following a terrain-mapping algorithm
designed to identify mountain—valley contrasts (e.g., executives vs. workers),
and then among mountains to identify forested-barren contrasts (e.g., engi-
neers vs. peddler types) and volcanic-sedimentary contrasts (e.g., stay-at-
homes vs. travelers). Such an algorithm would map some features accurately
but have a good deal of trouble settling into a solution when it comes across
chaparral, and it might be sent into a "jumpy" kind of oscillation by a
meadow or a lake. Yet these contrasts are Mr. Bororo's tools of thought,
and the facts he knows must be fitted into or around or concealed behind
them—which appears to give his narrative its jumpy character.
As tools of mythic thought, however, these contrasts fashion a colorful,
coherent social world and self. Table 3.2 diagrams the system of paradigmatic
relations by which he constructs his corporate culture and identity.


Syntagmatic/Plot Structure
Part and stanza sequence Plot sequence
Part 1: Engineers and peddlers
Strophe 1: Prelude—technical corporation Special origin
Strophe 2: Main theme—with the founder
Strophe 3: The fall—honor to the engineers The lack
Strophe 4: Book vs. drinking cultures
Strophe 5: New theme—exempt vs. non-exempt
Part II: On the road
Strophe 1: Travelers vs. stay-at-homes
Strophe 2: Drinking at lunch Departure from home
Strophe 3: Limited options on the road
Strophe 4: Tests and proofs
Part III: Dangers, challenges, tests
Strophe 1: Temptations of travel Solitude
Strophe 2: Trouble in the field
Strophe 3: The alcoholic as criminal Dangers
Strophe 4: Degreed engineers vs. plant managers
Strophe 5: From the street Pursuing criminals
Strophe 6: Keeping control
Strophe 7: Predilections Confession
Strophe 8: Mark of vulnerability
Strophe 9: Confession
Part IV: The specter of alcohol abuse
Strophe 1: Promoting moderation Challenge
Strophe 2: Facing problem drinking
Part V: Treasures, tall tales, and war stories
Strophe 1: Accusations and reputations Return to the field
Strophe 2: Handing down the treasures Power received
Strophe 3: Power protected Power passed on
Strophe 4: Breaking in the rookies Women included
Strophe 5: Good times under control Intelligence mission
Strophe 6: Women drink with the guys Triumph
Strophe 7: Abstainers also play the war games
Strophe 8: Not cowboys
Strophe 9: Action on the fast track
Strophe 10: The cocktail party
Strophe 11: Clatter and control
Part VI: Engineers All
Strophe 1: We're engineers
Return home
Strophe 2: We're engineers—encore

The group row lists the two anchoring stereotypes: on the left, the
"very professional at all times" degreed engineers; on the right the "pure
fuel," "put Mom out and have a cold one" blue-collar workers. His group
emerges in the middle: the salesman-peddler types and the travelers, whom
he defines as less professional and more at risk than the engineers but as
more professional and less at risk than the workers. He never says this

in so many words, but he establishes the middle "mediating" category by
continually shifting pairwise contrasts that implicitly sculpt his own group(s).
This is Levi-Strauss's primitive thought par excellence: The deep structure
of Mr. Bororo's self-presentation consists of a binary opposition—whose
concrete exemplars represent the abstractions "overcontrolled" and "under-
controlled," respectively—mediated by a third term: those who brave dangers
to control the forces that tend to spin out of control. This is what heavy
drinking means: Alcohol is an entropic, decontrolling force, which these
(figurative) adventurer-warriors seek out, drink in, and control. But Mr.
Bororo likely is correct to insist that their drinking is not about "getting
blitzed," and his identity is not primarily defined by his drinking styie. It is
all of the qualities listed in the table that construct him as an interesting
man whose strength of character shines in tall tales and war stories about
fixing broken plants, handling strikes, acquiring companies, and making the
breakfast call after hard-partying nights.
This paradigmatic structure enables Mr. Bororo to sketch the con-
tours of a mythic narrative—outlined in Table 3.3—in one of the most
basic and perhaps universal of genres: the hero epic. He begins by
establishing the special circumstances of his corporate birth ("elite" con-
tact with the founder in the no-longer-extant machine shop); the rise of
the engineering aristocracy that brought about his loss of honor; his
departure(s) from home to struggle with solitude and dangerous, out-of-
control forces; his receipt of power (the "handing down" of "treasures"
from a donor he "loves"); his passing of power to the "rookies"; his
intelligence-gathering triumph at the cocktail party; and, at the end, a
return home with the lack annulled in a corporate we: "We are engineers,"
"we're analytical," "if it breaks, we'll fix it, and we'll usually stop it from
breaking," "we're the best operators in the world." All this in figurative
language that could be viewed as but ornamentation to the communica-
tion of information, but which in fact drives his selection and interpreta-
tion of the information at every turn.


Mr. Bororo's discourse shows what Levi-Strauss has termed "the science
of the concrete." That is, lacking access to the specialized discourses of
alcohol researchers or personality psychologists, he thinks like a bricoleur,
a jack of all trades—with the tools at hand: stereotypic representations of
contrasting social groups. He proceeds by a kind of combinatorial experimen-
tation, in which he varies and reconfigures a core set of contrasts to produce
a collection of accounts of temperance, hard drinking, and alcohol abuse.
No single account provides a straightforward explanation of drinking or a


statement of his identity, but the corpus shows how things work in his
universe and yields a parsimonious but implicit group-personality theory of
alcoholism and delineation of his own character.
I suggested that this combinatorial experimentation resembles a rudi-
mentary terrain-mapping algorithm. It also closely resembles George Kelly's
(1955) view of how individuals map their social worlds and personalities
with a small set of bipolar "personal constructs." Kelly's theory in fact entails
a similar assumption about surface and deep structures: His role construct
reporting test elicited a dozen or more explicit contrasts, and then employed
factor analysis to identify a small group of abstract principles—typically two
to four—underlying them. (Rosenberg & Gara's [1985] hierarchical analysis
method likely could identify a structure from Mr. Bororo's interview resem-
bling what I have described.) The recursive use of a few abstract contrasts,
especially with the proliferation their prototypes, can easily generate a social
world that feels sensible because it is animated by a small set of tensions
active everywhere but that lacks logical coherence or empirical justification.
This does not reflect faulty inference or attribution error but the very essence
of mythic-ideological thought.
If Mr. Bororo charts a world whose epidemiological contours appear
discontinuous and awkwardly folded, it is a mythically coherent one in
which every location is defined by the tension of controlling and decontrol-
ling forces. He builds this coherence by defining homologous relations be-
tween groups—executives : workers :: degreed engineers : salesmen :: stay-at-
homes : travelers :: headquarters managers: plant managers :: west coasters :
southerners. These homological relations among concrete surface representa-
tions indicate that they embody the deep abstract contrast undercontrol
versus overcontrol or raw versus bland, which enable him to outline a theory
of drinking and in the same breath sketch a personal identity. That is,
he builds a cosmology of Kuhnian exemplars (Kuhn, 1974), but without
formalizing a theory or collecting data.
Mythic thinking entails not just information processing but the cre-
ation of meaning—a distinction that has become crucial for cognitive scien-
tists studying metaphor. Against the traditional view that rhetorical devices
simply ornament preexisting meanings, Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Wagner
(1986), Gibbs (1994), and Indurkhya (1992) have shown that not only can
metaphors call attention to previously unnoticed relationships but they can
create relationships where none previously existed. Metaphoric thought,
these researchers believe, is the primary vehicle by which humans create
systems of knowledge. Mr. Bororo's discourse certainly entails information-
processing that applies preexisting schemas and social stereotypes, but his
system of homologous contrasts steps beyond this to create himself.

Mr. Bororo's interview thus shows the structure of meaning Levi-
Strauss postulates to be elemental to mythic thought: a binary opposition
mediated by a third term, which is typically constitutive of valued culture
in contrast to devalued nature. Cooking thus "mediates" the opposition of
raw and rotten in the cosmologies of Amazonian Indians, distinguishing
the forces of culture from those of nature and identifying humans with the
former (Levi-Strauss, 1975). In Mr. Bororo's case, the triadic structure can
probably be termed dialectical in a Hegelian sense (Hegel, 1967), in that
the mediating category cancels and preserves both poles of the opposition.
He drinks in a corner bar style and speaks with touches of working-class
syntax and slang, but always retains control; he always keeps an eye iixed
on the control panel but sallies forth to face forces of chaos the nerdy
engineers keep under wraps. His identity thus emerges in opposition to a
pair of "undesired selves" (Ogilvie, 1987) but composed of features drawn
from each. In addition, the plot line develops this identity as a heroi.c one,
from a special origin through a lack and quest to a final completion, triumph,
and return.
This view of identity as constructed by the science of the concrete
differs markedly from models that seek to describe self-cognition as a
cluster of attributions, a tree of superordinate and subordinate categories,
or a group of schemas or scripts. Identity resides in a nexus of relations
at the intersection of paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of meaning: It
is defined by a paradigmatic "surface structure" of homologous concrete
contrasts that represent a deep abstract opposition, mediated by a third,
emergent category, which is developed by an implicit syntagmatic plot
line. Simpler information-processing or schema-script models may make
it possible to predict a range of behaviors. But identity entails the creation
of meanings, which only a layered or generative (surface structure—deep
structure) model that incorporates both paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes
can adequately describe. Here studies of figurative and mythic thought
offer a common ground for joining information-processing and narra'iive-
based theories of self-representation. Indurkhya (1992) challenged his
readers to see similarity in "fog" and "cat" before they read Carl Sandburg's
"The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over harbor and
city / on silent haunches / and then moves on" (cited in Indurkhya, 1992).
Mr. Bororo's identity can no more be captured by his surface self-attributions
(executive, traveler, west coaster, engineer, etc.) or even by the deep
schema overcontrol versus acontrol than Sandburg's poem can be reduced
to "fog resembles cat.." It is in the generation of continually shifting and
often inconsistent surface contrasts and of an implicit heroic plot structure
that an identity is fashioned and performed.


Because Mr. Bororo constructs his character by locating himself in a
cultural terrain defined by stereotypic landmarks, his identity has the sort
of dialogical or contrapuntal character Hermans and Kempen (1993) and
Gregg (1991, 1995) have investigated. That is, his is the voice that responds
to the bland professionalism of the degreed engineers and also to the raw
uncouthness of the blue-collar workers. This voice never needs to name
itself or precisely fix its position, because it takes on its character in dialogue
with the other voices it names and accuses. Mr. Bororo's identity forms in
the negative spaces of the cultural landscape he paints, and in this sense
it is distributed throughout it (Bruner, 1990). Hermans (1996) emphasized
the importance of recognizing the relative autonomy of the self s voices and
the potential of dialogue to transform the coordinates of the various I
positions and hence the author's identity. This interview shows dialogue
and movement of Mr. Bororo's I position, but no hint of transformation.
Provoked by Ms. Sherente's challenging questions, he clings to stereotypic
thinking, sometimes in the face of facts he himself brings up. Whatever the
accuracy of his bricoleur's epidemiology, his identity appears shaped largely
in an imaginal dialogue, in which the other voices serve mainly as foils for
defining the locations of his own.
Longer life-narratives typically show much greater elaboration of con-
trasting identities of the sort glimpsed in Mr. Bororo's shifts between present-
ing himself as more refined and controlled than pure-fuel blue-collar types
and as rougher and wilder than bean-counter managerial types (Gregg, 1991,
1998). They also often show rich use of key symbols and metaphors to
create meaningful ambiguity and to organize shifts between contrasting
identities as figure-ground reversals of their features. These organized shifts
show that the narrative construction of identity appears to use some of the
same representational structures as does tonal music, which Levi-Strauss
(1975) suggested of myth. These structures may be described by computa-
tional models (Jackendoff, 1987; Lehrdahl & Jackendoff, 1983), but their
layered or generative character and their meaning-making use of structured
ambiguity (Bernstein, 1976) makes them dramatically different than prevail-
ing attributional-inference or schema-script models.
Finally, contrary to what cultural psychologists might expect of a highly
educated, high-achieving Western white male—who should reside at the
very pinnacle of ego-centric self-construal—this interview shows a pro-
foundly sociocentric construction of a self almost totally immersed in social
statuses and stereotypic group identifications, with Mr. Bororo articulating
an identity in the most formulaic of genres. Mr. Bororo uses his managerial
and blue-collar stereotypes to anchor his identity in his class position, but
he also peppers his speech with working-class idioms to give himself a
tougher and more adventuresome edge than his uninteresting, bean-counter

peers. It is the more abstract deep structure of his identity—demonstrating
control of dangerous inner and outer forces—that establishes his solid ideo-
logical alliance with the elite. Bourdieu (1984) has shown how an aesthetic
of self-control underlies the generally classical tastes of the corporate bour-
geoisie, in contrast to working-class styles of self-presentation that cften
signify freedom from control.
In spite of professing generally progressive views on gender equality,
the deep structure shows a culturally traditional construction of male iden-
tity. Many of Mr. Bororo's terms traditionally connote manhood ("we're
analytical," "we're the best operators," telling "war stories"), and alcohol
researchers since McClelland, Davis, Kalin, and Wanner (1972) have seen
the demonstration of control over the dangers of drink as a ritualized source
of distinctly masculine empowerment (Capraro, 2000; Lemle & Mishkind,
1989; McCreary, Newcomb, & Sadave, 1999; West, 2001). Controlling the
entropic construes him as a preserver of culture against nature, which Oitner
(1974) suggested may be universal in cultural constructions of masculinity.
In all these ways, Mr. Bororo appears as mythic and as sociocentric in his
self-construction as any primitive villager or nomad.


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Many college and university professors who are actively involved in

research and writing will tell you that their scholarly work is an important
part of their identity. Autobiographies of natural scientists, social scientists,
and scholars in the humanities often trace the development of interest in
a given academic field and may describe how that interest affected their
personal lives (e.g., Loevinger, 2002; Sarason, 1988). Beyond stand-alone
autobiographies, however, few empirical studies have systematically exam-
ined how academics narrate their scholarly lives and how those narrations
may or may not relate to their lives outside the world of research and
scholarship (but see Ely, 2003; Weiland, 1995). If identity is, at least in
part, the stories people tell to integrate disparate aspects of their lives
(McAdarns, 1985; Singer, 1995), then the stories academics tell about the
questions, the ideas, the projects, the collaborations, the insights, and the
scholarly pursuits that have animated their intellectual lives are surely

identity texts worthy of systematic scrutiny. Consider, for example, the case
of Jerry Dennett.1
In the sixth grade, Dennett wanted to build the perfect robot. He still
does. Today, Dr. Dennett is a professor of computer science at a major
research university in the United States. He teaches courses on robotics,
computer programming, and artificial intelligence. "I'm interested in how
the mind works," Dennett says, with the aim toward "building systems that
can interact with an unpredictable environment and respond appropriately."
Robots are such systems. They are machines programmed to "see" the physi-
cal environment and to interact with, perform tasks within, and move
through that environment in an efficient and goal-directed manner. Like
people, robots must be self-regulating. They must be able to enact internal-
ized scripts in accord with the demands of the environment. As they move
through space, they must avoid collisions. They must be programmed to
control themselves and do things on their own. Self-regulation is a big
problem for robots, and for many of the other characters in Dennett's
life story.
Why might a boy wish to build a robot? Dennett's story, told 30 years
after his wish first appeared, suggests at least two different answers. First,
the boy's wish stems from an intuition that this is something very cool that
he can do. An unmotivated and underperforming student, Dennett showed
precocious skills in the sixth-grade computer programming sequence. Almost
immediately after he began this sequence, his grades began to improve. He
began to research computers and robots at the local Radio Shack. The
fantasy of building a robot made him feel competent and powerful—that
much is explicit in Dennett's story. What is more implicit is that the fantasy
may also have filled an interpersonal void. An only child in a family wherein
little affection was ever displayed, Dennett felt himself to be an "outcast"
(his term) at school as well. Looking back on his childhood, he says, "I
pretty much had no friends; I was pretty much a depressed child." A robot
is much more than a model airplane or racing car. It is like a person. To
build a robot is akin to creating a life, making a person.
In high school and college, Dennett studied computer operating systems
and artificial intelligence. He spent 2 years working on the problem of
computer vision. Dennett found much of this work to be dull and overly
abstract. The perceptual theories that scientists developed to explain how
computers might make sense of video streams coming from cameras seemed
too arcane to Dennett, and too divorced from what he believed intelligent

To protect the privacy of individuals interviewed, all names and identifying information have been


systems (e.g., humans) actually do when they use vision to perform tasks
in the world. The ideas that came out of this traditional line of inquiry
lacked practical applicability, Dennett believed. "The typical vision paper
was a lot of equations, and if they were really daring, some actual tests of
the program based on those equations, and then terrible, useless results."
Dennett wanted to work instead on "task-based vision, how vision gets
used in service of the task, and therefore what kinds of information you
need to extract in order to do the task." His opportunity to pursue this line
came when he enrolled in graduate school and signed up to work with a
professor of robotics. "Why don't you come work for me and build vision
systems for robots?" the professor asked. "So, that's what I did, and I eventu-
ally did a reasonably influential thesis on task-based vision, and developed
a collision avoidance algorithm for that, which is still widely in use.'' Since
graduate school, Dennett has continued to study information processing
systems as they might apply to robots. In recent years, he has moved beyond
vision to "design new kinds of inference systems that fit the requirements
of robotics and human body activity better than the kinds of things you
would read about in an AI [artificial intelligence] textbook."
The high point in Dennett's professional narrative is a series of events
surrounding research breakthroughs that he and his colleagues made in
graduate school. Dennett's lab became well-known for "building small, light-
weight, very capable machines [robots]" that moved quickly and nimbly. A
rival lab steeped in an engineering tradition "built these big behemoths
that moved really slowly—you had to have spotters to make sure they didn't
run into people. This really offended our aesthetics" (emphasis added). When
a scientist irom the rival lab came to visit one day, Dennett set up a tour
of his facility that was conducted by a robot itself. The robot performed
flawlessly—a "feat of extreme bravado" that put the rival to shame. Dennett
admits that he got lucky that day. All kinds of things might have gone
wrong, but they did not. "You can't anticipate everything that is going to
happen to a robot; I mean, a kid could run by and knock it over. ... At
night I could leave it [the robot] running for a long time and it would be
fine. But in the day there was enough traffic in the hallway where somebody
would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and cause my robot to panic.
Well, the robot didn't have emotions, but if someone was in the wrong
place it would swerve, and then crash off-course. But I lucked out. It was
a highlight" (emphasis added).
Dennett's robots do not have emotions, he concedes, even as he uses
language to suggest that it is easy to imagine that they might. Of course,
people have emotions, and here, too, problems involving collisions and self-
regulation are front and center in Dennett's life story. Since his graduate
school days, Dennett has had serious romantic relationships with five


successive women, the third of whom he married and then divorced. The
first in the sequence was Sarah: "Sarah was sort of the first prototype person
I got involved with, who was relatively volatile, very creative, very exciting
to be around, and is generally in need of a stabilizing influence, because
they're not very good at self-regulating." Sarah eventually became a cocaine
addict. Rachel, the woman he married, was diagnosed with a borderline
personality disorder. Ramona was an actress; in her love drama with Dennett,
she played the role of abusive partner. Dennett's father was a professional
actor who "was not abusive in a conventional sense," but "he demanded
tremendous amounts of attention and did not reciprocate." Yet as a young
boy, "I idolized my father." Dennett idolized each of his women, as well,
and felt that in each case she personified characteristics that he longed to
have as his own. At the same time, each of the five women, like his father,
was out of control. Dennett stepped in to regulate their lives. He wanted
to "save" Rachel. He tried to get Sarah "back on track." Dennett is still
trying to "design" a self-regulated companion. So far, he has managed to
avoid collisions with the fifth woman, and he is optimistic that this new
relationship will turn out to be "the one." He may get lucky this time—he
has been lucky at least once before. But then again, "you can't anticipate
everything that is going to happen to a robot; I mean, a kid could come
by and knock it over ... it could swerve, and then crash off-course."


We recently launched an exploratory study of the stories that professors

tell about their creative work. To date, we have interviewed 15 professors,
drawing from the sciences and engineering and from the humanities. Adapt-
ing the life-story interview protocol used in McAdams (1993), we asked
each participant to describe the overall trajectory of his or her scholarly
life and then to focus on four particular scenes that stand out in the story:
an opening scene (describing how interest in the area of scholarship may
have originated), a professional high point, a low point, and a turning point.
Extending the story into the future, we also asked the participant to imagine
the next chapter in the professional story. We then asked each participant
to narrate according to a similar format the story of his or her personal
life, focusing on family relationships and friendships. Finally, we asked the
professor to consider any connections or relationships he or she may see
between the two narrations we invoked—that is, between the professional
story of creative work and the personal story of love.
The narratives Dennett provided for us illustrate a set of themes about
academic work that we see in many of the interviews. The themes dovetail


with observations made by Gardner (1993) in his case studies of Einstein,
Stravinsky, and other highly creative 20th-century figures, and by Gruber
(1989) in his biographical analyses of creativity in the lives of Darwin and
Piaget. They also play out key concepts found in Tomkins's (1987) script
theory and Gregg's (1991; see also chap. 3, this volume) theory of dialectical
images in life-narrative accounts. In sum, the narratives illustrate hov/ the
protagonist (a) encounters an early question or problem in childhood or
adolescence that drives intellectual work thereafter; how the question
(b) suggests an idealized image of something or someone in the world that
(c) illuminates or embodies a personal aesthetic; how the question/image/
aesthetic (d) sets up a corresponding dialectic, pitting contrasting proclivities
or trends in life sharply against each other; and how this dialectic, which
operates to organize one's story of creative work, may (e) play itself oat in
the personal realm as well, sometimes organizing certain aspects of one's
story of love, family, and personal relationships.
In Creating Minds, Gardner (1993) suggested that creative geniuses
like Stravinsky and Freud, as well as many adults with strong talents in the
arts or sciences, "can usually identify a situation or even a moment when
these young individuals first fell in love with a particular material, situation,
or person—one that continues to hold attraction for them" (p. 32). Gardner
called this moment a "crystallizing experience" (p. 32). In Dennett's story,
the early attraction was not to a particular material, situation, or person,
but rather to a question or prospect: How can I build a robot? Although it
may be claiming too much to characterize Dennett's sixth-grade question
as a crystallizing experience, it is clear that he traces the origins of his life-
long fascination with artificial intelligence and robotics to his discovery in
the sixth grade of the problem of designing self-regulating systems.
Once Dennett discovered the question, he set about crying to learn
as much as he could to answer it. As Gruber (1989) argued, the course of
creativity in a person's life forms a developmental trajectory diat is situated
in a particular historical and cultural context. Dennett's question about
robots arose at a time in American society when research on artificial
intelligence was about to take off. Dennett pursued his question through a
series of steps or phases, moving from the technical manuals he read at
Radio Shack to classes in computer programming, and eventually to a PhD
program that enabled him to translate his passion into real-world results.
His current research builds on the work he has already done while incorporat-
ing new questions and concerns that stem from his reading and his conversa-
tions with students and colleagues.
What is a robot? It is an artificial, self-regulating body that moves
through space in a goal-directed manner, accomplishing tasks, anticipating
and solving problems, and avoiding collisions. As defined here, the robot
is the idealized image of Dennett's professional life story. It is a picture of


what he wants to make or achieve. As his story tells it, Dennett has been
committed to this image since his junior-high-school days. Accordingly,
Dennett's professional story resembles what Tomkins (1987) called a com-
mitment script. According to Tomkins (1987; see also Carlson, 1988), some
people organize aspects of their lives into scripts wherein the protagonist
doggedly pursues a life-long goal. In a commitment script, the protagonist
enjoys an early experience of intense positive emotion—typically joy or
excitement—that holds out the promise of future growth, achievement, or
actualization. The protagonist dedicates himself to recapturing or bringing
to fruition the promise of the early, idealized scene. This prospect becomes
a life goal that confers on the narrative a single-mindedness and a belief
that bad things, such as professional failures and rejections, can eventually
be overcome. The commitment script may bring to the story the quality of
redemption (McAdams, 2006; McAdams & Bowman, 2001). The gifted
protagonist enjoys a special advantage early in life, commits the self to
realizing the potentials that come from that advantage, and continues to
persevere through difficult times, believing that suffering will ultimately
be redeemed.
Our reading of the 15 interviews we gathered in this study suggests
that academics who develop strong programs of research and scholarship
often organize aspects of their professional narrative in this way. The early
question stimulates the positive emotion of intense interest/excitement
(Izard, 1977; Tomkins, 1987). The excitement is attached to an idealized
image of what the protagonist might someday make, discover, realize, or
experience. The image, furthermore, may suggest a personal aesthetic. The
aesthetic is an implicit conceptualization of those qualities that make a
thing or an experience beautiful. The aesthetic specifies good and appealing
form. What kind of robot did Dennett want to design? What might it look
like? How might it act? In sixth grade, it is quite unlikely that Dennett
could have provided sensible answers to these questions. But by the time
he was in graduate school, he had developed a particular set of preferences
that he projected onto the idealized image of the robot. These preferences
make up a personal aesthetic—a sense of what constitutes good form, good
taste, or beauty in robots.
In graduate school, Dennett and his colleagues sought to design small
and efficient robots, light-weight and nimble machines that moved through
the environment quickly and smartly. Dennett says that the robots from
his lab's primary competitor "really offended our aesthetics." They were
clunky "behemoths that moved really slowly"—"you had to have spotters
to make sure they didn't run into people." These rival machines represent
the computer establishment in Dennett's story. They are the "old-fashioned,
traditional, fuddy-duddy AI" machines. Dennett says, "I just don't respect
this tradition." For Dennett, the beautiful robot is hip, small, and agile. His


personal aesthetic privileges the qualities of agility over strength, speed over
brute force, elegance over mass. These positive associations run toward youth,
excitement, and freedom, but also toward self-control and functionality.
Dennett's image of the perfect robot and the aesthetic it illustrates set
up a powerful dialectic in his narrative identity—an oppositional relation-
ship between thesis and antithesis. Dialogical theories of narrative identity
emphasize how multiple voices, characters, perspectives, or positions speak
to each other in any given life story (e.g., Hermans, 1996; chap. 1, this
volume). Life stories do not typically express a single theme or point of
view. Instead, they may articulate striking contradictions and inconsisten-
cies. Gregg (1991; see also chap. 3, this volume) suggests that life stories
are often organized in terms of binary oppositions. A strong theme may
assert itself as a thesis in the story, but a countervailing subtext may assert
an equally powerful antithesis. The resulting dialectic may reflect various
dispositional traits in a person's life, family dynamics, personal ideologies,
or contrasting forces that arise in the social and cultural milieu within which
the life has its meanings.
In the story of Dennett's creative work, a signal opposition is that
between the self-regulated and graceful movements of the perfect robot on
the one hand and the chaotic, clumsy, and unpredictable actions that
Dennett observes in competing robots and in many other characters in his
life on the other hand. The dialectic is fundamentally about movement and
control. To live is to move. Yet well-calibrated, goal-directed movement is
difficult, for both robots and human beings. Showing how the dialectic
organizes both his professional and personal life stories, Dennett describes
the women he has loved, as well as certain other colleagues and friends, as
being unable to move forward in their lives in a controlled and goal-directed
manner. Yet he is attracted to these people for their passion and spontaneity.
"So many of the people I've been close to have been under crazy amounts
of stress. They're wonderful people. So on the one hand, they're great, but
they act out in weird ways. For example, my girlfriend has generated a lot
of stress in my life, but the happiest moments in my life have been with
her." Dennett loved his father dearly, even though his father was out of
control. He longs to have some of the traits he perceives in his histrionic
lovers. The dominant discourse in Dennett's professional and personal stories
is about self-control and forward movement. But the subtext asserts that
self-regulation may not be all it is cracked up to be. Who wants to be a
robot anyway?
As Dennett looks to the next chapter in his professional story, he
seeks to avoid the two outcomes that, he sees as most common among his
senior colleagues. Some of the older professors are "dead wood," he says.
They are no longer productive. Figuratively speaking, they do not move at
all. Other, more productive senior faculty members are, nonetheless, "on a


treadmill," he says. This second group is exerting tremendous amounts of
energy to keep moving, but they are not really going anywhere. The pressures
of writing grants, supervising theses, sitting on committees, and what Den-
nett views to be other nonproductive activities compromise their ability to
make the kinds of agile and creative movements in their professional lives
that smart and nimble academics should be able to make. They are distracted
and depleted.
The dichotomy seems to be between moving forward with grace and
agility versus going nowhere or bumping into walls; self-control versus the
chaos of the unregulated life. But the well-regulated life may be bloodless.
The most important flesh-and-blood people in Dennett's life express the
passion and spontaneity that his robots can never seem to achieve. Dennett's
stories of work and love do not ultimately reduce to a single, unifying message.
In his case, narrative identity can be seen through the lens of opposition.


As much as Dennett has always projected his self-regulated machine

into an imagined future, Laura Rubin locates her idealized image in the
distant past. Rubin is a professor of literature at a small liberal arts college,
and her passion is the medieval world. The passion integrates her professional
and her personal life. Not only does Rubin teach courses and write articles
on medieval Christian literature but she is a practicing Christian who once
considered entering a monastery and who today prays in a small chapel she
has designed for her own home. Among Rubin's dearest "teachers and
friends" she counts the women and men whose lives in the church she has
chronicled and pondered—certain saints and other "historical characters
who lived in the past, 600, 800 years ago. ... In a sense, we belong to the
same community." Rubin is also a mentor and friend for those students she
encounters in the present who seem, haltingly and awkwardly, to be search-
ing for transcendent meaning in contemporary life, and for other young
faculty at the college whose scholarly interests in history and literature are
similar to her own. "I think you can figure out from what I am saying that
the line between my personal and professional life barely exists, if at all. . . .
The people who have moved me most deeply on a personal level," Rubin
says, "are also those who have most radically influenced my approach to
the work I do."
Rubin grew up a secular Jew in a working-class family. "It was a
wonderful family with loving parents and everything," but Rubin felt she
was "in exile." "It was exile because I knew this culture was not where I'm
from, in some sort of inner spiritual, intellectual, emotional sense." The


public schools she attended were "anti-intellectual." And her parents, as
devoted as they were to their only daughter, saw virtually no value in religion
or spirituality. Instead, her parents channeled their passion into leftist poli-
tics. Their daughter readily adopted these political views, and she even tried
to be an atheist. The politics stayed with her, but the atheism never took.
I wasn't designed to be an atheist. I was a very bad and unhappy one.
I was always trying, even in childhood, to get some kind of religions
observance into the family. I remember my grandmother, the one who
lived until I was 9. She taught me how to light the Hanukah candles,
and how to chant the prayers, and I thought that was cool. So I begged
and pleaded with my parents, can we light the Hanukah candles, can
we have a menorah? My dad was like come on, but my mom was like,
humor her, she wants something to believe in. And I remember saying,
no, that's not it. I want something to celebrate. I think that is still, for
me, what spirituality is about, on one level. I think celebration is
prior to believing, and I think perceiving the glory of God and doing
something about it, giving thanks and rejoicing, that comes first, and
formulating thoughts about it comes later, at least in my personal

Rubin's creative work is driven by a question she first confronted as

a child living in exile: "How do you find God in the world?" Beginning in
high school, Rubin experimented with many religions: "I tried fitfully to
become a Hindu, or become a Buddhist. Anything would do! But it didn't
quite work. I wore a dashiki and beads for a while, and all of that. When
I went to college, I declared right away as a religion major, as well as
literature. So I studied a lot of heavy-duty religion in class. I'd been studying
Kierkegaard and Whitehead, and all of these guys as well as medieval mystical
writings, and I'd gotten to the point where I still didn't believe. 1 asked
myself, is there a God, and the only answer I could give was, I don't know,
maybe, maybe not."
Once she arrived at college, Rubin felt she was no longer in exile.
Her classes in religion and the liberal arts satisfied her intellectual appetites
and deepened her search for the transcendent. "When I got to college, I
thought, ah, yes, this is the world where I belong! This is a cultural v/orld
that speaks to me." But it was not until her sophomore year that Rubin
envisioned a way to bring God into that world. She struggled to reconcile
the many rational arguments against religious belief with her desire to find
some kind of transcendent meaning in her life. A good friend tried to
convince her to become an evangelical Christian, but the approach did not
appeal to Rubin. She read C. S. Lewis and a number of other authors who
described more intellectual perspectives on Christianity. "I was imagining
the world as a Christian, but I wasn't one." After a series of intense


conversations with friends and a priest and in the wake of stimulating
seminars in religion and soul searching and rumination, Rubin felt she
could no longer continue to live with such emotional and spiritual conflict.
Walking across campus on a cloudy day, she pledged to put an end to the
turmoil and finally make a decision: "So I resolved I would not become a
Christian. I would forget about God and get on with my life. Then all of
a sudden, all the color bleached out of the day. The whole world suddenly
appeared in nothing but shades of grey. That was all the evidence I needed.
That was the turning point of my life. I became a Christian by deciding
not to be one."
Rubin's conversion experience launched her professional career. Now
that she was a Christian, she would study Christianity. But what kind of
Christianity? What should it look like? What should it sound like? It should
look and sound like a world wherein "the transcendent is the ultimate
reference point for everything, even for day-to-day life, a sense that God
is the origin and end of life, not just God in a compartment out there called
religion, where you just put in an hour on Sunday morning." For Rubin,
that world, if it ever existed, was the medieval world, wherein "the most
highly developed and sophisticated thought of the age was directed toward
the end of understanding God and our relationship with God." Rubin's
childhood question led to her construction of this idealized image, and the
personal aesthetic it conveys.
My own thinking as a believer is oriented toward God as' the meaning,
purpose, and goal of human life, and I find medieval religious thought
in many ways more sophisticated than modern religious thought. I hate
to say this, but there isn't progress in all the dimensions of human life.
Which isn't to say that there weren't horribly repressive aspects of the
medieval church with regard to women, and Jews, and homosexuals. I
don't think I idealize the medieval church in total. I certainly would
not want to live in it. But the notion of this transcendent orientation
of all human life, also much of the aesthetics—there's something about
walking into a Romanesque cathedral—if you ever embrace the columns
of Durham Cathedral, the massive grandeur, or listened to a really well-
trained choir, or a monastic's singing chants, or studied gothic miniature
with its exquisite arabesques, the magnificent aesthetics, the combina-
tion of exquisite attention to detail with profoundly symbolic meaning—
well, I respond to that very deeply. There are whole aspects of the
period I don't like, obviously, but I think some people are drawn to
study what they hate, because they hate it and so they have to understand
it. For instance, we need Holocaust scholars to study exactly how and
why that happened. They don't study the Holocaust because it makes
them feel good. So there is a very legitimate kind of motivation for
understanding what is repulsive, because we need to understand. But
my motivation is more positive. I study what I find attractive.


Rubin does not really want to go back 800 years to live in medieval
Europe. Nor is she so naive as to think that she can re-create the medieval
world in her own daily life. She enjoys the freedoms and amenities of upper-
middle-class life in 21st-century America. But she finds in the medieval
world a spiritual way of being and a grand aesthetic regarding the sacred
that are quite foreign to modern life. Her scholarship provides her with
access to that way of being and its accompanying aesthetic. Her involvement
in that world, however, goes well beyond the chapters she writes and the
classes she teaches. In her personal beliefs and practices, Rubin draws deeply
and broadly from Christian traditions that are rooted in the medieval world.
The music, meditation, and mysticism of medieval Christianity inform her
own religious imagination and influence her daily routines. It is fair to say,
therefore, that Rubin's idealized image of medieval Christianity arid its
accompanying aesthetic of the transcendent are strong integrative forces in
her narrative identity and serve to provide her life with a greater sense of
unity and purpose than is probably typical among academics today.
Rubin's is a deeply integrated story about living an integrateci life.
Dialectically, however, integration suggests its opposite: disintegration. Be-
fore Rubin converted to Christianity and began her studies of the medieval
world, she felt that her life was split into pieces. Her conversion experience
helped to bring the pieces together. She describes that experience as a
moment of profound lucidity. Just as she has decided to renounce God, the
sky and the earth go gray. This is a sign, she believes—irrational, mysterious.
In the moment, she embraces God, and she will never let go. Her conversion
episode illustrates the integrative power of a personal religious experience.
At the same time, this quality of experience can also lead to disintegration,
Rubin contends. Early in her career, Rubin befriended a colleague at another
college with whom she shared many interests. Her colleague had personal
experiences that seemed mystical and profound. Although other people
thought these experiences bizarre, Rubin was accepting and interested tc
learn more. She realized too late, however, that her friend's visions and
messianic ideas were the delusions of a deeply depressed, probably schizo-
phrenic woman. Rubin's experience with her friend altered and deepened
her understanding oi personal religious experiences and spirituality. Seeing
her friend's breakdown made her think harder about the nature of spirituality,
both medieval and modern. She says that she began to recognize
how much on the borderline many of these phenomena are, that we're
reaily talking about a very powerful and very disruptive kind of experi-
ence, and that having these transcendental experiences, or visions, or
hearing voices, whatever, it can be a powerfully integrant's experience thai
car. lead someone to become a renowned spiritual advisor and authority
within a culture, but it can also lead to a lot of both inner and social
breakdown and destruction, [emphasis added]


The central dialectic in Rubin's stoty, then, is that between unity and
disintegration. "I have one life; it doesn't fall into compartments or pieces,"
Rubin maintains. Her story shows, however, that the same kind of deeply
religious experiences that can bring together the disparate aspects of a
person's life into an integrated whole can also split a life into pieces. Rubin
points out that in the middle ages some people's mystical experiences were
seen as visionary whereas others' were viewed to be the work of the devil.
But what differentiates the prophet from the demonic? The genius from the
psychotic? The beautifully integrated life from the delusional one? These
questions speak to the dialectic lying at the heart of Rubin's professional
story. These questions are the daughters and granddaughters of that most
basic question Rubin posed for her parents and grandparents when she was
but a child: How do you find God in the world? For Rubin, you find God
in the beauty of a Romanesque cathedral or a well-trained choir, in the
prayers and rituals of the Christian liturgy, and in deeply spiritual personal
experiences—the kind that promise to make your life whole, even as they
threaten to break it into bits.


Rubin's life story offers a striking challenge to postmodern theories

(e.g., Gergen, 1992) and other conceptions of identity that privilege multi-
plicity over unity in selfhood (Hermans, 1996; chap. 1, this volume). Even
when the interviewer encourages her to tell separate and distinct narratives
in the realms of work and love, respectively, Rubin doggedly insists that
her life is an integrated whole. On closer inspection, however, we see that
the very theme of integration suggests its opposite. As Gregg (1991; chap. 3,
this volume) has shown, life stories can sometimes express the multiplicity
of personal experience through dialectical relationships—hot versus cold,
raw versus cooked, personal wholeness versus disintegration. For example,
Dennett's life story expresses the dialectic of control versus chaos. The story
is about both the search for self-regulation and about selves spinning out
of control. Gregg has suggested that different self-elements are sometimes
less different than they initially seem because they are organized in narrative
through a dialectic. Different pieces are brought together, integrated, as it
were, in terms of their oppositionality. In a similar sense, stories that seem
to be neatly unified around a single theme can, as in the case of Rubin,
suggest the very opposite of that theme, creating multiplicity where simple
unity once seemed to prevail. But the kind of multiplicity we see both in
Dennett's and in Rubin's narratives is multiplicity within a dialectical pat-
tern, difference within sameness, as well as sameness within difference. In
neither case does the story suggest a simple unity and coherence in life. At


the same time, neither story devolves into randomness and the kind of
shifting, patternless melange that postmodern theorists such as Gergen
(1992) repeatedly invoke.
Still, some lives, and life stories, may be more patterned than others.
Julia Pagano is a professor of romance languages at a large public university.
Like Rubin, Pagano experienced a religious conversion, in this instance in
her adolescent years. She suffered through a difficult home life, and as a
response she converted to Catholicism as a teenager, both to create distance
from her abusive mother and to recapture aspects of her Italian heritage.
Unlike Rubin, however, Pagano believes that her life expresses little unity.
Her feeling stems in part from the multicultural experiences she has both
suffered and enjoyed since she was a child. Her family immigrated to the
United States and settled in Boston when Pagano was 8, and from that
point onward she struggled with this question: "How can I be Italian in an
English-speaking world?" As an adult, she teaches Italian at an English-
speaking university. But the idealized image and the accompanying aesthetic
that have evolved in response to her childhood question are more complex
than that. They involve living a rich and cosmopolitan life, steeped in
Italian culture and yet open to a broad diversity of tastes and experiences,
and living that life in the midst of (or even in opposition to) the largely
philistine, consumer-oriented, English-speaking society that is mainstream
America today. Although Rubin seeks to blend the medieval wi.th the
modern, Pagano finds more compelling the disjunctions and the miscouplings
in the life she lives and the work she does. Accordingly, she relishes opportu-
nities to experience many different kinds of things in their fullness and
singularity, and she resists making connections between them.
My personal life and professional life are discrete. . . . My personal
relationships have not been either helpful or unhelpful for my career.
They didn't have much to do with my not getting tenure the first time
around [or getting it one year later], so 1 see those things as being rather
separate. I don't try to make things coherent. I'm not looking for
profundity; I don't believe in that. I think people are made of overlapping
scales or pieces. There's some overlap there, but there'll be differences
here. 1 think it's artificial to look for some unity. . . . Looking for unity
is not a good construct for the mind to desire. It's not real. We're made
up of all these disjointed parts. I might feel disjointed and that's fine.
I think life is richer that way.

Yet one cannot help but see patterns and similarities across different
domains of Pagano's life. Contrary to postmodern preferences for surface
over depth and role-playing over stable selfhood (e.g., Gergen, 1992), Pagano
searches for authenticity in her work and personal life. In her research and
writing, and in her love relationships and friendships, Pagano looks for what
is real. In her life, there are many "different areas where you have various


centers of interest that don't necessarily cohere, but they are all genuine"
(emphasis added).
If deep and genuine experiences in both work and love mark high
points in her story, disappointments around commitment, both in work and
love, typically characterize the things that have not gone so well for her.
She traces her failure to develop a long-term romantic relationship with a
man to problems she experienced with her mother as a child. Those problems
may have also affected her work life, she suggests. She entered therapy to
work on her family problems at the time when she was having tremendous
difficulty writing her first book. "Having to do the book tapped into issues
with my parents in a way I didn't see coming. I was blindsided by that."
She eventually wrote the book, and it marked a professional success. She
has continued to do first-rate research in her field. But to date she has been
unable to summon the drive and commitment required to write a second
book, which has kept her from being promoted to a higher academic rank.
Pagano is frustrated by her lack of progress on the second book. It is as if
writing the book, like sustaining a long-term love relationship, requires a
unity of mind and direction of spirit that run counter to her idealized image
of life as a series of rich and variegated experiences—many pieces, only
partially overlapping.
As the account that Pagano gives questions (as it oddly seems to affirm)
the need for integration in life narrative, Sal Manheimer struggles with the
issue of personal agency. A history professor who came back to academia
after a successful business career, Manheimer identifies singular historical
events, social categories of gender and class, and sheer chance to be the
prime determinants in his life. Like B. F. Skinner's (1984) efforts to construct
an autobiography almost solely in terms of environmental contingencies
and reinforcements, Manheimer provides an account that downplays free
will and the self-determining efforts of a hero. As a historian, Manheimer
rejects the "great man theory of history" in favor of accounts that privilege
"social structure and contingency." He sees his own life in similar terms.
On completion of his graduate degree, he fell into a business career because
the job market in academia was so tight. Because he was a member of "the
'60s generation . . . . I assumed no responsibilities between my late teens and
my late 20s—it was wonderful, a very extended adolescence." Manheimer
suggests that following such a course for early adulthood was simply inevita-
ble, given the nature of his cohort: "We all did this." Manheimer finally
married in his early 40s. The right woman finally came along, "a purely
freakish thing that occurred, a chance thing that was serendipitous."
Manheimer's story is about chance, timing, and social-structural forces that
seem well beyond the control of the story's protagonist.
Manheimer's idealized image for his creative work is the well-
formulated historical account. According to his story, the image began to


cake form in high school, when he posed the question that launched his
intellectual career: How; can I explain the Vietnam war? For many in Man-
heimer's generation, Vietnam loomed enormous as a societal trauma and a
personal dilemma. Manheimer's story focuses less on fears about being drafted
into the war and more on his confusion regarding how such a terrible thing
could ever happen. Manheimer entered high school with strong interests
in the natural sciences. He might have become a doctor, he now imagines.
But "all the chemistry and physics in the world wasn't going to end the
Vietnam war. So I went to college as a freshman in '68, and I thought I
might be a clinical science and urban studies major. Within a week, though,
I had switched to history."

I had decided in my 19-year-old wisdom that historical explanations of

occurring social phenomena were the only honest way of understanding
what was wrong now, and therefore what could change, so therefore
one had to be an historian. I never stopped being an historian. I decided
that historians had one advantage over social scientists, and that is that
they looked at problems over time, rather than just snapshots. It's a
methodology that to this day I will defend. Today, though, social scien-
tists tend to be more historical, and historians tend to be more social
science-y. It was my generation of aspiring historians that forced histori-
ans to think like social scientists. I do think in terms of social
categories—class, race, gender, authority. When I teach history, I always
put it through the categories of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. I don'r
tend to go toward the psychological categories, but toward sociological
and historical categories. I can't think of the world any differently. The
narrative is an historical narrative. History has changed enough, fortu-
nately, that it is not hostile to the inclusion of social science. So that's
how I became an historian. Now the other version of the story, which
is equally true, is that as a freshman, my first political science instructor
was terrible. I told my new best friend, who was a political activist, and
he told me to take this history course. 1 sat in on the class; it was called
The Intellectual History of the United States, by a visiting professor.
Well, I fell in love with the class, and the teacher became my mentor for
that year. We are still in touch. There's always the random serendipitous
moment where if I had had a great political science professor that first
year, I might have stayed with political science. Never think that there
aren't these serendipitous contingencies! I always tell my students and
my kids that, [emphasis added]

Manheimer's question regarding the Vietnam war led him eventually

to history, a life progression that he now explains in terms of a well-formed
historical narrative. According to Manheimer, the well-formed historical
narrative traces the complex trajectories of events over time while paying
careful attention to the social science categories of race, gender, class, and
power. It also leaves plenty of room for serendipity. What offends the


aesthetic, however, is personal agency. History is not made by great men
or women. The Vietnam war cannot be explained, Manheimer would assert,
by Robert McNamara's hubris, Lyndon Johnson's fatalism, or the strong
personality of Ho Chi Minh. Historical forces are larger than the personal
agency of any single actor, and random, inexplicable events always play a
major role. And so it is in Manheimer's own life, told as a well-formed
historical narrative, emphasizing historical events (the Vietnam war), social
forces (protest movements of the 1960s), fluctuations in the economy (tight
job market for humanities academics in the late 1970s), gender, race, class,
and contingency. Whether talking about his own research or his personal
life, Manheimer's explanations go in the direction of the historical and
the sociological rather than the psychological. Manheimer went back to
academia in the 1990s because his business began to falter and because new
opportunities arose for him at a local university. Rejecting psychological
jargon, he says, "I didn't have a midlife crisis; my business had a struc-
tural crisis."
Yet telling a life as a narrative of pure contingency and social structure
may be almost as difficult as building the perfect robot. Manheimer occasion-
ally violates his own aesthetic—the beauty he sees in the well-formed
historical account—when he expresses surprisingly strong urges to take
charge of it all, to become the agentic force in his own life. Today, he
lives with his wife and the two teenaged children from her first marriage.
Manheimer describes their life as that of a "typical, two-career, professional
family" in the United States in the early 21st century. There are soccer
games and piano lessons. Life is frenetic—too many places to go, too much
driving, not enough time to enjoy family dinners at home. He is not dissatis-
fied, however, but he would still like to have more control.
In the old days if you were the dominant husband, you could come
home and control the space. But in my house we don't live that way,
and I have to compete for space with everyone else. The only one who's
probably below me is the dog! That sounds like a standard complaint.
If you told my wife, she'd laugh and say I'm moping, but she'd say it's
true. I come home and expect everyone to pay attention to my story,
but they're doing something else. I think there is a competition for
public space inside the family that I don't always succeed at. Because
my job [as a new professor] is a learning curve, and exciting, I would
like more space. The two complaints I have are that I would like a
little more recognition, not of being a hero, but of having a story to tell,
and I would like some time in a physical space at home to do my work,
[emphasis added]
Manheimer does an admirable job of telling his life in a way that
would warm the heart of the most die-hard social constructionist. But when
he occasionally falters in this effort, we see again the dialectic that stems


ultimately from the adolescent question that inspired his creative work. The
Vietnam war can indeed be explained in terms of historical and social-
structural forces. But viable accounts may also underscore the effects of
agentic, self-determining actors. Historians have not worked out a linal
formulation for what constitutes a complete, valid, and defensible historical
account. The role of personal agency is still a troublesome topic in historiog-
raphy, and perhaps it always will be. The stories Manheimer tells about
work and love in his own life play out a central dialectic in his professional
field of inquiry. Even as Manheimer narrates his life in the preferred terms
of historical events, social forces, and the role of chance, he gives voice to
the oppositional forces of personal agency. As he finishes his interview,
Manheimer reinforces the idea that "there's been an enormous amount of
luck, and an enormous amount of contingency that worked out in my life."
"There's a sense in which there's not a day that goes by that 1 don't say to
myself, 'I don't know how I got here, but I'm here, so let's just accept it.'
I think the fragility of any kind of success is something like going to see
Waiting for Godot or No Exit as a teenager. There's that sense of, it's all a
game! But if you're going to play, you might as well play to win. That's it!"
(emphasis added).
Manheimer wants a room of his own at home, where he can do his
own important work. He wants his family to listen to his story. He wants
ro be a winner. Thrown into a historically contingent world, actors still
need to act. Narrators still need to tell their own stories. Self-determining
protagonists still play to win. Even as Manheimer affirms the aesthetic
of a well-formed historical account, he undermines its elegance and its
persuasiveness by introducing personal agency. Again the idealized image
cannot help but suggest its opposite.


Going back in time to Freud's (1916/1947) case study of Leonaroo da

Vinci, psychologists have looked to childhood and family dynamics for the
developmental sources of creative genius. Psychobiographers have often
applied psychoanalytic concepts to the lives of eminent literary figures and
scientists in an effort to identify emotional underpinnings of creative work
(Elms, 1994; Schultz, 2005). They have shown a special interest in linking
the creative work of eminent psychologists such as B. F. Skinner (Demorest
& Siege), 1996) and Henry Murray (Anderson, 1988) to their respective
personal lives. In many of these case studies, creative work shown in the
adult years is traced back to patterns of love laid down in childhood. The
approach we have adopted in this chapter shares the general psychobiograph-
ical aim of finding patterns that link creative work and personal life. But


it departs from the psychobiographical approach (and related efforts such
as Gardner, 1993) in at least three important ways.
First, we focus our inquiry not on one or two famous historical figures
but on a sampling of productive scholars and scientists who currently work
in academic settings. The observations we offer in this chapter come from
our reading of 15 interviews—a pilot study that will eventually expand to
include a much larger participant pool. Second, our aim in the research is
to articulate a general model of creative work among academics, looking
for parallels between work and love. Operating for now in a context of
discovery, we examined our interviews in an inductive manner looking for
common themes and issues from which we might eventually build a theory.
Third, the theory we aim to build focuses on life narratives rather than on
the full life per se. We have limited our inquiry to the stories that academics
tell about their creative and their personal lives. Drawing on life-story
models of human identity (McAdams, 1985; Singer, 2004) and on prevailing
conceptual emphases in the narrative study of lives (Josselson & Lieblich,
1993; Lieblich, McAdams, & Josselson, 2004), we believe that people find
meaning and purpose in their lives through the construction, internalization,
and constant revision of life narratives. Our aim, then, is to find patterns
in life narrative. How do academics tell their lives/ How do they narrate
the development of their creative work and career? What do their tellings
reveal about their explicit and implicit understandings of the relationship
between creative work and love?
From our reading of an initial pool of narratives told by academics in
the humanities and the sciences we have derived a general and provisional
model that we hope to flesh out and critique in future research. The model
suggests ideas that can also be found in the writings of Gardner (1993) on
creative genius, Tomkins (1987) on commitment scripts, and Gregg (1991;
chap. 3, this volume) on dialectical images in narrative identity. At present,
our model looks like this: The protagonist encounters a grand question or
problem in childhood or adolescence that guides his or her intellectual
pursuits thereafter, akin to the crystallizing experience described by Gardner
(1993). The question gives birth to an idealized image of something or
someone in the world that the protagonist longs to be, experience, make,
or partake of in some manner. Over time, the protagonist commits the self
to the realization of the image. As the image matures and develops in the
mind and the life of the protagonist, it recruits more and more positive
affect (Tomkins, 1987) and becomes elaborated into a personal aesthetic.
The aesthetic is an implicit conceptualization of what qualities give a thing
or experience its beauty or well-formedness. The constellation of early
question, idealized image, and personal aesthetic sets up a corresponding
dialectic (Gregg, 1991) in the narrative, pitting contrasting proclivities or
trends in the protagonist's creative work against each other. The dialectic


may also come to organize aspects of the protagonist's personal life as well,
integrating aspects of work and love through opposition.
To what extent is the pattern in narrative identity we have described
a common pattern for productive scholars in college and university settings
today? If something akin to this pattern is indeed commonly observed, what
are its psychological and sociological meanings? What psychological and
social value does this pattern have? What are its limitations? Do female
and male academics show different narrative patterns in accounting for their
creative work and its relation to their personal lives? Do scientists differ
from humanists in the stories they tell about work (and love)? Narrative
approaches to social science inquiry are well-positioned to examine questions
such as these. By using narrative approaches to inquiry and drawing on new
narrative theories of self and identity, life narrative researchers should be
able to offer new insights and examine new hypotheses regarding creative
work and love and the relations between the two.


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life narratives (pp. L39-171). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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narratives (pp. 105-138). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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Stories about trouble are the centerpiece of narrative studies of self

and identity. Stories are constructed to make sense of experiences that
disrupt individuals' assumptions about their place in the world and their
relations with others (Bruner, 1990). Although the capacity for making
sense of one's past blossoms in late adolescence (Habermas & Bluck, 2000),
studies of older adults have yielded an especially enriched view of how
identities become transformed through grappling with the meaning of diffi-
cult life experiences (e.g., McAdams & Bowman, 2001; Pals, in press;
Singer, 2001).
Lives are punctuated by many kinds of trouble, and some trouble is
heavier than other trouble. In this chapter we explore what can be learned

We thank Danny Ambrose, Brooke Hollister, Stefan Esposito, Natasha Molony, and Yasmin
Vetdugo for thoughtful coding of the narratives, and Lewis Jones for critical comments and
conversations on voice and storytelling. The title was inspired by a discussion of "feminism lite"
(Bullock &. Fernald, 2003), although our application of the term "light" is quite different. We would
also like to thank Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, and three anonymous reviewers for their
editorial comments and suggestions.

about identity development by looking at the lighter side of trouble. We
contrast trouble that is associated with the development of self-insight with
trouble that is also regarded as self-defining but that does not seem to demand
explicit meaning. The latter kind of trouble does not signal a dramatic
turning point but rather a memorable adventure that is more pleasurably
entertaining than self-explaining. We refer to this entertaining side of narra-
tive identity as "identity light" to contrast with the more serious identity
business that is often pursued in narrative studies of lives.
Our choice of the term identity light is somewhat tongue in cheek,
but not whole-heartedly so. We use the term to refer to stories that are easy
to tell, are well-rehearsed, and do not require explicit meaning-making. In
a metaphorical sense, these stories often lighten one's mood and brighten
a room—they are pleasurable and entertaining to share with others. In the
spirit of Labov and Waletzky's (1967) pioneering work on narrative analysis,
we work with the notion that personal narratives that emerge in everyday
life, often manifested in entertainment stories, are as crucial to understanding
and becoming a person as are narratives of more serious and perhaps more
momentous life experiences.
Choosing to write a chapter on identity light is not without risks. We
acknowledge the risk of losing some of our audience, who might consider
identity light to be no identity whatsoever. To show what we mean by
identity light, we will examine some specimens from a recent study of self-
defining memories of college students (McLean, 2004). We then contrast
identity-light memories with memories that show deeper self-reflection.
After familiarizing the reader with exemplars of identity light and identity
deep, we consider how identity-light narratives can contribute to under-
standing the development of self and identity in late adolescence. We suggest
that identity light is a viable part of identity in its own right, that identity
light shifts our attention to the social contexts in which self stories are told,
and that this shift can enrich what can be learned about how identity
develops in everyday life.



To introduce identity light, we offer an example from a young man

whom we will call Bobby who was asked to describe three self-defining
memories. Bobby took part in a study of 185 college students in Northern
California. The students averaged 19 years of age, and were left in a room
alone and asked to write down three self-defining memories (McLean, 2004).
The first part of the questionnaire (Singer & Moffitt, 1991—1992) explained
that self-defining memories are past experiences that are vivid, highly emo-


tional, thought about many times, and are felt to be useful for conveying
who one is. After writing down three vivid self-defining memories, or event
narratives, informants were then asked to write about a memorable episode
of having told each self-defining memory to others, or a telling narrative.
We added this procedure to the questionnaire in an effort to situate self-
defining memories in everyday life (Thome, 2000). Finally, to elaborate the
process of memory telling, we asked informants to describe why they had
told the memory in this particular instance, whether telling the memory
helped to better understand it, if they felt comfortable sharing it, and whether
and how they would tell it differently to another audience (McLean, 2004).
The narratives in this chapter focus on memories that were reportedly told
either for the purpose of entertainment (identity light) or for self-explanation
(identity deep). These two functions were the two most prevalent reasons
for telling self-defining memories to others.
Our first informant, 18-year-old Bobby, reported that he told the follow-
ing memory for the purpose of entertainment, which puts the narrative
squarely in the center of identity light. The memory involved some light
trouble that he and his buddies had engaged in several years earlier.
[Event narrative, age 16] We had this one planned out for weeks before.
It's not that we didn't like the girls but they were just our opposites.
The female version of us. So we decided to use my house as a home
base and proceed at 1:00 AM to do as much damage as humanly possible
to ail six houses. This was probably one of the more fun moments of
my life as we raced around the San Fernando Valley toilet papering
their houses till they looked like white waterfalls. And the best part,
the following Monday at school, five of the six girls ended up blaming
the sixth one and her house got TP'd the following week too. Truly a
great couple ot weeks.

Surely many people who grew up with ample toilet paper showered it
on the neighborhood at some point. But why did Bobby interpret this as a
self-defining memory' Why does Bobby view this as an event that will help
others get to know "who he really is," which is a part of the instructions
that elicited this narrative? Perhaps this is the most exciting moment of
Bobby's life. Perhaps he is slow in relinquishing childish things. Perhaps
this is a glorious moment of adolescent rebellion that he cherishes as a story
to tell for self-acceptance in his peer group. Similarly, 18-year-old Nadine
also reportedly told the following memory for the purpose of entertainment,
on the subject of peers.
[Event narrative, age 18] I was walking down the hall to my friends'
room (Jamie and Lindsay's). I push open the door and Lindsay moons
me. I hysterically laugh. Then Jamie and Rochelle come down the hall
and then thev start to laugh. So there is a pile of girls in the hall


laughing uncontrollably at our other friend. We have all become very
close since we have been at school, so our ability to crack each other
up nonstop is priceless.
Although these light narratives are not what is typically studied in
examining narratives for insights into personal identity, important informa-
tion about Bobby and Nadine emerges in these glimpses into their lives.
Nadine values the close friendships she has developed since leaving home
for college, signified by their "ability to crack each other up nonstop."
Bobby's memory is important to him because it is about one of the "more
fun moments of my life." Both of these memories are about episodes with
peers that involve fun and pleasure, and we will expand on how entertain-
ment memories may be particularly important to developing and explaining
adolescent peer relationships later in this chapter. For now, we will simply
note that although we do glean some information about Bobby's and Nadine's
self-defining moments, neither of their narratives goes further in explaining
the meaning of the experience for their extended selves or narrative
When we first encountered light-hearted self-defining memories, we
wondered if they were a byproduct of our method, which did not push for
meaning but simply asked for written descriptions of three self-defining
memories. However, memories told for the purpose of entertainment were
less frequent than memories told for self-explanation (17% vs. 27%), and
the latter more often turned on serious trouble with explicit meaning made
of the event, to which we turn next.



To illustrate that our late adolescents were capable of serious reflection

and identity work, consider the following two narratives from the same
cohort that manifest deep reflection or insights gained. The first narrative
comes from a 19-year-old woman who described an experience with anti-
Semitism. Her references to meaning are in italics.
[Event narrative, age 14] When I was a freshman in high school, I had
very low self-esteem, which caused me to be very shy and quiet. One
day at lunch, I overheard two boys making fun of Jews, and making
fun of random people they knew had this trait. For the first time I, by
myself, confronted them in a polite, but aggressive manner. . . .1 was
extremely proud of myself, and that situation has made it much easier far
me to stand up for myself now.
This story is reminiscent of some of the redemption narratives that
McAdams and Bowman (2001) reported in interviews with middle-aged


adults in an earlier chapter in this hook series. For example, McAdams and
Bowman (2001) reported the following narrative from a woman who was
able to gain personal strength after going through a difficult divorce: "The
negativeness and the badness of things I had to overcome emotionally, you
know, dealing with the lies [of men] and the different things that he 'her
husband] said ... it made me a better person, a stronger person ... it sort
of toughened me up" (p. 13).
A self-narrative from another young woman is reminiscent of themes
often seen in adults' stories of turning points and personal transformation:
being devastated by personal loss and picking up the pieces.
[Event narrative, age 17] My dad decided he wanted to get separated
from my mom at the end of my junior year in high school. The whole
thing was really hard for me because instead of my parents being there
to support me, 1 needed to be there to support them. This was the first
traumatic event that had ever happened to me. That sounds funny, but
it was also the first time I had ever really been depressed. The whole
thing really broke me down as a person. In the end though I believe 1 am
stronger because afterward I was forced to rebuild myself and I learned a let
along the way.

Parental conflicts and divorce are common themes in the self-defining

memories of American adolescents (McLean & Thorne, 2003). Divorce
may also be a common theme in narratives of older adults, although one's
position may change from witnessing divorce as a child to being divorced
(Young, Stewart, & Miner-Rubino, 2001).
We now turn to another divorce narrative, this one from Norma, aged
19. We will revisit this particular narrative throughout this chapter to
compare it with Bobby's toilet papering narrative. Norma reported the
following story of a self-defining experience at age 7 that involved her
parent's divorce. She reportedly told this memory to explain herself to
[Event narrative, age 7] We were back in my hometown of Cincinnati,
Ohio, at my grandparent's house. It was a couple days after Christmas
and just a few days before my brother's birthday. My parents took us
into the back room of the house and told us that they had fallen out
of love. Being so young, my siblings and I didn't really grasp this concept.
My parents told us that we could still hang out together, but they just
couldn't be together anymore; they were getting a divorce. I remember
not understanding what exactly that word meant. I didn't understand
why my grandparents were looking at me with sad eyes. I didn't under-
stand divorce.

Norma did not proffer an explicit meaning in this narrative, instead

focusing on the confusion engendered in herself and her siblings and the


sadness of her grandparents. However, Norma did offer explicit meaning
when she was asked to provide a telling narrative, to which we return later.
For now, suffice it to say that Norma and Bobby provided us with quite
different identity narratives, one deep and one light.
Although we have contrasted Norma and Bobby for the purposes of
illustrating identity deep and identity light, respectively, it is important to
emphasize that our informants reported multiple reasons for telling self-
defining memories. For example, in addition to offering an entertainment
memory, Bobby also told a story about how he fell in love with his current
girlfriend, a memory that he reportedly told to explain himself to his friends.
Now that we have discussed identity light, we move on to the problems
that we confront in trying to bring identity light to a table that is laden with
identity deep. We focus on two overlapping challenges that are important for
narrative studies of lives: Identity light violates standard notions of meaning
making, and identity light focuses attention on why and to whom an identity
is told. We tackle each of these problems in turn.


In concert with other narrative psychologists, our past work has defined
meaning-making as explicit reports of reflection on and interpretation of past
events for the purpose of better understanding oneself, one's relationships, or
the world at large. For example, a statement that one has become a stronger
person as a result of a traumatic experience exemplifies what we and other
narrative psychologists have customarily regarded as meaning-making. Also,
like other narrative psychologists, we have found that meaning tends to
emerge in narratives of events that involve conflict or trouble. However,
we have also found that while the majority of late adolescents' self-defining
memories refer to some sort of conflict, most conflict memories do not show
explicit reports of deeper meaning (McLean & Thome, 2003; Thorne,
McLean, & Lawrence, 2004). In short, although meaning-making usually
makes sense of trouble, most trouble does not show meaning-making, at
least in two large samples of late adolescents' self-defining memories.
We propose that entertainment memories represent another kind of
meaning: meaning achieved through energizing a valued audience rather
than revising one's internalized life story. Stories told for entertainment
move meaning outward by tickling the audience with one's story and making
the audience laugh. Does making an audience laugh have something to do
with identity? We think so, but it requires knowing more about the audience
and why one wants to make the audience laugh. This brings us to the second
challenge that identity light presents for narrative studies of lives: attention
to why an identity story is told and to whom it is told.


Although many researchers have written about the importance of
reflection and meaning-making in constructing life stories, few have consid-
ered how meaning is constructed in more natural social contexts (for excep-
tions see Bruner, 199C; Pasupathi, 2001; Thorne, 2000). It should be noted
that whereas psychologists have tended to neglect the social nature of
narrative construction, sociologists have a long tradition of exploring
meaning-making in everyday life.1 For example, Holstein and Gubrium
(2000; see also Schutz, 1967) argued that personal stories are not completely
formed before they are told to others, and that personal stories are molded
in the action and interaction of speaking them aloud to a vivid audience.
Further, Holstein and Gubrium (2000) also discussed the "local understand-
ings" that allow for multiple functions of stories across social contexts,
affording many levels of meanings to stories.
One psychologist who is notable for bringing narrative out is Jerome
Bruner (1990), who has written about how communities and cultures contour
the development of meaning through social practices. In concen: with
Bruner, we take the view that meaning does not exist in one's head or on
the pages of one's journal but in the moments when individuals are sharing
their lives with others. In his discussion of the distributed self, Bruner
suggested that the self is constructed and exists in a proximate cultural
context, and further that selves are constructed concurrently from the inside
out and outside in (see also Wortham, 1999). Bruner also suggested that
to study meanings and selves, "It is always necessary to ask what people are
doing or trying to do ... meaning grows out of use . . ." (1990, p. 118).
Understanding the reasons why people tell particular memories can enrich
our understanding of how stories are shared to develop selves. As Holstein
and Gubrium (2000) argued, understanding the different functions of stories
provides a multilayer view of the meanings that stories can have.
To date, narrative studies of lives have tended to view identity as a
long-term personal project, more situated within the person than in the
situation in which the life story is told (Thorne, 2004). Although life stories
are often elicited by an interviewer, the possibility that the interviewer, or
the audiences that exist in the everyday lives of our informants, are personally
relevant for the meanings that develop in a life story has usually been muted
in narrative studies of lives (see Gergen & Davis, 2003).2 Although it is
important: to understand how the internalized and extended life story evolves,
we believe that a full understanding of life story and identity development
requires more attention to how specific stories regulate and are regulated
by the immediate social world.

We thank an anonymous reviewer for introducing us to this literature.

'See Harding (1987) for a discussion of feminist methodology and the importance of the interviewer
role and suhjectivity in qualitative research.


To pursue how listeners might contribute to the meaning of an identity
narrative, we turn to memorable episodes of telling self-defining memories
to others. We have found that the meaning of entertainment memories
tends to become more clear when informants are asked not only to report
a narrative of a self-defining experience (an event narrative) but also to
report a memorable episode in which they told that experience to someone
else (a telling narrative).
Recall Bobby's self-defining story about the toilet-papering incident,
a narrative that lacked explicit elaboration of its deeper meaning. Bobby
was subsequently asked to tell about a memorable episode of having told
the memory to someone else. This telling narrative and our subsequent
probes revealed a meaning that was not apparent in his earlier event narrative
(shown in italics).
[Telling narrative, age 16] My brother wanted to know what I was up
to and of course he was in college so nothing I did was probably too important.
So I decided to tell him about this little incident. Of course I overdramatized
it and made it into some huge quest. He absolutely loved the story, from
buying $100 worth of toilet paper to speeding away from Western
Security. And I lone telling the story too, so I get just as much of a kick out
of it.
[Probe: Did telling this memory help you to understand it? If so, how?]
No, I understand it pretty well. I played it over quite a bit in my mind.
[Probe: Did you feel comfortable sharing this memory? Why or
why not?]
Yes. It's definitely all fun and games, what would it hurt to share it.
[Probe: Would you tell this memory in a different way to a different
audience? If yes, please explain why and how you would tell it differently,
and to whom you would tell it differently.]
I'd imagine telling this story to an authority figure it'd be quite
different. Just for the simple fear of maybe getting caught.

In telling his brother this story, Bobby appeared to be trying to construct

an identity of which his brother would approve. In recalling how he told
his brother the story, Bobby reported that his brother thought "nothing I
did was probably too important." Therefore, Bobby took this moment to
communicate a narrative of bravado and rebellion to impress his brother
because he thought this was an identity that his brother would appreciate.
Because this memorable telling episode occurred several years earlier, indi-
cating that the event is now an enduring memory, the positive response
Bobby received from his brother may have helped to establish this event
as a self-defining memory.
In addition to telling us that the memory was important to his brother
and thus, perhaps, especially important to himself, Bobby also tells us some-
thing important about the entertainment function. In noting that it would


not hurt to share this kind of memory, Bobby suggests that there is little
risk in telling memories for entertainment. Tellers may be choosing the
safest region of self-telling when telling for entertainment in that aspects
of the self can be communicated with less risk of censure compared to telling
more vulnerable parts of one's life story. Indeed, an earlier study of memory
telling revealed vivid instances of the risks of telling vulnerable narratives,
such as being raped or experiencing a serious depression, to an unappreciative
listener (Thome & McLean, 2003).
Although many vulnerable stories are not appreciated by listeners,
Norma's vulnerable story of her parents' divorce was well-received by her
listener, perhaps because she was able to make meaning of the story and
provide a resolution. Norma's memorable episode of telling her vulnerable
experience reveals more of the traditionally explicit meaning of the
experience than does the original event narrative; the memory signifies
that her life has improved since the divorce. Norma's identity-deep telling
also suggests that her telling serves a different function than Bobby's
identity-light telling. Each time Norma tells her identity-deep memory,
she says she learns more about herself, whereas Bobby's identity-light
memory is just what it is: The meaning appears to be set. Norma's identity-
deep memory seems to have a longer half-life; it is still being processed
for meaning.

[Telling narrative, age 19] We just became friends in our freshman year
of college. We were in her room one night recounting life stories and
that was part of my story. I told her easily, without hesitation, because
1 have come to terms with my parent's divorce and it is easy to talk about.
I knew she would understand because her parents are also divorced. She
was very supportive as I told her about it, and I felt very comfortable
at the end of the conversation.
[Probe: Did telling this memory help you to understand it? If so, how?]
Every time I recount this memory, it helps me to accept it and to better
understand why it happened. It gives me a chance to look at my life now
and see how much it has improved since that event.
[Probe: Did you feel comfortable sharing this memory? Why or
why not?]
\es I did. I don't feel ashamed by it because it is part of life and
part of me. If someone can't accept that, they are not worth it to me.
I feel comfortable sharing it because I think it helps people to better
understand who I am.
[Probe: Would you tell this memory in a different way to a different
audience? If yes, please explain why and how you would tell it differently,
and to whom you would tell it differently.]
I think if I was telling it to a stranger, 1 wouldn't feel comfortable
giving them a large amount of detail. I would just make it short and
to the point because I don't know them very well.


Norma's telling narrative suggests that trust and potential rejection
are key issues in telling vulnerable identity-deep memories to others.
Norma emphasized that she felt comfortable telling the memory because
she trusted her friend. Indeed, this is a potentially risky story to tell
because getting a negative response could signal rejection of an important
part of Norma's life story. We know that the story is an important part
of her identity, because she reported that it is a story that "helps people
to better understand who I am." In telling others about ourselves we engage
in a process that could culminate in rejection of the story and the self,
which may cause psychological distress and perhaps revision of one's story
(Thorne & McLean, 2003). Conversely, as in Norma's case, listeners can
provide acceptance and confirmation of one's story and oneself. It is
notable that the positive response Norma received was partly a result of
the fact that her friend had experienced something similar. For telling
vulnerable parts of the self, finding peers who have had similar experiences
may be crucial for feeling accepted and understood. In thinking about
how life stories are constructed, the listeners to whom we tell our stories
should be considered as important players because their responses can lead
us to bury, revise, or solidify our stories.
Norma may have received a positive response not only because she
chose the right audience but also because of the kind of narrative she shared.
The point of her story is that her life has improved since the divorce. This
kind of explicitly reported meaning is what we have elsewhere termed
insight, which signifies the development of a deeper or larger understanding
of oneself or others (McLean & Thorne, 2003). We have found that insights
are usually well-received by listeners (Thorne et al., 2004), possibly because
of their redemptive tone. As Norma honed her story through multiple
tellings, she constructed a narrative that was particularly satisfying to her
best friend, perhaps because the friend understood and was happy to share
something in common or perhaps because the story was redemptive.
Other informants also reported listener responses that helped them to
construct and revise their self-defining memories. Following are a few ex-
cerpts from positive responses to the question, "Did telling this memory
help you to understand it better?" These excerpts show how tellers position
themselves as seeking or confirming meaning with their listeners:

• "Explaining it to someone else I realized that they [parents]

were just not happy together."
• "I told them because it was funny and also because it helps
people to understand where you're coming from when they
know the details of your family life. They laughed. I laughed.
With my closer friends, they validated my feelings."


• "By telling my brother and father this memory, I was able to
understand that I have the skills needed to succeed."
• "Telling it, of course, makes me think more deeply about it.
For example, 1 start to question why this happened and this
leads me to examine my religious and spiritual beliefs. It almost
helps me to even put my own life in perspective."
• "Telling this memory helped me realize what a privilege it is
to go to college."
• "Yes. It helped me to better understand the effects of the disease
of alcoholism. It helps me now every time I think about it or
talk about it to understand that I don't want to go down that
same road. It helps me to understand why I choose to abstain
from alcohol and drugs."

Other times, the telling of stories does not seem to produce new or
deeper meanings, but rather a sense of mutual enjoyment and of camaraderie.

• "I drew the picture for them, us young kids smoking out of the
windows trying not to get caught, and eventually how we did
get caught. It was hilarious for everybody."
• "I felt stupid telling this, but we all got a laugh out of it, so i.t
was all good!"
• "I believe I told this memory to Chris because I knew he would
get a kick out of it."
• "I told them the same way as above. I told them one time when
we were smoking or drinking. They thought it was hilarious. I
thought it was funny too. ..."
• "It [telling] made me realize that I really enjoy being in groups
and laughing."

The latter set of narratives speaks especially to the importance of

entertaining peers with one's stories. Many developmental psychologists
have emphasized the importance of peers in the development of identity
(e.g., Sullivan, 1953; Youniss & Smollar, 1985). The sharing of personal
stories for pleasure and entertainment is an important way that identities
are constructed and peer bonds are strengthened. Entertainment stories
often center on embarrassing mishaps or rebellions (McLean, 2004), which
seem par for the course in adolescence. In telling entertainment stories one
can reveal unique personal experiences, while at the same time creating
common ground and mutual understanding. In addition, because oi the
light-hearted tone of entertainment stories, social restraints are momentarily
lifted, enabling rule-breaking and rebellion to be savored and shared. Rebel-
lion stories may be especially important for adolescents to share because


such stories cast oneself and ones buddies as united in subverting the responsi-
ble adult world to which they are both attracted and repelled (Bamberg,
2004; Korobov & Bamberg, 2004).
Identity-deep stories are shared with peers as well, but for different
reasons. Identity-deep stories are not usually about pranks and mishaps but
more often about momentous losses and gains in important relationships.
McLean (2004) suggested that telling identity-deep stories to peers may
function to explain where one has been within relationships, how one has
coped with past relational difficulties, and what has been of personal benefit
and enjoyment within relationships. The personal and vulnerable nature of
identity-deep narratives is quite different from the more consumer-oriented
topics of entertainment stories, but clearly both are important to relational
and identity development.
Beyond emphasizing the importance of listener' responses to identity
stories, another insight we have gained from examining accounts of memory
telling is that some memories are told differently depending on the audience,
harkening back to Holstein and Gubrium's (2000) notion of local under-
standings. For example, Bobby said that he would tell the toilet papering
story differently to an authority figure, for fear of getting caught. Another
informant told a self-defining memory about a fight with her brother. She
told the memory in the context of an entertaining discussion of sibling
rivalry, but she indicated that with other audiences the story would not be
the same: "I would explain the seriousness of my brother's anger problems
and why I provoked them. I would tell it to a psychologist or a friend or
a relative."
Memories told to different audiences might represent instructive cases
of how meanings are layered and reserved for particular relationships. Such
instances suggest that the meaning of a memory is not necessarily frozen,
as seems to be the case with Bobby's identity-light story, but that the listener
and the context in which a story is told can be crucial for developing
particular kinds of meanings. Possibly, the stories we hear in our role as
researchers may be different than the kinds of stories that our informants
tell in everyday life. Asking people how they tell stories to specific others,
or observing storytelling in vivo would address some of the issues of story
layers and the shifting positions that individuals might take in the natural
world of identity-making.


In concert with many readers of this series, we assume that human

experience is storied (see Bruner, 1990; McAdams 1988, 2001), and stories
of personal transformation and self-development are a big part of the story


(e.g., King, 2001; King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams, 2000; McLean &
Thome, 2003; Pals, in press). However, we have found that entertaining
self-narratives that create pleasurable and fun moments in their tellings are
also common in our late-adolescent samples of self-defining memories.
The entertainment value of self-stories is not new to narrative psychol-
ogy. McAdams (1988) discussed several functions of stories, some of which
include the provision of pleasure and entertainment (see also Brewer &
Lichtenstein, 1982). A classic study of personal narratives (Labov & Wa-
letsky, 1967) noted that life-threatening experiences were often told as
funny stories, and tended to show the classic profile of a good story, with
a background setting, buildup, dramatic climax, and resolution. Such was
the case with Bobby's narrative. In particular, such stories have a point, a
resolution; the protagonist survived. Indeed the most common kind of story
in our sample of entertainment memories was mishaps or potential mishaps—
accidents, broken bones, adventures (McLean, 2004). The prospect of trou-
ble in these kinds of adventure stories rivets the listener's attention, and
successfully managing the trouble provides a general sense of relief.
What is new in this approach to entertainment memories is the sugges-
tion that entertainment is a viable part of identity development that is
possibly more ubiquitous than narrative studies of lives would suggest. On
the basis of this study of the functions of self-defining memory telling, we
believe that telling one's story for the purpose of entertaining others is not
a time out from identity development. Indeed, our participants have told
us that these stories are self-defining, so we cannot belittle them as mundane
adolescent adventures. From a broader perspective, these stories show how
identity is situated not only within a person's head or in the context of a life
history interview but also in the everyday social world as people communicate
themselves to each other (Pasupathi, 2001; Thome, 2000, 2004; Wortham,
1999). Bringing identity-making into natural social contexts puts a different
spin on identity development in terms of the content of what is talked
about, such as safer versus more vulnerable parts of the self. It is the small
stories (Bamberg, 2004; see also Labov & Waletzky, 1967) that we think
are missing in the narrative study of identity, and it is in the small stories
that identity is also created.
Self-stories told for entertainment also direct attention to the immedi-
ate contexts in which identity is constructed with others. This proximal
perspective is rare in studies of extended life stories, in which the role of
the interviewer is pushed way back. Social context is amply represented in
narrative studies of lives, but the social context is not the immediate context
of telling but rather the important life relationships of the case (e.g., Oscar
Wilde's loss of family and friends; Schultz, 2001), or the sociohistorical
context (e.g., the Great Depression; Angelou, 1970). In contrast, when life
stories are told for entertainment, the audience is writ large; one cannot


ignore the fact that the story is being told not just for the self but for other
people, for their amusement, friendship, and approval.
Literature on life stories promotes the idea that reflection and meaning-
making are the stuff of identity construction. Trouble, small and large, drives
narratives, but as we have seen, trouble does not always motivate explicit
reflection on insights gained or lessons learned. More often, perhaps, stories
of trouble draw an audience in, especially if the stories connect with the
listener's experience and the teller does not seem to be currently troubled
about the trouble.
Stories of mishaps and madcap adventures may be less prevalent in
the life stories of older adults, although this is an empirical question that
could profitably be approached more naturalistically, without the press for
imparting meaning that characterizes life-story interviews. Possibly, self-
defining memories told for entertainment are equally prevalent across the
lifespan because everyone needs some "who am I" stories that can break
the ice with others, be told broadly, and guarantee a smile.
It is important to emphasize that self-defining memories do not provide
the rich personological information that life-story interview methods pro-
vide. For example, there are two possibilities about Bobby's rebelliousness:
Either he was a rebellious kid or the toilet-papering incident was the most
rebellious thing he ever did. Although we tend to think the latter is closer
to the truth, an extended life-story interview would give us more of a sense
of how the incident fits in Bobby's overall identity. However, a few self-
defining memories do provide us with enough to say something important
about a person. In daily life, we do not usually hear someone's entire life
story; instead we hear bits and pieces, which provide enough detail to infer
more about a person on the drive home from a dinner party. Self-defining
memories are also specific and vivid enough that we can target how they
are used in everyday life, something that is more difficult to do with the
entirety of a life story.
A second methodological issue concerns the method we used—the
solicitation of written narratives. Although interviews can press for more
elaboration and meaning about the stories that are told, the privacy of a
written questionnaire about moments of memory telling provided us with
a unique view of both the social and personal nature of memories. Because
the telling narratives were collected at some remove from an actual listener,
the written method afforded a simultaneous view of private selves and
social selves.
In conclusion, we offer a few suggestions for expanding this work in
the future. One interesting issue that arose in perusing this sample of self-
defining memories is that the same memory was sometimes told for several
purposes. Informants were asked to identify one reason for telling a particular
memory, but allowing them to discuss all of the reasons that they tell the


memory would give us a richer picture of the functions for a particular
memory. For example, Bobby's toilet-papering story could have served two
purposes, one for entertainment and the other for developing a closer rela-
tionship with his brother. Bobby indicated that entertainment was the
prominent motive in sharing the event, but perhaps if given a choice he
may have indicated there was a relational goal as well (see also Alea &
Bluck, 2003).
Future studies could also examine whether multipurpose memories vary
with life experience. Younger people may experiment with telling memories
in different ways, and may gradually come to settle on a particular interpreta-
tion and function for that memory. For example, in one of our past studies
we were fascinated with the story of a young woman who reported reminding
her father about one of the happiest times in her childhood, which involved
their painting a Santa Glaus on the roof. Her father laughed when she
recalled the story years later, explaining that he now remembered how
"stoned" he was that day. In describing this telling episode, the young
woman was devastated by the news that her father had been intoxicated
in her presence. We could imagine that for a while she might tell this
memory to explain herself to some people, to develop intimacy with others,
and perhaps to entertain some listeners. Years later, as she learns more about
her father and maybe becomes a parent herself, she may settle on one
meaning for the memory, perhaps deep, perhaps light. Studying how personal
experiences are told to different listeners across the lifespan would help to
address some of the questions we have raised.
Locating narrative identity in important moments of memory telling
moves us toward a more concrete and rich understanding of how identity
is constructed through communication with valued others. Memories told for
entertainment may not draw deep meanings, but they do draw an audience.
Identity light compels us to include the listener as part of the intended


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Speaker (S): So, Heather called me, and I talked to her like I do, a
couple of times a week, and, she basically told me, like, that she loved
me over, over, again. And how wonderful I am, and how we're gonna
be together and all that stuff. My feelings are ...
Listener (L): Can I talk? Cause I have something. . . .
S: No, you're the listener, (laugh). My feelings are that she's like too
dependent on me, and, and needs to like, go her own way, and figure
out stuff for herself, and it was positive cause she was talking me up
the whole time. But, it was negative because she needs to like, chill out.
You can talk, dude. Kay?
L: Sure. Okay, where was I at. Oh yeah dude, it's cause, am I mental,
um, she's in a new place. You know what I mean?
S: Yeah.
L: That's what I'm saying. She's, it cause, it's 'cause she doesn't really
have anything there. You know, she . . . some . . . here.

S: Mmhmm. A little safety.
L: It's some safety net. Stability, (laugh) That's what I, that's, yeah,
that's it. Yeah. Yeah.
S: good point, (snicker)
L: You see my point. Um, what else. Cause, you, you're
S: She told me I'm the man, like she always does, cause I am the man.
L: Well, you know why. You know, you know, the, the . . .
S: Okay, we're done.


S: Okay, so, we're at Blockbuster, the other, goes Friday, three days
ago, and when we walked in, I was trying to check, see if I had any
fees on my card.
L: You mean you and me were at Blockbuster.
S: Yeah.
L: Oh. Okay.
S: You and I were at Blockbuster. And uh, and I was checking to see
if I had any fees cause if we, I did, we'd have to go to another Blockbuster.
And uh, I was just talking to the girl behind the counter, and she said, hey
uh, I said "Do 1 have any fees," and she said "No," and then she proceeded
to recommend some movies which were chick flicks, like, what was it, Sweet
November, she said, "Why don't you get Sweet November," and I said,
"That'd be great, considering I'm with my buddy here." (laugh) Who is
male, anyway (cough), and she's like, "Well, get your girlfriend, and I said
well, uh, and she said why don't you get your girlfriend and watch it, and
I said well, I don't have a girlfriend. And she's all, that's kind of surprising.
L: Oooh.
S: Yeah, and I said, "Well, why is that?" You know, kind of just fishing for
compliments, I guess.
L: Oh, geez.
S: (laugh) And she said, "Well, cause you're really cute." And I was
like, whoa.
L: She said that?
S: Yeah.
L: Are you talking about that. . . .
S: Rebecca, the girl . . .
L: Yeah, I met her at church the other day. Ahhhh . . . anyway.
S: And, a, I think it was kind of a positive experience for me, because
you know, I , I broke up with Rachel few months ago, and just hadn't
had any. . . .
L: She said you were good-looking?
S: Yeah. And today the missionaries, I took them over to West Point, 1
don't know if this is part of the thing, yeah, I took them over to, to a, the,
a West Point place for, to the other missionaries' house, and they're like,


"You know that Rebecca girl who works at the Blockbuster?'' and I was
like yeah, and they're like, "Here's her number, she wants you to call
her." (chortle)
L: Are you serious?
S: Yeah, And I told them, I was like, "you know what, I'm gonna marry
her, just so I can have the story saying "well, the local missionaries hooked
me up." (laugh)
L: Now, so how old is she? She's like what?
S: She graduated in 2000.
L: That makes her 19, 18?
S: 19. We'll say 21. (laugh)
L: (laugh)
S: No, but, but that's, my positive experience. It's just cause positive
cause I broke up not too long ago with um. . . .
L: With Rachel.
S: Rachel. And it's, I haven't had anyone like really come on to me,
and that sort of a way, it's just, you know, kinda. ...
L: She's a cute girl, [emphasis added to indicate dramatic sequences]

These two stories were told by young adult males to good male
friends in a psychology laboratory. Their conversations are part of a set
of 16 conversations between same-sex friends about recent positive events,
which serve as the primary data on which this chapter is based. In both
pairs, the storyteller talks about a recent encounter with a young woman
who expressed her attraction to him. Both stories provide some factual
information about the event and some sense of what the experience meant
to the storyteller. Both stories elicit several responses from listeners over
the course of the telling. Both stories are in fact about relatively everyday
events rather than significant or life-changing experiences. However, I
contend that both conversations provide a sense of how the speaker may
think about himself.
In other ways, these are strikingly different stories. In "Heather." the
storyteller uses a reflective mode, talking about what happened briefly, and
spending rather more time on why the experience was positive and how it
made him feel. His friend participates quite actively in this endeavor—
pointing out alternative understandings of the experience that, presumably,
would change how the storyteller felt. In "Blockbuster," the storyteller spends
more time in what I will term a dramatic mode; I have indicated the
dramatic sequences with italics. Therein, the storyteller enacts dialogue,
uses nonverbal signals and gestures, and otherwise re-creates the original
event in the current storytelling situation. Reflective modes more efficiently
communicate information, especially interpretive information. Dramatic
modes make for more vivid, dramatic, and entertaining stories, and this
global difference between the two modes was my rationale for naming them.


In my qualitative analysis of these conversations, I began with two
questions: (a) How do people construct a sense of self in personal storytelling
about everyday events? and (b) How do listeners contribute to both personal
storytelling and the construction of selves within such storytelling? However,
I was struck by the different ways in which everyday events were retold; on
repeated readings, I became convinced that dramatic and reflective modes
for such storytelling had fundamental implications for the answers to both
of my initial questions.
I begin by briefly describing how the 16 conversations analyzed for
this chapter were obtained. I then return to the two modes for storytelling
and my original questions. I first suggest that reflective and dramatic modes
of storytelling relate to different purposes that people may have for engaging
in retelling and create different kinds of storytelling contexts related to
other theoretical distinctions. I then take up the issue of the collaborative
construction of self in storytelling and consider how that process is related
to the two modes within which stories are unfolding.


The 16 transcripts were a subset of conversational narratives from a

recent study conducted in my laboratory. As others have done (see Polanyi,
1985), I assume that the term narrative can be productively applied to
storylike conversations that may not follow some of the linguistic conven-
tions of narratives (e.g., Labov & Waletsky, 1967). The major purpose of
the original study was to examine how varying responses from listeners
(who, in other conditions not examined in this chapter, were distracted by
a dual task; for details, see Pasupathi & Rich, 2005) influenced participants'
judgments about and memories for the narrated events. Participants arrived
at the laboratory with a same-sex friend; in most cases, participants had
known this friend for a number of years before participation. They generated a
list of recent, positive life experiences not previously told to the participating
friend, and selected one for talking about "as you normally might in everyday
conversation." The listener was instructed "to just listen the way you would
normally when you're being a good listener." The conversation took place
in a small room furnished with a table and chairs, with participants seated
facing their listeners; it was recorded with unobtrusive ceiling-mounted
cameras. Although the laboratory setting ensures that these were not every-
day conversations, the resulting conversations were described by participants
as fairly typical for their relationship outside the laboratory. In this brief
encounter, participants told stories of the sort reflected in "Heather" and
"Blockbuster." As can be seen in those examples, however, participants had
quite different ways of telling their stories.



Reflective modes, like the "Heather" example, were characterized by

an expository tone, an absence of quotations or other dramatic features,
and a relative absence of nonverbal emotion markers (such as laughing,
smiling, gasping). Such stories are not unemotional, but they involve verbal
expressions of emotion, such as "I was glad" or "It makes me feel good."
Other examples of reflective mode include a speaker describing coloring
Easter eggs with her niece, saying "we dyed eggs, like a lot of eggs, well,
first we cooked them, hardboiled them, and she thought that was the coolest
thing . . ." and another speaker discussing having received a summer job
offer: "Yeah, I thought about doing a telecourse or an internet course: and
I might be able to pull it off like that. . . ." Reflective stories provided no
sense that the speaker was reliving or reenacting the experience being shared.
Rather, speakers are conveying what happened and what it meant to them
while being very much in the present moment.
Dramatic modes, in contrast, involved many quotations and dramatic
devices, nonverbal expressions of emotion, and a sense of reenactment or
being transported in time, as in the sequences from "Blockbuster" that
essentially dramatize the event being disclosed. In another pair, the speaker
relates an event of getting together with an old friend and going bowling.
She talks about her poor bowling performance as follows: "The ball was ok,
but the shoes, the left one supposed to just slide on the lanes but it didn't
slide so 1 kept falling over every time when I'd go to bowl (laughing), I'm
all WAAAAH!" Another example involved the story of a first day at a
new job in a medical facility. The speaker breaks suddenly into dramatic
mode as follows.
And um, ooh! Fanny story, Okay. Okay. Yeah. Like, urn, 1 told, um,
at like 9:00 at night, this, this nurse, (giggle). She was standing on this
chair trying to organize the movies and um, we're sitting out there,
cause there was nothing to do, you know . . . and all of a sudden we
hear this huge loud bang, (laugh). We go out there, and she's laying
on her back . . . just laying on the floor.

These examples illustrate that people can use a dramatic mode even
when they are not necessarily quoting dialogue between people.


As "Blockbuster" already suggests, stories were often told in ways that

involved switching back and forth between dramatic and reflective modes.


Participants frequently began in reflective modes, switched at some point
to dramatic modes of telling, and then returned intermittently to reflective
modes. The reflective sequences in "Blockbuster" serve to quickly express
interpretive or meaning-related information, such as "it was a positive experi-
ence for me, because ... I broke up with Rachel a few months ago. . . ."
They also negotiate common ground, as when the pair establish that the
woman in question, Rebecca, is someone they both know. The dramatic
sequences, in turn, render the story vivid and, arguably, serve to capture
and maintain the listener's attention.
This pattern of alternation between the modes was evident throughout
the conversations. Consider the next example.


S: Ah, ok, you know how uh, we bought tickets to go to France. . . .

L: Uh-huh.
S: . . . a long time ago. Probably, beginning of March we bought tickets
to France, airline tickets. And ah, we bought them for $600 but then
the rates went down, like the next week.
L: Yeah.
S: If we bought them the next week. . . .
L: Uh-huh.
S: ... we would have saved $200 on each ticket, so $400 total. So, um,
so I called them back, like that Sunday and then after I found all this out
and said "Is there any way we can get that money back, we spent so
much more and if I just would have waited a week I could have gotten
all that money back.
L: Oh so you bought them before the prices went down?
S: Yeah,
L: (laugh)
S: ... so ah, so the guy's like, I sat and argued with him for an hour,
hour and a half . . .
L: They weren't going to give it to you?
S: No they weren't going to give anything back, that's how travel
agencies make their money you know. If everyone just called back
after . . .
L: (laugh)
S: . . . rates went down then they wouldn't make any money (inaudible
stuff). . . .
L: Of course (inaudible) call back.
S: But I was mad because everyone told me, the sooner you buy tickets,
the sooner, it, you know the better, the sooner the better to get the


better rates if you get sooner. But, it turned out that if I would have
waited a week, I could have gotten $200 less, anyway. I argued with the
guy, for, he's like ok fine I'll go talk to the manager. This dude's name is
Vincent (like a total) foreigner guy.
L: (laugh)
S: lie says "I go talk to my manager." And I said, "Ok, you go talk to
your manager, and uh see what you can work out." So, uh he went and
talked to his manager and came back and he said "I will give you $100, my
manager he give you $136 dollars back." And I was like "Yeah that's good."
L: On each ticket or just the one.
S: On just one in total, so instead being $1236 we'd only be paying
L: You paid $1236?
S: $1236 for two tickets, yeah.
L: Oh.
S: So now, they're only $550 each. . . .
L: That's right, that's right.
S: . . . so $1100, but it turned out for the last two months it hasn't
showed up on my credit, he hadn't credited it back. So starting about a
month ago, I called three times a week, and I talked to the same guy. And
I said, "Dude my money's not in there yet." And he says, "I have the receipt
in my hand, I know that I did it (Sir, what)
L: (laugh)
S: ... do you want me to do, I cannot do anything, it is between you and
your credit card company." And I said, "Well, man." I go, "I (inaudible)
it would, go in there in immediately if you guys let it, but it never went in."
I said you didn't give the money, you didn't. . . .
L: You talked to your credit card company?
S: yeah, my card, my credit card company said, "You know it's not in
here." He said, they said, "It's in there immediately, it doesn't like take a
long time. If he credited to your account then it's in there." And so the credit
card company said you got to talk to him. So I called him, you know, twc
times every week. And he kept on giving me the same story. "We can't do
anything about mis, I have the receipt in my hand, I know that we did it.
on March 11." So for the past month, I've called two times every week,
and 1 called yesterday, this is where the good experience comes in. J
called yesterday again and I said, "Vincent, is . . . , are you sick of me
yet'" I go. "This is Tyler." He knows me by my first name, now.
L: (laugh)
S: I go, "Are you sick of me yet?" And he goes "Yes, I am sick of you. 1
am sick of you calling me. What can I do? I can't help you?" And I said,
"Man" I go, "All I, uh, want you to do is credit my account and I'll leave
you alone, otherwise I'm gonna call every week." And he goes, "Fine what
do you want me to do?" I go, "I'll give you the phone number to my credit
card company you call them and work it out." And he says, "Fine if I have


time, I will do this." So I gave him the number, and uh, he called my
credit card company, and then, then this person called back and said
that there was a mistake, their bank withheld the money. And, uh,
that it had been credited, but the bank that they go through, was
holding the money, for some reason.
L: So it was their fault or your fault?
S: It was their fault, so on Monday, they are gonna call and tell them
to transfer it into my account. And I get $136.
L: (inaudible) He won, huh?
S: Well, I won, because, I was right, it was his fault, or ... the com-
pany's fault. . . .
That was the first time I have ever used a credit card in my life. And
so I didn't want to start off on a bad experience. Now 1 got that money
back, and I'm happy as can be.
L: All right.
S: All right, I'm done, (laugh)

The speaker opens in reflective mode, giving background information

and describing his emotional state verbally. The shift to dramatic mode
comes with the reenactment of the first interaction with Vincent (including
an accent and "pidgin" English). Both storyteller and listener initiate shifts
back to reflective mode periodically, typically to clarify factual details, and,
at the end of the story, to summarize the experience and offer an additional
reason why this event was so positive (avoiding a bad first experience with
credit cards).
These kinds of shifts between modes provide a strong illustration that
different modes are suited for different kinds of communicative content.
Reflective mode conveys causal chains, summarizes longer unimportant or
uneventful periods of time, and cements together the episodes that are
highlighted by a dramatic mode of telling. The dramatic mode, in turn,
conveys vivid, humorous reenactments of pivotal episodes and keeps the
audience involved and attentive. This is especially noteworthy in "Refund,"
which, on the face of it, is a series of events with very little potential as a
story. In fact, the great potential inherent in dramatic modes of telling is
to render the mundane and ordinary more captivating.
Clark (1996) and other psycholinguists have suggested that conversa-
tional storytelling may be productively analyzed as joint action occurring
simultaneously along multiple levels. What storytellers and their partners
are doing in conversational storytelling transpires on at least two levels of
interest: the level of their interaction in the here-and-now and the level
of the story—the then-and-there. On the one hand, the business of telling
stories must be done in the present moment, taking into account the present
situation and understanding of participants. On the other hand, storytelling


(and remembering more generally) involves a kind of time travel back to
then-and-there. Viewed from this perspective, reflective modes and dramatic
modes emphasize different levels on which the story is being told; the former
focus on the here-and-now, and the latter transport storytellers and listeners
to the then-and-there.
The two modes also resonate with Bruner's (1986, 1990) proposed two
modes of thought: paradigmatic thought, which corresponds with scientific
thinking, analytical thinking, categorizing, and describing; and narrative
thought, which involves intention, desire, action. Subsequent work has
suggested that stories tend to involve both modes of thought, similar to the
kind of switching suggested earlier (Gerrig, 1994)- They might also be
profitably compared to Bakhtin's (1981) distinction between novelistic and
epic genres. Novels offer the kind of reflection and interior landscape well-
suited to deliberative construction of meaning. In contrast, epic genres
focus on describing actions and events; like dramatic modes, they must
communicate any kind of interiority through exterior action rather than
descriptive language. Novelistic approaches can describe complexities in
which exterior behavior is not a simple reflection of a single reality, as in
"Heather," where Heather's behavior may have multiple interpretations
based on different interior realities. Epics convey little gap between what
a person does and what he or she is—that is, between exterior action and
interior motivation. So, in "Blockbuster" the storyteller is quick-witted and
playful, because he behaves so in his story (and his telling).
Because the modes accomplish different kinds of communication, they
may be connected to different goals or functions for narration. Typically,
in studies of narratives, the task explicitly stated or implied by the setting
is to reflect on experience—that is, to consider what the experience means.
In everyday life, the goals for telling stories are more varied (Bluck &
Alea, 2002; Marsh & Tversky, in press; Pasupathi, Lucas, & Coombs, 2002;
Webster & McCall, 1999), again, whether people are aware of those goals
or not. People do often teli stories with a desire to create or express meaning,
but also do so to entertain others and themselves. These differences in
purpose may result in quite different approaches to the task of telling X
about Y—leading to a greater emphasis on reflective modes of storytelling
in the former case and performance modes in the latter; or to careful
alternation between the two modes to fulfill multiple demands.
Whether or not people intend to create and express meaning, both
modes of telling create meanings. The reflective approach likely creates
meaning in a way that includes the storyteller's awareness, whereas dramatic
modes create meanings about which storytellers may be less aware or deliber-
ate. In many cases, such meanings have to do with the kind of self the
speaker is constructing in the moment.



The phrase constructing a sense of self in storytelling entails several

implications worth further consideration. First and foremost is that some-
thing is built in the process of telling the story—that is, the self created in
the act of storytelling is not merely a reflection of earlier internal views of
the self held by the storyteller and expressed in language. Second, the thing
that is built is a sense of self, which might include a variety of elements
ranging from beliefs about the characteristics and capabilities of the self to
important and dearly held ideas about the nature of the world. Third,
sense of self is constructed in storytelling, and is therefore fundamentally
collaborative (Bavelas, Coates, & Johnson, 2000; Clark, 1996). The conver-
sations explored in this chapter offer several illustrations of the collaborative
construction of self in storytelling and also suggest a relationship between
self-construction and the modes in which stories are told.
Consider "Heather." The storyteller reports on Heather's expressed
evaluation of him ("how wonderful I am"), evaluates her qualities ("she's
like too dependent on me"), and reveals that he likes the flattery involved
in talking with Heather. This is a repeated (several times weekly), fairly
ordinary event, but one that already tells even observers that the teller
wants himself and others to believe Heather's evaluation of him as "the
man" and that the teller values independence in relationships, or at least
wants to appear this way.
Much of what is constructed about the self in "Heather" is constructed
between the storyteller and listener—that is, in the here-and-now rather
than at the level of the story itself. Not all of it receives any commentary
from the listener. For example, the implication that the teller values indepen-
dence in relationships, which is implied by the negative evaluation of Heath-
er's dependence, goes largely uncommented. On the other hand, the listener
offers a rather different interpretation of Heather's evaluations of the
storyteller—by pointing out that the speaker is really just a safety net for
Heather, who is in a new place and has not yet established new social
contacts. The idea that the speaker is a safety net for Heather, however,
implies that Heather's devotion is meaningless to him in terms of his ego.
Faced with this alternative account, the speaker reiterates that "he is the
man," and on the threat that the listener will repeat his alternative, rather
unflattering view, the speaker ends the conversation abruptly: "We're done,"
cutting the listener off in mid-sentence in his haste to end the interaction.
"Blockbuster" also suggests quite a lot about its narrator. For example,
in some of the reflective moments, the narrator communicates his loneliness
and his uncertainty about his attractiveness in talking about why the experi-
ence was so positive. In these sequences, the listener also contributes, primar-


ily in ways that are highly supportive. He describes the girl in question,
Rebecca, as cute (and presumably, as a consequence, she is a more authorita-
tive source on the attractiveness of the storyteller). But there are other
things at work in "Blockbuster." The narrator is funny; his dramatic se-
quences reenact jokes and witticisms and are in and of themselves entertain-
ing. In contrast to the reflective depiction of himself as somewhat lonely
and missing female flattery, the dramatic sequences never say, "I'm pretty
entertaining." Rather, they convey this sense of self via behavior: doing
entertainment in the moment of storytelling and also depicting a story world
(a different level on which the interaction is playing out) in which the
storyteller is funny. The listener, in these moments, laughs, caught up in
the story world as well. It is important to note that just as describing
Rebecca as cute serves to support and strengthen the idea that the narrator
is attractive, laughing during the witty dialogue serves to support and
strengthen the notion that the storyteller is funny. Thus, both modes of
storytelling involve the collaborative construction of the storyteller's self,
but in ways that are different depending on mode.


Self-construction in reflective modes sometimes, although not very

often, entails explicit construction of the self. By explicit, I mean that
participants put out on the conversational table a belief about the kind of
person they are, sometimes in terms that sounded rather like a questionnaire
item. For example, one participant stated, "I'm typically a good listener you
know . . . but last night I was especially attentive and caring and you know,
understanding. . . ." Participants quite frequently referred to their likes, dis-
likes, and desires. For example, one young woman told her friend about her
first day on a new job as a nurse's assistant, saying "I have to weigh that,
weigh the throw-up ... I don't like it. And what else do I do? I make their
dinner. I like it." Another young man talked with his friend about a possible
job offer, saying "1 thought about it, I think I want to, but I don't know,
you know?" Participants also constructed explicit social comparisons, such
as "I actually read more though, 'cause he reads them every day." Finally,
participants referred to beliefs, moral commitments, and other values—or
identity, in the Eriksonian sense. Examples included one woman's tale of
reuniting with an old friend, in which she made statements such as, "I
neglected her for too long" and "shouldn't neglect her anymore, I know, I
know . . . ," and also statements such as "I got to help out a friend," and
"we shouldn't have talked about it. . . ." In this sense, the stories I examined
involve prima facie construction of the self.


The kind of explicit construction of the self evident in such statements
renders a belief about the self part of the storytellers' and listeners' accumulat-
ing common ground. In terms of models of how conversations build such
common ground (Clark & Schaefer, 1989), it means that listeners may
respond to those statements by accepting, disputing, or requesting clarifica-
tion; acceptance is often rendered simply via nonverbal signals that a state-
ment has been understood and accepted, but may also be more explicit.
Indeed, the stories offer multiple examples in which listeners engage directly
in collaborative construction of narrator's self-perceptions. For example, the
participant referred to earlier who described himself as being "typically a
good listener" received a somewhat noncommittal response ("Sure"). The
participant pushed the point, saying "Possibly?" but the listener remained
somewhat noncommittal ("Sure").
The consequences of this exchange could have been an increased
uncertainty in the speaker's sense of himself as a good listener. However,
as the conversation continues, the speaker's discussion of the experience of
being a confidant for his friend serves to reestablish this particular self-
conception, both in his eyes and in the eyes of his listening friend. The
use of the term collaborative by no means implies that listeners were typically
supportive of speakers' assertions, even when listeners were asked to be good
listeners. In fact, explicitly constructed self-perceptions often involved some
dissent between speakers and listeners. Two participants told stories about
events related to class performance: arguing for, and receiving, additional
points on a test and getting a good grade on a homework assignment. In
both cases the speakers wanted to perceive the events as important and
meaningful regarding their near-term academic futures. They indicate this
in reflective mode, by discussing how the experience increases the ultimate
chance for a good grade in the class and making statements regarding the
importance of this class for their long-term goals.
The listeners in these instances, however, undermine the view of these
speakers via their contributions. In one case (successfully arguing for more
points on a test) the listener is quite responsive, but asks questions such as,
"So what was the final grade?" which requires the speaker to admit that the
grade was still a B, and thus, the entire event (arguing for and receiving
additional points on a test) was less positive than previously believed. By
the end of the conversation, the speaker's resulting closing statement is,
"Ahh, wasn't like too exciting, um a few points. If I got an A, hey that
would be something else." In reply, the listener says "Is that about it?" a
statement that reinforces the speaker's final, lukewarm evaluation. In the
other case, the listener is not clear on what the implications of the grade
are, and asks "So what did you have to do?" On hearing that "It was just
a, it was just a homework," the listener replies "A paper?" The speaker then
provides a more lengthy explanation of how the homework provides a review


of a concept to be on the next test, on which the listener says "So, It's your
final grade?" The speaker's excitement about the A (and her related sense
of competence) is undermined by the listener's questions, which attempt
to increase the significance of the grade by connecting it to more substantial
outcomes (course grade). The end result is that this A is not particularly
meaningful with respect to the speaker's competence.
Another way in which self-construction is unfolding in reflective node
may be described as implied self-construction. Participants quite often en-
gaged in lengthy, detailed descriptions and evaluations of others. At a
minimum, these descriptions typically implied something about participants'
ideologies and beliefs—in other words, their views of what is right and good.
Sometimes, such statements implied something direct about the participant's
view of him- or herself. For example, one participant noted in describing
a mutual acquaintance, "She was being very pleasant, but, you know, she
still has a tendency to kinda ask questions she shouldn't." Statements of
this sort strongly imply that the failings of the third person are either not
endorsed or not shared by the narrator. They also leave space for listeners
to contribute by either supporting that evaluation or description or r.ot.
Another example of implicit identity construction concerned the types
of deliberations that people engaged in around decisions. For example, one
student discussed the issues around whether he should take a summer job
out of state and talked about how to continue with his coursework while
taking the job. The content of his deliberations imply a great valuing of
completing his degree ahead of time; again, at no point did he state explicitly
that he valued this goal. This kind of self-construction was evident in many
conversations. For this way of constructing the self, the content of the
decision making serves to communicate the teller's values and beliefs rather
than the teller's explicit self-related description or expressed comparison of
the self to the other. However, in these cases, too, the implication is being
made on the level of the interaction between storyteller and listener in the
present. Thus, even in the case of decision-making deliberations, listeners
may challenge the presumptions or values inherent in those processes—for
example, by making statements such as, "Well, but can't you just extend
for another year? Why finish early?"


In dramatic modes, participants portrayed their identity in the sense of

dramaturgical role—they essentially performed a particular self. For example,
both "Blockbuster" and "Refund" share an absence of any explicit statemeni:
about the self-perceptions of the individuals who produced them. They also,


I believe, share commonalities in that they vividly convey an image of the
speaker in action, in particular roles and circumstances: Both speakers are
being witty and funny; one is doing so in rather trying circumstances
("Refund"). In fact, in "Refund" the speaker also is demonstrating persistence
in pursuit of a goal.
Performed selves constrain the options for listener collaboration. In
"Blockbuster," as noted, the listener primarily laughs during the dramatic
sequences, and contributes mainly in reflective sequences. In "Refund,"
during the reflective beginning sequence, the listener is involved, offering
statements such as, "Oh so you bought them before the prices went down?"
followed by a period of laughter. This move presses the narrative toward a
different meaning—namely, the foolishness of the speaker. The speaker
actually detours from the main story to justify having purchased the tickets
early, based on "everyone says" kinds of advice. But midway through his
justification, he switches to dramatic mode in recounting the details of his
call to the travel agency, playing himself and Vincent, the travel agent.
Suddenly, the listener is reduced to laughing supportively-and appropriately,
because it is a well-told story. However, the speaker has also deftly (if
perhaps not deliberately) placed the listener in the position of simultaneously
supporting the story and the proffered version of the self. In fact, someone
taking Vincent's perspective could have viewed the same behaviors as indi-
cating not persistence and good humor but rather egocentrism, and patroniz-
ing and annoying behavior.
Another of the examples given earlier, that of the bowling episode,
involves both reflective mode and dramatic mode, but different aspects of
the self are expressed in the two modes. The initial reflective portions of
the bowling episode explicitly lay out an identity issue—having been
neglectful of an old friendship and having recently made contact and gotten
together with the friend to go bowling. In contrast, the subsequent dramatic
portion portrays a fun-loving person who can appreciate her own ridiculous-
ness during a bowling game (part of that evening's entertainment). The
dramatic portion garners supportive responses that simply encourage and
validate the speaker's story. At closing, during a pause, the listener says
"Wher-wher-where's she from?" and on hearing "She's in Ogden. Just near
the, near Weber, State," she responds "so not very far away then." The
speaker admits this is not far, only to hear, "Shouldn't neglect her anymore,"
after which she responds "I know I know!" The sequence has a mildly joking
tone and is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the listener does not
address the kind of self portrayed during the entertainment portion but
returns to the identity issue expressed earlier in a reflective manner. Second,
the exchange may be seen as a resolution to the identity threat of having
neglected a relationship, in that it focuses on the notion that the speaker
should do better in the future. Third, and more speculatively, the exchange


may be seen as reaffirming the importance and intimacy of the friendship
between speaker and listener in light of the speakers "neglect potential."
I began this chapter with two questions: (a) How do people construct
a sense of self in personal storytelling about everyday events' and (b) How
is this construction of selves in storytelling a joint endeavor, involving
listeners as well as speakers? I found that the answers to these questions
depend considerably on how people tell their stories—and as a consequence,
their selves. I believe the results challenge narrative psychology to expand
its methodological mainstays of important experiences and structured inter-
views. They also raise questions of what kinds of selves are being created
in everyday conversations.



Narrative researchers have traditionally focused on important experi-

ences, defined in ways ranging from experiences that individuals themselves
view as self-defining or part of their life story (McAdams, Hoffman, Mans-
field, & Day, 1996; Singer & Salovey, 1993; Thome & McLean, in press),
to traumatic events and existential crises presumed to be important: across
all individuals (Riessman, 1992; Rosenwald, 1992). However, the fabric of
most lives also includes substantial numbers of everyday breakfasts, loads of
laundry, and other minutiae, as well as experiences that might fall somewhere
in between, such as having a good meeting with potential collaborators or
a surprisingly difficult interaction with one's mother-in-law. Such experi-
ences are the stuff ot everyday conversations and may be quite important
for building the everyday self (see also Barclay & DeCooke, 1988; Barclay
& Subramaniam, 1987; Duck, 1994; Rime, Finkenauer, Lurninet, Zech, &
Phillipot, 1998). In this sense, these stories began as "sow's ears" given their
relatively insignificant topics. But I hope to have convinced readers that
the stories presented communicate volumes about their narrators' selves, as
constructed together with their listeners within a specific occasion


That remembering and the self are connected is something about

which many researchers agree (Barclay & DeCooke, 1988; Barclay & Smith,
1992; Barclay & Subramaniam, 1987; Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000;
McAdams, 1996; Pasupathi, 2001; Singer & Salovey, 1993; Thorne, 2000).
The particulars of the self-memory relationship involve less consensus.
Researchers tend to write as though stories are creating a momentary self


with no lasting implications (Harre, 1983; Van Langenhove & Harre, 1993)
or as though stories are reflecting an internal, more or less stable self, in one
or more of a variety of ways (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; McAdams,
1996; Schank & Abelson, 1995). In the latter case, we might speak of
stories as expressing selves.
I believe the data presented in this chapter illustrate that something
of both processes is occurring. First, people clearly do express previous views
of themselves in the act of telling personal stories—this is reflected both
in the content of their talk, as when a speaker says, "I'm normally a very
good listener," and in the kinds of selves portrayed by them in their starring
roles ("Blockbuster")- Listeners may also express such views, although in
this data, listeners primarily commented on or disputed speakers' expressed
views. Note, however, that this expression does not mean that the kind of
self expressed is consistent, always characteristic of the speaker, or anything
of the kind. Thus, even when they are rooted in an existing view, the selves
people express in storytelling are also situated selves. Second, people may
also use their talk to create self-views they would like to hold but that are
not yet established (Gollwitzer & Wicklund, 1985; Klein & Kunda, 1993;
Rhodewalt, 1998; Sanitioso, Kunda, & Fong, 1990). Individuals present
such beliefs in the context of conversational remembering not only to try
them out but to embed them in a story that provides supportive evidence
and a kind of coherence, and they do so with the hope of social confirmation.
Cases in point can be found in "Heather" as well as in the examples of
participants' talking about getting good grades or arguing successfully for
additional points. Both of these cases—expressing an existing view and
constructing a possible view—involve the construction of the self because
they create a situated self, in the context of the storytelling interaction.
These cases also provide illustrations of where that situated self is disputed.
There is a kind of dynamic relationship between expressing and creating
selves in conversational storytelling (see also Pasupathi, 2001). First, because
people and their partners bring a history to such storytelling, that history
serves to constrain and shape particular stories. That history is multifaceted,
including self-views that predate a given storytelling occasion, but also
relationship-specific interaction patterns and other aspects of the past that
will shape stories. But any particular story told becomes part of that ongoing
history and creates its own pressure toward consistency. Social psychology
tells us that when stories are told in important social contexts, the pressure
may be rather high (Tice, 1992). Thus, the creation of situated selves on
one occasion can ultimately influence the sorts of situated selves we create
in other contexts. In short, the line between expressing and creating selves
in conversations is a heuristic one, possibly of dubious value—better replaced
with questions about the circumstances under which situated selves in one
instance exert influence on subsequent stories and selves and about how


we can understand both the sometimes impressive continuity of situated
selves and the potential for change.



Narrative researchers typically elicit their narratives under two particu-

lar sets of circumstances: the open-ended written narrative and the struc-
tured, supportive interview. These circumstances aim at exploring how
participants structure their experiences without external feedback from any
physically present listener (writing) or under circumstances aimed at support-
ing the individual's own perceptions (structured interviews). Obviously, in
more typical circumstances, people are not free to simply reconstruct the
past as they would like but rather must adapt to the demands of listeners
and social circumstance. The usual context for personal storytelling involves
the presence of many of the constraints that traditional methods avoid.
People are telling stories with goals in mind, and responding to their listeners'
needs, goals, and demands, as well as the overall context in which their
storytelling is unfolding (Baumeister & Newman, 1994; Fivush, 2000; Marsh
& Tversky, in press; Pasupathi, 2001; Pasupathi, Stallworth, & Murdoch,
We will not have a complete picture of the relationship between
narration and identity without looking at how narrations unfold collabora-
tively, in circumstances more analogous to everyday life. Although this is
a new direction for narrative researchers, it is already yielding much promise.
Audiences can provide space for people to tell a story or they can engage
in silencing behavior (Fivush, 2000; Pasupathi, 2001). Audiences can also
contribute to the telling in various ways. For example, Hirst and colleagues
(Manier & Hirst, 1996) have shown that collaborative remembering involves
the taking on of dramatic roles—narrator and more facilitating roles—and
these roles determine the level of influence individuals have on the resulting
group memory. Narrators assume primary responsibility for the storyline and
have the most direct influence on what is recalled. Other roles are available
for supporting the narrator and for evaluating the emerging group recollec-
tion; these roles exert some influence, but less directly. From this view, then,
one of the central ways that audiences collaborate in personal storytelling is
by taking on roles during a storytelling episode that influence the final
recollection in some way. Other work (Dickinson & Givon, 1995; Pasupathi
et al., 1998) has shown, similarly, that both nonverbal and verbal aspects
of listener responses affect what speakers tell on any given storytelling
occasion arid what they subsequently come to recall about the events they
narrated. Still other results (Dudukovic, Marsh, & Tversky, in press; Marsh


& Tversky, in press) show that the goals of narrators, whether to entertain
or to be accurate, also influence both the way they tell stories and their
subsequent memory for the stories they told. These ideas about the way
people interact in storytelling contexts have primarily been focused on the
effects of the social context on memory and remembering, but the present
conversations support a look at how such interactions influence meanings
and situated selves as well.


Although I believe the data in this chapter are valuable in pointing

to self-construction in conversations about the everyday and in examining
some of the ways that self-construction is collaborative, there are many issues
these data cannot address. First, because participants had their conversation
primarily to fulfill experimental demands, these conversations may not reflect
as wide an array of purposes as conversations in more everyday circumstances.
Second, conversations about more important events, negative events, and
a wider array of listener behavior might complicate the picture. For example,
more important events might prompt more reflective tellings because partici-
pants may be more likely to seek to understand those experiences and to
garner input from important others about them. Dramatic modes with nega-
tive events might look rather different than dramatic modes with positive
events. A broader array of listeners might include listeners of sufficient
disagreeableness to interfere with a speaker's preferred mode. Third, these
listeners were established friends. That choice was deliberate; other data
suggest that much memory telling occurs with family and friends, rather
than between strangers. However, it means that the conversations in this
experiment involved relationships in which many views of the world and
of one another were likely to be shared. Fourth, people may be more or less
deliberate in their engagement in self-construction. When participants in
this study make statements such as, "I'm normally a good listener," they
probably do not mean to build a sense of themselves as good listeners but
rather to use this belief discursively to illuminate their story—that is, what
they are about to relate makes sense only in light of this "fact" about the
type of person they are. They may also be more or less aware of their
engagement in a process of self-construction. So, for example, when in
"Blockbuster" the narrator relates his own witticisms, it is not clear whether
he intends to construct this witty self or whether he intends primarily to
capture the listener's attention and the witty self construction is just a
byproduct of his strategy.



In the film Big Fish (Burton, 2003), a father tells wild, fantastical tales
about his life; the film renders those tales in dramatic mode. The great
tragedy at the center of the story is that his son cannot see the father in
those stories and feels as though his father is hiding behind the tall tales,
and as though he does not really know his father's real self. The problem,
of course, is that the son is looking for reflective tellings and communicated
meanings (it is no accident that the son is a journalist). And in this pursuit
he deserves some sympathy. The father's stories do not permit the son a
role in shaping them, aside from wholesale rejection or approval. The son
also has a painfully wooden ear: The father's stories communicate volumes
about the father, regardless of their objective truth, not the least because
of the way they are told. Big Fish shows us that in tuning our ears to only
some kinds of telling, we may be deaf to a world of meaning. At the end
of Big Fish, the son learns to use the dramatic mode to coauthor his father's
ending. Like that son, we too might learn much from the "sow's ears" of
everyday and dramatic tellings. As someone interested in storied selves, I
believe the best silk from the sow's ears presented in this chapter points
toward broadening our approach to the everyday and the performed, as well
as the significant and reflective.


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More than most people ... we had to invent ourselves out of whole
cloth. . . . We had the freedom to self-define, a sense of ourselves as
recording and witnessing what had only been shadows before, present
at the creation of something unheard of. (Monette, 1994, pp 205-206)

Social and historical circumstances provide the fabric through which

life stories are woven. Life writer Paul Monette (1994), consistent with the
observations of sociologist Ken Plummer (1995, 1996), is keenly aware
that his personal narrative is grounded not only in remembered personal
experience. Rather, his identity—as realized in his life story—is uniquely
constructed in a particular time and place, a cultural and historical context
that allows for particular identity possibilities.
The construction of a personal identity, as with all aspects of human
development, occurs within a distinct historical, social, and cultural context
(Elder, 1974, 1996; Elder 6k Caspi, 1990; Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2003).
Identity represents a historically relative measure of the meaning made of
life experience, always infused with context-dependent possibilities and
endlessly diverse forms. Nonetheless, shared understandings of the meaning

of life experience emerge among members of a generation-cohort who share
particular historical, social, and cultural contexts of development (Elder,
1974, 1996; Mannheim, 1928/1993). There is also intracohort variation
that is based on such factors as gender, social status, geography, and sexual
orientation (Griffin, 2004; Sears, 1991; Settersten, 1999). Possessing and
embracing an identity of contested social status, gay men and lesbians have
developed a particular narrative of development counter to that of the
master heteronormative narrative (Bamberg, 2004; Plummer, 1995). These
counter narratives, which focus on the emergence of a gay identity, are
rewritten by subsequent cohorts of sexual minorities in the context both of
social and historical change and the prevailing counternarratives of gay
identity available at a particular cultural moment.
This chapter explores the interplay of social change and life writing
in the construction of a gay sexual identity through the life stories of three
men of different generations. We suggest that these life stories reveal the
social, cultural, and historical basis of gay identity. We define a gay identity
as the assumption of a particular sexual story, one in which same-sex desire
is fully realized and integrated into the life story through social practice.
Rather than being an achieved status, we view gay identity as a narrative
rooted in sexual desire but motivated by social practice. Our approach to
the study of these life stories follows that portrayed by Lieblich, Tuval-
Mashiach, and Zilber (1998) as holistic-content analysis. This approach
views the narrative of a life as a whole and identifies themes, turning points,
important characters, key relationships, and key events.
Following a brief theoretical overview in which we further develop a
life-story perspective on gay identity and demonstrate its relationship to
other social science perspectives, we consider in detail the life stories of
Paul Monette, Tim Miller, and Kirk Read. We have selected these particular
narratives following guidelines suggested by Plummer (2001), choosing life
stories of men writing about self and sexual desire that are information rich
within a readily identifiable historical context. In this way, we were able
to focus on the role and salience of generational cohort in constructing gay
male identity. Clearly, no claim can be made that the self-authored accounts
chosen for analysis in this chapter are representative in any statistical sense
of their generation of self-life writers seeking sex with other men. Rather,
our analysis is meant to both develop and illustrate a particular theoretical
perspective on gay identity and the gay male life course. In addition to
being information rich, the accounts selected for discussion have been
included on the basis of two other criteria. First, the personal account had
to be entirely self-authored by a man living in an American community.
Second, the life story had to include the course of life as a whole from
childhood to the time at which the account was written, based on a presently
remembered past, experienced present, and anticipated future. An analysis


of these three narratives reveals the cultural and historical nature of gay
identity in late modern times. We conclude with a discussion of the changing
gay and lesbian life course, which itself creates a new context within which
narratives of identity are constructed, maintained, and shared.


Bridging psychological and social perspectives on identity, the narrative

framework of identity emphasizes the significance of social context in the
agentic process of narrative self-construction from adolescence through later
life (e.g., Bruner, 1990; Gergen, 1994; Gergen & Gergen, 1983). In particu-
lar, the life-story narrative approach to identity has gained considerable
prominence in the psychological study of lives in context (e.g., McAdams,
1990, 1993, 1997, 2001; Mishler, 1999). In this perspective, identity is
maintained over a lifetime through the activity of telling stories about
ourselves (Bruner, 1987; McAdams, 1997). Personal identity itself is con-
structed in the creation and sharing of the life story.
Beyond this psychological perspective, this performative or social prac-
tice theory of identity, which we argue is fundamental to the narrative
construction of gay life stories, resonates with recent important scholarship
in anthropology (e.g., Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998), sociol-
ogy (e.g., Plummer, 1995), and gender studies (e.g., Butler, 1990). Reminis-
cent of earlier sociological perspectives (e.g., Mead, 1934), these perspectives
are united in their vision of the self as socially understood and socially
maintained in reference to a larger collective. The discourse of a given
culture, which itself reveals systems of social power and organizes spheres
of personal and collective identification (Butler, 1990; Foucault, 1978),
infuses the life stories of individuals who share particular experiences. The
act of writing the life story mobilizes the discourse of identity in social and
historical context and, in the process, itself represents a performance of self.
Gay and lesbian life stories reveal significant transformations in the
cultural context of identity construction. Life stories of gay identity have
shifted dramatically across the post-World War II period as a consequence
of larger social changes (Cohler, 2006; Parks, 1999; Rosenfeld, 2003;
Sadownick, 1997). In particular, the emergence of the gay civil rights move-
ment following the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969 (see Clendinen &
Nagournev, 1999; D'Emilio, 1983/1998; Duberman, 1993) and the AIDS
pandemic within the gay community circa 1981 (see Odets, 1995; Shilts,
1987) fundamentally altered the gay and lesbian life course. These significant
historical events, then, created three distinct generations of gay men.
Gay men born in the 1930s and 1940s, coming of age in the time
following World War II, experienced a time of social conservatism and


stigmatization that fostered a hidden, subversive sexual identity. Men born
in the decade of the 1950s who came of age in the 1970s experienced a
time of enhanced acceptance for gay identity, as well as a series of political
changes that led over the ensuing decades to "virtual normality" (Sullivan,
1995). Tragically, large numbers of gay men from these generations suc-
cumbed to AIDS before the emergence of life-prolonging treatments. A
third generation of men, born in the 1970s and 1980s, came of age during
the 1990s and for the most part have been spared the ravages of AIDS
(now largely controlled in the United States and throughout the western
world through antiviral medication) and have enjoyed a time in which
being gay is but one of several (relatively) permissible sexual "lifeways"
(Hostetler 6k Herdt, 1998). From the mid-1990s to the present, the emer-
gence of the Internet as an interactive media form has provided a number
of sites in which gay men and women have archived their own life stories
(Cohler, 2006). The possibility of new technologies, which unite marginal-
ized communities, creates yet another historical shift in gay and lesbian
life experience.



Narratives of sexual identity represent constructed stories of self-in-

action. A central focus in gay and lesbian identity narratives is frequently
the disclosure of same-sex desire, commonly referred to as "coming out"
(Savin-Williams, 1998, 2001). Whether represented as a choice (as is more
common in the lesbian life story) or as the realization of some intrinsic
process (Whisman, 1996), the gay identity story is learned through discourse,
including both conversation with others and reading about gay identity.
When speaking of gay identity, it is important to note that we refer not to
the internal sociosexual affect that determines one's sexual orientation. In
arguing that gay identity is constructed in the discursive act of storytelling,
we refer not to the construction of internal desire. Rather, we are concerned
with gay identity as a culturally and historically bound narrative of self
maintained in social practice (see Hammack, 2004). This practice, we argue,
is always historically situated and dependent on the cumulative social and
political activity that transforms societal attitudes toward homosexuality.
As a consequence, gay and lesbian life stories reflect changing narratives
of identity that are rooted in sociohistorical processes.
The very act of telling or writing the identity story is thus itself a
social practice. Extending the position adopted by McAdams (1997) in his
discussion of the identity narrative, we argue that telling or writing an
identity narrative constitutes a performance or social practice. Writing their


life stories backward, gay life writers have an opportunity to remake their
own identities in the light of social change taking place across their life
time. At the same time, these life writers also understand social changes
based on their own life experiences growing up in a particular generation
(Bruner, 2002; Cohler, 2006). The act of writing the gay life story, of making
public one's narrative of identity, both reveals and contributes to the cultural
transformations that provide the foundation for new life stories.



The decade of the 1960s marks a turning point in American society.

The optimism and social commitment of John F. Kennedy's "Camelot" at
the beginning of the decade turned into a time of brooding reflection by
the end of the decade in the wake of controversy over the Vietnam War
and multiple political assassinations, including the president himself and
leading civil rights scholar and activist Martin Luther King Jr.
The cultural ^eitgezst in American society was highly charged with
political and social liberalism, which resulted in such cultural phenomena
as gender-role questioning and sexual liberation. Into the midst of converging
social movements emerged the gay civil rights movement, commenced with
the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 following patron resistance to police harass-
ment of a gay bar and characterized by a growing sentiment toward political
activity among gay men and lesbians (D'Emilio, 1983/1998; Loughery, 1998).
The homophile movement, which sought acceptance of gay men and lesbians
as legitimate members of society, shifted from the secrecy and social iritegra-
tionist stance of the Mattachine Society to a politically active, visible stance
characterized by the Gay Liberation Front. This era also witnessed the
emergence of social science research on homosexuality, with the widespread
view of homosexuality as mental illness, despite Evelyn Hooker's (1957)
pioneering study revealing no relationship between sexual orientation and
mental health.
Monette came of age in this era and died of AIDS in 1995. Flawing
buried two partners, only to succumb to AIDS himself, he was at the very
epicenter of the epidemic. Monette first wrote an account of the illness and
death of bis lover Roger (Monette, 1988) and then a National Book Award
Prize memoir of his life from childhood through young adulthood (Monette,
1992), even as he was suffering the ravages of AIDS. These two volumes
and a posthumous collection of essays (Monette, 1994) reflect what Plummer
(1995) has characterized as establishing a "home" that leads to a new identity
and a new community. Monette's writing is replete with discussions of
homes, both literally and figuratively.


Most significant to his identity was Monette's role as a gay activist
following Stonewall. Providing enhanced freedom to self-define oneself as
gay, Stonewall was, for Monette, accompanied by "a sense of ourselves as
recording and witnessing what had only been shadows before; present at
the creation of something unheard of " (1994, p. 206). Central to his identity
was the assumption of this role as gay activist. Monette was born just after
World War II, and came of age as a gay man in the late 1960s, and was a
part of the visible gay sexual community emerging in the 1970s. Thus,
Monette was in the midst of the generation of gay men at maximum risk
for AIDS, which was silently transmitted across the 1970s and identified
as the "gay cancer" in 1981.
The course of Monette's life, however, reveals a troubled internal
struggle to reconcile his gay desire and a persistent self-denial. This struggle,
which was so characteristic of gay men in Monette's generation, is not
surprising in light of the highly stigmatized nature of gay identity at the time.
Social stigma continues to influence the course of gay lives, complicating the
possibilities of optimal development (see Plummer, 1975). But gay identity
was particularly stigmatized and largely clandestine in Monette's time. Con-
sidering his own life and that of his generation, Monette noted that he
"wrote from a place of invisibility. . . . We had to invent ourselves out of
whole cloth. ... In those early years of the seventies a literature slowly
began to coalesce around our fundamental uniqueness" (1994, p. 205). The
invisibility of stigma among gay men creates what sociologist Erving Goffman
(1963) termed a spoiled identity—one in which there is a discrepancy
between one's actual identity and one's virtual or perceived identity. The
keen awareness of one's identity as in part spoiled in social interactions, in
which heterosexual identity is typically assumed by the performers in an
interaction, created within Monette a deep internal conflict.
As a youth, Monette realized that his life story could not accommodate
his gay identity, and he thus disguised his sexual identity over a number of
years. Outstanding school performance, popularity with classmates, and a
charitable attitude toward everyone characterized his attempts to fit in and
meet the expectations of family and school. A "townie" from a working-
class family, Monette attended Andover, where his talent for classical lan-
guages led to a scholarship to Yale. At Yale, he carefully avoided any
association with the furtive gay community. Monette lamented his missed
opportunities at escaping from his pose as a heterosexual man. He reported
that he yearned to go into a local gay bar but was terrified that he would
be seen by someone who knew him. His adolescence and early adulthood
were thus characterized by self-denial, suppression of sexual desire, and the
false assumption of a straight identity.
Monette's final year at Yale marked the height of his loneliness. Just
shy of his 21st birthday, he narrated his autobiography in a senior ceremony


at his club, acknowledging his frustration with prep school, his struggles
with his brother's infirmity due to a birth defect, even hinting at his own
dark mood. The one aspect of his life that he could not reveal, which
remained silent, was the one that would make the story complete: that he
was gay. It would be another 8 years after this ceremony before he could
acknowledge his same-sex desire. Selected to write the senior poem for
graduation at Yale, he noted that only a gay reader would have been able
to decode the messages of his lost loves across his Yale years (Tierney,
2000). Monette's narrative of this period of his life reveals the inner turmoil
that characterized many gay men of the Stonewall generation. At a time
of heightened sexual exploration for heterosexual men, gay men in Monette's
generation experienced adolescence and the college years as highly problem-
atic, unable to reconcile their desires with the social identity categories
available to them and the accompanying behavioral possibilities.
Gay men of Monette's generation, coming of age before the era of the
"sexual revolution" in the United States, suffered from the absence of any
available social role for their identities. Their spoiled identities were founded
on a deep division between their internal, psychological experience of self
and the role possibilities of their culture. If identity is understood in and
through social interaction, as sociologists have long argued (e.g., Goffman,
1959; McCall, 1987; McCall & Simmons, 1978; Mead, 1934), a particularly
strained identity formation process is intrinsic to those who cannot escape
a spoiled identity. The roles available to an individual are always historically
and culturally bound, and they reflect the structure of society in the identity
possibilities they confer (Brekhus, 2003; McCall, 1987; Stryker, 1987). In
the absence of any positive social role to assume, Monette's narrative of self-
suffering seems socially inescapable and is representative of the experiences of
his generation of pre-Stonewall gay men.
The experience of a spoiled identity seems likely to create states of
internal discordance, as one works to manage the discrepancies of inner and
outer spheres of experience. Following graduation from Yale and becoming an
instructor at a New England boys' school, Monette found himself obsessed
by a handsome, successful, and heterosexual aspiring young poet. Driven
nearly mad with desire for this young man, Monette reported that he hit
bottom. He sunk into a deep depression, which he connected with being
gay. His confidantes urged him to begin psychotherapy. Monette was mes-
merized by his sessions. He found the source of his shame connected with
the body shame his family expressed when his younger brother was born
Monette's memoir ends in Los Angeles, after he lost two lovers and
was himself succumbing to AIDS. He concluded that "it's hard to keep the
memory at full dazzle, with so much loss to mock it" (1992, p. 278). He
consoled himself with the realization that it is possible for gay men to have


real loving relationships. Monette observed that the inscription "died of
homophobia" which he had thought of putting on his former lover's head-
stone would instead be put on his own headstone, with the addition "mur-
dered by his government."
In his posthumously published book of essays, Monette (1994) wrote
much more explicitly about the failure of the U.S. government to make
known the scourge of AIDS, its failure to act on behalf of public health
or to support research on a cure. His identity now was that of an AIDS
patient. As he observed, "AIDS has taught me precisely what I'm writ
in, blood and bone and viral load" (1994, p. 114). He lamented that the
epidemic never need have happened if the federal government had not
suppressed the facts to the population at large. He noted that his goal in
this final book of essays was "to look at the vectors of my life, the people
and the places and politics that had stuck with me, resonant still despite
the deluge of the last twelve years of calamity. How had it changed the
way I look at things? Had anything survived intact? And did anything
mean the same anymore?" (1994, pp. 302-303). Monette felt the pressure
to document the impact of AIDS on his generation because, as he observed
in perhaps his last published words, AIDS had happened "on his watch"
(1994, p. 309).
Monette's life story centers most prominently on his lifelong attempts
to make the invisible visible—first, the process of coming to terms with his
same-sex desire and eventually coming out gay, then coming to terms with
having AIDS and disclosing it to the gay community in which he became
so active. Missing in this discussion is an understanding of the source of
Monette's personal strength that was reflected in his determination to com-
bat prejudice and silence. With his illness, he was able to focus on the
importance of finding one's desire and writing about this desire in the
context of his time. The historical conditions of his life course—the intense
stigmatization of homosexuality in the social ecology of his youth, the
eventual gay civil rights movement, and AIDS—offered the social possi-
bilities within which he made a gay identity. His life story, replete with
psychological suffering and culminating in a premature death, typifies the
Stonewall-era gay identity.



Born in 1958, Tim Miller came of age in the post-Stonewall late

1970s. Although AIDS is a significant element in his narrative—his fear
of becoming infected, his work in ACT-UP, the loss of friends to the


disease—he somehow, almost miraculously, remained negative for the HIV
infection. With a hackground in theater, Miller is best known for his one-
person shows based on his life story and for developing a performance art
piece that controversially won him a grant from the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA). However, government pressure led the NEA to withdraw
grants to artists and performers with a gay theme in their work. Ultimately,
this decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against
Miller and three fellow artists on the ground that "standards of decency"
are material in the decision to make an award in the arts and thar these
standards do not violate the constitution's First Amendment clause.
Miller's performance art is autobiographical and confessional, Tracing
his acceptance of his gay identity and his transformation from self-preoccupa-
tion with his body and sexuality to the capacity to be a reciprocal and
intimate lover. He views his body as an extension of his activity as a
performer, and inevitably during the course of his performance takes off his
clothes and wanders naked into the audience. Following the performance,
he joins his audience in the lobby where he hugs old friends, autographs
his books, and continues to regale the gathered crowd with his adventures.
Pictures from his performance are included with each chapter both of Shirts
and Skin (1997) and Body Blows: Six Performances (2002). Most recently,
Miller has produced videos featuring his performance in which he enacts
his life story as told in his books. In these ways, Miller has created his gay
identity through practice.
In Shirts and Skin, Miller reported that he has kept a journal each
day since the fifth grade and views his writing and performance art as
inextricably bound to making a gay identity. He writes arid performs as
an activist, with the goal of fostering both his own and others' gay
identity. Miller shares with Monette frustration and anger toward the U.S.
government. Although Monette's anger centered on the failure to properly
deal with the AIDS pandemic, Miller's is more personally focused on the
denial of same-sex domestic partnership. Miller explicitly acknowledged
the impact of Monette's (1992) memoir on his own writing and his own
construction of a gay identity. This admission on Miller's part reflects the
intergenerational interplay of reading and writing in the construction of
a gay identity. As such, Miller's story shares some similarities with Monette's,
rooted in a master narrative of gay identity, but it diverges because of its
historical context.
Miller's life story begins at age 5, with the story (and accompanying
photo) of him being dressed in a trainman's coverall. So commences his
theme that skin can be changed by putting on a shirt—a metaphor for
accepting through practice a gay identity. This theme of clothed and naked,
and of making a gay identity through practice, pervades both his memoirs


and his performance art. Miller grew up in a middle-class community, re-
pressed and conventional. Although he had tried to be heterosexual, kissing
a girl on an amusement park ride and spotting the boy of his early adolescent
desire at the same moment, he says he knew at that instant that his tenure
as a heterosexual boy would be brief.
By the time Miller was in high school in the early 1970s, the era of
rapid social change in American society had already taken hold. He excelled
in school, particularly in German language, where his lesbian teacher taught
him the irregular forms of the verb to be: "I am. I was. I will be" (1999,
p. 29), which he connected implicitly to his stewing gay identity. However,
it was only in 1975, when he was in his senior year of high school, that
Miller finally understood that he liked boys. In an incident that is both the
title of his memoir and the story of Miller's performance, he tells about his
physical education class in which there were two sports teams drawn from
the class. To distinguish one team from the other in warm, sunny southern
California, one team would remove their shirts. Feeling his body inadequate
to display, Miller always hoped that he would be a "shirt," yet he generally
ended up as a "skin." He realized then that he was "on the skins' team for life.
I could cover up and slip into different shirts and disguises, but underneath it
all I would always be there with the other boys who were stripped bare.
We would always be recognizable as a different team" (1999, p. 25). This
theme of being bare is a major moment in Miller's performance art as well—
getting out of his clothes and being naked is understood as being genuine
and expressing his solidarity with the gay community, of being on the
skins' team.
Meeting a man in college who became his first boyfriend, Miller was
encouraged by his boyfriend to take up dance. Later, he moved first to San
Francisco and then New York, looking for an affirmative gay community
and at the same time developing his theatrical talent. Discovering quite by
accident a dance movement studio, Miller was swept up by the combination
of movement art and sex; no part of his life or body was off-limits as he
and his group explored the outrageous. By the early 1980s, Miller was
engaged as a journeyman carpenter by day and performed in ever more
radical theater by night. The expression of his gay identity in his performance
art was coupled with his increasing political activism.
Miller's portrait of gay desire at this time was of an inevitable, perhaps
fatal, attraction between two young men. Getting together with John, an-
other gay radical performance artist, Miller rushed headlong into a relation-
ship. Over the next year, the pair chronicled the course of their relationship
in a series of performance pieces. When the relationship ended, the final
break-up was portrayed on stage with the pair removing their pajamas,
announcing that they were going to burn and bury them, and then walking
naked off stage.


During the period of the breakup, after this performance but while
they were still having sex, John began to bleed during a routine dentist
appointment (a symptom of his disease), was hospitalized, and was dead of
AIDS a year later. Believing himself not fit for a stable relationship, Miller
sought anonymous sex with men who were strangers on lower East Side
rooftops. He went to England for a time, and when he came back the AIDS
epidemic had begun in earnest. Sex and death became connected. As Miller
so acutely observed, "For gay boys who had always felt ourselves 'tested' by
parents, priests, and our gender, to have to submit our blood to the big
pass-or-fail seemed fit for a soap opera, the Old Testament, or a little kid's
nightmare" (1999, p. 206). Ultimately, Miller tested negative for HIV and
began a round of sexual experiences that he believed he made up for the
crimped sexual explorations of his early 20s, cautiously engaged in for fear
of AIDS.
With friends and former lovers dying in New York, Miller moved in
1986 to Los Angeles and began a complex relationship with a new lover.
As the AIDS epidemic exploded nationally and globally, ACT-UP was
organized to make the public aware of the danger. Miller and his lover, writer-
turned-gay therapist Doug Sadownick, were in the midst of the political
movement. Miller used his skills as a performance artist to attract attention
to the cause. Anger, rather than fear, represented the sentiment in his art
and political work at the time. In the late 1980s, when hospitals were still
reluctant to deal with AIDS, ACT-UP forced the issue into the open. For
Miller, the ACT-UP demonstrations occurred only months after John's
death—memories of his body a mass of sores—and hence assumed an ex-
tremely personal quality.
Miller's life story shares with Monette's an early awareness of difference
because of same-sex desire, accompanied by feelings of shame. But Miller's
story diverges considerably from Monette's in late adolescence. Miller ac-
cepted his fate as gay—destined to be exposed—and thus constructs his life
around realization of a gay self. His decision of where to live and work
(New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles) is intimately connected with his
longing for an accepting community of other gay individuals. His gay identity
becomes the primary organizing element in his life, entirely consuming the
nature of his work and his growing political activism in response to AIDS.
In this way, Miller's and Monette's life stories end up converging again,
once Monette had accepted his underlying desire. Key to their divergence
in the life story—Monette's suffering contrasted with Miller's earlier embrace
of his gay identity—is the dissimilar historical and social contexts of impor-
tant turning points in their life course. Consider the college experience for
each man. Monette's late adolescent years are replete with serious depression
over his spoiled identity. For Miller, however, society had changed consider-
ably since Monette's college years. The inevitability of a spoiled identity


had significantly diminished with rising cultural awareness of sexual diversity
and the degeneration of traditional sociosexual roles. By Miller's time, it
was socially legitimate to be gay. By no means was it entirely socially
acceptable, but the secrecy of Monette's era is no longer the modal gay
experience. Stonewall and the gay civil rights movement, of which Monette
and men of his generation were so intimately a part, had forged a new
sociohistorical context for gay identity.
Being gay became for both Miller and Monette the dominant feature
of their personal identities in its impact on the life story. With their births
separated by fewer than 10 years, the course of these men's lives followed
similar but variant tracks. With his resolution to come out earlier in his
life than Monette, Miller's life story is an affirming, vivid story of the
possibilities that ensue from a thorough embrace of a gay identity, whereas
Monette's life story is one of quiet self-denial of his gay identity and experi-
ence of terrible losses. For both of these men, gay identity assumed divergent
elements and, although the master narrative had its sway, created a unique
course of life for them both.



Kirk Read's life story, How I Learned to Snap: A Small-Town Coming-

Out and Coming-of-Age Story (2001), is representative of a new generation
of gay men whose families and communities were increasingly accepting of
gay identity in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Read was born in 1973 and
grew up in the South, and his life story culminates in his politically active
role in the gay community, particularly his service work with gay and lesbian
youth. Read sees his own memoir as a contribution that might help gay
adolescents make sense of their sexuality and provide support as they face
antigay prejudice at school and in the community.
Read traces his concern for gay and lesbian youth to his childhood
wish for an older brother who would rescue him from his feelings of self-
defeat. In part, this wish is reflected in Read's adolescent attraction to older
men, including a college student who befriended him and introduced him
to gay sex while he was in high school and a middle-aged man working in
the theater who became his lover. He grew up in a family and community
strongly influenced by the ideology of the religious right. His stepbrothers
of his military father's two previous marriages complied with expectations
that they serve in the armed forces. Read's father was a good friend with the
religious right leader Pat Robertson (an outspoken critic of homosexuality),
which only added to Read's burden in dealing with his father's own militant
stance toward the evils of homosexuality.


Despite the ideological context of his childhood, Read's life story
offers an affirming account of gay identity. Read was aware early of his
attraction to other boys in his school, particularly an older, obviously gay
boy named Jesse. He developed and cultivated many gender-non-conforming
interests such as theater and fashion in his youth. Jesse once remarked to
him in response to Read's inquiry about how he resisted the taunts of his
classmates, "1 am not afraid. . . .Three circles and a snap . . . snap on. the
word not. I am not afraid" (Read, 2001, pp. 56—57). The title of Read's
memoir, Row I Learned to Snap, refers to this ability to resist the impact
of antigav stigma.
Read began to explore gay books, becoming increasingly accessible,
in high school in the late 1980s. He spent hours at the local public library,
even pilfering the popular book, The Joy of Gay Sex. As a high school junior
working on an independent study project, Read wrote his first play, which
was gay-themed. The play later won an award in a young playwrights'
competition and was publicized across the county. News of his literary
success and his sexuality spread throughout his community, and Read was
officially "out." Read's parents seemed to have paid little attention to his
sexuality. His father did initially fuss about the bad influence on him from
his gay theater friends, claimed that he would get AIDS, and ranted about
what would become of him. However, his father was pacified by his mother,
ever his supporter, and Read set off for the University of Virginia, where
his play was to be staged.
While sitting in a coffee shop and struggling to rewrite a critical
scene of his play, Read met an older playwright, Walker, with whom he
immediately clicked. The two soon became inseparable, and Walker became
a fixture in Read's life and a welcome addition to his family. Read's father,
preferring to deny Walker and his son's relationship, liked Walker for his
patient tolerance of his war stories. Read's mother was supportive, under-
standing, and even encouraging of the relationship (when Read turned 18,
she sent Walker a card, joking that her son was finally legal). Read alternated
between nights making love with Walker and the usual beer parties of high
school seniors, including a party after his senior prom (which Walker refused
to attend) where Read confessed his love to a straight classmate.
Read's memoir ends with his high school graduation, anticipating his
college years at the University of Virginia. However, he reports that the
thought of going away to college and being apart from Walker was too
painful to contemplate. His father had a stroke during his senior year in
high school and died of a brain tumor his first year at college. Walker was
among the constant companions at his father's bedside during his difficult
final days. Although Kis father chose to never fully acknowledge his son's
gay identity, Read's experience of relative support from his parents reflects
the changing nature of coming out.


Ten years elapsed between the events recounted in Read's memoir
and his current life within the gay community of San Francisco where he
works as an advocate for gay youth and speaks on this topic across the
country. At the same time, he can comfortably return back to his Southern
roots and enjoy the company of his former classmates toward whom he
harbors lasting affection. His lesson, learned from Jesse, to snap—to say "I
am not afraid"—is one that he seeks to pass on to the next generation.
Read's account is one framed very much within the generation of gay
men born in the 1970s. In Read's case, early awareness of his gay sexual
desire and his ability to enlist older men as lovers, he reported having
benefited from this mentorship. He has written of his gay desire without
hesitation and has expressed pleasure in quenching his desire for sex with
other men. He even earned the begrudging admiration from his classmates
in high school for being himself and not hiding his gay identity. In this
way, Read's life story is representative of a new generation of gay men
coming of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s whose identities were far
less problematically realized. Following struggles with self-acceptance, Read
embraced his gay desire in adolescence and engaged in a meaningful relation-
ship that was known to his parents. He received peer and family support
for his gay identity, and he has offered his memoir as a possibility for a gay
adolescence free of shame and self-hate.
Read's life story shares with Monette's and Miller's the struggle over
feelings of difference—certainly a common theme in gay life stories. It also
shares the active making of a gay identity through social practice that
explicitly involves a community of other gay men. Central to his understand-
ing of self, as manifested in his life-story narrative, is the practice through
which he has constructed, affirmed, and maintained his personal identity.
This practice provides his sense of self with a coherence through which he
makes meaning of his experience, be it painful or pleasurable. Fundamental
to a contrast of these three life stories, however, is the changing cultural
context of sexuality and the evolving identity possibilities of American



As sociohistorical circumstances alter life-course possibilities for indi-

viduals with same-sex desire, life-story narratives of gay men will continue
to offer new representations of identity. In the 21st century, three cultural
phenomena in particular offer new implications for life-story construction.
First, the transformation of HIV from lethal to chronic, manageable illness
(in the western world) has fundamentally changed the sexual culture of gay


America. Second, the increasing social acceptance of gay and lesbian sexual
life ways has created new opportunities for life-course development, particu-
larly with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Third,
the proliferation of cultural globalization—fueled in large part through the
Internet—facilitates intercultural communication among individuals with
same-sex desire, thus enabling the creation of virtual communities arid sites
for public performance of gay identity.
Miller (1997) reported in his memoir that in the mid-1990s a serooosi-
tive former boyfriend had been started on the new drug regime and was
still alive. This brief experience presaged a dramatic change experienced
by the generation of gay men born in the 1960s and 1970s and coming
of age after the mid-1990s following the introduction of highly effective
treatments for HIV. The psychological effect of AIDS continues, with sex
ever filtered "through the viral veil of safety and risk" (Rofes, 1998, p. 93),
but the discovery of effective treatments transformed the meaning of HIV.
The eventual public health campaign to prevent AIDS in the late 1980s
and early 1990s resulted in a massive safer sex education movement. As a
consequence, many young men coming of age in the 1990s were taught
explicitly about AIDS, beginning in middle school.
Accompanied by growing acceptance of being gay as a legitimate sexual
lifeway, the transformation in views of HIV from a lethal to a chronic,
manageable illness once again altered the discourse of gay desire and changed
our understanding ot a gay sexual identity. The new technology o1~ the
Internet has been critical in this cultural transformation ot gay identity
within post-AIDS generations. The Internet has both facilitated discussion
of gay experience and has also provided an opportunity to seek out others
with same-sex desire. The growth of Internet gay culture has provided new
guidance for understanding sexuality, a means for meeting other gay men,
and—most relevant to the present discussion—an opportunity to make a
gay identity through safe, secretive passive or active engagement.
The history of gay and lesbian identity is cumulative, and individuals
with same-sex desire today benefit from the gay cultural infrastructure
within urban centers that emerged from both the gay civil rights movement
and the political movement to combat the spread of AIDS in the 1980s.
Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gay urban youth constructed
their own identities in communal, safe settings (Herdt & Boxer, 1993).
The coming-out "crisis" was forever transformed by the emergence of these
safe contexts for youth to construct their newly embraced gay identities.
Unknown in the adolescence of Monette, gay youth in the 1990s came
out and even had romantic experience on par with their heterosexual
peers before their 20s. Gradually, this safe urban ecology of coming out
spread to the suburbs, and schools across the nation formed gay-
straight alliances.


The 1990s, then, ushered in a new sexual decade that represented the
cumulative impact of key historical events such as Stonewall and AIDS.
Youth coming of age in this historical era know almost nothing personally
of AIDS, most of them having never experienced the loss of loved ones
that plagued the earlier generation. With unparalleled support in their
ecologies of development, youth with same-sex desire come to identify
themselves as gay and begin to engage in the social practice associated with
a gay identity unburdened by the emotional turmoil of men in Monette's
generation. Without the immediate threat of AIDS and presumably equipped
with an arsenal of safer sex knowledge, these young gay men do not see an
inevitable premature death as the men of both Monette's and Miller's
time had. Rather, they witness the possibilities of a complete life course,
approximating more and more those with heterosexual desire, including the
freedom of romantic involvement and the ability to have a recognized same-
sex partnership. Accompanying the shift in how young gay men views AIDS,
however, is the re-emergence of unsafe sex practices and increasing rate of
HIV infection, the effects of which remain to be seen. The recent legalization
of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, although not without social contro-
versy and protest, reflects the emerging life-course possibilities for gay men
and lesbians in the twenty-first century.
Changing cultural understandings of sexual identity has also led to
new discourses on identity more generally. Recent scholarship in cultural
studies has led to the emergence of "queer theory" (e.g., Butler, 1990;
Gauntlett, 2002; Jagose, 1996), a perspective that—in the tradition of
Foucault (1978)—emphasizes power and language in the construction of
identity in postmodern times. No longer can sexual identity simply be
bifurcated along gender and sexual orientation, as the complexity of sexual
desire and its relationship to cultural discourse have been more fully
realized. The emergence of a diversity of sexual identities—reflected in
the growing number of potential sexual life ways culturally available
(Hosteller 6k Herdt, 1998)—suggests new narrative possibilities for the
life story.
With cultural globalization comes the infusion of the Western life
course in cultures around the world and, perhaps, an increasingly uniform
identity development process in adolescence (Arnett, 2002). Across cultures
and throughout history, same-sex desire has existed but has frequently as-
sumed different meanings (Chauncey, 1994; Greenberg, 1988; Herdt, 1997;
Mondimore, 1996; Weeks, 1991). With the proliferation of Western media
throughout the world and the accessibility of Western culture via the In-
ternet, it is possible that culturally diverse narratives of same-sex desire
will converge toward a common conceptualization of gay identity. The
implications of globalization remain unexplored in terms of gay identity but
represent a critical endeavor for twenty-first century social science.



The study of identity in social, historical, and cultural context benefits

from the narrative approach to the study of lives. The life stories of gay
men presented in this chapter reveal most directly the historical specificity
of the life course of gay men and lesbians, whose identities are intimately
intertwined with the social ethos of sexuality. For the three generations of
gay men presented, coming out as gay became increasingly less problematic
both socially and psychologically, and it occurred at increasingly earlier
points in the life course. Historical events intersected directly with motivated
individual social practice to construct gay identity. This practice involved,
primarily, political activism. Art and writing, however, both represented
practices in which gay identity was created for all three men. In these ways,
being gay represented for these men the most salient aspect of their identities.
Primacy was accorded to the stigmatized sexual desire underlying their
personal compositions, and gay identity was made through engagement with
gay culture. The lite stories of these men may not be representative of all
gay men belonging to these particular generations, but they nonetheless
highlight the making of gay identity, rooted in same-sex desire, in social
Erikson's (1959) vision of the toil of youth—the identity crisis in
which one's goals and ambitions are situated within the expectations of
family and society—responded to an increasingly visible alteration in the
life course of individuals over the post-World War II period. Erikson viewed
identity as an achievement and as a socially negotiated self-constructive
process. As part of the larger dialectic between person and society, we view
identity less as fixed in psychological time and space than as a narrative
rewritten across the course of life, which provides a sense of personal coher-
ence and vitality in the context of social change. Identity represents "a
central means by which selves, and the sets of actions they organize, form and
re-form over a personal lifetime and in the histories of social collectivities"
(Holland et al., 1998, p. 270).
All forms of identity, including that founded on sexual orientation,
are formed through telling or writing a particular life story that injects
life circumstances with meaning in a personally coherent narrative. The
coherence for which we strive, and which is portrayed as an identity, is
realized in and through the stories we tell about our lives. We perform our
identities through what we write, say, and do. Identity is made in and
through performance, whether this performance is a story told to oneself
or another, written for others to read or enacted in an activity involving
shared expectations. From this cultural perspective, identities reflect the
meanings that we make of self in relation to others at a particular time and
place in which our interpretation connects self and social world.


Although likely rooted in a complex array of biological and psychologi-
cal factors that organize sexual desire, realization of a gay identity relies on
social practice and does not assume an innate, fixed course. Life stories
reveal gay identity as a historically situated aspect of self dependent on
social practice. Opportunities for social practice—for performing a gay
identity—are constrained by the social ecology of development. But the
cumulative effect of historical events has resulted in a twenty-first-century
context in which there exists unprecedented social support for gay identity.
Gay and lesbian life ways are no longer considered subversive by mainstream
culture, as in the lifetime of Monette. Rather, they are increasingly visible
in the media, with recognition of same-sex unions expanding across the
world. The transformation of homosexuality over the past half century has
fundamentally altered the gay and lesbian life course and is reflected in life-
story narratives of gay men from different generations.
The life stories of Monette, Miller, and Read highlight the importance
of generational and sociohistorical change in constructing an identity. In
addition, these accounts of assuming and enacting a gay identity support
the notion of identity less as a stable personality attribute than as a social
practice made in and through discourse and action. The goal of this identity
narration is always to develop a sense of continuity between a presently
remembered past, experienced present, and anticipated future. Each life
writer, in turn, recasts the narrative of a gay identity in terms recreated and
reinterpreted by succeeding generations. In this way, master narratives of
identity are forever in a state of renegotiation, as the social changes of a
generation mark new frontiers for the identity possibilities of a culture.


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I would start with the volatility of my childhood. The fact that I am

from a severely broken home . . . has to play a major role in developing
into the character that I am today.

Asked to tell his life story, the middle-aged man who is just quoted
begins by making a causal connection between his sense of himself in the
present—his identity—and a significant piece of his past. With his opening
statement, this man makes his volatile childhood a central lens of

The research described in this chapter was supported by a Midlife Development in the United States
Pilot Grant from the National Institute on Aging. This research used interview transcripts from the
Social Responsibility in Midlife, 1995 data set (made accessible in 2002, machine-readable data
files). These data were collected by A. Colby and are available through the archive of the Henry A.
Murray Research Center of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University,
Cambridge, Massachusetts (producer and distributor). I thank Mary Anne Machado for her
assistance with interview coding and analysis and Dan P. McAdams for his helpful feedback on
earlier drafts of this manuscript. Please note that the names of the three adults featured in the
interview case studies have been changed to maintain the participants' anonvmity.

interpretation through which he makes sense of his life and constructs
his story. As his story continues, he makes another causal connection by
explaining that the abusive relationships he witnessed as a child caused him
as an adolescent to form the belief that marriage is a damaging institution:
"I learned that to be married might be a very bad experience." He then
describes how he entered adulthood with this attitude and carried it with
him until a healthy relationship with a woman challenged his belief and
caused him to transform it.
When I made the decision that I wanted to get married. ... It opened
up so many doors that . . . were impossible, I thought at that time,
psychological blocks. ... It was a springboard effect. I started growing
leaps and bounds. . . . The way that I started acting toward others and
myself was just an incredible change. ... It was unbelievable.

The magnitude of the positive impact of this man's marriage on his

sense of growth—something he vividly refers to as a "springboard effect"—
can only be fully appreciated within the context of the pattern of intercon-
nected causal connections he makes leading up to it, beginning with the
acknowledgement of his painful childhood and his interpretation of its
initially very growth-limiting impact. Building on these ideas, I first argue
in this chapter that the narration of the life story involves an interpretive
process of self-making through which individuals highlight significant experi-
ences from the past and infuse them with self-defining meaning in the
present by interpreting them as having a causal impact on the growth of
the self. Second, I argue that the formal examination of causal connections
constitutes a powerful methodological-interpretive tool for the analysis of
self-making within the life story. Third, I use three life-story case studies
to argue that how adults interpret the most negative experiences in their
lives, as revealed within and across the causal connections they form within
their stories, is central to self-making and whether it serves to promote or
limit growth over time.



The idea that the construction of causal connections constitutes a

fundamental process of self-making is rooted in the basic idea that coherence
is an essential quality of an identity-defining life story (Habermas & Bluck,
2000; Habermas & Paha, 2001; Linde, 1993; McAdams, 2001). Indeed, if
a story is incoherent and consisting of a collection of seemingly random,
disconnected, or completely contradictory pieces of information about the
past, then it is not a story at all, and a meaningful sense of identity will


fail to emerge from it. But what, exactly, does a coherent life story consist
of? Building on findings from linguistic research on the structure of personal
narratives (Labov & Waletsky, 1967; Peterson & McCabe, 1983), recent
considerations of life-story coherence have highlighted the importance of
both structural properties of narration, including the temporal sequencing
of experience, and more interpretive aspects, including explanations of
causality and the evaluative significance or meaning of events for the narrator
(Baerger & McAdams, 1999; Habermas & Bluck, 2000; Habermas & Paha,
2001; Linde, 1993). Causal connections integrate these different aspects of
coherence in that the narrator interprets a past experience as having a
causal impact that endures over time and contains self-defining significance
or meaning in his or her life. Thus, the narrative act of constructing causal
connections may be thought of as an interpretive strategy for creating
coherence within the life story (Habermas & Bluck, 2000; Habermas &
Paha, 2001; Linde, 1993).
One of the advantages of thinking of the formation of causal connec-
tions as an interpretive strategy for creating coherence within the life story
is that it shifts our conceptualization of coherence toward the idea that it
is something we continually try to do as we construct our life stories—an
interpretive act of self-making—and away from the idea that coherence is
a static characteristic that the life story as a whole does or does not possess.
This shift: in perspective has two strengths. First, it embraces the idea that
the life story is a process: It is not a contained, complete entity but rather
a dynamic, ever-changing construction that is constantly subject to revision
as we encounter new experiences in our lives (Linde, 1993; McAdams,
2001). The idea that the formation of causal connections is something we
do as we engage in the process of constructing the life story is reflected in
Habermas and Bluck's concept of autobiographical reasoning.

Autobiographical reasoning is a process of self-reflective thinking or

talking about the personal past that involves forming links between
elements of one's life and the self in an attempt to relate one's personal
past and present. . . . Autobiographical reasoning indicates the evolu-
tion of a biographical perspective that frames one's individuality in
terms of a specific developmental history. It relies on autobiographical
remembering but goes beyond it by enhancing understanding through
actively creating coherence between events and the self. (2000, p. 749,
emphasis added)

In other words, life-story construction is an interpretive process of self-

making that operates to produce coherence through the formation of mean-
ingful connections between past experiences and the self. When a young
woman describes how getting her first real job gave her confidence and
direction in life, when a new father attributes the rethinking of his priorities


in life to the birth of his first child, or even when a husband interprets the
death of his young wife in a car accident as demonstrating to him that life
is random and meaningless, a causal connection has been formed by the
narrator that privileges a particular experience from his or her past and
infuses it with self-defining significance in the present. These connections
may be thought as moments of coherence within the life story, moments
that reflect the products of the interpretive processes of self-making that
take place over time as people create an autobiographical understanding of
how experiences shape who they are.
Second, it is valuable to conceptualize coherence in terms of interpre-
tive acts of self-making, as opposed to a static characteristic of the life story
as a whole because it does not require coherence to take the shape of a
singular, linearly ordered story line (see chap. 4, this volume). Rather, causal
connections, as building blocks of broader patterns of self-defining meaning,
constitute a bottom-up way of approaching coherence that does not presup-
pose an overarching structure or adherence to a grand narrative and allows
for many different and potentially contradictory self-defining narratives to
coexist within a person's life story (McAdams, 2001). As such, this conceptu-
alization of coherence is not inconsistent with postmodern theories, which
emphasize the plurality over the unity of self (e.g., Gergen, 1991) and which
critique the very concept of coherence for its tendency to impose an artificial
linearity onto narrative that reduces its inherent complexity and richness
(e.g., Currie, 1998). In other words, a major advantage of causal connections
is that they separate coherent self-making from the concept of a unified life
story, which is a cultural product of modern, Western society (McAdams,
2001). Thus, causal connections may be able to capture not only the com-
plexity of self-making that occurs within one person's life story but also
broader patterns of variation across people in how cultural context shapes
narrative processes of self-making and the construction of the life story (e.g.,
Bruner, 1990; Linde, 1993; McAdams, 2001).



In my research, I am using the concept of causal connections presented

as a methodological tool for examining patterns of self-making within the
telling of the life story, as elicited by McAdams's Life Story Interview (1993).
The questions in this interview—about life chapters, high points, low points,
and turning points, and so forth—provide a valuable framework that serves
to guide people through the process of narrating their lives. I have found
that causal connections provide effective units of analysis for working with
the rich abundance of narrative material that emerges from this interview

in that they pinpoint coherent moments of self-defining significance as rhey
emerge spontaneously, within the flow of the oral narration of the life story.
Habermas and Paha (2001) recently took a similar approach to life-story
analysis in that they collected orally shared life stories from adolescents and
divided the stories into linguistic indicators of coherence, including causal
connections between past events and enduring changes within the self.
Consistent with the current theoretical perspective, they found that the
formation of causal connections increased with age during adolescence as
the challenge of self-making became more central to development. The
current analytical procedure extends Habermas and Paha's (2001) approach
by not only identifying causal connections within the life story but also
assessing the self-defining meaning contained within and across them. This
procedure is described in detail.

Phase 1: Identification of Causal Connections

The first phase involves the identification of all of the causal connec-
tions a person makes in the telling of his or her life story. In this phase,
two identifiers independently read through the transcript from a life-story
interview and look for passages in which the narrator spontaneously and
explicitly interprets an aspect of past experience, broadly defined (e.g.,
events, relationships, life stages, etc.) as having enduring causal meaning
in relation to an aspect of the self or identity, broadly defined (e.g., self-
understanding, beliefs and values, life-changing decisions, mental health
issues, life lessons, etc.). For example, when a person says, "My rural upbring-
ing has made me realize that old-fashioned values are very important," this
passage is marked as a causal connection, because there is explicit causal
language ("made me realize") that links an aspect of past experience ("My
rural upbringing") with an impact on self-defining beliefs and values ("old-
fashioned values are very important"). After the two identifiers complete
their independent readings of the interview, they come together and discuss
their discrepancies, arriving at a final set of causal connections for the
participant. The full set of causal connections identified within a person's
life story may be thought of as providing an idiographic portrait of that
person's present understanding of self-development, embedded within the
shaping influences of past experiences.

Phase 2: Coding Causal Connections

In the second phase of this procedure we code each causal connection

on a series of characteristics relevant to its self-defining meaning within
the life story. Those that I have been exploring in my current research, many
of which draw from related research in the areas of narrative, personality, and


development (e.g., Bauer & McAdams, 2004; Blagov & Singer, 2004; King,
2001; McLean & Thorne, 2003; Staudinger, 2001), focus on three aspects
of the causal connection: the past experience, the impact on the self, and
narrative processes involved in forming the connection between the two.
With respect to the past experience, we code its valence, event type (e.g.,
work, marriage, health, etc.), and developmental stage. With respect to the
impact on self, we code its valence, the extent to which the impact promotes
or limits the person's growth, and the specific growth themes represented
(e.g., identity, intimacy, wisdom, etc). Finally, with respect to narrative
processes, we code how active—creative versus passive—receiving the person
is in determining the meaning of the impact on self and the extent to
which the causal connection involves "accommodative processing" or an
exploratory openness to how the past experience creates enduring changes
within the self (King, 2001). These are some of the sources of variation in
causal connections that may reveal important information about self-making
within the life story.

Phase 3: Patterns Across Causal Connections

In the third phase of this procedure, we work on identifying patterns

of self-making that emerge across multiple causal connections within a
person's life story. More specifically, the information that is coded from
each individual causal connection in the second phase can be used as a basis
for analyzing how the connections inform each other and create patterns of
narration that either consolidate or transform aspects of self. First, the
repetition of experiences, themes, or ideas across several causal connections
can serve to consolidate an important aspect of self-definition. For example,
if an individual's life story contains several causal connections that describe
the influence of work-related past experiences on the self, this pattern may
consolidate the significance of the career self within this person's overall
sense of identity. Such patterns of consolidation show how causal connec-
tions can highlight thematic coherence within the life story, the "thematic
similarity between various elements of a life" (Habermas & Bluck, 2000,
p. 751).
Moving to a more dynamic level of analysis, narrative patterns formed
across causal connections can also serve to highlight the transformation of
self, in either growth-promoting or growth-limiting directions. In one version
of this type of pattern, the impact of one experience is interpreted by the
narrator as reversing or changing the meaning of the impact of another
experience. The man in the opening example displays this type of pattern
in that the impact of his marriage reverses the impact of his abusive upbring-
ing on his feelings about relationships and his sense of his potential in life.
A second way to construct a pattern of transformation is through the


changing interpretation of the impact of the same past experience across
multiple causal connections, a pattern that not only transforms the self but
also changes the meaning of the experience in relation to the life story as
a whole. These patterns of transformation highlight how redemption se-
quences (bad becomes good) and contamination sequences (good becomes
bad; McAdams, 2006) may emerge across causal connections as people
construct stories of self-change.



The analytically integrative procedure described in the preceding sec-

tion has the potential to be used to examine many different kinds of questions
regarding self-making within the life story. My main focus thus far in my
own research on causal connections has been to use them to examine
individual differences in how negative, emotionally challenging experi-
ences—life's lowest moments—relate to self-making and growth within the
life story. If we assume that one overarching goal of self-making within the
life story is to construct a sense of positive growth and self-development,
then negative experiences constitute a rich source of variability in how they
might be interpreted as affecting this goal. On the one hand, they threaten
the coherence of self and the assumptions that provide meaning in life (e.g.,
Cohler, 1991; Janoff-Bulman, 1992), but on the other hand, they have been
shown to be a powerful source of resilience, growth, and transformation
(e.g., James, Liem, & O'Toole, 1997; King, Scollon, Ramsey, & Williams,
2000; Pals, in press; Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998). Thus, the causal
connections made from interpreting the meaning and impact of life's most
difficult experiences are expected to vary widely from person to person, with
the self-defining meanings contained within them shaping future possibilities
for growth through their guiding influence on patterns of behavior, ways of
thinking, and how people approach new experiences in their lives. Building
on this idea, I demonstrate through the analysis of the causal connections
made within three very different life stories that how people narrate their
most negative experiences highlights interpretive strategies of self-making
that can either promote or limit the growth of the self.

Methodological Background and Analytical Strategy for Case Study

The adults whose life stories are analyzed in this chapter were part of
an interviewed subsample of the Midlife Development in the United States
(MIDUS) Survey conducted in 1995 through 1996 by the John D. and


Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Successful
Midlife Development (see Brim, Ryff, & Kessler, 2004). The interview study,
titled Social Responsibility in Midlife (Colby, 2002), was conducted by
Anne Colby in 1995 and included 94 adults who ranged in age from 34 to
68 (M = 48 years) and lived in one of five different regions of the United
States, including the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the Southwest,
and the West Coast (see Colby, Sippola, & Phelps, 2001, for more detail).
The interview protocol in Colby's study consisted of two parts. The
first part involved an abbreviated version of McAdams's Life Story Interview
(1993) that included questions about life chapters, and high points and low
points in life, and influential people in the life story. The second part
consisted of a series of more focused questions about social responsibility
in several domains of life. These interviews were conducted orally and
audiotaped in the participants' homes, and a different interviewer was used
in each geographical region. I am currently in the process of applying the
causal-connection coding procedure presented in the preceding section to
the analysis of the transcripts of the life-story portion of the interview for
the entire sample.
The general strategy that I used in my analysis of the three life stories
featured in this chapter was to identify patterns of self-making that emerge
across the causal connections made within the life chapter and high-point/
low-point sections of the interview. As demonstrated next, the patterns of
self-making identified within these three stories reveal quite different strate-
gies for narrating life's low points, particularly in relation to the overarching
goal of constructing a positive sense of growth within the self. It is important
to note that I define growth broadly, as any causal interpretation of a past
experience that serves to move a person toward (as opposed to away from)
experiences that enhance the self, by increasing clarity of identity and
purpose in life, self-efficacy, self-insight, meaningful connections with others,
and so forth. All three adults have constructed causal connections within
their stories that communicate how the self has grown in positive ways;
however, it is how low points are interpreted in relation to this sense of
positive growth that differs greatly across the stories and suggests a continuing
influence on possibilities for growth over time.

Positive to Negative: The Narrowing of Self

The causal connections within the first life story, told by a single
woman in her late 30s whom I will refer to as Sharon, are dominated by a
narrative pattern in which positive experiences are connected to the positive
growth of self. However, when causal interpretations of negative experiences
are included, they are described as threatening and reversing positive aspects
of self, thus creating patterns of contamination (McAdams, 2006). An


examination of the patterns of self-making Sharon creates within and across
her causal connections suggests that although she has developed a sense of
herself as an independent and capable adult in response to positive forces
in her life, her contaminating way of interpreting negative experiences limits
her possibilities for growth because it requires her to minimize the part of
herself that has been threatened and define the self more narrowly as a result.
The positive-to-positive pattern of causal connections that dominates
Sharon's story consolidates the significance of two intertwining influences
of her past, the positive upbringing she received from her parents and the
life-changing experience of getting a job as a police officer. The first causal
connection Sharon makes as she tells her story foreshadows the significance
of this pattern.
And all the foundation my parents laid as child didn't really come to
fruition until later in life. Basically, when I got the job that I do now,
a lot of what my parents taught me kind of fell into place, you know.
Now I'm almost 40, so as I got older I kind of got the idea of what they
were trying to tell me.
In this passage, Sharon describes how her job has allowed her to
become the mature and responsible adult her parents taught her to be, thus
highlighting the interacting influence of these two distinct forces in her
story of self-development. Sharon then goes on to briefly describe the years
between the ages 18 and 25, when she moved around a lot, dropped out
of college, and worked several low-end jobs; notably, no causal connections
emerge during the telling of this chapter. A clear story of her life does not
really begin until she describes suddenly being offered the job as a police
officer at the age of 25.
All the tests that came up, my parents were like, "Take it! You never
know!" ... So then they call you—you know, the way they do it, is
they call you on a Friday and say, "Oh you're hired, come in Monday."
So I was cleaning houses then, and I'm like, "O.K.! I'll go and I'll try
it." . . . And now here 1 am, fourteen years later . . . And basically after
that happened, then I kind of—that's when everything kind ot fell into
place . . . I'd had to clean toilets—not so bad!
Sharon sees her job as a police officer as having given her life meaning
and structure, and it has also instilled in her a sense of pride and accomplish-
ment. The self-defining impact of becoming a police officer, along with the
meaning it takes on in relation to the expectations of her parents, is further
elaborated when she describes her high point.
When I graduated from the police academy, it made my parents so
proud—that that was a high point. . . . And in the process of pleasing
them, it also set me, you know, in a good direction. I have a stable job,
and jobs are hard to find. ... So I'd say that—it was kind of like the


cross, you know, over to being a real adult. 'Cause it was a hard, hard
year, being in the academy. So it was a triumph, I'd have to say that
was a pretty good one.

In this passage Sharon clearly articulates how getting the job pleased
her parents and, in the process, put her on a path that gave her the maturity
and self-sufficiency of a "real adult." Sharon makes several more causal
connections in relation to her job in her story, highlighting the growth-
oriented themes of gaining acceptance in a man's world, developing courage,
and feeling pride in having mastered a difficult job. All together, this pattern
of causal connections consolidates the importance of Sharon's career in her
sense of self-definition and to her sense of having experienced progress and
growth in her life.
In stark contrast to Sharon's high point, which was highly integrated
with the rest of her story, her low point in life reveals a different part of
herself, a part that was completely excluded from the life-chapter section
of the interview.
Sharon: When I was—my first love—when I realized what was going
on with that ... I think that changed my attitude toward—you know,
when—we were raised to think that love is going to be a certain way,
and the sad realization that there is no white knight? And it isn't like
they said it was going to be. And that was hard. . . . And after that, I
built up the fences, after that. . . .
Interviewer: So you're single, never married? Is that going to be OK
with you?
Sharon: Yeah. I'm happy, I'm perfectly contained. . . . It's the safest
way to be emotionally. Because when I was—the first guy I ever loved,
the pain that I experienced from that, although it wasn't entirely my
fault nor his, but I was—we were raised to think that things, you know.
And I have a tremendous father, and my mother and father have been
married all these years, never fought in front of us—ever. ... I was,
like, so purely raised that when the reality of life started setting in, I
thought it was going to be, you know, I'm going to meet a guy, music
will start, and we'll be together and he'll treat me right, and you know.
And then it's like, what's going on here, what did I ever do? ... And
then I figured, I'm never going to let anybody be able to hurt me like
that again.

The meaning of Sharon's low point is best understood by seeing it as a

pattern of self-making formed across two interconnected causal connections.
First, Sharon connects her upbringing and what she deems as her parents'
model marriage to her own desire for a relationship and to her idealized
notions of what this relationship would be like. Second, she connects the
pain of her first break-up to an enduring change in her attitude about
relationships; she decides that she is better off without romantic intimacy


than to risk ever being hurt like that again. Thus, with her second causal
connection, Sharon reverses the first, not by developing more realistic
expectations and continuing to pursue her desire with greater maturity but
by minimizing the part of the self that was threatened, the part that was
open to forming romantic connections with others. With this pattern of
meaning-making, Sharon succeeds in maintaining positivity within the
self—she describes herself as happy and "perfectly contained"—but this
contained happiness is achieved at the cost of defining the self more narrowly
and eliminating one significant avenue of growth from her life.
Unfortunately, this contaminating pattern of interpreting negative
experiences emerges in Sharon's career story as well.
It wasn't like I was aspiring since I was kid "I want to be a cop." You
know, it just so happened. But then when 1 became one. . . . And after
I go: the handle on it then I really wanted to—I wanted to do well
and excel, and like most new police officers, when you ask them, "Why
are you in the police," or "Why do you think it's important," it's because
basically we have a desire and I think most people do to help other
people. However, unfortunately, you have that pure desire, and as time
goes on unfortunately between the department and people on the street
. . . they will—they are opportunistic and they will take advantage
of you, and then basically suck you dry. You know, emotionally and
everything else.
In this passage Sharon first describes how being a police officer lead
to the goal of wanting to help people. However, she then describes how
her investment in this "pure" goal has diminished over time in response to
negative experiences with department politics and the selfishness of people
she has tried to help. Mirroring her low point, Sharon responds to an
emotional threat by letting go of goals that had previously given her life
meaning, and she now sees her main goal in relation to work as paying off
her home so that she can retire. Sharon is clearly successful, content, and
proud of her accomplishments in life. However, her contaminating way of
interpreting negative experiences and the narrowing of self that occurs as
a result constitute a self-making strategy that may protect her from threats
and disappointments but also limits her opportunities for growth.

Positive to Positive/Negative to Negative:

The Compartmentalization of Self

The causal connections within the second life story, told by a married
man in his 60s whom 1 will refer to as Ray, are striking in that they clearly
cluster into two coherent and completely separated patterns of self-making:
the positive impact of positive experiences on the self and the negative
impact of negative experiences on the self. An examination of these patterns


of meaning will show that while he clearly and openly acknowledges the
negative influences along with the positive influences in his life story, his
compartmentalizing strategy for organizing these influences has created a
static self-system that maintains unresolved emotions and limits his potential
for growth.
Interestingly, Ray goes back and forth throughout the telling of his
life story between making positive causal connections to self, which consoli-
date the importance of the interrelated themes of learning, education, and
achievement to his sense of identity, and making negative causal connections
to self, which revolve around his attempts to acknowledge and make sense
of the impact of his father's alcoholism. His story starts out with the negative
pattern of self-making when Ray describes life as a young boy, before start-
ing school.
I remember even at that early date of going fishing quite regularly with
my father. He was an avid hunter and fisherman, and he was also an
avid beer drinker. I remember at that early age of his intoxication, as
it were. It turned out to be a problem for me for most of my growing-
up years.

Despite probing questions by the interviewer about the nature of the

problems caused by his father's drinking, Ray shifts quickly into the grade
school chapter of his life and to the positive pattern of self-making when
he links his interest in learning to starting school: "I remember at that point
in time starting into the first and second grade, of learning to appreciate
and enjoy the learning experience, as it were." Ray then goes on to highlight
a specific learning experience during grade school that had a significant and
enduring impact on his definition of self.
We had been doing multiplication tables for it seemed like years, and
I finally mastered them, and then I was having trouble with long division.
And finally, like one day, like somebody turned on a light, long division
made sense, and almost from that point on, mathematics of any kind
were almost trivial to me. From that point on I remember that little
switch in there that turned over, and it turned out that things that I
pursued, both academically and professionally after that point in time,
somehow or another had a basis in some kind of mathematics.

Within this vividly narrated passage, Ray makes a powerful causal

connection between a moment of childhood mastery and a significant aspect
of his identity, his lifelong interest in mathematics.
As Ray continues with the narration of his story, he describes how he
did not participate in extracurricular activities at school because he had to
work to earn money to help support his large family. With this return to
the topic of his family life, Ray resumes the negative pattern of self-making,
again connecting the self to the impact of his father's drinking.


Half the time I felt like I was a part mother of the family, due in part,
again, to my lather's problem with the beer and my mother's attempt
to keep him out of the beer halls. So a lot of the time neither one of
them were around. So I was mother and father and the villain, as it
were, trying to raise siblings. To this day, there's a little bit of resentment
by my brothers for all the telling what to do and telling them what not
to do. I don't know.
Ray's attempts to keep his family together despite the negative influence
of his father's drinking have resulted in lifelong emotional tension between
Ray and his siblings. The unresolved nature of these issues is highlighted
by the uncertainty Ray displays at the end of this passage. Without an
ending to the pain, Ray does not know what to say next. When the inter-
viewer probes for a bit more detail about this family dynamic, Ray makes
a telling statement about the origins of his compartmentalized way of narrat-
ing the self. He says, "I enjoyed being busy academically because to me that
was getting away from the realities of a rather cruel world." It seems that
for Ray, the positive self that he constructed in response to education and
learning gained strength as it provided an escape from the pain in his
family life.
When Ray reaches the high-point/low-point section of the interview,
he completes the back-and-forth nature of his compartmentalized approach
to self-making. First, Ray punctuates the positive, growth-promoting side of
his story when he narrates his high point in life, graduation from high school.
To me that was—You know, that was achievement. You know, my
mother never graduated from high school. My father never graduated.
I was the oldest at that point of six kids, and I was graduated from high
school, with the anticipation that I wanted to go to college. To me,
that was a high point. 1 was quite elated. I felt proud, elated. . . . What
impact did it have on my life? Probably set the tenor and the tone of
my life up until this day. That is, to go on to—the desire to want ro
go to college, knowing that there was something bigger out there . . .
that not only was the academic environment very interesting, but it
probably would help [my] way for whatever I wanted, you know, in my
future years, and that turned out to be the case. . . . I've always taken
everything I do as a learning experience.
Thus, Ray interprets high school graduation as giving him a sense of
accomplishment and pride that propelled him forward in life and strength-
ened the enduring, self-defining theme of his story: the importance of
achievement and learning.
In contrast, Ray continues telling the story of the impact of his father's
alcoholism when he is asked to provide his low point in life.
I think probably one of the lowest events in my life again goes back
to a problem that I alluded to earlier, it goes back to my father's drinking


problems . . . my father in his drinking rampages at times would strike
my mother on occasion, and I was there to see those kinds of things
happen. And I remember one particular event where—That upset me
to no end. I was hurt. I couldn't understand it, and I resented my father.
As much as I loved him for all the things he did when he was sober,
when he was drunk, I had resentments that even when he passed away,
I still resented those times when he would get to the point where he
would strike my mother. To describe the feeling, it's—to me, it's almost
indescribable. ... A very draining emotional thing that I don't know to
this day if there's not some little things laying there that I can't describe.

Ray vividly articulates the deep pain of watching his father hit his
mother, and he causally connects this experience to the self when he
acknowledges at the end of this passage that he may still be carrying the
effects of these painful experiences with him. Thus, all three of the causal
connections Ray makes to his father's drinking form a pattern that consoli-
dates longstanding and unresolved emotional struggles within himself and
his relationships. Moreover, the uncertainty of Ray's narration suggests that
this is a piece of himself that he is aware of but that he has never fully
examined or understood. This uncertainty and resistance to examination is
further developed when the interviewer asks Ray to elaborate on the impact
his low point has had on his life.
I don't know. One thing was [for] me to make sure for myself that I
never got into a position where I would be inclined to do those kinds
of things ... it has been a personal thing to not drink excessively and
to not abuse my spouse, as it were. . . . You know, I have not thought
about this, and just thinking about it extemporaneously as we sit here,
it perhaps has caused me to be maybe a little bit more introverted than
I might have otherwise been. I don't know ... I think I'm very a
compassionate person, a very forgiving person. But are those attributes
or—I don't know if they're attributes or not—those characteristics—
Were they fashioned by an event in my life or a series of events? I don't
know. I can't—I'm not a psychologist. I don't know that. So I really
can't answer a question that I haven't sat and pondered.

For the first time in his story, Ray makes a small connection between
negative and positive within himself when he says that his father's drinking
has led him to not drink excessively and not abuse his spouse. However,
this positive impact is still framed in negative terms; Ray is focused on what
he has avoided in response to this experience, not on how he has grown
in positive ways. As Ray continues discussing the impact, his uncertainty
becomes more and more evident; Ray uses the phrase, "I don't know" five
times in this passage. In addition to this uncertainty, Ray suggests possible
connections between his present self and his low point but resists fully
forming or embracing them in his story of self-development. This resistance


to actively exploring the impact and meaning of his negative experiences,
despite his clear intellectual capacity to do so, limits Ray's growth by main-
taining unresolved emotions and the need to keep these emotions separate
from the positive pattern of self-making within his life story.

Negative to Positive: The Springboard Effect

and the Transformation of Self

The causal connections within the third life story we consider, told
by a man in his mid-30s to whom I will refer as Jack, stand out in contrast
to Sharon and Ray's causal connections in that they do not cluster into
distinct narrative patterns that serve to separate the negative and the positive
within the life story. Instead, Jack's story is filled with redemption sequences
(MeAdams, 2006), which serve to bring together the negative and positive
into one integrative story of self-development. An examination of the pat-
terns of meaning created within and across Jack's causal connections will
show that by making the impact and exploration of his most negative
experiences a central feature of his life story, Jack creates a springboard
effect of positive self-transformation, which is a pattern of narration that
creates a sense of growth within the life story through opening the self up
to new ways of thinking and new possibilities in life.
As he makes causal connections throughout the telling of his Hie story,
Jack focuses primarily on the impact of two traumatic experiences of his
youth, the illness and death of his father during his childhood and the
experience of being molested in his early teens. Jack begins his story by
elaborating on his childhood chapter, which is defined by his father's illness
and death. Jack describes what life at home was like before his father died,
when his mother worked two jobs and his father drank heavily to numb
his pain.

Jack: [My father's] attitude became more and more manic, I guess. I
would say, in that he would go from basically stupor to rages of anger.
And so my reaction was, basically, just disappear. . . . Probably the
saddest thing—You know, now that, you know—looking back at my
life now—is that when my dad died, I felt relief, you know.' And my
wife had some problems, when we got married, with her father, and
probably the best thing I ever did for her was to get it through her head
that, you know, he's not going to be around forever, and that, do you
want him to go away—to die—without you ever having said all the
things you want to say to him? You know, yeah, you're mad at him,
but you still love him ... so there are lots of things that I never got
to say to my father that, you know, age and maturity would have allowed
me to say and allow me to understand, which I have.
Interviewer: What do you wish you had said?


Jack: Oh, just that ... I know what he went through a little bit more
. . . That I really did love him. I really did care about him, and I really
did appreciate some of the things he taught me. And I wish I would
have told him that, you know, in an upfront and straight voice that
there were things that I didn't appreciate at that time. But the only
answer I have for that now is to try sort of live that out through my
child, and that I try to be the best possible parent that I can to my child.

In this single, richly elaborated causal connection, Jack takes an ex-

tremely painful aspect of his past, explores its meaning, and actively trans-
forms it into positive, growth-promoting meaning in the present. A key
aspect of this causal connection is that Jack openly acknowledges that it
was sad that he felt relief at the time that his father died. This emotional
honesty is critical to Jack's narration, because it is the acknowledgement
of these feelings that fuels him to reflect on the experience long after the
fact and generate insights about himself and his father that he then uses
to express empathy in relating to his wife and generativity in parenting his
son. Jack later reports that his high point was when he became a father;
thus, the causal impact of the most positive event in Jack's story is enriched
and made all the more meaningful through its connection to a particularly
painful experience in Jack's life.
As Jack completes the story of his father's death, he transitions from
his childhood chapter to his adolescent chapter, which is defined by the
lowest point in his life, his experience of being molested.repeatedly by a
grown man who was a family acquaintance. Jack constructs several causal
connections in relation to this experience, and in doing so creates a pattern
of self-making that positively transforms the meaning of the experience and
makes it a central, integrative factor in his life story. Jack's first causal
connection to being molested acknowledges the profoundly negative impact
this experience initially had on his sense of innocence, his behavior, and
his mental health.
Yeah, that is really where I consider, you know—the childhood ends. . . .
And then this guy comes over, and you know, we start doing things
that I didn't understand, and that seemed wrong, but you know, 1 was
told never to talk about [it] ... I had lots of behavior problems. I used
to beat up my little brother. I used to have tremendous tirades of anger.

As Jack's story continues, he describes how his deep anger propelled

him to leave town as soon as he was old enough to start a life of his own.
This ended the cycle of abuse and gave him the space to heal emotionally
and construct a meaningful adult life for himself through developing a career
and starting a family. However, rather than focusing totally on the goodness
of the present at this point in the story, Jack returns to the experience of
being molested, this time transforming its meaning.


. . . and I volunteer my—volunteer some time, and I will probably end
up some time over the next few years, end up serving on the board of
a local institute or nonprofit center that deals with children who are
sexually abused. And it's sort of my way of—you know, I can't do
anything about what happened to me, but maybe I can help some other
kid, you know, deal with that. And in fact, one of my employees was
having serious problems at work . . . we found out he was molested as
a child . . . and then I basically told him, you know, listen, you're not
alone; this has happened to me, you know, and he turned around. I
mean, it was like a lifeline being thrown. Here somebody else has had
this happen, and look, I can look up to that person and say, "Gee, that
person has dealt with it. They've moved on in their lives. You know,
they've been successful. You know? They have a wife. They have a
family. You know? Gee, maybe, you know, maybe I can do that."

Jack uses the insight he has gained from his experience to help ethers
who have also been the victims of sexual abuse. As with his father's death,
the negative impact of a deeply threatening experience has become the
source of generative outreach to others and a genuine desire to make a
positive difference in people's lives. With these powerful causal connections,
Jack vividly demonstrates the relationship that McAdams (2006) and Mar-
una (2001) have shown between redemption and generativity by articulating
how one's greatest difficulties in life can provide a deeply meaningful basis
for finding self-defining meaning in generative goals and values.
The idea that Jack draws directly from the acknowledgement of the
negative impact of his experiences to help others is reinforced by the fact
that as he continues to talk about how he has helped his coworker, he returns
to the psychological effects of being sexually abused, this time focusing on
how the experience led to sexual identity confusion and feelings of low
self-wort b.
It's like, why I am I—why—you know, when 1 was a teenager it was,
why I am doing this? Do I still like girls? Yeah, I still like girls. Well,
why am I doing this? And, you know, I didn't understand, understand
what was happening to me, and it wasn't until a little [later] before I
even felt comfortable dating, or even trying to date, because I wasn't
sure what I was supposed to date. And then when I felt I was confident
in what I was supposed to date, I didn't understand why anyone would
want to date me. I was damaged goods.

Thus, through the sustained interpretive processing of the impact of

his low point throughout his life story, Jack does not distance himself from
the painful effects of the past but rather uses them to inform and fuel a
generative sense of purpose in the present.
As Jack's story continues, he shows that he uses his struggles in life
not just as a basis for helping others but also to develop himself and his


abilities. This is evident in the following causal connection, in which he
applies what he believes he has gained from his negative experiences to the
pursuit of his goal of becoming a manager.
I determined tor myself that I really wanted to try to be a manager. . . .
But 1 was real scared because when I grew up, I wasn't a leader. . . . You
know, I always kept coming back to that. Gee, you know, you're not
a natural leader. You're just not. And what makes you think you can
do this? And I started to do it, what I found was—and it may all have
been associated with all the things that I had gone through in my life—
that I was actually more [empathetic] than a lot of people. . . . And so
I've really come around in my career in that I can't imagine myself not
being a leader.
In this causal connection, Jack transfers the positive effects of his
negative experiences to a new challenge and transforms his sense of identity
in relation to work. In doing so, he shows how the greatest difficulties in
life can become a springboard for positive self-transformation within the
life story, the effects of which can reach into a variety of life domains and
be applied to the pursuit of new goals and challenges that serve to further
the growth and expansion of the self.



In my previous research on narratives of adults' most difficult life events

(Pals, in press; see also Pals & McAdams, 2004), I found that individual
differences in narrative construction could be understood in terms of two
distinct processes: (a) the acknowledgement and explanatory analysis of the
impact of event on the self (vs. minimization) and (b) the construction of
a positive, resolved ending so that the event did not continue to disturb
the self (vs. lack of resolution). In addition, the combination of these two
processes operating within a single narrative produced distinct patterns
of self-narration, the healthiest and most mature of which I labeled the
transformed self. In the transformed self, when a person first openly acknowl-
edged the negative impact of the difficult event on the self, this acknowledg-
ment triggered the active analysis of the event that led to resolving it
through seeing the self as positively transformed. In other words, the ac-
knowledgement of the impact acted as a narrative springboard for positive
self-transformation and growth.
By shifting my research focus from narratives of single, difficult events
to the narration of the whole life story, the case studies presented in this
chapter have allowed me to begin to develop a more sophisticated under-


Step 1: Step 2: Step 3:
Acknowledge Analyze Transform Self
Acknowledge emotional Actively analyze impact Resolve/integrate through
impact of negative and meaning of negative transforming negative into
experience through experience positive
• bringing negative • within causal • connecting negative
experience directly connections, experience to postive
into one's story, • across causal impact on self,
• connecting negative connections to form • using negative impact
impact to self through new links and patterns to inform meaning of
causal connections within the self. positive experiences
for self.

Figure 8.1. Constructing the "springboard effect" within the life story.

standing of how the interpretive process of positive self-transformation just

described operates at the more general level of self-making through the
formation of casual connections. In the final section of this chap:er, I
compare and contrast significant aspects of the patterns of self-making within
Sharon's, Ray's, and Jack's life stories in an effort to define formally this
process and show how it is that the interpretation of life's most negative
experiences can either limit growth or create a narrative springboard effect
that opens up the self to new modes of understanding and new ways of
experiencing life. The proposed steps in the construction of the springboard
effect are depicted in Figure 8.1.

Step 1: Acknowledgement of Negative Impact on Self

The first step in the springboard effect is to bring one's most negative
experiences into the center of one's life story and openly acknowledge the
magnitude of their negative psychological and emotional effects. Indeed,
this acknowledgement of impact can be considered to be the springboard;
once a person embraces just how low he or she has gone in life, it can fuel
an upward trajectory of growth within the story. From this perspective, what
is so interesting about Sharon's story is that when she provides an overview
of her lite with her life chapters, her lowest point in life—the end of her
first romantic relationship—is nowhere to be found. In fact, the period from
age 18 to 25, the period when this event would have occurred, is Sharon's
most vaguely narrated life chapter; a coherent pattern of causal connections
does not begin until age 25, when she becomes a police officer. Thus, by
not bringing her low point in life and its negative effects directly into her
story, Sharon distances the processes of self-making from a springboard for
growth within her story. In contrast, both Ray and Jack bring their most
negative experiences directly into their stories and acknowledge the negative


impact of these experiences on the self. Ray connects his father's alcoholism
to problems in his life and unresolved emotions, and Jack connects his
sadness to his father's death and anger and his identity confusion to being
molested. Thus, the interpretive processes of self-making have created at
least a potential springboard for growth in Ray's and Jack's stories.

Step 2: Active Analysis of Negative Impact on Self

To continue with the metaphor, if acknowledging negative impact is

the springboard, then actively analyzing this impact can be thought of as
actually getting on the springboard and using it to create growth within
the life story. It is in this second step of the construction of the springboard
effect where Ray's and Jack's patterns of self-making begin to diverge. As
shown in Figure 8.1, active analysis can manifest itself both within and
across causal connections. With respect to the active analysis that can occur
within causal connections, I draw from King's research on accommodation
within narratives of difficult life experiences, which she defines as the active
exploration of an experience that leads to shifts in ways of thinking about
self, others, and the world (King, 2001; Kingetal., 2000). King's characteriza-
tion of narrative accommodation provides a fitting description of the causal
connection that Jack forms in the process of narrating his father's death.
After acknowledging how sad it was that he felt relief when his father died
(Step 1), he then describes how he has actively explored the meaning of
that painful experience over time and has changed his thinking about his
father in a way that has enriched his life. In contrast, Ray's narrative voice
within his causal connections to his father's alcoholism is far more passive
(e.g., "It turned out to be a problem for me"), resistant to exploration (e.g.,
"You know, I have not thought about this"), and filled with uncertainty
(e.g., "I don't know").
Active analysis can also manifest itself at the broader level of how
patterns of self-making are formed across causal connections, as people work
on their life stories over time. At this level, I equate active analysis with
Freeman's (1991) concept of "rewriting the self" (p. 83). According to
Freeman (1991), growth is inextricably tied to narrative and is found not
in looking forward but in broadening one's interpretive context for looking
back on experience and transforming it through engaging in dialogue within
oneself and with others. In short, growth is a process of rewriting the self.
From this perspective, active analysis may be thought of as a process of
remaining open to reinterpreting the meaning of a past experience over
time with the result of forming new, transforming causal connections that
enrich the present self and broaden possibilities for the future. Jack exempli-
fies this process of rewriting the self with the pattern of causal connections


he creates as he interprets and reinterprets the meaning of having been
molested. He does not distance himself from this experience over time but
rather uses it to transform himself, enhance many areas of life, and construct
a sense of growth within his story. In contrast, what is so striking about
Ray's story is that despite a continual return to the impact of his father's
alcoholism, his interpretation does not change over time. Ray exhibits a
resistance to actively engaging in an analysis of his feelings and what these
experiences have meant in the course of his development. As a result, he
perpetuates the narrative grip of unresolved and poorly understood feelings
and maintains a compartmentalized self that may limit the extent to which
narrative processes of self-making are able to promote further growth and
healing in his life.

Step 3: Transforming the Self—A Special Case

of the Redemption Sequence

The previous discussion showed how the two processes of acknowledge-

ment and analysis operate within and across causal connections and how,
when both are nor fully present, as is the case in Sharon's arid Ray's stories,
the negative is separated from the positive part of the story and unable to
enrich it. In contrast, when they come together, as they do in Jack's story,
they transform negative into positive and connect this sense of transforma-
tion to other experiences, creating an integrative pattern of growth running
through the life story. In doing so, these processes create a classic example
of McAdams's (McAdams, 2006) concept of the redemption sequence, in
which negative scenes within the life story are followed by positive outcomes.
However, the springboard effect of Jack's story is not just like any redemption
sequence. First, the springboard effect redeems the worst aspects ol past
experience, the experiences that pose a direct threat to the coherence oi
self-making and the construction of growth. In contrast, some redemption
sequences may be psychologically easier to construct, as with Ray's descrip-
tion of how a light bulb moment in his childhood transformed him from
being someone who was struggling with long division to someone who
understood math, or with Sharon's description of the impact of getting the
job as a police officer, in which she highlights the fact that she had previously
cleaned toilets for a living. In both cases, a positive experience moves E
person from a negative to a positive state, but it is not actually an emotionally
threatening low point in life that gets transformed.
Second, the springboard effect is achieved through the active, interpre-
tive efforts of the individual to make meaning of the experience and causally
connect it to self. In contrast, many redemption sequences are more passively
constructed as patterns in life that simply happened (e.g., bad year followed


by a good year). In other words, in the springboard effect—life does not
get redeemed in some way; rather, the person redeems it him- or herself
through the narrative interpretation of the experience.
Third, the case studies examined in this chapter suggest that the
positive outcomes that are constructed in response to life's worst moments
tend to involve a richer and more elaborated sense of growth than the
growth-related themes in other redemption sequences. In Ray's and Sharon's
stories, the causal connections that take a redemptive tone lead to achieve-
ment-related agency. Jack's redemptive connections also contain this theme,
as when he becomes a manager, but his story of growth is far more integrative
in that he also includes the themes of empathy, generativity, wisdom, and
an overarching clarity of meaning and purpose in life. Sharon's and Ray's
stories contain patterns of growth, but they are not formed through redeem-
ing their low points; thus, they fail to experience the richly developed,
multifaceted, and mature sense of growth that Jack achieves through con-
structing the springboard effect.


Before I conclude, it is important to question the main assumptions

underlying the concept of the springboard effect. The first question to revisit
is whether the construction of the springboard effect within the life story
actually promotes growth. Does Jack grow through the narration of the
springboard effect, as I have argued, or is the springboard effect a reflection
of who Jack is, his basic sense of self and personality traits? My answer to
both of these questions is yes. It is undoubtedly the case that systematic
differences in the narrative processes of self-making are, at least in part,
manifestations of various relatively enduring characteristics and develop-
ments of personality, such as traits, attachment styles, and so forth. However,
this view does not preclude the possibility that the springboard effect, as a
narrative process of self-making within the life story, can exert its own
influence on growth. For example, Hemenover (2003) has shown that writing
about a traumatic event, compared to writing about a trivial topic, caused
an increase in self-acceptance and personal growth. This finding suggests that
writing about negative experiences, as a process of narrative reconstruction
(Pennebaker& Seagal, 1999), may activate both Step 1 (acknowledgement)
and Step 2 (active analysis) of the springboard effect, leading to the transfor-
mation of self. It would be interesting to encourage Sharon and Ray to write
about their low points; if this process were to lead them to narrate their
experiences in a more springboard like way, one can imagine how new ways
of thinking about the self, new ways of behaving, and new possibilities for
the future might emerge.


A second important question to ask and address with future research
is whether it is always necessary or even healthy to construct the springboard
effect in the narration of life's most difficult experiences. For example, one
woman in the MIDUS study whose story is not featured in this chapter
narrated her divorce as a springboard for growth but had little to say about
the lowest point in her life, the death of her newborn baby. Is she limiting
her growth or hindering her mental health by not connecting positive self-
transformation to her low point? Perhaps it is the case that although it may
be valuable to form some causal connections between negative experiences
and positive meaning within the life story, it is not necessary or even
possible to find the positive in every single negative experience in one's
life. Moreover, it may be the case that some experiences (e.g., divorce) are
more culturally acceptable as sources of positive self-transformation than
are others (e.g., the death of a child). Taking the implications of culture a
step further, Carney (2004) has argued that the notion of triumphing over
adversity is so entrenched in Western conceptions of mental health that it
has become a constraining, dominant discourse that limits our understanding
of what it means to narrate traumatic experiences in ways that promote
survival and mental health. Carney showed that in addition to heroic stories
of triumph, Holocaust survivors also told counternarratives that acknowl-
edged the full horror of their experiences, such as how their oppression
sometimes led them to behave in violent and selfish ways- Clearly, some
experiences are profoundly unredeemable and therefore highlight the amits
of the springboard effect. Thus, the springboard effect is perhaps best thought
of as one narrative strategy for creating growth within the life stow rather
than the only healthy or acceptable way to make sense of negative life
experiences. Indeed, causal connections may be effectively used in future
research to identify many different narrative strategies, perhaps as they vary
by culture, for healthy self-making and the construction of growth within
the life story. To conclude, causal connections provide a powerful way into
people's stories; they are interpretive products of self-making that, with each
telling (or partial telling) of the life story, serve to reinforce patterns of
meaning that shape how we understand ourselves and live our lives.


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Erik Erikson often used outstanding individuals to illustrate his

theories—people such as Martin Luther (Erikson, 1958) and Mohs.ndas
Gandhi (Erikson, 1969), whose personal development crucially interacted
with the social history of the culture in which they lived. In cases like these,
the individual's formation and transformation of identity not only affected
the individual, but through the individual affected the culture. Whereas
most people acquire and transform their identity by forging and modifying
it out of resources readily available within the culture, such outstanding
individuals create new resources and provide new models for forging
In this chapter [ have chosen to examine the life of Malcolm X. The
story of Malcolm X cannot be understood simply as the development in an
individual of an idiosyncratic identity, which then became generalized to
others. His story and impact on others is not that simple. To see his identity
formation and transformation in an Eriksonian way would miss the many

I thank Jolien and Tony Barresi, Susan Bryson, Tim Juckes, the editors, and referees of earlier
versions of this chapter for tneir useful comments and suggestions for revision. The research and
writing of this chapter were supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of
Canada operating grant to the author.

identities that Malcolm had and has—identities that he himself generated,
as well as those imposed on him by others. Furthermore, his impact should
not be understood as one of a straightforward model for others. Malcolm
was, and remains, a controversial figure. Indeed, the same could be said of
Luther and Gandhi, which a simple Eriksonian analysis might miss.
Goodheart (1990) has already provided an Eriksonian analysis of
Malcolm X. In this chapter I show what remains to be said about Malcolm X
that cannot be captured in such a linear theory of identity development. I
use the life history of Malcolm X, with a particular focus on his autobiography
(Malcolm X, 1965), to illustrate how narrative theory can inform our under-
standing of the social and personal identities of an individual. Unlike a
strictly historical approach to a life, which focuses mainly on causes affecting
the development of an individual, a narrative approach focuses on the stories
out of which an individual constructs his or her personal and social identities.
In the case of Malcolm X, I believe that one cannot fully appreciate his
significance as an individual without considering the variety of narratives
that constituted his many identities. Some of these narratives are personal
and familial; some are narratives of race and culture; some are national and
some international. All are situated in historical time. Through time, these
narratives and their relationships to each other were transformed. Some of
these narratives of identity were unique to Malcolm, but many of them
were shared by other Black Americans of his time. Malcolm was the source
of some of the more important of these identity narratives, and from
Malcolm's clear expression of these narratives, they spread to others. Just
as in the cases of Luther and Gandhi, it is Malcolm X's long-lasting influence
on others that makes his personal quest for an affirmative self-identity
important to consider.


Before describing Malcolm's life and changing identities, I want to

make clear the theoretical viewpoint of identity that I take in this chapter.
It is important to distinguish two basic types of identity: social and personal.
Social identity is a characteristic way of ascribing sameness to an individual
by virtue of his or her relationships with others, whereas personal identity
is the way in which an individual characterizes sameness of self. Typically,
social identity involves being a recognizable member of a group, whether
ascribed or achieved, or having some stable character, or performing some
role, recognizable by others. Although social identity often involves self-
ascription, and the individual can play an active role in developing his or
her social identity, it is the categorization and ascription by others that is


central to one's social identity. In this sense it contrasts with personal
identity, which occurs when one perceives stability in self regardless of how
one is perceived by others. Because social identity depends more on others
than self, from a developmental perspective social identity is something one
can have without being personally aware of it. Personal identity, on the
other hand, is something one constructs for oneself and requires a certain
level of maturity, typically associated with adolescence in the Eriksonian
Developmental psychologists from Baldwin (1897) and Vygotsky
(1978) to present times (see, e.g., Barresi, 2004; Barresi & Moore, 1996),
as well as social identity theorists such as Tajfel (1982) and his followers,
have made the case that personal identity is always constituted out of, or
differentiated within, social identity. We think of our selves, first, within a
social interactive context, as members of some social group, before coming
to think of ourselves as unique individuals within those groups. Although
such self-identification with a group is not initially in narrative form, it
does eventually become a narrative as we learn more about our family or
social group history. Hence, when we do finally form a personal narrative
of identity, it is always in relation to the historical narratives of these groups.
Furthermore, our social identities do not end with those groups within which
we identify ourselves but can include identities given to us by other groups
within and beyond our culture who take notice of us and provide narratives
of how we relate to them, and fitting these identities within their own
historical narrative perspective. Although social identities often involve
stable narratives, dialogue between individuals and groups with different
narrative viewpoints is an important means by which initially diverse and
mobile narratives eventually transform into a more generally shared and
stable narrative, sometimes constructing new or revised social identities in
the process.
With respect to an individual's life history the perspective that I take
assumes that an important supplement to narrative theory is script theory
(Barresi & Juckes, 1997; Carlson, 1988; Tomkins, 1979). Well before chil-
dren think in narrative terms about their lives, they have laid down in
memory various dramatic situations and activities that they have experienced
and that seem to recur in their lives. These situations or scenes and scripts,
which often instantiate forms of social identity, have a cast of characters
and roles. Individuals can, and often do, shift characters and roles within
them. For instance, an individual as a child can learn adult roles through
scripts that they experience, and these roles may be adopted as an adult.
Their own role in a situation or scene is often a central one from the point
of view of script formation, because it is their affective response to the
situation and the events in it that gives meaning to the situation. The more


intense the emotions that one experiences in a situation, the more likely
that one will remember the "scene," and it is primarily through connecting
together different scenes that elicit similar emotions that scripts are formed.
Thus, in trying to understand an individual's life history and identity devel-
opment, it is not only the stories heard by the individual that affect the
stories he or she ultimately generates for him- or herself but the "dramatic"
situations and their apparent recurrences that are experienced that provide
the fuel for personal and social narrative.
My view of personal identity formation and transformation has been
influenced by McAdams's (1990) narrative re interpretation of Erikson's
theory of the life cycle. I treat adult transformations not as separate develop-
ments beyond identity formation during adolescence and early adulthood
but as continuations of identity formation, but in new forms. Furthermore,
like McAdams, I believe that the individual is continually revising his or
her inner story of self, and that this evolving story is, at any specific moment,
a window into the individual's ongoing efforts to achieve a coherence and
stability in his or her personal identity.
However, achieving a unified and continuous self is no easy task,
especially in a context such as Malcolm's, where one is faced with conflicting
social identities out of which one must weave one's personal identity. Hence,
I am sympathetic to the dialogical approach, particularly of Hubert Hermans
and his colleagues (e.g., Hermans & Kempen, 1993; see also Bakhtin, 1981;
Gillespie, 2005; Tappan, 2005), which assumes that each of us carries within
us numerous points of view, some of which represent past and future selves;
some the views of ourselves by intimate family and friends; and some ideal
individuals, cultural stereotypes, and other individual, group, or ideological
perspectives. These various points of view appear at different times in our
lives, within our personal narrative reflections, and interact at times with
each other in those reflections. They also appear in our relations with others,
who instantiate, or expect us to instantiate, these alternative perspectives.
Thus our lives are composed not of one linear story but of multiple narrative
viewpoints that displace and interact with each other over and over again
(Barresi, 2002). Although we clearly do transform in identity through time,
the past and future is forever with us, and sometimes, as we shall see, a past
self, script, or narrative perspective can leap over succeeding changes in
perspective to reappear if an appropriate situation arises.
Thus, the perspective I take on identity is one that views the construc-
tion of a personal identity as a life-long task beginning in adolescence. The
materials out of which an individual forms a personal identity are the social
identities that he or she has experienced in the past and will continue to
experience throughout life. However, on a more concrete level we create
a personal identity out of memories of events in our own life and the lives


of those around us. These events, as experienced, are dramatic scenes. The
way we organize these scenes is by scripts, and ultimately narrative, which
find common themes in diverse events. But the task of making sense of our
lives by unifying these experiences, scripts, and social identities and project-
ing them into the future is not easy. Thus, typically, constructing a personal
identity through self-narrative involves the working through of dialogical
relationships between different perspectives or voices within us, and in
others, which are always in dynamic equilibrium with each other throughout
our lives. Achieving a uniquely individual personal voice and narrative
requires becoming masters of our lives, becoming increasingly aware of who
we are and how we came to be, then striking a balance between emotions
and motivations laid down early in our lives and setting goals for the future
commensurate with the way we and the world around us are developing.


To be born is to be born into a social identity, often into more than

one such identity. At the very least one has an identity by being born into
a family and into a culture. Usually, these two social identities, hierarchically
related, coincide in affirming one's self. But what if one is born into a culture
that does not provide a positive affirmation of one's social identity in that
culture, but rather is born into a culture of hate for one's mere physical
appearance and of oppression of one's social group? Does one have a birth-
right in such a circumstance? If one is fortunate to have a family in which
some personal pride remains, despite cultural oppression, then one has a
birthright to a positive social identity from familial sources. Malcolm Little
was bom Black in a White racist culture, but his parents nevertheless
cultivated a pride in their Black identity in this adverse cultural system.
The dual character of the space of social identities into which Malcolm
later placed the context of his birth is shown in the way that he begins the
first chapter, "Nightmare," of his autobiography.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of
hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Ne-
braska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns
and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to
the iront door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant
condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small
children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The
Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get
out of town because "the good Christian white people" were not going
to stand for my father's "spreading trouble" among the "good" Negroes


of Omaha with the "back to Africa" preachings of Marcus Garvey.
(Malcolm X, 1965, p. 1)

It is not clear whether this event actually occurred as Malcolm described

it (cf. his contradictory description in Clark, 1963, p. 19). According to
Perry (1991, pp. 4, 385) his elderly mother would not substantiate the story.
Still, it is possible that the event did occur, and whether it actually occurred
or not is less important than the role that the scene plays in Malcolm's
narrative because it sets out straight away how Malcolm conceived of his
personal position—even while being carried in his mother's womb—as the
immediate object of White hate and Black pride. He thus suggested in his
narrative that even before birth, he had two social identities intensely
opposed to each other, the negative identity provided by a White-dominated
society and a positive one associated with Black pride and the "back to
Africa" teachings of Garvey. The conflict between these two identities can
be understood to represent the focal point of his existential search for
personal identity through narrative reconstruction later in life.
The first paragraph of Malcolm's autobiography fulfills one's expecta-
tions on how primacy in a narrative is of special importance to personogra-
phers (Alexander, 1990). In this paragraph, Malcolm provides the origin
myth of his own existence as a leader-to-be of Black pride in the context
of White hate. Not only do his parents provide the basic script of Black
pride through their participation in the Garvey movement, which Malcolm
returned to as an adult when he converted to the Nation of Islam, which
also taught Black pride, but in addition the pregnancy scene is symbolic
of his position at the boundary between Blacks and Whites, dialogically
interacting with both groups. He constantly took this position as a Black
leader, first as spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, and later, when he
spoke for himself.
One cannot overestimate the importance for Malcolm and for his
immediate family of this early period during Malcolm's life when his father
was still alive and both of his parents were deeply involved in the Garvey
movement. In terms of script theory, it represented for Malcolm's family a
kind of Black paradise that was eventually lost due to the evil influence of
White racism, a theme that they would later recognize in the origin myth
of the Nation of Islam of an original Black paradise destroyed through the
machinations of a Black Mephistopheles and his created White devils. For
Malcolm, it was the attempted recovery or reconstitution of this lost Black
paradise, but on a much wider scale, which would become the hallmark of
his later development and deepest personal goals. For this reason, if for no
other, Goodheart's (1990) Eriksonian analysis misses a significant stage in
Malcolm's development by starting his account with a period after the fall


from this Black paradise, when Malcolm acquired a surrendered identity
under the influence of White racism.


Malcolm's earliest vivid nightmare memory was of when his family's

house was set on fire while they were in it asleep at night. Malcolm v/as 4
years old at the time. Two years later, in 1931, his father was likely killed
by the same racist group by being placed, unconscious, under a trolley.
Malcolm viewed both of these events as examples of White hatred directed
at his family. But in his account, he saw his family as a victim of White
racism in America that was more general than these overt acts of hatred.
For instance, when his father died only one insurance policy on his life
paid its premium; the company of the second larger one declared that his
father committed suicide. Then, during the Depression years, when his
family was in poverty and Malcolm got in trouble for stealing food, the
officials from the state social services agency, rather than helping the family
hold itself together, broke it up by placing Malcolm and some of the other
children in foster homes. A major result was that his mother's spirit was
beaten. Her sense of independence and racial pride was defeated by the
system of institutionalized White racism, and she retreated into mental
illness. She was placed in a mental institution by the authorities, and the
family became disconnected.
After getting into additional trouble at school Malcolm was eventually
placed in a detention center run by a White couple, who took a liking to
him and whom, in turn, Malcolm tried to please. In the process, Malcolm
surrendered his Black identity and tried to "become" White. Although
Goodheart (1990) treated all of the early life of Malcolm before he went
to live with his older half-sister Ella in Boston as one involving identity,
it was only after his family broke up that I think Malcolm actually surrendered
his identity. But there is a sense in which Goodheart is right, for the
surrendered identity he formed at this time may have been Malcolm's first
provisional attempt to forge a "personal" identity as a young adolescent. In
an attempt to forget his traumatic past and living in a congenial White
environment, Malcolm attempted to place a White "mask'1 on his Black
skin (Farion, 1967), trying to fit in White society in whatever way they
would accept him, while at the same time half believing that this same
society would never think of him as more than an inferior being, a "mascot"
or "thing." By the time that he was elected president of his otherwise all-
White seventh-grade class, he had become deluded by his apparent suc.cess,
both in academics and popularity: "I was proud [of being elected]. I'm not


going to say I wasn't. In fact, by then, I didn't really have much feeling
about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to
be white" (Malcolm X, 1965, p. 31).
But this source of pride in his new "personal identity" did not last
long. Within a year, his deluded sense of White success became unmasked
by his English teacher. Mr. Ostrowski's response to Malcolm's comment
that he would like to become a lawyer shattered forever Malcolm's belief
that Black Americans could ever "become" White or successfully integrate
with Whites on an equal basis in the United States.

Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised.. . . He kind of smiled and said,

"Malcolm, one of life's first needs is to be realistic. Don't misunderstand
me now. We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be
realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a
nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You're good
with your hands—making things. . . .Why don't you plan on carpentry?"
(Malcolm X, 1965, p. 36)

With the illusion of becoming White shattered, believing that his own
intellectual ability and accomplishments did not matter and that what did
matter was that he was Black, Malcolm lost interest in school and wanted
to leave the White world he was living in. In his autobiography he described
this event as "the first major turning point in my life" (1965, p. 35).
Fortunately, during this same period his half-sister, Ella, a daughter
from his father's first marriage, visited Malcolm's family from Boston. He
was extremely impressed with her.

I think the major impact of Ella's arrival, at least upon me, was that
she was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life.
She was mainly proud of her very black skin. This was unheard of
among Negroes in those days, especially in Lansing. (Malcolm X, 1965,
p. 32)

It is interesting to note that it is shortly after mentioning that his

family no longer talked about his institutionalized mother, whose Black
pride had been broken by White racism, that Ella is described as the "first
really proud black woman" he ever saw. In any event, the die was cast, and
a turning point reached in Malcolm's first attempt, at 13, to form a personal
identity. Although he reported that his remark about becoming a lawyer
was not made in any seriousness, his teacher's response put an end to any
attempt to find a personal identity in a White cultural context. Then the
appearance of Ella on the scene provided him with a possible alternative—
to move to Boston and live with her in a wholly Black community, something
he may have dreamed of doing, when, as a child, he first saw pictures of
Garveyites parading in a wholly Black crowd. In a short while, he was able


to arrange the move to join Ella. This move changed the direction of his
life in a radical manner.
Still, we should not sell short what Malcolm learned about White
Americans during his time living with them. He got to know how they
thought about Negroes. He also learned how to succeed in social contexts
with them. Unlike many Blacks raised in central-city ghettos, where
Malcolm would later come to live and eventually thrive, he, early in his
life, was exposed to the White culture and even seemed to succeed for a
while within that context. But he learned the distinction between being
White and being Black among Whites. However friendly Whites were to
him, there was always an undercurrent of superiority in their interactions
with him. He was never really accepted as an equal, so, despite any success
he achieved, he could never, once disillusionment set in, really trust White
America to overcome its racist attitudes. This early experience conditioned
his later skepticism about integration, while also rendering him capable of
communicating face to face with White people (see DeCaro, 1998, pp.


Goodheart (1990) rightfully identified the next phase of Malcolm's

life as involving a negative identity—that of a hustler in the ghettos of
Boston and New York. This period began when he moved in with his half-
sister in Boston and almost immediately got involved in hustler activities.
School no longer had any interest for him, and becoming a member of the
Negro middle-class, which he equated to striving to fit into White America,
seemed to him a sham. He judged it better to be Black among Blacks and
to steep oneself into ghetto life. But in entering that life, he adopted an
identity that Erikson called a negative identity (Erikson, 1968). Such an
identity glorifies what would otherwise appear negative. The life of a. hustle
was the negative projection of the White American ideal—at least, so it
seems from the point of view of that ideal. But, on the other hand, the
ghetto also provided a field of activity in which Malcolm could acquire a
personal identity and become a success, where he could receive the respect
of at least some of his Black peers. The ghetto also included a positive
cultural side for Black Americans, in music and dancing and in creative
writing, all of which Malcolm would participate in at one time or another
during his life. Moreover, the northern Black ghettos were a hotbed for
Black nationalist philosophy, which would become significant for Malcolm's
later development.
As the older arid wiser Malcolm looked back on his hustler years,
especially at the first "conking" of his hair, and the self-infliction of so much


pain to make his hair look straight like a White man's, he said that it was
his "first really big step toward self-degradation" (Malcolm X, 1965, p. 54).
Malcolm's retrospective attitude about his ghetto existence as a hustler was
that he was living at "dead level"—not really being alive, although obviously
thinking at the time that he was. He realized that the roles he played as
hustler fed the sickness that was White America, where, on the one hand,
White people pretended to live honorable lives among other Whites, while,
on the other hand, they sought out the excitement of sex, music, drugs,
gambling, and so forth in the central city ghettos, where they forced Black
people to live and expected them to provide these activities. Some Black
people, including hustlers such as Malcolm, fed these desires. Harlem, partic-
ularly early on, was a thriving culture, because dance music, liquor, drugs,
and sex were all readily available, with few questions asked, and little
interference by police, who were happy to be paid off and to allow these
activities to occur in Black rather than in their own White neighborhoods.
In Malcolm's case, he rose eventually from a shoe-shine boy, selling
drugs, and so forth, in Boston to become a gun-toting hustler in Harlem,
who managed women and steered White men to whatever sexual activities
suited their desires. At first, he was careful in his own use of drugs, but
eventually became addicted. As a hustler with a gun, he also came into
conflict with other hustlers, and came close to a showdown with another
New York hustler, before escaping to Boston. In Boston he organized a
burglary gang, which included his long-time White mistress Sophia. He was
eventually caught when he tried to pick up a stolen watch that he was
having repaired. Perry (1991) suggested that Malcolm unconsciously got
himself caught at that time because he realized that his hustling career had
failed, and he needed a way to .escape it. In any event, probably because
he was a Black man with a White mistress, he was sentenced to 8 to 10
years in prison for a relatively minor crime. He was 20 years old at the time.


Malcolm's 6-year term in prison (he was paroled before his full sentence
was served) was, in terms of the development of personal identity, the most
important period of his life. It was the time when he recreated himself
from a minor hoodlum, with addictions, virtually no education, and a self-
defeating attitude toward life, into a self-educated, religious believer, with
a self-confident, optimistic, and morally upright attitude toward life. He
also acquired, through his new religion, a mission to teach other Black
people how to get rid of their own negative identities, as he had his. Part
of that lesson was for them to realize that the main cause for their negative
lifestyle was the "White devil." However, Malcolm's stay in prison involved

much more than a religious conversion to the Nation of Islam. Even before
he heard about the Black Muslims from other family members, he was already
undergoing transformations in prison. As detailed in his autobiography, it
was mainly under the mentorship of a wise older Black prisoner named
Bimbi that he awoke to the futility of his self-destructive behavior. Bimbi
recognized that Malcolm had misdirected intellectual capacities, and he
taught him how to regain their rightful use. Malcolm began a program of
self-education that, once combined with his interest in the dogma and
mythology of the Nation of Islam, led him in directions of self-reflection
about Blacks and Whites in America, which would eventually result in a
major transformation not only in Malcolm's self-narrative but in the self-
narratives of many Black Americans.
From the point of view of theory, what is fascinating about Maxolm's
psychosocial moratorium in prison, and his arrival at a new personal identity
during that time, is how such a radical transformation could occur. When
he entered prison his attitude was self-defeating: He was still on drugs,
constantly in solitary for breaking rules, and always swearing against God
and religion. Because of this behavior he was called "Satan" by other inmates.
Yet, in his transformation, this self-hatred and anger with God eventually
reversed itself into a hatred of a different source—the "White devil," or
White race, which in the origin myth of the Nation of Islam were all created
as devils. And, instead of anger with God and religion, he converted to the
Nation of Islam and loved Allah.
Malcolm's description of his conversion well illustrates the dialogical
nature of self in transformation. In a manner similar to James's (1902)
account of religious conversion, Malcolm was aware of two selves within
himself, the "bad" satanic self he had been and the "good" religious self he
ultimately became. The dialogical struggle between these two selves was
most intense in his attempt to pray.
The hardest test 1 ever faced in my life was praying. You understand.
My comprehending, my believing the teachings of Mr. Muhammad
[Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam] had only required my
mind's saying to me, "That's right!" Or, "I never thought of that."
But bending my knees to pray—that act—well, that took me a
week. . . .
I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and
embarrassment would force me back up.
For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgive-
ness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. It's easy for me to say
that now. But, then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going
through it. (pp. 169-170)
Nevertheless, after repeated struggles to kneel and pray, he did succeed,
and soon he was into his new character and life.


I still marvel at how swiftly my previous life's thinking pattern slid away
from me, like snow off a roof. It is as though someone else I knew of
had lived by hustling and crime. I would be startled to catch myself
thinking in a remote way of my earlier self as another person, (p. 170)

Malcolm's rapid character change from satanic atheist to what

Goodheart (1990) called "religious fundamentalist" may seem surprising at
first, but the roots of this potential transformation were laid down much
earlier in Malcolm's life. The Nation of Islam was for Malcolm and his
family a continuation in a different form of the script of Black pride combined
with religiosity that they experienced in their home and family activities,
before Malcolm's father was killed and the Garvey movement dissipated.
It is important to note that Malcolm was the fifth member of his family to
join the Nation of Islam and that it was his brothers and older sister who
convinced him to take the teachings of Elijah Muhammad seriously. They
had already found sustenance in Nation of Islam teachings that must have
reminded them of their own early experiences. Like the Garvey movement
and, indeed, influenced by it, the Nation of Islam taught Black pride and
Black self-initiative. Followers of the Nation of Islam were taught to avoid
all interactions with Whites, and told that Blacks could only succeed to
the extent that they worked together for a common goal, which included
returning to Africa. They both taught that economic independence was
the key and that Black people needed to work together to acquire that
independence. In addition, religious moral values were instilled both in the
Nation of Islam and in Malcolm's family's home. Finally, it should be noted
that Elijah Muhammad, who was already communicating with him in prison,
would take a particular intimate interest in Malcolm, just as his father did,
so that they developed a father-son relationship, one that would prove
difficult for both of them as Malcolm outgrew the constraints of the Nation
of Islam.
I have compared the Nation of Islam and Malcolm's initial family
situation at the level of scripts so that we have in the conversion of Malcolm,
as with his other brothers and sister, a continuation of what might be called,
in Tomkins's (1979; see also Carlson, 1988) terminology, a commitment
script, in which early positive socialization leads to the development of
commitment to purposes in line with that socialization. But this commitment
script is one that combines with a nuclear script, where good things turn
bad, as the good original scene and script of Black pride and family affection
was brought to an end by the death of Malcolm's father and the breaking
up of their home and his mother's subsequent mental dissolution. The fact
that most of Malcolm's family joined the Nation of Islam and were committed
to its activities, with several brothers besides Malcolm becoming ministers,
indicates a recovery of the original affective motivation and socialization


that occurred in the Little family home. However, a key element that makes
the Nation of Islam also tie in with the nuclear script is the role that
the "White devil" plays in their mythology. For Malcolm, even before he
understood anything else about the religion, this element made sense to
him, and gave him an ingredient necessary to transform self-hate into
another emotion—the hate of the White devil that he came to see as the
source of the disintegration of his own family and of the lowly status in
America of Black people. Malcolm would eventually overcome his nuclear
script and undifferentiated hatred of White people, but it would be a struggle
that would involve him in rejecting the Nation of Islam mythology and
Black Supremacist ideology and returning to the nonracist Garveyite view
of Black nationalism as well as to converting to a nonracist form of Islamic
religious ideology.


As noted earlier, shortly after leaving prison in 1952 Malcolm came

under the personal tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, and soon acquired his
"X," replacing the "slave owner" name, Little, with an X to indicate that
his own family name and identity had been lost when his ancestors were
brought to America as slaves.1 Within a year, Malcolm was an assistant
minister for the Nation of Islam in Detroit, and shortly thereafter head
minister in Boston. In 1954 he was head of a number of temples that he
organized on the East coast, and he also became head minister in Harlem,
a position he held until December 1963. In 1957, he became the national
representative of the Nation of Islam, which he also retained until December
1963. After John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Texas and Malcolm
commented about "chickens coming home to roost," implying that American
violence throughout the world had turned against its own leader. Because
he had been previously told not to make any comment about Kennedy's
death, Malcolm was temporarily suspended from the Nation of Islam by
Elijah Muhammad. Although Malcolm did not formally leave the Nation
of Islam until several months later, the suspension effectively ended his role
in the organization at this time.
During the 10 years of his role as minister in the Nation of Islam,
Malcolm was primarily responsible for the rapid expansion of the organiza-
tion and for giving it a public profile at a national and international level.
But, during that time, he also created enemies within the organization, and,
even before leaving it, there was a developing conflict between Malcolm

'A family history by Malcolm's older step-sister Ella's son, Rodnell Collins (1998) supports the clain
that Little was the name of the slave owner of Malcolm's ancestors on his father's side.


and Elijah Muhammad over the political involvement of the Nation of
Islam in the civil rights movement. Whereas Muhammad wanted the Nation
of Islam to stay out of politics and to focus on recruitment of Blacks into the
Nation of Islam, Malcolm thought that the organization should participate in
political activities that would be for the good of Black Americans both
inside and outside of the Nation of Islam. Eventually, Malcolm's enemies
in the organization convinced Muhammad to get rid of Malcolm, despite
his personal dedication to Elijah Muhammad. However, Malcolm also began
to lose his personal faith in Muhammad when it became obvious to him
that he had fathered a number of children with his private secretaries, which
was against the moral code of the Nation of Islam. When he talked about
this issue with some other ministers and the word got back to Muhammad,
it was only a matter of time before Malcolm would be ejected from the
organization. The Kennedy comment provided Elijah Muhammad the osten-
sive justification he needed to initiate that ejection. Malcolm soon realized
the suspension was not going to be a temporary one but likely a permanent
one. So he voluntarily left the organization in March 1964.
From a theoretical perspective, these 10 years as part of the Nation
of Islam were crucial in the development of Malcolm as a unique individual
voice for Black Americans in the civil rights movement. The theory of the
dialogical self (Bahktin, 1981; Barresi, 2002; Gillespie, 2005; Hermans &
Kempen, 1993; Tappan, 2005) is most useful for understanding this develop-
ment. At the beginning of the period, the point of view and dialogical
voice most prevalent in Malcolm's activities was the voice of the aggressive
minister of the Nation of Islam, out fishing for new converts to the organiza-
tion and engaged in pedagogical activities within the organization. This
voice was one in which Malcolm represented his own conversion to other
Blacks as an illustration of the power of Elijah Muhammad to save Black
people from the White devils. This voice was one often directed against
the "White man's religion," Christianity, which he argued purposely kept
Black people in their inferior position. This voice was also the initial ground
in his rhetorical attacks on White hypocrisy about racism. This voice in
Malcolm became visible at a national level when he appeared in 1959 in
Mike Wallace's television documentary about the Nation of Islam, "The
Hate That Hate Produced" (Wallace & Lomax, 1959).
However, by 1959, well before his final separation from the Nation
of Islam in 1964, a second voice had developed in Malcolm. This voice
represented not the Nation of Islam but Black Americans in general, and
most specifically Black Americans in Northern ghettos who were not being
represented by the civil rights movement developing in the South. This
voice expressed the same kind of anger at the White devils, but rather than
being based on a religious myth, it was both personally and politically based.


This voice began to emerge in 1957 when Malcolm confronted the New York
police over their brutal beating of an innocent Nation of Islam bystander who
was trying to stop them from beating someone else. The police held this
person in jail until Malcolm had members of his temple march outside
the station. Other Blacks joined in, and Malcolm was thus able to force
negotiations. He got to see the man, and arranged to have him sent to a
hospital. Only after this happened did he call off his people, and possibly
prevented a riot. One police officer's response to what happened was to say
that "No [Black] man should have such power." Once the word got around
Harlem about what Malcolm had accomplished, he came to be viewed not
as a religious leader but as a political force within the community.
Malcolm's second, angry political voice came in conflict with his first,
Nation of Islam voice when in 1962 a similar event of police brutality
occurred in Los Angeles. In this second case police entered a Nation of
Islam temple, where they shot a number of members, killing one of them.
Malcolm was outraged by the event and wanted to take action, probably
similar to the kind of action he took previously—using his political power
to control the event. However, Muhammad, who wished to avoid political
involvement at all costs, ordered him not to take any action. The result
was that Malcolm had to inhibit this second voice, a voice that at that
time was much more his own independent voice than the first voice, which
effectively "ventriloquated" (Bakhtin, 1981; Tappan, 2005) Muhammad's
teachings. But this second voice, which had its basis partly in the Garveyite
teachings of Malcolm's family, partly in the anger associated with his family
script, and partly in the political climate of the times, could not be held
back forever. This dialogical voice kept being elicited in other contexts,
particularly by the media and at invitations for Malcolm to speak at university
campuses and other forums. Jealousy of Malcolm's notoriety as a Black
leader, independent of his religious affiliation, by other Nation of .islam
members, including Muhammad, would eventually lead to his suspension
and formal withdrawal from the Nation of Islam.
In any event, as a result of the Wallace television documentary and
subsequent media exposure, Malcolm became a public figure in the civil
rights movement whose political voice evoked a variety of narrative social
identities depending on who observed his performances. From the point of
view of the Black populace in the Northern ghettos, he represented a distinct
political voice who spoke the truth about racism and of the smoldering
anger developing in the ghettos. To other, more moderate Black political
leaders, who were trying to achieve integration with Whites by peaceful
means, he represented a dark and potentially dangerous side of the Black
movement for freedom. From the point of view of the Nation of Islam, he
was causing trouble for the organization rather than acquiring new members.


Finally, from the point of view of most White Americans, who saw only
brief media glimpses of his gospel of hate, he seemed to be a dangerous
fanatic representing Black supremacy.
But this new political voice with its attendant diverse public social
identities was not the only new voice developing in Malcolm in the early
1960s. There were others. One other voice of importance was the emerging
true Islamic voice. Often Malcolm would speak about Islamic religion in a
manner that was more congenial to true Islam than to the Nation of Islam.
In these circumstances, he would stress the common tradition of the three
great religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and stress how Islam was
the more congenial of these religions for "people of color." In making these
comparisons, he was going against the teachings of Muhammad and the
Nation of Islam, although Malcolm tried not to make this apparent. It
eventually would become so, when he finally left the Nation of Islam and
started his own Islamic organization seeking the approval of Sunni Islam,
one of the two main branches, along with Shiism, of Islam.
Malcolm's remark regarding Kennedy's assassination occurred as an
outburst following a speech he gave as a substitute for Muhammad, who
was ill. Because Malcolm was already having trouble holding back his own
independent views, he prepared a written speech to ventriloquate Muham-
mad's views. However, he allowed White news people to attend the talk
and answered their questions afterward. When asked what he thought of
Kennedy's death, he lost control, and against Muhammad's orders, expressed
his own political view that the violence that Kennedy had allowed to occur
against Blacks and others had come back to haunt him: "Chickens had
come home to roost."


When Malcolm realized that he could not regain status in the Nation
of Islam, and not only that his suspension would be permanent but that
leaders in the Nation of Islam had put out the word that he should be
killed, he formally left the organization in March 1964 and formed his own
religious organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. His hope was to be accepted
as a member and minister within true Islam. The status of the Nation of
Islam within the international Islamic community was always in doubt,
although Malcolm and Muhammad had tried to make connections, and
even visited the Middle East in 1959. After that trip, Muhammad became
less interested in Islam, whereas Malcolm continued to maintain and even
cultivate his interest.
With the monetary assistance of his sister Ella, Malcolm made two
long trips to the Middle East and Africa in 1964, during the first of which

Malcolm was accepted into Sunni Islam and was able to make his hajj
(pilgrimage) to Mecca. This was an extremely rewarding personal experience
for Malcolm because, in addition to affirming his religious identity as Islamic,
it provided him with a new humanistic vision of society. The fact that Islam
included people of many visible races, including Whites, getting along
together without racism provided him with a realistic vision and conception
of the possibility of a nonracist society.
His visits to Africa in 1964 immediately after his hajj to Mecca had
a more political impact on his thinking and his sense of racial identity.
When he returned to the United States, he had an expanded sense of his
own personal identity and of African American social identity in general.
He also had a much less separatist and more humanitarian vision of how
to effect improvements in the United States. After this visit to Africa,
Malcolm formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) as a
secular organization devoted to the improvement of conditions for all African
Americans, regardless of their religious orientation. Malcolm was not able
to effect much with this organization. The little progress he made in acquiring
a new nonracist social and political identity because of his past image as a
racist separatist, and the mobility of his rapidly changing ideas, was tragically
thwarted when he was killed in February 1965.
From the point of view of narrative theory, Malcolm, during this last
period of his life, was trying to develop a voice that he could claim :o be
fully his own. This voice would have integrated his personal and social
narrative viewpoint and combined in a balanced manner his several commit-
ments: his religious commitment to Islam; his political commitment to Black
Americans; his cultural commitment to pan-Africanism; and his commit-
ment to individual human rights and justice, regardless of culture, race,
gender, or other social category that might inhibit human flourishing. How-
ever, because he was seen by others through the lens of his past alliance
with the Nation of Islam and the social identities that developed around
his public appearances, he was not allowed, as he said, to "turn the corner"
and take on a new, more humanitarian role as a leader in the civil rights
movement. Instead, he was continually harassed by the Nation of Islam,
misrepresented by the media, and unable to form alliances with the other
Black political leaders by the time of his untimely death.


Unlike Goodheart's (1990) linear account of Malcolm's identity devel-

opment, I believe that Malcolm's life and its meaning can be best envisioned
as a circle that began with the dream of a Black paradise in a White world
of hate, and one that ended with that same dream, but in a different context.


In between there was a diversion from the dream. Malcolm was conscious,
at least during the last few months of his life, of this connection to his past.
In a conversation with Jan Carew (cited in Carew, 1994), when asked if
the "new" Malcolm after his hajj was different from the Malcolm who spoke
at the Oxford Union 3 months earlier, Malcolm is reported as replying
the following.
No. I'm one and the same person, the son of a mother and father who
were devoted Garveyites all of their lives. The son of a father who was
murdered and a mother who was mentally crucified by racists. I'm
carrying on the work they started, just as my children will carry on my
work when I'm gone. Before they carted my mother off to a mental
hospital and tore our family apart, she kept telling us that without an
education we'd be like people blindfolded in a forest pockmarked with
quicksand. I strayed from those teachings of hers for years, but I came
back, didn't I? My vision of the struggle has been broadened, that's
true, but my basic commitment is the same. (pp. 89-90)

Malcolm recognized what I have suggested was the commitment script

of his Garveyite family, in which he took on the role that his parents
played in his childhood, especially his father. But he was diverted from this
commitment script because of the nuclear episodes, where good turned bad:
with the murder of his father, the harassment of his mother to her mental
dissolution, and the breakup of his family. He got sidetracked as a result,
first surrendering his Black identity by trying to become White, then, when
rejected by Whites, by reversing directions to adopt a negative identity with
respect to mainstream American values. Eventually he recovered himself,
became self-educated, and joined the Black Muslims, where Muhammad
played the role that his father once played in teaching him about Black
pride and Black independence. But he could express his own deepest values
based on the original family commitment script and develop an independent
personal identity only after he left the Black Muslims, when he developed
his own views of how to be a Black leader trying to deal with racism
in America.
An important part of the teaching that Malcolm shared with his
parents was the emphasis on Black cultural pride initially derived from
Garvey, which he elaborated in narrative terms. In a speech that he made
at the founding rally for the OAAU he described the "cultural aspect" of
OAAU's Black Nationalist philosophy.
"A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent,
takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own
selfhood, it can never fulfill itself." [cited from Statement of Basic Aims
and Objectives of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, 1964]

Our history and our culture were completely destroyed when we
were forcibly brought to America in chains. And now it is important
for us to know that our history did not begin with slavery. We came
from Africa, a great continent, where live a proud and varied people,
a land which is the new world and was the cradle of civilization. Our
culture and our history is as old as man himself and yet we know almost
nothing about it. (Malcolm X, 1970/1992, pp. 53-54)

In his speech, Malcolm described how White society systematically

worked to eliminate all cultural knowledge from Blacks during slavery,
bringing them "to the level of animals," then treating them as such.
We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to
liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy. We must launch
a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people. . . . This cultural
revolution will be a journey to our rediscovery of ourselves. History is
a people's memory, and without memory man is demoted to the level
of lower animals. (Malcolm X, 1970/1992, pp. 55-56)

In the Black Nationalist philosophy of Malcolm we see how he inter-

twined the issue of personal or individual identity and Black cultural identity,
where both are dependent on history or narrative. To be human requires
memory—otherwise one is a mere animal. Through memory one can know
one's past, which is necessary to reveal who one is. Once one knows who
one is through memory, then one can take pride in this revealed identity.
However, that can happen only if the memory allows for a narrative in
which one can have pride. A history or memory of the past given to you
by those who have oppressed you, and treated you as an inferior being, will
not provide an identity of which one can be proud. Hence, one must
construct one's history by shaping a narrative that gives positive meaning
and value to one's identity. Only then can one regain one's pride.
It is important to note that in Malcolm's speech he also described
how White Americans and European culture did more than play a role in
stripping African Americans of their cultural identity. There was more at
stake. The erasure of memory was done initially in the service of slavery.
But even after slavery was abolished there was continued oppression of
Black Americans with lynching, segregation, second-class citizenship, and
projected negative identities. The result was that most Black Americans of
the time had much more to recover than a cultural heritage. They had to
recover economic and political control over their own destinies. In
Malcolm's view, self-knowledge and pride in one's heritage was thus just a
necessary condition and stepping stone on which to obtain Black power.
Without a sense of individual and social identity of being a Black person
with a shared African heritage, African Americans could not attain a group


identity. And without a group identity they could have no power as a group
to affect their future.
Although Malcolm himself did not introduce the concept of Black
power, those Black Americans who did, not long after his death, saw in
Malcolm and his OAAU a primary source for their inspiration to organize
Black people politically as an independent group in American society with
common interests and the potential communal power to achieve those
interests. Malcolm was at the time of his death a controversial figure, and
the meaning of his legacy has been debated among Blacks and Whites ever
since. But there is little doubt that he has provided the inspiration to many
Black Americans to take pride in themselves and in their Black heritage
and to work together to achieve a meaningful place in American society.


Malcolm's search for a positive identity both for himself and more
generally for Black Americans illustrates how personal and social identity
are intertwined, how narrative is crucial to both forms of identity, and how
society can be transformed by changing personal and social narratives. Right
from infancy, Malcolm was caught up in personal and social stories of
identity. Malcolm's position in his family as well as his family's position in
Black activism during the 1920s provided the basis for identities and stories
that would later develop in Malcolm's self-narrative and his attempts to
provide social narratives for Black Americans. But the stories and identities
that Malcolm adopted as well as those that were imputed to him by others
were not mere transformations of a single coherent story. A number of
inconsistent stories and identities were developed around Malcolm and by
him, in his attempts to make sense of his life and of the lives of other
African Americans. The struggle to develop affirming identities that could
be accepted by self and would be accepted by others was a struggle in which
Malcolm engaged throughout all of his postadolescent life. And, although
Malcolm effected more dramatic changes and engaged in a more intense
struggle than most of us, Malcolm's search for a positive identity through
narrative as well as through political action, illustrates in an extreme form
the struggle for a coherent sense of personal and social identity that occurs
for many people in the modern and postmodern era. Stable personal narrative
identities fixed by social role are a thing of the past in Western culture.
Instead, the predominant theme is the dialogical emergence of identities,
sometimes multiple and inconsistent, sometimes combined into a reasonable
coherence, all depending on stories we can tell that make sense of our lives
to external and internal audiences and that can lead to actions and historical
transformations in identity, inconceivable in earlier times.



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The final goal of personality is to create a philosophy of life and become

the incarnation of it.—Henry Murray in a 1947 letter to Lewis Mumford
(Quoted in Robinson, 1992, p. 308)
This quote from Henry Murray inspired the project described in this
chapter. We began with a rather simple question: How is an adult's philoso-
phy of life manifested in his or her self-conceptualization? More broadly,
how do personal values influence identity? Stated methodologically, our
efforts were guided by one central question: How are individual differences
in personal ideology revealed in one's self-defining life story?
Personal ideology is a large and amorphous concept. It is one's value-
based notion of what is good (bad), true (false), and beautiful (ugly). An
individual's ideological stance takes him or her beyond the world of estab-
lished facts and concrete evidence. It encompasses belief-based opinions,

We thank literature professor Krista Ratcliffe, playwright Peter Handler, and psychologist Peter
Graskamp for their contributions to our discussions of the liie-story material. We are also grateful to
the participants—the ideology exemplars who shared their life stories.

convictions, and assumptions one might hold—including what one believes
to be correct in the domain of morality, meaningful in spirituality/religiosity,
just in legal procedures, and appropriate in parenting practices. Individual
differences in personal ideology are manifested in political orientation in
general and in beliefs about particular political issues such as same-sex
marriages, laws regarding reproduction, and the justifications for declaring
war. Although particular positions on these topics are often supported with
evidence ("life begins at conception"; "history is rife with successful preemp-
tive strikes"), such evidence is typically refutable by the counterclaims of
those with differing opinions. One's political stance is more a matter of
belief and value than of facts, and thus it lies within the realm of personal
ideology. These and other political issues are salient today in the United
States and around the world—often creating fierce divides between individ-
ual citizens, regions, and groups (socioeconomic classes, political parties,
ethnicities). It is therefore wise to study personal ideology to fully understand
its meaning. Although we do not further address these societal and regional
(red vs. blue states) ideology dynamics, we believe that this work deepens
understanding in this area. As personality psychologists, we begin at the
level of the individual. We seek to discover the manner in which differences
in personal ideology are manifested in the self-identities created and
maintained by contemporary adults.
Several scholars have articulated the close connection between per-
sonal ideology and individual identity. For Erik Erikson (1950), these are
the two most salient psychosocial issues of one's adolescent years. "Identity
vs. Role Confusion" is the fifth of the eight stages that compose the Erikson-
ian life cycle model of development. It is during this period that one begins,
in earnest, the process of identity formation—to respond to the yoked
questions of "Who am I?" and "How do I fit into the adult world?" According
to Erikson, these questions are answered as the adolescent selectively incor-
porates and repudiates available models of belief and values from the adult
world. As a consequence, identity and ideology are intertwined.
Dan McAdams has questioned some of Erikson's basic assumptions
regarding identity development, yet he agrees that identity and ideology
are inseparable.

In order to know who I am, I must first decide what I believe to be

true and good, false and evil about the world in which I live. To
understand myself fully, I must come to believe that the universe works
in a certain way, and that things about the world, about society, about
God, about the ultimate reality of life, are true. Identity is built upon
ideology. (McAdams, 1993, p. 81)

To explore how identity might be built on ideology, we chose eight

contemporary adults as ideology exemplars. As part of a larger investigation


of personal ideology (de St. Aubin, 1996, 1999), 64 adults were administered
a number of psychological measures concerning belief and values. Based on
these measures, we selected a group of four individuals who shared similar
ideological systems, and another group of four who had personal ideologies
quite different from the first group yet similar to each other. Each of these
eight also completed a Life Story Interview (McAdams, 2001) wherein they
spent approximately 2 hours narrating their reconstructed past, perceived
present, and anticipated future.
These recorded and transcribed interview sessions became our data—
material to examine, discuss, debate, and analyze. Our attempts to connect
ideology to identity were not merely a matter of searching for material in
the interview that was congruent with the exemplar's ideology. It may be
interesting to discover, for instance, that a woman who highly values altruism
(a component of her personal ideology) tells a life story rife with altruistic
themes (an aspect of identity). It might also be significant to discover that
a woman with such an ideology tells a life story devoid of altruistic themes.
But we were not interested in simply confirming or discontinuing the congru-
ence of mere content. We entered into this project with the assumption
that the relation between ideology and identity was deeper and more nuanced
than that—and that a grounded-theory approach would be the best path
to uncovering the subtle and complex dynamics in this relation.
OUT clustering of the eight ideology exemplars into two groups of four
was based on the polarity theory of personal ideology introduced by Tornkins
(1965, 1978, 1987) and elaborated by others (Carlson, 1986; de St. Aubin,
1996, 1999; Stone, 1983, 1986). In the following section, we briefly outline
the core tenets of this theory. Next, we discuss more fully the methods we
followed in our research. We then turn to the actual analysis ot the interview
material. In this examination of the two groups of four ideology exemplars,
we attempt to articulate both intergroup similarities and between-group
differences. Finally, we conclude with a summary of our findings and a
reflection on conducting this narrative inquiry.


Silvan Tomkins's writing regarding individual differences in values

and beliefs is situated within his much larger script theory of personality.
This is a narrative theory of personality that centers on emotions as the
primary human motivators. Tomkins first introduced these ideas in the
1960s (1962, 1963, 1965), well before the current explosion of scholarly
interest in narrative psychology and in human emotions. The theory speaks
to microlevels of analysis concerning particular affects as these are amplified
in specific life scenes. It also captures the more sweeping dynamics regarding


the embeddedness of personality within the larger sociohistorical context.
Somewhere between these two levels lie scripts, the core concept in
Tomkins's theory. A script serves as a lens through which one interprets
and responds to experiences. Any one person maintains several different
scripts, although a few tend to dominate. This intrapsychic hegemony and
its developmental vicissitudes vary by individual. Although scripts serve a
primarily cognitive function (the interpretation of experience), they are
initially formed and then later transformed through the emotions that under-
lie life scenes. It is emotion that supplies the psychological relevance to
any one life scene and emotion that connects scenes together into patterned
experience. Emotion-based scenes first cluster to construct a script, but over
time the script, or patterned-based rules, comes to dominate so that scenes
are experienced through script rules. Scripts may range from structurally
simple (the joy-based script of gazing into a loved one's eyes) to extremely
complex, such as the ideology scripts discussed later.
Tomkins has written that the ideology script is the most important
aspect of personality because it "endows fact with values and affect ... it
is a matter of faith, without which human beings appear unable to live"
(1987, p. 170). He asserted that an individual's ideological script is best
understood in terms of its placement along the two orthogonal dimensions
of humanism and normativism. As more fully articulated in Table 10.1,
the humanistic dimension emphasizes unconditional positive regard for all
aspects of humanity and all the emotions displayed by human beings, includ-
ing those that reveal weakness. It does not prioritize any one emotion over
others, nor does it hold reason to be superior to emotion. It is a pluralistic
ideology that cherishes human sentiments not because they meet some
standard for acceptance but because they emanate from human beings who
are valued as inherently worthy and good. The normative view maintains
that reason must be exercised to control the unruly emotions and passions,
particularly those such as distress or shame that demonstrate vulnerability.
Reality and truth do not reside inherently within the individual but exist
independent of humans who must adhere to norms in an attempt to reach
this unattainable potential.
Although these two dimensions appear conceptually to be opposite
sides of the same continuum (like masculinity and femininity), both theory
and empirical evidence (de St. Aubin, 1996; Stone, 1986) maintain them
to be independent (again, like gender roles). Placed orthogonally, it is
possible to position any single individual into one of the four quadrants,
depending on his or her score for humanism and normativism. Using median
splits to create the two perpendicular axes of humanism and normativism,
an individual has the potential to be assessed as high in both dimensions,
low in both, or high in one and low in the other, de St. Aubin (1996) has
demonstrated that this classification of an individual's personal ideological


TABLE 10.1
Summary of the Two Ideology Dimensions
Personal ideology
Normative dimension Humanistic dimension
Reality and value exist prior to and inde- Humankind constructs reality. Reality is
pendent of humankind. Human beings meaningless until perceived.
must struggle toward this unattainable
potential through the conformity to norms
and set rules.
View of human nature
Humankind is inherently bad. One should Humankind is inherently good. Human-
be loved and respected only if one is wor- kind is an end in itself; an active, creative,
thy of love and respect—conditional on thinking, desiring, and loving force. All in-
achieved value. Only worthy achieve- dividuals should be the object of love and
ments should be approved. respect (unconditional positive regard).
Approach toward emotions
Displays of affect cause uneasiness. There are positive affects toward afects.
Through reason, one should control one's Reason should not and is unable to con-
display of affects. One should be gov- trol or stifle affects. One should satisfy
erned by norms that in turn modulate and maximize one's drives and affects
drives and affects. Affects should be con- (hunger, sex, work, play, intimacy). Affect
trolled by norms. There are intolerance inhibition should be minimized. Emotional
and punishment of emotional weakness. weakness is tolerated.
Socialization pattern
Socialization includes attempts to mold Socialization includes a child-centered
children according to a set path or norm approach that celebrates the uniqueness
of expected development, punitive par- of the child, encourages the expression
enting techniques, the stifling of emo- of emotions, and cherishes any creative
tional expression, and minimization of efforts of the child.
unique individuality.
Affect motive cluster
Includes an ideoaffective posture (as Includes an ideoaffective posture thai
Tomkins calls the set of affects underlying emphasizes joy, distress, fear, and
one's ideology) of excitement, contempt, shame.
disgust, and anger.

stance predicts individual differences in several value-based areas (political

orientation, personal values rankings, religiosity, assumptions concerning
human nature), as well as the emotional content of recalled autobiographical
episodes (the ideoaffective posture listed in Table 10.1).
The dimensions of humanism and normativism share conceptual space
with other constructs addressed in developmental and personality psychol-
ogy. The portrait of a normative individual is similar to that of the adult
within the law-and-order stage of moral development, as described by Kohl-
berg (1981), and the conformist level of ego development written about by


Loevinger (1976). Likewise, the humanist dimension is similar to Kohlberg's
contractual stage and Loevinger's autonomous level. Like the normative
individual, the man or woman situated within the law-and-order stage of
moral development or the conformist level of ego development prioritizes
rule adherence, loyalty to similar others, and conformity to pervading con-
ventions. The humanist, like the postconventional adult within Kohlberg's
contractual stage or Loevinger's autonomous level, emphasizes human inter-
dependence, self-fulfillment, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a societal per-
spective on "the good life."
Unlike these models of moral and ego development that contend
higher stages/levels are populated with more mature, and by inference, better
humans, polarity theory does not value one dimension over the other.
Indeed, Kohlberg's work has been criticized for its favorable bias toward
liberalism, which has been associated with the higher stages of moral develop-
ment (de Vries & Walker, 1988; Lapsley, Harwell, Olson, Flannery, &
Quintana, 1984). Although the concepts may share definitional space, as
outlined, we prefer polarity theory to either the cognitive-moral or the ego
developmental models, as its egalitarianism seems to more accurately capture
differences in human belief.
There are many other concepts studied by psychologists that are related
to humanism and normativism. Perhaps one that appears to be an obvious
parallel is between normativism and the authoritarian personality. This type
of personality belongs to one who readily submits to authority, devalues
those seen as inferior, and seeks conformity, security, and stability (Adorno,
Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Stanford, 1950). Like the normatives of po-
larity theory, authoritarian types are intolerant of any divergence from what
they consider to be normal. The original authors of this work, heavily
influenced by the psychodynamic perspective, wrote that the authoritarian
personality resulted from childhood dynamics characterized by punitive par-
enting wherein love was conditional (Adorno et al., 1950). The resulting
frustrations and hostility toward harsh authority figures are projected onto
members of "outsider" groups, and the adult personality is characterized
by latent dependency and emotional distance. This formulation has been
seriously questioned (Stone, 1995), as have other core aspects of the original
research efforts in this area (Martin, 2001; Roiser 6k Willig, 2002). Still,
research on the authoritarian personality has yielded a bounty of useful
information regarding attitudes and prejudices, particularly since Altemeyer
(1981) developed a psychometrically sound measure of authoritarianism.
And the accumulated profiles suggest that authoritarians and normatives
are quite analogous in terms of basic world view.
But the work on authoritarian personality offers no viable portrait
of other world views. It merely captures one important dimension on


which individuals score either relatively higher or lower than others.
Polarity theory offers a comprehensive model of human belief and values
(de St. Aubin, 1996, 1999). Another salient distinction between polarity
theory and other similar concepts is that the normative and humanist
dimensions defining the value-based aspects of human experience are
embedded within a larger theory of personality development that allows
for the complex interactions between environment (available persons and
objects with which to create life scenes), inherent biological proclivities
(temperament-based affect posture), and individual volition (decisions
regarding scene and object selection).
The authoritarian personality, for example, is said to result from a
particular set of family dynamics during childhood. Yet not all childhoods
defined by these parameters produce an authoritarian adult. And not all
siblings, who share similar childhood family experiences, score identically
on measures of authoritarianism. The theory fails to consider individual
differences regarding inherited tendencies of any sort.
If we are to progress in our understanding of individual differences in
ideology—the antecedents and manifestations of these beliefs—we would
do well to explore the dimensions of humanism and normativism and the
larger script theory in which these are embedded.


A group of 64 adults completed a Life Story Interview (McAdams,

2001) as well as a number of personality measures as part of a large-scale
investigation of adult development. These adults were recruited from news-
paper advertisements as well as a snowballing technique that began witb
teacher and volunteer organizations. The resulting demographics of the
sample suggest a predominantly middle- to upper-middle-class group com-
prising mostly Caucasians. There was wide intrasample variation on measures
related to personal ideology such as political orientation, voting patterns.,
values priorities, and religiosity (see de St. Aubin, 1996, for further sampling
details). One of the several measures included was the polarity scale that
quantifies individual differences in humanism and normativism. This scale
is a modified version (psychometric properties discussed in de St. Aubin,
1996) of the one created by Tomkins in 1964. Four participants whose
ideology scores, relative to the sample, were quite high on humanism and
low on normativism were selected for additional analysis. We refer to this;
group as the humanists. A comparison group comprised four participants
who scored high on normativism and low on humanism. Table 10.2 provides


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basic information regarding these eight ideology exemplars as they compare
to each other and to the larger sample of 64 participants. The average
humanism score for the entire sample was 141-00. For the four humanists
examined, it was 155.75; for the four normatives it was 118.00. Likewise,
the sample mean for normativism was 102.00, whereas the humanists
averaged 83.25 and the normatives 125.75. These scores nicely cluster the
eight participants into two groups of ideology exemplars.
It is important to note that, as we began our explorations of the
Life Story Interviews, only the first author was aware of the participants'
ideological classifications. However, we did not remain blind to condition
for long, because it became apparent that our "green" group was made up
of the normatives and the "orange" group was made up of humanists. Our
overall approach, then, was to closely read and reread the transcribed Life
Story Interviews of these exemplars to discern within-group similarities
and between-group differences. We expected that this would lead to an
understanding of how individual differences in personal ideology are mani-
fested in the self-defining narratives told by these adults.
The Life Story Interview (McAdams, 2001) is semi structured and
composed of several sections wherein the interviewee relates his or her past,
present, and future, as has been discussed in previous chapters of this volume.
The guiding metaphor provided by the interviewer is autobiography—that
the basic goal of the interview session is for the two to construct a life
story of the participant. The interview includes sections on life chapters,
significant life episodes, current stressors, future plans, and other areas of
one's life. According to McAdams (1996), the life story captured in the
interview represents the identity that contemporary adults form and preserve
through the creation and maintenance of a personal narrative. This process,
termed selfing, links a person's past with his or her present and anticipated
future, thus providing temporal integration to lived experience.
As we read and discussed the transcribed Life Story Interviews of the
ideology exemplars, we did not seek to demonstrate support for Tomkins's
writings, nor did we proceed in a way that was intended to test this theory.
Instead, we simply used Tomkins's model as a way of classifying our partici-
pants according to ideological type. Rather than following a top-down deduc-
tive process wherein an established template is imposed onto the narrative
data of interest, we followed the grounded-theory approach (Charmaz, 2000:
Glaser & Strauss, 1967), beginning with the thick analysis of the life stories
and moving upward from there toward theory postulates, and then back
down to the individual cases. Our joining of deductive and inductive ap-
proaches may be understood in terms of Freeman's (1997) description of
the "hermeneutic circle": "Parts of a given text exist in relation to the whole
and the whole in relation to the parts" (p. 172). Here, initial information


is gathered and interpreted in a type of preliminary schema concerning
the big picture. This schema then guides additional exploration and is
manipulated and focused as additional information is added. As described
by Freeman (1997), "Reading, therefore, is a process of tacking back and
forth between part and whole; meanings that had emerged earlier both
contribute to, and are retroactively transfigured by, what occurs later"
(p. 173). In a similar manner, our investigative process flexed between
parts (individual cases; dramatic episodes or themes) to wholes (intra- and
intergroup analyses).
But we did not enter into the hermeneutic circle completely naive.
Three of the four authors are clinical psychologists (either licensed or in
advanced training), and so listened to these stories with the "third ear"
(Reik, 1948) each had honed to glean meaning and relevance. We also
equipped ourselves by reading widely in scholarship regarding identity and
ideology (e.g., Erikson), and particularly writing from a narrative perspective
such as Tomkins and McAdams. This included Hermans's (Hermans &.
Hermans-Jansen, 1995) dialogical self theory, which holds that the multi-
voiced self-narrative is organized around "valuations"—that to which a
person ascribes value. We also considered Baumeister and Wilson (1996),
who have suggested that adults maintain identity life stories to fulfill four
needs for meaning: purpose, efficacy, self-worth, and value/justification. The
latter refers to the need for a reliable sense of right and wrong—a critical
component of personal ideology.
As for the actual process of interpreting the life narratives, we found
Alexander's (1990) nine identifiers of salience quite helpful (e.g., frequency,
negation, emphasis, omission). These are guides for extracting meaning from
autobiographical narrative data. They served as entry points for us, as the
existence of one of these identifiers inevitably led to a discussion about the
meaning it revealed in an individual's self-narrative.
This collaborative and interpretive process falls under the umbrella of
the inquiry-guided approach. As described by Cohler (2001), "The inquiry
guided perspective maintains both that theory must emerge from study of
evidence and also that theory itself changes" (p. 732). In discussing our
observations and interpretations over numerous meetings, our ideas inevita-
bly changed through the interactive process of building and systematically
analyzing our theory of the relation between storied identity and personal
ideology. As links between the various dimensions of participants' stories
began to emerge, our understanding of the implications and function of the
stories, and their connection to personal ideology, grew deeper and gained
complexity. Our analysis evolved much like our participants' life stories
have evolved, shaped through a process of interaction with others. What
follows is the product that emerged from our intensive process of analysis,
synthesis, and comparison.



The four storytellers we labeled humanists reflected a range of experi-

ences and circumstances. Stan is a 48-year-old married father with one
daughter. He works in a leadership position with various community organi-
zations dedicated to helping the urban disadvantaged. Randi is a 40-year-
old divorced mother of two daughters. She manages a photography studio,
although she speaks of wanting to find more creatively fulfilling work. Bruce
is a 44-year-old divorced gay male. He is a psychologist who practices,
supervises students, and continues to work on his dissertation. Martha is a
62-year-old divorced and remarried mother of two daughters who works as
a homemaker and is involved in athletic pursuits.
The normative group included Helen, a 69-year-old woman who has
been divorced for more than 45 years. She lives alone and frequently travels
and volunteers regularly at a food pantry. Her three adult children live
relatively close by and visit often. Arthur is a 72-year-old-man who has
held many jobs in business, sales, and marketing. He is twice divorced and
has two adult sons who live in his neighborhood. His interest in fast-paced
individual sports (skiing, windsurfing) has been recently curtailed by health
problems. Sarah is a 36-year-old married woman. She worked as a paralegal
and sales associate before staying home with her daughter, who is 3. She
had significant health problems due to the pregnancy but is now fully
recovered. Jarod is a 23-year-old man from a farming family. He entered
the seminary for several years in college and now teaches religion at a
parochial high school. He is married with two young sons.
The following analysis of the within-group similarities and between-
group differences for the life stories falls into three interrelated areas: mtra-
personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. Our decision to group the analysis
material into these three content areas was separate from the issue of how
the information was revealed within the life story. This varied greatly, from
that which was conscious and direct self-referencing ("I have a lot of anger
in my life"); to that which was unstated but recurrent (relating episodes
and relationships rife with mentions of anger); to that which was tacit
(revealed in hostile treatment of others). We were attentive to how the
material was revealed (direct, recurrent, tacit), as well as what the analysis
suggested about identity in terms of plot and structure.


The three most pronounced intrapersonal comparison points centered

on emotions, need for control, and the nature of selfing. One of the more
striking differences between the life stories narrated by the humanists and
the norrnatives was in the magnitude of emotional expression. Humanists


related stories filled with emotion and with little apparent need to stifle the
expression of many types of emotions. In comparison, the normative stories
lacked emotional content and were particularly scarce with regard to expres-
sions of joy. When both Helen and Jarod (refer to Table 10.2) were asked
to tell of a peak episode—an event that stood out as positive or as a real
high point—each misunderstood the question and proceeded to speak about
powerfully negative episodes (an example of Alexander's [1990] "error"
identifier of salience). Expressions of joy in the normative stories, although
rare, tended to happen more in the teller's past or in the distant future. For
example, Jarod referred to a carefree adolescence ("If anything high school
is the funnest, I think even better than college") and contrasted it sharply
with his present domestic life ("every night was a yelling match, it still is
. . . Jesus, I can't win for losin'!"). Likewise, fellow normative Arthur spoke
of his Air Force stint more than four decades ago as "an exciting time—it
gave me such a free feeling that I had nothing ever to think about as far
as any responsibility or worry was concerned." He continued on to relate
the terrible depression he felt on returning to civilian life and the typically
unpleasant grind he has endured since then. The most common affect
included in the normative stories was contempt. The normative authors
spoke of contempt for those that did not live up to expectations and anger
at those who mistreated or slighted the narrator. The one exception to this
finding was Stan, a humanist whose story contained very little emotion.
More in line with the normatives, Stan avoided speaking of emotions, even
when asked directly about difficult issues such as the loss of a father during
boyhood or his wife's several miscarriages.
Stan as the anomaly aside, the overall pattern was quite clear. It was
not surprising, because polarity theory would predict the normatives to
express less emotion in general, very little joy, and to emphasize contempt,
disgust, and anger (Table 10.1). The normative adult expresses these emo-
tions toward specific or imagined "outsiders" who either do not adhere to
the treasured norms or who fall short of achieving conditional worth. Emo-
tions that display vulnerability and weakness, such as distress or fear, are
not to be tolerated in self or others. Further, the normative perspective
views emotions as suspect forces, likely to mislead the individual. It is reason
that must dominate. For the humanist, emotions are valued and acceptable
human experiences. There is little contempt, however, as all humans are
seen as worthy and so none are to be despised. The fact that the pattern
was discovered in the eight life stories presented corroborates polarity theory.
As will be seen, much that emerged from our analyses was less obviously
tied to Tomkins's writings.
A second intrapersonal point of comparison was the discovery that
the normative life stories revealed a distinctive need for control, whereas this
theme was minimal or nonexistent in the humanist narratives. Normative


control was both prevalent and multidomained, in that it applied to many
different areas of the life story. In all four normative stories, we noted tight
control of emotions. In three of the four (all but Jarod), there was a direct
attempt to regulate the interview process itself. For example, during 'limes
that Arthur became uncomfortable with a line of inquiry, he would avoid
further discussion by asking the interviewer "what's next?" or "what else
you got?" Similarly, Helen would end her typically laconic responses with
comments such as "and that's that" or "and that's just the way it is," suggesting
that she would offer no more on a particular topic. Sarah seemed to work
hard in the interview session to control the unfolding of her story in such
a way that her labor-birth episode would be the dramatic climax. Sarah's
narrative also had themes of control regarding her body (an intense need
to shape it into a particular form) and her 3-year-old daughter ("1 like
control, and I am not used to some little cute person coming into my space
and taking over"). Both Arthur and Jarod also spoke of parenting as an
issue of control. In addition, Jarod repeatedly mentioned his attempts to
control his students.
The third and most complex intrapersonal distinction manifested in
these self narratives centered on the exemplars' selfmg technique. Following
McAdams (1996), we see selfing as the process of organizing all of one's
life material (e.g., memories, possessions, personality attributes, significant
others, aspirations) into a life story of self. In horticulture, selfing is a
hybridizing technique wherein one pollinates a flower using that flower's
own pollen. Depending on the genetic lineage of the particular flower, this
may result in tremendous variation in the flowers produced. Likewise, the
psychological selfing we address transforms one's own substance (pollen)
into a story (flower) that may vary greatly, depending on factors such as
when the story is told and to whom.
The humanists went about selfing in an intentional yet fluid arid open
manner that endorsed the importance of introspection and self-development.
Three of the four humanists had at some point engaged in psychotherapy,
a kind of formal selfing. None of the normative exemplars had sought
psychotherapy. For the humanists, identity was an ongoing process, and the
self was something to think about and to shape. These adults tended to talk
about themselves and their identities as works in progress. They grappled
explicitly with issues of identity. For example, Randi described wondering
how to integrate the many roles she was filling: "I found out what it was
like to be in a second adolescence, be a grown up lady, a single mora living
with her mother and dating. A lot of juggling . . . being a single mother,
being a daughter, being myself. Being employed, and trying to find enough
time for me."
Martha spoke of the process of separation and individuation, particu-
larly from a twin sister. She described the process as difficult and painful,


but ultimately worthwhile: "Symbolically, it was a horrible thing to experi-
ence then, but I realize now how important it was for me to separate from
my sister, and it's like it took traumas to give me courage to be a person."
Later, Martha described her happiness at having broken free: "I felt for the
first time in my life that I was really independent . . . and I was happy, and
really, for the first time in my life, independent."
Stan, the only humanist not to have undergone psychotherapy, sought
to understand himself in terms of sociopolitical rather than psychological
dynamics. He viewed himself as a contributor to the history unfolding around
him, speaking of historical figures as some of the significant characters in
his personal development. His arena for understanding the self tended to
the external rather than internal; nonetheless, his life story reflects his view
of the self as a dynamic entity rather than a relatively stable or unchanging
unit. He described the development of his vocational life as the sum of
his earlier experiences: "kind of what came together was the community
organizing piece and kind of the public health piece from my time in India."
Clearly, Stan and the three other humanists embraced the idea of the self
as worthy of exploration and understanding, and their life stories reflect
their view of the self as continuing to develop across their lives.
The process of coming to know the self is also reflected in these
narratives in the way the humanists discussed religion and spirituality in
their lives. All four spoke about the evolution of their spiritual beliefs, and
all four struggled with defining their own spiritual experiences. Change in
the life trajectory is also mirrored in the themes the humanist narrators
chose to describe their lives. Toward the end of the Life Story Interview,
the participant is asked to articulate a unifying life theme, the common
denominator that connects many elements in the story together. All four
of the humanists chose change-oriented themes. Martha's is "change through
suffering." Randi chose "coming of age." Bruce's stated life theme is "moving
on/forward movement," and Stan's is "creating a better world." These themes
suggest that the narrators conceive of their lives as a process of development
and change.
The humanist exemplars can be described as active "selfers," with
introspective tendencies and a dynamic conceptualization of self and the
impact of developmental vicissitudes on identity. This was not at all true
of the normative exemplars, who appeared not to have placed much effort
into thinking about or constructing a self. Both Sarah and Jarod commented
spontaneously, at the end of their interview session, that this process of
telling one's life story was quite novel and that they had not really thought
about this kind of thing before. When the normatives were encouraged to
undergo some selfing, such as in the Life Story Interview, identity was
presented as consistent and impermeable to the influences of outside forces.


Although the normative stories do indeed reflect motion, it is not the
self that is transformed—what changes are external circumstances. The
normative stories are rife with activity and movement—Jarod's story has a
recurrent theme of running away (e.g., from his parents, from his wedding
reception, from adult responsibility); Arthur spoke of a series of jobs and
businesses he began and completed; Helen mentioned her many travels—
but it all occurs outside of the self. There is an insistence that internal
aspects of self are stable. Helen, perhaps the most rigid in this sense, iailed
to even understand questions about how certain aspects of her life, such as
religiosity, might have changed over time. She talked instead about the
dwindling congregation in her church and then ushered the interviewer on
to another set of questions.
For the normatives, there seemed to be a moral aspect to consistency
in self and pride in one's stability and autonomy from outside forces. It
tended to be presented as a moral virtue, as if a mutable (shifty, slippery) self,
one actively shaped through self-enlightenment or influenced by external
pressures, was a sign of inferiority. Although one might put together a
convincing case that consistency and autonomy are hallmarks of a mature
self, our read of this was less flattering. This immutable and impermeable
self presented by the normatives suggested a fragility or brittleness, arid an
inability to wholly engage with others. This group was quite self-protective,
avoiding intimate relations with others that might place one in a vulnerable
position—a position that could lead to an altered self.
Our discussion of these differences in selfmg led us, at one point, to
begin constructing a grand metaphorical comparison with the humanists
being "leaves" and the normatives being "rocks." Like leaves, the humanists
were easily colored by external forces. Their health and existence depended
on connections to the life-giving source (the tree = interpersonal relations).
This helps promote an organic and obvious growth. With the onset of fall,
less daylight and lower temperatures results in a breakdown in chlorophyll
and less green coloring. Like the leaf, humanists changed (and perceived
change), with the alteration of external factors. The normative rocks, on
the other hand, were less influenced by outside forces. Like sedimentary
rocks, the normatives were moved from place to place by external forces, with
little if any structural change. The normative autobiography was expressed as
moving along because time marches on and circumstances shift—not because
one perceives things differently or has evolved in any way.
Although this metaphorical comparison helped us to crystallize our
thoughts as to group differences in the selfmg process, it also deepened our
growing feelings of preference for the humanists. Our own assumptions about
the value of personal growth and openness to change, reinforced in our
professional training as psychologists, led to a bias in favor of the humanists.


Rae Carlson, a devout student of Silvan Tomkins, once asked him about
this tendency for psychologists to view humanists as somehow healthier
than normatives. She wondered whether there were any benefits to being
normative. Tomkins quipped, "Well, 1 wouldn't want a group of humanists
defending my borders" (Carlson, personal communication, June, 1993). Nor,
to extend our metaphor, would we use a pile of leaves to create a wall
around our garden. We admitted to and struggled with our bias, challenging
ourselves and each other to think beyond the assumptions and values of
our profession. Ultimately, we came to the perspective that these two groups
simply went about selfing in very different ways, not that one was superior.
In fact, it may be that the immense selfing efforts of the humanists,
a kind of overanalyzed selfhood that is forever open to redirection and
redefinition, stifled their abilities to complete projects. All but Stan told
stories filled with unfinished business and an inability to move initiated
enterprises into a final product. Bruce had been working on a doctoral
dissertation for years, and Randi had been trying to create a series of children's
books for more than a decade. As readers of these life stories, we had little
faith that either of these projects, nor many of the others mentioned by
the humanists, would ever be completed. This extensive selfing of the
humanists not only pulled personal resources from other endeavors but it
may have led to a self so fluid and transformable that it lacked the fortitude
needed for external productivity.
In sum, the humanists were much more engaged than the normatives
in the selfing process. For the humanists, the self was an object to explore
and grow—to be transformed by exposure and openness to change. For the
normatives, it was a solid base to rely on and to protect—a consistent element
not to be explored nor to be rearranged by contact with outside forces.
Speaking to the selfing process, Thome (2000) has written that the
meaning of an autobiographical recollection will likely change even as the
memory itself remains relatively stable. The meaning of the storied event
will change as a function of the individual's ongoing process of self-making.
Our evidence suggests that humanists are more likely than normatives to
find new meanings in recalled life events as they age. For the humanists,
self is a process. For the normatives, it is a product—a solid and consistent
identity that serves as a foundation for other action.


The interpersonal themes that distinguished the normatives' self-

narratives from the humanists' included a hierarchy of human worthiness, an
escape fantasy, and differing relationship modes. A major element within
the normative stories was the maintenance of a hierarchy of human
worthiness—a view that people are to be judged according to some criteria


or standard of conduct (e.g., intelligence, attractiveness, wealth) and then
ranked according to value. The normative stories expressed a negative view
of human nature in general. Referring to Table 10.2, all of the normative
exemplars scored lower than all of the humanists in the belief that humans
are, by nature, altruistic. That trend was also evident for the view regarding
the trustworthiness of humans. Jarod's score concerning human altruism
was the singularly lowest of all 64 participants in the larger sample, Other
than Helen's, each of the normative stories contained negative opinions
about human nature in general, and all four stories presented damning views
of particular types of people and of specific individuals. All stories had a
clear motif of ranking others according to some hierarchy of human worthi-
ness. Sarah's story included mention of intolerance for those not conforming
to her standards of fitness. Her narrative contained a running theme of
"others as inferior" (e.g., betraying friends, nonempathic hospital staff).
Arthur cautioned his interviewer to "watch out," because "some people will
take advantage of you." He continued in great detail about the man who
"duped" him into selling a profitable business and the two "crazy women"
(former wives) who nearly destroyed his life. Even Helen, the least judg-
mental of this group, expressed a dislike for certain types of people, again
implying a ranking of others.
This hierarchy of human worthiness maintained by the normatives
also led to high rankings of certain people, for the hierarchy has an apex
with a few elite, as well as a base filled with the less worthy. There was
hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding Arthur's portrayal of his father, Jarod's
discussion of the "good-looking jocks" he knew in college, and Sarah's
description of her sister. This finding, like that regarding the emotional
content of the narratives, is highly congruent with polarity theory. As
depicted in Table 10.1, the normative dimension of personal ideology is
aligned with the belief that human nature is inherently bad and that the
value of an individual depends on his or her achievements—that some
human beings are better than others. This normative belief that one's
acceptance and respect for another is conditional clearly manifests '.tself in
the life stories of the normative exemplars.
One corollary to this belief that was evidenced in the normative stories
but not treated in polarity theory regards the implications of this view for
one's opinion of self. The criteria by which others are appraised can become
the mirror of self-evaluation. Such scrutiny lends itself to insecurities and
a fragile sense of self. Cues as to one's own placement on this hierarchy of
human worthiness come from social recognition, being accepted and re-
spected according to the very criteria by which one judges others. The
normative selfing technique discussed earlier stressed an independence from
others, but this was disclosed directly, as when the author tells the audience,
"I'm not influenced by others' opinions" or ''I'm a self-made man." At the


more tacit level, the normative authors revealed a deep need for social
recognition—a message from others that the authors themselves were placed
high on the hierarchy of human worthiness.
When asked to tell about his turning point, Jarod spoke of the moment
that a student referred to him as "Mr. Smith." It was a clear sign that he
was seen by others as an authority—as one high on the hierarchy of human
worthiness. Arthur spent considerable time telling and retelling of an event
that occurred over three decades ago—a woman in a park came over to
tell him how impressed she was with the way he fathered his children. The
normative stories contained many such incidents—moments, when self-
esteem was boosted by the praise of another. But the social feedback regarding
one's worth worked the other way, as well. Sarah spoke of hating to be seen
by others when she did not look her very best, and she became intensely
embarrassed (i.e., lowered on the hierarchy of human worthiness) when her
young daughter acted unruly in public.
Again the anomaly in the normative group, Helen seemed completely
unaffected by others' opinions of her. In addition, this hierarchy of worthiness
was not completely absent from the humanist stories. Bruce, for instance,
related a story that clearly presented others as either more or less worthy.
One reason he continued to supervise students training in counseling psy-
chology was because they were from a prestigious university. This, by exten-
sion, gave him some cachet in the therapeutic community. Still, the pattern
of evidence strongly suggested that the normative stories were more heavily
colored by a hierarchical and conditional view of human worthiness.
The avowed independence from others we observed in explicit norma-
tive selfing was distinct from and appeared contradictory to the desired
social recognition revealed tacitly in the stories—the need for others to signal
one's placement on the hierarchy. In addition, the proclaimed autonomy of
self appeared at first to be inconsistent with our finding that the normatives
were highly conforming to external standards of conduct, whether these be
religious codes (Helen, Jarod), clear sex-role boundaries (Arthur, Jarod,
Helen, Sarah), or a dominant social value of strong work ethic (Helen,
Arthur, Jarod). In hindsight, these findings fit well together.
The highly normative adult, by definition, conforms to external norms
of conduct (Table 10.1). Truth resides outside of human experience. Intrinsic
tendencies such as lust will lead to one's downfall. Social recognition alerts
such an individual that they are worthy—on the correct path. These
tendencies—norm adherence and the need for social recognition—were
revealed tacitly in the self stories told by the normatives. Yet, when the
conscious selfing process, something that does not come naturally to the
normatives, was facilitated through a Life Story Interview, the identity
publicly and intentionally presented was an autonomous one, because depen-


dence and vulnerability are signs of weakness not to be tolerated in ethers
or in self according to the normative worldview. Thus it appears 1:0 be
important for the normatives to present themselves as strong and
This rigid conformity to standards of behavior and the accompanying
denial of pleasure takes extreme self-control, which we saw earlier as a
defining characteristic of the normative stories. To balance this behavioral
adherence to prescribed actions, it appears that all of the normatives in our
sample have created escape fantasies wherein the major taboos of the day
(e.g., infidelity, child abandonment) are embraced. This imaginary Hie mode
is liberating in that it breaks all the rules. Yet it remains within the realm
of fantasy, far away from the scrutinizing eyes of others—and thus, no
potential for downward movement on the self-imposed hierarchy of
Among the more conspicuous comparison points in our first reading
of the exemplars' stories were vivid and elaborate escape fantasies that were
nestled within the typically conventional life stories told by the normatives.
Arthur, Sarah, and Jarod all related "secret love" stories that had some base
in reality (according to the larger life stories), in that the imaginary lover
is act