Wednesday, April 17, 2013

on the dangers of life narratives

Yesterday, I was looking at this interesting article by Habermas and Bluck

Abstract: In the life story, autobiographical remembering and self-understanding are combined to create a coherent account of one's past. A gap is demonstrated between developmental research on the story-organization of autobiographical remembering of events in childhood and of life narratives in adulthood. This gap is bridged by substantiating D. P. McAdams's (1985) claim that the life story develops in adolescence. Two manifestations of the life story, life narratives and autobiographical reasoning, are delineated in terms of 4 types of global coherence (temporal, biographical, causal, and thematic). A review of research shows that the cognitive tools necessary for constructing global coherence in a life story and the social- motivational demands to construct a life story develop during adolescence. The authors delineate the implications of the life story framework for other research areas such as coping, attachment, psycho- therapeutic process, and the organization of autobiographical memory.

Although this wasn't one of the central arguments of the paper, as I was reading it I saw this "A radical evaluation of one's life may be involved in the extreme decision to commit suicide. The drastic increase in suicide rates during adolescence may be interpreted as a sign that adolescents start thinking about their whole life and its quality," which made me think about one of the potential effects of life history research on the participants. Of course this quote doesn't say anything about the causality involved here and I'm sure there are several factors contributing to suicidal thoughts, but reading this made me wonder if this mechanism works the other way around. I mean does radical evaluation of one's life (as in the activity of narrating one's life) increase the likelihood of suicide or cause other, milder negative psychological states, at least for some more vulnerable participants? I guess it depends on the result of the evaluation but still I think narrating the self is a dangerous activity even under normal circumstances. Now that I'm writing my life history for my dissertation, I can speak as a participant. I'm not suicidal or anything but I certainly feel depressed, which might be attributed to other factors too like dissertation writing :-). I just find narrating my life extremely taxing (it might be different for naturally occurring life stories. I don't know). It is emotionally and mentally exhausting to say the least. (I believe every researcher should taste their own medicine first. I find it quite revealing and informative). My conclusion is that narrating means reliving everything all over again and it is a challenging and tiring thing to do even if one had a normal and happy life. So it might be advisable 1) to limit the duration of the life telling when the life history is elicited rather than naturally occurring, 2) be mindful about the topics covered in life histories (yes, traumatic life stories are fascinating but the researchers have ethical responsibilities too), 3) be sensitive about the psychological well being of the participants.

(Just to open a parenthesis here to report some observations: needless to say because negative memories are more salient, firstly, I find myself telling more negative memories than happy ones in my life history.
I wonder if Turkish language and discourse have a tendency towards struggles and suffering too compared to English, which, to my mind at least, favors success stories. I feel like what is narrative-worthy can be different in different cultures and languages. Unlike my life in Turkey, which I narrate in Turkish in my life history, I will write my memories in the U.S. in English. So maybe I can compare and see if my "hey, look this is what I suffered and survived stories" in Turkish will transform into "hey look this is what I accomplished stories" when I write in English. I'm not sure but I think the second type of story would make one look like a pompous arrogant jerk if narrated in Turkish, while the first type of story would probably make one look like an incompetent loser if told in English :-) I say, something to look into. Secondly, it is my impression that happiness is inconvertible to a plot structure (I guess that's why fairy tales end with a single 'and they lived happily ever after') and consequently happiness escapes the large pores of life history genre. Happiness is a state not an event so I find it difficult to capture it in my narratives. Because happy memories lack an event structure similar to dramatic events (at least in my opinion), I find it difficult to show rather than tell how happy I was. Third, for god's sake whoever thinks that everyone likes talking about themselves is dead wrong. I find talking and thinking about myself dreadfully boring and extremely uncomfortable. I wonder if this is a cultural and gender related issue. In Turkey, at least in my experience, talking about oneself is generally considered inappropriate and rude, especially for a female. Perhaps because of this upbringing I find it very difficult to justify and feel validated about writing my life history. I wonder if writing a life history would come more easily to an American. As I write my life history, I have this thought at the back of my mind "who cares, what is the point of tall this narration, this, etc." But I'm digressing. I wanted to make a different point. Let's get back to our main plot, shall we?)

I have been reading some research articles that are based on life histories elicited from language learners and multilingual writers. But these sources, and even more theoretical or survey sources like the chapters in handbooks, do not discuss this issue about the possible negative effects of narrating a life. It seems to me that it is assumed that narrating one's life is automatically beneficial to the narrator because narratives are transformative and because they are reflective and such. I'm sorry but I find this view of life history research quite unrealistic and irresponsible. Since I'm writing my life narrative I can speak as a participant. I've led a relatively safe and privileged life and I had a happy childhood but even I can see how telling one's life might spiral into something dangerous for the well-being of the participant if that person had difficult life experiences. Re-living difficult experiences in the retelling of one's life can potentially be harmful for the participant. As some say some narratives cure some narratives kill. It does not matter if the questions asked by the researcher are innocent and not about anything traumatic, memories trigger memories and it is almost impossible to stop them coming (as I learned from by experience). I'm not saying life history is dangerous and should be abandoned altogether. All I'm saying is that one should be mindful and careful, that's all. A life history with a specific focus on literacy narrative as in my case can hardly be considered dangerous, but it can be a different story with victims of violence, trauma patients, abused children, etc. Even in those cases, life narratives might be healing too so there are two sides to the coin. It's just that I found life history research more complicated than its depictions in the literature.

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