LIFE STORY BEYOND 'SWEET, INNOCENT, LIGHT'
A CONVERSATION WITH RESEARCHER DAN MCADAMS
The scene opens at Loyola University in Chicago, circa 1980s, with Dan McAdams teaching psychology students when he had an insight about human identity.
“It just occurred to me somewhere along the way, working with my students in the early 1980s, that it might indeed look like a story,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “Stories integrate lives and time, they have beginnings, middles and endings, there’s character, there’s plot. Perhaps people start to think about their lives as ongoing narratives in late adolescence and young adulthood.”
He laid out the case in his first book, Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story, and the concept took hold in an era where looking at life through a narrative lens appealed to a whole set of important theorists.
Flash forward thirty years. McAdams, now the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, oversees a center dedicated to the study of lives. His life-story-as-identity model has influenced a whole field of study, progressing in eras that were dismissive of narrative theory and times like now, when narrative research permeates multiple disciplines.
My conversation with McAdams looked down several interesting alleys, which I organized by themes. Below, the teacher and researcher discusses how our lives are shaped in public, the role of accuracy in memory and the sometimes dangerous error of over-sentimentalizing story. His comments have been edited for clarity and length.
LIFE STORY AS CO-AUTHORSHIP WITH CULTURE
It is true that if you look back at what I was writing in 1985, it was a bigger narrative, it was more in the head, culture was secondary. Partly because of the small story movement, partly just because as you get older, you read more, you become more mature and measured, I really see now how a life narrative is both private and public.
Especially interesting to me these days are the cultural contingencies of life narrative. We co-author our lives with culture in a way that the relationship between the self and the culture can be really contested, it could be problematic, or it can be congenial. I think one of the things about [psychology theorist Erik] Erikson that’s maybe not so right anymore is that when you develop an identity in late adolescence and young adulthood, everybody’s out there helping you out. Culture’s holding your hand, your college or your work environment or your friends are all providing input for you and it’s up to you to integrate into this heroic life pattern. The environment and the cultural context and the public world, they’re all out there almost assisting you like they’re editors and coauthors.
Today I think people would see it more in terms of culture holds back, oppresses what you want to express, perhaps, or at least is a more heavy-handed agent in the construction of narrative identity, which affects autobiographical memory. That’s become a big line of research in cognitive science; a lot of interest in that.
ACCURATE RECOLLECTION IN LIFE STORY
My view has been consistently a constructivist view, that memories are made about the past rather than just recalled in a tape-recording way.
At the same time, we expect these memories that we have and that we tell people to have some kernel of truth. We’re expecting for some level of veridicality. It would not be a good situation for social animals like us if we always made up things and constantly lied about who we were to each other. We do that to a certain extent, but people largely expect a certain credibility when life stories are being told.
GENERATIVITY AND REDEMPTIVE STORIES
There was also an interest in that [first] book in generativity, an idea from Erik Erikson situated more in midlife. People in midlife, what do they do to have some positive contribution to the next generation? How do they care for the next generation? I organized that idea within the life story model of identity that I was building at the time, suggesting that when you develop a life story in your adult years, part of it is about the future. Where’s your life going? I was speaking mainly of people probably in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, so young to early midlife and mid midlife and was thinking, “You have your script for the future, what you plan to achieve, your dreams and hopes and so forth.” For many people, I suspect, that’s framed in their minds in terms of leaving something behind, something positive.
I think generativity relates to the life stories in two ways. One is the sharing of a life story, the telling my narrative to somebody else, a performance of it even, can be motivated by generativity, can be perceived by the audience or the recipient as a generative act. Sometimes not.
There are interesting missed connections that occur where the older generation wants to pass on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation, or what the older generations perceive to be knowledge and wisdom, encapsulated as it may be in a light narrative account, and the younger generation either isn’t interested or believes that particular telling misses the point or experiences it as oppressive or patronizing. There’s a lot of miscommunication that can happen when the effort is made by an autobiographical author to have a positive impact on, say, the next generation through the telling. Still, I think we do expect it to be an important thing.
The other way is that the story itself can be about my generative efforts or can have a theme in it of generativity. I’m especially interested in redemptive life stories, stories that are about how the character, the protagonist, has overcome suffering and been through negative experiences that results in positive outcomes. Highly generative adults, they love to tell these redemptive stories about their lives. They tell them in our interviews, I suspect they also tell them to other people.
The stories themselves aren’t generative, but the stories promote generativity because they will say to you as you listen to them, “It’s worth my while to try to make a positive difference in the long run because, as you can see in this story, even though there’s a lot of difficulty in doing that, even though it’s really hard to have a positive impact on the next generation, even though it may involve frustration and disappointment and even a good deal of suffering and hardship, nonetheless down the road, the story says those efforts may result in positives outcomes.” There’s an optimistic, hopeful feel to these redemptive stories and that rubs off on the listener.
It also rubs off on the teller. That’s my story, and if I really believe that my life is made of these redemption stories where bad things happen to me but I usually overcome them and, relatedly, that I’ve been chosen or called from an early age to make a positive difference in the world, which is what many highly generative people actually believe and say in their life stories. The story you have, or you’re constructing, can promote your generativity even if you don’t tell it to anybody, even if it’s just in your head and something that you call upon.
BEYOND A "LIGHT" VIEW OF STORIES
Having said that, life story telling is motivated by many other things as well and may not always link up with generativity. We use stories in lots of different ways for guidance in life. Sometimes we use them to manipulate other people and so forth. One of the things that drives me a little crazy in the popular enthusiasm about life narratives is that many enthusiasts see stories as just all sweet, innocent, light; stories are always good.
What stories aren’t always good? Oppressive regimes use narratives to keep people in their place. We manipulate each other. We use stories to push a negative, and nefarious even, agenda sometimes. Stories are neutral, but they tend to be used for good or bad and I think usually the good gets emphasized, which I guess is okay, but sometimes I think it’s overemphasized.
Me: I guess one example might be your code of a “contaminated” story. These stories can be negative for us.
Clinicians deal with this all the time, especially highly depressed people come in and they’ve got these contamination stories about their lives. Everything was really great and then some bad thing happened and there’s just no way to ever get back to the good. You’re lost. Narratives about being spoiled and ruined. You have a lot of stories like that in your life, you play them over and over again, and it’s hard to get out of the plot and they become self-fulfilling and can continue to reinforce negative views of the self and pessimistic appraisals of reality. That can feed the depression.
THE TYPE OF STORY MATTERS
If you have that experience on a day-to-day basis that’s not pleasant and probably not an experience that promotes positive growth, it would be incumbent upon you to try to make sense of our life in terms of narrative in some way or another. Then again, what story do you construct? The problems arise when the stories end up squelching your potential or making you more depressed than you were when you started this whole enterprise.
There’s probably something inherently good about creating a story in the first place, but that’s almost moot because, most of the time, that’s what most people do post-adolescence. People are pretty good at finding narratives and finding patterns and so on. It seems to come naturally to us. The problems usually arise after as a result of the kinds of stories we create. The contaminated ones and the ones that don’t promote positive social relationships, that don’t contribute to our health, those stories are problematic. I guess you need a story, but if it’s a bad story you haven’t really made much progress.
Thank you to Michael Humphrey for contributing this article. Michael Humphrey is a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University and a contributor at Forbes.com.
ABOUT THE HISTORY PROJECT
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