Telling stories through craft

This is a keynote talk given at a forum on 29 June 2018 to mark the aspiration of Qingdao to host the International Centre of World Craft. 

In 1964, Aileen Osborn Webb remarked, “It is the things of the spirit, the arts of the country, which has always let mankind forward.” Her vision in founding the World Crafts Council is a story that we commemorate today, as we start a new chapter.

Of course, we are drawn to China’s own story of world transformation, which continues the history of the Silk Road to the modern vision of One Belt One Road. So we come to Qingdao, from many countries, to share our stories.

Stories are a basic human need. For my PhD in narrative psychology, I learnt how stories define us as humans. They give the endless stream of time a beginning, middle and end, thus filling our world with purpose.

Stories need a place to live, otherwise they are lost, forgotten. The modern era is defined by the invention of a universal home for our stories: the book, housed in libraries.

While books can be distributed widely, they have limited access to different voices. To tell a story through a book requires a number of hurdles, including editors, publishing companies and media. But now we have a new home for stories that is accessible to anyone: the smartphone.

As we know, the smartphone is a miraculous portal through which we can witness the world as an endless feed of images, video and text. It’s easy to be swept away by this river of information. For this reason, most sharing platforms now have a feature usually called “stories”, which tries to hold time briefly and mark a moment as special.

I’ll return to the smartphone at the end of this talk. Now let’s examine the role of craft in telling stories.

To help us focus on the way craft can tell stories, let’s take an example of the beautiful work by Australian jeweller Zoe Veness. Veness “heat colours” brass, copper and silver with a blowtorch creating a range of colours including pink, gold and purple. She offers these works as a homage to the mountain that overlooks the southern city of Hobart, Mount Wellington. The patterns imprinted on the surface are based on the weathered texture of dolerite rocks. The rose petals reflect the settler gardens that are common in the area. Through her understanding and creative approach to metal, she tells a story of this impressive mountain.

While the mountain remains fixed in place, Zoe’s work enables us to carry its story with us. When someone remarks about the pin we are wearing, we can explain what inspired it. This love of nature is a story we find often in Australian craft.

In a way, a jewel much better than a book. We can live and travel with this story. However, the handmade object lacks a key facility. Without our explanation, someone looking at the object is unlikely to know the story. For this reason, it is very important that we provide platforms for objects that can carry these stories.

Let’s consider the platforms that we have for craft.

The traditional platform is the street market. Like the Expo we experience here In Qingdao in Qingdao, the market enables a user to learn the story directly from the maker. From this exchange, a relationship can develop: the user can return to the market and report on what’s happened with the object since.

In the industrial era, this face-to-face market was mostly replaced by the shop. Here a wide range of products are stocked and sold by someone with only an indirect relationship to their makers. Of course, a good shop assistant will be able to inform the buyer about the idea behind the product, but in my experience such a person is very rare. Instead, we rely on packaging, especially the tag, at least to tell us which country the object is from.

To complement the shop, a new space emerged which offered extensive means of conveying the object’s story. The period after the Second World War saw considerable development of craft as an art form, to the point where it became possible to see objects in art galleries and museums. Works often have a label which includes the title, offering a tangible key to its meaning. The exhibition will often have a framing narrative, like the Tree of Life curated by Edric Ong and Manjara Nirula. This is supported sometimes by a small publication with an extended catalogue essay. But we must admit. compared to the visual arts, we rarely see craft objects in this space.

In our century, we have seen a new platform emerge in the form of e-commerce. The stella growth of companies like Alibaba is testament to the way they have become integrated into our lives. At first glance, the e-commerce platform can seem to be merely a digital version of the shop. However, we find now new websites emerging that offer innovative ways of revealing the story behind the object. This involves clicking through images and text to explore its meaning. India is a particularly creative scene for this work at the moment.

But for the average young craftsperson today, the key platform for their work is social media. With the device in their hands, they can develop followings and take orders directly over the phone. China is famous now for its social media celebrities, who can make millions by linking their following to online sales of featured products.

Social media adds a new dimension to storytelling: collaboration. Through the hashtag, it is possible for many people to participate in the same story. This is used by major products who seek to create a meme which goes “viral”.

At World Crafts Council – Australia, we have sought to create a platform that uses this technology to make sure that the next generation can access craft stories on their phone. Garland features stories about craft that use not only text but also audio and video. Quarterly essays are longform articles that take the reader on a journey to the world of the handmade object and its maker. We are constantly testing our new formats that tell the story of craft. Currently in development are video essays, which are one-minute films of craft process with text as a trailer to the longer story.

While we can focus on narrative tools, this needs to be matched by content. The overall narrative of Garland is a journey across the Indo Pacific to discover how we make our world beautiful. Our upcoming China issue looks to one of its key stories that has universal appeal: the dragon. We use the dragon as a model of how objects are animated by mythical tales. We open this to the similar creatures that exist in other cultures of our region, including the Aboriginal rainbow serpent, the Mexican Quetzalcoatl, the Hindu naga snake god and the Maori taniwha. While offering space for the imagination, these creatures also provide a way for thinking about a world that is experiencing the unpredictable effects of climate change.

Universities can play an important role in helping the development of stories through historical research, international surveys and platform reviews.

Story provides the traditional source of meaning in craft. Our civilisations are evolving new and different ways of telling our stories. Especially today, we are witness to exciting new narrative tools. These contain the promise that the stories which animate our crafts will spread widely to reach new generations and distant horizons.

Dr Kevin Murray is the Senior Vice-President of the World Crafts Council  – Asia Pacific

Trading Tales: Narrative Design in Craft

Stories are an important way in which we connect together, over time and space. I’m currently in Western India for events launching our Garland issue New Homes for Old Stories. Here, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have helped reproduce cultural values over millennia. The same could be said of other world religions, such as the Koran for Islam and the Bible for Christianity. Stories are also help bind smaller groupings, such as the stories passed down through families. And finally at an individual left, it can be said that a happy life involves having a consistent story that connects the successes and failures that constitute our personal narrative.

It is critical therefore to consider how stories are made and cared for. We tend to think of stories as being “told”, therefore consisting purely of language. Certainly there’s a “craft” in the telling of stories: bards, novelists and screenwriters have learnt how to sustain our attention over the course of a telling. But stories also have a material dimension. As with all things that are important to us, we find a way of experiencing the story through ritual, with the help of storied objects. In the modern era, this has been the role of the book. Beyond the mechanical operation of the books as a device for serving up words, this bundle of paper also offers itself as a home for the story itself. And in our modern era, we have build libraries as temples for the safeguarding and honouring of those stories. This is particularly where the book is a unique object, such as a illuminated manuscript. Other objects can also house stories, such as personal keepsakes that preserve precious memories—of travel to exotic lands or of dear departed ones.

So if objects are important to how we keep stories alive, then we need to think about how we treat them. There are two different tracks along which objects circulate.

The commodity track

In the market, an object operates as a commodity, which can circulate freely according to its exchange value. When we acquire such an object, we do so based on abstract considerations such as price. All things being equal, we are most likely to chose the cheaper object. In the consumerist era, an alternative value arose which we know today as “brand” identity. In this case, some products are valued because of the story behind them. Many chose to buy an iPhone even though it is more expensive than other equivalent smartphones because of the brand value of Apple. What is this value? Apple takes great pains to present itself as “designed in California”, building on the mythology of Silicon Valley, and particularly its prophet, Steve Jobs.

In the case of crafts, an equivalent is associated with the region commonly identified with high quality and authentic products, such as Varanasi saris or Kutch block-printing.

The key point about this commodity track is that objects circulate freely. They are available to whoever has the money sufficient to pay for them. And once they have that object, they are free to do with it whatever they will, even destroy it.

The gift track

By contrast, there is an alternative track which is made up of our ties with others. A key traditional means for objects to circulate is through the gift. As anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed, an object bestowed on another created a debt which served to bind that person to the giver. We are not free to do whatever we like with a gift. How we treat the gift will reflect on how we value the giver. Most gifts must be acknowledged, even over time as we report on the pleasure it gives us.

A key moment is the ritual of giving. Often this is extended by the use of wrapping, which creates the suspense and grants the giver time to provide a story about the object, particularly why they chose it for you. It’s the thought that counts. One of the reasons why handmade goods are very appropriate gifts is that they tell the story of the handmade, which itself is a testimony of care and this carries over to the expression of value in the relationship.

In formal terms, the commodity and gift tracks are dialectically opposed, like the spaces of profane and sacred that we seek to keep separate in order to maintain of social grouping.

The social market

But there are ways in which the market can taken on social values. We become friends with a shopkeeper over time and award him or her our trust, so we might buy from them even though it is more expensive. We all know that tourists are much more likely to buy a craft object if they visit the workshop and meet the maker personally. The craft market often provides a space for this, when we can buy directly from the maker and offer our appreciation.

More recently we’ve seen a particular kind of social market emerge with the development of ethical capitalism. Here we can buy a product for the sense of goodness. Critical here is the backstory of the NGO or needy cause that prompts our generosity. New versions of the sharing economy such as AirBNB work on an ambivalent combination of personal guest and customer.

And so we’ve seen ecommerce platforms emerge that not only sell us products, but also tell the story of their makers. Such platforms offer many benefits. They provide recognition for the artisan and offer a dignified stage on which their work can be presented. This personal perspective is likely to lead to higher prices and therefore greater returns to the craftsperson, reflecting the benefits in one-to-one encounters such as craft markets and workshop tours.

But there is a danger. Seen purely within the terms of a “brand identity”, such stories risk turning the craftsperson into commodity, him or herself. Here they must learn to conform to the stories which have higher value, in particular romantic stories of creative expression for its own sake, which deny the personal struggles many have to survive. We all do this, to an extent. But there is the risk of alienation from the originary context of the craft in the traditions and stories that will seem foreign to someone from another country.

One way of countering this is to make the platform two-way. So rather than our normal anonymous online experience, we can consider facility for the buyer and seller to interact. The buyer learns about the seller, as much as in reverse. This has potential to introduce the gift track that facilitates a relationship between the maker and the consumer. This is the move behind the innovation introduced by IOU Project, where users were encouraged to upload photos of themselves wearing their purchases, alongside images of those who made them. (The concept of Samaanata developed by the Sangam Project sought to establish a platform of mutual respect across the supply chain, including producer, developer and consumer).

A key element of narrative design in craft is the instruction for use. This is not just about the material care of the object, but also how to honour its making. This could be the kind of occasion to wear a garment, how to activate an amulet, or in the case of giftware, the kind of person to whom it might be given. One way of supporting this covenant is to provide a platform where consumers can share evidence of how they honoured the intentions.

E-commerce need not be just a pixelated version of the supermarket or shopping mall, inspiring our greed and lust for new things. It has potential to be a social space were we can encounter all the different capacities it takes to make a world. It can help tell stories of what binds us together, made present in the precious object we hold in our hands.

Literary Pathfinding: The Work of Popular Life Constructors

[Kevin Murray ‘Finding literary paths: The work of popular life constructors’ In T.R. Sarbin (ed.) Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct New York: Praeger (1986)]

Social actors often need a past to satisfy the requirements of many different dramatic situations. These situations can vary from the extraordinary ‑ the television show “This Is Your Life” ‑ to the mundane, such as getting to know an acquaintance. The way in which the biographical subjects and their audience construct this past is likely to vary according to the rhetorical demands that govern the situation in which this practice of life emplotment occurs. This context is likely to influence at least three dimensions of this process: the choice of events that are seen as relevant to the construction of the life, the themes that provide coherence between these events, and the degree and type of narrative closure to the life story.

The structures used by people as they construct lives ‑ the language of self‑reflection employed in this discourse ‑ is an important new field of research (see Potter, Stringer, & Wetherell, 1984). Such an approach assumes that life construction is a discursive practice governed by the social settings which demand that a life history be presented. In the present chapter, I examine the form of the life manual, especially Gail Sheehy’s Passages, in order to discover the sort of resources offered through this medium for the social construction of lives. In common with other theories of biography (see Kohli, 1981; and Runyan, 1980) this analysis assumes that more than one possible account can be construed from the events of a person’s life, according to the perspective of the biographer. This chapter emphasizes, in addition, the role of narrative structures in the way an account is constituted, specifically those structures provided in the language of self‑reflection employed in life manuals.

The language of self‑reflection is most obvious in specialized forms of discourse such as works of autobiography and biography, but there are other social events and institutions which are partly designed for the construction of life narratives. Two common rituals which involve the telling of a story about a life are the speeches at testimonial dinners and weddings. These stories usually have contrasting emphases: wedding speeches emphasize human and everyday aspects of character, while retirement speeches highlight achievements that distinguish the subject from others.

The process of life construction is important in many social events designed to establish a moral character (see Gergen & Gergen, 1983, for a discussion of the social utility of this practice). This is highlighted in the statements of a character witness in the courtroom, though it is no less evident in the responses of an interviewee when asked to account in a research interview for certain actions. In the former, the witness attempts to construct a story about character which makes more sense of one interpretation of the accused’s acts than another, less innocent one; and in the latter, the research question of the interviewer makes it imperative that the interviewee construct an account of past actions that is coherent and sensible (see Mishler, this volume).

In each case, the rhetorical demands of the situation require a relatively unambiguous reading of motive: the situation demands thematic generality over a disparate course of events. So, for example, a character witness might begin the testimony with, “When he was five he saved a kitten from drowning,” in order to highlight how the theme of consideration for others marks the life events of the accused. For the account to have an easily read point (that is, the likely innocence of the defendant), the narrative must sift out those details that do not add to the coherence of the story.

Given the pervasiveness of the process of narrative construction of life events, one is naturally prompted to investigate its function. However, there is an obstacle to this investigation. One of the reasons why these processes have received relatively little study is the assumption that the function of telling stories about lives is mimetic and therefore unproblematic; that is, that life narratives are largely a transparent means of representing the truth. However, while it is necessary that these processes bear an ostensible relation to a commonly perceived reality, the success of an account is also likely to be judged by how well it fits certain rhetorical demands, including the set of conventions in language that govern the telling of stories.

The debate about the representational nature of narrative has occurred in other disciplines. History has been popularly conceived as concerned exclusively with the mimetic function of revealing the truth about the past. However, in an analysis of nineteenth‑century historians, Hayden White (1973) demonstrates the importance of other factors in writing history such as ideology, world view, and what he terms “explanation by emplotment,” which is presenting a description of the past that convinces by its success as a story; specifically, how well it conforms to the conventions of comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire. Although White would agree with other relativists, such as Runyan, on the plurality of narratives for the construction of life events, he would differ in the emphasis placed on language as a system that imposes form on reality. For Runyan, relativism extends only to the ideological and theoretical perspective of the biographer, whereas for White, the narrative account of the past is determined by the preconscious linguistic structures (tropes) imposed on reality by the constructor ‑ the choice of structure is determined by aesthetic and moral reasons.

The nonrepresentational factors which figure in this professional sense‑making are also likely to apply to everyday constructions of the past. The criterion of truth is certainly not dominant in informal social activities such as gossip, when the members of a group exchange “interesting” stories about people not present, and popular culture, especially in magazines concerned with media personalities whose lives are regularly encapsulated in touching, shocking, and amusing stories.

Given the prevalence of narrative structures in constructions of the past, it is difficult to argue for life stories as a transparent means of representing truth. A qualified case for this mimetic view may, however, be cast in information‑processing terms. These stories may be seen as attempts at information reduction, in which the large variety of life events is reduced to a set of narratives so that it may be cognitively processed more efficiently. The function, therefore, remains representational, though this is by means of an information‑simplifying structure rather than by a mirror of reality. However, this ignores the pleasure with which apparently useless additional information is sought about people who have no practical relation to one’s life. Who should care if Elizabeth Taylor marries again? It would be difficult to see a story of Elizabeth Taylor’s remarriage being used as an aid in the cognitive organization of the social environment. The moral function of such a story seems more evident than the information‑processing function; the remarriage may continue a story about a prominent public figure whose actions have relevance as standards of conduct in everyday life; the happy or sad outcome of the story indicates whether the course of action is correct or misguided. For Hayden White, one purpose of narrative is moral:

Narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system, that is the source of any morality that we can imagine. (1980, p. 18)

If one looks again at the process of gossip (Sabini & Silver, 1982), one finds emphasis on the embodiment of codes of conduct on the elaboration of moral rules in concrete examples. The gossipy stories in the popular media seem to instantiate the moral order, thus exercising it and ensuring that it is able to organize the events of everyday life.

Besides the moral function of this process, life construction is also likely to be an attempt to find a narrative structure by means of which life can be granted meaning. This is what Frank Kermode describes as an explanatory fiction: “In ‘making sense’ of the world we still feel a need, harder than ever to satisfy because of the accumulated scepticism, to experience that concordance of beginning, middle, and end, which is the essence of our explanatory fictions” (1967, pp. 35‑36). This sense of beginning, middle, and end, in terms of a life path, is provided by a set of conventionalized narrative forms. Jerome Bruner, in his essay “Myth and identity” (1962), describes this set as the “controlling myths of community,” which provide a “library of scripts” that give recognition to certain life paths. This library of scripts is an abstraction of the narratives that are evident in the ways the biography of an individual is presented in public. The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate, in popular psychology at least, that these life constructions are determined as much by the moral and narrative conventions contained in the hypothetical library of scripts as they are by the facts of life.


The popular book Passages (1977), by Gail Sheehy, presents a revealing document for studying these socially recognized life paths. First, it explicitly sets out to provide a prescribed route through life events, and tells many stories about people as examples of a general theory. Second, Sheehy is a popular writer (her books reach the top of bestseller lists), and her books are more likely to be consumed as myths than books directed to an academic audience. Given these factors, Sheehy’s works are likely to indicate ways in which lives can be constructed as resources that can he used by members of society in the choosing of a life path.

Sheehy’s work is examined here with an emphasis on the manner in which she constructs life narratives and on the theory from which she draws to support her constructions. The relativity of her constructions can be established by two sets of contrasts: first, by a comparison with two of her contemporaries: Daniel Levinson and Roger Gould; and second, because many of the assumptions Sheehy makes may seem at first to be self‑evident to participants of the same culture. 1 cite a theorist from a different time: the Victorian moralist and biographer, Samuel Smiles. Smiles, like Sheehy, achieved great popularity while telling stories about how people should live their lives.

Because our interest is partly in the consumption of Sheehy’s book it is useful to approach it initially from the perspective of the ordinary reader. It is likely that the prospective reader goes to this book as a guide to ways in which one deals with problems in life. This seems to be the ostensible purpose of the book. As the reader inspects it in the bookstore he or she sees the blurb on the cover reinforce this expectation:

‘A revolutionary way of looking at adult life’


Brilliant new insights on the predictable crises of adult fife.

However, if at this point the reader decides to gauge Sheehy’s style by examining the first page of the main text, the expectation of a serious academic work is soon put in doubt. Chapter One of Passages, entitled “Madness and Method,” immediately immerses the reader in the excitement of Sheehy’s adventure in Northern Ireland. There is no conceptual argument; it begins much more like a novel than an academic tract.

If the reader had looked at the cover notes in a little more detail the expectation would not have been of a serious theoretical work. The notes on the inside of the cover are more representative of the style of the introductory chapter:

‘A lively, passionate and readable message . . Margaret Mead

‘Provokes the same recognition that we experience in a good novel . . .’ New York Times Book Review

‘Extraordinarily good reading . . ‑Publishers Weekly

The readableness of Sheehy’s book is evident in the clever literary style she adopts throughout. This style partly consists of tropes, such as, “Killing time is a suicidal act. The time she is killing is all she has left to live.” This emphasis on the literary style may seem irrelevant to the purpose of this chapter, but it is important to recognize the context in which Sheehy’s theory is cast ‑ the medium which contains the message. The decision in adopting this particular style may be related to what she is trying to say, and the way in which she wants her message to be consumed.

The rest of the statements used to package Passages emphasize the involvement of the reader in the text.

PASSAGES IS YOUR LIFE STORY. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your lovers.

‘Passages shakes you up, shakes you out, and leaves you shaking hands with yourself.’

Shana Alexander

These statements stress the prospect of the reader being changed by the text ‑ either in the acts performed in life or the process of self‑reflection. (For a discussion of the influence of reading on everyday life, see Sarbin, 1982.) The impression of Passages gained from this bookshop browse is likely to be of an entertaining text which has the power to recast one’s own life story.

At this point we will leave the impressions of the prospective reader and turn to the actual theory which Gail Sheehy offers to account for life events. According to Sheehy, adult life consists of a negotiation between two powerful forces within the psyche, and the outside world. The primary force is essentially good, Sheehy calls it the “dream.” The dream has its origins in the fantasies of childhood. Adult ambitions, such as vocational success, establishing a secure family, and becoming famous, are attempts to realize this dream. Opposed to the dream is the “inner custodian.” This is a negative psychic force, similar to the superego,l which has its origin in the demands that parents make of the child. The inner custodian, which Sheehy calls a “nasty tyrant,” demands that one live up to these ideals or be nothing. It is a critical annihilating force that engenders a feeling of helplessness.

The conflict between these forces comes to a head in midlife. In this “passage” there is usually a threatening event which triggers a crisis, usually a memento mori such as the death of one’s parents, or a heart attack affecting oneself or a friend. Sheehy’s book begins with the event which triggered her own crisis: the sense of futility in life resulting from her experience of a Northern Ireland massacre. For Sheehy this is a particularly dramatic event in the lives of everyone: “There is a moment an immense and precarious moment ‑ of stark terror.” This crisis engenders a period of depression and inactivity ‑ a sense of hopelessness in coping with the threat.

Sheehy advises people at this point in their lives to act bravely, to face the conflict squarely and be hopeful of the future. The hope which Sheehy offers is a romantic one; there is an optimistic commitment to the self as the only force of authority in one’s world. This becomes clear when her statements about the crisis are examined:

For whether we know it or not, and usually we don’t, it is this dictator guardian from whom we all are struggling at last to be free. In midlife, all the old wars with the inner custodian flare up again. And eventually, if we let it happen, they will culminate in a final, decisive battle. The object of that battle is to overtake the last of the ground held by the other and end up with the authority for ourselves in our own command. (1977, p. 436)

Given Sheehy’s literary style, it is not surprising that she employs a metaphor to describe this conflict. It is, rather, her choice of metaphor which is interesting. By using a metaphor of battle she is encapsulating the event of midlife crisis in terms which make it compatible with the literary structure of a romance.

Indeed, Sheehy’s theory readily allows for a romance narrative. There is already the notion of a dream, which can be seen in terms of a romantic quest, and the inner custodian, which can be easily viewed as the elemental foe opposed to the realization of the quest. Given these initial terms, the equation of romance is completed by Sheehy’s view of life as a perilous journey consisting in a series of adventures leading up to a crucial struggle in the midlife crisis. This is clearly indicated by Sheehy’s statement of romantic hope:

To reach the clearing beyond, we must stay with the weightless journey through uncertainty. Whatever counterfeit safety we hold from overinvestments in people and institutions must be given up. The inner custodian must be unseated from the controls. No foreign power can direct our journey from now on. It is for each of us to find a course that is valid by our own reckoning. And for each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others. (1977, p. 364)

Sheehy aims to inspire the reader with a sense of hope in life by constructing personal development in terms of a romance. And given the nature of the crucial struggle in romance ‑ that it allows for the rebirth and rejuvenation of the hero ‑ it structures a difficult period in life in a way which allows for the possibility of an optimistic outcome. If she had chosen to structure life according to alternative forms, such as a tragedy in which childhood hopes are destroyed by the cruel realities of adult life, or a satire where the idealistic dreams of childhood are disillusioned by the ironies and complexities of adulthood, the effect would be to engender despair.

The purpose of using a literary style can thus be seen as allowing Sheehy the license to use literary forms to construct lives. In effect, Sheehy is teaching the readers to read their own lives in terms of romance so that they may share in this hope: “the capacity for renewal in each human spirit is nothing short of amazing.” The message on the cover saying “Passages is your life story” now can be translated as “You too may emplot your life as a romantic adventure.”

There is further evidence for this point in Pathfinders (1982), the sequel to Passages. Here Sheehy presents heroes of her system. The heroes must pass three tests:

  1. To confront crossroads
  2. To cause a minimum of human damage.
  3. To seek a purpose outside oneself.

What is significant about these three tests is that, according to critics of the romantic literary form (see Frye, 1957), the heroes of classic forms of romance must also face three tests, and the nature of these tests roughly corresponds to Sheehy’s. The first test (agon) involves conflict between the hero and the evil force. The second test (pathos) is the final death struggle between the combatants. Sheehy’s second test is compatible with this; it assumes that the person has tried to resolve the conflict by reassessing commitments such as an unchallenging job or a sour marriage. She is specifying that the outcome of this test should not merely be the annihilation of previous commitments ‑ persons should salvage some of their pasts from this crucial struggle. The third test (anagnorisis) is the discovery of a transcendent meaning or truth as part of the process of renewal after the struggle. Sheehy similarly specifies that the pathfinder should discover a meaning beyond the pursuit of pleasure or self-gratification. It is understandable that if Sheehy invests in the mythos of romance as a source of optimism, then she also buys the baggage of the romantic conventions.

In Passages Sheehy refers to the work of two other researchers as promoting her own interest in human development: Daniel Levinson and Roger Gould. Levinson’s book, The Seasons of Man’s Life (1978), is seen by some as an academically respectable work from which Sheehy draws her theory. Certainly, the Dream concept figures as strongly in Levinson as it does in Sheehy, but, unlike Passages, Seasons constructs a force opposed to the Dream which is not an object with whom one can engage in battle ‑ it is not like Sheehy’s inner custodian (“nasty tyrant”); rather it is a tragic flaw within the character, something over which one has no control. Levinson’s scenario for midlife does not provide the reader with the same sense of adventure as Sheehy because the enemy or frustrating force is part of oneself ‑ it cannot be easily externalized as a foe: “The tragic sense derives from the realization that great misfortunes and failures are not merely imposed upon us from without, but are largely the result of our own tragic flaws” (1978, p. 225). Given the absence of clear opposition between good and bad, the metaphor for the process of growth cannot be battle; Levinson chooses instead to compare development in midlife to a geographical study, in which basic faults are revealed to the explorer. The aim then is discovery, rather than the victory which Sheehy envisages.

Gould is another theorist who refers to the Dream as a primary force in human development, but he provides a different metaphor for the process of growth. The negative force for Gould rests with the “angry demons” of childhood, which remain fostered in the illusions carried into adulthood: “To enjoy full access to our innermost self, we can no longer deny the ugly, demonic side of life, which our immature mind tried to protect against by enslaving itself to false illusions that absolute safety was possible” (1978, p. 218). Midlife thus becomes a period for facing up to reality. The metaphor Gould employs is breaking a wild horse; evil cannot be defeated in battle, it must simply be exposed to reality and, through experience, tamed. Gould holds an existentialist position toward life ‑he sees it as a process of demystification: “Time … strips away our last remaining illusion of safety and makes existentialists of us all.” The breaking down of illusions through experience is the goal presented by Gould, contrasting with Levinson’s discovery of tragic flaws and Sheehy’s victory over the inner custodian. The goals typify the myths of satire, tragedy, and romance, respectively.2 The fact that these authors examine the same issue, with similar materials, yet construct their theories in such contrasting ways, demonstrates the relativity of narrative constructions, and especially highlights that Sheehy’s view of life is as much a product of the structures of narrative emplotment and their associated assumptions about human nature as it is of representation.


Samuel Smiles is a writer whose success in the Victorian era is compatible with Sheehy’s success in our own time. Smiles authored many life manuals, the most popular being Self‑Help (1925, originally published, 1854). The impact of Self‑Help on Victorian culture can be gauged by the fact that it sold more copies than any of the great nineteenth century novels. The purpose of the comparison between Smiles and Sheehy is not to analyse historically the changes in sensibilities concerning life constructions, but simply to highlight more distinctive features of Sheehy’s approach.

Looking at the cover notes of Self‑Help, the reader is less encouraged to find a literary masterpiece within. Smiles’ style is praised as being 11 clear and attractive,” but the emphasis is largely on the inspirational nature of his works:

[Self‑Help will] help to inspire the rising generation with ennobling sentiments.


There are few departments of public life in which this book may not inspire to higher self‑devotion….

Liverpool Mercury

Smiles’ style is less colourful than Sheehy’s, and more precise.

The force which drives personality in Smiles’ system is character. Character is made up of various elements or moral qualities of personality. These are energy. duty, reverence, will, courage, self-control, cheerfulness, and manners. The general theme of these qualities is a positive desire to do right by society. According to Smiles, character is determined by social milieu. Thus the greatest formative influence on personality is family, followed by teachers. peers, spouse, patrons, books. and society’s heroes.

Many of Smiles’ books display the means by which character can become manifest to others, especially as it is evident in the lives of heroes of Victorian society; their story is usually of boys from modest and devout backgrounds who through application are able to raise themselves and do good in society. Their character is made evident in two ways. First, it can be seen in the daily contributions to society that eventually amount to a character‑building set of good works: “Indeed, character consists in little acts, well and honourably performed; daily life being the quarry from which we build it up, and rough‑hew the habits which we form” (1925, p. 468). Alternatively, character may become manifest by means of a dramatic gesture: “When Stephen of Colonna fell into the hands of his base assailants, and they asked him in derision, ‘Where is now your fortress?’ ‘Here’, was the bold reply. placing his hand upon his heart (1925. p. 453). In this way character becomes something which is easily read by others. in terms of one’s history of good works (moral career) or through self‑presentation strategies.

Compared to Sheehy, the essence of Smiles lies on the surface. Smiles’ lives are flat and undynamic ‑ there is no struggle within the self to arrive at a self‑determined meaning. In the language of self‑reflection discussed by Potter et al., Smiles holds an “honest soul” theory of character. one which sees self as consisting of a stable set of traits, whereas Sheehy sees self as something that must be strived for, the romantic self.

For Smiles, the meaning which determines one’s life comes necessarily from outside oneself; there is an objective moral order, the same for all, by which one’s personal worth is judged. This may sound restrictive and uninviting, but Smiles does offer a bonus. Because the example of others acts as an independent force which permeates our moral capabilities, our own actions are granted a significance outside ourselves as they become part of the moral fabric of society which in turn controls the behaviour of others. Smiles’ theory of character thus implies a secular immortality:

The spirits of men do not die: they still live and walk abroad among us…. Thus, every act we do or word we utter, as well as every act we witness or word we hear, carries with it an influence which extends over, and gives a colour, not only to the whole of our future life, but makes itself felt upon the whole frame of society. (1925, p. 428)

According to Sheehy the worth of an individual is in the ability to face reality by finding a balance betwen seeking and merging, independence and intimacy. In contrast, Smiles simply believes that people operate like a Marxist economic system; that the value of a product is directly related to the labor involved in its creation, thus there is no honor without struggle. The value for Smiles is labor, whereas for Sheehy it is authenticity. A comparison of the moral orders of Islam and St. Thomas of Aquinas by Rom Harr6 (1984) reveals a similar difference. While the Islamic concept of quaadar prescribes a universal life path for all that is achieved by faith and determination, Aquinas refers to the necessity of making decisions in the life‑course.

So far, Sheehy and Smiles have been contrasted in their theories of how lives are constructed. To gain knowledge of their method, attention should be paid to the many case histories included in their books. Both writers use cases very much as exemplary lives which not only demonstrate their theories about human nature and conform to the narrative patterns seen as typical in life, but also provide models of how the readers should live their own lives.


In Passages (1977, pp. 256‑27 1), Sheehy uses the case of Dwight to illustrate the rebirth of a person who avoided experimentation in earl. life. It begins as an example of the hazards involved in a lack of risk taking when young, and ends as a celebration of the potential to overcome a bad start by taking on adventures later in life.

Dwight is presented as a person whose early development was stamped with the traditionalism of his established New England family. Sheehy exploits the rhythm of language to highlight his lack of experimentation. After Dwight gains a large inheritance from his grandfather:

He safed it all away in blue chip stocks. Lock!

He wasted not a moment between finishing basic training and starting married life with Vanessa. Lock!

And she describes his becoming a teacher despite his father’s objections:

With almost no experimentation Dwight had found his one true course in life.


Slowly becoming aware that his life had been too restricted to allow the realization of any authentic sense of self, Dwight begins to break out. He leaves his wife and starts experimenting with one of Sheehy’s stock figures, the Testimonial Woman When she leaves him Dwight is devastated, but this leads him to realize that: “a change of mates was not the key. A change in him was.” Following this revelation Dwight sets out on the romantic quest to find himself, and he begins to grow: “As he began to assume the authority for his own support, Dwight stretched on all levels.” In keeping with the romantic mythos, Sheehy even has Dwight disappearing into the sunset: “On the brow of 40, brimming with vitality and more daring than he had ever before displayed, Dwight whisked off with his new wife to the last wilderness in the West to make a documentary: in his field, using her medium.”

There is, however, another story embedded in the case of Dwight that Sheehy chooses to deny by her use of poetic license. Dwight’s previous life may be alternatively represented as a series of rebellions. First, he turned against his father’s expectations of him to become an executive and chose to become a teacher instead. This, according to Sheehy, happened with no experimentation, but “experimentation” seems to be something which serves the narrative structure of the case rather than the “facts” of Dwight’s life. Second, he entered the political arena by working for a year as an administrative aide to a congressman; but this was, “For want of excitement…. It tickled him to make contacts with celebrities.” After this change of style he went back to teaching. By employing metaphor, Sheehy again uses poetic license to make one interpretation seem more obvious than another: “At 30, the outlines of his life in the academic world seemed to fall into place as clearly as the stone geometry of an old land‑grant college.” The metaphorical neatness of Sheehy’s image allows her interpretation to slip in without being subject to a serious critical scrutiny.

Sheehy’s romantic story of Dwight’s life is not the only one that can be constructed. One could construct it as a satire, in which a good and honest man is influenced by the romantic ideal of selfhood and destroys his family and personal future in the misguided belief that he would achieve greater authenticity. Instead, Sheehy chooses the romance mythos which generates an altogether more inspiring and optimistic scenario. Her choice is not guided solely by the match between this mythos and reality; also at play are Sheehy’s moral and aesthetic visions of life.


A typical case from the works of Samuel Smiles reveals a different force driving personality. The case of Dr. Samuel Lee (1925, pp. 41341 5) typifies the story of the man who through the force of character hauls himself up from modest beginnings to outstanding achievements. “One of the dullest boys” at school, Dr. Lee began life as a carpenter, reading books with Latin quotations in his leisure. Becoming more interested he mastered Latin, and went on to study ancient Greek, followed by the Chaldee, Syriac, and Samaritan dialects. All this was without support from any academy. However, the strain of reading began to tell on his eyes and he had to forego his study until a fire destroyed his carpentry tools and he was forced to take up teaching language for his livelihood. Through the patronage of Dr. Scott, a neighboring clergyman, Dr. Lee expanded the languages under his command and eventually became a professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Queen’s College, Cambridge. According to Smiles, the point of this story is to reveal “the power of perseverance in self‑culture,” though it could just as easily be to demonstrate the unpredictable and impressive nature of a natural gift for languages.

Absent from Smiles’ narrative is any discovery within Dr. Lee of a goal which has personal relevance, which would have marked Sheehy’s version of the same story. The catalyst for Dr. Lee’s rise was not selfdiscovery, but the patronage of Dr. Scott and the recognition from others of Dr. Lee’s “unaffected, simple, and beautiful character.” The story of Dr. Lee’s life can be viewed as an epic narrative in which the hero undergoes adventures that do not interact with his relatively static and simple character. Scholes and Kellog (1966) contrast the epic with the romantic form, especially the modem romance involving a psychological search for identity, where the adventures dynamically affect the character of the hero. The form of character emplotment used by Sheehy typifies the themes of modem romance.

Despite these differences in their chosen forms of life emplotment, Sheehy and Smiles have in common a moral framework upon which their constructions are based. In this framework the hero is understood to be an exemplar of certain virtues ‑ for Sheehy it is authenticity, and for Smiles it is commitment. An alternative framework for constructing character is suggested by Hunter’s (1983) study of the practice of “reading” character in drama criticism. Sheehy and Smiles typify a practice of reading character in which the worth and workings of a person are formed by moral qualities. An alternative means of reading character was practiced in the eighteenth century. This involves viewing character as a rhetorical object, whose plausibility and quality is determined by the dramaturgical rules of everyday life. This practice is evident in the typification of characters into such categories as the “eccentric” and the “conformist.” What such characters lack is a temporal dimension which would give their lives a stronger narrative underpinning, and thus a greater moral relevance. By providing definite narrative frameworks for life, Sheehy and Smiles enable character to be read morally.


Gail Sheehy’s books can be seen as attempts to construct life in terms of the narrative conventions of romance, of a struggle between good and evil which sets the stage for a discovery of inner truth. The outcome of this construction is to create adventure in personal conflict and thus allow the possibility of hope in a period of potential despair; it gives personal crisis a meaning by encapsulating it in narrative terms. Compared to Sheehy, Smiles’ narratives grant the individual much less authority in resolving the issues of selfhood, and offer the less individually determined Stoic path of moral goodness as a guarantee of happiness. Smiles’ books demonstrate that the conventions used by Sheehy are relative. What is found in the works of two of Sheehy’s contemporaries, Levinson and Gould, are the life manuals which do grant the individual this authority, but their metaphors for selfhood lack the spirited adventure with an externalized foe that characterizes Sheehy’s vision. Certainly there are enough materials in any life for the construction of a romance, but whether romance is chosen before other narrative structures such as tragedy and irony will depend on the aesthetic and moral will of the constructor.

All of these life constructions serve a basic need to provide a narrative concordance in human development, but they obviously differ in the values they attach to the individual and society, the limits of human freedom, and the resulting degree of hope, despair, resignation, or pragmatism that is appropriate in life’s progress. The first step has been to recognize the process of life construction at work in the popular life manual, the next stage is to determine its aesthetic, moral, psychological, social, cultural, and historical contexts.


Reference: Kevin Murray ‘Finding literary paths: The work of popular life constructors’ In T.R. Sarbin (ed.) Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct New York: Praeger (1986)

1. For an analysis of Gail Sheehy’s relationship to popular psychoanalysis see Murray, K. (1984). Romanticizing psychoanalysis. Unpublished manuscript, University of Melbourne, Australia.

2. For a description of these myths see N. Frye, 1957; and for a statement of their theoretical relevance in the social sciences see K. Murray, in press.


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Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gergen, K. J. and Gergen, M. (1983). Narratives of the self. In T. R. Sarbin and R. E. Scheibe (Eds.). Studies in social identity. New York: Praeger.

Gould, R. (1978). Transformations: Growth and change in adult life. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Harré, R. (1984). Psychological variety. in P. Heelas and A. Lock (Eds.), Indigenous psychologies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hunger, 1. (1983). Reading character. Southern Review, 16, 226‑243.

Kermode, F. (1967). The sense of an ending. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kohli, M. (198 1). Biography: Account, text, method. In D. Bertaux (Ed.), Biography and society. California: Sage.

Levinson, D. (1978). The seasons of man’s life. New York: Ballantine Books.

Murray, K. (in press). Life as fiction: Proposing the marriage of dramaturgical model and literary criticism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior.

Potter, J., Stringer, P., and Wetherell, M. (1984). Social texts and context: Literature and social psychology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Runyan, W. M. (1980). Alternative accounts of lives: an argument for epistemological relativism. Biography, 3, 209‑224.

Sabini, J. and Silver, M. (1982). Moralities of everyday life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sarbin, T. R. (1982). The Quixotic principle: A Belletristic approach to the psychological study of meanings and imaginings. In V. L. Allen and K. E. Scheibe (Eds.), The social context of conduct: Psychological writings of Theodore Sarbin. New York: Praeger.

Scholes, R. and Kellog, R. (1966). The nature of narrative. London: Oxford University Press.

Sheehy, G. (1977). Passages: Predictable crises in adult life. New York: Bantam.

Sheehy, G. (1982). Pathfinders. New York: Bantam.

Smiles, S. (1925). Self‑help: With illustrations of conduct and perseverance. London: John Murray. (Originally published in 1854).

White, H. (1973). Metahistory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

White, H. (1980). The value of narrativity in the representation of reality. Critical Inquiry, 7, 5‑28.

A Proposal for a Re‑authoring Therapy: Rose’s Revisioning of her Life and a Commentary

David Epston, Michael White and Kevin Murray ‘A proposal for re-authoring therapy’ Therapy as Social Construction In S. McNamee & K.J. Gergen(ed.) London: Sage (1992)

In the social sciences at least, it is now generally recognized that it is not possible for persons to have direct knowledge of the world; that an objective description of the world is not available to us, and that no one has a privileged access to the naming of reality, whatever that reality is.’ And it is generally accepted that what we know of the world, we know only through our experience of it; our experience of the world is all that we have, and that is all that we can know. We cannot even know another person’s experience of the world. The best that we can do is to interpret the experience of others; that is, the expressions of their experience as they go about the business of interpreting it for themselves.’ ‘Whatever sense we have of how things stand with someone else’s inner life, we gain it through their expressions, not through some magical intrusion into their consciousness. It’s all a matter of scratching surfaces’ (Geertz, 1986: 373). And to interpret the expressions (and thus the interpretations) of others, we have to rely upon our own lived experience and imagination. The most we can do is to ‘identify’ our own experience of the experience as expressed by others. Thus ‘empathy’ is a critical factor in the interpretation or understanding of the experiences of others.

So this is all we have ‑ our lived experience of the world. But this turns out to be a great deal. We are rich in lived experience. To quote Geertz, ‘We all have very much more of the stuff than we know what to do with, and if we fail to put it into some graspable form, the fault must lie in a lack of means, not of substance’ (1986: 373).

Certain questions are raised by any serious consideration of this proposal about the world of experience.

  • Given that what we know of the world we know through our experience of it, what is the process by which we develop an understanding of our experience and give meaning to it?
  • How do we make sense of our experience to ourselves, and how do we make sense of our experience to others?
  • If we are perpetually involved in an attempt to articulate our lived experience to ourselves and to others, what processes are involved in our interpretation of it?
  • What is it that facilitates the expression of our experience?
  • And how does the expression of our lived experience affect our lives and relationships?

These questions focus our attention on an investigation of the ways in which we make sense of our lives to ourselves and to others; they focus our attention on the processes through which we interpret or attribute meaning to our experience.

In order to give meaning to our experience, we must organize it, frame it, or give pattern to it. To understand an aspect of our experience, we must be able to frame it within a pattern of experience that is known to us; we must be able to identify aspects of lived experience within the context of known patterns of experience.

Stories or Narratives

Those social scientists (J. Bruner, Gergen, and Harré in psychology; E. Bruner, Geertz, Clifford, V. Turner, and R. Rosaldo in anthropology; H. White, Mink, Gaillie in history, to name but a few) whose work is oriented by the ‘interpretive method’ and who embrace the text analogy propose that the ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ provides the dominant frame for live experience and for the organization and patterning of lived experience. Following this proposal, a story can be defined as a unit of meaning that provides a frame for lived experience. It is through these stories that lived experience is interpreted. We enter into stories; we are entered into stories by others; and we live our lives through these stories.

Stories enable persons to link aspects of their experience through the dimension of time. There does not appear to be any other mechanism for the structuring of experience that so captures the sense of lived time, or that can adequately represent the sense of lived time (Ricoeur, 1983). It is through stories that we obtain a sense of our lives changing. It is through stories that we are able to gain a sense of the unfolding of the events of our lives through recent history, and it appears that this sense is vital to the perception of a ‘future’ that is in any way different from a ‘present’. Stories construct beginnings and endings; they impose beginnings and endings on the flow of experience. ‘We create the units of experience and meaning from a continuity of life. Every telling is an arbitrary imposition of meaning on the flow of memory, in that we highlight some causes and discount others; that is, every telling is interpretive’ (E. Bruner, 1986a: 7). In considering the vital role that stories have in relation to the organization of experience, it can be argued that:

1 It is the stories in which we situate our experience that determine’ the meaning that we give to experience.

2 It is these stories that determine the selection of those aspects of experience to be expressed.

3 It is these stories that determine the shape of the expression that we give to those aspects of experience.

4 It is these stories that determine real effects and directions in our lives and in our relationships.

Performance as Shaping

In the foregoing discussion, we have argued that experience structures expression. But it can also be argued that expression structures experience. To quote Dilthey: ‘Our knowledge of what is given in experience is extended through the interpretation of the objectifications of life and their interpretation, in turn, only made possible by plumbing the depths of subjective experience’ (1976: 195). Thus, the stories that we enter into with our experience have real effects on our lives. The expression of our experience through these stories shapes or makes up our lives and our relationships; our lives are shaped or constituted through the very process of the interpretation within the context of the stories that we enter into and that we are entered into by others.

This is not to propose that life is synonymous with text. It is not enough for persons to tell a new story about themselves, or to assert claims about themselves. Instead, the proposition carried by these assertions about the world of experience and narrative is that life is the performance of texts. And it is the performance of these texts that is transformative of persons’ lives; however, these performances must be before relevant audiences or made known by some form of publication. [T]he participants must have confidence in their own authenticity, which is one reason cultures are performed. It is not enough to assert claims; they must be enacted. Stories only become transformative in their performance’ (E. Bruner, 1986a: 25). Thus the idea that lives are situated in texts or stories implies a particular notion of authenticity ‑ that a person arrives at a sense of authenticity in life through the performance of texts. This notion of authenticity may be affronting to many a cherished belief that carries propositions about the ‘truth’ of personhood or of human nature; those beliefs that suggest that, under particular and ideal circumstances of life, persons will be ‘released’ and thus become truly who they are: authentic.

Indeterminate Nature of Stories

If persons’ lives are shaped through the storying of experience and through the performance of these stories, and if there is a limited stock of familial stories about who we might be and of cultural knowledges about personhood, how is it that we are not replicas of one another? Perhaps this question is best approached by considering the interaction of readers and literary texts. To do so would be to extend the text analogy in our attempts to understand more fully the processes involved in the ascription of meaning, and to liken life as lived under the guidance of stories to the reader’s experience under the sway of the literary text. And since good stories are more transformative of the reader’s experience than poor stories, this consideration could bring us to a review of the structure of texts of literary merit.

In following this premise, we believe that Iser, a literary theorist, assists us to find an answer to the question, ‘How is it that we are not replicas of one another?’

fictional texts constitute their own objects and do not copy something already in existence. For this reason they cannot have the full determinacy of real objects, and indeed, it is the element of indeterminacy that evokes the text to ‘communicate’ with the reader, in the sense that they induce him to participate both in the production and the comprehension of this work’s intention. (1978: 21)

It is readily apparent that all stories are indeterminate.’ There is a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty to all stories, and, as well, there are inconsistencies and contradictions. This fact will be appreciated by those who have read a novel that was particularly engaging and then gone to a movie of the same novel, only to find, to their dismay, that the movie director had got it wrong! In such circumstances, what is clear is that the director arrived at a different interpretation of the story through his or her unique negotiation of its indeterminacy.

So literary texts are full of gaps that readers must fill in order for the story to be performed.’ And, in likening the interaction of readers and literary texts to the interaction of persons and the stories they live their lives through, we become more aware of our need to fill the gaps in daily interaction. Just as these gaps in literary texts recruit the lived experience and the imagination of the reader, so do the gaps in the stories that are ‘lived by’ recruit the lived experience and the imagination of people as they engage in performances of meaning under the guidance of the story.

Thus with every performance, persons are re‑authoring their lives and relationships. And every telling encapsulates, but is more than the previous telling. The evolution of lives and relationships of persons is akin to the process of re‑authoring, the process of persons entering into stories with their experience and their imagination, and the process of taking these stories over and making them their own.

The indeterminacy of texts and the constitutive aspect of the performance of texts provide good cause to celebrate. Clifford Geertz quotes Lionel Trilling’s lament, ‘How come it that we start out Originals and end up Copies?’ Upon situating our work in the world of experience and narrative, and in accepting the idea that we must start with a story in order to attribute meaning and give expression to our experience, we would have to reverse Trilling’s question, ‘How come it that we start out Copies and end up Originals?’ To this question Geertz finds an answer that is ‘surprisingly reassuring: it is the copying that originates’ (1986: 380).

We have little choice but to start out with copies. We cannot perform meaning in our lives without situating our experience in stories. Stories are, in the first place, given. However, it is the relative indeterminacy ‑ the ambiguity and uncertainty ‑ of all stories that we can only negotiate through recourse to our lived experience and our imagination. And this requires that we engage in a process of ‘origination’.

So what might be the effects on a person’s interpretation of events in his or her life. if the story that framed, selected, and determined the meaning given to those events was oppressive and authored by perpetrators of child sexual or physical abuse? Kamsler (1990), referring specifically to child sexual abuse, noted a number of ‘story‑telling’ practices associated with it that deny the abused their own ‘story‑telling rights’:’

(1) it is usually the case that the perpetrator of the abuse has overtly or covertly conveyed to the victim the message that she was to blame for being abused…. (2) the perpetrator will often actively promote secrecy by enforcing it with the child or young woman so that she is divided from other family members, (3) and the various ways in which perpetrator exerted control over the child … may promote the development of habitual responses of fear and panic in intimacy relationships when she becomes an adult. (1990: 17‑18)

And furthermore, what difference would it make if a person who had been situated in an oppressive ‘story’ ‑ being told –found herself either to be entitled to her own ‘story‑telling rights’ or to have them restored and be enabled to tell her own life and become her own author?

Rose’s Revisioning of her Life’

From here on, Rose and I request that you prepare yourself for a different set of ‘reader responses’ as the genres become blurred. If fact and fiction are read differently, how best might you approach ‘faction’? The following is an example of a ‘re‑authoring therapy’ but that process will be briefly described elsewhere so as not to intrude. So reader, can you find some way that suits you to divest yourself of those ‘reader responses’ required by academic texts? Perhaps you might set this book down for a while in order to break your train of thought and return to it later. For Rose and I offer you the opportunity of having an experience of your own as you engage with her experience of entering her life’s events in an ‘alternative’ story, a frame of reference at great variance with the ‘dominant’ story of her life. Louis Mink argues that ‘It is clear that we cannot refer to events as such, but only to events under a description; so there can be more than one description of the same event, all of them true but referring to different aspects of the event or describing it at different levels of generality. But what can we possibly mean by “same event”?’ (1978: 145‑6). What we could possibly mean by the same event was more than just a historiographical problem for Rose and me. For how Rose ‘reads’ her life ‑ under the guidance of either the ‘dominant’ story or the therapeutically co‑created ‘alternative’ story ‑ will prove to have considerable bearing on whether she lives or takes her life, and how she lives that life she chooses to keep.

The re‑authoring will be represented to you, reader, by way of those ‘letters’ I (David Epston) provided for her summarizing our meetings, and excerpts from the transcript of the fourth and final meeting six months later. I have taken some liberties here, deleting many of my questions and linking some of her answers. So, reader, are you ready to proceed with my account of Rose’s revisioning of her experience as it is brought to life through language?

Rose’s employer rang me. I was informed that despite her compunctions and regret, she had no other option than to terminate Rose’s employment as a receptionist/video‑camera operator at a busy advertising agency. She only too willingly acknowledged that Rose possessed obvious capabilities. Still, it seemed that whenever Rose was required to attend to a request in addition to an uncompleted task, she would ‘crack up’ and dissolve into tears. Her employer drew my attention to the fact that Rose had a genius for food preparation, something she was required to do during a ,shoot’. She had endeavoured to find Rose alternative employment in catering until it dawned on her how impossible that would be. Catering is a task, she commented, that would subject Rose to both urgent and multiple demands. She also told me that Rose had a long history of losing jobs for the same reason. Rose’s employer was ringing because Rose had become inconsolable on being dismissed and she was very concerned for her well‑being. I suggested she provide Rose with my phone number and that I would do my best to meet with her immediately.

Rose and I met a day later. There was a sense of quiet desperation about Rose as she recounted her dismal employment history. She did acknowledge that she had a long‑standing ambition to become a chef but discounted that, given the demanding nature of the work. She seemed so forlorn that I asked if there was anything more to her ‘problem’ than that. She grinned ruefully and nodded. ‘There’s more to it. I don’t have a base inside myself.’ I inquired, ‘Do you feel like a fake person, hollow on the inside?’ She greeted this description enthusiastically as if the linguistic resources I proffered her came as something of a relief. I went on to say, ‘There must be a story behind this. Do you feel like telling me about it?’ She sighed and grinned at the same time, ‘That’s what I’ve come for…. I just can’t go on any longer like this.’ We embarked upon a story‑telling with the role of narrator‑reflector shared between us. My reflecting questions and her answering led her story through time in addition to disengaging her from entering into her father’s story.

His authorship over her experience of his physical abuse had been compelling, given his hegemonic parenthood in addition to his moral sanction as a parish minister in a fundamentalist Christian church. The latter particularly confounded her as his parishioners would regularly comment after church services on her good fortune to have such ‘a good and kind man’ for a father. Her mother was a bystander to this violence, who defended her silence as the only way she had available to her to contain her husband’s violence towards their children. Still Rose felt very bitter towards her, even though she acknowledged that her mother took the action to divorce him when she was thirteen, insisting that Rose be sent away to a distant boarding school. This action was without precedent among her co‑religionists.

An ‘alternative’ account was written up from my notes, taken during the meeting and forwarded to her by post.

Dear Rose,

It was a very pleasing experience to meet up with you and hear some of your story, a story of both protest and survival against what you understood to be an attempt to destroy your life. And you furthered that protest yesterday by coming and telling me that story. I would imagine that you had not been able to tell anyone for fear of being disbelieved. I feel privileged that you shared it with me and hope that sharing it relieved you of some of its weight. I can see how such a history could have left you the legacy you described ‑ a sense of not seeming ‘to have a base’. How could you under the circumstances of your growing up when your home ‑ most people’s base ‑ was the site of your father’s attempt at disappearing you? No wonder you are currently finding life difficult and have mixed feelings about trusting relationships with men. I consider this inevitable under the circumstances. And no wonder, despite all your abilities, talents, and personal attributes that are so obvious to others with whom you have come into contact in the course of your life, you feel somewhat hollow and ‘fake’ on the inside. No wonder you feel like caving in when you experience other people’s demands on you!

You tell me that you were the third of four children, born to a father who ‘didn’t want children’ and since he had them, insisted on ,obedience’ to his rule and the Victorian child‑rearing policy that ‘children should be seen but not heard’. From the beginning, you had some life force that refused to buckle under and submit to his authority.

You paid dearly for your vocal nature and were physically beaten for it. Still you refused to deny yourself, even though you came to feel that he was out to destroy you. From what you tell me, he was moody, controlled, violent, self‑important, and holier than Thou. In some ways, it must have been a relief to get sent away to boarding school, even though that resulted from your parents’ separation.

It seems to me that you are entitled to your resentments towards your mother for not protecting you more. However, I suspect that you don’t know the full extent to which your mother endured violence and intimidation. After a certain degree of abuse, the abused person often starts to believe they deserve it. Also your father had a moral sanction, arising from his work. Some day, I believe your mother will confide in you more suffering than you know. And she may have been right that the only course open to her was to silently sit by because if she opposed him, he would have redoubled the severity of your beatings. I wonder if she has some story that is too terrible to reveal, perhaps even to herself ?

Despite your father’s attempts to rub you out, you ruthlessly opposed him. You did this in the face of his public image as ‘a good man’. You could easily have taken his opinion of you and dismissed your own. If you had, my guess is that you would not be here today. Some special wisdom must have informed you that he was bad, not you. If not, how were you able to see through his hypocrisy?

At 18, you returned to your father, thinking perhaps he would now be able to appreciate you, an appreciation you so richly deserved. You were to discover, probably not surprisingly, that ‘you can’t expect anything approaching a caring father‑daughter relationship’. Still, you were able to distinguish between his inadequacies and your self. This was a critical distinction, one that I believe has been life saving for you.

Although it must have been very difficult, you were able to create for yourself a very good personhood. You must have had a lot of courage to travel abroad for 41/2 years and ‘survive’, as you put it. Surviving in such circumstances proved to you once and for all that you had ‘grit’. You were able to experience some pride in yourself for having managed so well. You said that when ‘I am up against the wall, something makes me get going … a survival instinct’. I believe that your ‘survival instinct’ is your life force, a force that never submitted to your father’s disciplines and ruthlessness. That life force added a lot to itself during your travels. I wonder if it was then that you became more substantial as a person and started believing in yourself?

Was it then that you started seeing yourself through others’ eyes rather than through your father’s eyes? When was it that you no longer accepted your father’s definition of yourself as ‘garbage’?

It must have happened sometime or other; otherwise, you would have gone around looking for garbage collectors and a dump for them to throw you on! Somehow or other, you were able to keep your own picture of yourself alive.

And you rejected that widely shared myth that women solve their problems by being ‘rescued by men’. I guess you must have found that difficult to swallow, given your history with your father. I was also impressed by your unwillingness to seek sympathy or special concessions. You have determined to see your own way through this and to make yourself up into the person you want to be. It was interesting to note that you start appreciating yourself most when you are on your own.

I wonder if seeing your two older siblings make up their own lives, despite the violence they suffered at your father’s hands, has inspired you with the hope necessary for you to do the same? Obviously they had some advantages in finding partners at an early age who must have really appreciated them, so they could appreciate themselves.

1 suggested that you might like to be curious how your older siblings were able to construct viable, loving relationships, ones in which they were able to realize themselves as ‘good’ persons. Another question you might like to entertain is this: Why didn’t you fall for your father’s type?

1 look forward to meeting you again to assist you to write a new history of the events in your life, a new history that could predict a very different kind of future than your old history.

Yours sincerely, David

We met a month later. Nothing could have prepared me for what had transpired in the interval. Two days after receiving the letter, Rose had applied for a job as a sous‑chef and was not only successful but so impressed the owner/chef that he had invited her to take over sole responsibility while he took his holidays. On his return, she had been made head chef. She now felt her life was ‘on the right track’ and that she ‘had made a start on it’. She had renewed her relationship with her mother and now felt both a sympathy for her and a new connectedness. She had also rung up all her siblings and met with them, one at a time, over the letter. They all legitimated her experiences of physical abuse, and took her side to the extent that they advised her to break off all contact with their father, as the two eldest siblings had done. She took her own advice here and decided to keep her relationship with her father open. Rose was radiant and witty as she contemplated her future, a future she was now anticipating. This meeting was summarized in the following letter.

Dear Rose,

Reading the letter, which provided you with a different story, seems to have led to ‘a sense of relief … it was normal I had problems … it wasn’t my fault … I had previously felt weak and vulnerable … and that I should have got it all together by now.’ Instead, you began to appreciate more fully that ‘I felt I had made a start … I was definitely on the right track.’ And I suspect now that you are realizing that you have been on the ‘right track’ for some time now; if not, as you put it, you would have become ‘disillusioned … and ended my life’. Well, there is a lot of life in you and it is there for all to see!

In a spectacular advancement several days after we met, you applied for a job as a chef and in no way permitted ‘terror to stop me’, put yourself on the line, and discovered much to your satisfaction, that you are very competent, so much so that you were requested to take over the restaurant while your employer has been on holiday. You feel you have been able to learn a lot in a short time and that this may be the career you have been looking for. As you put it, ‘I’m realizing I have all these opportunities … and I am just beginning.’ I can see that you have just opened a door and there is a lot of room to explore there.

Feeling so accomplished, you were then able to appreciate your mother’s contribution to your abilities. She too ‘had an enquiring mind … an appreciation of other cultures … it was something from within her’. Despite this, ‘she still didn’t have much self‑confidence’ but then again, what would she have become if your father, as you put it, didn’t ‘treat her like a door mat?’

You were also able to discuss some personal matters with your brother and sisters and they concurred with the letter. Their advice to you was to reject your father as they have. I believe your approach is more courageous and will have more embracing results. Still, it must have been satisfying for them to side with your story and perhaps, because of this, you have obviously been able to see yourself through others’ eyes. The result of that is for you to appreciate yourself more and to develop a more comfortable relationship with yourself.

From here, you proposed that ‘I feel I have to take some time out and work on Rose . . . I want her to grow … I want her to be strong and independent.’ You proposed a month of consolidation rather than further experiment, especially in relation to your competence in your new career, to develop more self‑appreciation, to experience fully your success and that degree of success is ‘enough for now’, and to resist the temptation of loneliness to drive you into an unsatisfactory relationship. Here you will have to challenge yet again the cultural myth that women complete themselves in relationship to men.

1 will be very interested to meet you next time to hear of your further adventures. It was a very pleasing experience for me to hear how much you are pleasing yourself and how far you have come in such a short time.

Best wishes, David

We met another month later and Rose was more full of life than ever. She had taken charge of the restaurant and had expanded her range of catering abilities. She expressed great caution about a relationship with a man she had met, as she reported her determination to fashion a different kind of relationship from her previous ones, in which she had ‘felt drained’. ‘I understand what mistakes I’ve made. I have been giving my power away and making myself available for abuse by not taking responsibility for myself.’ She said she had decided to evaluate this relationship as it went and to sustain her self‑respect by communicating her own needs and desires: ‘I am going to decide if this relationship is positive for me as a person. . . . I no longer will be diminished. I am actively working at not letting it happen. I feel so much better about myself.’

Six months after our first meeting, I invited Rose to join me as a consultant to others’ and followed the protocol outlined in Epston and White (1990).

Therapy is concluded with an invitation to persons to attend a special meeting with the therapist so that the knowledges that have been resurrected and/or generated in therapy can be documented. The knowledges will include those alternative and preferred knowledges about self, others and relationships and those knowledges of problem‑solving that have enabled persons to liberate their lives. (1990: 29)

‘A consultant to others’ implicates an audience, and those audiences that are recruited contribute to the authentication of the person’s preferred claims derived from rendering his or her life’s events meaningful according to the ‘alternative’ story. And reader, you have become a member of that audience. Rose herself was provided with both audio‑taped and transcribed versions of this consultation, from which the following is an edited excerpt.

DE: Can I ask ‑ what difference did it make to you having your story available to you, do you think?

Rose: It helped me understand what had happened and possibly why it had happened … my reactions to what had happened and the end result. Looking at it and following it through gave me a sense of relief and understanding…. It was a relief that it wasn’t my fault … that there were things that had happened to me as a child and I had been basically reacting ever since…. A lot of the negative feelings I had about myself had been enforced when I was younger by a parent figure (father?). And I took that attitude, consciously or unconsciously, and continued to think that way about myself. Having the story gave me a point of reference to look back at, to read it through, to think about it and form my own opinions from what we had discussed and draw my own conclusions. I remember getting the letter from the letter box, making myself a nice cup of tea, sitting down and reading it. I had feelings of ‘Yes … that’s it . . . that’s the whole story!’ Thinking about it, re‑reading it … and feeling a lot better about myself, possibly understanding myself and possibly what direction I wanted to go in. Without it, I think I’d still be confused . . . I know I’d still be confused and have the same feelings of inadequacy as a person and not knowing why I felt the way I did.

DE: How did having your own story validate you? If you had felt you were a fake, phoney, hollow, nothing inside of you, not a true person, how did you legitimate yourself so quickly?

Rose: It was a number of things. I think I had all these suspicions floating around and I wasn’t too sure what was real, what was right, what was following through and what wasn’t. Possibly having my own story helped me to find out my own attitude and thoughts. And from that so much grew … I just immediately started feeling so much better about myself. I started feeling I had validity. And that I had so many untapped opportunities that I had been too frightened to look at or thought I didn’t have a right to them. Basically feeling so much better about myself allowed me to consider a very different kind of future for myself. If this hadn’t happened, I would have remained a very unhappy person. I had got to the stage that I didn’t want to go out there again and compete and have another go at finding employment. I’d got to the point where it was make or break about living. Either I did something about it … or I’d pull the pin and forget about living…. Ultimately, I think because I separated myself, in my case, from my father’s opinions of who I was and formed my own opinion of who and what I was. I realized the danger of being made up by others. I had to make myself up although I think other people contributed to it. They weren’t the people I expected or counted on and there is a real sense … a lot of feelings about all that ‑ anger, resentment … a lot of pain. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to accept … accept? Accept isn’t quite the right word … understand and leave it behind.

1 summarized this ‘consultation’ once again by letter:

Dear Rose,

1 am just writing to thank you for sharing your ‘knowledge’ with me and for your willingness to make it available to others. It has also added to my stock of ‘knowledge’ and has certainly encouraged me to pursue further the idea of the significance of people having their own ‘story’ rather than their abuser’s ‘story’. I can’t tell you how struck I was that once you had a ‘story’ that was truer to your own experience of the events in your life, you filled in yourself that ‘base’ that you had described to me earlier as lacking. To some extent, I see you as having made yourself up and having done so, were then able to realize many of those abilities that were there for everyone to see, but invisible and unavailable to you. Once you saw yourself through your own eyes, you started to see yourself as others see you. It was very pleasing for me to have witnessed you taking up a more comfortable relationship with yourself and to see you realizing many of your capabilities. As time goes by, I would imagine that there will be more of this. If you have the wish to keep in touch with these developments, I would be glad to hear from you.

Best wishes for a future of your own design.

Yours sincerely, David

A Re‑authoring Therapy: Premises and Practices

This therapy is premised on an idea that lives and relationships of persons are shaped by the very knowledges and stories that persons use to give meaning to their experiences, and certain practices of self or of relationship that are associated with these knowledges and stories. A re‑authoring therapy intends to assist persons to resolve problems by: (1) enabling them to separate their lives and relationships from knowledges/stories that are impoverishing; (2) assisting them to challenge practices of self and relationship that are subjugating; and (3) encouraging persons to re‑author their lives according to alternative knowledges/stories and practices of self and relationship that have preferred outcomes.

Externalising the problem’ as one of living according to her father’s story of her, Rose and I soon came to realize that a great deal of her lived experience could not be accommodated by the ‘dominant’ story. Many events in her life, seen through her eyes or the eyes of others, just wouldn’t fit and thus Rose had been unable to acknowledge or register them. The translation of experience into meaning was ‘pre‑figured‘ by the extant narrative with certain events ascribed as meaningful and others unregistered as meaningless. The performance of her life according to the ‘dominant’ story led her to self‑reproach and self‑blame in relation to herself as a person and to fear and self‑doubt in relation to the enactment of her own capabilities. An ‘alternative’ story became very plausible as ‘unique outcomes’ were identified and new meanings performed around them and the ‘dominant’ story began to be revisioned.” Rose recruited her own audiences for purposes of authentication, as did the ‘consulting to others’ meeting.


‘Take charge of your life’, ‘Be the person you’ve always wanted to be’, ‘Declare your independence’. The slogans of popular psychology books can be seen to grant the potential to mould oneself into the person one desires to be, in spite of what one imagines others think.‘ Is re‑authoring therapy another version of this culture of self‑reconstruction? Some consideration of this question is important in placing this clinical practice in a broader social realm.

The first obvious difference between re‑authoring therapy and popular psychology concerns their respective media. Though reauthoring therapy draws on the power of textual documents, it is carried out under the gaze of the therapist as a helping service, whereas popular psychology appears to be largely a consumer product that is taken home and performed in the private act of reading. This is a difference between a dialogical process, in which oneself is reflected in the eyes of the other, and a monological process, in which the only audience for oneself is oneself.” This distinction is a little blurred: the reader of popular psychology texts does have some relationship with the author, albeit an abstracted one. None the less, the author of a self‑help manual is unlikely to respond to the ways in which the book’s advice is taken up by a particular reader. The presence of a person who witnesses one’s own responses is what seems here to distinguish psychotherapy from the self‑analysis of reading popular psychology. The significance of this difference rests on the necessity of having one’s change recognized by a legitimate audience. In popular psychology, it is enough to introduce the book’s themes into one’s own private narrative, whereas re‑authoring therapy partly involves setting up an audience in which forms of change can be authenticated.

For example, in David Epston’s letter to Rose he writes: ‘it must have been satisfying for them [Rose’s family] to side with your story and perhaps because of this, you have obviously been able to see yourself through others’ eyes. The result of that is for you to appreciate yourself more and to develop a more comfortable relationship with yourself.’ Here a family is organized as a mirror in which to compel the client to accept a more powerful self‑narrative. This dimension of practice in re‑authoring therapy raises particular questions for an understanding of what is involved in practices of self‑transformation. To what degree does re‑authoring therapy diverge from recent developments in psychoanalysis which place emphasis on the reconstruction of self‑narratives?

Over the past two decades, American psychoanalysts have been introducing the phenomenon of narrative into their understanding of the therapeutic process. Roy Schafer and Donald Spence are two psychoanalysts in the forefront of this development. Schafer (1978) has examined how psychoanalysis is constituted in narrative form ‑ as comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. According to Schafer, narrative form provides a vehicle for fundamental dimensions of human nature, such as the malleability of character, the compatibility of individual and society, and potential for happiness in life. What the introduction of narrative does for psychoanalysis in Schafer’s theory is to make those assumptions appear as matters of choice rather than essential components of theory. Differently narrativized versions of psychoanalysis may suit different contexts: for example, comic psychoanalysis suits a social work situation, whereas ironic psychoanalysis is more appropriate for long‑term analysis. For Schafer, anyone who employs psychoanalysis chooses more than a picture of reality ‑ they also implicate themselves in an ethical vision.

As a theorist Spence (1982) is less concerned that Schafer with the formal narrative structures involved in the therapeutic process. His emphasis is on the skills of the analyst in finding the appropriate structures in language for expressing the unconscious anxieties of the analysand. Spence names this quality ‘narrative truth’. Narrative truth is not a literal representation of the past, but rather it is a picture that by virtue of its ‘aesthetic finality’ gathers unrecognized experiences into a manageable whole. Spence presents a truth that is measured by its therapeutic effect, rather than its accuracy. This introduction of narrative brings to the fore the creative skills of the analyst in making up a good story.

The narrative psychoanalysis represented in the world of Schafer and Spence concerns itself with a refusal of the classical paradigm of historical truth within psychoanalysis. Rather than a specific set of truths revealed in analysis, it is the particular ‘form’ in which that truth emerges which is seen to contain the healing potential. It is this form which most sharply distinguishes narrative psychoanalysis from ‘re‑authoring therapy’. The factors at play in the psychoanalytic setting are limited to the clinic. This limitation is at one with the general framework of psychological healing which is to see the problem mainly ‘in the head’ of the client: if you look at the problem differently, it will be alleviated. Though this interpretation does not do justice to the sophistication of the narrative psychoanalytic approach, it does form a major difference between it and ‘re‑authoring therapy’. The emphasis in Spence on the use of psychoanalysis in finding a ‘home’ for experience in language looks at language outside of its everyday dialogical setting ‑ it doesn’t seem to matter if no one else but the analysand and the analyst understand the problem.

One can argue that the approaches of both narrative psychoanalysis and popular psychology are fundamentally limited to this narrow context. If one looks at agency as a resource that is distributed by others ‑ being granted the right to speak ‑ then what others think of oneself must be taken into account; it is not sufficient simply to change one’s own picture of oneself privately; one must in addition have a convincing picture to show others.‘

It is this dialogical principle which also conditions the nature of re‑authoring therapy. To a certain degree, the ideology of such a therapy stresses the freedom of the individual to construct his or her own life. Such therapy states as one of its ideological principles that it is giving freedom to the individual to construct his or her own life story.” With all freedoms there is necessarily some exclusion that makes them possible: a negative makes a positive. This limitation can be found in the dialogical context. One can ask: why is it that their new story is credited by their conversational group? What do others have to gain from this accreditation? These are questions which seem to rest an inch from the nose of most accounts of therapy yet, because of that, pass largely unnoticed. The criteria by which an audience will accept a client’s claim to have changed through therapy is a form of what Gergen (1989) calls ‘the conditions of warrant’. Change in this sense is a licence that must be purchased from an audience in forms of currency that are seen as legitimate. Personal change is a restricted economy. It is one of the sparks of genius particularly to re‑authoring therapy that it recognizes the power of the text to authenticate forms of personal change.‘

This development creates a space in which other forms of family therapy might follow. What is primary is a sensitivity to what it means for a person to ‘change’ in the group context. In certain Australian families, for instance, the experience of being overseas is seen to provide a legitimate demonstration of the capacities of its members (White and Epston, 1990). Travel here operates as a rite of passage that is customized by families according to their social location. At its extreme, a child is not acknowledged to be capable of an independent life until he or she has been able to return home with stories of trials in foreign settings. Such stories usually make a point that relates to the conversation between members of that family about human nature. For instance, one conversation might concern the question of whether deep down people are the same or different. A child who returns home with evidence about this in his or her experience of exotic peoples can be seen to contribute to the conversation that maintains the family The child participates in what Bruner (1987) describes as the ‘meshing’ that incorporates different points of view within the kind of conversation that brings families to the same table.” Here it is possible to examine change within the dialogical context provided by the family: change is acknowledged when it contributes to the moral picture of the family. The implication of this for family therapy is to extend the kind of sensitivity to the dialogical setting evident in re‑authoring therapy to the importance of understanding the narrative ecology that already exists within the family ‑ it is to use the family not only as audience, but also as editors and script‑writers.

Re‑authoring therapy exists as a licence to move outside the abstract relations which typify established therapeutic interventions. To this extent, it is not just telling a story, it is also listening to the audience.


The introductory discussion and Rose’s narrative are by David Epston and Michael White; the commentary (pp. 109‑12) by Kevin Murray.

1. This is excerpted from M. White (1989/90).

2. Victor Turner wrote that these expressions are ‘the crystallized secretions of once living experience’ (1982: 17).

3. By arguing for the proposal about the extent to which stories determine the meaning attributed to experience, we are not suggesting that the context of our lives is single‑storied. Rather, we believe that the context of our lives is multi‑storied. There is a range of alternative stories for the interpretation of experience in which we and others may situate our lives. Also, despite this assertion about the storydetermined nature of meaning, it turns out (as discussed later) that all such stories are, in fact, indeterminate.

4. When discussing the performance aspects of ritual process, Turner states: ‘The term ‑performance” is, of course derived from Old English parfournu, literally, “to furnish completely or thoroughly”. To perform is thus to bring something about, to consummate something, or to “carry out” a play, order, or project. But in the carrying out, I hold, something new may be generated. The performance transforms itself’ (1980: 160).

5. Turner (1980), when discussing the ritual process, relates indeterminacy to the subjunctive mood of verb: ‘Indeterminacy is, so to speak, in the subjunctive mood, since it is that which is not yet settled, concluded, or known. It is all that may be, might be, could be, perhaps even should be. . . . Sally Falk Moore goes so far as

to suggest that “the underlying quality of social life should be considered to be one of theoretical absolute indeterminacy.” ‘ The relation of indeterminacy to the subjunctive mood is also discussed by J. Bruner (1986).

6. For further discussion of those aspects of the structure of stories that encourage the reader to enter the story, to take it over and make it their own, see J. Bruner (1986).

7. This phrase is taken from Shuman, 1986.

8. For another case study that has parallels to the following, see Epston (1989b) with a 41/2‑year follow‑up ‘consultation’ (Epston, 1989a).

9. ‘Externalizing is an approach to therapy that encourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive. In this process, the problem becomes a separate entity and thus external to the person or relationship that was ascribed as the problem. Those problems that are considered to be inherent, as well as those relatively fixed qualities that are attributed to persons and to relationships, are rendered less fixed and less restricting. . . . The externalizing of the problem enables persons to separate from the dominant stories that have been shaping their lives and relationships. In so doing, persons are able to identify previously neglected but vital aspects of lived experiences ‑ aspects that could not have been predicted from a reading of the dominant story. Thus, following Goffman (1961), I have referred to these aspects of experience as ‘unique outcomes’ (White, 1989a,b). . . . As unique outcomes are identified, persons can be encouraged to engage in performances of meaning in relation to these. Success with this requires that the unique outcome be plotted into an alternative story about the person’s life.’ (White and Epston, 1990: 38‑41)

10. Hayden White (1973) makes a historiographical case that histories are ‘prefigured’ by their narratives. E. Bruner makes a similar point on doing ethnography: ‘In my view, we began with a narrative that already contains a beginning and an ending, which frame and hence enable us to interpret the present. It is not that we initially have a body of data, the facts, and we then must construct a story or theory to account for them. Instead . . . the narrative structures we construct are not secondary narratives about data but primary narratives that establish what is to count as data. New narratives yield new vocabulary, syntax, and meaning in our ethnographic accounts; they define what constitute the data of those accounts’ (1986b: 143).

11. Patraka defines revisioning from a feminist perspective: ‘Rich defines “ReVision” as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, entering an old text from a new critical direction” until women can “understand the assumptions in which we are drenched‑ in order to know ourselves (1979: 35). To give speech to what has been requires describing, naming and reinterpreting past reality. To change what is calls for an analysis of the sources of that reality and the reasons for its persistence’ (1983: 1).

12. For a more detailed discussion of the values of popular psychology texts, see Murray (1986).

13. This difference is articulated at length in the discourse of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1981).

14. The work of Erving Goffman (1968) in mental institutions can be used as a demonstration of the role of the audience in controlling the kind of agency one has in a situation.

15. The most significant principle that seems to inform the practice of ‘reauthoring therapy’ is self‑fashioning. This is a concept initially popular in the dramaturgists of the Renaissance and now re‑discovered by readers of Foucault’s histories of sexuality. Its most extreme form is found in the performances of artists, who shape their lives into a work of art. Rather than see a life, as under Freud, as being a quest for a certain knowledge about oneself, which when found transforms one’s existence, a life is looked at as a material to be fashioned according to whatever aesthetic or ethical principles seem fit. One of the criticisms of this principle is that it assumes that our condition of being is one of complete freedom. As such it ignores our debt to structures of meaning such as myths and language. 16. White and Epston (1990) contains reports of the seriousness with which clients took the therapist’s letters ‑ carrying them around and showing them off to others.

17. This claim is based on thus far unpublished research on travel talk (K. Murray, ‘Life as fiction: the making sense of personal change’, Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne).

18. Jerome Bruner’s (1987) account of the conversational dynamics of the ‘Goodhertz’ family provides a subtle example of how a family might develop a discursive ecology which both individuates and binds family members.


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Bruner, E. (1986a) ‘Experience and its expressions’, in V. Turner and E. Bruner (eds), The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Bruner, E. (1986b) ‘Ethnography as narrative’, in V. Turner and E. Bruner (eds), The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds: Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1987) ‘Life as narrative’, Social Research, 54: 11‑32.

Dilthey, W. (1976) Dilthey: Selected Writings, ed. H. Rickman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Epston, D. (1989a) ‘Marisa revisits’, in D. Epston, Collected Papers. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Epston, D. (1989b) ‘Writing Your History’, in D. Epston, Collected Papers.

Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Epston, D. and White, M. (1990) ‘Consulting your consultants: the documentation of alternative knowledge’, Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 4.

Geertz, C. (1986) ‘Making experiences, authoring selves’, in V. Turner and E. Bruner (eds), The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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Goffman, E. (1968) Asylums. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Harré, R. (1983) Personal Being: a Theory for Individual Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Mink, L. (1978) ‘Narrative form as a cognitive instrument’, in R.H. Canary and H. Kozicki (eds), The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding. Madison, WL University of Wisconsin Press.

Murray, K. (1986) ‘Finding literary paths: the work of popular life constructors’, in T.R. Sarbin (ed.), Narrative Psychology: the Storied Nature of Human Conduct. New York: Praeger.

Patraka, V. (1983) ‘Introduction’, in V. Patraka and Louise A. Tilly (eds), Feminist Re‑visions: What Has Been and Might Be. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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White, M. (1989/90) ‘Family therapy training and supervision in a world of experience and narrative’, Dulwich Centre Newsletter (Adelaide), Summer.

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The Construction of Identity in the Narratives of Romance and Comedy

Kevin Murray ‘The construction of identity in the narratives of romance and comedy’ Texts of Identity In J.Shotter & K.Gergen (eds.)  London: Sage (1988)

The business of this chapter is to explore the thesis that both personal and social identity are constructed by finding stories to tell about the self. Harré’s theory of personal being is recruited as the theoretical base for this assertion. Popular psychology and conversation are seen as providing access to the resources necessary for the construction of identity. How these resources are employed in the lives of individuals is investigated in the choices to run a marathon and to travel. Before commencing this task, though, I will introduce some of the issues that make the thesis of the narrative construction of identity significant.

Narrative and Life

The relationship between narrative and life has been subject to much questioning in contemporary culture. An example of this is a recent film’ which tells of an affair between two characters. The woman is a member of a cinema audience, and the man has escaped from the world of the screen to enter real life. As romance between these characters builds, they embrace for their first kiss. After a few seconds, though, the woman notices the man’s growing hesitancy. She asks him what the matter is. His reply is that he is only accustomed to kissing in films, and the lovers’ kiss alway’s fades out on screen; he does not know how to go any further. The film continues to explore the misreadings of the real world that occur when acting according to its supposedly mimetic represent a t ion on the screen. This play on the intersection between the real and the fictional world indicates at a popular level a similar concert] with the status of narrative in the way our world is actually lived as is found in some recent developments in the social sciences.

Narrative representation as a way of making sense of tile world has become an issue in various disciplines. Many literary critics have seen the realm of literature as allowing for the construction of models of the world of experience in ways that guide our actions (e.g. Frye, 1957; Hernnstein‑Smith, 1978; Price, 1983). In the discipline of history, Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) proposes the general thesis that, when historians provide an account of the past, they are partly concerned with finding a plot according to which the events can be ordered in a meaningful sequence. Exploring this notion further, philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur (1983, 1985) have been concerned with the manner in which our very experience of time is dependent on the narrative structures that we impose on experience. In political science, Frederic Jameson (1981) has proposed an interpretive scheme which claims that ideological systems are produced in part by the workings of narrative structures. Even in architecture, one finds the concern with fiction expressed in the young London‑based group called Narrative Architecture Today (NATO), which, rather than attending to the formal properties of design, focuses on the possibilities of experience created by buildings. In each of these cases, theorists are concerned with the way our mode of living reflects the representational structures that are imposed on our experience. As such, these approaches reflect a post‑modern concern with the nature of reflexivity: how our worlds are governed by our designs, and the abysses in time and space created in this process.

Although much of contemporary psychology still concerns itself with mechanistic models of human behaviour, there are fields of research such as action psychology (see Harré et al., 1985) which allow reflexivity to be entertained as having a role in individual lives. Later this entrance for narrative into psychology will be considered, but we should begin with its initial entry through the back door of psychoanalysis. Roy Schafer (1976) claimed that psychoanalytic therapy involved the restructuring of a person’s sense of the past so that it would make a more cohesive narrative. The aim of the therapy was to find a place for the analysand at the centre of this reconstructed life narrative.

While Schafer’s approach is instructive, it is constrained in a way that this chapter seeks to avoid. This limit is found in Schafer’s account of the factors that govern the process of employment in therapy. Apart from the agreement between the constructed story and certain ungrounded ‘visions of the world’, such as the ironic focus of psychoanalysis,2 his theory lacks a detailed exposition of ‑the dynamic process of finding a place for the self in a narrative.

How a storied sense of self plays a part in development is explicated more fully in recent approaches to this issue. Theodore :Sarbin (1986) proposed that mechanism as a root metaphor in psychology be replaced by narrative. Sarbin draws on both literary and psychological material to demonstrate the fundamental role of narrative in our making sense of the world, especially when this activity is sensitive to context. And, as Kenneth and Mary Gergen propose, it is regarding the construction of self in a social context that the use of narrative has much to offer (Gergen and Gergen, 1988). Here, stories seem to enable others to share one’s point of view. As a recent writer in this field states, ‘when we understand someone, we understand his or her stories’ (Keen, 1986). It is this concern with how one’s story relates to the social order that allows us to progress beyond the individualistic account of narrative construction provided by Schafer. Later in the chapter, I will attempt to establish how two forms of narrative enable this social construction of identity.

Why narrative should be the medium in which a social sense of self is constructed can be explained by contrast to the other modes of understanding. Jerome Bruner (1986) distinguishes the narrative mode of understanding from the more abstract scientific mode, which he calls the paradigmatic. While the paradigmatic mode is best for making sense according to principles that abstract from context. narrative understanding carries the weight of context, which therefore makes it a better medium for relating human experience and the contradictions that that entails. According to Bruner’s argument. therefore, encapsulating experience in the form of a story enables it to make sense in the interpersonal sphere. A further enquiry I ry into the dynamics involved in this process, although of great interest, is beyond the scope of this chapter. Rather, my analysis will assume that narrative adapts experience to the social context of meaning, and will pursue the implications of this in theories of identity.

Theory and Identity

A theory of identity is required which can accommodate the narrative construction of self. Initially, one might look to a branch of attribution theory. Implicit Personality Theory (Wegner and Vallacher, 1981) seems a good candidate because of its emphasis on the constructive processes involved in identity formation.

Implicit Personality Theory concentrates mainly on the ways in which individuals create and test hypotheses concerning the behaviour of others. It is assumed that these individuals use theories about other people as a means of predicting and therefore controlling their social environment. In the practice of assigning certain traits to people, the individual differs little in nature from the psychologist. Both use tested theories of the world to predict consistent patterns of behaviour. The sense of self that follows from this is simply a reflection of one’s own theories about others. However, rather than attempting to predict one’s behaviour, one attempts to create information about oneself that will fulfil one’s self‑theory. In discovering a match between self‑theory and information about oneself, one gains self‑esteem. The notion of self as autonomous creator of theories that predict others’ behaviour and make sense of one’s own identity would seem to be a pure example of a paradigmatic understanding of identity. Thus, despite the constructivist assumptions of Implicit Personality Theory, the processes it posits as the logic of identity formation are unsympathetic to the narrative mode.

A different type of constructivist theory of identity is presented by Rom Harré (1983). In contrast to Implicit Personality Theory, Harré’s conceptualization of personal being imbeds the self in the social context, which suggests a greater role for the narrative understanding of self. Although Harré is concerned with the relation between self and theory, he does not see the self as origin of theory. Rather, self is a product of theory. Harré thus reverses the relation between self and theory proposed by Implicit Personality Theory. At the same time, he uses in a different sense: he employs the term “theory” not as an abstract principle, but as a rule derived from the moral order. Given the different logical statuses of ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements, therefore, these theories should be selected not on their testability, but on their place in the wider social context. An example of such a ‘theory’ is the medieval moral principle that those who help themselves will find that they can achieve more than if they rely on others. This theory is less successful in predicting the actions of others than in providing a guide to living a ‘good’ life. Harré extends this argument to account for the Western sense of self, not in the autonomous consciousness of one’s thoughts and actions, but in the referential grid of social time and space to be found first in the grammatical relations between persons. Persons are therefore made partly by the modes of ‘talk’ found in the social order.


Figure 1. Rom Harré’s psychological dimensions

To gain a sense of identity in Harré’s scheme, one needs to find a place for oneself in the social al order. Harré maps this process out on a two‑dimensional grid (see Figure 1) which contains axes of display and realization. The development of identity begins in the appropriation of ‘theories’ from the social order. This process is enabled by a psychological symbiosis between the future person (child) and a competent social actor (parent) ‑ so ‘theories’ contained in the collective‑public quadrant are incorporated into the private world of individual thoughts and action. The sense of identity provided by these ‘theories’ is found in the metaphoric relations between them and one’s own experiences; thus, these theories are transformed, from their realization in the collective realm, into becoming part of the individual sense of identity. Yet to achieve social and personal being, one needs to find ways of making these metaphoric relations public. The realization of one’s experience in public display carries experience over into the social order. It is here that tests of hazard are found and moral careers are made. Finally, individual paths through the social order become conventionalized into accepted forms of biography.

According to Harr6, finding a place for oneself in the world involves two projects. One must find a social identity ‑ an honoured place in the social order ‑ yet also attempt to maintain a personal identity, in the sense of a biographical uniqueness. Whereas social identity is a problem for marginal individuals such as migrants who have no place in the established social order, personal identity becomes difficult for people who have achieved a successful moral career to the point where it is hard to distinguish oneself from the official social order. To illustrate the dilemma of personal identity, Harré uses the example of tycoons during the Victorian era who constructed autobiographies based on their humble origins.

Harr6’s work on personal being reflects the paradox that a sense of self is gained only through social meanings. This paradox is resolved in the way social meaning is lived. Although experience ‑ that which provides a source of resistance to the social order and therefore the stuff from which a personal identity can he hewn ‑ is more difficult to account for purely within Harré’s theory, it is the space allowed for experience that makes his theory more consistent with a narrative sense of self than Implicit Personality Theory. The paradigmatic sense of self denies the relevance of point of view the focus of the subject that coheres storied experience. In Harré’s framework, it is the necessity of living out the appropriated social meanings that reserves the place for point of view, and therefore the narrative sense of self.

Narrative and Experience

One of the primary functions of narrative is to relate theory to experience. It achieves this not through testing theories according to systematic procedures of data analysis, but through finding a point to a series of events. This point ranges from the kind of moral statements found in fables, to the simple declarations of astonishment found in such expressions as ‘amazing’ and ‘unbelievable’. Such resolutions indicate that experience in narrative has the potential of resisting theory.3 This potential is governed by the interplay of metaphoric and metonymic relations of meaning in the story (see Brooks, 1984). In terms of identity, metaphor deals with the similarities and differences between one’s own situation and what one knows of others’. Its partner, metonymy, is an experiential domain of meaning which relates events according to their contiguity in time and space rather than their relationship to similarly placed events in different contexts. It is the metonymic axis of meaning that most strongly contrasts the narrative mode of understanding with the paradigmatic. And it is the concern of narrative with a specific time and space that qualifies it as a medium for finding a unique identity in the social order. This qualification is supported by consideration of the predominance of narrative in the conventionalization of one’s unique appropriations of the social order. It does not require much examination to be certain of the inappropriateness of scientific theories in the representation of personal experience in the public realm of newspapers and television, etc. It is here that Schafer’s statement, ‘self is a telling, becomes interesting.

Harré’s conceptualization of personal being is rich in empirical possibilities. This chapter attempts to explore several in an attempt to identify some of the narrative structures governing the instantiation of self in the social order. As a guide to types of narrative structures, I will follow the lead of many theorists in narrative studies and employ the terms ‘comedy’, ‘romance’, ‘tragedy’ and ‘irony’ to represent different types of narrative.4 These terms refer to narrative structures that govern much of the telling of stories in the Western tradition. Briefly, ‘comedy’ involves the victory of youth and desire over age and death. Conflict in comedy usually deals with the repression of desire in a society, which is released in the course of an adventure or festivity by means of which a healthier social unit is restored. By contrast, romance’ concerns the restoration of the honoured past through a series of events that involve a struggle typically including a crucial test ‑ between a hero and forces of evil. Conflict is resolved by battle rather than sociality as in comedy. In ‘tragedy’ the individual fails to conquer evil and is excluded from the social unit. The nobility of this failure is contrasted with the satire of ‘irony’, which deals in the discovery that comedy, romance and tragedy are mere schemes of mortals to control experience: individuals are not so pure, nor is the social order so healthy.

Such narrative structures have been described schematically ‘in order to loosen their tie with a specifically literary tradition. These structures do not presume to represent the ‘real’ state of affairs, but rather to structure the social world according to certain moral relations between society and the individual, the past and the future, and theory and experience. With regard to the epistemological status of these structures, this chapter takes Ricoeur’s (1985) position that they are sedimented forms which are subject to the vicissitudes of history and specific to the Western narrative tradition. Their appropriation into the issue of identity formation is thus best conducted under the aegis of an historical social psychology (see Gergen, 1984), rather than a universalist model of socialization.

There will be two rounds of relating theories about self with individual experience in this chapter. Each will explore the way theories of self contained in the public‑collective domain are appropriated in identity projects. In the first case, theories found in popular psychology are demonstrated in the decision to run a marathon: in the second, theories used in the construction of persons in conversation are related to accounts of travel. In each round we are looking for two relations: a metaphoric linkage between the theories and individual accounts, and a contextual reading of the employment of those theories. As such, this chapter represents an attempt to discover some of the dominant theories in the social order, as well as an investigation of the dynamics involved in engaging these theories in the process of establishing a social and personal identity.


Popular Psychology

Popular psychology has affinities not only with the existing academic theory used for explaining actions, but also with the tradition of life manuals written by people such as Epicurus, Castiglione, Samuel Smiles and Dale Carnegie. This conjunction is illustrated in one of the most successful of recent authors in popular psychology. Gail Sheehy.5 Readers are advised by the packaging of her books that they are to he used as a resource for understanding one’s life and choosing a better course of action. Her basic theory of development maps a romantic course over an individual’s biography. Sheehy begins her description of life with the dreams of future achievement formed in adolescence. These are lost sight of in the bitter experience ‑ gained in adulthood ‑ of the limits imposed by the world on oneself. This disillusionment leads to a crisis (the mid‑life crisis) when the old enemy of self‑confidence (the ‘inner custodian’) takes command. At this point, Sheehy advises her readers to face the conflict squarely with hope of eventual victory. As long as the battle with the ‘inner custodian’ is engaged in wholeheartedly, the person will emerge with renewed potential to realize past dreams as well as a sense of purpose beyond their own desires. In addition to the metaphor of battle and the victory of good, Sheehy’s scheme reflects a romantic narrative structure in the way she emplots the mid‑life crisis as containing three events: confrontation, struggle and recognition of transcendental meaning. These events in classical romance are termed agon, pathos and anagnorisis. Sheehy’s theory, therefore, is that those who face their conflict squarely, and engage seriously in battle with the evil within themselves, will successfully navigate their passage through difficulty. Entailed by this theory is a firm commitment to individuality as a mode of being and self‑reliance as a valued goal. The narrative structure of romance indicates how Sheehy believes such values may be instantiated in the life‑course.

The Decision to Run a Marathon

The emergence of the mid‑life crisis as a narratable hazard in the life‑course is concurrent with other developments in the social order. About the time that Sheehy’s theories became public, there was a popular movement concerned with individual responsibility for physical health. One of the most obvious displays of this movement was the emergence of jogging as a popular pastime. This had its dramatic apotheosis in the transformation of the marathon from an event restricted to elite athletes to an occasion for the participation of the whole of society. People hitherto excluded, such as women, children, paraplegics and the elderly, were encouraged to participate. Contrary to what one would expect of the increasing demands placed on time by the responsibilities of adulthood, in the marathon studied here6 half the participants were over thirty, and most of these were entering the event for the first time Because the marathon involves a test of one’s strength as well as a necessary separation from the daily concerns in the lengthy training necessary to complete the event, the decision to enter it would seem to be a candidate for the romantic structuring of life as proposed by Sheehy.

A collection of the accounts of first‑timers over thirty confirmed this. Part of the shared mythology concerning the marathon were notions such as the ‘wall’. Runners expected to encounter the ‘wall’ near the end of the event, when !heir supplies of body energy would be exhausted and they could continue only by sheer will and commitment. If the will was sufficient, then entrants expected to be able to conquer this obstacle and experience the ‘runner’s high’, a euphoric feeling of invulnerability and transcendence of bodily limits. As such, then, the common meaning attached to the marathon is of a test, with possible romantic associations. How this relates to the renewal of past dreams, though, can be ascertained most directly by examining the marathon as part of accounts by the participants, where its meaning is embedded in life concerns.

A closer look at the accounts revealed an interesting divergence in the context and construction of the decision to run a marathon. The group of entrants classified as ‘Born Again’ contained elements of the restoration of past ambitions and struggle between good and evil within the self. For instance,7 Kate, a thirty‑two‑year‑old student, related her current interest in the marathon to her sporting past and the hopes that her father had then placed in her future. In contrast, her twenties had been a time when ‘I became very average. I just sort of joined in. There was nothing exceptional in my life at that stage. No aim. No goal.’ This experience of lack of distinction from others was associated with feelings of confusion, weakness of will and lack of control. This led eventually to a ‘nervous breakdown’, which Kate eventually overcame by taking up running. Running was a means of gaining control of her existence by providing a locus outside of the confused and dependent self. In describing the probable reaction of her father to her completing the marathon, she said, ‘He probably thinks I’m mad … but underneath, I reckon if I finish the marathon, word would get round the golf club pretty quickly.’ Like nearly all entrants, Kate believed that others saw her decision as ‘mad’, yet at the same time she anticipated that she would win respect by its completion.

Many entrants generalized this recognition from specific individuals to the public realm as a whole ‑ one of the reasons for entering was ‘just to say I’ve done it’. While entrants such as Kate perceived that they could win honour in the social order by changing their life‑style ‑ to fashion it in greater consonance with the value of physical responsibility ‑ their individuality was maintained by the particular route chosen for the expression of this value. From feelings of sameness arise a distinguished place for the self in the social order. To achieve this, the individual must test herself in a situation that demands the sorts of virtues that are lauded by society ‑ endurance, individual autonomy, strength, and so oil. In the discovery for the self of a respected place in society, the decision of runners like Kate to enter a marathon corresponds to what Harré describes as a social identity, project. The ‘theory’ she appropriates to gain honour involves the restoration of past ambition through a test of the self involving clearly identifiable forces of good and bad whose result is dependent on the hero’s commitment to the good. This is a romantic narrative structure. Finding a way in which one’s own life might resemble such a structure seems a dominant part of many runners’ decision to enter the marathon.

However, the narrative structure of revival of ambition applied to only a part of the total number of accounts. Many of the men found in the ‘Repossessed’ group ‑ entered the marathon in order to withdraw from these tests of character. The event for these men was related to easing the frustrations of work while at the same time releasing a youthful spirit that had lain dormant during young adulthood.

For example, a thirty‑five‑year‑old advertising executive, David, described being ‘intolerant’ and ‘irritable’ as a result of responsibilities at work. The effect of this was to make family life more difficult. David became involved in running during a family holiday at the beach, when he discovered ‘how terrific it was to feel fit again’. Since then, running had provided a convenient release after the tensions at work and so had led to a ‘better family life’. The marathon was a ‘logical progression’ in running, and David liked the ‘challenge’. Unlike Kate, David did not structure the elements in his account in an antagonistic manner. For instance, when training conflicted with the family, this was a matter of lack of consideration; if David missed a run because of home commitments he felt guilty ‑ ‘I still get a conscience after it, because although I know I’ve done the right thing by my family, I’ve sort of overlooked myself.’ The justification of the decision to enter the marathon was in terms of easing conflict. This served to strengthen the family as a social unit while at the same time allowing David’s youthful energies to re‑emerge.

David seems quite secure in the official role that he plays in society, yet he feels that he has overlooked himself in the drive to be a successful person. His decision appears to be an example of what Harré would call a personal identity project. The issue is not to improve the stakes in his moral career, but to find expression for his free and spontaneous self. In common with similar male entrants, David saw the release of self as occurring within the interests of the social unit. Some male entrants differed from David in this by emphasizing the camaraderie of the running events above the benefit to the family, but they shared the feeling of amused distance from the possible competitive role they might take in the event, and this lightness distinguished them from those pursuing a social identity project. The discovery of a sense of identity outside of his roles is managed by David through the construction of account involving the rediscovery of youthful energies in the escape from responsibilities which leads to the renewal of the social unit. As such, David was making his decision take the form of a comic narrative structure.

Identity Projects and Distance

Despite the difference in accounts of marathon entrants, there was a common belief that their actions could be construed by others as , mad’ or ‘insane’. This should spur us to question the isomorphism it is possible to maintain given Harré’s scheme between social meaning and individuality. It seems odd that, in spite of their concern with establishing a sense of identity, these runners would take pride in their lack of integration in normal society. Reference to the treatment of this paradox in other disciplines may be helpful here. The relationship between identity projects and distance from the norms of social life is something that has been an issue to anthropologists such as Victor Turner (1969), who studied the ritual practices governing identity change and found that these ‘rites of passage’ typically remove participants from normal space and time into a ‘liminal’ sphere. The liminal sphere serves as a transitional place in which normal expectations of behaviour are suspended, allowing participants to take on new roles. This division of cultural life is based on a more fundamental dichotomy between the structure of society ‑ the ordered hierarchies of roles and meanings ‑ and its anti‑structure, which inverts and subverts these established meanings. Two types of rite of passage correspond to Harré’s two identity projects. Rites of status elevation concern ascendancy of one’s social identity ‑ one’s place in the structure. On the other hand, rites of status reversal concern elements of self‑denied expression in the structure and so are sympathetic to the construction of personal identity. Kate’s concern was with her lack of social distinction: for her, the marathon became a rite of status elevation involving separation from others through a test of character. (Conversely, David’s worry was that the work which grants him distinction also represses his humanness. Holiday was the initial release from work.) This escape from the ‘burdens of office’ then found fuller realization in the free release of aggression in training for the marathon. This relaxation of social hierarchies makes his participation in the marathon a rite of status reversal. In short, while Kate’s involvement in the marathon is part of a plan to secure a respected place among others ‑ with the accompanying sense of stability and independence ‑ David’s decision plays a part in a narrative of expanding communality which encourages the release of youthful energy entailed in this.

The inclusion of Turner’s work on identity change fills some of the space for anthropological detail made available by Harré’s scheme. As identity is perceived to he constructed through certain social practices which regulate the assignment of meaning to individuals’ sense of selfhood, it is fitting to turn to anthropology to discover these. As we have seen, Turner’s framework accounts for the necessary separation involved in identity change, as well as the different movements in identity. But the inclusion of Turner’s theory has its problems. It raises the issue of the status of narrative in the process of identity change. How is story related to rites of status elevation and inversion? As we saw when examining the suitability of Harré’s theory, the space allowed for experience outside the social order necessitates a process which mediates individual biography and collective representations: while the result of this is a metaphoric transformation of the self, the mediating process involved is that of narrative. What place does narrative have in Turner’s account?

The emphasis on ritual in Turner’s work underlines a processional model of social life. This processional approach is not antipathetic to the idea that individuals find ways of making their experience conform to certain narrative structures. In Turner’s later work (1980), he saw the ritual practices involved in social dramas such as identity change as related in a reciprocal manner to the stories that govern their representation. The basic narrative structure of breach‑crisis‑redress reflects the ritual structure of social drama. And it is in such genres of cultural performance that modes of self‑understanding are found.

The narrative structure of breach‑crisis‑redress identified by Turner is a superordinate form of which romance and comedy are species: such a form requires a disruption of the normal order which leads to a decisive instant after which order is restored. This scheme allows for the central role of narrative in identity: narrative is seen to govern the transgression of the social order, which is necessary for the creation of personal being. What this scheme adds to Harré’s concept of identity project is the emphasis taken from ritual on a single event as the focus for change: either the ‘test’, as in romance, or the ‘release’, as found in comedy. Stories in Turner’s scheme serve in the process of conventionalizing ritually governed patterns of events. So, in terms of the two narrative structures identified here, romance is a suitable structure for recording in individual’s successful negotiation of certain hazards encountered in rites of status elevation, while comedy is more appropriate for inscribing rites of status reversal in which communal bonds are reaffirmed through individuals who act outside of their prescribed roles. Narrative in these cases enables the experiences of struggle and release to be inscribed in individual and collective memory.

A Person Constructed through Talk

An alternative way of approaching Rom Harré’s notion of the I person’ as constructed through talk is to take his approach literally: to ask a group of people to actually perform the task of constructing a person. Such an exercise aims to gain access to collective goals and strategies through the intragroup negotiation involved in completing the task. It is expected that this makes explicit the expectations that govern the practices of biographical construction in everyday life. (Such an approach resembles research in action psychology: see von Cranach, 1982.)

I asked ten groups of between three and four people to construct the life of a person. They were given the freedom to decide the type and amount of information necessary for this purpose. Generally, the groups took their time at the start in deciding on the basic characteristics of their person, but once they were agreed upon these most groups made steady progress. The groups tended to finish with this person when they had lost interest in the life they had constructed.

The life of ‘Nicola’ is a typical construction which expresses most of the themes of other lives while including clear justifications within the group of the information included. Nicola was created by three women and one man, all in their early thirties and pursuing professional careers. After a brief examination of the constructed person, key points in the life will be interpreted in the light of the group’s discussion.

Looking initially at the finished story of Nicola (see Appendix), one can see that her life is divided into two parts. In the first there is a conflict between her desire to become independent of her family and her responsibilities at home This conflict is made clear when her wish to escape the family by travelling overseas and exploring her artistic potential is thwarted; while away, her father dies and she realizes that she is needed back in Australia to maintain the family. As a result, her desires are not able to be fully realized. Eventually, the affair with the archaeologist enables her to escape these demands and as a result her career flowers in New York. Having established her personal career, she then goes on to do good for others in the suffering world of Africa and South America. This new life structure is made possible by the liberating role that the community of New York plays in restoring her denied self.

What is the narrative structure governing Nicola’s lite? On the one hand, her life follows Sheehy’s scheme of development: Nicola’s adolescent dream of success is lost in adulthood and then regained owing to the adventures following the mid‑life crisis when a sense of social mission is gained. Nicola’s path to selfhood diverges from Sheehy’s, though, in that her ambition in architecture is realized not through struggle, but through the free spirit of New York.

The dominant plot in Nicola’s life seems to concern the vicissitudes of her ambition: the initial conflict in her life, release in New York, and its metamorphosis into an altruistic pursuit. The analysis of the story will examine the group’s goals governing the life structure, especially at the turning points of Nicola’s ambition. The theories that inform this discussion are taken as representative of the moral order which governs biographical discourse in the society to which the group belongs.

First, why was Nicola given an ambition? Nicola’s ambition was born in the group’s attempt to make their character ‘ Interesting’. Initially this was made possible by introducing elements of conflict into her life.

F: I quite like the idea of her coming from somewhere like St Albans or Footscray,8 cos now she’s … the struggle to overcome.

P: It’s the battler syndrome. [Laughs]

F: Well, otherwise, what’s her struggle going to be? Let’s say she comes from Kew, or wherever, say, gone to the private school whichever one it was ‑ and she’s gone through Uni and she’s done all the obligatory things. Well, maybe she has, maybe she has gone through the obligatory things.

J: What’s going to make her interesting?

F: Maybe she has no struggle? Everything in her life goes extraordi­narily smoothly.

J: Do we want her to have a struggle?

T: I want her to he interesting.

F: Well, you create something that’s interesting about her.

T: Okay, [Pause] I think she’s got really pushy parents who have high aspirations, ‘cos they had to work really hard.

In order that their character appeals to a curiosity about human nature, the group placed her initially in a scenario where her freedom is being limited by the aims of others.

The group later reviewed this question of how to make Nicola interesting, and decided to achieve this instead by creating a cultural and intellectual gap between Nicola and her parents. The gap arises in the conflict between her status as second‑generation immigrant and her desire to grow as a person. So that Nicola can be both distanced from her parents and given ambition. the group decided that she wants to be an architect. The source of this goal is the experience she had when growing up of her father going with her over the plans for the sites that he was contracted to build on. This was given narrative plausibility by making Nicola the eldest in the family, with a much younger brother who lacks ambition. And Nicola’s mother is made sickly to explain the smallness of the family and the dominant role of the father in Nicola’s life. Having established that giving Nicola an ambition will provide the break with the social order that enables the struggle which is necessary to make her ‘Interesting’, this fact about her character then became the major feature around which other facts of her life were mustered. What is important is that, although her ambition plays a major role in the narrative to follow, it was initially granted to Nicola to separate her from her family and thus involve her in some kind of ‘struggle’. As shown in Figure 2, the group set themselves the goal of creating an interesting character, which for them meant a person who was engaged in some struggle, and for this, extraordinary ambition was necessary.9 The initial situation of Nicola’s life follows from this.

Nicola’s eventual release from the demands of family is made possible by an affair with an American archaeologist in the free atmosphere of New York. In this process of release, her hidden abilities are allowed to emerge. At this point, the group had constructed a life for their character which is basically comic: Nicola overcomes the responsibilities that restrict her so that she may live a life of freedom. Although the catalyst for this is the affair, the real context for it is New York, it is the city where she can begin a ‘wonderful new life’. New York is a magical citv where she can explore her varied artistic potentials free from the bounds of responsibility. So, for instance, when her lover is away on a dig in Africa, the fact that she is in New York means that she is liberated from the dependencies that previously would have made her situation miserable and constrained her range of actions.





Extraordinary ambition


Eldest daughter, contact with father, etc

Figure 2. Goal hierarchy for an ‘interesting’ life

F: She’s been practising architecture for some time, but she’s in New York, the guy she’s with is an archaeologist which means he goes off anyway. Even if he’s not off on his digs or trying to raise money for them, he’s an intellectual so he’s doing his studies. He’s not really a social human being as such.

J: As she finds out.

P: So what does she do?

F: That in fact might be okay for her, you see, because New York is one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

T: By then [the year 20001 it’s degenerating into a gigantic …

J: No, maybe she loves the fact that she can look at a city and enjoy it and just enjoy people. And she doesn’t have responsibilities.

New York functions in Nicola’s life as a haven where none of life’s problems intrude. In the terminology of literary criticism, the narrative function of New York would be as a ‘utopic space’ (Barton, 1985), or a ‘green world’ (Berger, 1965).

The function of such spaces as a means of escape from repressive forces in the real world is most noticeable in the forest of Arden in Shakespeare. They provide the social interaction that is necessary in the comic scheme for the resolution of conflict. The ‘green world’ is inhabited by an including community who make few demands on the subject, but instead provide an enabling environment for fulfilment of her desires. In the story of Nicola, it is New York that provides the magical setting for the comic resolution of the contradictions in her life. In it she can resolve the conflict between her desire for independence and her network of dependencies. New York enables this to happen by providing a world inhabited by individuals whose spontaneity and undemanding acceptance enables the hitherto denied potential within Nicola to be released without conflict.





Travels to Africa, South America, etc.

Figure 3. Goal hierarchy for a ‘good’ life

Having provided a comic fulfilment of Nicola’s quest for independence and creative potential, the group then proceeded to work on making her a ‘good’ person. Her life at this point changes from being a comic escape from responsibility to being a discovery of suffering: the narrative goal of being an ‘interesting’ person is supplemented by that of being a ‘good’ person (see Figure 3). This involves the adventure of travel with her lover. For the group, the basic purpose of Nicola’s philanthropic journey was to make her a character who can be called ‘good’,’(‘ and this was achieved through her not only gaining an awareness of suffering, but also attempting to relieve it. This is part of the general drift in her life from being concerned with inner needs to being involved in causes outside of herself. As the group is deciding what to do with Nicola after New York, two members discuss how her character should develop.

F: She’s becoming not so self‑centred; even if she’s being responsible she’s becoming outward‑centred. She’s looking at other people and their needs.

T: I think that would be a normal development at that age.

What the group seems to be deciding is to return Nicola to the concern for others from which she had escaped in New York. Yet she has not lost everything in this return. Experience has intervened to make her a more rounded character than before. Her insularity has been transcended through the engagement with the people of New York, and this has opened her up to the world and its problems.

The story of Nicola thus can be seen as a comic escape from responsibility leading to the successful pursuit of individual ambition followed by integration of self into the concerns of the greater world. The group makes their character interesting by separating her from normal social life in the struggle of her ambition. And Nicola’s goodness is granted by her witness of the suffering which extends her horizons beyond personal success. A remarkable feature of the story is the way travel overseas, specifically to New York, functions as a comic device for release from responsibility and harmony of conflicting elements of character. Having firmly established herself in the role of mother, the pursuit of ambition becomes a personal identity project ‑ not so much to do with finding a place for herself in society as finding a medium for the expression of her individuality. This expression is eventually tied to the emergence of a society where conflict is healed between the West and Third World countries through the positive creative power of Nicola’s thinking. Again, the expression of individuality emerges from the context of the social. Initially, this was through the sociality of New York, but it finds its fulfilment in the universal health of people in the world. Nicola’s life therefore reflects a braided structure of personal and social identity projects which culminate in the realization of her individual talents in New York, and their social fulfilment in the work in Third World countries.11

Identity Projects and Travel

Escape from the responsibilities of the past was clearly granted a necessary role in the development of personal identity in four of the ten groups. The way in which travel enables this process would suggest that the decision to leave one’s home environment to journey through foreign lands is sometimes an attempt to find that part of oneself that is denied expression by one’s responsibilities to others. With such a possibility in mind, interviews were conducted with university students who had returned from travel. These interviews were designed to collect accounts of the experience in a similar fashion to the marathon study mentioned above. A brief examination of two cases will be used to demonstrate different ways in which travel is constructed.

Michael was a twenty‑three‑year‑old student of agriculture when he left Australia to travel around Europe and America. The main reason he gives to account for this decision was the desire to see his Irish grandparents while they were still alive, so he spent four of his eleven months overseas in Ireland. It is this period that Michael sees as having made most impact on him during his journey. He found the closeness of the community in Ireland quite remarkable, and enjoyed greatly the camaraderie of social life, especially in the pub. This closeness became narratable in the story of his visiting his uncle.

I think I liked, eventually I liked, the sense of community and the sense of the closeness, I found it claustrophobic at first. I remember one particular incident. I have an uncle who lived about 10 miles out of Cork and I was going to visit some cousins who lived about 15 miles away in another town and I was cycling along the road and I went and visited my cousins and I walked in the door and they said we knew you were coming, and it was because someone had seen me on the road cycling and thought this person is obviously such and such and it got back like that later.

The other impressions that Michael remarks upon concern the sublime landscape and being able to experience the presence of cultural sites and objects he had only read about before. Consistent with this is his emphasis on the elements of experience that are not found in mundane life. Given these expressions of anti‑structure in Michael’s account, it is reasonable to expect, on the basis of the persons constructed above, that a comic narrative structure is evident as well.

To discover if this exists, though, requires that we look beyond the specific happenings while away and examine the way Michael frames the journey as an event in time. When describing the sorts of changes that travel has produced, Michael refers to his feelings before departure. Besides anticipation of the journey, he mentions feelings of intolerance towards others, especially his father. He felt misunderstood ‑ his family could not accept the way he had changed while at university. This independence was buttressed in travel by a pilgrimage to galleries and landmarks concerning literature. The interest in the arts separated him not only from his parents, but also from his fellow students.

According to Michael, though, the unsympathetic relationship with his family changed as a result of his travel experience. When talking about his feelings towards his parents, Michael says, ‘I didn’t get on very well with my father … But now, definitely I’m closer to them.’ And on his return to Australia ‘ he admits to starting university with a ‘new vigour’, though this had not lasted. More certainly, travel strengthened the bonds between Michael and his family. In returning from Ireland to Australia, he felt he could understand better the frustrations and uncertainty his parents would have felt when they first moved to Australia. Again, paradoxically, to become close to his family, Michael needed to go away from them. He returned able to empathize with them, as well as having an independent set of experiences that enter the repertoire of stories he can tell about himself.

Like Nicola, therefore, Michael’s travel is a time for realizing a unique identity in the extraordinary, and therefore free exchange between people. This leads to a renewed feeling of energy as well as a greater commitment to the world of people outside the self.

A contrasting case to Michael is Susan. Susan is a twenty‑eightyear‑old postgraduate student who has travelled to Europe twice, once with a girlfriend and on the last occasion by herself. She included two months in India and Nepal on her last journey. Susan’s descriptions of travel mainly concern the moral characteristics of the foreign people. The French are beautiful people who adopt an easy‑going Mediterranean attitude to life: they are ‘nice’. At the opposite extreme, the Indian people are ugly and rude. The aspects of travel that Susan comments on deal mainly with the extraordinary ‑ for example, the precocious politeness of a French boy, and where to obtain the ‘best croissants in the world’. What stands out from this in its urgency, though, is her account of trying to survive in India.

This includes hanging on to the outside of a departing train while two young men tried to push their way, out. Contrasted to Michael’s stories of Ireland, Susan’s travel narratives deal more with struggle than with sociality. Although both accounts are concerned with the extraordinary, Susan’s fit more into a romantic narrative scheme than a comic.

Again, it is necessary to examine the frame of the travel account to verify this. Before travelling. the main problem Susan saw her life was the conflict between her feeling of responsibility towards her boyfriend, and her desire to break off the relationship. Part of the reason for travelling was for her to gain the strength needed to he more assertive in her affairs with other people. Susan saw her experiences in India as certainly aiding this.

Yet it is not only with this personal perspective that Susan views travel. Being a traveller is importantly a moral business: it broadens one’s horizons. Susan admits to feeling superior to those people who have not travelled. The moral substance of this scaffolding is the quality of ‘niceness’. This is evident in her discussion of why she likes the politeness of the French.

I wouldn’t say that I like politeness just because it gives a structurethat facilitates interaction, I just think it’s nice … I value politeness not because it gives you a structure. I see no reason to be rude to people. It’s just as easy to be polite and it makes it all so much … nicer.

Although politeness is related to the interaction between people, in Susan’s case it is involved in the distinctions between people who are ‘nice’ and those who are not. It has the quality of an absolute value. This sharply contrasts from the feelings of greater tolerance reported by Michael on his return. Indeed, Susan broke off from her boyfriend on her return, rather than finding aspects of him that appealed to her, as would he the resolution of a comic narrative. Thus, the place for Susan in the social order ‑ distinguished from ignorant and rude people ‑ is gained through the experience of travel, in which she struggles not only against the uncouth behaviour of others (Indians), but also against the weak side of herself.

In this, Susan’s experience of travel resembles Kate’s social identity project of running a marathon, as does Michael’s reparation with the family through his journey to Ireland follow a similar path to David’s greater commitment to the family through rejuvenation in deciding to enter the marathon. In the case of social identity project, a place for oneself in the social order can be found in the discovery in one’s own life of events that potentially fit a romantic narrative structure. Romance suggests the honourable course by which established moral values may be realized in the individual biography. And it follows that individuals may find in romance one of a repertoire of structures of meaning that grant their life social significance. A necessary component of this is the separation of the person from everyday life and the test of a certain quality of her character. This account is consonant with Rom Harré’s notion of moral career as a history of success and failure in tests of hazard in which the contempt of others is risked for the sake of their respect. Similarly, it is not contradictory to the anthropological notion of rite of passage, although this emphasizes more the framing of the period of test as an event distinct from the conduct of mundane world. Engagement in these events may be what Harré describes as a social identity project.

This is contrasted, in the case of Michael, with the remarkable experience of community which granted him a travel story that would serve to distinguish him from others, while at the same time reconciling him to the social world. This project of personal identity has found itself in this chapter often framed within a comic narrative structure, making it resemble what Turner describes as rites of status inversion, rather than status elevation, and therefore placed more within the anti‑structure of society rather than its structure. The implication of this is that the expression of individuality is something for which there is a certain time and place. Finding the right time and place remains a necessary part of the personal identity project, and leads people often to leave their homes for extraordinary adventure (Scheibe, 1986). The personal identity project ‑ finding a recognizable characteristic of uniqueness from others ‑ is discovered in the narrative structure of comedy. The central event in this is not a test of the self ‑ requiring distance from oneself and others ‑ but a release of an aspect of the self denied expression, enabled by the extraordinary closeness of the community separate from the structure of normal society. This specific context for the development of personal identity provides a valuable extension in Harré’s theory of personal being. It leads to greater consideration for the role that the interpersonal contexts of friendship and carnival play in the ‘fleshing out’ of identity. 12

Romance and Comedy in Identity Projects

What both the personal and the social identity projects share, as, evidenced by the stories discussed in this chapter, is the importance of distance from the social order in the development of a sense of self. This distance has been evident in various ways: the necessary ‘journey’ of the mid‑life crisis, the ‘madness’ of the marathon entrant, the travel to the ‘utopic space’ in constructed persons, and the extraordinary’ events recounted by travellers. In romance, the hero ventures to the wilderness where tests are encountered. The very notion of a test indicates an event at the margins of the social order. As most of official life runs according to a routine in which contingency is avoided, a test, which involves the possibility of failure, necessarily occurs on the margins of everyday social order. And in comedy people are brought together outside of their normal relations in situations of extraordinary social gathering. In these cases, the familiar patterns of life are disrupted and new meanings explored.

In both the romantic and comic narrative structures, the possibility exists for forging an identity. This identity, whether in terms of one’s honour or one’s sociability, is necessarily found outside the social order. Thus, in terms of Harré’s original grid, the sense of self is to be found removed from the public‑collective domain, though maintaining a metaphoric link with it. What is evident from the range of stories examined in this chapter is the way this space is not necessarily defined as a private‑individual domain. The place for the construction of identity need only be framed as belonging outside the boundaries of the normal social order (i.e., the ‘liminal’ sphere). A useful comparison may be found in the less individualistic societies which people this ‘other world’ with gods rather than selves. But, just as the role of gods is bound up with the existence of social institutions, the liminal experience in the development of self is contained in a story envelope which relates the individual’s life to the social order. Thus, the separation referred to above is complemented by the return to the moral values of self‑reliance, physical responsibility and ‘niceness’ in romance, and to the social utilitarian values of global welfare and family in comedy. It is this process of separation and reparation of meaning that is enabled by the telling of stories.

Table 1. Romantic and comic narrative structure and details







Mid‑life crisis

Psychological struggle




Nervous breakdown

Marathon as a test

Physical responsibility



Dependence in relationship

Physical struggle



Lack of distinction


Moral point




Mid-life crisis

Escape to New York

Global welfare



Denial of self

New York




Intolerance of others

Holiday with family



Lack of community


Social utility

As shown in Table 1, the narrative structures of comedy and romance share the basic ritual form of breach‑crisis‑redress which collectively manages deviations from the normal order. The crises in romance mediate this process through struggle, whereas in comedy this occurs through release. The resolution, or redress, as a normal order is re‑established and functions to give meaning to the events by reference to a superordinate moral and social order. While the narrative allows entry into discourse of foreign elements, these are eventually granted meaning by the point that frames the story as a social act. To have a story filled with bizarre happenings without a point is to reflect the same confusion felt by people like Kate, who lack a distinctive social identity. And to have a story that is all point is like a self deprived of spontaneity, as in David’s encasement in his social roles of father and manager. Without spontaneity, communality is robbed of the energy derived from the free exchange between people. The elasticity of meaning enabled by the narrative mode of understanding given in its point allows the departure of the individual from the normal social order to be only temporary. The construction of identity through narrative is thus necessary to deal with the paradox of individuality. There are some cases, however, when the paradox is unresolved in narrative.

When’s the Fade‑out?

The experiences of selfhood described and constructed in this chapter all concern the world of extraordinary happenings. Given that most people, most of the time, live in one ordinary world, it is necessary to raise the issue of how real these stories are. Like the fictional man in the film, we ask, ‘When’s the fade‑out?’ Two narrative structures not addressed in this paper ‑ tragedy and irony ‑ both deal with aspects of experience that miss out on the round of official narrative representation. Tragedy deals in the elements of self that have been discovered, yet are incapable of realization in the real world. The film Elephant Man is a tragedy about the inability of the contemporary social world to recognize a humanness beyond the abominable exterior of a deformed person. Irony deals with the less noble exposition of how reality often fails to live up to the expectations of it contained in its representations. In Don Quixote we attend more to the amusing inappropriateness of the hero’s actions ‑ led astray as he is by reading too many romances ‑ than to the sad loss of hope for happiness on the part of the hero. In both cases, the audiences of these stories witness how fictional members of a social order are caught in a contradiction that leads them necessarily to transgress certain norms. The fate of these heroes ‑ becoming martyrs or fools ‑serves to monitor those boundaries, just as the occasional failed escape attempt reminds us of the existence of the Berlin Wall. Tragedy and irony, although indicating that there are certain times and places where romance or comedy are inappropriate, can lead to depression and cynicism if taken to extreme. None the less, they help to instantiate the limits of the moral order in the government of human action.

That tragedy may sometimes he an appropriate structure for an individual’s biographical identity challenges the commonsense assumption that people’s actions are motivated by the desire successfully to achieve their individual goals. An alternative model consonant with the thesis of this chapter would propose that this assumption is itself partly a product of the narrative structures that govern its expression. The motivating force would instead become the desire to find a match between one’s own biography and the socially recognized life‑stories resembling romance and comedy, etc., but also including tragedy. Turner (1980, p. 155) views the possible participation of such ‘action paradigms’ as a guarantee of social status and certainty:

Just to be in the cast of a narrated drama which comes to be taken as exemplary or paradigmatic is some assurance of social immortality.

When an ‘action paradigm’ begins to be discernible from the variety of narrative possibilities in one’s life, when suffering begins to be considered tragic or when a change of script is considered, when the burdens of office outweigh the glory of romance, when self‑deprecation and cynicism overtake generous communality ‑ it is plausible that these moments are managed by framing devices similar to those found in transformations of outlook within literary narrative. While the identification of these devices is likely to be an uncertain process, it should be easy to appreciate their function in switching moods in dramatically recognizable ways: ‘Things began to turn sour when … ‘; or ‘I had almost given up hope when … ‘ The difference between change of fortune in real life and literature must he the necessary place of individual volition, perhaps mediated .by negotiations in friendship and therapy, in choosing what makes best narrative sense in one’s own life. As emphasized earlier, when a lack of narrative fit is perceived and a change of design is desired, the individual must seek out those areas of social life set aside for transformations of identity such as running a marathon or travelling overseas. The identification in this chapter of some of the traditional costumes for biography and recognized changing rooms should then lead us to examine the dynamics of the choice of clothing. 13

The Narrative Self

Narrative has been depicted in this chapter mainly as a process for mediating between theories from the social order and individual lives. It is from such a mediation that identity is constructed: social identity through the instantiation of a romantic narrative structure of tests, and personal identity by means of the release of idiosyncrasies allowed in a comic narrative structure. These story forms serve as prescribed ways for the instantiation of moral values such as self‑reliance, and commitment to social units such as the family, into the life of the individual. They allow for the possibility that lives might contain a meaningful and honourable point. Although romance and comedy were taken as structures that enabled this process, there is no reason why they should exhaust the narrative possibilities of selfhood in Western culture. Different structures will probably be found in other discourses which govern the expression of individuality. One can, for instance, consider the serious retirement speech as emplotting the career in terms of an epic narrative structure.

The way the construction of identity through narrative has been represented in this chapter implies that the collectively represented social order is an integral part of the development of self. While this is in harmony with Harré’s theory of personal being, it denies the validity of theories that lack the collective component, such as the Implicit Personality Theory and Schafer’s theory. Implicit Personality Theory might well respond that romance can he viewed as a means of testing an element of one’s character, while comedy can be seen as an exploration of one’s personality, similar to, say, drilling for oil. These accounts would preserve the initial concern with sense of self as the product of practices of collecting data about the self. However, while such explanations might undoubtedly account for part of the narrative structures uncovered in this chapter, they have little to say about the central role played in each by values of morality and social life. The struggle and release described by romance and comedy concern our interaction with norms that are collectively held, and it is among these that the narratives of self find the point that grants them an eventual meaning. Finding a place for an individual in the concerns of the collective is thus a problem that a narrative formation of identity can manage better than a sense of self based on abstract informational procedures.


In terms of Harré’s view of personal being as a product of the theories contained in the social order, it seems that narrative has a necessary role to play in the mediation between those theories and experience which permits the construction of identities that are more than mere transcriptions of the social order. To achieve this, individuals must leave the familiar everyday world and not only engage in tests ‘in order to he granted a place in the status hierarchy, but also find release from normal controls in order to relate to those others, such as one’s family, who exist outside of that hierarchy. And narrative is the means by which these departures are managed and inscribed in one’s biography.

Appendix: The Life of Nicola

Nicola was attractive, gregarious, and ambitious. She was her father’s girl.

Angelo, her father, was a bright and hard‑working builder in East Doncaster of classical Italian background. His wife, Dimantina, was sickly and had many miscarriages.

Nicola went to a Catholic primary school, where she was very mischievious and got into trouble. Rather than continuing her Catholic education, she was forced to go to a government secondary school because her mother’s illness had left the family in financial trouble. At her new school she was very popular and even became a prefect.

Nicola developed the ambition to become an architect while looking over plans for buildings which her father showed her when he was working at home. This ambition was strengthened during work experience when she met a spunky architect. Architecture inspired her as a symbol of the unattainable.

While studying architecture she was again very popular. She went out with a former prefect from her old school. Halfway through her degree, her father had a heart attack. This strengthened her resolve to do well, and she withdrew into her studies.

Once she had successfully completed her course, she was given a ticket overseas as a present by her parents. Nicola felt that it was time to break from her family. While she was overseas she developed an interest in fashion and discovered that she had a real creative flair. But when Nicola was twenty‑three her father died and it became clear that she was needed back home. She realized then that it was up to her to hold everything together.

Back in Australia, she married her boyfriend. They had two children by the time she reached thirty years of age. By the age of forty‑two she had still not reached her career potential, and this precipitated a mid‑life crisis. While accompanying her husband on a business trip to New York, she had an affair with Peter, an archaeologist from Texas. Looking for a way of fulfilling her ambitions, Nicola decided to leave her husband and stay with Peter in New York. There she managed to set up a successful business practice. Peter would go away on digs, but that was all right for her because there was plenty to do in New York. Her children did not mind her leaving them, and they came to visit her.

At the age of fifty‑two, Nicola went with Peter to Africa. She felt the need to contribute, and so designed cheap communal housing for the natives. The experience of poverty enabled her to realize what a comfortable life she had been living. When she was sixty‑two Nicola travelled to South America. At this point she had become interested in a combination of archaeology and architecture. Unfortunately, her heart went in the heat. This complaint was in the family and she was given ten years to live.

At this point she went to live in Italy, where Peter died. Nicola decided then to return to Australia to see her children.

She died with grace.


This development of this paper from its draft form owes much to comments from Kenneth Gergen, Sue Kippax, Jerome Bruner, Rom Harré, Theodore Sarbin and Karl Scheibe.

1. The Purple Rose of Cairo, directed by Woody Alien, released in 1985.

2. For a more detailed explication of this argument see Murray ( 1987).

3. In early modern theories of narrative (see Shklovsky, 1965), the devices of the story were seen to permit the exclusion of habitual ways of making sense of the world. In making familiar objects strange, the plot uncovers the experiential world and thus introduces new ways of looking at things.

4. Other theorists who have employed these structures include Schafer ( 1976), White (1973), and Gergen and Gergen (1988). See Murray (1985a) for an argument for their usefulness as interpretive categories in the social sciences.

5. Sheehy’s first best‑selling book, Passages (1976), set out some prescribed routes through the life‑course. This was followed by Pathfinders (1982). which more explicitly covered the demands necessary to become a fully realized individual. A comparison of Sheehy with other similar popular writers can he found in Murray (1986).

6. The particular marathon studied was the 1981 Melbourne Marathon. It attracted about 6000 partipicants in a city of 3 million people. The study examined the accounts of fifty first‑time entrants who were over thirty years of age. (For more details see Murray, 1985b.)

7. Because theory about the narrative structures in designing one’s life is not dealing in estimates of quantitative behavioural characteristics, the study of individual cases is more relevant than measures of larger samples. Our concern is not with statistical trends but with the sorts of possibilities in life granted by the narrative structures imposed on it.

8. Footscray and St Albans are lower‑class areas of Melbourne; Kew is a respectable middle‑class suburb.

9. The fact that the group is using the quality ‘interesting’ to determine what sort of person Nicola is indicates that she may not be necessarily a realistic person; yet, given that one of the main tasks in becoming a successful social actor is being an ‘interesting’ person, the way the group constructs this quality is far from irrelevant.

10. One of the members of the group observed that, in deciding to have a ‘good’ character, they risked avoiding some of the less idealistic problems that life contains. Nicola represents ‘how we see ideal people growing up’. The apparent inattention to verisimilitude implied by this statement enables us to see more clearly how the function of narrative structures extends beyond the essentially mimetic purpose to its role in the realization of the moral order in the realm of experience.

11. The story of Nicola was far front an isolated instance of the discovery of personhood through the social group. Other characters constructed by groups found themselves in a social environment that permitted the free expression of their individuality. One more life is worth noting to highlight the regularity of this narrative. One can speculate that, because of the association between America and freedom, its narrative function in the lives of many migrants from other countries would be the same as it was in the life of Nicola: as a ‘green world’ in which the ties of the past are replaced by the promise of the future. America was given the same comic potential in a story constructed by a different group. Dealing with the life of an acrobat, the constructors decided to send her to New York to escape the IRA and attempt to realize her ability as a dancer.

J: So she’s got a lot of money, right. This is her big chance to go wherever she wants to go.

S: So she picks New York.

C: mm.

P: And signs up with the New York dance theatre or something like that.

J: Well, not necessarily New York.

C: But New York’s really exciting, ‘cos it’s a place where expatriate [Irish people] go, and there’s a lot of migrants there … It’s just a place where all sorts of people she’d identify with were, but were also strangers.

That New York contains people similar enough to the acrobat for her to identify, with, yet remain strangers, indicate,, the possibility of close contact without any of the responsibilities normally associated with social relationships. It is in such a world that she is expected to discover her talent for dancing. However, her dream of being a successful dancer is treated cruelly by the acrobat’s constructors. The reason for this was that the acrobat had spent her entire life on the outside of society, because of her mixed origins and her dream of dancing. Although New York appeared as a world containing people more like her than there were in Ireland, and thus promised to provide her with the support she was looking for, she is ultimately excluded by this world because of her status as an outsider in the story: her dancing is not fashionable. Although the moral vision of the world is tragic, New York still retains the same comic potential that it has for Nicola. Two other groups found utopic spaces for their characters in the university and a guerrilla camp in Brazil.

12. The growing theorization of these unofficial spaces for identity work includes psychosocial theories of friendship as ‘ensemble’ relations (Little, 1985), and the expression of folk identity through grotesque inversions of body symbology (Bakhtin, 1984).

13. Such a venture is broadly sympathetic with the concerns of autobiographical research proposed by de Waele and Harré (1979). Both attend to the social order that constrains the range of personas, etc., available to the individual, as well as the processes governing their eventual selection.


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