Hypatia 18.3 (2003) 215-218
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Women and Autobiography. Edited by Martine Watson Brown Ley and Allison B. Kimmich. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 2000.
In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah (1988), an elderly storyteller tells his audience that more important than politics is the control of the story (1988, 128). There are some who run to battle and others who stay behind to tell the story. And only a fool will think that the story can be easily controlled, even easily identified. Autobiography, the telling of one's own story, used to be considered [End Page 215] something less than literature, not requiring the mastery of language required for fiction. But literary critics have since recognized that autobiography is itself the claiming and discovery of self, and that it is also about subjectivity, responsibility, freedom, and autonomy. Autobiography tells us something about the process of self-constitution because it performs the act of self-constitution. Women and Autobiography (Brownley and Kimmich 2000)contributes to the revitalization of the genre of autobiography by raising questions derived from women's stories. This useful volume suggests that differences between women and men's autobiographies provide resources for raising specific questions about the unity of the self and about the complexity of self-understanding.
The first section, "Women's Writing and the (Male) Autobiographical Tradition," examines the field of autobiography as it has traditionally been defined and raises questions about women's place in it. For instance, examples of women's writing, including slave narratives, have been excluded from the tradition of autobiography because women's writing tends not to have the same form as men's. The second section, "Theorizing the Female Subject: Who Writes, How and Why?" identifies some of the reasons for these differences in form, especially the implications of women's subordinate social status for the exercise of authority as writers. Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, feels like an outsider but receives much support for her writing (95). Other women writers, as in Ann Rayson's example of Japanese-Americans, struggle with invisibility and silence. The third section, "Rethinking Genre: Autobiography in Other Forms," points to new directions in autobiographical writing, departing, for instance, from the idea that stories about lives need to move linearly from youth to old age. Women have found forms, such as diaries, that allow them to record their lives more accurately than traditional biographies but that challenge expectations about the order of stories. The fourth section, "Women's Autobiography from the Early Modern Period to the Present: Sample Texts," offers four selections of women's writing including Barbara Webster's fascinating account of the physical and psychological effects of multiple sclerosis.
According to this volume, two points in particular distinguish women's and men's autobiographical writing. Autobiography expresses the understanding of a life: women's writing has not assumed that a life must be unified in some preestablished way, while men's writing seems to assume that a life-story leads progressively to some specific end. Women, for instance, write about relationships and about the significance of the social fabric (Benstock 2000, 3). Thus, the expression of authorship is more ambiguous in such writing. In her piece, for example, Barbara Webster notes some of the implications of the idea of control. She questions the implications for autonomy and self-understanding of the strong social expectation that we must be in complete control and that not to be in control is a failure (201-10). [End Page 216]
The second point that emerges from consideration of women's autobiography is the contradictoriness, or at least the complexity, of self-understanding—in particular, the recognition that self-awareness is not the direct result of one's perceptions of oneself. Carolyn Heilbrun suggests that women's autobiography is not "contemplation of singularity" (16), although it is indeed a struggle for one's own voice. Instead, the ownership of one's story comes about through the exploration of relationships. In women's writings, it is less common to assume that self-awareness comes about solely as a result of introspection of oneself...