- Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy
Other People's Stories is an extended exploration of the benefits and dangers of the inevitable de- and re-contextualization of personal narratives. [End Page 192] Revolutionary and foundational in refusing to make a blanket moral statement about such re-use/appropriation, Shuman's important book may frustrate those hoping for clear-cut evaluations based on the theory she elaborates.
Folklorists' study of personal narratives tends to tread a narrow path between the apparently opposed notions of the individual constrained in formulating her experience by cultural models and the individual enabled to create a self by mobilizing cultural resources. Shuman dramatically widens our purview, arguing that the more encompassing tension is that between what she calls "entitlement" and "the allegorical," with its promise of generating empathy. To quote what I suspect will be an oft-cited passage:
Storytelling is pushed to its limits both by the use of a particular story beyond the context of the experience it represents and by the use of a personal story to represent a collective experience. . . . It is the intersection of the two limits that produces what I see as the greatest complexity and the greatest source of both the promise of storytelling and its condemnation. We ask, who has the right to tell a story, who is entitled to it? And we ask, is this representation a sufficient, adequate, accurate, or appropriate rendering of experience?(p. 3)
Shuman goes on to offer radical challenges to sacrosanct notions—that the exposure of previously unheard voices can stand as a corrective to dominant discourses (p. 11) or that empathetic understanding of another's situation based on hearing their story is a sufficient and desirable response (p. 18). She advocates a "critique of empathy" as "a place to begin to see narratives as a relationship between tellers and listeners and their cultural, political, and historical contexts" (p. 25).
Succeeding chapters explore individual issues exemplified by distinct sets of stories. In Chapter 1, revisiting adolescent fight narratives she collected in the 1970s, Shuman demonstrates that debates apparently about accuracy actually encode contestation over rights to know and share information. Sadly, she observes, the students rarely gained sufficient self-awareness to replace he-said-she-said bickering with diplomatic overtures (p. 50). In Chapter 2, a preview of a book on the memory culture of marble carvers in an Italian town, Shuman draws on Walter Benjamin to argue that the possibility for critical practice lies in the tension between personal and collective stories. Again, tragically, she suggests that the carvers' investment in the town's collective story of a past golden age precludes their moving forward (p. 69). In Chapter 3, analyzing stories supplied by other collectors, Shuman shows how an Orthodox Jewish woman teacher and an undocumented Mexican migrant position themselves and their listeners to move from untenable to productive alignments. And in Chapter 6 she cites the autobiography of autistic author Temple Grandin to interrogate the very possibility of experience separate from a report thereof. [End Page 193]
Throughout the book Shuman's theoretical meditations and dialogues with other theorists exceed the examples to which they are applied. While I grasp her choice of emphasis intellectually, in the remaining two chapters I find it troubling. In Chapter 4 Shuman brings together disparate "small world" stories, from merely curious chance encounters to a Jewish adoptee's heart-rending discovery that his mother, as she was forced onto the train to Auschwitz, threw him into the arms of a mercifully sympathetic policeman. Shuman shows that "happy coincidence" stories reveal a world more perfect than the narrator suspected, even for those not inclined to credit divine intervention, but that such a vision is inaccessible to someone like Ned Lebow, whose meeting with the French rabbi's wife who helped save children from the death-camp trains revealed what is probably his own horrific story. Yet (surprisingly, given the extent to which the untellability of Holocaust survivors...