Biography 25.4 (2002) 677-682
[Access article in PDF]
"How do people make meaning out of the transitions in their lives?" This is the central question raised by Dan P. McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, and [End Page 677] Amia Lieblich in their introduction to a fascinating collection of essays on stories of life transition that will appeal to a wide audience, including psychologists and humanists. I read these essays as a professor of literature familiar with contemporary literary theories that help us to interpret the meanings of texts—and I liked what I read. The essays all assume that meaning-making comes out of storytelling about one's life, that stories shape our identities and our relationships, and that stories help to determine our place in the world and our view of the future. All the essays examine how individuals select their events and interactions with others and ascribe personal meaning to these events and relationships. To make meanings out of specific life stories, the authors use a range of methods, including quantitative analyses of data from surveys and interviews, psychobiography, discourse analysis, and application of a number of theories, including those of Erikson and Bakhtin. The essays are substantive, and for the most part, accessible and well written.
The first essay, "Narrating Life's Turning Points: Redemption and Contamination," researches, interprets, and compares narrative sequences of redemption to those of contamination: narratives which "encode the . . . movement—from good to bad" (5). Dan P. McAdams and Philip J. Bowman analyze the content and structure of life-stories obtained through interviews and other written self-report measures, from samples of people at mid-life. McAdams and Bowman establish correlations between people who overcame adversity, creating redemptive life scripts, and those who were committed to generativity (Erikson's term), i.e., those who contributed to the welfare and betterment of future generations. Their inclusion of redemption sequences in their life-scripts suggests they learned how "to exert a form of interpretive control over daunting personal challenges" (25). These same people, the authors conclude, are better able to cope with life's adversities, and generally are happier individuals. Individuals who consistently focused on events and relationships as contaminating their lives—i.e., used rhetoric and imagery of contamination—exhibited low generativity, and were more likely to show signs of depression. The authors conclude that "narratives in which negative scenes are transformed into positive outcomes . . . are strongly linked to feeling satisfied and fulfilled in life" (28). This essay clearly presented the authors' research findings and interpreted them convincingly. The only area in which the authors could have extended their discussion was concerning how the sociocultural context shapes individuals' construction of their redemption or contamination life scripts.
Two of the chapters are of particular interest to humanities scholars because of their literary perspectives. The first compares the life story of Katherine Power to that of Raskolnikov, protagonist of Dostoevsky's Crime [End Page 678] and Punishment. In "The Crime, Punishment, and Ethical Transformation of Two Radicals: Or How Katherine Power Improves on Dostoevsky," Janet Landman presents compelling psychological and moral parallels between these two life stories of murderers who become fugitives from the law; experience transformative shame, regret, and despair; and, finally, express the desire to atone, confess, and be captured in order to be punished for their crimes. Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker and her sister. Power's crime is as accomplice to a murder during a bank robbery undertaken to "'liberat[e] funds' from a collaborationist 'establishment' to support the movement against the Vietnam War" (36). To transform themselves ethically and achieve well-being, Landman argues, Raskolnikov and Power seek both an inward, analytic means, as well as an external, communal cure through reconnection with others, especially with the families of the victims of their crimes. Landman's discussion is informed by narrative psychology and narratology, and aims to delineate the...