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Biography 24.1 (2001) 113-127

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Breaking Rules: The Consequences Of Self-Narration

Paul John Eakin

Autobiography lends itself easily to the ideology of egalitarian individualism. As we might say in the States, the right to write our life stories is a natural extension of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. May we, though, say and write what we please when we engage in self-narration? Not necessarily, not unless we are prepared--depending on the nature of the case--to suffer consequences of considerable gravity. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú, makes front-page news in the New York Times when anthropologist David Stoll accuses her of having stretched the truth in her autobiography, prompting journalists to wonder whether the Nobel selection committee will reconsider its prize award to her. Novelist Kathryn Harrison's memoir of her incestuous affair with her father generates a flood of condemnation in the press for apparently mercenary self-exposure at the expense of her young children. 1 These instances feature published autobiographers, but we are all of us judged when we tell the stories of our lives. This judging, always taking place, manifests itself most strikingly when memory loss and other disabilities prevent our performing self-narration according to the rules, or performing it at all. I'm thinking, for example, of individuals suffering from Korsakov's syndrome and Alzheimer's disease: do their failed narratives reflect failed identity? Some clinicians say so. What all of these examples suggest is that while we may well have the right to tell our life stories, we do so under constraints; we are governed by rules, and we can expect to be held accountable to others for breaking them.

These rules are tacit because the daily performance of identity story is instinctive and automatic, and so it is chiefly when they are perceived to have been broken that they are most clearly displayed and articulated. This paper identifies three primary transgressions--there may be more--for which self-narrators have been called to account: (1) misrepresentation of biographical [End Page 113] and historical truth; (2) infringement of the right to privacy; and (3) failure to display normative models of personhood. The seriousness of these charges for those accused is registered in the consequences that result from the alleged violations: public condemnation, litigation, and (potentially) institutional confinement. Telling the truth, respecting privacy, displaying normalcy--it's the last of these obligations that points most directly to the big issue that they all three signal and underwrite: what are the prerequisites in our culture for being a person, for having and telling a life story? To link person and story in this way is to hypothesize that the rules for identity narrative function simultaneously as rules for identity. If narrative is indeed an identity content, then the regulation of narrative carries the possibility of the regulation of identity--a disquieting proposition to contemplate in the context of our culture of individualism. I should note that when I refer to "our culture," I am thinking chiefly of the United States, although one of the examples I will be discussing is drawn from Western Europe. My hunch is that wherever self-narration is practiced, it is done so under certain tacit constraints; these constraints, however, doubtless vary from culture to culture.

The idea that autobiographical discourse is rule-governed is not new, but dates from the dawn of autobiography studies in the 1970s, when Elizabeth Bruss and Philippe Lejeune established the genre's poetics. Drawing on speech act theory, Bruss conceptualized autobiography as a kind of illocutionary act, and she sought to formulate "the constitutive rules" a given text needed to satisfy in order to "count as" a bona fide instance of the genre (8). Similarly, Lejeune highlighted the contractual nature of autobiographical discourse with his notion of a "pact" articulated in the text that determines its generic status for the reader. 2 There is nothing in the least trumped up about this talk of "pacts" and "rules"; to the contrary, Bruss and Lejeune were only bringing system...


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