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Biography 24.3 (2001) 594-595

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Ruth E. Ray. Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life-Story Writing. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000. 256 pp. ISBN 0-8139-1939-8, $35.00.

Ruth E. Ray has written a wonderful book. Based on a three-year research project with senior writing groups, both African American and predominantly White, Ray does a lovely piece of feminist research on older adults, mostly women. Her book is at once excellent research and insightful analysis of new meanings about age. Ray argues convincingly that feminist critics and researchers have largely overlooked age as a source for knowledge about the lifespan and developmental processes. By learning how women create and recreate the meaning of their lives, we learn to look at adult development in a new way. She also argues that much of current "age knowledge" is steeped in sexism, racism, and ageism inherent in the culture and internalized by women.

The book is constructed in alternating chapters. Each chapter concerning the research and its analysis has a life story to go with it, reflecting the research. In order, the chapters are "Introduction: Feminist Visions and Re-Visions," "Language, Narrative, Self, and Adult Development," "Age and Life Story," "Social Scripts for Gender, Race, and Class," "Memory and Truth," "Group Effects on Writing the Life," "Gender and Emotion," and "Learning from Our Differences." Ray the researcher participates, views, and writes from her position as a forty-year-old woman. She is often of a different generation than those in the life-story groups, which encourages a fascinating intergenerational perspective. "These women," Ray writes,

taught me that wisdom is the ability to see from many positions and to empathize with all of them. Women's wisdom most often shows in the ways women respond to others; it is deeply relational. On this December day, my writing revealed an inability to empathize with my mother's position--not unusual . . . for a woman who has never had children of her own. Mabel and Emily reinforced that adult development requires major change in our orientations toward others. (4-5)

As a researcher, Ray is personal and self revealing, yet rigorous and compelling in the finest sense. Her book is so open about her process that it reminded me of Patricia Golden's The Research Experience (Peacock, 1976), in which researchers from different philosophies and methods write about the impact on themselves of doing their particular kind of research. The one quibble I have with the book is I wanted to know more of the women's stories. As a psychotherapist and art therapist who has practiced for thirty years, I never tire of hearing how people live their lives. And as a woman of "a certain age," in Lillian Roth's term, I need role models to help me forge my life [End Page 594] story in the present and in the future, and to help me negotiate the rapids which have few markings one can count on to show the way.

Influenced by social constructivism and feminist writings, Ray illuminates how the presentation of life stories is about memory, creativity, and renaissance, and is not simply a life review memoir. Through personal narratives in relational settings such as groups, Ray asserts that the presentation and reworking of life stories creates meaning which gives rise to change, growth, and indeed adult development. "The interesting question for age researchers," she writes,

is not merely how age is reflected in the telling of everyday life stories, but also how it functions developmentally [my emphasis]. How might age-inflected stories push storytellers and their audience in the direction of change--emotionally, intellectually, and socially? (35)

Ray's book could be a primer for writing groups with older adults, but it is much more than this. Ray's work could also be a model for scholarship, but it is much more than that as well. It sensitively integrates writings by other authors about seniors, and the current ideas concerning them, and contains an extensive bibliography. But with convincing power, Ray identifies many theories about older women, brings them into...


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pp. 594-595
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