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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 121-132

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What Are We Reading When We Read Autobiography?

Paul John Eakin

It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a "narrative," and that this narrative is us, our identities.
—Oliver Sacks

In this statement Oliver Sacks makes as bold a claim for the function of self-narration in our lives as any I have ever encountered. His observation was prompted by the plight of a brain-damaged individual suffering from severe memory loss. Because the patient, "Mr. Thompson," could not remember who he was for more than a minute or two at most, he spent his waking hours in frenetic self-invention, seeking to construct new identities to take the place of old ones that he forgot as soon as he created them. For Sacks, Mr. Thompson's condition exposes identity's twin supporting structures, memory and narrative: what is this man without his story? I keep returning to the nagging conundrum that Sacks proposes in his meditation on this disturbing case, a radical equivalence between narrative and identity, and I want to make another pass at its meaning in this essay, armed with insights derived from the recent work of the neurologist Antonio Damasio. Before turning to Damasio and his theories about the place of self and narrative in the structure of consciousness, however, I'd like to suggest the social implications of this Sacksian notion of narrative identity.

"This narrative is us, our identities"—surely the notion that what we are is a story of some kind is counterintuitive and even extravagant. Don't we know that we're more than that, that Sacks can't be right? And our instinctive recoil points to an important truth: there are many modes of self and self-experience, more than could possibly be represented in the kind of self-narration Sacks refers to, more than any [End Page 121] autobiography could relate. Developmental psychologists convince me, though, that we are trained as children to attach special importance to one kind of selfhood, that of the extended self, so much so that we do in fact regard it as identity's signature. The extended self is the self of memory and anticipation, extending across time. It is this temporal dimension of extended selfhood that lends itself to expression in narrative form of the kind Sacks posits as identity's core. For others, we are indeed versions of the extended self and its identity story; when we perform these stories, we establish ourselves for our interlocutors as normal individuals—something that Mr. Thompson tried to do, and failed.

If this picture of narrative identity I have sketched is correct, autobiography is not merely something we read in a book; rather, as a discourse of identity, delivered bit by bit in the stories we tell about ourselves day in and day out, autobiography structures our living. We don't, though, tend to give much thought to this process of self-narration precisely because, after years of practice, we do it so well. When this identity story system is ruptured, however, we can be jolted into awareness of the central role it plays in organizing our social world. I want to consider two events—one recent and one ten years old—that had this jolting power for me.

First, September 11. Erection of a viewing platform at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan testified to the desire of ordinary citizens to see for themselves what happened on that day. But how to see it? We are by now all too familiar with the devastating images of the towers' collapse, but in addition to this astonishing material event, in the days that followed we have had to reckon with the grievous rent in the social fabric produced by the sudden death of thousands. This social dimension of the catastrophe is harder to see, but I think that when the New York Times created "A Nation Challenged," a special section chronicling the aftermath of September 11, the paper helped us to see what cannot be seen from the viewing platform...


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