Over the last decade, trauma and testimony have been the meeting point for life narrative writers and readers, its lieux de memoire. Suzette Henke opens her book Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Writing with the sentence: ‘The twentieth century may well be remembered as a century of historical trauma’. By the end of the paragraph she is asking: ‘How have we survived, both individually and collectively, in the face of unimaginable trauma?’ How indeed?
For many, including Henke, one important answer to this is therapeutic personal writing. Yet other life writing critics have also been deeply sceptical of this response, while also raising concerns about dabbling with our own and other people’s emotions. They have asked: does teaching traumatic life story-writing retraumatise students? Does the circulation of tales of healing play into the commodification of suffering by publishers? Do therapeutic discourses legitimise the biographical invasion of privacy? And is life writing an effective cure for pain in any case?
My talk will map the debate, exploring the constituents who have stressed perceived benefits of life writing as therapy against those concerned with its boundaries. I will conclude with attention to ‘narrative therapy’, a distinctive method led by Australian practitioners and one that offers particularly interesting challenges to sceptical life writing critics.
Sarah Ailwood, The University of Canberra
Throughout the eighteenth century a number of women wrote and published life narratives in response to their experiences with the law, particularly where they felt that the justice system had failed them. Their narratives were often written from a situation of extreme financial distress and were written and published rapidly to publicise their own versions of events and engage with public discourse on their case.
Such narratives can also be considered as early instances of narrative therapy. Many women who published such narratives included a belief that the act of telling their story would improve their emotional wellbeing in the stated reasons for writing that often prefaced their texts. Furthermore, such life narratives had the therapeutic effect of enabling their writers to publicly define an identity or self in circumstances where the justice system had either silenced them or, due to the construct of legal personality, refused to recognise their existence.
This paper will examine Elizabeth Gooch’s Appeal to the Public on the Conduct of Mrs Gooch (1788) and Eliza Robertson’s Life and Memoirs of Eliza Frances Robertson (1802) as autobiographical acts that were prompted by and occurred within a specifically legal context and an overtly gendered public discourse. Both narratives were published while their writers were held in the Fleet Prison for debt, and reveal a therapeutic value for women who were victims of a patriarchal law and justice system: Gooch as a married woman denied property rights, and Robertson as a ‘female swindler’. The paper will also consider these life narratives in relation to ethical questions concerning truth-telling where the justice system has denied the writer a self and a voice, and in their advocacy of an ethics of care in place of the ethics of justice that dominated the legal system. Indeed, such life narratives can be considered as part of a broader discourse on law reform in relation to both married women’s property rights and insolvent debtors throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
PostSecret (http://www.postsecret.com) is an ongoing project focusing on the transmission of original handmade postcards containing personal secrets. Some of the cards are posted to the Internet every week on the PostSecret site while others are shown in galleries and/or printed in books. Via PostSecret anonymous individuals share secrets and memories using what Laurie McNeill calls “the grille of the internet” as a space for therapeutic confession and growth. PostSecret cards can be read as unique objects that explore both textual (the text on the card) and artistic (the image on the card) depictions of (often traumatic) memory.
In this paper, close readings of these artistic and deeply personal texts will be expanded upon by a discussion exploring the repercussions of moving the cards into different media and through both physical and digital spaces. ‘Remediation’ is a term used by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin to frame discussion surrounding the movement of objects between conventional and ‘new’ media forms. Concepts of ‘remediation’ will underpin the exploration of the effects on these life narrative texts as they move from collage/bricolage/artistic pieces (the original cards) to digital images (online) to printed media (PostSecret books) as well as the on and offline reading conventions that surround both the printed and digital versions of the cards.
This paper also explores postcards from the PostSecret website as life narrative texts which can be read as examples of autotopography. Autotopography is a concept used by Mieke Bal in her article “Autotopograpy: Lousie Bougeois As Builder” (Biography 2002) to explore concepts around using art to write a life.
“I could tell, describe, show my emotions, embellish characters, take stylistic risks, be poetic, and push the boundaries far beyond any other context for writing.” (Pushing the Envelope. Maureen Stanton, author of “Water”, November 2007)
With the increase in University based creative writing programs, ethics clearances and administrative frameworks impact upon a student writer’s choice of genre. Once it was accepted by feminists that the personal was political and the political personal, however, now more attention is paid to the creation of a textual ‘litigation free zone’. In this era of risk management is it possible to write Life writing texts in the academy? Is the answer a qualified ‘yes’ but only as autobiography or memoir?
What of creative non-fiction, faction and other hybrid forms? Often these are selected to ‘get around’ the administrative blockages of ethics clearance. In my own Ph.D. artefact I have chosen to situate my narrative as fiction yet I cannot completely delineate my own life experience from the text I am constructing. I am an active agent in the selection of characters, plot directions adhering to the traditional position of omniscient author/narrator whilst allowing my voice to be spoken through my characters. Thus I am both on the inside and the outside of the text. It is my life experience that situates the novel.
It gives credence to the cliché that every first novel is biographical, yet I also demand the creative right to embellish and distort perceived ‘truth’ and to construct non-truths and expositions that are rooted in time and place but are completely imaginary.
The reason I have chosen such hybrid form, is that I want my novel to be marketable; to stylistically adhere to the genre promoted as ‘hen lit’ or ‘nanna lit’ whilst at the same time nodding towards feminist literary fiction. The fear of course is that I am attempting to be a servant of two masters. But hey, isn’t faction a form of life writing?
‘Eccentrics require new kinds of biographies, but they may be so “dishevelled—in such dishabille from their long obscurity and fantastic behaviour” that they will be illegible. Illness requires a new kind of language—but it may be illegible.’ (Hermione Lee, citing Virginia Woolf's ‘The Eccentrics’1)
Life writing requires a critical investigation of the ethics of writing the stories of selves and others. But theoretical writing also requires a similar consideration. In writing about representations of women’s ‘madness’ in Australian novels, a set of questions has emerged for me: Who am I to write about madness? Is there an objective critical standpoint, or is this simply a posture of critical distance? What is my speaking position? What does it mean to write about women’s madness?
The figure of the madwoman in literature has engendered many critical debates about the politics of women’s ‘madness’. These debates circulate around who names ‘madness’, who experiences it, who classifies it, and who controls it, such that women’s madness has become both a symbol of feminist protest against confining regimes of gender and culture, and a sign of disagreement about the validity of this very positioning within feminist interpretation. The madwoman’s occupation of these opposing positions enacts a bipolar split in feminist discourse.
Most writing about women’s madness uses conventional literary interpretive approaches, so that the ‘madwoman’ and ‘her’ discourse act as a series of figures, tropes, texts and subtexts to be analysed and interpreted by the feminist literary critic. This reproduces the figures of the analyst and analysand of the psychoanalytic relationship. This is, of course, a certain type of relationship: the feminist critic acts as the arbiter of knowledge about the literary madwoman, decoding her ‘madness’, explicating it, deconstructing it, and linking it to the over-arching socio-cultural framework in which women’s madness has been produced and reproduced. This may take the form of an investigation of the heroine’s psychic topography, or a textual analysis of the patriarchal machinery that engendered it, or a discourse analysis, amongst a range of useful critical approaches. Within these critical and discursive frameworks, ‘madness’ becomes the site and terrain of women’s inequality and gendered oppression. Such approaches have served useful purposes, and raised important questions about the institutionalisation of gendered inequality, as well as interrogating the violence and inadequacy of psychiatric discourse and psychiatric institutions to understand feminine experience, whether disordered or not.
This paper engages with that discursive terrain, but in staging a dialogue between the madwoman in literature and the feminist literary critic, seeks to make visible the ‘fiction of the disembodied scholar’2 deployed in textual criticism. Rather than speaking about the madwoman, I take up a range of positions, sometimes speaking as the madwoman, sometimes as the feminist critic. In alternating between these poles, I wish to enact the split in feminist theory, destabilising the authorial voice of the objective scholar, undermining the authority of that voice, while continuing to lay some claim to it. Inhabiting multiple speaking positions, and making available multiple ways of speaking about madness, this paper takes up a polyvocal arrangement, discordant and offbeat in its strategies, and fictocritical in its tactics and stylistics. It is therefore an incursion into, rather than an interpretation of, women’s ‘madness’ and of the madwoman in literature.
Neither life writing in the conventional sense, nor analysis within the literary interpretive schema, this fictocritical incursion is a hybrid of fictional strategies, personal experience and feminist scholarship that interrogates the cultural construction of women’s madness.
While life writing has therapeutic effects, it may also have deleterious effects, for author/subject, others contained in the writing, and readers. Because of life writing’s reliance on memory and the fact that memory is malleable and flexible, what gets inscribed on a page can be a version of what happened; in effect, the writing creates the event. The writer is always the first reader, and the document may have positive and negative effects. If the document is published, the possible difficulties are expanded. The practice of life writing (in its creative nonfiction form) by its very nature introduces a tension between what was and what is perceived (in a way history writers have a similar challenge). Creative nonfiction exacerbates the challenge of this tension by the demands of creativity, as does all writing, to some extent, as I believe that all writing is an act of creation. The truth of a situation shifts depending on point of view, time, and perhaps the emotional complexity and intensity of the event.
This paper begins from the assumption that those who are engaged in an act of life writing, no matter how modest or how ambitious in scope, are doing so for complicated and multiple reasons, which may or may not become explicit before, during or after the life writing project. Within such a multi-faceted framework, this writer took advantage of any resources that he could find in order to produce a final draft of 50,000 words.
I discuss the way a number of literary texts assisted in the completion of this life writing project. Among the diverse books ‘mined’ for their resource potential were: Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, Raymond Gaita’s Romulus My Father, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Isabel Allende’s Paula, and Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
This discussion will describe the different roles each of these books played in enabling me to reach the end of a major life writing project. It will also present and discuss a particular scene from my own manuscript, analysing how it came to be written, some of the ethical issues involved, as well as the more general lessons learned about, and unexpected ideas generated from, this kind of writing.
Over recent years in Australia several public inquiries into past institutional oppression of people living with disability, as well as public consultations that reveal the marginalized and troubled life conditions of many people living with disability and their families/carers have garnered significant public and political attention. Public testimony in these fora is understood as life-writing in a highly charged environment that privileges narratives of suffering and blame. It seems that as well as serving immediate (and often contradictory) political goals such as an espoused commitment to change, the need for the legitimation of authority for policy making and/or shifting responsibility to other players, these reports form part of an ongoing evidence base within policy advocacy and development.
Drawing on thinking about the diminished moral status of people with disability (contributed to by impairment and the multiple impacts of social rejection and oppression) and named as ‘affliction’ (Weil) this presentation explores the ambiguous moral assumptions implicated in moving from the ‘twilight of knowing’ (Haebich) into public testimony as stories revealed in therapeutic space are moved into public space via understandings of private pain and public issues (Mills). The presentation employs concepts of recognition, decency and justice to critique current practice in this area and to explore ethical engagement with vulnerable populations seeking justice.
The autobiographer tells her story for many reasons, including the wish to communicate to others what it is like to be in her shoes. The psychoanalytic psychotherapist on the other hand, keeps her story to herself in order to make a space for the therapy. This is an ideal only. In practice, therapists inevitably reveal things about themselves but it is important that such revelations not occur gratuitously and not without reference to their meaning for the person in therapy.
In December 2008 I presented a paper to an audience of psychoanalytic colleagues on the topic of narcissism, autobiography and what happens when the therapist writes a memoir. The fallout from this presentation – marked polarisation of views on whether or not I had violated professional boundaries – is still under debate. In this paper I aim to explore the complexity of my audience’s response in the context of the autobiographical elements that may have triggered it, particularly my references within the paper to childhood sexual abuse.
Incest is not merely an intrapsychic experience, nor simply a narrative construction. Historically and up to the present day, it continues to be problematic in the telling, as incest narratives are deemed unreliable. There is uncertainty about what actually happened and also difficulty in securing an empathic audience. To this extent, the power of incest lies in the persistent belief that incest happens to other people – the poor, the coloured, the unworthy – not to us. To talk about incest therefore as an event in the life of the therapist is to add a dimension that goes beyond a mere breach in the rules against therapist self-disclosure, into the realm of taboo. This resonates within the history of the psychoanalytic professional family, Freud’s efforts to set clear guidelines and the inevitable transgressions and boundary violations that have followed.
When the therapist is also a writer of autobiography and her writing enters the public sphere and is therefore potentially accessible by her patients, an added dimension enters the work, especially in the telling of incest, which I consider in light of further developments both in the therapeutic field and also in autobiographical theory. This paper addresses the collision of these two worlds, of autobiography and therapy, in the telling of incest, when the witness, is both writer and therapist and there follows an immediate call to be silent.
In this paper I use my family story as a case study to explore the ethics of relational story-telling that exposes family secrets. Michel Foucault argues that the stain of incest is part of the fabric of the bourgeois family. In the majority of stories of incest, there has been a process of covering up, of secrets and lies concealing the stain. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari propose that the only acceptable, ethical subjectivity is a continuous process of self-enrichment in relation to the world, a production that embraces ruptures of meaning in the fabric of dysfunctional and hegemonic forms of subjectification. My story interprets the family story through a Deleuzian ethic of productive desire that exposes and exorcises the hidden stain of incest as an absent cause driving the failure of my parents’ marriage and of my family life. Secrets that cannot be told drive stories and are perpetuated with each re-telling of the story. In my telling of the family story I disclose the absence of meaning and seek to free myself from the secret, performing what Deleuze and Guattari call a schizoanalysis, that, by rupturing the ‘sense’ of a dysfunctional pattern of relationship, allows new ways of relating to self and others and new rhythms of existence to emerge. Out of loss and non-sense comes survival and the revival of an exhausted terrain.
Relational story-telling raises ethical complexities that are shared by all forms of life narrative that cross the boundary between autobiography and therapy. The act of publication in any medium takes the (shared) private story into the public domain. I argue that the author is responsible primarily to her- or himself, and that there is no simple solution to the ethical dilemma of how much to tell, to whom, and in what medium. We have to write from the heart and take the consequences when we are ready to tell.
Collaborative life writing is defined here as the book-length written account of a subject’s life produced by a writer on the basis of an oral account produced by the subject during the course of a series of interviews, often continuing over several years. Ethical dilemmas unique to collaborative life writing arise out of the tensions between the writer’s professional responsibility to the text and their responsibility to the writer-subject relationship. However, the production of the written text is only one side of the story. On the other side is the production of the subject’s oral account or self-narration. The site of this self-narration is the interview and the role of the writer is that of listener. This paper examines some of the ethical issues associated with this largely overlooked side of the collaborative life writing process.
Self-narration is increasingly understood by philosophers and psychologists as the defining act of the human subject, not only descriptive of the self, but fundamental to its emergence and its reality.1 What are the ethical implications of the life writer’s intervention in this process? This question becomes especially acute when the psychotherapeutic qualities of the interview are considered. While self-narration may be psychologically beneficial, it can also have its dangers, especially when subjects are recounting traumatic life events. Rosenthal (2004) considers that ‘To guide a biographical-narrative conversation, which is also always an intervention, sound training is necessary’.2 Few collaborative life writers would have such training and many may find themselves in emotionally charged situations for which they are ill equipped. What are their ethical responsibilities in such situations?
As John Paul Eakin (2004) observes, ‘the question “What is it good to be?” is central to the project of living—and writing—any life’.3 Ultimately, writers must find a balance between what is good for the text, what is good for the subject and what is good for themselves as professional and ethical beings.
2 Rosenthal, G. (2004) ‘The healing effects of storytelling: on the conditions of curative storytelling in the context of research and counseling’, in Biographical Research Methods, ed. R Miller, SAGE, London. p.360
Writing your lifestories is not intended to be emotional or psychological therapy or a substitute for such work under the guidance of a professional psychologist. Yet lifewriting sometimes conveys benefits very similar to therapy. (Denis Ledoux, 1993)
The classes were life changing for me—writing became a means of expression when little else was available—it gave my life a focus and a purpose for getting up in the morning—I was encouraged as my health slowly improved. (ET, Kiama workshop participant, May 9 2009)
I have a better appreciation of the contribution of our local library to the social health of the community. (FT, Kiama workshop participant, May 9 2009)
There is no doubt that for many participants of community life writing projects, life writing is therapeutic. The therapeutic model pioneered by James Pennebaker (Pennebaker, 1997, 2000, 1995) together with recent research (Lowe, 2006; Murphy & Neilsen, 2008; Murray, 2009) indicates a move to the ‘medicalisation’ of life writing carried out by psychologists or health professionals where one of the core competencies is the completion of an approved counselling or therapy course (Flint, Hamilton, & Williamson, 2004).
This paper explores an alternative model using a creative writing approach to the teaching of life writing where participants develop a ‘voice’ (Elbow, 2007) through the introduction of poetry and fiction using techniques such as free writing, mapping, writing from the senses, and changing points of view, such as giving voice to inanimate objects. Participants are encouraged to keep a writing journal. Some of the techniques provide a means of ‘distancing’ that allows participants to explore their life experiences from a variety of perspectives. A key part is the process of sharing stories (Elbow & Belanoff, 1989).
These techniques were developed initially as a result of facilitating life writing workshops as part of a community writing and art project for ‘people in crisis’ in 2000 and have evolved from research and reflective practice during twelve years of facilitating community life writing workshops. This paper focuses on three projects ‘The Way We Were’ (funded by a personal cultural grant from Kiama Municipal Council); ‘The Mosman Intergenerational Biography Project for Schools’ (Mosman Municipal Council, 2008) and ‘Capturing Kiama Memories’ a Kiama Library oral history and life writing project funded by the State Library of NSW.
My teaching practice is underpinned by the pioneering life writing works of Sydney Butler and Roy Bently (Bentley & Butler, 1988; S. Butler & Bentley, 1995, 1997; S. J. Butler, 1985); the pedagogy of Peter Elbow (Elbow, 1986, 2000); and Donald Schon (Schon, 1991).
In Rose Boys, the death and funeral of sporting personality Robert Rose acts as a kind of inevitable climax to a family narrative of suffering and life curtailed. In describing the funeral, the subject’s brother Peter Rose summarises his eulogy, eloquently stating the auto/biographical impulse and purpose of Rose Boys:
I was determined to express my revulsion at the suffering inflicted on Robert. I described it as grotesquely cruel, like a stupid, vicious swipe from the gods. I wanted the high ceilings and elongated crosses to resound with some kind of refusal, however feeble. I spoke about Robert’s sporting career. Many in the church, I knew, were unfamiliar with his record. I drew on crucial incidents and images, some of which will be familiar to readers of this book […] Then I turned to my consolations: Robert’s closeness to Salli and my parents and his genius for friendship. (283)
Three distinct purposes can be identified here, each an insight into the demands placed on this form of text as it functions in the public realm. The first is the desire to bear witness to suffering in a way that sufficiently decries such experience as abnormal, unjust, or inhumane – Rose’s desire for the church to “resound with some kind of refusal.” The second purpose, the central focus of more traditional sport’s biographies, may seem mundane in comparison – “I spoke about Robert’s sporting career” – yet is key in establishing a narrative of loss, of the life curtailed. Finally there is the notion of tribute, what Rose calls “my consolations”, the documentation and celebration of the subject’s achievements that go beyond sporting success to memorialise a kind of ethical or moral ‘life well lived’. It is these three features of Robert Rose’s life which Rose Boys revolves around, yet it is the interaction of these features, the way they affect and rely upon each other, which is most illuminating. Furthermore, Rose Boys is not only a tribute to a brother, but also to the author’s parents. It is a celebration and portrait of uniquely relational lives.
This paper will explore the relationship between storytelling and life narrative through a consideration of some of the stories emerging from a community arts project which took place in Merseyside, UK, between 2005 and 2007. The arts project was part of a larger Lottery funded project entitled In the Picture, which was managed by disability charity Scope and aimed to promote inclusive children’s books and media to the book world. The ‘Stories’ strand of this project involved disabled people and families of disabled children writing children’s stories, which were then illustrated or animated by art, design and multimedia students. I traced the processes and outcomes of the project through participant-observation, interviews and analysis of the stories that emerged from the project.
While the stories emerging from this project were fictional, they drew heavily on the experiences of disablement of their authors and their authors’ families. It became clear through interviews that a number of these narratives present fictionalised resolutions to real-life difficulties. Drawing on autoethnography as well as more conventional methods, this paper explores the ethical meanings of such fictionalized ‘solutions’ in the context of the critique by disability theorists of therapeutic discourses and narratives of cure.
The rise of participatory media technologies has resulted in a rise in the production and circulation of life narratives, and increasingly many cultural institutions, such as libraries, museums, government departments, and universities, perceive a need to use these technologies to diversify their engagement with the community and, in some cases, extend their acquisition practices and strategies. One result of this has been that many cultural institutions are now engaging in the solicitation, collection, construction, archiving and exhibition of life stories from people in the community by opening themselves up to “user generated content” and, in many instances, actively seeking out contributions from specific community members such as young people and migrants.
In my current research into the practice of digital storytelling – undertaken by organisations such as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the BBC, and Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum – I have come up against a methodological conundrum regarding how to interpret and theorise the role of cultural institutions in the occasioning and archiving of life narrative through the framework of participatory media. This problem is to be able to clearly articulate the ethical dimensions which are inherent in the institutional occasioning of life narrative. This problem is complicated by the discourse of democratic participation which comes with participatory media, which appears to elide attention to the ethics of representation by replacing it with an assumption that (democratically achieved) representation is inherently good.
When looking at digital storytelling, in the first instance we can recognise that the institutions seek to enact the democratic potential long associated with digital technologies by opening up their traditionally highly managed and curated cultural spaces to “everyday people” by soliciting their contribution. However, as Liz Stanley, Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith (among others) have noted, the thorny issue of power cannot be overlooked when examining sites of narrative construction which are institutionalised or intersect with institutional interests and practices.
In this paper I will outline the ethical issues I perceive to be present in the practice of digital storytelling, and invite contributions on how best to theorise and articulate these issues to avoid a good/bad dichotomy in assessing the practice of institutional occasioning of life narrative.
When my mother told me she’d been to a reunion of 32 White Meadow Lake women on the East coast of Florida, the women I grew up with in the 1960s in New Jersey, I was delighted. They would be one of the subjects of my research: the 32 women, the daughters of Eastern European migrants, born in New York in the 1920s and 30s, now living in Florida in their retirement.
The second group would be the 15 older Jewish women, many from Europe, the Middle East and South Africa, now living in Caulfield Victoria, who I’ve worked with before in life writing workshops and recently on a collaborative digital storytelling project in 2008, Living Memories ( www.livingmemories.net.au ). They would be the subjects too, with stories of the effects of childhood homes lost, of language and cultural adaptations and the nature of home and homeland.
My study aims to locate their stories in a field of research about representation and memory; to showcase their stories and some re-fashioned ones in a range of media: digital, photography, performance and writing and to foreground the pedagogy that helps to produce the stories. The research proposes to actively interrogate and re-work the past and identity.
One of the critical questions in my research concerns the ‘remembrance learning’ (Roger Simon, 2005) that comes out of group activities and shared narratives as participants continue to compose their lives. Does the ‘social act of remembering’ enable the women to construct new stories and images of themselves resisting history, their aging bodies and their particular experience? Are the stories still true if they’ve been altered substantially through the collaborative group work? Whose stories are they now?
Another critical question concerns the compelling inter-subjectivity and tension that exists in and between the groups. There’s their past and present identities and the way each shapes and determines the other (McLeod and Thompson, 2008), their comfort with certain stories and discomfort with others, the stories that present memories through facts and those that are clearly imagined and perhaps contested within the group and between the old familiar stories and the newly constructed ones. There’s the relationships between the individual members of the groups and finally between the group of women and this researcher. This inter-subjectivity in the relationships between the subjects, the stories and the researcher is central. (Passerini, 2002)
An examination of the self as it fits (or misfits) within the socio-cultural political worlds it inhabits is the task of autoethnographic writers such as myself. Because we operate in, on and through the world our stories inevitably involve others. My story – of the rise and fall of intimacy in my now defunct marriage places my ex husband as a central character. In this presentation I sketch out the research tensions I faced in the work of my doctoral thesis, of, on the one hand, sensitively and ethically addressing the vulnerability we both face in the revelation of an often shabby tale, and on the other hand using this method to expose and resist the social injustices and systems of oppression that stand in the way of community transformations and personal healing. By example I share several story vignettes; discuss the ways in which I met the ethical and methodological challenges of writing a story of ‘us’, and the response of the examiners to these important considerations.
In 1992 Susan Snaider Lanser wrote,
I assume that regardless of any woman writer’s ambivalence towards authoritative institutions and ideologies, the act of writing a novel and seeking to publish it … is implicitly a quest for discursive authority: a quest to be heard, respected and believed, a hope of influence.1
While Lanser goes onto question such textual authority, this statement, made in regard to writing novels, points to a desire, not just for publication, but for authority. Is it possible that a similar desire drives the writing of a life narrative? If so, what are we to make of this desire in terms of a therapeutic life narrative? Since Lanser made her claim seventeen years ago life narratives have become increasingly popular. Does this reflect a shift in how the desire for ‘discursive authority’ is sought?
In her text Lanser examined novels that ‘engage questions of authority specifically through their production of narrative voice’.2 I intend to turn a similar lens onto life narrative, specifically the life narrative of Janet Mason Ellerby3 who in 2001 published a text that combined academic discourse and personal memoir. Ellerby’s text is both a critical analysis of numerous women’s memoirs and relates her own life story. In 2007 she published Following the Tambourine Man: A Birthmother’s Memoir.4 These two texts offer a unique opportunity to examine the relationship between therapeutic life narrative, academic discourse, narrative voice and the ‘quest to be heard, respected and believed’. This is of particular interest for the Creative Writing Ph.D candidate who needs to cultivate both an academic and ‘creative’ voice. Through a close reading of both texts I hope to discern shifts in Ellerby’s narrative voice within her first text and whether the voice in the second text different from the first. How does the narrative voice employed by Ellerby reveal a desire for ‘discursive authority’ and what is to be gained by combining the personal narrative voice with the academic narrative voice?
Antjie Krog is best known as the writer who evocatively exposed the individual and collective trauma revealed during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in her prose work Country of My Skull (1998). Various forms of trauma are also explored in her primary mode of literary expression: poetry. Krog’s poetry, written predominantly in the confessional style, often draws on her domestic life for its subject matter. These poems are devoted to detailing the love and nurturance, but also the violence, which occurs within family life. Yet her poetry simultaneously shows an awareness of the (symbolic) violence she commits against her family in the writing of their life. More keenly, as a well-known writer and a prominent public intellectual, it is the publication of these poems which causes Krog to undergo intellectual and artistic agony.
My paper will discuss the ethical dilemmas enacted in Krog’s confessional figuring of her family. This discussion will be fueled by an analysis of particular poems from Down to My Last Skin (2000) (the first English-language publication of a wide selection of Krog’s self-translated Afrikaans poems). These poetic revelations will be read against the presumably more straightforward autobiographical revelations on this subject made by Krog in interviews and articles. In this discussion, I hope to move through the ethical dilemmas inherent in writing one’s own, and one’s family’s, story, to the ethical potential provided by the confessional form.
‘To me my texts are elements of a whole which interweaves my own story, are the seasons, days in the Great Year of my life .’ (Hèlène Cixous)
Autoethnography is a form of personal narrative that reveals the writer’s experience of life and therefore shares similarities with epistolary tradition. Both forms of writing bridge gaps in cultural understandings. This paper compares the two forms, emphasizing what the autoethnographic self reflexive process can bring to epistolary novels.
During the last twenty years, a significant number of epistolary novels have appeared many of them written by women in postcolonial cultures. These narratives are written from the position of the other in a culture in which they have been traditionally voiceless and thus powerless. However, a growing field of research and practice is the idea that human life is a storied one and that this story can empower the individual.
Autoethnographies, or narratives of self are highly personalized accounts that draw upon the experiences of the author/researcher for the purposes of extending sociological understanding. However, many of these autoethnographic emotionally explicit narrations have been criticised as being self–indulgent revelations of personal anguish. Thus the autoethnographic novel must be more than cathartic, more than the story of two penfriends, or an exploration of history and culture: it must also be political and hopefully move people to action.
In reverence and using rich colours 18 th century artist Joseph Wright depicts a life under pressure as experiment and entertainment in the same way that social scientists today are using life writing as offerings in research. This presentation looks at an example of this and discusses the ethical implications of using narrative over a two year period as an honest and therapeutic journey into a new understanding of self. The painting, An experiment on a bird in an air pump, depicts philosopher/scientist, bird as subject and onlookers. A vacuum is used to deprive the bird of oxygen that will eventually lead to its death.
The writer of life narrative is story and story teller, researcher and subject. The writer must consider the ethics of using family, friends and self in the story and this writing experiment uses metaphor and symbols to both entertain and protect others. But the self cannot be protected if a therapeutic value is to be had. The writer must tell the truth. Here the end is predicted to justify the means. The metaphor of vacuum is used to describe a life that is under pressure from work in academia as an Aboriginal woman, studying part time and coming to terms with trans-generational trauma. That in being aware of the conditions of vacuum, pressure from within and without, in naming this space the bird will become cognizant of its own storied demise and that a new ending can be written. The bird can rescue itself. That in controlling your own story or mythology of self, in being both researcher and subject the outcome can be known. The storyteller also calls on her ancestral tradition of Indigenous use of story work in reverence and richness as seen in the painting of this bird.
"The Story of the Story" is proudly supported by the Flinders Humanities Research Centre for Cultural Heritage and Cultural Exchange: