Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Is your life a redemption myth?

It may be good to see yourself as a hero

There are a few odd facts I like to tell people about myself: I was expelled from two high schools and came within an inch of failing out of a community college. My father and brother both went to prison. I seriously entertained fantasies about killing my stepfather.

I even worked these and other potentially embarrassing personal details into a book I wrote about my research on evolutionary social psychology. Not only am I happy to admit these things about myself—in a weird way, I'm proud of them.

Why? 

I recently attended a conference, and gave several talks to colleagues in which I unashamedly plugged the book. So why would I not hide the details of my nasty, lower-class background from these distinguished academics, many of whom were raised in respectable middle- and upper-class homes, and now reside in peaceful neighborhoods adjacent to pristine and distinguished universities? I got a possible answer from a talk by Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self.  Despite not being prone to embarrassment, my face may have turned a bright shade of crimson as I listened to his talk, which was a frank exposé of the gimmick behind my life story. It turns out, I have constructed what McAdams calls a redemption myth. It happens to be a common ailment—your life-story may well follow the redemption myth plot as well. Here are a few of the common elements:

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Obstacles that Toughen You Up

As McAdams notes in his book:

"[T]he protagonist … experiences a great deal of pain in life, but over time these negative scenes lead to especially positive outcomes, outcomes that might not have occurred had the suffering never happened in the first place."

Think of Harry Potter, living under the stairs and being constantly harassed by his brute of an uncle. In my life-story, there was a broken home, a heavy-drinking Irish subculture, and an explosive relationship with a violent step-father. And then there was the fact that I hit my teenage years as a scrawny geek in neighborhood full of beautiful Irish and Italian girls who were attracted to athletic, self-confident hoodlums.

But in my personal mythology, my experiences trying to fit in with the tougher set inspired me later to develop scientific research into the less gracious side of life, from sexual attraction to homicidal fantasies. 

A Special Power

Like Harry Potter or Clark Kent, people who see their lives as redemption myths are likely to feel that they had a special advantage early in life. In my case, I was rather deficient in magical skills, or the ability to leap over tall buildings in a single bound. (I was tall, but much shorter kids took great pleasure in slamming my basketball shots back in my face). But I had one advantage over most other kids in my neighborhood—schoolwork came easily to me, and I was fascinated with science. While my cooler friends were on the field perfecting their athletic abilities, I was in the library reading books about the discovery of Australopithecus or the natural history of Amazonian fish species. The inclination to absorb such information fed directly into my later theoretical interest in viewing human foibles through the lens of evolutionary biology. 

Setbacks

If all had gone smoothly after Harry Potter arrived at Hogwarts Academy, and he’d suddenly turned into a self-confident, successful wizard, the story would not have been interesting. As McAdams notes, setbacks are essential components of a good redemption myth. Some are self-imposed; others come from outside. In my own case, attempts to distance myself from intellectual nerdiness and fit in with the tougher crowd were the key ingredients in my expulsions from two high schools in the 9th grade, when I had begun hanging around with "the cool kids." Alas, I never did win their acceptance, but I spent four years trying, while getting barely passing grades even after I entered the New York public school system, which was considerably less rigorous than the Catholic schools from which I’d been evicted.  

A Triumphant Ending

A good myth has a happy ending, in which the protagonist overcomes all the obstacles, reverses his or her setbacks, and walks off into the sunset. Instead of ending up as a high school dropout—or an inmate—I earned a Ph.D. and became a college professor who has authored almost 200 research articles and books on topics from sex and murder to economics, religion, and the meaning of life. I live in a pristine, respectable neighborhood and go on bike rides at sunset with my charming and intelligent sons, one of whom is a talented film producer who occasionally collaborates with me to make nifty videos describing my research or my latest book. Tonight my wife and I will go out with two sophisticated colleagues, both of whom have Ph.D.s from Berkeley, and who have located yet another fine restaurant for swell people, with a haute cuisine tasting menu and a fancy wine list. 

What turned me around? I have had a few alternative plot twists. One was the threat of being drafted into the war in Vietnam. If I had in fact flunked out of college, as I appeared bound to do, I would have found myself in boot camp, surrounded by really tough guys, with guns, and a very real chance of dying in a war that had already claimed the lives of two friends, and that was becoming increasingly unpopular. Instead, I started hanging around with a group of intellectually oriented older students, and realized that I was a lot better suited to academia than life as a tough guy. Then there are the versions that focus on a couple of inspiring college professors who rekindled my childhood joy of learning. The whole truth is probably a complex combination of those factors, and a number of random lucky breaks.

Is It Bad to Have a Personal Myth?

McAdams points out that personal myths may involve a bit of self-deception and over-simplification. My story gives my stepfather a bad-guy role for his occasional violence, but skips the part about how I may have worn him down with years of rebellious adolescent eye-rolling and lack of gratitude for keeping me out of deeper trouble; moving the family out of a rough neighborhood into the middle-class suburbs; encouraging me to do well in school; and providing a role model of someone who could make something of himself. (He was an advertising executive on Madison Avenue, in the Mad Men era.) 

But in the end, it’s not all bad to view your life as a redemption myth. Indeed, McAdams finds that older people who view their lives as redemption stories are more likely to manifest what Erik Erikson called generativity– to seek to give something back to society and make the world a better place, not only for themselves, but for future generations. I like that part of the story, and I’ll take it as a license to feel proud not only of my brilliant sons, but also of my current and former students, who are valiantly continuing the battle for an integrative and biologically-informed science of psychology.

 

Doug Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. Besides a lot of cool scientific research, this book tells the story of all the obstacles Kenrick overcame in developing his personal myth.  Now available in paperback (and in German, Chinese, and Korean!)

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References 

McAdams, Dan P. (1993).  The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self.  New York: William Morrow. 

McAdams, D.P. (2006).  The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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