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?

Harry Potter, Rocky Balboa, You and Me

There are a few odd facts I like to tell people about myself: that I was expelled from two high schools and that I came within an inch of failing out of a community college, for example; that my father and my brother both went to prison; and that I seriously entertained fantasies about killing my stepfather.  In fact, 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, I am, in a weird way, proud of them.  Why? 

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference, and I gave several talks to my colleagues, in which I unashamedly plugged the book (fresh out in paperback, in case you want more of the lurid details).  Why would I not hide the details of my lower-class nasty-ass 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 to this question when I attended a talk by Dan McAdams.  And despite the fact that I am not that prone to embarrassment, my face may well have turned a bright shade of crimson as I sat listening to his talk, which gave a frank exposé of the gimmick behind my life story: I have constructed what McAdams calls a “Redemption Myth!”  And it turns out that it’s a common ailment: Indeed, your life-story may well follow the redemption myth plot as well.  Here are a few of the common plot elements.

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Obstacles that Toughen You Up.  As McAdams notes in his book The Redemptive Self: “the 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 nasty 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 gangly geek in neighborhood full of beautiful Irish and Italian girls who were attracted to athletic and self-confident hoodlums.  But in my personal mythology, my experiences trying to fit in with the tougher set inspired me to later develop scientific programs of 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 either magical abilities, or the ability to leap over tall buildings in a single bound (despite the fact that I was tall, much shorter kids took great pleasure in slamming my basketball shots back in my face).  But I had one advantage over most of the other kids in my neighborhood -- schoolwork came quite easily to me, and I was fascinated with science.  While my cooler friends were out on the ball field perfecting their athletic abilities, I was hidden away in the library reading books about the discovery of Austropithecus or about the natural history of Amazonian fish species.  The inclination to absorb information about such topics eventually fed directly into my later theoretical interests 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 and successful rich kid, the story would not have been interesting.  As McAdams notes, setbacks are essential components of a good Redemption Myth.  Some of them are self-imposed, others come from outside.  In my own case, my 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.  Both my expulsions happened in the 9th grade, at the time I had begun hanging around with the cool kids.  Alas, I never did win acceptance with the cool kids, but I spent the next four years continuing to try, and 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 manages to overcome all the obstacles, reverse the setbacks, and walk off into the sunset.  Instead of ending up as a high school dropout or a Sing Sing inmate, I earned a Ph.D., and became a college professor who has authored almost 200 research articles and books on fascinating topics ranging all the way from sex and murder to economics, religion, and the meaning of life.  I live in one of those pristine respectable neighborhoods, and get to 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 up nifty videos describing my research or my latest book (stay tuned for the next installment!).  Tonight my wife and I will go out with two of my sophisticated colleagues, both of whom have Ph.D.s from Berkeley, and who have located yet another fine restaurant for swell people, complete with a haute cuisine tasting menu and a fancy wine list. 

What eventually turned me around?  I have had a few alternative plot twists to deal with that question.  One of my favorites is 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 quickly found myself in boot camp, back 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 of my friends, and that was becoming increasingly unpopular.  An alternative version focuses on the fact that I started hanging around with a group of intellectually oriented older college students, and realized that I was a whole lot better suited to an academic life than to a life as a tough guy.  Then there are the versions that focus on a couple of inspiring college professors, who rekindled the childhood joy of learning.  The truth is probably a complex combination of those factors, and any 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. For example, the story above 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 our rough neighborhood and 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 worked as an advertising executive on Madison Avenue, in the MadMan 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 to 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 scienfitic 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!)

Related blogs:

Zen and the Art of Embracing Rejection.  

What Do sex and murder have to do with the meaning of life?

Have you had a homicidal fantasy today

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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