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Self-Portrait in a Skewed Mirror

You're more than the star and author of your own life story. You're also the spin master. How you tell your tale reveals whether you see yourself as victim or victor, even when your story veers from the life you lived.

When she was 35, Margaret Sands took her teenage daughter on a cross-country trip to her former Catholic boarding school. But the point of the visit wasn't to stroll the grounds and reminisce.

It was to break into the chapel, long since abandoned, and "rip the place apart." After she jimmied her way inside, Margaret punched the pulpit and made blasphemous gestures to the icons. With her car keys, she inscribed a message on the chapel doors: "I hate nuns. They beat children." Then she calmly told her daughter that they could leave.

Margaret says she was primed for trauma. Her mother, a glamorous writer and actress, and her father, an alcoholic opera singer, had always been mismatched. They divorced when she was 4, packing her off to boarding school for a period she calls "The Institutionalization of a Human Being—Ages 5 to 10." There she suffered at the hands of abusive nuns. "I was abandoned and left with pathetic old women," Margaret says. "Those years have haunted me ever since."

At 12, she ran away from a second school, "a dumping ground for street people and incorrigible youth." She made her way to a Walgreen's, had a bowl of chili at the counter and then called her mother from a pay phone, telling her she'd never see her again if she wasn't allowed to come home. "I blackmailed her," Margaret says.

As a teenager, Margaret was rebellious, and at age 21, she found herself pregnant and unmarried. Urged to give up her baby for adoption, Margaret agreed but then kept her daughter after a last-minute showdown with hospital personnel.

"You can't tamper with the foundation" and expect a fulfilled human being to emerge, Margaret says of what she calls her "wasted life." Telling the story at age 45, a full decade after journeying back to the scene of her troubled youth, she expresses determination to provide her daughter with the foundation she lacked. She sees her brazen act of vandalism as a sign that she has actively rejected her abusers and closed the door on the trauma she endured.

Margaret, like the rest of us, has turned the raw material of her life into a narrative, complete with heroes and villains, plot, theme and epiphany. To Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the up-and-coming field of narrative psychology who studied Margaret's saga, the life story represents the construction of personal identity at its core. "We are all tellers of tales, and we seek to provide our scattered and often confusing experiences with a sense of coherence by arranging the episodes of our lives," he states. "Starting in late adolescence, we manufacture our dramatic personal myths by selectively mining some experiences and neglecting or forgetting others."

Yet it would be wrong to say we're deluded, or to suggest that because the stories are skewed, they can't possibly be true. "We aren't telling ourselves lies; we're composing heroic narratives that tell us essential truths about ourselves," says McAdams.

In the Beginning

We start writing our life stories from the moment we're born. While infants don't sustain a sense of autobiographical continuity, early relationships set the stage for stories they will one day tell. The attachment formed between baby and primary caregiver determines what McAdams calls the "tone" of narrative identity, ranging from hopeless pessimism to boundless optimism. A baby with a secure attachment, he says, will grow up to craft sunnier plotlines. Small children, meanwhile, absorb the symbols of their future narrative from the world around them: Religious icons, fairy tales told at bedtime and inviting (or intimidating) neighborhood streets all enter the mix.

In early childhood, we learn storytelling from our parents. Mothers and fathers who provide coherent, emotion-rich narratives of family life have children who develop more coherent narratives of their own life experience by the end of the preschool years, says Robin Fivush, professor of psychology at Emory University. (Such kids reap additional cognitive and social benefits from narrative wizardry, Fivush notes.)

And gender plays a role. Parents describe the past in more elaborate ways when talking to girls. When mothers talk to daughters about an unfortunate event, they are likely to provide some sort of emotional resolution, for instance, "That was sad when your guinea pig died, but we got you another one!" Boys are often left to find the emotional center themselves.

There are gendered formats to our tales, says Avril Thorne, a psychologist studying narrative memory at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Men tend to tell John Wayne-type narratives: 'I wrecked my bike at 1,000 miles per hour and hit a tree. I broke my leg in five places,'" she points out. "Women will give the story a Florence Nightingale spin: 'My neck was broken, but I was worried about my mother because she wouldn't open her eyes.'"

The Teenage Mythmaker

Our early training leads, in adolescence, to a knack for spinning a fantastical narrative of the self. "Life becomes mythic in our teenage years," a time of sexual awakening and the onset of abstract thought, when we actively search for who we are, McAdams explains. Many teens imagine extraordinary feats, from rock superstardom to discovering new cures for disease.

By late adolescence the most fanciful of these myths give way to more realistic stories about family, friends and the experience of growing up. These later stories, which connect the teen to his past and explain where he fits in the world, are the ones that will drive his narrative identity for many years to come.

Noah Baumbach, now 36, actually lived out his boyhood fable, by becoming a writer and director who mines his own youth for celluloid gold: "In good and bad ways, I thought of myself as a filmmaker long before I was a filmmaker," he says. Baumbach reconstructs his parents' devastating divorce in the 1980s, along with first love, first break up and a helping of teen despair, in his latest movie The Squid and the Whale.

Baumbach views his late twenties and thirties as a time in which he had to consciously grow into his own myth, in large part by shedding some of the richly symbolic memories that he used to paint himself as an auteur before he really was.

"The story of the squid and the whale [found in the American Museum of Natural History] was a totem from my childhood," he says. "Making the movie was a way to obliterate that stuff and make new totems, instead." In assembling a CliffsNotes to his or her own emotional history, a teen begins compiling "self-defining memories" such as Baumbach's treasured museum expeditions. According to Jefferson Singer, professor of psychology at Connecticut College, self-defining memories are inevitably trotted out whenever adolescent soul-baring conversations take place. Such memories also provide narrative structure—much as a novel might have a theme and plot—for the rest of the life story to come.

The memories formed during adolescence are chock-full of "firsts": first kiss, the moment you knew you were gay, and so on. Because these incidents are predictive of future life chapters and versions of possible selves, they are the strongest and most frequently replayed memories. Psychologist David Rubin of Duke University has tested people for recall in areas from the Academy Awards to the World Series to big band tunes, and documented what he calls "a memory bump," in which middle-aged and older adults remember most vividly events that happened between the ages of 10 and 30, precisely when narrative identity takes shape.

In our early 20s, the "bumps" that will form the core narrative are still in flux. If you ask college students to tell you their most important memories, and then surprise them six months later by asking again, they will repeat stories at a rate of just 12 percent, Thorne found. Even when asked specifically, "What is your first memory?" subjects will rarely mention the same one twice. "Young adults have a high density of stored and retrievable memorable events," she says. "If we'd studied 60- or 70-year-olds, they probably would have selected an earliest memory that is the one they tell and retell. But [twentysomethings] don't have things tagged as the 'only one.'"

American Redemption

While each life story is unique, many people stick to culturally sanctioned scripts. Dan McAdams, for instance, has found that Americans, especially successful ones, often spin tales of redemption.

Take Sheila Cavanaugh, 45, whose young life was fraught with challenge. Growing up as one of eight children, she had three siblings with muscular dystrophy and a sister who died as a baby. When she was 20, their house burned down, and they lost all of their possessions. (Cavanaugh was about to spend her junior year abroad and salvaged only her plane ticket and passport from the flames.) At the age of 26, she had a stroke, after which she had to learn how to speak again and then to control a stutter. Today, however, she is a senior vice president of Fidelity Investments and a mother of three. Cavanaugh filters these facts through her thematic lens. "You can lose everything and start over, and there is value in that," she says. "Life in my family taught me that you have to work very hard to get what you want."

If Americans have a counterpoint to the redemption story, McAdams says, it is the contamination narrative: Once everything was perfect. Then something happened (a divorce, an accident), and things were never the same. The protagonist of a contamination story is a victim. "It's 'I got thrown out of the Garden of Eden because I bit into the apple, and there's no way I can get back in there because I'm already corrupted,'" McAdams explains.

"I'm 41 years old, but I still feel kind of lost," says Tanya Williams, a mother of four quoted in McAdams' book, The Re-demptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. "I know what to do when I get up every day, but do I really know where I am going?" As she tells it, she inherited her father's "love of the street," embarking on a dangerous life in her early teenage years. By age 13, she was drinking. By age 15, she was experimenting with drugs.

Even the high points in Tanya's life are tinged with disappointment. "Among midlife American adults, the birth of one's first child is the single most commonly told life-story high point," McAdams says. "And so it is for Tanya. But Tanya does not end the telling with the baby's birth. Instead, she immediately flashes forward three years. 'The baby's father was killed, you know. Stabbed in the back five times, found dead in a motel room,' she says." Tanya did not have to tell her story this way, McAdams observes. "But that is how she thinks of the sequence, reinforcing her belief that 'In general, good things do not happen to me.'"

The typical American narrative, meanwhile, differs dramatically from those reported by the Chinese, says psychologist Qi Wang of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. Wang found that while American children provide elaborate and detailed personal memories, Chinese children serve up just skeletal accounts of their inner personal lives.

To learn the reason, she compared American mothers talking to their 3-year-olds with Chinese mothers doing the same thing. "American parents formulated conversation in the form of storytelling, with the child the central character in the story. The stories were elaborate, interactive and focused on what the child did or thought," Wang says. Chinese mothers, on the other hand, questioned their children so that the interaction was more in the form of a test than a story.

The difference in style plays out in adulthood. American adults report more memories of atypical experiences with a focus on their own roles and emotions, Wang reports, while Chinese adults are more inclined to recall routine social events.

Jazzy Rewrites and Special Effects

No matter what our life story is, we tend to continually rewrite it. During periods of transition, memories on the back burner may acquire new importance, depending on what's going on.

"Let's say I'm thinking of going to medical school," says McAdams. "That may motivate me to think about my past in ways that answer the question, 'How did I get this interest in becoming a doctor?' I may prioritize certain events. I might remember a conversation that I had when I was 16 with a neighbor who was a physician, and think, 'That was a turning point.' In light of my goals, I'll reconstruct the past." Marriage and divorce, getting hired or fired, losing a parent or falling in love, may all require that we tweak our myth to allow for new characters and thickening plotlines. "We create stories to make it sensible," McAdams states.

As soon as recollections come out of storage and enter the interpersonal realm, they are ripe for modification: "If something momentous happens, we may feel pressured to make meaning of it by talking to people and gauging their reactions," says Thorne. The feedback shapes our future memories of what transpired.

We are highly suggestible; subjects in one study actually "remembered" visiting someplace they'd never been after seeing a photo of it. Suggestion may even induce false memories of abuse. The more we retell false memories, the more "real" they become.

The most enduring autobiographical memories are emotionally loaded, both positively and negatively. The more we retell these stories, the more important they will seem. Replaying breakup or accident scenes heightens their sentimental power, akin to repeatedly ripping the scab off a wound. Conversely, the less we talk about an unfortunate event, the easier it is to put it behind us.

Over time we elevate happy memories to prominence and demote unhappy ones to the back burner of the brain. Psychologists at the University of Washington, Seattle, demonstrated that people could intentionally forget selected memories, providing an explanation for why we may not remember unpleasant or sad episodes.

No one likes to think that their memories are profoundly skewed. Loved ones sometimes act as memory editors who keep us from veering too far off our narrative tracks. "Other people's need for predictability and stability forces us to be somewhat consistent in the way we tell memories," says Thorne.

But the effects of our distortions may be more important than their severity. "If being inaccurate allows you to have optimism in your life or to go forward even in situations where you might have given up," says Jefferson Singer, "a little inaccuracy is not so bad."

Often, as our lives draw to a close, we take stock of our nearly finished tale. "The perspective is that of the creator looking back on the fruits of his or her creation and gracefully accepting what has been made," McAdams says. "If the creator rejects the creation, the creator experiences despair. The identity is not worth accepting, and it is too late to create a new one. To find integrity in life, you must look back upon your personal myth and determine that, for all its shortcomings and limitations, it is good."

Teaser image credit: g-stockstudio / Shutterstock