Saturday, April 29, 2006

To Be the Hero of Your Own Life

The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By
by Dan P. McAdams
Oxford University Press

by William S. Kowinski

When Oprah Winfrey called the Larry King Show--the Queen of Talk calling the King, so to speak (although she's Queen of a larger land)--she defended author James Frey, an act she has since repudiated. (If you're not sure who I'm talking about, there are several posts below this one, from earlier this year, that should refresh your memory.) She noted that while some of what he'd written wasn't altogether true, the power of his story remained intact: a story of redemption. She used that word: redemption. Redemption as the payoff that motivates hope was so powerful to her that she was temporarily willing to overlook what was soon revealed to be large scale deception. When she turned against Frey, it was with a passion due presumably to the damage he'd done, not only to credibility, but to hope, and his manipulation of redemption.

Though Frey isn't mentioned in psychologist Dan P. McAdams' book, Oprah is a major character and example of McAdams' thesis that redemption is a primal theme in the life narratives of "generative" people--people who accomplish a lot (he probably could have vastly increased sales of this book simply by calling them "successful.")

"If you are looking for the redemptive self, you should know that it is not hard to find," he writes. "You need go no further than the Oprah Winfrey show, the self-help aisle at your local bookstore, or Hollywood's latest drama about the humble hero who overcame all the odds to find vivid expressions of the power of redemption in human lives."

But it's not just Oprah's show, but her own story--her life as she describes it-- that exemplifies the redemption theme. McAdams shows how it is deep in the American way of looking at things, and he illustrates how it typically plays out according to race and class and historical context. But essential to this basically melodramatic theme is the idea that bad things happen for a reason; they happen to form and motivate redemption.

McAdams finds the theme in Emerson and in American slave narratives; in the Gettysburg Address and in the stories that generative people tell about themselves. Redemption requires suffering, and it makes violence and deprivation to the innocent, or visited seemingly at random, a comprehensible part of a story with a happy ending. It channels guilt and regret for past mistakes into a narrative of personal triumph, overcoming those errors, sins and crimes. It provides hope (and perhaps also additional guilt) to those born into devastating circumstances or subjugated groups that an individual can overcome the obstacles and rise above their apparent fate.

This is a well-written book that makes scholarship and theory accessible. It's not the kind of treatment that is itself likely to make it onto the self-help best-seller displays, but McAdams has put his finger on something that he argues is prominently and characteristically American. He explores the inspiring and troubling aspects of the redemption narrative: hope and self-deception, belief in oneself and the belief that one was "chosen" for redemption and success.

There's plenty of content here, and generous notes to add further depth and texture. Maybe we all wonder, with David Copperfield, if we're going to be the hero of our own story. It seems we Americans go to some length to make sure we are.

No comments: