The psychological secrets of autobiography

Read any good autobiographies lately? 

Rolling Stones founding member Keith Richards, best known for his shepherd’s pies, rock and roll, and bloody noise, releases his autobiography Life on October 26. The book, written by Keith himself, speaks to the glories and tragedies, the days of Boy Scouts and addictions for the originator of the Rock and Roll lifestyle.

There’s no shortage of autobiographies to read, however:  held from the public for more than a century, Mark Twain’s autobiography came out just two days ago.  Where Richards’ biography tells the story of a man who came to define his time, Twain’s depicts a man before his time.  In his own words, Twain is markedly more political and repulsed by imperialistic militarism than we remember him.  He emphasizes how greed and selfishness obliterate the founding father’s intention for instinctive American goodness.

Is it strange, when we stop and think about it, that two such radically different people – Richards and Twain, 100 years apart – both turn to the same medium, autobiography, to express their sense of their own lives?  It’s not just famous performers:  presidents, teachers, housewives, soldiers and scholars all have felt equally well represented in the form of an autobiography. 

The reason might be because our psychology is geared towards the creation of narratives in our own lives:  we think of ourselves as central figures in a narrative arc.  The stories we tell about ourselves – often to ourselves – are narrative structures that parallel the autobiography. 

It’s not surprising, then, that making our personal autobiographies explicit can be an effective therapeutic technique. 

David White and David Epston co-created narrative therapy decades ago. Narrative therapists use objectification, externalization, and unique outcomes to facilitate a “re-authoring” of a patient’s life. Therapy centers in on deconstructing problematic issues and “meaning making.”

Nearly 100 years before that, the idea that life could be viewed as a story was emphasized in the work of analytical psychology. Carl Jung emphasized the psyche, the collective unconscious, archetypes – and how the “autobiography” of our lives gives way to the development of personality.

Jung saw the psyche as composed of conscious and unconscious processes. Unconscious processes are developed by way of complexes, which are expressed through personal stories in the context of relationships. Stories, autobiography, memoirs are all part of Jung’s individuation process.  The emphasis of Jungian theory and psychotherapy stems from one’s knowledge of conscious processes – encounters with the social reality and external validation of one’s identity. Autobiographies, thus personal story-telling, help to expound upon the conscious and unconscious development at work within one’s individuation process.  Stories of self are not just about how we see ourselves, but about how we see our relationship with the world and – eventually – our explanation of how the world works. 

It seems that Twain experienced Jungian analysis even before Jung. His biography tells the tale of a man whose personality developed from thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition – Jung’s theory of typology.

Similarly the rock and roller, Keith Richards, seems to be actively engaged in the process of co-creating his reality – the great meaning making and re-authoring of life. Through deconstructed and externalization, Richards walks his reader through his tragedy, his dark night of the soul. In his glory days, he made meaning and capitalized on the success of his existence. Keith Richards has been engaging in narrative therapy through his autobiographical work, albeit probably unintentionally.

Storytelling, then, is the province of both art and psychology, fact that great artists and humanistic psychologists have understood and used to their benefit.  Autobiography touches both, is at the core of both:  which is how the lives of Mark Twain, Keith Richards, and you can all be so well served by the same approach. 

– Liz Schreiber