Review: Living Autobiography: How we create identity in narrative by P. J. Eakin   4 comments


We can never expect to witness
the emergent sense of self,
of life story, as an observable event,
for it is an ongoing process
~ Paul John Eakin

Autobiography is a literary genre and when taken to the next level is an integral part of the lifelong process of identity formation as one constructs their lifestory. (Eakin, 2008, para. p.34). Shared subjects come together in the literature of Paul John Eakin, a Professor Emeritus of English and author of the 2008 book, Living Autobiography: How we create identity in narrative in which P. J. Eakin poses one question, “Why do people tell and sometimes write their life stories? (p. 151). The author intertwines his answers from a biological, neurological and culturist perspective. Many themes come into play such as, “I” character narrative identity, self-experience, cultural aspects, everyday life philosophers, ethics of life writing, and identity narratives rooted in people’s lives/bodies as Eakin (2008) commented, “Narrative identity, then, the notion what we are could be said to be a story of some kind, it is not merely the product of social convention; it is rooted in our lives in and as bodies (p. 74). According to the author, it all begins with the child as he focuses on memory talk, describing the role of story, and how it forms their identity as a cultural process. Furthermore, Eakin (2008) goes into great detail to answer the question, what are the subdivisions of autobiography?

Before going into specifics of the book Eakin (2008) provided many definitions of what an autobiography encompasses. To begin with, narrative autonomy as Eakin reported is, “…to have one’s own view and to express it (p.27). Second, is the narrative identity system in which we are all players and means “…an identity regime that not only sets limits, socially, to what we can say and write about ourselves but determines as well our recognition by others as normally functioning personas (p. 31). Third, neurologist Damasio described self, I-narrative, self-experience and identity narrative as a primary constituent of all conscious experience (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 71, 75). Damasio went on to discuss the autobiographical adaptive value as, “…a biological process, the imagetic representation of sequences of brain events in prelinguistic wordless stories about what happens to an organism immersed in an environment (p.153).
Additionally, the theory of homeostasis denotes the ensemble of regulations and the resulting state of regulated life in the human organism. For instance, the body emerges as a homeostasis machine as activities range from basic reflexes, metabolism, and pain/pleasure behaviors as it moves into the future while continuously fashioning identity narratives (Eakin, 2008, para. 153-154). It is the I-character stemming from self and extended consciousness that becomes important to the homeostatic machine called the body. A metaphor that comes to mind is that of a waitress who stands and watches the door for new customers at the same time ready to serve.

Furthermore, Damasio identifies two kinds of consciousness and self: first a simple level of core consciousness and core self and second is the more complex extended consciousness and autobiographical self (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 69). Consciousness as Damasio noted traces the deep roots for the self to a proto-self…we are not conscious of the proto-self and define it as “…a coherent collection of neural patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 69-70). This is the connection to mapping as it registers the body homeostasis. It becomes obvious that our sense of identity is itself generated as and in a narrative dimension of consciousness (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 76). Eakin (2008) also commented, “…that self-content might be distributed throughout an I-narrative and not merely contained in the I-characters and I-narrators where the conventions of autobiographical discourse condition us to look for it and that self is not only reported but performed…” (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 84).

Eakin (2008) refers to a metaphor, movie within the brain as it is utilized to explain a moviegoer inside the movie she or he is watching (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 69). According to Damasio, “…the appearance of an owner and observer for the movie within the movie, for there is no external spectator for the movie-in-the-brain” (as cited in Eakin, 2008, p.74). As self-narrative is developed before social standards, the biological homeostasis exists and is called the move-in-the-brain resulting in no distinctions between the observed and the observer. A second metaphor Eakin drew on is, “…you are the music while the music lasts” meaning the refusal to split between perceiver and perceived (Eakin, 2008, para. p.73), and according to Damasio, “…in writing autobiography Mary Karr was doing self, doing consciousness…” (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 85). The eighth explanation comes from Aciman’s autobiographical arbitrage as remembering remembering or an act of memory tracing oneself as one seeks to retrieve selfhood though their consciousness. According to Eakin (2008) it is, “…to invest place with self so that self can be extracted from place later on (p.165). Because we live autobiographically, remembering remembering establishes autobiography in the making (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 166). The ninth term is memory talk of children in which story is constructed through parents and caregivers that teach how to tell about themselves and learn what is expected in order to display autobiographical memories (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 26).
Equally important is psychologist Neisser’s theory that suggests there are five distinct registers of self-experience, two predate the acquisition of language in a child’s development: the ecological self or the self-perceived with respect to the physical environment, the interpersonal self or the self as engaged in immediate unreflective social interaction with another person, the extended self or the self of memory and anticipation, the self existing outside the present moment, the private self or the self of conscious experiences that are not available to anyone else, and the conceptual self or the extremely diverse forms of self-information (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. xii). Another concept defined by Eakin (2008) is the autobiographical imperative or the impulse to self-expression (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 152). The last theory explains memories with a lens of a neurological perspective as Eakin (2008) noted, “…analysis of memories as neurological events confirms that even when we believe that we are recalling exactly the same memory on a series of occasions, the brain constructs that memory anew each time, with different centers of brain activity involved in each occurrence” (p. 156). It is our memories from childhood that directs how we conduct ourselves today with a forecast of the future.
In early childhood development the narrative identity system is created by the making of identity narrative and is built on acquired language and narrative skills combine with historical awareness and an emerging sense of social accountability to lay the foundations of autobiographical memory (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 25). The process of socialization is explained by Fivush (1998), “The self-concept and memories of past experiences develop dialectically and begin to form a life history. The life history, in turn, helps to organize both memories of past experiences and the self-concept (as cited in Eakin, 2008, p. 26). Fivush & Reese also mentioned that children learn narrative forms that ultimately provide a structure for internally represented memories (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p.25). Within a child’s socialization there are two parental styles for telling of the past. First, elaborative parents tend to have lengthy conversations embellishing aspects of a story filled with rich details whereas; repetitive parents tend to have short stories incorporating repetition of questions till the child gives the correct response (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 26).

Socioeconomically speaking and self-awareness suggest that working-class and middle-class children construct self through autonomous cultural frameworks. In the context of the working-class, jointly narrated stories of the child’s past experiences helped children participate freely in expression. Narrative autonomy in this case is viewed as something to work towards and yet, the middle-class child is given small amounts of autonomy and it is considered a gift from adults (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 27). Also, differences can be noted in self-narration as the working-class may feel more uncomfortable then the middle-class. Historian Steedman also commented on working class girls, “…children learn at an early age to know their places in an economic system. The child’s sense of identity was informed by a stark economic vision (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 88).

Eakin (2008) commented on self-narration as it, “…establishes us as normal individuals…can confirm that we have led interesting lives and are, accordingly, interesting people who are worthy of respect from others” (p. 128). Self-narration relies on the rules of society. According to Eakin, “…autobiographical discourse plays a decisive part in the regime of social accountability that governs our lives, and in this sense our identities could be said to be socially constructed and regulated” (p.152-153). However, this view does not consider our identities and identity narratives that are rooted in and as bodies (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 153). Eakin (2008) also commented, “By the time we reach adulthood we know how to deliver a suitably edited version of our stories as the occasion requires” (p. 28).
Hence, the narrative identity is rooted within our culture, part of the interpretive equipment furnished by our culture, and functions as a requirement for normality as Linde noted, “In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being good, socially proper, and stable person, an individual needs to have coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 29). It is the social accountability that as Eakin (2008) commented, “…conditions us from early childhood to believe that our recognition as persons is to be transacted through exchange of identity narratives” (p. 44). Also, children are taught ethics and rules that govern self-narration, telling the truth, respecting privacy, and displaying normalcy (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 50). Mayhew remarked how children given pressure of circumstances and situations can function self-consciously as players in a narrative identity system; they can know how to say who they are with the authority of an adult (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 144). Furthermore, Eakin (2008) stated, “…self and language, mutually enabling and independent, emerge in tandem when children learn to talk…children learn from parents and caregivers what it means to say “I” as they begin to tell stories about themselves” (p. 66). This training proves to be important to the success of our lives as adults for our recognition by others as normal people depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 152).

The “I” character narrative identity has a foundation based on resources of the cultures in which we live in and has an aspect of narrative solidity and permanence (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 77). The “I” can shift in nature and speak in the present even as it personifies itself in the past (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 62). It places people in the first-person perspective, ownership, and agency which are the main features of self, the “I” of biographical discourse, and core consciousness (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 71). Core consciousness is explained by Eakin (2008) as, “…the knowledge that materializes when you confront an object, construct a neutral pattern for it, and discover automatically that the now-salient image of the object is formed in your perspective, belongs to you, and that you can even act on it” (p.70). Also incorporated in the “I” narrative is the teller-effect as Eakin explored, “If, the counterintuitive syntax of consciousness, self inhabits both subject and predicate, narrative as well as character, then autobiography not only delivers metaphors of self, it is a metaphor of self” (p. 78).

Each of us has a self and a metaphor of self that incorporates the everyday life practices for instance, walking, reading, and speaking that are used as activities of making selves as cultural anthropologist Certeau theory concludes, “…users introduce creative play into the rigidities of ordering systems” (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 106). Anthropologist Gullestad examined three everyday philosophers, their cultural sources of identity, and lifestory to their connections of values from institutions of family, school, and church. She stated, “Constructions of self and identity, are dependent upon moral notions (as cited in Eakin, 2008, p. 109). Therefore, measuring self and lifestory involves social and cultural expectations (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 127). As Eakin (2008) reported, “…they measure themselves and their lives against what they think their culture expects of them” (p.127). It is these narratives that emerge from value dilemmas in which Hacking called, “…making up people (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 109). Within autobiography Eakin stated, “…that value may supply both a model of identity and a plot for life-story action (p. 117). The transmission of these values as Gullestad commented, “…show how social institutions are experientially linked to the individual: Values , do not only exist as explicit notions, but may also be produced in subtle ways through embodied practices in everyday life (p.124-125).
Likewise, all of the stories have what Gullestad called, moments of interpretation meaning they lead to a decisive, existentialist choice of life project (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 112). All of the stories have acts of arbitrage, moral and ethical issues from the September 11th catastrophe resulting in the “Portraits of Grief” to Sack’s Mr. Thompson whose memory was damaged by Korsakoff’s syndrome to Alzheimer’s patients who lost self to Mayhew’s little watercress seller. One narrative was identified as having a black-backed gull model as Gullestad referred to it as”…a solitary alter ego who possesses a positive identity (first) and the will to enact its capacities, an identity endowed the possibility of action and the language with which to express it in a story (as cited in Eakin, 2008, para. p. 112). According to Eakin, “The mismatch between cultural resources for identity formation and the individual’s circumstances form double displacement, an existence on the “periphery of the periphery (p. 113).

In addition, the ethics of life autobiography are governed by societal rules. There is a connection between identity narratives that carries over to the creation of identity. As Eakin (2008) commented, “…what we say or do about identity narrative carries the potential to transfer and apply to identity; that is under the regime of social accountability, the regulation of narrative and the monitoring of identity go hand in hand (p. 49). Further, there are three transgressions for self-narration, first is the misrepresentation of biological and historical truth, second, infringement of the right to privacy, and last, failure to display normative models of personhood (Eakin, 2008, para. p. 32). These rules are set in place to hold an individual responsible for the accepted societal norms in autobiography.
Eakin (2008) discussed the consequences of misleading people in a story. Issues can range from honesty/dishonesty in the written word or dialogue for instance, Rigoberta Menchú who told of accurate facts but was guilty of presenting memories of others and not her own, James Frey who fabricated details of his criminal career seen as unscrupulous, and Binjamin Wilkomirski who was shunned for lying; followed by infringement of the right to privacy as Harrison crossed the line in publishing an autobiography that negatively affected her children, and normative models of personhood as an individual suffers from brain damage or loss of memory as in the case of Mr. Thompson whose memory was damaged by Korsakoff’s syndrome (para. p. 17, 38, 44, ). It becomes obvious that this displays societal control over how an individual forms their identity. On the other hand, ethics involve those receiving and judging the autobiography. According to Eakin (2008), “…I want to shift my perspectives from obligations of those who perform self-narrations to the responsibilities of those who receive and judge those performances: this is where the ethical dimension of narrative identity system is most strikingly displayed, this is where the potential for the regulation of identity narrative to slide into the regulation of identity is realized” (p. 43).

My personal reflection on this literature was that it was enlightening, yet left me with a couple of questions. First, is why didn’t the author read the everyday philosophers narratives himself instead of relying on Gullestad’s interpretations? I found myself searching for the complete stories of these everyday people. I will respect that each author has their own style and that as a researcher you build upon what others have learned. Second, I find the rules of privacy that govern autobiography became muddied in the story of Harrison’s Kiss as she violated her own privacy rights, is that even possible? Furthermore, I am not if sure I agree with the hypothesis that self-narrative is developed before social standards and would have liked more of an explanation as to how this is possible as it sounds like an innate characteristic.
Although, I enjoyed reading how culture, biology and neurology can all be associated with what seems simple enough, an autobiography. Come to find out, narratives have rules and theories and are more complex then what I first thought before reading this literature. I can recall the news about the bad seeds that broke the rules, but never looked at the bigger picture until Eakin helped me to understand the ethics behind the narrative and how sometimes the line is thin between what is accepted and normal and what is not.

I learned about my self-formation and the somatic process. One passage from Franzen’s “My Father’s Brain” brought tears to my eyes. Two months before my mother passed over she looked me in the eyes and asked, “Who are you…do I know you?” and according to Eakin (2008), “The only stories we could tell now were the ones we already had” (p. 57). I found myself stopping and going to the computer to pull up my blog which has old college papers I have written. According to Eakin (2008), “The internet and the World Wide Web are creating radically new opportunities for self-presentation, and perhaps, some observers think, new modes of selfhood as well (p. 94). I felt compelled to retrieve two papers and add them to my autobiographical anthology. The first titled, The Eve Of The Anniversary Of When Time Stood Still, describing the passing over of my mother and the second called, Mom’s Eulogy: You will be forever missed, in which I didn’t have the opportunity to speak it.

I realized after reading the book that it was ok to tell my stories as Eakin (2008) noted, “Belief in individualism, which seems to authorize our confidence in our freedom to think, to act, to be what we want, to say who we are, needs to be measured against the constraints of culture that condition or otherwise set our possibilities” (p. 103). Without reading this book, I might not have had the courage to make the additions to my own written narrative. This literature has made me aware that even though my lifestory may be complex, I still want and need it to be heard in order to set some memories free.
In summation, Eakin (2008) has compiled a book that combines theorists for instance, “Antonio Damasio celebrates what the brain creates, while Lewis and Pincus remind us of what the brain can destroy; what the body gives us – self and the moral life – it can also take away” (p. 84). There are theories on narrative identity in using biological lenses and cultural lenses, viewing autobiography as literary genre, but also through the perspective of the neurological aspects story while even providing a piece of his own life story regarding his father as he explained narrative identity and lifestory to the reader. I am taking from this book the message which is clear, that the acts of narrative are always an act of self-determination and self-invention as we are living autobiographically every day from the past, present, and future.


Eakin, P. J. Living autobiography: How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Quote: Eakin, P. J. Living autobiography: How we create identity in narrative. p. 125. Ithaca Cornell University Press.


4 responses to “Review: Living Autobiography: How we create identity in narrative by P. J. Eakin

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  1. I am happy to share my thoughts. Thank you for the question. Have a great day! Danelle 🙂

  2. A good review of Eakins work which I find fascinating. I still don’t quite get Eakin’s “display normative models of personhood.” Is he saying do you think that life narratives cannot be told by the afflicted when someone has e.g. brain injury or is he saying that others cannot portray them as ethically they are vulnerable people?

    • Thank you for your feedback. I do believe what is being said is that life narratives cannot be told by the afflicted when someone has e.g. brain injury but their story carries on with those who knew them.

      • Thanks. I had finally worked it out and am happy to say I came to the same conclusion as you. It was the wording that threw me “display a normative model of personhood.” I think your simplification of this rule put me on the path. Cheers.

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