Structured preconditions do not, of course, explain personal psychology. The delicate chemistry between the individual and his or her social context can never be reduced simply to that social context. At the same time, however, individual psychology is a profoundly historical phenomenon, the product of multiple determinations which in the final analysis shape the forms and meanings of experience (Shula Marks 1987: 24).
In Roxana Waterson's introduction to her biography of a prominent
Indonesian man from Toraja (2001: 5-6) she observes that
We all tell stories about our lives, if only to ourselvesand indeed, our mental health depends on our ability to do so, so that our lives may have coherence (Ross and Conway, 1986; Rappaport, 1990; Linde, 1993). Without some coherent memory of the past, there is no basis on which to act today. The forms which such stories can take, however, are so varied that we should do better to think of multiple genres arranged in a continuum, of which the life histories elicited by ethnographers are just one, rather peculiar, kind. At the least formal end of this continuum may be found what psychological researchers have termed life storiesfragments of oral discourse or personal storytelling, told in different ways for different audiences, and sometimes purely for the purpose of entertaining (see e.g. Miller, 1994). At the most formal end lie published biography and autobiography.
Autobiography, as a particular mode of telling about the self, is itself a distinctive genre with a relatively short history in European cultures.
As a medium of (self-) representation, more generally, life-histories bespeak a notion of the human career as an ordered progression of acts and events; of biography as history personified, history as biography aggregated; of the "biographical illusion," Bourdieu (1987) calls it, a modernist fantasy about society and selfhood according to which everyone is, potentially, in control of his or her destiny in a world made by the action of autonomous "agents". It is this fantasy that leads historians to seek social causes in individual action and social action in individual causes; to find order in events by putting events in order (Comaroff and Comaroff. 1992: 26).
Bey, weve already talked about how people still remember
some of their childhood experiences, no matter how old they are. You agreed
and said that was true for yourself. Wont you tell me about the things
you still remember?
Yes, I certainly remember things from my childhood. I am old and have experienced much. You ask me about something and Ill tell you about it.
Why dont you tell me about anything that comes into your mind about your childhood, something that has stayed with you over the years.
Are you saying that people dont remember their childhoods? They do. Ask me and Ill tell you.
Tell me about the things your mother and father did.
Fine. They brought me up, gave me food, and I grew and grew and then I was an adult. Thats what they did.
Do you remember any specific time, maybe when they did something wonderful or perhaps, something you didnt like?
You are asking me well. Parents sometimes help children and sometimes scold them.
Did your parents ever scold you?
Are you saying that a parent doesnt scold a child? Children do senseless things and their parents scold them.
What did you do that was senseless?
I ruined things, just like my granddaughter. Why this very morning she ruined some things in the hut and my daughter-in-law hit her. Do you think a parent doesnt scold a child? No, a parent scolds a child, then the child learns sense.
Bey, we are talking very well together; I know you are old and have experienced many things ...
Many things, ehey, mother ...
... but I want to talk only about you, not about anyone else. I want to know about things you experienced, things your mother did when you were small, and what you did as you grew up, married, and had children. So far we have been talking about things in a general way, in a way that everyone would agree with. Thats good. But now, lets talk more specifically about things that happened to you, about any time in your life.
Yes, we are talking very well. You keep asking me and Ill keep telling you. I am old and know many things.
I am asking you. But I cannot tell you what memories to speak about. Only you know what youve experienced. Try to tell me about something your parents or siblings did; or what happened when you menstruated, when you married or had children; or, about your family, your co-wife, your husband ... anything youd like. Only it has to be about you.
Yes ... we have already talked about my mother and my father and how I ruined things. Now ask me about other things and I will tell you. I am old and know. Those other women are children and still havent taught themselves. I have seen a lot. I really know. You ask me and Ill tell you ... Marjorie Shostak 1990: 37-8