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Memory’s Stories’ is an interdisciplinary exploration of classic and contemporary autobiographies

October 10, 2007

From post-World War II to the turn of the 21st century, Americans have been captivated by autobiographical texts. Considered the quintessential American literature, memoirs are literary constructions that help us identify aspects of our own cultures and allow readers to explore cultures different from our own.

Thomas McGovern believes autobiographies are composed as both a psychological and a literary process. In his book, Memory's Stories: Interdisciplinary Readings of Multicultural Life Narratives,” McGovern examines the process of how multicultural authors created the texts of their lives through memory episodes that reflect the cultural values of the epochs in which they lived.

“’Memory’s Stories’ is important because it teaches about the benefits of an interdisciplinary perspective,” said McGovern, professor, department of Integrative Students, in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science at ASU’s West campus. “I wanted to write a book that would challenge readers to listen with empathy to lives and perspectives different from their own, as well as to expect and to respect differences.”

Autobiographical memories, according to McGovern, derive from both internal processes and external influences. Our memories emerge gradually, with language as the key component, and that cultural, gendered, and individual ethnic differences produce a rich variation in content and expression.

“Authors tell their stories by interspersing vivid imagery with dispassionate details,” said McGovern. “They construct rhetorical bridges from one memory to another, from one period of their lives to another. Storytellers use language to suggest more than what is said, inviting their audiences to become engaged with them as they image their worlds.”

“Memory’s Stories” opening chapter explores what scholars believe to be the first autobiography, Saint Augustine's “The Confessions,” recognized as the ur-book (“genesis book”) of narrative writing. Though written at the end of the fourth century, “The Confessions” remains a vibrant prototype. In subsequent chapters, McGovern examines Thomas Merton's “The Seven Storey Mountain” and also includes an evaluation of “Black Elk Speaks” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” using William James's psychology of religious experience framework.

McGovern creates an innovative framework to evaluate classic and contemporary texts, synthesizing theoretical perspectives from psychology, literary theory, feminist and multicultural studies. This schema is based on 15 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in multicultural autobiographies, narrative psychology, and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities and literature.

“As a faculty member at two urban universities, both with splendid ethnic and generational diversity, I began to teach courses in life narratives,” said McGovern, who came to ASU from Virginia Commonwealth University. “Listening to students persuaded me that our identities are really an anthology of stories.

“I wrote ‘Memory’s Stories’ to complement the ethnic and spiritual texts I use in my classes. I think of it as an interdisciplinary ‘reader’s guide’ to memoirs.”

McGovern concludes his book with an assessment of three serial autobiographies composed by Richard Rodriguez, “Hunger of Memory,” “Days of Obligation,” “Brown” and an evaluation of James McBride’s bicultural memoir, “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother.” In the final chapter, he synthesizes theorist Dan McAdams’ interdisciplinary scholarship on redemption stories, innovative composition strategies, and cognitive neuroscience research.

Life narratives require the gathering of memories from increasingly multicultural relations, reflecting predictable chaos and redemptive hope. They are shaped and influenced by a combination of certain events, relationships, gender, culture and spiritual beliefs. “Memory’s Stories” helps readers think in interdisciplinary ways about the self representation of others’ lives and about their own.

"Professor McGovern provides a lucid and inspiring account of what it takes to document, fully and authentically, the story of one's life,” said Allan Brawley, ASU professor emeritus. “For students who are fortunate enough to encounter it in class, it will remain among those select few that they hold onto well beyond their college years.”

McGovern is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and its Society for the Teaching of Psychology, and a Charter Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. In 2003 he was the CASE/Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in Arizona.