You are here

Making Histories

One of the reasons autobiography is such an important genre is that it is a powerful way for marginalized groups to tell their previously unheard stories.
Jillian Sandell

Issue #45, October 1999

Sometime last year, knowing of my interest in autobiography, a friend told me about a book she had recently seen for sale in, of all places, Starbucks. The book, entitled The Book of Myself: A Do-It-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions, was essentially just that. Rather than being the usual blank journal in which people write, The Book of Myself offers prompts to help you begin telling your special story.

I immediately went out and bought it.

Divided into chronological sections (early, middle, and late life), and then further sub-divided into sections based on family, friends, education, work, and the world, the book also includes helpful instructions on how it should be used and by whom. For example,

"If you are 91 years old, like one of the authors, you are in a position to write down almost the whole story. Get help from your loved ones to remember special moments.
"If you are one or two generations younger you can still start the story, since at least your early years are now behind you and the memories are still fresh in your mind. Or give this book to a loved one to fill out and return to you.
"If you are still in your early years you can start the story and fill it out as you go. By searching ahead for experiences yet to come you may recognize them as they appear. Or give the book to a loved one to fill out and return to you."

I will discuss momentarily what it might mean to say that experiences need to be recognized as they appear. For now, I want to merely note that these and other instructions in the book address questions of how, who, when, and what to do with this book after it is filled out. That the authors do not address the why of autobiography suggests that it is, perhaps, self-evident.

But why do people write autobiography? Perhaps such a question is impossible to ask since it demands an answer that accounts for personal and individual motivation. Instead of asking why, therefore, it might be more useful (or at least more answerable) to ask what purpose does autobiography serve, and specifically, in terms of the present moment, what is at stake in the proliferation of autobiographies and memoirs in the US in recent years?

One of the reasons autobiography is such an important genre is that it is a powerful way for marginalized groups to tell their previously unheard stories. Autobiography can be a political tool that enables individuals and groups to rewrite History into histories. The idea that by publicly telling your story you can connect your personal experience with the larger political context has been a vital aspect of political struggles around race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. By sharing stories and histories in this way (what in some circles is called consciousness raising) people come to see that their experiences of oppression or of privilege are not individually based but rather are structural and systemic.

Thus in the post-WWII era, autobiography became associated with New Social Movements (i.e. identity-based movements), acting as an important medium for marginal groups to connect the personal with the political. However, connecting the personal with the political can mean very different things to different social groups. For example, while the slogan "the personal is political" is now often associated with the 1970s US white women's movement, the idea, if not the exact formulation, was in circulation long before then. Indeed, acknowledging the race- and class-based roots of the phrase calls into question the often taken-for-granted assumption that, on the one hand, the personal and political are really two distinct categories, and, on the other, that there is anything inherently political about sharing personal stories. For whom is the private sphere separate from the political sphere? And for whom is it an empowering (rather than a punitive or disciplinary) experience to publicly share stories about their personal, familial, or community lives?

Furthermore, with the rise of self-help and confessional cultures among middle- and upper-class Americans, sharing one's story can become not merely a personal means to a larger political goal, but a goal in and of itself. Instead of the personal being political, often it seems as if the reverse is true, that the political is personal. Contemporary mainstream autobiography shows this influence of therapeutic culture and in recent decades the most personal, intimate, and private stories have often become privileged sites of truth-telling.

Within this context, then, the instructions in Book of Myself are illuminating because of what they teach us about the function of what we might call popular or mass-marketed autobiography in the US today. First, this is not a form of autobiography trying to participate in the discourses of postwar social movements. This is not, in other words, a DIY autobiography celebrating the personal is political. Rather, it is a form of autobiography that erases explicit markers of political allegiances and identities. Furthermore, the special moments are not necessarily the ones you remember, but are rather the ones others have taught us to see as special. It does not actually matter how or if you remember them, only that someone who knows you can describe that moment from your life. In other words, there is an objectivity to these memories that belies the critique of History that recent social and political movements have taught us.

In many ways such claims are uncontroversial. Memories, as Freud and others have persuasively argued, are not innate but rather are those moments we have learnt to think of as memories, and are constructed as much in the present (by seeing old photographs, through shared storytelling, etc.) as they are in the past. Nevertheless, what is different about The Book of Myself is that it presumes that there is an objectivity to the accounts: it matters only that the moment is recorded, not the subjective experience of that moment. So the mode of autobiographical production this book encourages is responding to discourses of new social movements, but only by ignoring them and by restating the notion of an objective History rather than of multiple, subjective, and contested histories.

Finally, the book not only conveniently frames the past for the reader, but also frames the future. By seeing how the authors have divided a life into separate stories and events, the reader/writer will know how to identify those special moments when they come along. (God help the reader who has a special moment that isn't included in the book.) This is not the genre of political autobiography or consciousness-raising, this is the genre of the Hallmark moment.

So what are the special moments the book includes? The 201 prompts clearly define who the target reader/writer is, including: they are old enough to remember both World Wars, Kennedy's assassination, and the landing on the moon; they grew up in a family with a mother, father, and siblings, and with grandparents close by; they went to college (or are able to articulate why they didn't go); they had rifts with their parents in their middle years but were able to reconcile; they were always in professional work; they got married and had children; they served in the military at some point during their adult life; they don't encounter death until their later years; and their ancestors (but not close relatives or themselves) come from outside the US. Implied (but not explicitly stated) characteristics about the target reader/writer include that English is their first and only language and that their special moments seem unaffected by and indeed never relate to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

What is wrong with this picture? If it is meant to offer a portrait of a generic reader, it clearly offers only a partial view of the population of the US today. Indeed, this portrait bears a remarkable resemblance to one of the authors of the book, pushing partial view to its absolute limits of referring to one. But my point is not simply to castigate the authors for offering readers such a narrow way to think about the special moments in their lives. Rather, it is to draw attention to how generic and over-determined mainstream autobiography has become. This book does not merely prompt the telling of a life, it also does the telling even when it includes both positive and negative experiences. This book, in fact, demonstrates what cultural critics Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes both argued about authorship: that it is not an individual act of creation or articulation, but rather a function of the structure of textual production. The stories we tell about ourselves are produced and constrained by discourses of storytelling which precede and exceed each individual who tells a story.

But what happens to experiences that don't fit this picture? Would it be enough to include blank pages for other special moments like the first gay crush, the first time you did drugs, an encounter with the police, the first time you had sex, the first experience of discrimination, the inability to get a job, the divorce, remembering the death of Malcolm X or Tupac or César Chávez or Lady Diana or Mother Teresa, and so on?

Probably not. While this might make the book more accessible to a wider range of readers, it would still frame the autobiographical disclosure within the language of turning points rather than within the language of continuity and sociality. In other words, it still extracts memories from their wider social context. The problem is not that only certain special moments become constructed to be viewed as the event worth including in an autobiography. It is that the idea of the special moment itself can serve to evacuate entire networks of social relationships and experiences. Furthermore, The Book of Myself reminds us that we are not only taught to retroactively think of our own lives in this way, but to also live our lives looking out for those special moments.

The Book of Myself also suggests a limitation of more explicitly politicized autobiographies, those which attempt to contest notions of History by revealing previously marginalized histories. All autobiographies, no matter how progressive or radical, are produced in retrospect, and within a framework of expectation of what such a project might reveal. What matters, then, is not whether marginal autobiographies are accepted as true (rather than as false) accounts of turning points and special moments, but rather that they acknowledge the subjectivity of experiences and the contested and inherently political nature of history. While The Book of Myself was neither critically acclaimed nor a best-seller, the mere existence of a how-to book on autobiography suggests it may be a good example of what constitutes popular autobiography today. I offer this example of The Book of Myself as a way of raising broader points about autobiography as a genre. In particular, I want to consider two key questions: what purpose does autobiography serve, and what is at stake in the primacy of turning points and special moments in contemporary popular forms of US autobiography?

Why does the genre of autobiography necessitate the production of apprehendable turning points in one's life? I think that Marx's notion of commodity fetishism in Capital provides one useful way to think about the visibility of those special moments that are central to autobiographical disclosures. For Marx, the production of the commodity goes hand in hand with the production of visibility, and the production of that visibility is only possible when the social relations and labor which create the commodity are simultaneously made invisible. Visibility, therefore, is not an empirical or scientific reality, but rather is an historical effect we have to learn how to find things visible (or invisible).

The famous example Marx offers is the transformation of wood into a table. The table starts out as a piece of lumber. As the workers labor transforms the wood into a table, the wood is still visible but the labor is not. What Marx calls the fetishization of the commodity is the process whereby the table now has value, but a value that stands in for and renders invisible the web of social relations which created the value. While infusing the object with meaning and value, fetishization simultaneously conceals the social relations of labor and production embedded in that object. The commodity fetish is thus always a substitute for something else. The turning points or special moments function in ways similar to the commodity fetish as they are visible and imbued with meaning, but their apprehendability relies upon making invisible an entire spectrum of social relations and histories.

If all this seems unrelated to The Book of Myself, or to the production of autobiography in general, I should perhaps turn to what I see as an interesting phenomenon within contemporary US publishing circles, the proliferation of anthologies of autobiographies. The Growing Up series from Avon Press is merely the most recent example of this publishing moment [to date, this series includes in the order of publication Growing Up Black (1992), Growing Up Asian American (1993), Growing Up Chicana/o (1993), Growing Up Native American (1993), Growing Up Jewish (1996), and Growing Up Puerto Rican (1997)]. These anthologies are collections of fiction and autobiography (from classic and newer works) about coming of age in the US. Examining the list of contributors and the kinds of narratives included in these anthologies becomes one way to think about the popularization of identity politics implied by the appearance of this series. What does it mean that Growing Up Chicana/o, for example, includes nothing from Oscar Zeta Acosta, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, or Richard Rodriguez, writers who have all famously written about growing up in the US as Chicano or Chicana?

If all autobiography necessitates the production of visible moments, then the anthologization of autobiographical experience inevitably exacerbates this phenomenon. Anthologies demand that a section of an autobiography be representative of the larger text, a process which parallels in miniature how autobiography as a genre is often said to function: the person's life is in some ways presumed to be exemplary of either a larger group of people, an historical moment, or a common life experience. One person's life simultaneously substitutes for a larger whole and erases that whole. Just as in Marx's account of commodity fetishism the labor which transforms the lumber into a table becomes invisible, so, too, in the creation of anthologies, the socio-political history producing the selection also becomes invisible.

The recent proliferation of anthologies of autobiographical writings suggests that we are currently in an important historical moment (a turning point?) vis-à-vis the function of autobiography and the question of how autobiography relates to the broader political context. These anthologized autobiographical moments (where an instant stands in for a life, or where a life stands in for a group of people) function in ways similar to the commodity form: they are visible and imbued with meaning, but their apprehendability relies upon making invisible an entire spectrum of social relations and experiences. Of course, writing and telling one's autobiography will always necessitate the production of special moments and turning points moments that both justify and make possible the telling of a life story. We can never get completely outside of ideology or history. Even a detailed multi-volume memoir must make recourse to a sense of what are the most important moments in that life, moments which crystallize, or occasionally challenge, larger thematic issues or concerns. There can never be a one-to-one correspondence between an autobiography as a text and the life it claims to represent.

But which moments in a life become those turning points? Which moments are important? Autobiography is such a dominant discourse in the US that such questions might seem almost redundant. The answers are obvious: first childhood memories, going to school, first love, first broken heart, first time you became conscious of your gender, your race, your class, or your sexuality, your first experience of death, your first job, the first time you questioned a cherished belief or thought about something in a new way, and so on. All of which are indeed important moments. These are times when our lives changed in either external or psychological ways. They are moments of profound transformation. As the research I do on coming of age narratives has taught me (or even just by being a person living in the US in the 1990s), these are the tropes of popular autobiography par excellence.

But what about all those moments when things didn't change and which never get included in an autobiography? What about the moments when we seemed to seamlessly fit into our lives and didn't question anything? What happens before the turning point, before the shift in consciousness? What kind of ideological effects are produced during those moments when things don't change?

When we retroactively think of our lives in terms of important turning points, we do so because we want to show how we have changed, how we got to the place we are now at, and to frame what would otherwise be a continuous and undifferentiated outpouring of our life experiences. But the moments we choose to foreground are not innately more important than any others. They are constructed to be important. As Marx suggests, we don't just see things, we learn to see them; we learn to apprehend certain moments or experiences as more important than others. We learn to see that they are imbued with meaning and value. We learn, in other words, to even understand an experience as an experience.

To paraphrase historian Joan Scott, we do not have experience, we are constituted through experience. We are produced, through a variety of social, material, national, and historical conditions, to experience events as events. Indeed, no experience is self-evident, and all experiences are produced in such a way that they function as markers of political, sexual, class, racial, or other modes of affiliation. But there are also other experiences which we have every day which are merely taken-for-granted everyday life experiences. They do not constitute the historical event. They do not get called upon as evidence of who we are or who we once were. And these experiences are, perhaps, the places where ideologies are most seamlessly reproduced. It is only in those moments when experience is brought most sharply into relief that the ideological structures which produce those experiences are also rendered most evident. What would it mean to look at the event that is not historical? Or to look at those experiences which we do not even register as such?

The recent proliferation of anthologies certainly provide an important service by introducing readers to a variety of life experiences. As both a reader and as a teacher, I know that anthologies perform this important function. They expose people to new authors, new ideas, new experiences, and often, in reading an excerpt from someone's life, the reader is then inspired to seek out the longer original text from which it came. But in an attempt to create some sense of coherence out of a variety of different experiences, anthologies must inevitably make choices about what and who to include. When editors anthologize autobiographies, they select a section to stand in for the entire text. How are such choices made? How useful is it to have a chapter stand in for the whole in this way? And which sections typically become representative of the larger primary text?

brown buffalo Take, for example, Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972). In lots of ways this autobiography challenges many of the conventions and tropes of the genre. Its opening scene, with Acosta vomiting into the toilet bowl, is only the first of many such passages detailing various bodily functions. When I recently taught this book, some of the students felt personally affronted at being forced to read about this. They wanted instead to learn more about his work as a Chicano lawyer in East LA in the 1960s. But as we discussed the book over a period of weeks, it became clear that his ulcers and vomiting and sexual neuroses were part of the web of social relations that framed his important political work. To exclude them would be to miss part of what Acosta wants to convey: racism literally makes people sick.

Yet, despite being an important figure in the Brown Power movement in the sixties, one recent anthology on Growing Up Chicana/o fails to include Acosta altogether, and another, Growing Up Latino, excerpts the most conventional chapter, the part where he most obviously calls upon the standard tropes of autobiography: growing up in El Paso, Texas and Riverbank, California, stories about his parents and family, and his early childhood experiences. All of which are interesting and complex and important parts of his autobiography, but it seems worth noting that it is this chapter, not any other, which is selected as representative of the entire book and included in an anthology. What is lost by excluding the sections on his sickness later in life?

It is this link between the reading of autobiography and the writing of it that I want to finally consider. Clearly, not everyone reads autobiography or writes autobiography. But we all participate in some way in the performance of autobiography. We all have occasion to tell our stories, to introduce ourselves to each other and choose the one important moment which at that time seems most pertinent. Indeed, the very fact that we will select different autobiographical moments depending on the context suggests, as Joan Scott argues, that we don't merely have experiences but that we are constituted by them. The special feelings you had about a childhood friend might only become a founding experience in the context of a group conversation on coming to consciousness about sexuality. Only later might it become apprehendable as an event, as the first gay crush. But what about all those moments when your sexuality was not brought to consciousness? What about those moments when it did not constitute a special moment? Why do the everyday lived moments of sexuality not constitute the historical event? Especially since those times may, in fact, be the ones where the ideologies and codes of heterosexuality or even of homosexuality are most seamlessly reproduced. Those moments may, in other words, reveal as much as, if not more than, the turning points do.

My point is not that each everyday moment in a person's life should be retroactively reconstituted as an event or a turning point. But I am suggesting we think more about how the autobiographical mode functions within contemporary US culture. The autobiography is everywhere in US popular culture, apparently even in Starbucks. Indeed, because of its claims to authenticity and reality, it has become something of a commonplace to celebrate the autobiographical confession or testimonial as therapeutically and socially beneficial. Certainly, the autobiographical mode continues to be one essential way to politicize individuals and groups around experiences of discrimination and oppression. But it is also important to remember that those moments that seem most vivid and visible to us, are not innately so. In focusing on the special moment we may unwittingly perpetuate the invisibility of the taken-for-granted and the effacement of everyday life. And it may be that those moments are the ones we need to examine.

Over the course of the last six months, a number of people contributed their intellectual labor to this piece, helping me transform what started out as a bundle of ideas into an essay. In the early stages of writing, Charlie Bertsch, John Brady and Steven Rubio provided invaluable advice and encouragement; and the members of my two writing groups also gave me helpful comments. Shortly after, I had the opportunity to present the revised version at the 1999 Berkeley-Stanford Questions of Evidence conference where many people, especially Meta DuEwa Jones, provided useful feedback. Finally, the version you read here benefited from the editorial assistance of Charlie Bertsch and Joe Lockard.

Jillian Sandell is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley writing her dissertation on the relationship between coming-of-age autobiographical narratives and social-political movements in the post-war US. She also is coordinator of the Graduate Women's Project at UC-Berkeley. She can be reached at

Copyright © 1999 by Jillian Sandell. All rights reserved.