Self-concept and memoir – launching problems and identifying with a group

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second article in my series about using memoir reading and writing to help you understand the notion of “Self-concept” in general, and your own self-concept in particular. In a previous entry, I spoke about the initial formation of self-concept during Coming of Age. In today’s entry, I list more aspects of identity, showing how these two things, story and self-concept, merge in the pages of memoirs you read or write.

Collecting the pieces of a chaotic launch

In an ideal world, by the time we leave home, or “launch” into the world, we have a coherent sense of purpose. But many of us must try to find our place in the world armed only with a blurred picture or even a damaged one. When the story that we developed during Coming of Age doesn’t lead us towards satisfaction, we must evolve. Some authors recount long struggles to replace their confusing or misleading original self-image with a more coherent one.

A.M. Homes, “Mistress’s Daughter.” She was comfortable with her identity, until her biological mother contacts her and throws her identity into confusion. She obsessively researches this new definition of herself, trying to decide if the “real” her is the daughter of this woman she is meeting for the first time, or the daughter of the adoptive parents who raised her.

Linda Joy Myers, “Don’t Call Me Mother.” Rejected by her mother, she strives to define herself. Early in her life, she reaches out to her extended family and later, she turns back to try to knit all the pieces together in her memoir. Today, the author has moved far beyond that fractured self. As a therapist and memoir teacher, she helps other people knit together the pieces of their lives. Link to Linda Joy’s blog, Link to my article about “Don’t Call Me Mother.”

Barack Obama, “Dreams from our Fathers” He was born in the American melting pot with a white mother and a black African father. The memoir recounts his search for his true identity and proves that the human spirit is capable of knitting together a coherent whole from fractured parts.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter ,”Three Little Words.” She tries to patch herself together from the crazy-quilt of life in a variety of foster homes, eventually reaching safety in an adopted home with parents who help get her back on track. She made it her mission to return to the foster system and try to heal it.

My own search to pick up the pieces
When I left home, I thought I knew myself. Soon I realized I only knew how to relate to people within my all-Jewish neighborhood. The broader world confused me and I fumbled. By the time I was 24, my grip on life had unraveled. The self I was becoming looked nothing like the self I had intended. I envied those kids who wanted something and then attained it. By failing my initial goal, I was thrown into uncertainty. What had thrown me off course? Was my failure to launch caused, as I first assumed, by the crazy 60s? Or was it more psychological than that? Perhaps I was undermined by the same gene-pool that caused my first cousin to kill himself shortly after earning his credentials as a psychiatrist. Or perhaps I had reached some invisible internal  limitations imposed on me by undiagnosed Asperger’s. Such limits social incompetence was practically invisible in my ultra-nerdy all-boys high school, but inadequate to cope with the social demands on the campus of a large state university. The quest to put the pieces back together has driven me for forty years.

Writing Prompt
What parts of yourself felt unfinished or disconnected when you went out into the world? These desires might run deep, creating a sense of purpose that runs under the surface for many years, and possibly for the rest of your life. Your memoir could help you find closure to these old dreams.

Identifying with a group

Humans are social creatures who group together, and so, when we look for ourselves, we often look for the larger group we’re part of. As Bob Dylan said, “You have to serve somebody.” In almost everyone’s life, there is a series of such attempts to identify with some group, idea, or organization, such as your ethnic group, local sports team, political party, religious affiliation. For many memoir authors, their to serve and identify play a prominent role in the protagonist’s search for self concept.

Diane Diekman, “Navy GreenShirt.” The author spent her working life in the Navy. Her memoir is about finding her self, while serving the organization.

Ji Chaozhu, “Man on Mao’s Right.” One of Chairman Mao’s chief interpreters finds his identity through devotion to the national interests of China. Read my article about “Man on Mao’s Right.”

Donald Walters, “The Path.” Walters, one of Paramahansa Yogananda’s assistants, tells about life in the service of an Indian spiritual teacher.  My article about “The Path.”

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” She shows how people in groups serve each other. From ecology groups, to writing groups, to groups of friends, the people in her life arrange themselves along lines of mutual support and striving. My interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Who did I identify with or serve?
I have always been conflicted about my group allegiances. I first saw myself as Jewish and then poly-religious, first as an American then a citizen of the world, first an aspiring doctor, then a computer guy, a therapist, and a writer. Along the way, I have served many groups: writing groups, technical groups, spiritual groups. But serving one is never enough for me. I see them all connected somehow and try to apply lessons I learn in one to improve the workings of another, hoping somehow to learn how to individually and collectively serve the greatest possible good.

Writing Prompt
Look back through the years, and list the organizations you served. Perhaps there were hobby groups, religious or spiritual group, schools and other community activities, your job, your country, your family. Write a few paragraphs about each one. Then put them in chronological order and comment on how your attitude towards serving organizations changed over time.

Link to other articles in this series

Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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