When we reminisce, we are working on our own sense of self. The older we get, the more we remember things in a positive light and rewrite our life story for the better.
Text: Thomas Gull
Blazenka Kostolna (b. 1949) has written her autobiography. “It was like waking up from a never-ending dream, or in other words like giving birth to myself and being my own midwife – I could determine what the child would become,” recalls the author, whose autobiography Die gebrochene Lebenslinie [The Broken Lifeline] won the 2020 Autobiography Award.
Kostolna’s text opens with a dramatic description of her own birth. Her life began as an unwanted pregnancy, which her mother tried her utmost to get rid of. “Every day she jumped off a 30-meter high beam onto the hay in the barn, lugged heavy things around, drank homemade abortion concoctions, secretly sat on a pot of boiling water in the night...”. The author paints a vivid picture of her birth, at dawn in a pigsty during a thunderstorm. Her mother was helping a sow to farrow, but slipped on the wet floor and went into labor two months early. The infant was expelled from the womb “into the night, into a mess of yellow-green early apples, in a room filled with the scent of putrefaction and the sound of the howling wind.”
Kostolna’s autobiography is above all the story of her family: “It’s the one thing I have to leave to my children and grandchildren. Because there’s no life without a story.” This need that Kostolna feels to write down her own story for her descendants is one that is shared by many older people. “We all remember things all the time. But in mid-life our perspective of time changes. From around age 50, we realize that we have less time ahead of us than behind us,” says psychologist Burcu Demiray. This is when we feel drawn to look back at our lives, to evaluate things, to assign meaning. We start to tell our life stories – to ourselves and others.
What we remember and how is fluid, not set in stone, says Burcu Demiray. “Every time we remember something, we remember it slightly differently.” One of the factors is the context in which we retell our past, and to whom – our life partner, our friends, our children? In each case we will recall different details and express them differently.
Autobiographical reminiscence and recounting is a “retrospective construction” according to Alfred Messerli, who researches self-testimonials at the UZH Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (ISEK). This reconstructing of the past is done consciously by the narrator. What we tell and how depends on the point in time and other circumstances. If our life situation changes, our perception of ourselves also changes and with it what we tell and what we deem worth telling. “Salvador Dalí wrote seven autobiographies,” says Messerli.
Alfred Messerli researches autobiographies of historical figures such as Ulrich Bräker’s The Poor Man of Toggenburg, whose collected works Messerli gathered and published in five volumes. He is not only interested in well-known personalities, however. Together with Eric Bohli, a former manager, he founded meet-my-life, an online project that supports and guides people who want to write their autobiography and publish it online, like the one by Blazenka Kostolna, which has already been viewed more than 1,300 times. The UZH-supported project also grants the annual Autobiography Award.
But why do we reminisce at all and what does it mean for us? Burcu Demiray and her research group at the UZH Department of Psychology investigate how our memory functions. They have identified three vital functions of autobiographical recall. One, it’s a matter of survival: “Even cave people had to remember where they would find food and what was edible and what not.” Were we to forget such essential things, we would die out. At the same time, our memory also influences and controls our future behavior. “We remember past events in order to shape our future, to make progress and survive,” says Demiray.
Memories strengthen relationships
The second function of memory is a social one: Who are our friends, who are enemies? Who can we trust and who not? However, we also need memories to forge and maintain relationships, for example by reminiscing with friends or partners about shared experiences. “This is how we build trust and strengthen our social ties,” says Demiray.
And thirdly, we need to remember our life story in order to know who we are. Remembering is essential for our ego development, our sense of self. We know who we are because we remember experiences and can identify our place in the world. “Our memory leads us to ourselves, to who we are now,” says Demiray.
According to the psychologist, memories also help us feel better. This is because we are more likely to remember positive things and distance ourselves from negative experiences, or we integrate the negative things into our self-image in a “loving way”, as Demiray puts it, seeing failures as learning experiences. And it seems that the older we get, the greater is our tendency to remember the nice experiences more than the bad ones. As we age, our lives are thus reflected back to us more in the soft light of dusk than the glare of the midday sun.
This was certainly true for Blazenka Kostolna when she wrote about her childhood: “I was astonished at how interesting, pleasant and positive I found this part of my life, as I had always believed I had an unhappy childhood – both my parents worked, my mother was ill and had lengthy stays in hospital but longed for a better life.” As a child – at least in her memory – she felt something like a “bearable lightness of being”, says Kostolna. She describes it as a “childhood correction”, although according to Demiray it is more like a “correction of age”. The effect is the same – we remember a romanticized childhood.
With people who have mental health problems such as depression, the situation is rather different. They have difficulty remembering past experiences. And the things they do remember have a negative effect, for example when they constantly ruminate and cultivate negative feelings. “Almost all psychosocial disorders go hand in hand with a dysfunctional memory,” says Demiray. By way of example, she cites post-traumatic stress disorders, in which traumatic memories keep invading people’s thoughts.
The positive effect of autobiographical recall on our psyche can also be used as a therapeutic tool, for example in reminiscence therapy, in which older people look back over their lives as part of a structured process. Or more informally, simply recounting stories from their past can be therapeutic for older people. According to Demiray, both have a beneficial effect on the mood, well-being and memory functioning, including in people with dementia.
Reminiscing is healthy because it helps us feel whole, at peace with ourselves and our past. That is in particular true of autobiographical writing because it creates order out of the chaos of life and takes the emotional heat out of experiences: “When we write down our emotions, positive and negative, they lose some of their intensity.”
Hero of my story
But which version of ourselves appears in an autobiography? A stylized one, answers cultural studies scholar Alfred Messerli. “In my autobiography I am the hero, the main character – courageous, decisive. I don’t let anything or anyone get the better of me,” says Messerli. The manner in which we tell our stories follows predetermined cultural patterns. The ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan, for example, like in Andersen’s fairy tale. Or the archetypal hero’s journey, in which the protagonist has to tackle a series of obstacles but eventually comes out on top. In North America, tales of redemption are popular, such as George W. Bush’s story of overcoming alcoholism to become president of the USA.
When writing a biography, decisions have to be made about what to keep in and what to leave out, to sort the wheat from the chaff and find a common thread to join it all together. Blazenka Kostolna compares this process to making new clothes out of old ones: “Everything I have lived, experienced and thought is used for my own creations and inventions, like the clothes my mother tailored just for me.”
To tell a story, even one’s own, requires a bit of imagination, says Messerli. “Fantasy breathes new life into the relics of the past.” Exaggeration and mythologizing is not to be avoided – these literary strategies help make the text interesting and transcend the everyday. That is something Blazenka Kostolna manages to do with great élan in her text, successfully reflecting the remembering and writing process (“lice crawl through my brain, forcing me to act”) with writing that jumps off the page. Her taut prose is shot through with explosive metaphors that light up the reader’s synapses like a rocket launcher firing relentlessly into the sky.
A successful autobiography should read like good literature. But does that mean biographies are ben trovato – plausible fiction? Messerli shakes his head: “No. A biography must be a truthful account of our lives. That is a promise we make the readers and we must stick to it.” True in this context means: True for the author. And that in turn means, in harmony with their sense of self. Specifically, with who they are at the current point in time, stresses Burcu Demiray. She calls this coherence – our life story must be coherent with our current perception of who we are. Our personal narrative changes in the course of our lives, as does our ego personality. Which brings us back to Dalí and his seven lives.
The autobiographically reconstructed self is thus in many ways just a snapshot in time. Nevertheless, reminiscing and telling our life stories can help us feel whole. This was also Blazenka Kostolna’s experience: “I found it fascinating that through writing I gained a new inner order – not only for the story, but also with my thoughts, attitude and approach to life.” We can use autobiography to sort through our memories, life experiences and sense of self. In the evening of our lives, that helps us finally come to terms with ourselves.
Translation by Caitlin Stephens
The Narrated Self
Reminiscing helps us feel whole, at peace with ourselves and our past. That is particularly true of autobiographical writing, because it creates order out of the chaos of life.