From the Dean: Autobiographies That Save Our Soul

March 6, 2019

Humans have an obsessive need for story-telling. We tell stories because they help us see patterns in human behavior and the world around us, and the patterns make life seem less random and chaotic. Stories position us in our history; they make us aware of a higher order, an organization, and a meaning to our experiences, especially the disrupting ones, than those experiences often feel. The world can spin in dysfunction and chaos around me, but my go-to stories help me keep my center. Contrary to the preferences of some of us who like charts, graphs, and data tables, stories are the most powerful way to change someone’s mind.

This reality seems to run against the grain of our data-driven Information Age. But, as science writer Jeremy Hsu notes, 65% of our conversations still deal with stories and gossip. We not only want to tell stories; we need to tell stories, all kinds of them, and one of the more powerful forms is the autobiography. Throughout history, autobiographies have inspired the dreams of readers, fueled their public awareness of issues, and shaped their values, virtues, ideals and social, political and religious commitments. One of the most remarkable moral conversion resources in U.S. history has been the autobiography. Personal stories have saved our national soul (and personal souls) more than once.

Some of the influential autobiographies impacting the thinking of people over the last 50 years have been Anne Frank’s, The Diary of a Young Girl; Mahatma Gandhi’s, My Experiment with Truth; Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Nelson Mandela’s, Long Walk to Freedom; Golda Meir’s, My Life; Malcolm X’s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told by Alex Haley; Barack Obama’s, Dreams from My Father; and, Malala Yousafzai’s, I Am Malala. Because of these autobiographies, many of us think differently about adolescent development, social action in the world, the African-American experience in the U.S., the human cost involved in toppling an oppressive regime; and, the leadership challenges and opportunities faced by Jewish and Muslim women.

Last year, as part of its pilot of a new Search for Meaning Empowerment Series, the School of Theology and Ministry invited three people to talk about their autobiographies: former director of the FBI, James Comey; former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and Gold Star father who lost his son, Captain Humayun Khan, to a 2004 car bombing in Iraq, and challenged Donald Trump in a speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention to borrow his (Kahn’s) copy of the U.S. Constitution and read it.

 

Autobiographies allow the reader to see the world from an entirely different perspective, and to begin to think and feel from another person’s perspective. Social psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock call this phenomenon “narrative transportation.” A reader’s belief system and judgments in the real world can change based on the “transport” experience of a story. The phenomenon works for fiction, too, but autobiographies offer a particular kind of influence. They are based on real stories and real people.

Many believe St. Augustine of Hippo’s, Confessions, published in 400 CE, was the first autobiography in Western culture. The text tells the story of the author’s self-indulgent and self-destructive search for happiness, ultimate meaning, and purpose in his youth, and his ultimate conversion to Christianity. As Augustine wrote in one of his book’s most quoted passages:

“O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! … You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness: You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in a breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” 

O Beauty Ever Ancient by St. Louis Jesuits

 

There has been a lot of speculation as to why Augustine wrote his Confessions. Few scholars believe that he wrote it to convert others. But, his text has opened many readers through the centuries to a spiritual reality that they only accessed the first time through the narrative transportation they experienced in reading Confessions. In a similar way, the 1948 autobiography of the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, deeply impacted post-World War II readers, particularly those who had encountered the carnage of battle and technologically-enhanced destruction. They experienced the expansion of their search for meaning, purpose, and belief in something bigger than themselves by walking imaginatively through the experiences of Merton.

In a very real way, story-telling allows us to plant ideas and experiences into someone else’s brain through the empathetic connection the reader makes with the writer or characters in a story. A well-written autobiography puts us in someone else’s skin. It allows us to see the world from their perspective and can awaken us to the same kinds of intellectual, emotional and spiritual transformations described by the author.

Since we have just completed Black History Month, it is worth mentioning that one of the most influential autobiographies in U.S. history is The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Douglass was born into slavery and escaped to the north at the age of 20. While attending an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket in August of 1841, he felt the compulsion to address a mostly white crowd, and the famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, heard the impromptu speech. Afterward, Garrison convinced Douglass to write an autobiography and to become a storied symbol of the evil of American slavery.

Douglass’s book provides graphic descriptions of torture, the emotional and physical mistreatment of fellow slaves, and his own first awakenings of a desire for true freedom. But, the power of Douglass’s narrative is that it is mostly about the simple things experienced by a man living under the horrid situation of slavery. He explains the smells, sights, tastes and sounds of a slave in the antebellum south, and the feelings these sensations created inside him of fear, sorrow, loss, and anger, as well as the emerging dreams of adequate food and warmth and clothing, and a sense of safety and security that birthed a burning desire for freedom. The Douglass autobiography created an empathy bridge for its more than 30,000 readers prior to the Civil War. It became a powerful source of motivation for American abolitionists, opening their eyes to the urgency of the nation’s need to end the evils of slavery.

As the United States continues to debate the issue of immigration, another autobiography is now attempting to awaken the American conscience the same way Douglass did in pre-Civil War America. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant, wrote, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, in order to explain what it felt like to hide his undocumented status for 18 years while living in the United States, attending middle school, high school, college, and launching a journalism career. Vargas explains how he worked around educational and legal systems by relying on his own wits and the counsel of an assortment of mostly white Americans who cared for him and offered their assistance.

The author believes his book is not so much about the complexities of the American immigration system as it is about “homelessness” and the “unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in.” The stories in the book are about the need for many undocumented immigrants to build an identity and life on lies, and the toll this takes on immigrants, their families, and those who care for the women and men caught in the purgatory between legal and undocumented status.

In 2011, Vargas decided to expose his immigration status through an autobiographical article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. 

My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

This article later led to his autobiography, which he dedicated to the world’s 258 million migrants. Three years after the publication of the book, while attending a vigil for Central American migrants in a border town in Texas, Vargas was arrested for lack of proper documentation and was placed in detention. His incarceration became an international news story. In his cell, he realized a disturbing truth about the way the U.S. treats its migrants.

“Inside the cell, I concluded that none of this was an accident … waving a ‘Keep Out!’ flag at the Mexican border while holding up a Help Wanted sign a hundred yards in (to the nation’s border) – is deliberate. Spending billions building fences and walls, locking people up like livestock, deporting people to keep the people we don’t want out, tearing families apart, breaking spirits – all of that serves a purpose.”

 

The American immigration system is designed, wittingly or unwittingly, to create misery in the lives of millions of innocent human beings, so that they can serve the employment needs of several industries relying on cheap labor. “Dear America,” Vargas concludes the book in the best of the autobiographical tradition, “is this really whom we want to be?

As humans, we have a million ways to hide the truth of our complicity in evil. We are busy. We don’t really know the details. We are victims of the system. Some of our greatest moral issues are also papered over in state-sanctioned inaccurate information, if not downright lies. There is no greater example of this than the immigration issue.

Vargas has used his newfound fame to highlight the role of the immigrant. After moving from an invisible to a visible story-teller in American society on the issue of immigration, he used his resources to found: Define American, a multi-media story-telling organization that attempts to redefine the way Americans think about the people who come to the U.S. for all kinds of reasons, but without the proper documentation. We will see if Vargas changes America’s attitudes about immigration, the way Frederick Douglass did about slavery.

But, regardless of the conclusion of the Vargas effort, autobiographies will continue to wield power. The kind of power to save our souls.

 

Comments or Questions?
stmmarcom@seattleu.edu