Half Title
 Title Page
 Table of Contents
 Life histories in social research:...
 The genre of autobiography: A conceptual...
 Freddie--the personal narrative...
 Albert Gomes: Autobiography as...
 Personal narratives from Aruba:...
 Life histories of deinstitutionalized...
 Social meaning and symbolic...
 References cited

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Documents of interaction
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00100504/00001
 Material Information
Title: Documents of interaction biography, autobiography, and life history in social science perspective
Series Title: University of Florida monographs
Physical Description: ix, 116 p. : ; 23 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Angrosino, Michael V
Publisher: University of Florida Press
Place of Publication: Gainesville
Publication Date: c1989
Copyright Date: 1989
Subjects / Keywords: Social sciences -- Biographical methods   ( lcsh )
Sciences sociales -- Méthode biographique   ( rvm )
Autobiografieën   ( gtt )
Biografieën   ( gtt )
Sociaal-wetenschappelijk onderzoek   ( gtt )
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Bibliography: Bibliography: p. 107-113.
Statement of Responsibility: Michael V. Angrosino.
General Note: Includes index.
 Record Information
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: oclc - 18411885
lccn - 88026129
isbn - 0813009251 (alk. paper)
Classification: lcc - H61.29 .A54 1989
ddc - 300/.722
bcl - 71.02
System ID: UF00100504:00001

Table of Contents
    Half Title
        Page i
        Page ii
    Title Page
        Page iii
        Page iv
    Table of Contents
        Page v
        Page vi
        Page vii
        Page viii
        Page ix
        Page x
    Life histories in social research: Issues and definitions
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
    The genre of autobiography: A conceptual background
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
        Page 14
        Page 15
        Page 16
        Page 17
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        Page 21
        Page 22
        Page 23
        Page 24
        Page 25
        Page 26
        Page 27
        Page 28
    Freddie--the personal narrative of a recovering alcoholic: Autobiography as case history
        Page 29
        Page 30
        Page 31
        Page 32
        Page 33
        Page 34
        Page 35
        Page 36
        Page 37
        Page 38
        Page 39
        Page 40
        Page 41
    Albert Gomes: Autobiography as psychohistory
        Page 42
        Page 43
        Page 44
        Page 45
        Page 46
        Page 47
        Page 48
        Page 49
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        Page 56
        Page 57
        Page 58
        Page 59
        Page 60
        Page 61
        Page 62
    Personal narratives from Aruba: Collective reflections as oral ethnography
        Page 63
        Page 64
        Page 65
        Page 66
        Page 67
        Page 68
        Page 69
        Page 70
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        Page 73
        Page 74
        Page 75
        Page 76
        Page 77
        Page 78
        Page 79
    Life histories of deinstitutionalized retarded adults: An interactionist approach
        Page 80
        Page 81
        Page 82
        Page 83
        Page 84
        Page 85
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        Page 99
        Page 100
        Page 101
        Page 102
    Social meaning and symbolic interaction
        Page 103
        Page 104
        Page 105
        Page 106
    References cited
        Page 107
        Page 108
        Page 109
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Full Text

Documents of Interaction

University of Florida Monographs
Social Sciences No. 74

University of Florida Social Sciences Monographs

George E. Pozzetta, Chairman
Professor of History

James Button
Associate Professor of Political Science

Frederick O. Goddard
Associate Professor of Economics

John C. Henretta
Associate Professor of Sociology

A. J. Lamme
Associate Professor of Geography

Paul J. Magnarella
Professor of Anthropology

Dorene Ross
Associate Professor of Education

Documents of Interaction:
Biography, Autobiography, and
Life History in Social Science

Michael V. Angrosino

University of Florida Press
Gainesville -"

CB32 ~



Copyright 1989 by the Board of Regents of Florida
All rights reserved A
Printed in the U.S.A. on acid-free paper / p


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data ,

Angrosino, Michael V.
Documents of interaction.

(University of Florida monographs. Social sciences; no. 74)
Bibliography: p.
Includes index.
1. Social sciences-Biographical methods. I. Title.
II. Series
H61.29.A54 1989 300'.722 88-26129
ISBN 0-8130-0925-1 (alk. paper)

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University of West Florida Press (Pensacola).
Orders for books published by all member presses should be ad-
dressed to University Presses of Florida, 15 NW 15th Street, Gaines-
ville, FL 32603.


Preface vii

1. Life Histories in Social Research: Issues and 1
2. The Genre of Autobiography: A Conceptual 5
3. Freddie-The Personal Narrative of a Recover- 29
ing Alcoholic: Autobiography as Case History
4. Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory 42
5. Personal Narratives from Aruba: Collective 63
Reflections as Oral Ethnography
6. Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized Retarded 80
Adults: An Interactionist Approach
7. Social Meaning and Symbolic Interaction 103

References Cited 107
Index 115


However creatively one travels, however deep an experience in
childhood or middle age, it takes thought (a sifting of impulses,
ideas, and references that become more multifarious as one
grows older) to understand what one has lived through or where
one has been.
-V. S. Naipaul, Finding the Center

WHEN THIS BOOK was in its first draft, I wrote to
Freddie, the protagonist of chapter 3. He has known and worked
with me for the better part of two decades, and he is used to
seeing himself discussed in some of my academic writings. This
time I sent him the entire book because I was curious to see how
he would respond to research conducted with other people, for
different purposes. He wrote back: "As usual, you have caught
me to a T. Hey Mikey-isn't it time you started calling me by
my rightful name? If anybody ever reads your stuff they must
know me so well by now they could as well know my real name.
But that other business? Is just blague [gossip] you know.
Nobody going to care about none of that."
I have respectfully ignored Freddie's advice and have left
him cloaked in his accustomed pseudonym, but the rest of his
commentary was harder to shake off. On one level, he was
speaking as one who usually stands alone in the spotlight of my
scholarly scrutiny, a situation he very much enjoys even when
my analysis of his behavior is less than flattering. He clearly did
not care to be simply part of the crowd in this new book. But, on
a deeper level, he was asking the very question that had impelled
me to compose this study in the first place: Why should we
continue to be interested in the old but so frequently maligned
"life history" approaches to social research? Haven't those ap-


preaches left us with a huge literature of highly paraticularistic,
often decontextualized accounts of questionable relevance to the
study of the larger processes of culture, history, or personality?
In the last analysis, didn't they really amount to blague-inter-
esting but essentially irrelevant gossip?
Since I have so often turned to some of the life history ap-
proach in my research, I devoutly hoped that the techniques as-
sociated with that approach had some larger value. So I set out to
contribute to the growing social scientific discourse on the poten-
tialities and limitations of personalistic, humanistic, interpretive
studies of social/cultural/historical phenomena. I have done so
by using my own research for illustration, but not because I think
of it as paradigmatic of any one style of life history research.
Rather, I present my own material because I am most familiar
with it.
It is also true that I have come to realize that the things I most
want to understand about the ways in which individuals relate to
their society, culture, and historical moment have not entirely
yielded to the methods I have been using all along. So the book
ends with a description of my ongoing project in which an alter-
native method for dealing with autobiography is used. This
method seeks generalizable truths about individuals and their
culture not in the particular content of their lives but in the sym-
bolic cues they marshal in the effort to share their lives with sig-
nificant others.
This book reflects a debt to my teachers and friends Julia
Crane, who engendered in me a career-long fascination with the
study of lives in process, and James Peacock, who opened up to
me the endlessly tempting cafeteria of ideas that is "symbolic an-
thropology." This study also shows the influence of the late
Nicholas Hobbs, who never ceased to remind his students and
colleagues that even in the midst of "scholarly apparatus" people
still count.
The research projects described herein were supported by the
Foreign Area Fellowship Program, the National Endowment for
the Humanities, and the National Institute of Mental Health. I
want to thank Harry Collymore, Chris Nath, Nan Martin, and


Edward Whyte for having facilitated and nurtured aspects of my
research. This manuscript has benefited greatly from the com-
ments of L. L. Langness and two anonymous reviewers for the
University of Florida Press.
I acknowledge the clerical assistance of Virginia Williams
and the good offices of the Suncoast Mental Health Associates
for the production of the manuscript. A special thanks is owed to
my own students who have so patiently suffered through the pro-
cess of developing my thinking on this subject.
I recently wrote back to Freddie in the wake of submitting a
final draft of the manuscript to the publisher: "I hope it has come
out as more than blague. I hope that while the research I talk
about shares some of the same raw material with common
gossip, it has the potential for helping us catch a glimpse of the
common human experience, even in the face of all the little
details that make us different. If it does that, you will be at least
partly responsible, because you helped me understand that a life,
even of a person sometimes scorned by society, is important, if
only we know where and how to look for its meaning."

Life Histories in Social Research:
Issues and Definitions

IN HISTORICAL, sociological, psychological, and an-
thropological research, biographical and autobiographical mate-
rials have long been considered important resources. In the hu-
manities, too, these genres have been diligently studied, not only
because of their artistic merits but also for the insights they may
provide into the process of creative thought or the cultural
ambience of artistic production.
This monograph is primarily concerned with life accounts
that are basically autobiographical. It does not review the entire
range of applications of life history methods in the social and be-
havioral sciences and the humanities. Its purpose is to suggest
that autobiographical materials are most fruitfully treated as
documents of interaction between a subject recounting his or her
life experiences and an audience, either the researcher recording
the story or the readers of the resulting text. The audience, I
contend, plays a vital, creative role in the formation of the story;
it is not a passive recipient of information. This view of the role
of the audience augments the more conventional view of auto-
biographical texts as documents of the author's consciousness
The use and interpretation of autobiographical materials in
social research appears to be in crisis. Biographies and autobiog-
raphies may, of course, have intrinsic literary value, but the data
found in them have generally been held to be useful primarily to
the extent that they conform to three key assumptions: (1) a story
told at a particular historical moment is representative of patterns
forming the personality of individuals and the character of their
culture; (2) individuals (or selected groups of them) typify their
entire culture; and (3) the researcher is simply a neutral recorder
of factual data.

Documents of Interaction

These assumptions have a certain surface validity. Written
biographical materials of well-known individuals can be verified
against the established facts of a given historical period as deter-
mined from other sources. Life histories collected by anthropol-
ogists and oral historians can similarly be verified against more
general ethnographic accounts of their community of origin. It
has seemed reasonable to conclude, therefore, that social scien-
tists have had the means to confirm the factual basis of the life
accounts of individuals and that they could disregard any ac-
counts they could not verify.
Because all analysis in anthropology, sociology, psychology,
and history rests on the ability to discern patterns in events and
behaviors, a common tendency is to emphasize the normative in
reconstructing an exotic community or a bygone era. If a culture
can thus be analyzed in terms of its central tendencies, and if in-
dividual life stories are subject to rigorous verification, then the
individual life can be used to represent some of the general ten-
dencies of the culture and era.
It is this position that has come increasingly under critical
scrutiny during the past decade, despite its superficial logicality
and the impressive and influential body of sociohistorical knowl-
edge it has generated. To what extent does this syllogism need to
be modified? If it is modified, to what extent is the methodology
of the life history as a whole called into question?
These issues inform the discussion that follows. Suggested re-
sponses to these questions will be approached first by examining
what current literary theory tells about the genres of biography
and autobiography. It may then be possible to apply some of
these insights in a social science context. This review will in-
clude comparative critical analyses of three of the author's own
life history-oriented research projects illustrating three tradi-
tional ways in which such data can be used in social research.
Finally, a fourth project will be analyzed to present an alternative
way to integrate the autobiographical genre into the theory and
method of social research.
A note on terminology is in order. This essay adopts the
usage most consistent with the study of literary genres (see, for

1 / Life Histories in Social Research

example, Spengemann 1980). Biography will refer to the narra-
tive account of one person's life as written or otherwise recorded
by another, reconstructed mainly, though not exclusively, from
records and archives.* Autobiography will pertain to the narrative
account of a person's life that he or she has personally written or
otherwise recorded. Life history will refer to the account of one
person's life "as told to" another, the researcher.t The term life
story will be used to distinguish narratives (which may belong to
the biographical, autobiographical, or life history categories) that
purport to record the entire span of a life from those that tend to
highlight a few key events or focus on a few significant relation-
ships or dwell on perceived "turning points." These last three
types of accounts, which can belong to any of the three broader
categories, will be termed personal narratives.
By convention, biography has been used as a convenient
rubric to cover all such materials (see, for example, Bertaux
1981b). This usage reflects the priority that literary criticism has
placed on the act of retelling or interpreting a person's life; it
emphasizes the separate textual reality of the resulting biographi-
cal document. In essence, someone's life is only raw data until
they are given analytical shape by the biographer. Current liter-
ary theory recognizes autobiography as a separate genre, or at
least as a subgenre because of the special epistemological and

Literary theory permits the term biography as well as other terms discussed
in this paragraph to be applied to nonnarrative forms such as poetry or drama. It
also extends the terms to "fictionalized" life accounts (see, for example, Eakin
1985). Such genre are rarely used in social science contexts, though the author does
not wish to exclude the possibility of their incorporation into social research. The
word narrative will be used throughout to specify a form of writing, but it should
not be interpreted as referring solely to prose nonfiction accounts.
t Mandelbaum (1973:177), in an influential article, has restricted the term life
history to accounts that emphasize the experiences and requirements of individuals
and how they cope with society. He uses the term life cycle studies for accounts that,
by contrast, emphasize the process of socialization and enculturation, processes by
which the society molds the individual. Also influential in some circles in Bertaux's
(1981b:7) distinction between the life story, an oral account of a person's own life,
and the life history, a life story augmented with biographical and other data from
other sources. In this essay, the term life history is used in the more general sense al-
ready described.

Documents of Interaction

psychological issues related to the recounting of one's own life,
whether spontaneously or as elicited by a researcher. If biog-
raphy, as the term is conventionally used, focuses on the finished
product, autobiography focuses on the act of telling. But, like bi-
ography, it gives priority to the process of analysis except that
the interpreter and the subject in this case are the same person.
This essay will develop an alternative point of view.
Traditional studies of autobiography have stressed the dichot-
omy between the teller (one-who-lives-the-life) and the hearer
(one-who-interprets-the-life). Even in autobiography, the inter-
preter must maintain a critical, objective distance from his or her
own life in order to create a "factual" account of it. Contrarily,
this essay focuses on the relationship between the teller and the
hearer; the critical "text" will not be the end-product narrative
version of the life but the "drama" of interaction, the process that
generates the narrative. The title of this study deliberately es-
chews the more familiar generic labels and refers to all biograph-
ical and autobiographical materials as "documents of interac-
tion," specifically the interaction between the individual reliving
and reinterpreting life experiences and the individual whose
active responses to that telling become an integral part of its pro-
cess of creation. This essay is not an argument for the aban-
donment of traditional analytical concepts associated with
biographical materials in the social sciences or with the interpre-
tation of autobiography as a literary genre. Rather, this work sug-
gests another way of developing the method and interpreting the

The Genre of Autobiography: A
Conceptual Background

THE STUDY OF documents of interaction begins with a
consideration of the emergence of autobiography as a literary
genre distinct from biography. Because literary critics have, over
the past two decades, drawn increasingly sharp distinctions be-
tween the two types, the issues of concern as these materials are
applied to social research have emerged with greater clarity.

Autobiography as Literature
Literary criticism was slow to deal specifically with auto-
biography because, though it often took a familiar literary form,
it frequently dealt with personal materials in a direct way that
was not always readily recognizable as "art." Moreover, the
autobiography is, by definition, "incomplete" since "the end of
the story" can never be written. Most importantly, the autobiog-
raphy is self-reflexive; it appropriates the critical function to it-
self, and therefore sometimes leaves critics to deal not with a text
(the task for which they are trained) but with the writer's own
view of that text, a psychological rather than a literary function
(Olney 1980: 24-25). An autobiography used to be taken quite
literally as a "factual account of the writer's life" (Spengemann
1980:xi). It was, indeed, viewed merely as a "self-written biog-
raphy." That being the case, it was expected to employ biograph-
ical means and to be subject to the same standards of historical
verification (Spengemann 1980:xii).
However, autobiography, which has been described as being
simultaneously the "least complicated of writing performances"
and "the most elusive of literary documents" (Olney 1980:3),
proved to be too difficult to pin down in that way. For one thing,
much material that is revelatory about major figures (particularly

Documents of Interaction

those in the arts) has been produced in the guise of fiction or of
philosophical discourse. These documents may have skimped on
specific biographical detail, but they have been crucial to under-
standing the mind of influential persons. Critical opinion was
loath to set all these data aside just because they were not strictly
"historical," and so a perception of a separate genre, with slightly
more flexible canons of analysis, was born. Spengemann
(1980:170-245) has comprehensively reviewed the landmarks in
the evolution of autobiography and in formulating a critical ap-
proach to the genre (see also Bruss 1976).
One aspect of this history that is of particular concern to the
social scientist is the way in which autobiography has become
the "focalizing literature for various 'studies' (e.g., American
studies, Afro-American studies, women's studies) that otherwise
have little by way of a defining, organizing center to them"
(Olney 1980:13). Because autobiography is the "story of a dis-
tinctive culture written in individual characters and from within,"
it has been used to offer a "privileged access to an experience ...
that no other variety of writing can offer" (Olney 1980:13).
, This feature has been especially important in the growth of
Afro-American studies since so much of the early black experi-
ence in the New World was preserved in autobiographical remi-
niscences rather than in more formal historical archives and since
so many prominent black writers (Frederick Douglass, Malcolm
X, Olaudah Equiano, Maya Angelou, among many others)
entered the literary mainstream via the autobiography (Olney
1980:15; see also Blasing 1977, Blassingame 1973).
In this monograph, autobiographies will be treated as emana-
tions of individuals and as reflections of their will to reveal and
share part of their selves. That essential act of sharing, of course,
presupposes listeners/readers whose anticipated response makes
them active participants in the creation of the autobiography.
The autobiographical narrative does not simply recount a life;
it can logically only reflect facets of that life-some of them un-
intentional but most of them deliberately chosen. The selection
process is a reflection of the "world view" of the autobiographer
(Olney 1972:4), the image of the surroundings that he or she

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

holds and wishes to convey to others. The autobiography,
therefore, cannot be straight reportage about one's life and times.
It is a highly selective view of that life and its sociohistorical
context, a view that mirrors the author's philosophical predispo-
sitions, political biases, or simply the grinding of personal axes.
These slants are "revelatory," of course, but extreme caution is
required lest we assume the author's world view uncritically as if
it were the historical truth.
Much the same thing could be said about biography. Even the
most revered classic of that genre, Boswell's Life of Johnson, can
scarcely be said to be without personal bias. But Boswell is usu-
ally pardoned because he was a "character" in his own right.
Scholarly writers of modern biography, on the other hand, are
expected to be much more objective in their chronicles. Creators
of autobiography, by contrast, are allowed some leeway in re-
constructing history from their own points of view.
A variant of this position has been expressed by Jean-Paul
Sartre who contends that, since all memory is selective, theie
must be a "prior structure of personal identity that provides the
template by which certain events are cast as images significant
enough to be stored" (Langness and Frank 1981:109). In his
study of Jean Genet (1963), Sartre suggests that this template
takes the form of the subject's "fundamental project," which is
"the organizing principle or nexus of meanings and values that
inform a person's choices" (in Langness and Frank 1981:109).
This fundamental project, which may be the result of a social
labeling process, gives the individual something to live for. No
matter how scattered people's lives may appear, all of their
choices will be governed by the fundamental project. The prob-
lem with this view, however, is that, when only an autobiograph-
ical text is available as a guide, it is impossible to know if real
choices are involved or simply retrospective rationalizations of
choices already made (Crapanzano 1984:959; see also Earlej
1972, Mehlman 1974).
From the standpoint of the literary critic, it is possible to as-
sert that each individual is unique and that it is therefore unlikely
that anyone would take the trouble to write or record an autobi-

Documents of Interaction

ography just to prove that he or she was simply one of the
crowd. An autobiography is therefore a record of individuality,
and often the bias that stands behind the production of the text isi
one that exaggerates the individuality even further.
Autobiographies, then, illuminate diversity, not generality.
Ferrarotti (1981:20), for example, stresses the specificity of data
derived from biographical materials. These materials are essen-
tially the elements of idiographic analysis, he contends, and do
not lend themselves to nomothetic processes. Yet at least two
generations of social scientists have used autobiographical data
as if they were, in fact, illustrations of general patterns of cul-
Bertaux (1981a:44), for one, is not troubled by this problem,
feeling that sociological researchers should abandon their pre-
tense to scientific positivism. He outlines a program for a "hu-
manistic" sociology by suggesting that life history materials
renew a sense of appreciation for the art of narrative, which is
valuable in and of itself. When social researchers describe a cul-
ture or a society or a community or an era, they are, in fact,
telling a story about it, and so they have much to learn about the
proper techniques of story telling.
On the other hand, even for a practicing literary critic or hu-
manistic social scientist, there must be natural limits to the view
that each life is unique and hence each autobiography is also
unique: After all, literary criticism, no less than social research,
is predicated on the ability to discern general patterns, the better
to facilitate comparative judgments.
But I suggest that the source of usable generalizations is the
form that the creators of autobiography select to convey their
evocation of self. Even an individual as bizarre as Hitler, whose
specific psychological demons were not, one assumes, univer-
sally shared, could still write an autobiography that sold well and
moved many people even before he came to power. He did it by
presenting his private, warped preoccupations in the guise of
pastoral childhood scenes, in images of family conflict common
to German culture, and through celebrations of the redemptive
force of youthful camaraderie that reverberated against a millen-

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

nium of German history.
In sum, Hitler clothed himself in literary forms and cultural
resonances that were appealing to his audience, even to those of
its members to whom the naked message of his political philoso-
phy might have been distasteful. Hitler was such a genius at
manipulating form over content that Mein Kampf stands not
simply as the record of a unique madman but also as a recogniz-
able example of literary process (see Erikson 1963: 326-58).
The same devices he used to evoke the darkness of his image of
self and his world view could have been used by any German of
the period wishing to celebrate the positive side of life. Autobi-
ographers create, in effect, metaphors of their selves by means of
common literary devices.
The fact that personal experiences can be consciously shaped
by means of stylistic devices that link our private worlds to the
experiences of others indicates that, even if the content of our
"selves" is unique, the form through which we convey our self-
perceptions and world views is capable of being shared. The
formal properties of this act of sharing-which makes the auto-
biography a fundamentally social fact-may be studied in a criti-
cal, comparative manner, even if the unique, specific, personal
content of the self remains forever unknowable-perhaps even
to the autobiographer. An anthropologist might point out that
autobiography uses forms evocative of shared experiences by
which individuals are socialized. The autobiography taps the
common, unspoken processes of the ritualized norms of behavior
typical of a particular culture.
In any case, it might be suggested at this point that, whatever
the source of that formal commonality, verifiable truth in the
autobiography rests not in the historical facts of the life account
but in the degree to which the autobiographer's chosen meta-
phors of self communicate to and link up with his or her in-
tended audience. As Starobinski (1980:77) has suggested, the
production of autobiography requires not only a sense that per-
sonal experience is intrinsically valuable, but a belief that the re-
counting of that experience offers "an opportunity for a sincere
relation with someone else."

Documents of Interaction

Thus autobiography is by definition a product of the creative
imagination, even if it takes the form of a straightforward, histor-
ical prose narrative. Renza (1980:269) makes the point even
more explicitly when he states that autobiography "transforms
empirical facts into artifacts." He adds that not only can autobi-
ography possibly encompass works of fiction but that it is, by
definition, fiction. But, of course, "fictional" by no means im-
plies "untrue." As Mandel (1980:49) puts it, "Strictly speaking,
autobiography is not a recollection of one's life. Of course,
everyone has recollections and memories. Memories are com-
mon phenomena-familiar, comfortable, inevitable. They are
also spontaneous and natural. An autobiography, on the other
hand, is an artifact, a construct wrought from words."
Hankiss (1981) has likened the process of writing an autobi-
ography to an act of "mythological rearranging" and has provi-
ded a useful typology of basic strategies by which this rearrange-
ment can be accomplished:
1. If the present self-image of writers is good and they wish
to assert that this present positive state flows from good child-
hood or other early experiences, then they adopt a dynastic stra-
tegy in casting the events of life into the "mythological" frame-
work of an autobiography. In such an autobiography, childhood
is mythically embellished as a source of strength. The writer's
parents, or other significant adult role models, are upheld as the
fountainheads of enduring values. It is also from these strong
adults that the writer learns the attitude "We are different from
other people." This difference may or may not be a factor of
inherited wealth or social prominence. But even people who
come from a modest socioeconomic background will interpret
their parentally derived values as a call to some sort of honorable
service to society, of the performance of good works, or of the
exercise of political leadership.
2. If the present self-image of writers is good but they see
childhood and early life negatively, then an antithetical strategy
will be adopted. The writers tend to see their present strengths as
virtues resulting from self-will and determination to overcome

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

the limitations of early life, or from a deliberate revolt against
unacceptable parental standards. The antithetical autobiographer
tends to have a highly developed sense of being a "self-made"
individual, without true antecedents.
3. If the present self-image of writers is bad but they look
back to childhood as a positive time, they will adopt a compen-
satory strategy. The autobiographer harks back to the values
learned in childhood as if to say, "I may be rotten now, but I
have a good background." Such autobiographies are chronicles
of falls from grace. Implicit in this strategy is the feeling that, if
only the writer can get back in touch with those old-time virtues,
then perhaps he or she can rise out of the muck. The production
of the autobiography itself may be part of that process of redis-
4. If the present self-image of writers is bad and they regard
their childhood as the source of that negativity, a self-absolutory
strategy will be adopted, as if to say, "How could I have turned
out good-look where I came from!"
Hankiss's overall point is that the thematic structure of an
autobiography is not accidental. It is essential that the writer
make a personal assessment and try to figure out why he or she is
like that. Everything else flows from this fundamental act of
insight, which is then transformed by fictional means into a story
that will communicate that discovered odyssey of self to others.
The autobiographer has reason to assume that the four strategies
will strike responsive chords with the intended audience and will
select a thematic structure that will not only satisfy internal
needs but will also convey a desirable image to the audience.
For example, mainstream U.S. values lead to a preference for
Horatio Alger types, who, by pluck and initiative, rise above
their circumstances. We are a bit put off by what can come off as
the smugness of those who "carry on the tradition," are scornful
of those who "blow" early advantages, and are usually downright
hostile to those who appear to wallow in adversity and then
whine about how they never had any breaks. The classic middle-
American autobiography, such as that of Ben Franklin, is thus

Documents of Interaction

antithetical in style, and our popular mythology tends to treat ex-
amples of this type as "inspirational."
By contrast, some of the most powerful black autobiog-
raphies, such as those of Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver (in his
Soul on Ice days) adopt an accusatory, self-absolutory strategy.
Such stories strike a responsive note in black readers but are of-
ten uncomfortably threatening to white middle-class readers. For
politicized blacks in the 1960s, these may have been precisely
the responses desired from polarized communities. It is difficult
to imagine the Cleaver of the 1960s wanting to write a rags-to-
riches story that would have edified a white audience, even if
that were somehow the way he saw himself then. In adopting the
self-absolutory tone, he was offering a critique of mainstream
U.S. society, which was responsible for the institutionalized
racism that he saw as the source of his problems and against
which he was compelled to react.
To summarize, the movement among literary critics to treat
autobiography as a separate genre has raised the following
1. The "life" account document may take many forms, in-
cluding, but certainly not limited to, the straightforward histori-
cal records.
2. This document need not be subject to traditional standards
of historical verification.
3. The truth of a document recording someone's "life" is
gauged by its capacity to connect with the experiences of its in-
tended audience, not by its conformity with established "fact."
4. The "self' behind the "life story" is less important than the
self that is created in the process of communication between a
writer and an audience.
5. The literary devices that communicate this "metaphor of
self' are derived from, sanctioned by, and given meaning
through the culture that the writer and the audience share.
I will now turn to applications of the life history method in
social research to see how these literary insights may enrich the
social science perspective.

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

Personal Documents as Resources for
Social Research: Traditional Views
Biographical materials were enthusiastically included
among the resources that could be tapped by the emerging
scientific disciplines of history, sociology, and anthropology in
the nineteenth century. Such materials were always most closely
associated with advocates of those theoretical approaches that
emphasized the importance of subjectivity in social processes
(Kohli 1981:63).
For example, the pioneering sociohistorians Thomas and
Znaniecki produced a massive and influential study of the Polish
peasantry and the migration of many peasants to America
(originally published 1917-18). They made extensive use of
what they called "life records," which they pronounced "the per-
fect type of sociological material" (in Barnouw 1985:248). "Life
stories" were a major focus of the influential Chicago School of
sociology in the 1920s and 1930s (Bertaux 1981b:5), and they
remained an integral feature of sociological research until the
1950s, when the demand for quantitative rigor limited their
utility (Bertaux 1981b:1; see also Angell 1945). Although Franz
Boas, the "father" of American anthropology, dismissed life
histories as "essays in retrospective falsification" (in Barnouw
1985:248), his students made extensive use of them, and orally
recorded life histories have never really fallen from favor among
anthropologists. (See, for example, the classic statement by
Kluckhohn 1945, as well as more recent reviews by Langness
1965 and Langness and Frank 1981.)
And, to be sure, a modern approach to history would be
inconceivable without the collaboration of those who record or
interpret biographical data. Furthermore, attempts to standardize
a methodology for the collection and interpretation of such mate-
rials by social researchers of various disciplinary traditions have
a long and distinguished pedigree (Dollard 1935).
There are two major approaches to the use of these data.
North American scholars have tended to favor the study of the
individual life story as a sociohistorical document, complete and
revealing in its own right, and their European counterparts have

Documents of Interaction

generally focused on collective accounts. In typical American
scholarship, the "extraordinary" individual has often been seen
as the representative of the otherwise anonymous many. This
outlook has no doubt been encouraged by the experience of U.S.
anthropologists, who are influential pioneers in the use of life
history in social research because they were often in the position
of reconstructing entire vanished tribal cultures from the reminis-
cences of elderly survivors. Typical European research, by con-
trast, used the recorded reminiscences collected widely from
among those "faceless" masses in order to construct an image of
(presumably intact) society as a whole.
The most outstanding example of this European approach
-albeit one unfortunately known to us only through very
fragmentary translations-is that of the Polish scholar Josef Cha-
lasiriski, a student of Znaniecki. Beginning shortly after World
War I, Chalasiiski and his students organized literally hundreds
of public competitions in which local cultural agencies awarded
prizes for the best essays of personal memoirs. This effort was
shelved during World War II but was resumed shortly thereafter
and continued into the 1950s. The process resulted in the collec-
tion of thousands of pamietniki, written autobiographies (Bertaux
Chalasiriski's impulse was not strictly sociological; an ardent
nationalist living in an era of national reunification, he must have
felt it politically vital to keep his compatriots in touch with their
cultural traditions and to help them identify with their fellow
Poles after centuries of partition and foreign domination. The
process of using scholarship for the political purpose of reviving
a sense of national unity was repeated (less comprehensively, to
be sure) elsewhere in Europe, and differs sharply from the
American effort to pin the single elusive specimen for micro-
scopic study.
The use of autobiography in the American style was probably
shaped by the strong influence of psychology on the social
sciences in general in the United States. Even in the heyday of
the Chicago School, which supposedly emphasized the social
group and its "ecology," sociologists working in that tradition

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

began to incorporate the techniques of psychological analysis
into their studies of group phenomena. (See, for example,
Allport 1945; Babad, Birnbaum, and Benne 1983.)
Clifford Shaw, for one, studied the phenomenon of juvenile
delinquency in the 1920s; his technique was to ask boys on
parole to write their "own stories," to which he added whatever
other relevant material he could glean from police and court rec-
ords as well as from medical and psychiatric findings. Following
medicopsychiatric usage, he called the results "case histories"
(Shaw 1930). Although he believed that they could be used to
formulate generalizations about the social problems at hand, in
fact they were (and remain) interesting primarily as documentary
glimpses into particular lives. Then, as now, the bias in Shaw's
sampling technique prevented his case histories from being used
seriously as the bases of analytical generalizations, although
some present-day sociologists, more careful about sampling,
continue to advocate the use of selected "case studies" as means
to "generalize to the larger organizational nexus" (Denzin
1981:149). One other criticism of the case study approach has
been that it tends to focus on deviants. A noteworthy exception is
the work of White (1952), who selected a group of "normal"
subjects (as determined by a battery of psychological tests) and
followed them longitudinally through their autobiographical
In reflecting on the two major styles of personal documenta-
tion research, Bertaux (1981a:39) notes that the life stories of
significant individuals can often stand on their own; even if we
reject the contention that these peoples' lives "represent" a larger
society, we can still be drawn in by the psychological resonances
they set up with us, as individuals. Collective life histories, by
contrast, are more problematic. Except for those like the Chala-
siriski pamietniki, which were collected for a purpose that expli-
citly transcended a research function, collections of life histories
do not readily speak for themselves. It may be said that such col-
lections form an impressionistic mosaic of the society, but in fact
they cannot do even that if they are left as raw data. Bertaux's
conclusion is that, whatever the purely literary value of an

Documents of Interaction

unadorned autobiography may be, it is useless to the social re-
searcher without the full, mediating cooperation of the researcher
This position echoes that of Thomas and Znaniecki, who pos-
tulated that every social fact was the product of a "continual in-
teraction of individual consciousness and objective social real-
ity" (1958:1831). The production of an autobiography is itself
part of the process of the evolution of individual consciousness
(Schutz and Luckmann 1974), and the construction of a life
history "is the mode by which the individual represents those
aspects of his past which are relevant to the present situation"
(Kohli 1981:65). Life histories can, of course, never be collec-
tions of all the events of a person's life; they are thus "structured
self-images" reflective of the "identity" the subject chooses to
But, though autobiographical "self-thematization" is part of
an "internal cognitive process" (Kohli 1981:65), it has no social
meaning unless a significant other receives the message and
feeds back a response. The researcher, who arranges and inter-
prets those data and, in many cases, elicits them in the first place,
is thus a critical midwife in the birthing of a social (as opposed to
an internalized) sense of self.
It is thus the researcher's duty to supply the theme that links
the experiences of individual informants into a collective whole,
just as he or she must clarify the assumptions that stand behind
the assertion that the life of an individual somehow typifies the
whole. Perhaps the most commonly selected theme in life
history-oriented research has been that of social change, which
has figured prominently in research in sociology, anthropology,
and history (Elder 1981:78; see also Balan, Browning, and Jelin
1973). It is possible to document the details of this change, but a
sense of its impact and how it is dealt with comes through best
via the lives of people caught up in the process. Socialization
(how people learn to be members of their community) and aging
(how they pass through the crises of the life cycle as defined by
their culture) have also been popular themes linking collective
life histories (Elder 1981:78).

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

Alternative Views
Some theoreticians would go beyond the thematization
function in analyzing the role of the researcher in the life history
process. As Catani (1981:212) has stated so simply, "The work
[the life history] is above all the product of an encounter." The
textual product of that encounter may well contain vital docu-
mentary data. But, unless the encounter that generates such data
is kept in mind, that text is apt to be misinterpreted. The ex-
change between subject and researcher is "symbolic" in that it is
ritualized via patterns of speech and other forms of communica-
tion (body language, gesture, details of hospitality). It could not
be otherwise, because the exchange involves "that which our
civilization deems to be the most precious of goods; that is,
oneself" (Catani 1981:212).
This ritualized encounter may be observed when the life
stories under consideration are produced in one setting and then
interpreted by researchers in another (as in Chalasiiski's work),
or when the biographies of deceased historical personages are
being scrutinized. But the encounter is most obvious in classic
anthropological and oral historical research when the subject and
researcher are in face-to-face contact, and where the production
of the life history is a joint effort, although the technology of the
tape recorder provides the illusion of first-person autobiography
even in these cases (Bertaux 1981b:8; Catani 1975). There are
some notable "collective" life histories in, the anthropological
and oral historical literature (Oscar Lewis's "family autobiog-
raphies" are perhaps the best known), but even they tend to have
been collected "one-on-one" and assembled by later editorial
Some anthropologists have championed a "personalistic" ap-
proach to ethnography in general (e.g., Spiro 1972) that would
focus on the impact of the individual on culture, rather than vice
versa; the research process termed life history by Mandelbaum
would fit this style. Although anthropologists and oral historians
are often eager to personalize the field in another sense, by
speaking anecdotally about "my people" or "my village," they
have traditionally been reluctant to treat their role in the research

Documents of Interaction

process as if it were a relevant ethnographic fact.
Training manuals speak extensively of the need to establish
rapport, and they detail the conventional techniques for con-
ducting effective interviews, but there is a tacit assumption that,
once those fundamentals have been taken care of, what unfolds
is the pure outpouring of the respondent's consciousness. The
ways in which the researcher manipulates the encounter, or the
ways in which the informant deals with that manipulation and
tries to manipulate the situation in turn, have rarely been dis-
cussed. Critical discussions of life history methodology center on
questions of sampling, methods of recording data, and styles of
presentation (Barnouw 1985:249)-all in an effort to establish
the objective veracity of the resulting text.
Most practitioners of the life history method would agree
with Barnouw's assessment that "some of the best life history
documents are those which show the least prodding on the part
of the ethnographer" (1985:251). They would probably also
second his complaint that published life history texts rarely make
it clear whether the data were spontaneous or were elicited by
"digging"-the implication being that the prudent reader could
then disregard the latter.
Many anthropologists and oral historians feel that editing
spoils the natural flow of a subject's inner consciousness. The
famous autobiography of Sun Chief (Simmons 1942) was criti-
cized by Kluckhohn (1945:97) for having been edited into a
piece of literature, as much the product of the ethnographer's
consciousness as it was of the Indian's. On the other hand, the
extensive psychologically oriented life story collection by Cora
Du Bois on Alor (1944) may be said to suffer from a lack of
editing (Barnouw 1985: 252) since we never quite know what all
the accounts add up to. It can be assumed that at least some of
Du Bois's informants falsified their accounts (either deliber-
ately-to tease the foreigner-or inadvertently-because they
misunderstood what she was getting at). Because orthodox
Freudian theory suggests that even "false" data can be psycho-
logically revealing if a pattern can be discerned in them, it would
presumably have been helpful had the researcher been more

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

forthcoming in her indication of what was "false" and what was
"true." In either case, the criticism reflects a concern with the
accuracy of the text as either ethnographic, historical, or psycho-
logical data.
Some researchers (Gladwin and Sarason 1953; Henry 1945),
in fact, have taken the position that since such textual accuracy
can never be satisfactorily established-particularly when deal-
ing with subjects from cultures in which the generation of auto-
biographical data is not highly valued-then such documents
should not even be suggested as having analytical psychocultural
value. Similarly, much of the criticism of Lewis's popular oeuvre
(Lewis 1961, 1968; Lewis, Lewis, and Rigdon 1977) rests on the
perception that he edited and organized his material extensively
to bring out certain ideological themes but presented the texts as
if they were "raw data." His method has been unfavorably com-
pared with that of Catani (1973), who actually published the raw
interviews as appendices to the finished life histories (Bertaux
The most cogent dissent from this mainstream view is cur-
rently being voiced by the anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano,
whose own study, Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (1980), was
among the first to treat explicitly the ethnographer's role in
shaping the final text. His discussion of his relationship with his
informant (and with an interpreter who also worked on the
project) is presented without apology and without any intent to
clear away the resulting "falsification" so as to establish a "pure"
text. The text is treated as inevitably the product of a particular
interaction among specific people in a defined context. Wilson's
engaging and moving Oscar (1974) is less widely known, and
Wilson himself has not made his analytical point of view as
much an issue as has Crapanzano, but it is an important work re-
flecting the same general tendency.
Crapanzano has gone on to offer a more general critique of
the conventional life history approach. He contends (1984:954)
that personal documents have all too often been used by social
scientists trying to leaven the impersonality of ethnographic and
historical reportage with something that speaks of the intensely

Documents of Interaction

personal experiences of fieldwork. As a result, a lack of true
analysis is often attached to these documents; instead there is
"commentary," which "can be saccharine in its sentimentality
and overambitious in its justification" (1984:954). He offers a
significant distinction between the use of personalistic interview
techniques to elicit specific data-an acceptable function of
ethnographic and historical "science"-and the use of the "life
history" itself as if it were a body of data.
There are, according to Langness and Frank (1981:24), six
reasons for the use of biographical materials in social research: to
portray a culture; for literary purposes; to portray aspects of cul-
ture change; to illustrate an aspect of culture not usually por-
trayed by other means (for example, women's views); to com-
municate something not otherwise communicated (for example,
the "insider's" view of a culture); and to say something about
Except possibly for the second of these traditional functions,
all of them seem to require at least a provisional establishment of
the textual authenticity of the life history. But, Crapanzano asks,
how do you "confirm" a life history account-how do you
provide an independent witness for a life? Certainly careful field-
workers in intimate contact with their informants would be able
to spot some inconsistencies, but "it would seem that consistency
of accounts over time and among informants is rather more re-
vealing of a cultural orientation or psychological disposition than
of the actual occurrence of an event" (1984:955). Crapanzano
therefore suggests that

The life history ... is the result of a complex self-constituting
negotiation. It is the product (at least from the subject's point of
view) of an arbitrary and peculiar demand from another-the
anthropologist. (At some level the anthropologist's demand is
always a response to the informant.) The interplay ... of demand
and desire governs much of the content of the life history, and
this interplay, the dynamics of interview, must be taken into con-
sideration in any evaluation of the material collected. (1984:956)

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

A further distortion inevitably takes place when an oral en-
counter is translated into a written text-which, in our culture at
least, assumes a fixed state suggestive of a resolution, a conclu-
sion. As a result, most anthropological life histories and oral his-
torical documents read as if "the narrator is addressing the
Cosmos" (Crapanzano 1984:958). But, in fact, it must be remem-
bered that the written text is, at best, a snapshot of a dynamic
interchange that is itself part of an ongoing relationship between
two particular people.
Moreover, both the storyteller and the audience must share in
the conventions of acceptable story telling, conventions that may
further distort the veracity of the resulting text. It is almost un-
heard of in anthropology and oral history to treat life histories
with the sort of stylistic analysis accorded to "folk tales," but,
unless the folk-literary conventions that guide the creative act in
a particular social situation are understood, then one falls into the
trap of reading the autobiographical text as if it were a univer-
sally valid set of factual case notes. Among the points that
Crapanzano suggests researchers begin to pay attention to are in-
digenous notions of authorship, rhetoric, style, and narration
technique, including figurative language, allegory, double en-
tendre, humor, irony, "beginnings and endings," conventional
silences, suspense, and denouement (1984:957).

The Question of an Appropriate Analytical
Crapanzano's challenging conclusion speaks to the fa-
miliar question "What's it good for?" If the autobiographies, bi-
ographies, life histories, or life stories cannot be "verified" in the
absolute and global sense that has traditionally been upheld, why
should they continue to be collected? Simply admiring them as
vaguely literary products seems inadequate because researchers
often have to go to so much trouble to get them in the first place.
Crapanzano holds out hope that generalizations can be drawn out
of personalized data, just as traditional social scientists believed,
but what he calls "dynamic models" must arise from a source

Documents of Interaction

other than the text. It was noted above that generalizations might
profitably be drawn from techniques by which autobiographers
chose to communicate their experience of self to others rather
than from the text alone.
In the same spirit, Crapanzano urges a consideration of the
"dynamics of the interview in which the life history is, so to
speak, invented" (1984:959). The text, he says, "provides us with
a conventionalized gloss on a social reality that, from a strict
epistemological point of view, we cannot know" (1984:959). We
end up, then, by discussing "the dynamics of narration rather
than the dynamics of society" (1984:959). But is it possible that
the "dynamics of narration" themselves can serve as clues to the
"dynamics of society"? And, if so, how can such a study be con-
It is my contention that the production and dissemination of
autobiographies is a matter of encounters between subjects and
audiences, the latter represented first by the scholar directly
involved in the collection of the account, and then, more
broadly, by the readers/listeners who will share in both the per-
sonal narrative text and in the scholar's interpretation thereof.
Researchers may therefore fruitfully use some of the insights of
the symbolic interactionist approach in order to be able to draw
critical generalizations from these encounters.
My approach to interactionism derives from the sociologist
Ralph Turner (1968), who notes that cultural definitions of roles
are often vague or even contradictory. (An anthropologist might
add that this proposition becomes more nearly valid as the soci-
ety under question becomes larger and more heterogeneous.) At
best, the conventional definition of roles provides a general
framework for behavior, hardly a detailed checklist of specific
options. People thus do not merely "take" roles, as earlier
theorists would have it; they make roles in the sense of defining
their responses in specific circumstances from among a large
repertoire of potentially available behavioral choices. They then
communicate to others what roles they are playing.
To be sure, role making does not occur in a vacuum; people
still form their ideas about what to do from "role models," and

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

they have the capacity (unless they are psychiatrically dis-
ordered) to set aside or modify their choices if they perceive that
their "audience" will not accept them. The source of continuity is
not in a set of established decisions about acceptable behavior
but rather in a repertoire of conventionalized symbolic commu-
nicative strategies that enable "actors" in a social drama to
manipulate their own and others' roles.
Indeed, people act as if all others in their environment were
playing identifiable roles, and they tend to interpret the gestures
of others accordingly. People subtly seek to verify their percep-
tion that the other person is, in fact, playing the same game.
There are criteria both internal (does this role facilitate interac-
tion just between us two?) and external (is this role likely to be
recognized by reputable others, were they to come upon our in-
teraction?) by which we verify our interactions.
We, of course, begin by making roles that reinforce our self-
conception, but may adapt when these roles are not verifiable in
a given context. For example, someone with a strong, aggressive
self-image might always seek to assume a leadership role. But if
that person joins a Quaker meeting, where decisions are made by
quiet consensus, the role cannot be sustained. The person has the
choice of either abandoning that group or modifying behavior so
as to fit in more comfortably. The "audience" is not likely to say,
"Hey, stop that offensive behavior!"
We therefore rely on our socialization to enable us to pick up
the more subtle cues that give the same message. In this view,
socialization does not provide us with a repertoire of settled con-
clusions but rather with a repertoire of gestures and other com-
municative techniques, as well as the ability to interpret them.
The "culture shock" experienced by researchers doing fieldwork
in exotic settings is not really a matter of ignorance about speci-
fic customs-anyone can pick up a book and acquire such infor-
mation. The discomfort arises from the critical inability to inter-
pret symbols of interaction and to respond accordingly.
The situation is similar for an oral historian, for example,
collecting a story from an informant. The researcher probably
tends to assume that the informant is playing the game as defined

Documents of Interaction

and so assumes the role of "interviewer," believing further that
the informant will be providing straightforward, "factual" re-
sponses to the interview stimuli. The informant may, however,
be playing another game, thinking of himself or herself as a
storyteller and perceiving the researcher to be an interested
audience, a large "grandchild" perhaps. Both can proceed quite
happily until the symbolic gestures of one of them serve to
convince the other that "something is wrong." The researcher
may begin to feel that the informant is "fooling around," or the
subject may think that the researcher is rudely impatient. One or
both may thus shift behaviors and responses around until both
are comfortable again, even if only temporarily.
In their usual anxiety for the factuality of the finished text, re-
searchers generally treat these often fleeting little interactive
dramas as irrelevant irritations, when, in fact, they may provide
more valuable clues than one realizes. In Turner's view, the very
fact that the researcher and informant can recognize each others'
cues (even if belatedly) and modify their behaviors without ap-
pearing to disturb the surface of their interaction is perhaps more
indicative of a stable cultural "core" than any specific factual in-
formation that can be exchanged.
When the researcher and informant are of such different cul-
tures that the cues are not recognized at all and the encounter
does indeed fall apart, the researcher need not bemoan the failure
to obtain a "usable" document. He might review the interaction
itself to see what cues the informant was actually trying to
convey, whether they are part of that culture's repertoire of nar-
rative techniques (since it is fully possible that the informant was
telling the researcher in effect to bug off), and to study the reper-
toire of appropriate responses.
One advantage held by traditionally trained anthropologists
over other types of researchers who go into the field to collect
personal documentation is that they will, if at all possible, set up
a long-term participant-observation residence in the community
under study. In this way, they can begin to internalize the cues of
interaction that the researcher whose sole purpose is the genera-
tion of texts may miss.

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

The "cognitive sociologist" Cicourel (1973) proposes three
major techniques that guide interaction.
1. If actors sense that ambiguity exists about what is going
on, they will emit gestures designed to guide themselves back to
a "normal form," or a common ground of role playing. For ex-
ample, coworkers who engage in a bantering flirtation over
coffee may find that they are tending to overstep the line of
"business propriety" and enter an emotional relationship that
they are not prepared to deal with. So one or both may abruptly
start talking about the stock market, or rifle through papers in an
attach case, or glance at a watch, or give some other indication
that this is a business meeting after all and not a lovers' tryst.
2. If actors sense that they have very different personalities,
backgrounds, or interests and yet are forced into a situation that
seems to demand interaction, they will seek out some topic about
which they can assume common agreement, if not necessarily
real interest (the familiar "talk about the weather" ploy at
cocktail parties).
3. Conversations or other interactions are rarely, if ever,
"complete." It would be exceedingly tedious for each actor to be
absolutely explicit about everything that must be committed. In
American English, we are fond of saying, "you know," to fill in
gaps in a conversation. The unspoken assumption of a phrase
like "Kids! Well, you know . ." is that the other actor will, in
fact, know what's the matter with kids, without the first person
engaging in an elaborate disquisition. They can proceed to the
particular incident they want to speak about, which is supposedly
an illustration of the general problem that remains unarticulated.
Only rarely in our culture do people say, "No, I don't know-tell
me." Such a response, even if honest and well intended, is likely
to be interpreted as rude because it symbolically says, "You and
I aren't on the same ground at all-we can't assume that we have
verified the roles we're setting up for each other."
The general "rules" seem fairly commonsensical, although
there is probably some heuristic value in making explicit that
which "everybody knows" but of which they may not be con-
sciously aware. However, Turner prefers to delineate the "main

Documents of Interaction

tendency propositions" that may shape our descriptions or inter-
pretations of interactions. Such a proposition is one that takes the
form "In most normal situations, X tends to occur." It is not a
statement of covariance but a statement of what is presumed
typically to transpire in the course of interaction. This proposi-
tional inventory is based on the assumption that interaction does
not involve simple conformity but rather active construction of
reciprocal "lines of conduct" among actors who are in the pro-
cess of adapting to each other in more or less informal situations.
"Interactionism" is basically a study of the ways in which people
attempt to give coherent form to informal situations.
Turner's propositional inventory may be summarized for the
purpose of this text under six major headings:
1. Emergence and character of roles.-People view the roles
and seek consistency of behavior by interpreting the behaviors of
others as elements of recognized roles.
2. Role as an interactive framework.-Roles are defined
dyadically, and interaction is regularized by modifying behavior
so as to create at least the impression of complementarity.
3. Role in relation to actor.-As long as people remain in a
social situation, they will continue to be identified by roles they
have formerly assumed in that situation, even if their behavior
changes. New actors entering that situation will be assigned or
will adopt roles consistent with or complementary to ones al-
ready established in that setting. The newcomer is usually in-
duced to "go along with the crowd" through the interactive
mechanisms that are grouped together and popularly called "peer
4. Role in organizational settings.-Statuses and roles tend to
merge in organizational settings more nearly than in informal
social settings. Roles in organizational settings (such as "CEO,"
"supervisor," "secretary") tend to be formalized according to ob-
jective canons of behavior rather than in ways shaped by the
subjective interaction of specific players.
5. Role in social settings.-People have a tendency in

2 / The Genre of Autobiography

smaller, more intimate interactions to adopt roles that reflect
broader social contexts. (For example, a society's definition of
an appropriate female role may influence what a woman does
when she is first introduced to a man, regardless of his particular
personality, values, or expectations.) All people, even in
"simple" societies, assume multiple roles, either simultaneously,
or over the course of time. But in either case they tend to assume
roles that are consistent with each other. People prominent in
business or politics in our culture, for example, will probably de-
velop leisure roles that are consistent with "professional dignity,"
such as golfer or charity volunteer. Such persons would likely
not be weekend drivers in a demolition derby, even if that's what
they'd really like to be doing. After a time, they may even come
to feel that that which they have to do is that which they want to
6. Role and the person.-People seek to resolve tensions
among roles and to avoid contradictions between self-concep-
tions and the roles they assume. For example, in our culture,
many men who are attracted to dance as an art form (still widely
considered to be an inappropriate male interest) will formulate
elaborate explanations about how the ballet is actually a more
exacting form of athletic prowess than football.
Two overall "explanatory propositions" link these "main ten-
dency" propositions: (1) Functionality is the process whereby
roles are used to achieve ends or goals in an effective and effi-
cient manner, and (2) a role is viable when the conditions sur-
rounding performance of that role make it possible to play it with
some personal reward.
Following are descriptions of four of the author's research
projects that have utilized personal narratives of various types
and from various sources. Three of these projects have taken the
traditional analytical approach of accepting the textual integrity
of the narratives as if they were documents of some sort of his-
torical, sociocultural, or psychological reality. These studies are
presented so as to demonstrate the limitations of this view, al-

28 Documents of Interaction

though such analyses are certainly useful in some clearly defined
research situations. The fourth project, which makes use of the
insights of the symbolic interactionists discussed above, is
presented so as to clarify the nature of the encounters that
generated the texts in question. I suggest that such an approach is
one way to give analytical shape to the position pioneered by

Freddie: The Personal Narrative of a
Recovering Alcoholic-
Autobiography as Case History

IN 1970 THE AUTHOR began a cross-cultural study of
alcoholism. The main thesis behind this research was drawn from
the transculturall psychiatric" theory of Alexander Leighton
(1959): the several social, political, and economic forces that are
linked together and called "modernization" will, to a greater or
lesser degree, encourage the social disintegration of traditional
communities. That disintegration will, in turn, generate relatively
high levels of psychosocial stress, which is a significant risk
factor in mental disorder. The emergence of "problem drinking"
in a community may be an important symptom of this process.
The investigation took place in Trinidad, an island in the
West Indies whose history of colonial mercantilism and planta-
tion economy has left it with an ethnically segmented population.
The community that was the focus of the research consisted of
persons of Indian descent. Indentured laborers were brought to
the West Indian colonies from British India from 1837 until
1917. In Trinidad, they found relative prosperity and stayed on
to form a well-entrenched agrarian community. Black Trini-
dadians, by contrast, preferred to leave the land, the symbol of
the hated slave system, and by and large became town people
involved in industrial, craft, and professional pursuits. For dec-
ades, the two communities had existed side by side on the small
island without a great deal of interaction. The Indians had pre-
served a fair amount of their traditional culture.
But in the decades following World War II and since Trini-
dad achieved independence in 1961, the political and economic
climate changed, and more and more Indians began to move into
the mainstream of the island's political and economic life. As
they did so, the communal solidarity and cultural traditionalism

Documents of Interaction

of the ethnic group began to crack. At the same time, the Indians,
descendants of a proudly teetotaling culture, were turning to
alcohol in alarming numbers. Even so, Indian alcoholics seemed
to be much more willing to seek treatment than problem drinkers
of the island's other ethnic groups.
Collecting life histories of Indian alcoholics in Trinidad had
been projected as part of the research design. In one sense, col-
lecting such life histories was easy, at least among those in
treatment, especially those who were members of Alcoholics
Anonymous (AA). A certain confessional style typifies that or-
ganization and made many of the recovering alcoholics among
my informants eager to tell their stories. I was well aware, of
course, of the highly conventionalized nature of AA life stories,
a style developed for brief presentations at weekly meetings and
structured for maximum impact. These brief stories emphasize
one or two specific incidents that demonstrate "how low-down I
did sink in the gutter" and highlight the actions of the friend
(usually a former drinking partner) who sponsored the speaker
into AA. Such stories (and I heard and recorded literally
hundreds of them in the course of a year of fieldwork) were
major sources of information about AA, its membership, its or-
ganizational structure, and the system of values it seeks to
impart. Much of the ethnographic information about AA in the
Trinidadian context that found its way into the resulting
monograph (Angrosino 1974) is underscored by the information
conveyed by these brief stories, called "contributions" by the
But they were not life histories in any meaningful sense of
the term. In their formal consistency, they seemed to obscure,
rather than illuminate, the factors that shaped individuals' behav-
ior in the particular cultural context. Except for their specific
local details-such as the section of Frederick Street in the
capital city, Port of Spain, where drunks like to sleep on the
sidewalk-these stories could have been told by recovering alco-
holics anywhere. Indeed, certain of the more sophisticated
pioneers of the AA movement in Trinidad had adopted a style
common in the United States, which they had learned from the

3 / Freddie: Personal Narrative of a Recovering Alcoholic 31

AA literature. Because of their prestige, they were widely
imitated by their compatriots on the island. Moreover, AA mem-
bers' contributions were essentially success-oriented: they were
men who, although never cured of their disease, were at least
straightening out their lives.
But AA is not, for many cultural and psychological reasons, a
vehicle that suits all alcoholics. What about people who were re-
covering by other means, or who weren't recovering at all and
were still members seeking treatment for their illness? And what
was the real experience behind the conventional verbiage of the
AA members' stock contributions?
Late in the course of my fieldwork, I felt I had achieved
enough rapport and had learned enough about the culture in gen-
eral to be able to sit down at length with informants in and out of
AA and collect genuine life histories. Still relatively new to the
process of life history collection and needing to leave the field
very soon, I was not able to record many usable, complete texts.
Some that were produced were appended to the monograph, but
they did not form a body of data from which I was confident in
drawing generalizations about the process of recovering from
alcoholism. They did serve as individual case histories in a tradi-
tional, anthropological, life history format.
Freed and Freed review the criteria that distinguish the case
history from the life history. They define the former as an
organized set of facts bearing on the development of individual
subjects and focusing on their psychological and medical history.
They note (1985:105), however, that "anthropological tech-
niques used in life histories are employable to reconstruct [a
subject's] case history, particularly [the subject's] early years."
In the literature on the social dimensions of alcoholism, perhaps
the most detailed, longitudinal case history that fits this pattern is
that by the sociologist Robert Straus (1974), who conducted
fieldwork in the anthropological style.
In the Freeds' view (1985:105), an "anthropological psycho-
medical case history" should cover the ecological, cultural, psy-
chological, biological, and etiological context of the conditions
of a person's life.

Documents of Interaction

The subject that will be discussed here is a middle-aged Trin-
idad Indian man whom I have called Freddie in published ac-
counts dealing with him (e.g., Angrosino 1986). He has been re-
covering in AA since 1970. I conducted in-depth interviews with
him from then until 1975, during which time he also periodically
provided me with samples of a journal he was keeping as well as
an occasional essay written about his childhood and family. I
continue to be in touch with him, although I have not been con-
ducting formal fieldwork in Trinidad, so I have been able to
follow the development of his case. Freddie's life has been
dominated by his alcoholism. His uncontrolled drinking spoiled
a promising career, of course. Moreover, his later acceptance of
the AA program has been a focal point of all his decisions about
family, job, and even politics.
Current medical opinion holds that alcoholism is a chronic,
progressive disease, like diabetes, to which it is often compared.
Like diabetes, it is a disease in which the metabolism of a certain
basic substance (in this case ethanol) is impaired, leading to
malfunctions of one or more organs or organ systems. Like
diabetes, alcoholism can never be cured, although, with moni-
tored maintenance, its effects can be mitigated if caught in time.*
Some evidence suggests that members of different ethnic groups
metabolize ethanol at different rates and hence are more or less
prone to the disease (see, for example, Fenna et al., 1976), but
alcoholism as a medical syndrome runs essentially the same
course no matter where it is found. But, if the syndrome itself
transcends culture, its symptoms do not. After all, the most im-
mediate and obvious manifestation of alcoholism is a change in
behavior. Alcoholics say or do things that mark them somehow
as not normal, and normality is, in the last analysis, a culture-
bound phenomenon.
In their provocative study of drunken comportment, Mac-
Andrew and Edgerton (1967) noted that there is no such thing as
a universal alcoholic behavior. Rather, alcoholics are character-

The classic disease concept statement was formulated by Jellinek 1960; see
Pattison, Sobell, and Sobell 1977 for a comprehensive review of more recent
biomedical thinking about the disease.

3 / Freddie: Personal Narrative of a Recovering Alcoholic 33

ized by whatever behavior seems to violate the approved
standards of their culture. In middle-class, work ethic-oriented
American society, alcoholics often play a childlike, irresponsible,
boisterous "good-time Charlie," but in some aggressively macho
Latin American societies they become passive and withdrawn. It
thus becomes important to understand the historical and cultural
milieu in which the alcoholic lives in order to understand the
course of the disease. To be sure, individual psychological pro-
cesses are also at work, but they interact with the larger milieu to
create an alcoholic pattern typical of a given community. For
this reason, the anthropological psychomedical case history can
serve to illustrate forces that may influence the society at large.
Freddie seems in many ways to be a classic example of a "de-
pendent" personality. Although gifted in many ways (he is a tal-
ented singer, an effective public speaker, and a master at his
trade of auto mechanics), he has always tended to see himself as
weak and stupid and has consequently sought out powerful
patrons to bolster his confidence.
The roots of Freddie's psychological makeup may be traced
to the circumstances of his birth. His mother, a Muslim (a minor-
ity among the Indians who migrated to Trinidad), became
pregnant with Freddie as a result of an irregular liaison. The
identity of his biological father has never been officially estab-
lished. Nevertheless, Freddie steadfastly insists that he is a cer-
tain locally prominent zamindar (Indian plantation overseer),
who had, according to the local gossips, made a fortune by
selling his employers' crops in a kind of black-market arrange-
ment. Because of his wealth, this man was able to buy off
peoples' memories of his shady past, and he died, rich and
powerful, not long before I met Freddie. Although fathering an
illegitimate child would certainly have been in character for this
man, no other clues existed that would have established him as
Freddie's father, and he never gave the slightest hint of acknowl-
edging Freddie's existence, let alone a family connection. No
one else in the district shared Freddie's convictions, and they
chalked up his belief to his alcohol-addled brain. As he tells the
story, however, there is not the slightest doubt:

Documents of Interaction

Don't think I don't know what they all say-that is a lie I'm
lying. But as sure as I'm here talking' to you now that lady got
herself fixed up by that ole son of a bitch. How do I know? Hell,
man-how can a man not recognize his own pappa? We got the
same eyes, the same smile-you just look at his picture and try
to tell me different! And what's more, he knew it too. I could
always tell by the way he looked at me goin' down the
road-like he wanted to reach out and claim me for his own,
take me for a ride in that big car of his. He never did, you know,
but that don't change nothing We's still blood-on-blood to each

The mother, disgraced in the eyes of her very traditional family,
fled the scene as soon as the baby was born. She is said to have
gone off to Venezuela with a sailor and only returned as an old
lady, to die in her home village. This return occurred within
months of the "father's" death, a highly significant coincidence
to Freddie. As a matter of fact, though, she lived on for more
than ten years in a little shack at the end of a dirt road leading off
from Freddie's own home into the bush. She had a local reputa-
tion as an obeah lady-a maker of magic-and when I first
visited the area I was told to avoid her. I did not find out until
nearly a year later that she was Freddie's mother, even though I
had gotten to know him quite well during that time. He had
always spoken of his mother as having died shortly after her
disappearance many years before, and his subsequent relations
with the old lady who lived down the road were frosty and any-
thing but filial.
Freddie was taken in by a couple he calls his "uncle and
aunt," although they were not related to his family. They had
simply taken pity on the dishonored girl and her poor baby.
Because the couple were about to leave the village to take up
residence in Port of Spain, they braved local wrath and accepted
the baby as their foster child. The "uncle" was a Hindu, and his
wife had been converted to the Presbyterian church. Freddie of-
ten speaks of his Muslim heritage, however, and ostentatiously
refers to Pakistan, rather than India, as his ancestral homeland.

3 / Freddie: Personal Narrative of a Recovering Alcoholic 35

He ascribes numerous virtues, both physical and moral, to the
Muslims. At the same time, he jokingly decries the Hindus for
their unprogressive ways and is critical of Christian Indians,
who, he feels, have betrayed their culture and basic nature. And
yet he was raised in a Hindu-Christian household and is
reasonably knowledgeable about both those religions. He also
knows very little about Islam and has never lived in accordance
with its precepts; he has never made even the slightest attempt to
take formal training the religion or to learn anything about
Islamic culture, for he assumes he "knows it all in the bones."
Freddie speaks warmly about his "uncle," not so much be-
cause of his act of kindness in taking in a foundling but because
he was a "man of the world":

Now my Uncle, he was a fine man, the best I ever knew. He
could recite you poetry just like a schoolmaster. He read all the
papers and could tell you anything you wanted to know about
politicians and them-not like he was preachin', but if you like
asked a question, he'd always have the answer. And cars! He
knew more about cars than any American, I bet. Yeah, he was a
fine man.

During World War II, the U.S. armed forces built a large mil-
itary base in Trinidad (to protect the Venezuelan oil fields from
Nazi submarine sabotage), and young people on the island
flocked to work there. The jobs paid well by local standards, and
the men learned "modern" trades that would make them highly
desirable in the postwar workplace. The Americans impressed
the Trinidadians as more easygoing, more full of life, and more
tolerant than the reserved and stuffy British to whom they were
accustomed. Most of the natives who associated with the Ameri-
cans were black people, who already spoke English and were
acquainted with Euro-American culture.
The Indians, who had kept to themselves for decades, lived in
a world apart. Community leaders were not favorably impressed
by the freewheeling Americans,-and they discouraged young In-
dian men from being corrupted at the base. But a few made the

Documents of Interaction

bold move, Freddie's "uncle" among them. He worked at the
base for two or three years, learning to be an auto mechanic, the
trade he eventually passed on to his adopted son. Using the
money he earned, he bought both a small garage and a bar, the
latter designed like an American cocktail lounge (as opposed to
an old-fashioned Trinidadian rumshop). It catered to the soldiers
from the base during the last year of the war, then to the cruise-
ship tourists who visited the island.
Freddie thus grew up with models of gaudy wealth, power,
and nonchalant conviviality that were dramatically different
from those of the Indian villages. What seems to have impressed
him most was that the customers drank Scotch, a drink unheard
of in the bush. It seemed inconceivable to him that anyone would
ever get drunk on that elegant beverage, the way people he knew
got drunk on common rum. The Americans just seemed to get
sophisticatedly tipsy, not sloppy and sick. (He admits that he did
not follow them back to their rooms to observe their hangovers.)
It was a fantasy of the good life that Freddie grew up in. As soon
as he was home from school, he headed straight for the bar,
where he helped out his "uncle" by washing glasses and sweep-
ing up. As he himself now recalls his childhood, "I grew up in a
nightclub." He says it with some regret but also with much in the
way of pleasurable pride. He sees that childhood as infinitely
preferable to that of Indian boys of his own age, stuck in the
villages and pulled out of school after only a year or two in order
to cut cane. "I know it's a bad thing to say," he admits, "but
some times I got to be thankful that my mother got herself in
trouble that way."
Freddie's "uncle," under the influence of his Presbyterian
wife, was a strict teetotaler, but at the same time he was an
indulgent "father" who could not resist Freddie's charming
eagerness to "be like an American." That goal meant the youth
had to learn to sip Scotch, make interesting and risqu6 small talk,
and impress the ladies. He did not become an alcoholic in any
smashingly climactic way. He started off as a dashing young
barroom Lothario. "You know, them tourist ladies really liked
me, 'cause I looked like somebody out of a movie-I didn't look

3 / Freddie: Personal Narrative of a Recovering Alcoholic 37

just like the guys next door. Well, not so much the English
ladies-they was always a little standoffish. But the Americans!
Oh yes, I was a favorite. I guess they got a little tired of blond
guys with blue eyes. They wanted somebody more exotic, and
that was me!" But he ended up as a middle-aged man who
couldn't stop drinking. Looking back, he said, "How did this
thing happen? I kept askin' it myself. I couldn't even look at
myself in the mirror-I looked like hell, you know. Oh I still had
to put on a bold front-a man's always got to try to impress a
lady, even if he's on his death bed-but I knew the game was all
over." He couldn't make a living at the garage because his habits
had become too irregular, and he was no longer in a condition to
support himself on his charm.
He had married a fine, strong-minded woman (also a Presby-
terian convert) and had fathered three children by the late 1950s,
but his family life was a shambles. There was never any money
in the house, and, though he was rarely physically abusive, he
was certainly not an attentive husband or father. "That's
probably the worst of it all. I had the best little family a man
could hope for, and I pissed away all my chances to make them
happy like they deserved. But I couldn't see it then."
During this period of decline, his "uncle" died, prompting
Freddie to attach himself successively to various "big men," who
he hoped would see to his advancement in the world beyond the
ramshackle ruins of his fantasy life. He ran errands for a
prominent attorney, he chauffeured a patrician doctor from time
to time, and did a variety of vaguely described and probably
illegal favors for an Indian political boss. These men all liked
Freddie because he was bright and knew how to deal with "nice
people"-he was not some bumpkin straight off a sugar planta-
tion. But each of these patrons abandoned him as his drinking
became more and more of a public embarrassment and his de-
mands for extra money to buy food and clothing for his family
more of a nuisance. His most decisive patron, however, came
along after he had been fired by the politician:

I was in town (Port of Spain) like usual. But I was crazy

Documents of Interaction

somehow. I was so ashamed and I wanted to be good, and I kept
telling people-strangers on the street!-that I was gonna
change. They was all avoidin' me, of course. I wasn't even all
that drunk, but they thought I musta been crazy or something.
Anyway, that's when the Salvation Army preacher spotted me.
He came up to me and said if I needed a place to stay the night,
he'd help me. You know, I didn't even think about the
family-how I'd promised to come home that night with some
groceries for a change. I just told the preacher, 'Yeah, I need
help,' and off I went with him. He said he'd give me a meal and
some pocket money for sweeping up and taking out the trash. He
even give me a cot for the night, and all he asked was I stay
sober for the night. Well, you must know how I was-people
was always sayin' things like that to me, and I'd promise 'em
anything and then do what I damn pleased. But this was differ-
ent. I said, 'OK, whatever you say, chief,' and I meant it. There
was just something about him. He just looked to me-oh, how
can I say it?-like my uncle. Not looks, I guess-just something
about his kindness reminded me of my uncle. Somehow I knew
he was really interested in what happened to me.

Through this preacher, Freddie eventually became associated
with AA. His sponsor, a reformed drinking buddy, had joined the
Salvation Army, and both he and the preacher saw to it that
Freddie stayed sober. He was on and off the wagon for more
than seven years before he "made it good." It was always his
shame at letting down his two patrons rather than guilt at what he
was doing to his family that led him back to AA after a "slip."
Through AA, Freddie met an influential industrialist (also a
recovering alcoholic) who gave him a good job and has been
something of an adopted grandfather to his children and now
grandchildren. This man also put up the money that enabled
Freddie to buy a small house back in his old country village,
where he now lives at some distance from the temptations of the
wicked city. Freddie is not unaware of his constant search for a
father-figure. "I need some smart guy to put it right for me," he

3 / Freddie: Personal Narrative of a Recovering Alcoholic 39

says ruefully. "I can't do nothing for myself-never could
-except get myself in the gutter."
Freddie's psychological history does not, however, occur in a
vacuum. It must be assessed in the context of the historical ex-
perience of Indian culture and community organization in Trini-
dad. When the Indians first came to the island, they were known
as a nondrinking people. The strongest alcoholic concoction
known in traditional Indian culture was a mild, fermented toddy
made from the sap of a kind of palm. The Indians were not, how-
ever, innocent of substance abuse, for they were fond of mari-
juana, which they called ganja and which they either smoked or
ingested in its brewed, liquid form (bhang). Ganja acted as
something of an anesthetic. It is said to have had a relaxing ef-
fect, and the old-timers on the prewar estates retreated to a com-
mon room in the workers' barracks to "turn off" the cares of the
day with a communal smoke. Ganja was thus a symbol of social
solidarity as well as a means to peaceful release.
The British authorities sternly disapproved. Their reaction re-
sulted in part from the pressure of the missionaries, who were
appalled at this evidence of "degenerate" drug use. But a large
share of their indignation came from the plain economic fact that
ganja could be grown for nothing in any spare garden plot, and
no money could be made from the crop. By contrast, rum, an im-
portant by-product of processed sugarcane, brought in healthy
revenues. And so, early in the twentieth century, the growing and
importing of marijuana were outlawed, and estate workers were
often paid in rum, though some were merely issued a ration of
the liquor as a kind of bonus.
The Indians appear (in the recollections of contemporary
informants, at least) to have used the rum in exactly the same
way as they used the ganja-as a relaxant, a token of quiet,
"laid-back" communality. This image was shattered by the new
wartime model of the Americans, whose drinking behavior was
outrageous. It wasn't that they drank more than the Indians, but
they behaved more boldly and aggressively when they did drink.
And, because they had the money and the power and were the

Documents of Interaction

exemplars of the good life beyond the decaying old estates, their
drunken comportment came to be seen as the symbol of having
"made it."
The problem was that, on the one hand, young Indian men
felt compelled to make their way into the great world because the
old agrarian order was manifestly dying. Even some of the elders
grudgingly came to accept the inevitability of change and began
to take pride in their sons as they learned new skills and moved
more securely with "big people." But, at the same time, to move
in those circles was an implicit betrayal of all that the traditional
culture stood for. The Indian men were being told to make some-
thing of themselves, but they were also being told that the more
they did so, the more they were being unfaithful to the ancient
and glorious culture that had nurtured them and made them
Indians as a group were ill equipped by their culture to play
the aggressive, individualistic games of American-style go-
getting. Hindu culture in particular is oriented to the group: the
family, the village. Individuals who "step out" are not neces-
sarily admired, no matter how lofty their accomplishments. They
are deviants who will, in the conventional veiw, come to grief
because of their presumptuousness and betrayal of the commu-
One of the strongest attractions of AA to the Indians is its
focus on the group. One of the clearest principles of the organi-
zation is that the alcoholic is weak and can do nothing until this
weakness is acknowledged. The weaknesses of all can be pooled
into a common source of strength. The rugged individual with a
tough ego has no place in AA; one must learn to become a
servant of all. This attitude, which might be uncongenial in some
cultures, strikes a reassuring note among Indian alcoholics.
Freddie, for example, extols the virtues of the AA group, which
is just like his old gang of drinking buddies, though their aim
now is sobriety. The group that Freddie attends is, in fact,
composed mostly of men he drank with. The emphasis on the
sponsor is also a typically Indian image; the relationship is not
unlike that of a religious novice and his guru.

3 / Freddie: Personal Narrative of a Recovering Alcoholic 41

The tensions in Freddie's life-the uprooted family, the push
toward independence and a "modern" model of behavior at war
with the yearning for settled verities, the conviction of the
unworthy self in constant need of support and assistance-are
also to be found in the historical situation of Indian culture as it
was transposed to Trinidad. Although Freddie's case history, in
all its detail, is highly individual and particular, it is also re-
flective of the evolution of a culture in a special sociohistorical
context. A study of his life thus serves both anthropological and
psychological purposes-if we can accept the convention that
the details of that story are true and would be conveyed in the
same way to anyone asking him to relate it. Did my friendship
with Freddie affect the form as well as the content of what he
told me? What does friendship mean in Trinidadian Indian
culture anyway? These questions, which might have had some
impact on the resulting case history, are not ordinarily dealt with
in life history research. Crapanzano's account of his relationship
with Tuhami and Wilson's with Oscar were not yet published
when I first worked with Freddie, and the doubts they raised as
to the verifiability of the autobiographical text did not impact my
use of his case materials nor my use of other forms of autobio-
graphical data in other projects, which are described in the fol-
lowing pages.

Albert Gomes: Autobiography as

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL and biographical materials
have contributed significantly to the growth of the field of histor-
ical social psychology, more popularly known as psychohistory.
Scholars in this field study the "minds, attitudes, systems of
orientations, motivations, ways of thinking, patterns of conduct
of people in the past periods" as well as "the impact of beliefs,
values, ideologies, attitudes and other psychological factors on
historical processes" (Szcepanski 1981:226). Two major forms
of research have been conducted by scholars who identify them-
selves as psychohistorians. The first form has been adopted by
persons interested in collective representations of personality;
they have looked for an explanation of shared personality traits
which seem to be found commonly among members of the same
culture in understanding child-rearing practices. Since such prac-
tices have changed substantially over time, there has been an im-
plicit evolutionary bias in the writings of such scholars as De
Mause (1975) and Aries (1965). Anthropologists, however, have
been critical of these works because they have focused on histor-
ical change within Western civilization and have ignored the
wider range of child-rearing practices extant in other cultural tra-
More immediately relevant to the concerns here is the form
of psychohistory that has produced the psychobiography: the
analysis of the lives of important historical figures in light of
psychological theory. Although psychological phenomena can be
studied in many ways, psychohistory has been most closely asso-
ciated with a clinical approach, and one heavily influenced by
psychoanalytic principles at that. For example, Mazlish's study
of James and John Stuart Mill (1975) used the concept of the
Oedipus complex to explain the relations between father and son,

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

a relationship that he depicts as paradigmatic of intergenerational
relationships in western European culture in the nineteenth
century. Mazlish's point is that a particular constellation of cir-
cumstances-the Industrial Revolution and its concomitant polit-
ical and economic upheavals-set the stage for a particularly
vivid "generation gap." The uncertainties of the era seem to have
stimulated increased patterns of oral dependence and depression.
Similarly, Loewenberg (1971) has studied autobiographies from
the cohort of Germans who came of age around the time of
World War I, persons who suffered the privations of the war and
the humiliation of defeat and became prime recruits for the Nazi
movement. The economic dislocation and political humiliation
they experienced created a set of strongly felt tendencies toward
frustration, hatred, and violence. The absence of fathers who
went off to fight the war and anger against those same fathers
who had lost the war stimulated a particularly virulent form of
Oedipal conflict. Traditional German adherence to the strong
father was thereby undermined, but the attendant focus on the
mother (who held the family together) raised the unacceptable
specter of latent homosexuality. These various feelings were re-
solved by acceptance of Hitler (a "big brother" rather than a
"father") and by immersion in the symbols of violence and
power associated with Nazism. This psychoanalytic orientation
has often led to accusations that psychohistorians improperly put
historical figures "on the couch" and analyze their psyches long
after the subjects are dead and in no position to speak for them-
selves. Although there has been a certain amount of exaggeration
(and perhaps even sensationalizing) of the method, particularly
in works addressed to commercial audiences, the general ap-
proach is nevertheless potentially useful for students of the per-
sonal dynamics involved in social history.
The psychohistorian, like the clinician, is involved in the se-
lection of experiences from the lives of subjects, fragments that
are then "restored to intelligibility" in such a way that the life is,
in effect, "ordered into an interpretation" (Prisco 1980:28). A
potential source of abuse is the utilization of any biographical
data that come to hand when reconstructing the life of a histori-

Documents of Interaction

cal figure. The modern, scientific tendency is to aim for factual
completeness. But, as clinicians well know, not all of a subject's
life experiences are equally important, and experiences that in
retrospect seem to have been important are sometimes seized
upon as focal points of a psychoanalytic analysis, even if in
reality they were psychologically inconsequential.
For this reason, psychohistory tends to work best when auto-
biographies are available. Although they can be spotty and are
sometimes the products of quite deliberate distortions (as pointed
out in chapter 2), at least they represent the distortions, omis-
sions, or emphases that the subject personally chose. They are
thus more nearly akin to the discoveries a clinician makes than
are the "complete lives" reconstructed from a variety of sources.
Yet the use of autobiography creates a limitation on the kind
of analysis that can be performed because writers of autobiogra-
phy are usually persons of extraordinary accomplishment: politi-
cal leaders, artists, philosophers. The interior life of "common"
people of past eras is largely closed to the psychohistorian.
Although even the most transcendent geniuses are still, in some
ways, a product of their time, there is little justification for as-
suming that they were in any way "typical" of their eras. And
yet, as Wilson has cogently noted (1974:x), in the lives of
extraordinary people "there is ... the exaggeration of what
passes unnoticed, though not unsuffered, in the lives of ordinary
people." Psychohistory must therefore deal with these historical
superstars in a very different way from that of the oral historian
collecting the life histories of otherwise anonymous "folk." The
analysis of the autobiography of an extraordinary person must
stress the general tendencies of that life, as distinct from the anal-
ysis of the case history, which stresses the particular.
Perhaps the most widely cited theoretician of the psychohis-
torical approach is the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose well-
known studies of Luther (1958), Gandhi (1969), and Hitler
(1963:326-58) have helped create a framework for dealing with
extraordinary subjects. Erikson's approach is predicated on an
extension of basic Freudian principles. Whereas Freud saw the
fundamental traumas that determine the personality as products

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

of the conflicts of early childhood, Erikson has viewed the de-
velopment of the personality as a lifelong process. His is thus an
optimistic reversal of the somewhat gloomy Freudian view of
toilet-training-as-destiny; conflicts of later life can yield positive
outcomes even if negative results were experienced earlier on.
Moreover, Erikson is concerned not only with the unfolding of
personality but also with the evolution of character, the moral,
self-conscious side of behavior. The aim of life, he contends, is
to become not only a "whole" person but also a "virtuous" one,
referring to the word virtue in its original sense of "strength" (see
Erikson 1963). His view is consonant with the interactionist per-
spective delineated in chapter 6 in that life is a series of critical
encounters, which are inherently conflictual and provide the raw
material for growth and change. Eriksonian personality is not a
determinate entity as it is for Freud; it is a process of de-
velopmental growth that ends only with death.
Erikson has wedded his developmental analytic framework to
the study of autobiographical materials in a psychohistorical
vein. It is not surprising that in doing so he focuses on decisive
conflicts in the life of a subject rather than on mere events or ex-
periences. His developmental scheme posits eight steps, each one
typified by a conflict. In his psychohistorical works, the most
critical of these stages has turned out to be the fifth, which
occurs normally at the time of adolescence and is a conflict be-
tween identity and role confusion (Erikson 1968). The ado-
lescent ego needs and seeks out continuity in the midst of chang-
ing physical attributes. At the same time, the onset of maturity
also requires a standard of adult behavior, because adolescents
are not yet sufficiently self-confident to do their own thing.
Hence, they seek the comfort of the group. They must go beyond
their families for this support inasmuch as the family is identified
with their childhoods, which they seek symbolically to over-
come. The adolescent peer group, unsure of its own values, usu-
ally adopts some larger ideology to ensure conformity and to ra-
tionalize behavior. In our own day, this ideology often derives
from the attitude of rock stars and other media celebrities, al-
though it can be, and often has been, more explicitly political.

Documents of Interaction

This adolescent identity crisis can result in the individual being
frozen into an antisocial role. On the positive side, however, the
conflict can encourage in the young person a strong sense of
ethics, commitment to values, and well-defined personal affilia-
tions (Prisco 1980:19).
Somewhat later in life (typically in middle age), individuals
develop a need to work to their potential and, in so doing, to
provide guidelines for the next generation. If this need is frus-
trated, individuals sense that they are stagnating and may ques-
tion previous career choices and even start on a new career di-
rection (Prisco 1980:1). This process is known as a "generativity
crisis." The key to Erikson's psychohistory is his assumption that
"a prolonged identity crisis may lead to a generativity crisis ...
in which the individual accepts the concerns of a whole
communal body as his own" (Prisco 1980:32).
In essence, the extraordinary historical figure is one who
shares the same basic conflicts of ordinary people but who
somehow is able to communicate to them the belief that the
resolutions he or she has made are efficacious for all of them.
Such a person becomes a leader in politics or the arts not so
much by transcending the common concerns of the group but by
symbolically embodying them in such a way that humbler folk
can sense a vicarious resolution (see Erikson 1975).
It must be kept in mind that Erikson's scheme, like Freud's,
evolved essentially from observations of clinical populations in
Western societies, although both models have been asserted to be
universally applicable. Few researchers who have worked in
other cultures would accept such a global developmental model,
but, for purposes of this discussion, one may assume that human
beings in all cultures develop their personalities interactively
throughout their lifetime and that certain categories of conflict
are instrumental in moving that process along. The specific
details that constitute those conflicts will, however, be factors of
the local culture.
The research described in chapter 3 was conducted in the cul-
turally plural polity of postcolonial Trinidad. Although that re-
search focused on a specific psychomedical problem within only

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

one segment of the population, I could not but be concerned with
the nature of the polity generally, which was the background
against which the Indians' particular conflicts were played out.
The British had left a core of political institutions to independent
Trinidad (a system of government that has proven to be remark-
ably enduring, one might add), but the various ethnic strands of
the population had never integrated completely into a single cul-
tural tradition. The institutions provided a bedrock of stability,
but the political culture has always been a swirl of factions and
subfactions characterized by "doctor politics"-political leader-
ship based on the sometimes transient coalitions built by
charismatic leaders. One effective way to understand this highly
personalized political system is by way of the political autobiog-
This chapter applies the Eriksonian analysis to one such auto-
biography (Angrosino 1976), that of Albert Gomes (1974), who
published his memoirs from self-imposed exile in England dur-
ing the years of my research on Trinidad.* He rose to prominence
in the labor movement of the 1930s, a power base that was an
important forerunner of nationalist-independence sentiment in
Trinidad, as it was throughout the West Indies. He gained a posi-
tion of influence in the political apparatus that oversaw the
transition from colonial to independent status in the 1940s and
1950s and was a leading figure in the establishment of the nobly
conceived but ill-fated West Indies Federation. When the federa-
tion collapsed and the islands opted for separate independent
status, he was derided as a prophet of the old order and his politi-
cal career was finished. Unable to live in an independent Trini-
dad from whose political life he was excluded, he sought refuge
in the metropole.
Perhaps the most salient feature of Gomes's political adven-
tures is his ethnicity. Colonial Trinidad was often stereotyped as
a study in black and white, and the postindependence period has
been largely a story of black versus Indian rivalry. But, in
addition to the Indian indenture, which proved to be by far the

The following section is taken, with some modification, from Angrosino
1976: 144-53.

Documents of Interaction

most successful such venture, there were other, smaller schemes
of labor importation that resulted in the extreme ethnic heteroge-
neity of the island today. The title of Gomes's autobiography,
Through a Maze of Colour, reflects this ethnic heterogeneity and
the frustrations it presents for politicians trying to build a
consensus. His ancestral family was from Portuguese Madeira;
like most of the Trinidadian Portuguese, his immediate family
was of the urban, commercial middle class.
Through a Maze of Colour begins not with Gomes's child-
hood reminiscences but with a highly romanticized account of
his family's history. He states that his maternal grandfather was
abandoned on the doorstep of a Madeiran orphanage, hence the
family name De Cambra ("of the orphanage"). This undeniably
good tale provides a vivid opening to the memoirs, but Gomes's
purpose probably transcends the literary. In the Trinidadian
context, the Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, and Syrian communi-
ties have always stressed the psychological advantage they felt
over the black majority, the fact that they could all look back to
substantial cultural traditions that gave substance and meaning to
their ethnicity. The blacks were uprooted and their African cul-
tural traditions suppressed to such an extent that, until the advent
of the Black Power movement in the early 1970s, Africa was a
source of shame more than of pride. But Gomes chooses to intro-
duce himself by stressing his own rootlessness (1974:3):

My maternal grandfather having been a foundling, a main branch
of the tree has been abruptly cut off at that point, leaving me free
to speculate, as vanity or convenience might determine, whether
prince, rogue or ordinary seducer set in motion the dramatic
incidents that must have preceded the abandonment of my poor,
hapless grandparent on the doorstep of an orphanage in Madeira
many years ago.

Gomes is also at pains to separate himself from his ethnic
group in Trinidad, one that has taken pride in its economic
success but which he despises for its smug satisfaction in the
grossly material side of bourgeois virtue (1974:11):

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

They were a robust lot, these immigrants from Madeira. They
possessed all the animal cunning, concupiscence and penchant
for the obscene of the peasant. Their manners were appalling and
their general deportment almost totally lacking in the graces of
restraint or refinement. Much of what they said and did in public,
wise custom reserves for the lavatory or bedroom. All their
appetites were large and unrestrained, a misfortune for both their
health and morals.

Of Gomes's own childhood, there is hardly a word, and only
rather brief, dismissive mention of his father, a somewhat vague
figure who was preoccupied with his shop ledgers. However,
considerable space in these early chapters is devoted to the
mother, whom Gomes remembers as her husband's backbone,
the brains behind his business success, and the guiding light of
the family's fortunes. The portrait of the mother is highlighted
by Gomes's accent on her lower-class origins, which, he feels,
gave strength and substance to her later rise to middle-class
status. Although he has nothing but contempt for the "peasant"
background of the Portuguese in general, he waxes lyrical about
his mother's peasant roots (1974:4):

She always preferred the society of her poor Negro friends, and
never spoke of the days of her youth and of her friends of that
period without warmth and tenderness. She never really lost
touch with them. ... This quality in her extended even to food; it
was the native dishes that had been part of the folklore of her
past that she most relished and was always wanting; and often
she would retrace her footsteps along the path of her recent
social advance, about which she was really indifferent, to spend
a few quiet hours eating a meal with an old friend in some
ramshackle ajoupa [shack] at the periphery of the town.

In strictly "factual" terms, this childhood portrait is glaringly
incomplete, but it fulfills an important function in the Eriksonian
framework. If Gomes, the product of a small and relatively
privileged minority, is ever going to make a case for the value of

Documents of Interaction

his leadership, he must broaden his base of identification. And so
who he "really" is turns out to be symbolically less important
than the image he has created for himself. In a society destined to
be dominated by a majority segment that believed itself to be
composed of deracinated sojourners, he made himself rootless.
In a polity suspicious of the material success of his own group,
he expressed his contempt for that group and turned his back on
the mercantile values that made it successful. In a confrontation
that was to pit the colonial underclasses against the last vestiges
of imperial privilege, he deliberately placed himself on the side
of the lowly and dispossessed.
Gomes's self-reinvention works on an even more subtle, psy-
chological level as well. One distinctive feature of black family
life in the West Indies has been the emphasis on the maternal fig-
ure. In part, this kind of emotional matrifocality was the result of
an economic system that forced many men to seek employment
away from the home area, leaving the job of child rearing to
women and their mothers. Moreover, the culture of the lower
classes (largely, although not exclusively, black) placed no par-
ticular stigma on bearing children out of wedlock. In fact, an im-
portant sign of a man's prowess was the siring of many children,
whom he was not necessarily obliged to help raise. Children,
therefore, were far more apt to establish a close bond with the
mother rather than with the father. None of these conditions was
operative in the staunchly middle-class and patriarchal Portu-
guese community of Gomes's youth. Yet in his autobiography he
carefully selects and edits his reminiscences in such a way as to
yield an image that looks suspiciously like a lower-class black
family. Even his romantic tale of the orphaned grandfather is
about the maternal, not the paternal ancestor.
Once it establishes his oneness with the masses, Gomes's
autobiography proceeds to a section that can be read in Erikson-
ian terms as an account of an adolescent identity crisis-al-
though, in this case, the event occurred when he was in his
twenties. The nature of the conflict is such that Gomes is able to
present himself as a paradigm of West Indian youth struggling to
establish its identity. It is not only a specifically generational

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

conflict (the standard adolescent rebellion against parental au-
thority) but also, in the context, an image of the rising of colonial
underlings against the feeble, decadent imperial regime. The
themes of Gomes's identity crisis echo throughout his subse-
quent political career.
Wilson (1973) has provided what is probably the most cogent
analysis of this typical West Indian crisis of identity, which re-
volves around antithetical concepts labeled "respectability" and
"reputation." Respectability is the sum total of the standards im-
ported from the metropole (for example, monogamous marriage,
membership in an "acceptable" church, having a fine house,
getting a white-collar job); the indigenous elite that succeeded
the departed white colonialists would be no less strict than the
latter in upholding the sanctity of these standards. No rise in
social position is possible without adherence to most, if not all,
of the standards of respectability. Reputation, by contrast, is that
complex of behaviors that adds up to a person's position within
the peer group. For a man, behavior has traditionally included
the fathering of many children, oratorical or storytelling ability,
and the capacity for drinking large quantities of rum. In short, to
have a reputation is to be a "man among men."
The values of respectability and reputation are often contra-
dictory, and people, in frustration, usually end up opting for one
or the other rather than trying to achieve or maintain both. The
irony for the person who seeks leadership is that, in order to be
taken seriously in that capacity, he (it has usually been a "he" in
West Indian politics) must be respectable, but yet the respectable
man eventually loses touch with the people. Caribbean political
and artistic history is full of men of major potential who outgrew
the island reputation system and ended up in self-imposed exile
in the metropole.
Gomes began in respectability, but, as his autobiography
demonstrates, his political trajectory was guided by his need to
establish his reputation-an attempt that was doomed to fail
from the beginning. Even that failure, however, as indicated
above, is paradigmatic of the condition of West Indian leader-
ship. The linchpin of the reputation system is the male peer

Documents of Interaction

group. Often this group (called a lime in Trinidad) engages in
nothing more substantial than street-corner idling. Gomes went
away to the United States for a period of study (an experience
about which he says nothing in his memoirs); when he returned
in 1930, he took up with a circle of young men who were deter-
mined to bring "culture" to their island backwater. The group
coalesced around the poet Alfred Mendes (also a Portuguese),
and it eventually included the "byronic," alcoholic, homosexual
poet-politician Tony De Boissiere and the noted essayist C. L. R.
James. These men formed a pretentious, muckraking newspaper,
the Beacon, which was underwritten by the elder Gomes at the
urging of his wife. Despite the heavy intellectual pretensions of
the Beacon group, it remained essentially a Trinidadian lime,
which is precisely what the younger Gomes wanted:

Our group preserved its essentially informal character through-
out. For this I must claim some credit. I find that people react
much more naturally and give much more of their true selves,
their talents and idiosyncrasies, when they are not contained in
any formal social crucible, especially one of the kind that gives
importance to rules of parliamentary procedure.... Hence my
insistence, throughout the life of our group, that we should
eschew chairmen and standing orders and all other aspects of the
paraphernalia by which men impose controls upon themselves
when they become committees. We met at each other's homes
and never around a table, except, of course, one on which there
were bottles and glasses. (1974:22-23)

During its brief life, the Beacon attracted more than its share
of public controversy, numbering the churches as well as the
government among its principal antagonists. It ceased pub-
lication in 1933, and the group drifted apart. At this point, the
elder Gomes purchased a rundown pharmacy in a shabby part of
town for his rebel journalist son to run. For the next four years,
he did so, feeling like a "classic case of the square peg being
forced into the round hole" (1974:27)-his father's pretensions
to respectability fighting against his own drive to reassert his rep-

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

utation, which had been threatened by his father's lack of confi-
dence in continuing to subsidize the Beacon group.
Nevertheless, the "intolerable drudgery" of the pharmacy
provided Gomes with "a window through which I could hear the
murmurs of popular discontent" (1974:27). There he witnessed
firsthand the struggles and the miseries of his poor clientele.
Realizing the folly of the Beacon group, which, in its middle-
class way, was preoccupied with "the state of the arts," Gomes
learned that the common people had other problems in mind:

Since I am essentially a product of the mystique [of the middle
class], I know the extent to which its fantasies and foibles then
constrained me to a romantic approach to the social harshness
that surrounded me. Poverty is quite as bad as you imagined
when you get to know it, but the mere fact of being with it
imparts a certain aplomb which imagination could not possibly
provide. Perhaps that is why the middle-class conscience tends to
be either overwrought or too condescending in its responses:
imagination does not easily get beneath the other fellow's skin.
The other reason-and certainly the more fundamental one-is
that encapsulation of class is much more hermetic than we are
consciously aware. Through the window of the pharmacy I only
saw, I did not experience. But I observed enough in the end to
persuade me that I could no longer feed my conscience on a diet
of verbal protests, and that I could only be at peace with
myself-as far as this is possible to any of us-if I acted. But
less generous motives also impelled me. I yearned passionately
to be at the center of things. (1974:27-28)

He finally got his wish when the upheavals of 1937, a year of
widespread labor unrest, propelled him into public affairs.
During this same period, Gomes was married, although he
never once mentions by name the helpmate who has been with
him through ups and downs ever since, nor is she ever referred to
except in passing, as a kind of interested bystander to his adven-
tures. Mrs. Gomes has evidently been a kind of den mother to
Gomes's political circle since the 1930s because their various

Documents of Interaction

residences have become semiofficial party headquarters over the
years. Yet neither she nor their children ever emerge from the
shadows in his autobiography. Here again is a reaffirmation of a
West Indian pattern of reputability: the tendency to treat the
"good woman" to whom one is married as nothing more than an
adjunct to one's own activities in the world of men, where all the
important things happen. This attitude is especially revealing in
contrast to Gomes's treatment of his mother.
The relegation of the wife to the background also contrasts
sharply with the treatment accorded to Gomes's longtime col-
league in the labor movement and the closest of his political
collaborators, Quintin O'Connor. Although never as flamboy-
antly public a figure as Gomes, O'Connor is credited by many
labor insiders in Trinidad as being a major figure in the estab-
lishment of the unions on the island. Yet as Brinsley Samaroo
notes in his introduction to Gomes's memoirs, "Quintin
O'Connor never really comes to life in the work; he is at best at
the outer parameters of the struggle" (1974:xvi). This lapse is, in
strictly historical terms, quite unfortunate, but from the Erikson-
ian point of view it is quite revealing. Although O'Connor may
not emerge as a character in his own right, he is identified, and
his relationship to Gomes is always clear. He is like the "partner"
in one's lime, the man one hangs out with most frequently. In
such relationships one man is typically the strong personality,
who faces the outside world, while the other is his sounding
board. As such, Gomes and O'Connor are one personage: Gomes
the public activist, O'Connor the quiet theoretician and behind-
the-scenes diplomat. This quintessential form of Trinidadian
friendship behavior is, as Gomes unconsciously shows, a far
more emotionally decisive bond-and a far more direct spur to
meaningful social action-than is the conjugal bond.
Gomes's eventual entry into public life came as the result of
his newfound feeling for "the people," who had demonstrated
their profound dissatisfaction with the old order during the
tumultuous oil field riots and related activities of 1937. These
events forced the colonial government to pay more heed to local
concerns and marked the beginning of the process of decoloniza-

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

tion and preparation for independence. This turning-point aspect
of the riots may not have been as clear at the time as it is in
retrospect, but they definitely persuaded Gomes to run for the
Port of Spain municipal council in 1938. He paints an amusing
portrait of the canvassing techniques of those days. He lost the
election because, he implies, he refused to bribe the voters as his
opponents were in the habit of doing. Several months later, he
was the victor in a special off-term election, although he is
discreetly silent about whether he changed his tactics to match
those of his rivals.
He almost immediately set himself up as the leading oppo-
nent to Trinidad's most influential political figure, the legendary
Captain Cipriani. It is almost too tempting to see Gomes's politi-
cal emergence in metaphorically Oedipal terms. However, just as
entering public life in the first place was a means to escape his
father's plans, once in the public arena he devoted himself to
challenging the great political father figure of his generation.
Cipriani, however, was no Milquetoast merchant; although his
denunciation of the oil field rebels of 1937 had seriously
compromised his political leadership, he was still virtually the
only Trinidadian in government who had the ear of the colonial
Gomes's challenge to Cipriani's leadership may seem indirect
in strictly historical terms because it was not simply played out in
the legislative arena, in which both were active. It was, however,
startlingly apt in sociocultural terms. Cipriani had come to
represent the established order, and, despite the populist aura of
his younger days, he seemed by the late 1930s to be one of the
rare men to have come up from the masses to a position of au-
thority, as "respectable" a spokesman for the colony as was to be
found. In contrast, Gomes's middle-class background and his
fame as an intellectual dilettante had already made him quite re-
spectable. Yet the essence of the colonial identity crisis is that the
fully respectable individual must, by definition, establish himself
elsewhere, probably in the metropole, because, if one becomes
totally respectable, he can no longer function in terms of the rep-
utation system of West Indian society.

Documents of Interaction

Gomes therefore challenged the upwardly rising Cipriani by
descending downward, into the masses, as if to say that he was
not interested in escaping to the metropole-he wanted to be a
"man among men" right where he was. To do so, he championed
the trade union movement and devoted his (and O'Connor's)
considerable energies and talents to shaping the disorganized
popular movement into a real political force.
Unfortunately for Gomes, no matter how a reputable person
strives to become respectable, he will likely be dragged down by
his jealous fellows. Conversely, no matter how much a respect-
able person tries to be reputable, they will always push him
upwards in their pursuit of vicarious glorification. The two value
clusters thus constantly clash, and the polity is constantly in
motion. Gomes's very success as the trade union champion
pushed him into the highest councils of government. He was
elected to the islandwide legislative council and finally was
appointed to the governor's figurehead executive committee.
In those capacities, Gomes, only a few years after he had
neutralized Cipriani, had himself become the establishment's
point man, a shift best illustrated by his break with O'Connor.
The latter remained involved with the unions, but Gomes, as a
member of the government, had the portfolios of industry and
commerce and needed to deal with the capitalists as well as the
workers. O'Connor gave up on him. Gomes characterizes the
break as inevitable but painful (1974:49)-inevitable because his
new job was to attract industry to Trinidad so as to create new
employment (and thus he had to tell his union comrades to "cool
it" in their demands), painful because it meant the demise of a
strong friendship. In the end, though, Gomes, like so many West
Indians who have been marked as respectable, opted perma-
nently for respectability rather than reputation.
Although Gomes's career went from "strength to strength,"
as the Trinidadians say, his power was first compromised by this
break with O'Connor and his union base. It was the beginning of
the end, albeit the end did not occur for nearly two decades. Dur-
ing the next decade, Gomes, as the minister of labour, industry,
and commerce, traveled to Europe and North America on trade

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

missions and related activities. However, he is at pains to charac-
terize his participation in these eminently respectable endeavors
as that of the maverick, the "rebel journalist" as aging Peck's
bad boy:

I was determined not to yield, although I was eager to return
home, and was under pressure of some members of my
delegation to do so.... However, when all seemed finally lost,
an incident changed the prospect suddenly and brought us
victory. Mr. Webb, the Minister of Food, in answering a Parlia-
mentary question, gave some inaccurate information. Our
agitation had subsided in anticlimax; but I thought that this
might be my chance to effect a revival that would embarrass
both Mr. Webb and Mr. Griffiths-and their colleagues. So I
waited my chance, and, at what obviously was meant to be a
final meeting with our hosts, at which they would politely bid us
bon voyage before sending us back home empty-handed, I off-
handedly introduced both question and answer, and with an air of
offended innocence suggested that the many inaccuracies
contained in Mr. Webb's reply left me with no alternative but to
disavow them publicly.... The immediate reaction convinced
me that my barb had found its mark. (1974:140-41)

I just blew up. I rose to my feet and aggressively declared
that it was my intention to withdraw my delegation and to state
publicly my reasons for doing so to both the United Kingdom
and the West Indian press. I followed this up with a long and im-
passioned speech in which I charged the Colonial Office with
bad faith. I accused them of having brought us to London on
pretenses ... I had relied on my little blackmail which I have
never known to fail on such occasions. (1974:146)

And, during the fight to organize the West Indies Federation, in
the 1950s, "I categorically refused to be bound by decisions of
the Caribbean Labour Congress and became the enfant terrible of
their deliberations, which were really no more than wrecking op-
erations somewhat thinly disguised. As a result their main pur-
pose was thwarted" (1974:194).

Documents of Interaction

The clamoring for attention, the reliance on crowd-sweeping
oratory, the grandiloquent gesture, the involvement with the
"little us" against the "big them" are all the marks of a man
among men. Yet they were all being performed by an eminently
respectable man in an arena in which such gestures were no
longer appropriate. By ironic paradox, Gomes's initial successes
had pushed him beyond the confines of the Trinidadian polity,
but so desperate was his desire to remain within it and find some
identification therein that he continued to behave in reference to
the local peer group system even when he was no longer ex-
pected to do so. As a result, his putative peers in both respect-
ability and reputation circles drifted away from him.
The formation of the West Indian Federation, a turning point
for an entire generation of West Indian politicians, proved to be
the last straw for Gomes's long career in public service. The idea
behind the federation of the former British territories was, from
the British point of view at least, to achieve decolonization
painlessly, while preserving a large union that would be econom-
ically and politically more viable than a host of island
microstates. It was also, no doubt, a means by which Britain
could maintain her influence even after independence.
But the federation seemed doomed from the beginning by
parochialism. During more than 300 years of West Indian colo-
nialism, anything beyond an island identification had never
existed. Even on some tiny islands, people often identified with
an estate or district, not the whole island. Some of the larger
islands, like Jamaica and Trinidad (and the huge mainland
territory of British Guiana) were probably capable of making the
transition, but the smaller ones were not. The small islands also
grew jealous of the big islands, which seemed destined to
dominate the federation and yearned for total independence.
British Guiana (now Guyana) withdrew first, taking with it the
promise of vast continental acreage that could have been ac-
cessible for surplus island populations. It was followed by
Jamaica, after an embarrassing referendum defeat for its profed-
eration leaders.
Gomes fervently believed that the federation would be the

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

salvation of the islands once the British left, but in taking such a
stand he was setting himself against powerful countervailing
forces of island nationalism. It would be absurd to characterize
his faith in the federation as an extension of his Trinidadian de-
pendence on a lime, but the notion of solidarity, implicit in the
lime structure, is not at all a farfetched factor in his attitude.
To understand this problem, it is necessary to look closely at
the most intriguing and puzzling chapter of his autobiography,
entitled "A Clash of Cultures." Although the bulk of the book is
a brisk narrative account of his activities and a clear-eyed analy-
sis of his career and his contemporaries, this chapter reads like a
literary exercise. He seems intent on defining a distinctive West
Indian culture-a difficult task for an intellectual from a colonial
backwater who had grown up thinking that the only relevant
culture was that of the metropole. His efforts in this direction are
not at all dissimilar to those of many other artists-and not a few
nationalist politicians. What is different is that, long before it be-
came fashionable to do so, he was talking about a Caribbean
culture, not just a Trinidadian culture. Moreover, his identifica-
tion of the essence of that culture reflects his romantic identifica-
tion with the African as well as his rejection of the contribution
of the other ethnic strands of the population. The key to this
chapter is his discussion of the Shouter sect, an African-inspired
evangelical group that had been subject to persecution from time
to time. His defense of the sect had made him one of its great
heroes, although he was never formally a member. His
infatuation with the sect, however, goes far beyond a concern for
its legal rights:

My mother used regularly to employ a nubile Negress to polish
our furniture. In those days this was an accepted vocation. ...
This particular young woman belonged to the Roman Catholic
faith and was very devout. Indeed, in our household we thought
of her always as someone whose personality conveyed an im-
pression of pious restraint .. Unconsciously perhaps we were
dignifying the quality of "knowing one's place" which we as-
sumed her punctilious exterior to radiate. But when I saw her

Documents of Interaction

writhing in sensual torment to the violent rhythm of the
"Shango" drums she was transfigured. It seemed as if some
magic had been released from her loins that now suffused her
entire being, impregnating every muscle and nerve of her body
with its ecstatic pulsation. And when eventually she fell to the
ground and lay there, fluttering like a chicken with a severed
head, a ripple of terror ran through my blood. The presence of
Roman Catholic icons in a niche directly above her served only
to reinforce the weird character of the scene.
I like to think of that scene as symbolic of the cultural
schizophrenia that all West Indians suffer, not only those who
must reconcile their African ... past with the Anglo-Saxon influ-
ences of the kind of colonialism they have known but European-
oriented ones like myself whose extraterritorial equipment is
even much less dependable. (1974:80)

Gomes's involvement is passionate, sensual. As he had noted

I confess to being impatient of the hypocrisy that overlays so
many of our moral judgments. The illusion of virginity may,
after all, be preserved in a scientific study by the application of a
little expertise. ... But virtue might have been no more intact. I
said as much to my companion, and we debated briskly, she ap-
peared to agree with me eventually that English and West Indian
viewed this matter from quite different points of view, mores,
and temperaments. (1974:75)

Considering the fact that he had already castigated the Portu-
guese for their concupiscence, it can be no accident that his
celebration of black sensuality occupies the bulk of a lengthy
chapter. He seems to be setting up a kind of ideal typology, of
admirable black sensuality versus viciously hypocritical white
uptightness. This viewpoint is, of course, already something of a
cliche (although it may not have been so among genteel West
Indians of Gomes's generation) and is of interest in this context
only because of his own ambiguous racial status. In Trinidad, the

4 / Albert Gomes: Autobiography as Psychohistory

Portuguese are considered white, but in Britain he was treated as
a colored from the colonies. As a white man in Trinidad, he is
constrained to reject the sensuality of his own ethnic group be-
cause it compromises his respectability, but as a colored from the
colonies in the metropole, he celebrates the freedom of blackness
as the unhypocritical birthright of a man among men.
It is in this light that his reaction to the federation must be
interpreted. A Portuguese, he says, is "the odd man out, the con-
spicuous cuckoo in the West Indian political nest" (1974:168).
Rejecting identification solely as a Portuguese (because of the
limitations of such an identity), he must, if he is to have any
identity at all, any reputation in the wider sense, identify with a
larger group. But, despite his romantic attachment to black
culture, he knows he can never be fully reputable in that particu-
lar arena because he has already, by the facts of birth and politi-
cal position, been marked as too respectable. So he looks for bet-
ter things-not in the totally respectable society of England at
first, but in the even more heterogeneous West Indies Federation,
in which his peculiarities could be averaged out.
If there are any villains in Gomes's generally genial rem-
iniscences, it is the Indians. Although it was black politicians
who engineered his downfall, his romantic attachment to the
blacks prevents him from being harsh with them as a group. But
the Indians, smug in their "ancient heritage" and ethnic exclusiv-
ity, had no such saving grace as free sensuality. Gomes smirks at
their adoption of Gandhi caps and saris after India's indepen-
dence, and he decries their political wavering during the fed-
eration years. The Indians, he implies, have achieved both re-
spectability and reputation on their own terms (a highly
debatable proposition) and have shut him out even more than
have the blacks. Their refusal to assimilate is seen as willful and
destructive, and hence reprehensible, as opposed to the occasion-
ally more violent black racialism, which did not become ideolog-
ical until well after Gomes's career was ended.
The crowning irony of this situation is that Gomes's political
eclipse came at the hands of that most respectable of West Indian
political eminences, Dr. Eric Williams. Just as Gomes himself

Documents of Interaction

had outmaneuvered Cipriani by being a "man among men" (de-
spite the fact that, in terms of social class, he was as respectable
as his opponent, if not more so), so Williams outmaneuvered
Gomes by playing on popular sentiment and painting his oppo-
nent as too much a part of the established order to be an effective
postindependence leader. Defeated for election to the Federal
Parliament and cut adrift when Trinidad pulled out of the federa-
tion to become independent, Gomes moved his family perma-
nently to England. He had earlier relocated from "gay, smelly,
proletarian Belmont [a working-class district of Port of Spain]"
(1974:166) and settled in Maraval, an elegant section of town,
because he feared reprisals from his political enemies. But, as he
says, he left his heart in Belmont, and the physical exile in
England was merely the affirmation of that earlier spiritual exile.
In summary, then, Gomes's personal adolescent identity cri-
sis (his need to break away from his father and the bourgeois
values he represented) impelled him to join a peer group fighting
that same battle at the level of the old colonial order inexorably
evolving toward independence. His own personal need to prove
himself a man among men enabled him to play the role of the
wily politician, able to join in the establishment's game and yet
promote his personal victory as if it were won for the common
people as a whole. He therefore took a crisis that affected most
people and turned it into a public drama. Even after he had been
pushed off the stage, as it were, he continued to dramatize his
struggle by means of his autobiography.
Despite the limitations, both analytical and methodological,
of the psychohistorical approach, it can still be a useful means of
understanding the ways in which large public events and private,
inner conflicts can mesh to shape the affairs of a society.

Personal Narratives from Aruba:
Collective Reflections as Oral

A KEY FACT of the political-economic life of the
postindependence Caribbean islands has been their differential
development. Some islands (for example, Trinidad, Aruba, and
Curacao) have built thriving industrial sectors,* but others have
remained tied to declining, monocrop, agrarian economies. The
latter have become exporters of labor and often survive on the
remittances of citizens working abroad. Although most of the
expatriate labor force has traditionally emigrated to the United
States, Canada, or Europe, a sizable number of migrants have
chosen to move to the more prosperous parts of the Caribbean it-
self. The insularity of its society, which has for centuries been a
psychological as well as a literal geographic fact of life, is
therefore breaking down as the islands engage in a complex
labor exchange.
This process can be studied from any number of social
science perspectives, but the personalistic view should not be
neglected when analyzing large-scale political-economic issues.
The study of narratives collected from persons involved in the
process of change can thus be a useful adjunct to a more
quantifiable economic survey.
The research project to be discussed here had its roots in a
study on the island of Saba, in which the author participated as a
graduate student. The smallest of the Dutch islands, Saba has his-
torically been the most isolated. It has always been an exporter
of labor, and its men have been highly valued in the various
seafaring trades throughout the Caribbean and the United States.
To the extent that these industrial sectors were built around oil refining, the
prosperity of those islands is in serious jeopardy as of this writing.

Documents of Interaction

So marked was the absence of Sabian men that early travelers
dubbed the place the "Island of Women"-a name that seemed
to conjure up exotic romance but basically represented a bitter
economic truth. In modern times, the men have been inclined to
migrate to the larger, richer Dutch islands of Aruba and Curacao,
both of which have giant refinery complexes. The emigrants now
often take along their families, however, and even children from
families that stay on Saba are often sent away to Aruba or
Curacao for schooling. These factors are breaking down the his-
toric isolation of Saba. By collecting the life histories of a cross
section of islanders, the researcher was attempting to describe the
traditional island culture before it vanished. The results of that
project were presented by Crane (1987).
Some years later, the author initiated a follow-up study. If the
earlier life history collection was designed to capture a tradi-
tional society on the wane, then it seemed desirable to compare it
with a society being created, one also seen "from the inside."
Aruba, to which so many Sabians had migrated, was selected. Its
Chamber of Commerce boasted that it was home to persons of
sixty-six different nationalities, a remarkably polyglot group to
have been grafted onto an island that, until the founding of Lago,
the great oil refinery (at one time the world's largest), had been
virtually a desert island, lacking in large-scale plantation agricul-
ture and far off the main trade routes. And yet Aruba did not
resemble a transient labor camp. There were elements of social
stability in the cultural matrix the migrants were joining, and the
island was conspicuously lacking in crime, grinding poverty, or
pollution-all the more surprising given the circumstances of its
rapid growth. Moreover, the year in which the research was to be
conducted was the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of
Lago, and the Arubians were in a retrospective frame of mind.
Chapter 4 discussed some of the ambiguities inherent in the
analysis of collective life histories. The Aruba project illustrates
some of these problems quite clearly. In the first place, its model
was the study of the rural English village of Akenfield (Blythe
1974). In that study, the researchers had collected the reminis-
cences of the villagers in traditional life history fashion. The re-

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba

sulting book had chapter headings that reflected the conventional
rubrics of "community studies" in anthropology and sociology
(for example, "work," "education," "law," "social mores"), but
the contents of those chapters were simply the words of the vil-
lagers themselves as they addressed these topics. The result
seems to be an intimate and affecting portrait of Akenfield as
told by its residents.
Akenfield presents a trap for those who would replicate its
methods. Most fundamentally, the a'.sence of obvious analysis
by the editor yields only an illusion of spontaneity. Given the
fact that the text is composed of snippets taken out of larger dis-
courses (whether in or out of context the reader has no way of
knowing), it is obvious that, even without interposing his own
words, the editor has, in fact, "composed" the book. It is an elab-
orately arranged symphony, albeit the component melodic
phrases were originally the villagers'.
The organizational rubrics clearly reflect the concerns of the
social scientist, not the farmers and craftsmen who probably saw
their community as a whole, not divided into conventionalized
slots. The book's overall gently elegiac tone certainly reflects the
attitudes of urban observers of the fading rural lifeways, but does
it reflect the villagers' outlook? Might their expressions of
nostalgia and regret have been fleeting thoughts embedded in
statements of bold confidence in future progress? There simply is
no way of knowing.
It was therefore decided that any published results of the
Aruba project (e.g., Angrosino 1982) would include clearly la-
beled statements of analysis. The informants' words would be
used to illustrate analytical points, but no claim would be ad-
vanced that alternative analytical schemes could not also be sup-
ported in the words of the life history texts. Publication of the
complete texts (fifty-five were eventually recorded) was impos-
sible, and, because excerpted materials would always be the re-
sults of editorial choice, it was deemed best simply to identify
them as such.
Whatever the integrity of the completed text may be, a seri-
ous general problem inheres in the data. Even if somehow all

Documents of Interaction

fifty-five texts were published together, without analysis at all,
what would they add up to? It would be fatuous to claim that
fifty-five stories by anybody could form a complete record of the
historical, social, cultural, and psychological life of an island of
more than sixty thousand inhabitants. Given the time-consuming
nature of life history elicitation techniques, one may not hope to
collect many more more than fifty-five life histories in any one
field season. Even if all sixty thousand residents could somehow
be interviewed, how could any sense be made out of the resulting
mountain of data without exercise of editorial choice?
The fifty-five respondents, then, represent themselves. They
are persons who certainly typify prominent segments of Aruba's
current resident population, as identified through conventional
participant-observational research. As a group, they provide a
broad overview of current ways of life on the island. But it must
also be admitted that, given the pressures of time, the persons
who turned out to be the most cooperative informants were those
who were either the most sophisticated (those who understood
and approved of the goals of the research project) or the least so-
phisticated (who went along just out of politeness). In either
group, they tended to be persons who were unusually articulate.
Because each informant was sent a typed transcript of the inter-
view and was asked to sign a release form indicating permission
to quote from it, the resulting texts were the products of persons
capable of self-conscious reflection about the image they wanted
to project about themselves. All these factors limit the represen-
tativeness of the results even further, though they may well
heighten their interest as documents of the interaction process it-
self (an aspect of autobiographical research to which, unfortu-
nately, I did not begin to pay much attention until later).
A third general issue concerns the nature of the documents
themselves. Some of them might legitimately be called life his-
tories, but a fair number of them-on the informants' own initia-
tive, I believe-turned out to possess a quite different character.
A number of the informants, particularly those who had migrated
to Aruba in search of a better life (which, such things being
relative, they almost invariably found), brushed aside their early

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba

lives and concentrated on how they found their jobs at the
refinery or in one of the service trades it spawned and what the
resulting material prosperity had meant to them. Even native
Arubians who felt inclined to include picturesque anecdotes
about the old days were far more interested in the here and now
and how their own lives had changed for the better with the
advent of the oil boom.
For these reasons, I felt it best to label such stories "personal
narratives," as defined in chapter 1, because they cannot be taken
as records of people's entire lives. I do not, however, see this
more restricted term as a drawback. Indeed, the present and
future orientation is the most salient feature of the Arubian narra-
tives, and it is one that, I believe, accurately reflects the evolving
culture and value system of a society on the move and impressed
with its own relative success and prosperity. To have forced the
informants to dwell on their childhoods in order to satisfy some
criterion of completeness or out of a misplaced faith in tradi-
tional psychoanalytical explanations would have severely dis-
torted the view of themselves and of their society that the
Arubians were satisfied to project.
In view of this bias inherent in the informants' own view of
their circumstances, it was decided that published accounts of the
Arubian materials would eschew the analytical rubrics of the
community study (which, as in Akenfield, give the impression of
continuity with the traditions of bygone social stability) in favor
of headings that reflected a theory of modernization.
One such theory that seems consonant with the personalistic
approach is that of Peacock and Kirsch (1970), who point out
that modernization is not only a matter of new economic and po-
litical institutions but represents a new way of looking at the
world. Their model suggests four broad themes (increased rate of
change, social differentiation, universalization, and rationaliza-
tion of personal identity) that characterize the process of mod-
ernization, and material from the Aruba personal narratives illus-
trates it.*

This section is taken, with some modification, from Angrosino

Documents of Interaction

Increased Rate of Change
Although it may be taken as axiomatic that all cultures
change through time, technological innovation and complexity
seem to stimulate relatively rapid change in all aspects of the
culture (that is, in beliefs, as well as in activities). It is therefore
interesting that the perception of accelerated change is recorded
as a topic in a number of the personal narratives under study. It
may be obvious that persons caught in a dramatic situation of
change will feel that things are changing too fast. But how do
persons in such a situation deal with that feeling?
The discussion of rapid change is most frequent in the per-
sonal narratives of the Arubian natives. Their stories are often
quite explicit in making the contrast between the old days before
Lago and now. The contrast usually focuses on the hard times of
the old days. This theme is expressed succinctly by one native
man, now a computer programmer at Lago. He says of his youth,
"Remember that Lago wasn't here at that time and there was
nothing for them to do. It was a real bad time."
The stories of the migrants even provide a variant of this
theme. A number of them talk about how quiet and peaceful
Aruba was when they first came there and the rustic rectitude of
its people-all in sharp contrast with things as they seem to be
today. However, they are not inclined to discuss the economic
hardships associated with that quiet past. A man from the United
States, now head of a printing firm, responded to a question on
the nature of the people, "The island was a place, at that time that
was unbelievable. There were homes then that never closed the
doors, much less locked them. ... There was a friendliness about
the people."
The migrants, far more than the natives, are conscious of the
seeming breakdown in Arubian family life. As evidence they
point to the prevalence of unchaperoned girls out on dates,
declining church attendance, the appearance of teenage street-
corner idlers, and so forth. What is interesting in these stories is
that the migrants seem to have a divided consciousness; they
rarely, if ever, discuss such changes in terms of their own lives.
It is as if they have long since accepted their marginality with

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba

respect to Aruba and their status as transients in its society.
Change can be measured only against some standard of
stability. Lacking such a standard in their own lives, the migrants
are apt to overemphasize the rooted stability of the Arubian past
and hence overestimate the accelerating pace of change in that
society. Clearly, the anthropologist might well see the migrants
themselves as a symptom of social change rather than as merely
interested bystanders to it. But it is equally important to under-
stand that these persons characteristically do not see themselves
as involved in the process, other than as observers.

Social Differentiation
In the folk society, considerable overlapping of roles
occurs: an individual may be mother's brother, father-in-law,
shaman, and war leader all at once. In modern societies, there are
more persons with whom individuals relate, but they tend to play
one role at a time. This trend toward specialization is referred to
in the Peacock and Kirsch model as "social differentiation."
Although it is not always the case, such specialization can often
lead to a high degree of social mobility, insofar as many speciali-
zations are acquired skills that require persons to move in order
to be trained or to find employment. When specialized skills are
acquired, individuals can be in a position to sell their labor in an
open labor market (if one exists), and their economic decisions
about relocation need not have very much to do with familial or
other traditional loyalties.
This constellation of behaviors is clearly marked in the
Arubian narratives. In the stories of the natives, a sharp contrast
is evident between the extremely localized, family-centered
system of pre-Lago days and the current condition. The most
striking aspect of this change, as the natives see it, is not so much
their personal acquisition of specialized skills but the fact that
they have come to encounter so many different persons. They
really take to heart the Chamber of Commerce boast about the
island's heterogeneity. They may simply have been guarded or
polite in telling their stories, but the complete absence in the

Documents of Interaction

natives' narrative of any real animosity toward outsiders and
their potentially disruptive ways is striking. The Arubians are
supposed to be conservative and clannish, but they have
welcomed the newcomers and have reveled in their international
contacts. One native put it this way: "In the lab like I was, we
had people from all over-from Czechoslovakia [even]-but the
official business was done in English, so no matter how you
spoke it, we all got along."
A somewhat different picture emerges from the stories of the
migrants, for they clearly see an implicit differentiation between
foreigners and Arubians. Again, no animosity is expressed, but
the migrants generally feel that they have never really been
accepted. Green (1976:102) has noted that in Curaqao the natives
were willing to accept strangers only so long as they learned the
local languages; this has not been the case on Aruba. It is inter-
esting to note that the more recent migrants there are far more
sanguine about their assimilation than are those of longer stand-
ing. Recent arrivals, and those from the United States generally,
are particularly enthusiastic about their ability to "get in with the
people," whereas older migrants realize, with a touch of regret,
that even after twenty-five years or more, they are still not con-
sidered Arubian.
For example, a young widow who had accompanied her artist
husband to the island has become the executive assistant to one
of the island's leading entrepreneurs. Although she criticizes the
"typical American" attitude of many who live and work on the
island, she herself expresses an optimistic American approach to
the question of assimilation:

My approach to living in a foreign place is not typically
American because I find it rather a waste of time to insulate
yourself in a colony or in an area like the strip along the beach
here in Aruba. In doing that, you do not reap the benefits of
getting to know another culture or another ethnic group ....
Actually, all you have to do is to be receptive. You don't have
your mind closed, because it's a lot more fun to be receptive.
An older man who came to Aruba to work at Lago and went

on to found his own insurance company has become something
of a local institution; in fact, he and his wife feel "right at home."
After a discussion of the current political scene, he stopped and
mused, "I said 'we' there, so I suppose I identify myself with
Aruba now. I identify myself with the refinery also, because
that's the lifeblood of the island. I often say, 'We export 500,000
barrels a day,' although I'm not at all a part of Lago."
On the other hand, a young black man from St. Thomas grew
up feeling Arubian, and yet, "Really, to be in a puzzle all your
life is no good, reared up in confusion. . They don't do it any
more, discriminate, you know. But before they used to do it.
They considered themselves, you know, the native Arubians, to
be really pure. Any strangers? Nah!"
A Guyanese woman, an Aruba resident since the late 1940s,
adds, "No matter how long you've lived [here] ... you never
really seem to get to know the people well, you never get the
feeling of belonging. They always make it so pointing that
'you're not one of us'-in an indirect way, of course, but you
can feel it."
The West Indian foreigners were often seen by the Arubians
to be just as clannish as the latter were viewed by outsiders. The
Surinamers were thought to be especially standoffish. One of this
group, a resident in Aruba since World War II, says, "We
Surinamers had the Club Surinam in San Nicolaas, which is still
here and pretty active again today. In that place, all the
Surinamers used to get together because you could buy all the
Surinam dishes that we all liked very much." This same individ-
ual, however, has been one of the island's (and Lago's) most
outstanding success stories. He has worked his way through the
Lago ranks to head the company's maintenance department. He
was the first locally hired employee (that is, not European or
North American) to be permitted to build a home in the once ex-
clusive enclave of Seroe Colorado (known as "The Colony").
His position as head of the maintenance department puts him in
direct charge of the day-to-day activities of Seroe Colorado, and
this makes him, he jokes, "like the mayor of this town." Perhaps
because of his close association with the elite expatriate commu-

Documents of Interaction

nity and its ideas and activities, he has not become very much of
an Arubian. "I don't consider myself as much an Arubian as I
would have had I more contact with them." he states.
A variant on this theme is expressed by a Trinidadian migrant
who points out, "I have always considered this Aruba a place of
temporary sojourn, or [as] if it was that I'm leaving tomorrow.
We are here only as birds of passage, but this has gone on for
twenty-odd years." He attempts to maintain his ties to his
"home," but, "When I go back [maybe every six years or so],
and ask, 'Is this the Trinidad I knew?' I must say, 'No.' My
friends don't even know me. And so back I come to Aruba."
A similar sentiment is expressed by a Guyanese migrant who
had once been involved in the health professions and is now in
private business. He says, "I came to Aruba with the intention of
staying here just four years, saving some money and then getting
out to [study medicine]. But it turns out that I am still here. Now
the hospitality that I've gotten in Aruba-well, I'm not the best
friend of everybody, not everybody has been nice to me. And
that makes me think that life is where you make it."
An even stronger statement along those lines is that of an
elderly Jewish merchant who says:

I consider myself an Arubian now and I hope they accept me too.
Normally they say I'm "one of the good ones." ... To be honest,
when I first came here, I was so young and so scared that I didn't
know what I was doing-I almost didn't know where I was. The
only plan I had was to make a living. I had practically no money.
My first money that I left from home with-some thirty-odd
dollars-I lost at the boat. But this has been a good life for me
here in Aruba ever since. I belong here and when people make a
party I'll be invited. As a matter of fact, two of my boys were
bar mitzvahed here.... We have ... only eighteen Jewish
families, but I had over six hundred people at those things-with
a priest included!

These examples provide two rather different perceptions of
the same social process, although both groups clearly recognize

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba

the differentiating, specializing tendency to which they both re-
spond. What is most intriguing, however, is that it is the migrants
who are most impressed by the in-group/out-group dichotomy of
Arubian society, and the natives themselves seem to feel that
they are making great strides in internationalizing themselves
and breaking down traditional communal barriers. The apparent
communalism of the society is diluted by a realization of a
growing interdependency of specialized roles; this may be one
reason for the relative harmony (to date) within the Arubian
melting pot.


By universalization, Peacock and Kirsch mean the trend
toward social organization based on achievement rather than
ascription. It is by far the most significant theme of the personal
narratives, particularly those of the native Arubians. It is also the
only component of the modernization process about which they
express some real regret. Traditional Aruba was a strongly kin-
based society in which relatives of both one's father and one's
mother lived in the same district; this large group of kin all inter-
acted frequently with one another. This relationship is spoken of
with extreme warmth and affection almost invariably, and even
foreigners, when asked to comment on their first impressions of
Aruba, tend to talk about how impressed they were with the
closeness of family life. An image of the old pattern is provided
by a woman from one of the island's leading old families:

Our home was built in pieces. The center piece belonged to my
great-grandparents. The old Arubian way of starting a house is
with a center room, with the possibility of building on both sides.
In 1907, my grandmother and my aunt built onto the side be-
cause my parents were then living in the center piece. Later on
when my brothers and sisters were coming back from boarding
school and the house was getting too small-because in the
meantime we had the smaller ones, the babies, being added to
the family-they added a third piece.

Documents of Interaction

Nowadays, the natives admit that the old family ties are in
decline, although they are far from dead. For example, one
middle-aged man says, "My wife is my second cousin. Of
course, now people have other things to do, so they don't get
married-but in those days there was nothing to do but get
Foreigners also seem keenly aware of this decline and point
to it as the root cause of what they perceive to be the island's
future trouble as a "mixed-up society." Nevertheless, it should be
noted that the close-knit traditional family situation was always
very definitely undercut by a sense of personal pride, which
seems to fit in very well with the modern emphasis on personal
ambition. As an older gentleman, a retired Lago technician, put
it, "On the average, I would guess that people in those days
married when they were twenty-three, twenty-four years old; I
got married younger, but that was because I could afford it then
because I had a job at Lago-and I wanted to get married."
The industrial system did not, over the long run, disrupt the
pattern of residence and family ties, which is one of the key
reasons why the advent of Lago did not lead to the creation of
workers' slums or other manifestations of social disintegration,
at least among the native population. (A slum area known as
"The Village" has, in fact, grown up near the refinery, but its
residents have always been predominantly transient foreigners.)
One parish priest explains: "One thing that doesn't change,
though, is the family pride. When you say, for example, the
family Tromp, I can tell you they come from Noord. When you
say family Dijkhof, they live in Paradera. When you say
Schwengle, de Kort, de Cuba, it's Savaneta; Geerman, it's Santa
Cruz. Each family has its own residential area, and that keeps
them together." But, on the other hand, "people here feel that
'this is our parish.' It is really something of that, with the conse-
quence, also, that they don't accept so easily people from
Nevertheless, Lago had a more subtle but perhaps more per-
vasive effect in its enshrinement of a merit system that made
industrial skills and ambitions of individuals paramount over

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba

family connections. One migrant describes the changes in the
Arubian character generated by Lago:

People's attitudes toward work has gotten much more respon-
sible. Long ago a man worked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
Thursday, and Friday, and he would have halfday on Saturday to
get drunk all through the rest of the weekend. So it ended up he
really didn't work Monday because he was in no shape to work.
Now that has changed; people work and they take consideration
and care of themselves to get back on the job. Of course, they've
paid a big price, because many of them were discharged, lost
benefits, and things like that. So that taught them the lesson of a
more responsible life.

Although it is still true that people inherit jobs at the refinery
from relatives, this method is not now, and never has been, the
dominant mode of job placement. It remains a minor but
noticeable factor in obtaining government jobs as well. Because
jobs at the refinery really do provide security, they have come to
dominate other economic activities such as farming, and hence
their particular style of universalized relationships has come to
the fore.
Even a man who recognizes the value of having job skills
comparable to those of a refinery worker in Kuwait or Texas
such that he has become an interchangeable cog in an interna-
tional system will express regret at the loss of the sturdy values
of home and kin. The Chilean-born director of the YMCA, in
fact, discusses at some length the difference between the family-
oriented Arubians and the "West Indians," by which he means
the people from the British Caribbean islands living in The
Village. The latter are "afflicted" with disrupted families; and,
moreover, he sees his own role as being a kind of surrogate
father to the children of that community whose fathers are
absent. In so saying, he echoes the fear among the Arubians that
their own family relationships may someday be similarly dis-
Even some of the younger informants express fear that the re-

Documents of Interaction

maining family system will not survive, and they see this as a
negative factor in an otherwise exciting and challenging future.
The head of the island's social work department, in fact, cites the
British social anthropologist Elizabeth Bott and explicitly charac-
terizes Aruba as an emerging loose-knit network: "Arubian
families are leaving that structure of the extended family, and
each family is moving toward the nuclear family idea. That's
why we have a lot of problems because [of finances]-the
family [used to be able to] help each other. That's falling off. We
have a problem with the aged ... that wasn't a problem ever [be-
fore]." He goes on to point out that divorce, once considered
something only foreigners did, is now frequent among younger
Arubians. Nowadays, he says, the community as a whole is
tolerant of divorced persons, an unthinkable attitude a generation
But the continuing centrality of family is illustrated by the
story of a middle-aged Arubian man, currently a high-ranking
airline executive and formerly a recording and television star.
Despite his long career as a man of the world, he still allows,
"Now the greatest happiness we have is our grandson. He is
eighteen months. You can't imagine how happy we are when he
comes here. ... I've traveled a lot, of course, but now I want to
remain here in Aruba with my little family." Once a well-
regarded composer of love songs, he now proudly plays his
favorite recent tune, "A Baby's Smile."
A young woman from a traditional family in the countryside
demonstrates her break with tradition by articulating a desire to
pursue a career as an artist, yet she stresses family loyalty in her
story. She begins by saying, "I am very proud of my family" and
ends by stating, "I like to visit other places, but it is not like
Aruba, which is something very special to me."
A different kind of universalization is represented by a
woman from the United States whose comments on her personal
situation in Aruba are interesting because of her emphasis on the
differences her expatriation have meant to her as a woman,
rather than as an American specifically. She explains, "It's the
difference made by going to work. .. It took away a lot of the

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba

rough edges, the uphill fighting that you often have to do in that
situation [being left a widow]. I think-no, I'm sure that it was a
big plus for me, one which I would not have found in the States."

Rationalization of Personal Identity

In a traditional society, one saw oneself as a member of a
group; in a modern society, the individual is a separable unit.
Modern society is predicated, moreover, on the individual's abil-
ity to plan his or her life. This goal-oriented outlook, so different
from the supposed "timelessness" of traditional society, is what
Peacock and Kirsch call "rationality." This theme is best seen in
the form of the narratives, even more than in their content. The
Aruba informants tended to tell chronological stories, often with
a rags-to-riches theme, in some contrast to those of the Saba
The most striking such success story is that of the YMCA di-
rector, who ends his chronicle, "You know, God helped me out
on the way, and I'm here now to help others do the same." His
story seems like a real-life analog of a Horatio Alger tale,
featuring a poor but honest youngster, a rich benefactor, and how
the boy grew up to repay that benefactor and carry on his ideals
of public service. Unlike informants in more traditional societies
who are loath to admit to success for fear of provoking jealousy,
the Arubians are very pleased to have achieved it, and they ex-
pressed few reservations about telling the world how they did.
The social work department head, however, made a point of
noting that native Arubians participate in an "avoidance culture":
"Nobody wants to stand in the spotlight. They want to stay ... as
anonymous as possible." Hence, the Arubian rationalization of
the life arc does not take the form of strong individualism.
Rather, there is a kind of missionizing tendency, a desire to bring
everyone up to one's own level, to create a crowd of people all
moving along in the same direction so that one need not stand
out. Hence, despite the supposed isolation and conservatism of
traditional Arubian society, a spirit of bandwagoning makes for a
maintenance of solidarity even as the material aspects of the so-

Documents of Interaction

city are changing.
Migrants of the lower classes came to Aruba simply to obtain
decent jobs, and, like migrants elsewhere in the Third World,
they had no particular career goals. But, among those who came
with professional or technical skills, the island is seen quite
explicitly as a place to work out a rational life plan, and even
retirees devote much energy to planning how to keep up with
things. It should be noted, however, that women are not encour-
aged to plan their lives in this way; for them, being wives and
mothers is still supposed to be sufficient. One female social
worker had recently returned from representing the Dutch
islands at an international women's conference. She pointed out
that single women especially had a terrible time getting jobs at
all and that those who work for the government are still
supposed to be dismissed immediately upon marriage because
women with husbands to support them can continue to work
only at the risk of disgracing their families.
The Arubian narratives reveal a society in transition. People
still express concern over the apparent disregard for traditional
values, and they express a nostalgia for the ordered, integrated
world of their past. And yet, the opinion leaders of the society
are just as actively engaged in bringing ways of thinking in line
with social changes that have already occurred. Because the soci-
ety is now built out of persons of diverse backgrounds, this pro-
cess is quite different from one taking place in a society in which
a homogeneous, dominant community acts as a conservative
force against imported change.
Through Lago, Aruba is part of the international oil system;
there is no way that its residents can feel that their "little island in
the sun" is "just a dot on the map," common expressions else-
where in the Caribbean. The people are well aware that events in
Saudi Arabia or Japan or the United States or Venezuela have
immediate impact on their day-to-day lives. They are proud of
the island's new multilingual capabilities, which serve to link it
to a new system of beliefs and actions.
The old social system of local interests and kin interdepen-
dencies is being replaced by an international political-economic

5 / Personal Narratives from Aruba 79

system, and the old cultural system of valued localized loyalties
and the influence of folk Catholicism is in the process of being
replaced by one in which political and economic power are
centralized in distant metropoles, whose values and ways of life
are, perforce, desirable. These conflicting values are clearly dem-
onstrated in the words of the people themselves. Despite the
manifest limitations of data such as these, they can still be used
to glimpse the multifarious reality of a changing society as it is
experienced by those living therein. An analytical scheme is nec-
essary because the facts cannot and do not speak for themselves;
such a scheme should be chosen to reflect the internally per-
ceived force of change rather than the social researcher's precon-
ceptions about the nature of the community.

Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized
Retarded Adults: An Interactionist

THE PRECEDING CHAPTERS have dealt with three
research investigations, each of which made use of some variant
of the life history method. Both the advantages and the limita-
tions of using autobiographical data in such social research have
been discussed. These three projects reflect the standard view of
the life history method as a text-centered approach in that
autobiographies were believed to be useful to the extent that they
contained factual information (or impressionistic material that
can be interpreted as if it were factual) about individual per-
sonalities or the nature of societies, cultures, or historical
The alternative view, that the essence of autobiography is in
the interactive process of its creation, did not play a part in my
approach until I developed a more recent project. By its nature,
this research has called into question in a direct way many of the
conventional assumptions about autobiographical data in the
social science context.
Since 1981 I have been conducting studies of deinstitutionali-
zation policy in Tennessee, Florida, and Washington, DC
(Angrosino 1981; Angrosino 1985; Angrosino and Whiteford
1986). I have worked most intensively with adults released from
institutional custody into community-based treatment agencies in
the Tampa Bay area of Florida and have centered my activities in
a program that I have referred to in public presentations as
Opportunity House (OH). OH was the first community-based
agency in Florida to deal with clients whose primary diagnosis is
mental retardation but who also have psychiatric problems.
Moreover, the clients have all been in trouble with the law, and
most have been adjudicated to OH in lieu of prison.

6 / Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized Retarded Adults 81

"Handicapping" or "disabling" conditions are, by definition,
culture-bound concepts. One is handicapped only to the degree
that one cannot "fulfill certain valued social roles," in Parsons's
classic phrase (Parsons 1972:107); and those roles are deter-
mined, as we would probably all agree, by the norms of the
social setting. In our society, physical prowess is less valuable in
the job market than intellectual capacity. Because one's ability to
be "productive" is a paramount marker of social identity in our
culture, people with intellectual deficits are truly handicapped.
Retarded people are "trained" largely because in our society it is
unconscionable for an otherwise able-bodied person to do
nothing productive, but the retarded are trained for jobs that our
culture defines as not really worth doing. To lack the intellectual
capacity for the most valued social roles is seen as outside the
mainstream of culture; from that position, the attribution of a
less-than-human status is not far off.
Retardation means that victims are slowed in their ability to
learn (Haywood 1970). Slow does not mean never, and yet the
word has taken on that connotation in popular, pejorative speech.
The label retarded has indeed become a stigma. And yet, of the
estimated 5 to 6 million persons so labeled in the United States,
fewer than 20 percent fall into the categories of severely or
profoundly retarded, in which learning capacity is so restricted
as to be negligible (Edgerton 1979). The rest of that large popu-
lation, most of whom are now deinstitutionalized, have learning
capacities that are literally slowed down but by no means absent.
But since they are incapable of fulfilling the most valued roles in
our society, they may as well be the helpless nonpersons of
popular myth.
Retarded persons have not often figured in the studies of
social scientists, perhaps because they have not been seen as
meaningful bearers of culture. The main exception has been the
work of the anthropologist Robert Edgerton, who was working
on a cross-cultural definition of incompetence as early as the
1960s (Edgerton 1970) and whose classic study The Cloak of
Competence (1967) still stands as the paradigmatic ethnography
of deinstitutionalized mentally retarded people. His multidisci-

Documents of Interaction

plinary research team at UCLA has produced volumes of work-
ing papers on the social ecology of these individuals over the
past decade. The sociologist Daryl Evans, working in the
Edgerton tradition of qualitative methodology, has also produced
a noteworthy ethnographic account of the experiences of re-
tarded adults (Evans 1983).
These studies collectively stress the concept of adaptation in a
way that roughly parallels recent studies of the community or-
ganization of other disadvantaged minorities. The trend is away
from viewing the life ways of these people as degenerated
approximations of middle-class mainstream norms and toward
seeing these people as capable of building up alternative commu-
nity networks that enable them to cope with, and perhaps even
confront or surmount, the demands of that mainstream.
Some evidence suggests that retarded people, contrary to the
stereotypes, are amenable to conventional survey research tech-
niques, provided the researchers come equipped with "patience
and well constructed questions, without forced categories and
without ambiguous or complex phrasing" (Wyngaarden 1981:
113). The majority opinion, however, is that of Sigelman et al.
(1981), who review a variety of studies and conclude that the re-
sults are "discouraging." Even in the most carefully designed
studies, a consistent bias seems to exist in the form of
"acquiescence": retarded people seem to know what the inter-
viewer is after and, socialized into ready compliance, give the
answers that seem called for rather than the ones they truly feel.
This finding, incidentally, is suggestive of the adaptive learning
capacities of retarded people, but it does not bode well for the
utility of a questionnaire methodology. Indeed, Bercovici (1981),
speaking for the UCLA group, has issued a call for participant-
observation ethnographic methods as the only suitable way to
work with retarded people in community settings. Of the specific
data collection techniques associated with this general orienta-
tion, none has been more promising than that of the life history.
The retardation literature contains considerable biographical
material, mostly in the form of caretakers' accounts of their ex-
periences with retarded family members. On occasion, these ac-

6 / Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized Retarded Adults 83

counts include brief, pointillistic narratives by the retarded per-
sons themselves, on the assumption that "the life of a retarded
man or woman is as simple as a 'little song' ... or, on the other
hand, a complex spiritual burden to be borne by only the most
dedicated of parents" (Whittemore, Koegel, and Langness
Among the few attempts at presenting autobiography are
those by Hunt (1967), Seagoe (1964), and McCune (1973), all of
them in a kind of popular-inspirational genre rather than in the
scientific tradition. Nevertheless, the common theme of these
three life stories is opportunity. The central figures do not see
themselves as a "helpless victims" or as the shell of "the person
who might have been," but rather as people who learn what their
limitations are and go on from there. Could more thorough
methods of elicitation pick up on this theme and thereby help
overcome the stereotypes of the retarded adult as one devoid of
identity and a nonparticipant in culture except as a passive
reactor to the stimuli of caretakers?
The UCLA group has collected life histories extensively over
the past two decades, gaining experience that has recently been
published in an anthology (Langness and Levine 1986). Some
obvious technical problems exist, however, in working with re-
tarded informants. For one thing, linguistic research has demon-
strated that they characteristically make few "first mentions" in
their narratives. That is, they tend to plunge into their story, not
bothering to establish that the listener knows anything about the
people, places, or events being referred to (Kernan and Sabsay
Retarded persons also typically exhibit a variety of deficits in
language production, including restricted vocabulary, syntax be-
low age expectations, relatively shorter sentences, relatively less
abstraction, and frequent sacrifice of conventional meaning in
favor of inner, private, individual meaning (Linder 1978:1).
These deficits, however, have been recorded mostly in clinical
settings where retarded persons, like disadvantaged persons in
general, tend to be reticent.
In fact, a closer analysis of those same clinical data demon-

Documents of Interaction

states that retarded persons can manage their deficits in quiet but
efficient ways. They have, for example, a sense of timing in nar-
rative structure, revealing crucial information after building
carefully to a climax. They also know how to vary their response
to the same question, depending on the setting-the more clini-
cal the setting, the more correct or deferential the answer (Linder
1978:13-15). Linder suspects that retarded speech is not so
much "flawed" as it is "stigmatized." Clinicians expect it to be
deficient, so they hear deficiencies, ignoring the adaptive capa-
bilities in the use of speech as a medium of communication be-
neath the surface errors of grammar or word usage.
Kernan and Sabsay (1985:1) point out that studies of the lan-
guage competence of retarded subjects have focused on sen-
tence-construction capabilities. These form only a small part of
overall communicative competence, which also includes recog-
nizing the linguistic rules and conventions that apply to conver-
sation in a given community. Retarded speakers do, in fact,
exhibit deficiencies in this regard, but their major problems
involve the organizing of thoughts-relating, for example, the
ideas of one sentence in a logical fashion to those in the next.
This problem is not, of course, restricted to retarded people. For
the rest, retarded speakers' sentences may be "grammatically ill
formed" but usually are not unintelligible. Lexical selection may
be idiosyncratic, but again not to the point of indecipherability
(unless the subject is also psychotic). In longer narratives, re-
tarded people tend to make numerous false starts- introductions
of thoughts that are quickly abandoned. Like the other errors,
this fault can also be found in the speech of nonretarded subjects,
although retarded persons may exhibit it with greater frequency
or may exhibit all these faults at the same time (Kernan and
Sabsay 1985:35).
A longer narrative, such as one collected from one of the au-
thor's own informants, is generally said to consist of an abstract
("I'm going to tell you about when I was a kid"), an orientation
("We used to live in Miami when I was a little kid"), some
complicating action ("But then my mom and dad split up and we
had to move to my grandma's"), an evaluation ("I didn't like my

6 / Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized Retarded Adults 85

grandma-she hit me a lot"), a resolution ("So I was always run-
ning away until I got sent to Opportunity House"), and a coda
("And that's where I been living since I was eighteen"). Retarded
people sometimes scramble their logical narrative sequence, but
they rarely omit key elements. In comparison with the narratives
of speakers of normal intelligence, they overstress the evaluation
section, dwelling on interior feelings more than on orienting
details. One of my informants, in telling about a foster home
where he used to live, kept repeating how bad it was, how he was
always getting hurt. He spoke with such vehemence and concen-
tration that I assumed at first that his foster parents beat him
regularly. It turned out that the parents were very nice, but they
had a large boxer dog that used to run up to him and knock him
In addition to problems related to linguistic production, the
life history approach is problematic when used with retarded
subjects because of their short attention spans. There might also
be a problem in that the lives of these people have often been so
unhappy that they are reluctant to retell sad events, and the
researcher is reluctant to coax them to do so.
Despite these technical problems, the collection of life
histories is still a promising method of finding out about the
interior lives of people heretofore believed not to have any. As
Edgerton (1984:2) explains:

It is the consensus of [the] literature [about deinstitutionalized
mentally retarded persons] that if we are to improve our under-
standing of the community adaptation of retarded persons, we
must study their lives holistically, where they occur rather than
in laboratories, and we must listen to these persons as they
express their own views of their lives.

My OH informants are not typical of retarded adults in gen-
eral. If, however, a data-collection technique can be used suc-
cessfully with subjects having so many confounding barriers to
easy communication, then that technique may be said to have in-
dicated its value.

Documents of Interaction

To date, I have collected life history materials from twenty of
the OH clients-all men, ranging in age from twenty-two to
forty-four years. Of these, ten may be said to be essentially com-
pleted records as far as the objective details of life events may be
concerned. These numbers reflect, to some degree, the fact that
the life history collection has been a personal effort squeezed
into a larger, cooperative research effort that has had other aims.
They also, more importantly, reflect the slow pace of collection
that is caused by barriers discussed above. Another factor con-
tributing to delay has been the equipment used. My informants
seem comfortable with my use of a tape recorder, and so I have
taped all the interviews. Because many of the individuals have
some speech impediments, it has been difficult to find people
who are both sufficiently skilled at transcribing from tape and
able to understand the subjects' speech. I have therefore had to
do much of the transcription myself, a time-consuming task. At
any rate, because of the small number of cases, I must disavow
any claims to representativeness of my informant population, al-
though I believe that the qualitative data generated by the inter-
views at least suggest of further research directions.
In my research I have encountered most of the technical
barriers discussed in the literature. My most serious problem,
however, was not that my informants had a short attention span
and wandered off the subject but rather that they were so
flattered that someone actually seemed interested in them as per-
sons that they attacked the task with tenacity. Most of them
exhausted my limited allotted time-and, in some cases, my
patience-long before I exhausted theirs. I had minimal diffi-
culty with substandard linguistic production; my informants' dis-
courses are not elegantly shaped, but they are not gibberish. On
the literary level, their simple directness is sometimes surpris-
ingly affecting.
In collecting life histories from informants of normal intelli-
gence, I have tried to be as nondirective as possible and have not
insisted on any particular order of topics or themes to be dealt
with. In my work with retarded subjects, I began by being very
directive indeed. With my first few informants, in fact, I found

6 / Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized Retarded Adults 87

myself virtually walking them through a year-by-year account of
their lives and using numerous prompts ("And what happened
next?" "And how did you feel about that?") at the slightest
pause. This overbearing style of interviewing was not congenial
to me, and it gradually became clear that it was not even neces-
sary. As word of my interests spread among the clients at OH,
there was some excitement about who would be chosen next. By
the time the turn of some of the most eager clients came around,
they knew so thoroughly from their friends what I was after that
they brushed aside my prompts with knowing smiles. One sub-
ject liked to pepper his story with dramatic pauses; the first time
he did so, he was obviously expecting me to jump in, so he put
his hand over the tape recorder and whispered, "It's OK, I know
what I'm doing." He repeated this caution whenever he felt he
needed to depart from a strictly chronological narrative in order
to make a point. Although this individual is exceptionally "high
functioning" and had a keen grasp of how he wanted to put his
story together, his confidence loosened me up as well, and I be-
came progressively more willing to allow other, less clever infor-
mants to tell their stories in their own way, in their own good
time. More recently, I have tried to go back to some of the first
informants and let them retell their stories, if they wanted to do
so, without my coercive instructions. In these cases, I found little
variation in objective data but much richer elaboration of
feelings, attitudes, and opinions-the subjects not only expressed
emotions but tried to explain why they felt as they did.
This change may also have been due to a greater familiarity
with me as an interviewer. At the beginning, I now suspect, I
was probably regarded with some suspicion. Although not a
doctor, psychologist, social worker, or house parent, I was still
clearly an outsider with some sort of prestige and so was treated
with deference. As in many cases where informants perceive a
status gap between themselves and a researcher, responses
tended to be politely evasive and emotively noncommital. I
suspect, too, that some of the early informants thought I could be
used to help them "score points" with the authorities, so I was
the recipient of a fair amount of manipulative soft-soaping.

Documents of Interaction

However, I have engaged in a modified version of participant
observation at OH for five years, and although many of the
clients still do not know exactly what I'm doing, I have become
a familiar figure. Some have chosen to treat me as a confidant or
a go-between to staff; others have sought me out for advice on
everything from how to set a wristwatch to how to ask a girl for
a date. Even those who do not think of me as a friend in those
terms, though, at least have come to the conclusion that I'm
harmless, which, given the lives they have led, is a bigger
achievement that it may sound. As a result, the interviews have
grown more richly, openly subjective through natural processes
and probably would have done so even without the conscious
change in elicitation technique.
Although I was still unsure of my approach, I worked closely
with the staff psychologist to select informants who were
reasonably emotionally stable as well as reasonably articulate.
Such stability is often only a brittle facade. One young man
seemed very cool and self-confident; he began the interview by
insisting that, unlike the "other bozos," he'd had a happy life. He
blithely shrugged off the circumstances that led him to jail as
"just kid stuff," but his mood darkened when he talked about the
few days he was forced to spend in jail before his sentence was
suspended and he was sent to OH. He blurted out that he had
been raped by his cell mate. He cried bitterly and demanded to
know whether God would still punish him even though it wasn't
his fault.
It was one of those moments all fieldworkers must surely
have when they decide that they'd be happier doing library
research exclusively from now on. But, although I ended the in-
terview for that day, I didn't abandon my informant, and we
spent a long time talking through his problem with the recorder
turned off. I am no therapist and avoided giving him "guidance."
I simply tried to present a reassuring presence by admitting in all
honesty that I was nervous and didn't have all the answers to his
problems but that I wanted him to know that I'd be willing to
listen to anything he wanted to say. He sobbed and ranted at
length, pacing the room in agitation, but kept coming back to

6 / Life Histories of Deinstitutionalized Retarded Adults 89

take my hand for reassurance.
Afterward, the psychologist marveled at my foolishness,
chuckling that the last time a staff member had brought up this
topic with the client, the latter had tried to strangle him. Sup-
pressing a desire to strangle the psychologist, I decided that there
would be no further point in trying to play it safe. All of us have
the capacity for exploding if the wrong nerve is touched, and I
would never really learn much about what life is like for these
people if I personally kept myself aloof from the possibility that
I might see the uglier side of their world and of their own per-
As it happens, OH works on a behavior-modification system,
and all activities must fit into an individually designed treatment
program. Being interviewed by me was defined by staff as an
extracurricular activity for which the clients had to earn token
points by acceptable behavior. My ability to choose the infor-
mants I wanted was therefore limited by the system, so I grad-
ually learned to take whoever was available.
In following a generally interactionist line of analysis, it
might be said that whenever people enter the presence of others
(that is, any social situation), they are faced with a problem of in-
formation control. They cannot reveal everything, for some im-
portant part of their selves must be, in a sense, their most
cherished secret. To reveal everything is to become hollow and
to lose control of oneself. Persons who fall outside the range of
the normal (whether in appearance or behavior) obviously have
more to hide than anyone else. Yet their handicap means that the
audience has greater power over them than it does over individ-
uals who are more acceptable. People who are stigmatized
therefore are in the difficult position of having to surrender more
and more of themselves to others in a better position to control
the drama and yet of being forced to deny that which makes
them special because it is the very thing that forces them into the
controlling grasp of others.
Stigmatized people cannot avoid conceptualizing their self-
hood in terms of the stigma by which they are labeled by their
audience. At the same time, that stigmatization makes them unfit

Documents of Interaction

to be part of the audience for others. They are perceived to have
no control, so normal people do not need to engage in role
playing with them. As a result, a crucial element in the process
of identity formation is blocked. In Erving Goffman's theatrical
terminology, they are like actors who are the subjects of constant
criticism but who are never accorded the opportunity to contri-
bute to the setting of the rules by which the drama is criticized.
Goffman's position can be interpreted to mean that the only
source of identification left open to stigmatized people is their
sense of shared guilt (Bock 1980:200). They are usually condi-
tioned to feel that in some way they deserve their stigma. My
female retarded informants, for example, frequently mention that
they were the products of difficult pregnancies and that they
"turned out wrong" in punishment for the pain they caused their
mothers. They tend to think of others like themselves, therefore,
as bad people. Everybody likes to associate with one's own kind,
but not when such persons are considered to be bad.
My informants, for example, often prefer to have children as
friends because they feel comfortable with companions who
aren't too intellectually demanding. Of course, such associations
have often gotten them into trouble, when their attentions are
misinterpreted as evidence of proclivities toward child molesta-
tion. The potential source of support that is to be found in the in-
group is thus denied to retarded persons. They will probably
never organize themselves on a principle analogous to "Black is
beautiful"-the old stigma turned into a new source of pride. On
the evidence of my informants' discourses, "dumb" is not
thought of as beautiful-the popular/inspirational literature ex-
tolling the childlike innocence of the retarded notwithstanding.
As one client put it, "I'd rather have all my hands and legs cut
off and have to stay in a wheelchair. It'd be better than being a
dummy the rest of my life."
According to Goffman, individuals must first be aware of so-
ciety's disdain in order for them to feel the sting of stigmatiza-
tion. My evidence suggests that retarded persons are aware of the
criticism of their "audience," although probably that audience
would prefer to believe that the retarded don't notice or don't