Several other experiences probably formed my interest in a type of research that ultimately would strike me as intellectually and emotionally congenial. First, essentially because of my mother’s rare verbal gifts and theatrical temperament, I grew to love listening to people recount stories, especially her. Almost nothing fascinated me as much as listening to guests sit on my mother’s couch and relate all that had happened to them since their last visit to our Chicago home. Granted, many of these people were rather prominent in their respective fields so their stories contained more than intriguing tidbits. Still, whatever their status, when the great story tellers arrived, I found myself sitting in my special chair prepared to listen for hours.

I am certain that these stories resonated with me as well because I was always read to as a child, and although I have only the barest recollection of my mother reading to me–I have no recollections of my father ever engaging in this nightly ritual–I can only guess how marvelous her renditions must have been, for nothing for her was ever life sized; everything had to be dramatic and exciting. So between the books and the great readers and narrators, my very conception of the world was formed by stories, and their authors. In fact, stories and story tellers became in my mind inseparable; they were the foundation of culture. Now, although the themes of these stories might involve most any human action that could be shared with others while a child was present and obviously interested in the proceedings, two themes emerged as especially salient. Not surprising, they most likely evoked feelings I barely could articulate as a child. The first was sadness. Granted, not many stories told in our family’s living room were dominated by this emotion, but there were some. I did hear stories of illness and death–that my father was a physician meant that such stories would be recounted from time to time. Moreover, given my parents’ interest in psychoanalysis, a great many people spoke of emotional matters as they came to be played out in the lives of individuals as well as families. As I say, for one reason or another, these certain stories seemed to stay with me, or at least the tone of them did. The second theme was that of justice. Naturally, as a boy I doubt if I even knew the word, but I surely recognized when things inside and outside my family seemed unfair, particularly if they involved me. My capacity to reason moral matters was probably developing more or less on time, just as Jean Piaget described, but for some reason I kept an eye out for the way the world treated people and gradually found myself feeling a conflation of sadness and anger when I felt that someone had not been treated as I thought they should have been.

One thing more seemed to be forming in those childhood days now so long past they seem trapped behind a veil: It was the matter of people judging me, speaking for me, attempting to express my feelings, sentiments, ideas. I remember experiences when this happened, when people assumed they knew what I must have been thinking, or how, presumably, I perceived some event or experience. I hated it, even when they were absolutely right on target. I would have denied anything had I not been the authentic author of it. “Don’t tell me I want more apple pie. If I want more apple pie I’ll tell you!” Decades later, as I look back over research notes, transcriptions with people, young and old, and reread the pieces that appear in this volume, some of which, actually, I haven’t examined in years, I tend to see, and hear, some of these same themes, now a trifle more sophisticated in their forms. I see, and hear, my childhood concerns and passions in the words of other people, in the stories that I have collected, or more precisely, been attracted to, and the ways these other people have encouraged me to perceive the world. Said differently, whatever any child’s or adult’s reading of or take on the world may be, how they perceive and experience truth and then describe this perception or experience, I at least try to honor the notion that their narrative (my childhood narrative) is as valid as anyone else’s. Their slant, their data, in other words, no matter how significant or insignificant the world may judge them, or whatever criteria anyone employs to render these judgments and opinions, are as valid as the slant of the powerful figures who tend to construct the myriad definitions of the society in which we all find our selves.

So there it is, I tell myself, as best as I can construct it, the psychological foundation for my work in life studies, individual portraits of people in which I encourage them to tell the stories constituting their best rendering, at least at this point in time, of their internal dramas, their being in the world. Accordingly, I have been struck by researchers who suggest that for all we know, we are little more than the stories we tell. I am struck too, by Elie Wiesel’s notion that we are, perhaps, little more than our memories, many of which, this wise teller of stories suggests, are rather sad. I am struck by the theory undergirding that branch of philosophy known as phenomenology, what psychologists call “perceptual reality,” just as I am by the description of portraiture proffered by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffmann Davis. And finally, I am attracted to Robert Kegan’s notion that a fundamental purpose, really a defining enterprise of human beings is that we constantly attempt to make meaning of
just about every event that captures any one of our senses.