History Lessons and the Realization of Self
“Through history telling, in the words we begin using, the child integrates experience, consolidates memory, and develops a consciousness of self, even if that self in some respects is always a fiction. Like language, the self struggles to prove its truth, marching toward a point forever disappearing in the distance” (Crais 117).
The idea of self has great implications in literature, but it is particularly pronounced in memoir-writing. The two stories we have explored thus far have explored the self in depth. Both Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted) and Crais (History Lessons) struggle with identity and in similar and contrasting ways. Both of their self-ideologies circle around a mental disorder: for Kaysen, a borderline personality disorder diagnosis; for Crais, childhood amnesia.
Much of Kaysen’s self-development was dependent on how external actors perceived her. The BPD label that was applied to her throughout her time of mental distress affected how she was treated by everyone. It affected the way her family members viewed her, how doctors considered her, how other patients saw her, how she was medicated, etc. Even though she later disputes the legitimacy of this diagnosis, Kaysen’s expansion of self, which depends greatly on her interpersonal relationships with others (doctors, patients, family, men, etc.), is strongly affected by the diagnosis due to a phenomenon called the self-fulfilling prophecy. To explain in short, the self-fulfilling prophecy is a circle of interactions that begins when a perceiver has expectations of the perceived (due to a piece of information, either from a first-impression interaction with the perceived, or in Kaysen’s case, the label: a borderline personality). Because the perceiver has these expectations, his behavior towards the perceived is affected, which subsequently influences the perceived’s responding behaviors. The perceived’s affected behavior often ends up confirming the perceiver’s initial assumption of the perceived. Kaysen’s label, borderline personality disorder, affected her interactions omnipotently, and each of her behaviors became confirming evidence of her borderline personality within the walls of McLean.
Though he struggles through a disordered mind as well, Crais has a contrastingly internal experience of self-development (though I do not claim that Kaysen’s self-development was entirely external; much of hers was internal as well). The quote presented above discusses the use of memory as a method of self-development. This is intriguing because, as has been discussed in class, memory is not an entirely reliable source of information. Yet, it is one of the primary constructs within which we become ourselves, as Crais might put it. As Crais becomes more and more self-aware with age, his own idea of identity becomes dependent on this lapse of memory, and he becomes desperate to find himself. However, the irony of Crais’s self-development process is that while he seems to feel that part of his essence is missing, captured within the empty spaces of his memory, he became who he is today (a husband, a historian, a father, a successful professor) because of the untraditional aspects of his growth. In exploring his past, he is not becoming acquainted with himself, but rather opening up an opportunity to explore a parallel life: with this new information, Crais can imagine how he may have developed had he been vividly aware of his traumatic past.
The differences between the two journeys of self-development demonstrate the mind’s complexity. We are affected heavily by both external and internal perceptions of self. Labels others project onto us force us to participate in a self-fulfilling prophecy: we respond (often in confirming ways) to others’ expectations. Our internal memories affect our self-concept as well, our experiences constantly shaping our behaviors, our understandings, and our relationships. Does your self depend on an external diagnosis? How important to your self are repressed memories? Our self-concepts incessantly change in response to external and internal stimuli, and both Kaysen and Crais, having experienced challenges of the mind to an extreme, provide thought-provoking examples of what it means to be one’s self.
Crais, Clifton. History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain. New York: The Overlook Press. 2014. Print.