Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

When Mary Went through the Hole: Constructing and Contesting Individual and Family Identity through Narrative

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

When Mary Went through the Hole: Constructing and Contesting Individual and Family Identity through Narrative

Article excerpt

THE TIME SHE FELL THROUGH A SECOND-FLOOR HEATING VENT as a young child is a story Mary has told many times. As what Sandra Stahl (now Dolby) refers to as a "stable repeated narrative" ([1989] 2008:223), it is not only part of her own narrative repertoire-or "inner library," to use Arthur Frank's term (2010:54)-but of her family's as well. Although the incident on which the story is based now took place more than 80 years ago, Mary still tells it at least once or twice a year to her brother Bill, a participant in the incident, as well as to younger members of the family who might be present. But Bill remembers things differently, and he repeatedly challenges Mary's account. What do these different narrative constructions of a single childhood incident, remembered and crafted by two narrators, reveal about the tellers' sense of themselves, their family, and their location in the family? In sharing their stories, how do the siblings express larger cultural paradigms? As Qi Wang and Martin A. Conway write, "the constructive process of remembering takes place in the context of culture such that the functions autobiographical memory serves need to be congruent with the culture's goals, values, and belief systems" (2004:912). More generally, how do stories told within families convey individual, social, and cultural meanings for the narrators' past and present selves and for their family?

Personal narratives, told quickly, and often incompletely, have been recognized as an important form of oral narrative by folklorists since the 1970s, even if they were initially overlooked in favor of larger, more fully developed, and publicly staged genres like the folktale. Stahl, among the first to draw attention to the personal narrative, defines it as a story told by a narrator about his or her own experience, implied as true, and having a dramatic narrative structure ([1989] 2008:18). Although Stahl contends that personal narratives serve primarily to maintain the stability of individual personality and express personal values ([1989] 2008:27), they are also the building blocks of family identity. Like individuals, families are created through small stories in ordinary interaction (see Bamberg 2012:102). Personal narratives based on episodic childhood memories, especially the ones that family members share repeatedly with each other, represent a foundation of family folklore.

These seemingly simple stories can articulate family dynamics and culture in multivalent ways. As Michael Bamberg notes, a narrative can have many meanings for a teller: "Above its very referential and informative function, [a story] may entertain, be a piece of moral advice, extend an offer to become more intimate, seek audience alignment for the purpose of joint revenge, and serve as a claim as to 'who I really am'-and all at the same time" (1997:341-2). Further complexities emerge over time and as family members construct their own, sometimes divergent, interpretations of a familiar story. In their introductory text, Living Folklore, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens identify a repertoire of stories that reinforces family members' memories and connections to each other as an essential component of family life and identity; narratives can both communicate a shared past and articulate values and beliefs. However, the authors also point to how a story's meanings can change. Not only can a narrative be altered over time so that it takes on new meanings that augment and/or replace the original meaning, but it can communicate different messages to a listener depending on the teller, the version of the story, and the context in which it is told (Sims and Stephens 2011:46-7).

In light of such diachronic and synchronic fluidity, Bamberg's emphasis on narrative positioning represents an important potential direction of analysis. Bamberg encourages narrative analysts to consider the ways that narrators position themselves in relation to one another, arguing that in doing so, they "'produce' one another (and themselves) situationally as 'social beings'" (1997:336). …

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