Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct

By Theodore R. Sarbin | Go to book overview

competence of the treating analysts (see Spence, 1982) and their reasons for hearing the material in just the way they do.

A faithful account of the listening process and a full description of the context of discovery will very likely have the appearance of a disconnected series of insights, strung together by time. Surprise, bewilderment, and faint glimmers of understanding probably all circle one another during the average hour in much the same way that they appear during a dream state, and here we come to the greatest danger of narrative smoothing. The seamless account of the clinical detective cannot do justice to the way in which the patient's responses are first vaguely apprehended, then recombined with remembered fragments of earlier sessions or with pieces of theory to arrive at some partial understanding which often proves completely wrong and misdirected. An honest account must document these failures and begin to tell us when an hour ended in complete dismay, when an interpretation was misunderstood and intensified the resistance, and when -- because this also happens -- associations were properly decoded and the simple meaning of a dream or symptom stood out clearly for the first time. Current narrative accounts tend to focus only on successes and misrepresent the number of false hypotheses which must be discarded or the number of times the treating analyst was just plain wrong. No wonder that Gray warns us of narcissistic injury.

We begin to appreciate how narrative smoothing -- particularly Level II -- can be compared to secondary revision during dreaming. Such revision has the aim of processing the chaotic dream as experienced and turning it into something more followable and which conforms more closely to the narrative shapes we like to hear. A similar process seems to overtake our clinical experience and make it more palatable for outside consumption. But the stereotype has dulled our appreciation of the excitement, wonder, and surprise contained in the actual event, and the stereotype will teach us nothing worth knowing. The true discoveries lie ahead.


REFERENCES

Barratt B. ( 1977). Freud psychology as interpretation. In T. Shapiro (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science (Vol. 5). New York: International Universities Press.

Brooks P. ( 1984). Reading for the plot. New York: Knopf.

Bruner J. ( 1984). Narrative and paradigmatic modes of thought. Invited address to the American Psychological Association, Toronto.

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