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When studying the life stories of older adults, researchers typically pursue the singular questions of their disciplines. For example, "What is the self, and how does it age?" is the concern of the life span psychologist; "What is the experience of aging in society?" is the question of the sociologist interested in gerontology; and "What is the meaning of age, and how it it represented in texts?" is the issue taken up by scholars in English studies. "How is gender represented in texts by and about older people?" is the question of particular interest to the feminist scholar in English studies, and it is the question I address in this article.
These disciplinary questions also represent different orientations to the study of autobiography or life story. (I use the terms interchangeably here.) Psychologists have traditionally focused on the self ("auto"); sociologists, anthropologists, and social workers on the life ("bio"); and English scholars on the written text ("graphe"). There are crossovers, of course. Narrative psychology, as practiced by Kenneth Gergen (1985, 1991) and Jerome Bruner (1990), brings discursive and narrative patterns to analysis of the self. Postmodern theorists in sociology and anthropology (Berger and Luckman 1966; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Geertz 1985) integrate the study of culture with the study of cultural representation through writing-hence the title of Clifford and Marcus' influential book Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986) and the feminist critique and extension of that work by anthropologists Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, Women Writing Culture (1995). Scholars in English studies, too, have brought questions about the nature of the self and the influences of culture to bear on their interpretations of written texts. Still, it is generally true that most research on the autobiographical writings or life stories of older people focuses primarily on the self, the life, or the writing. My purpose in this article is to encourage a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of life story and to illustrate to gerontologists more familiar with the study of "auto" or "bio" what might also be gained from a study of "graphe." And beyond that, I offer a particular interpretive strategy, namely feminist criticism, as one means of examining how writing or discourse mediates the relationships between self and lived experience.
For the scholar in English studies, there is nothing simple or self-evident about autobiography. It represents a complex interplay of language, memory, culture, and the conventions of storytelling. Autobiography is, above all, not experience written down, but a discourse on original experience. Literary critic Sidonie Smith (1987) describes the autobiographical text as:
an interpretation of earlier experience that can never be divorced from
the filterings of subsequent experience or articulated outside the
structures of language and storytelling. As a result, autobiography becomes
both the process and product of assigning meaning to a series of experiences,
after they have taken place, by means of emphasis, juxtaposition,
commentary, omission. The play of seeking, choosing, discarding words and
stories that suggest, but never recapture the past is ... an interpretation
of life that invests the past and the `self' with coherence and meaning that
may not have been evident before the act of writing itself (pp. 45-46).
This definition makes a clear distinction between a writing self and a textual self, between the "I" that fashions the life story and the "I's" that are characters in the story. It also highlights the constructedness of life stories. In the words of critic Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1988), the writer of autobiography "does not simply `tell it like it is,' does not write directly out of experience. The discourses through which she works-and presumably expects to be read--shape her presentation of experience even as her specific experience shapes the ways in which she locates herself in discourses" (p. 64). Further, these discourses are deeply embedded in the dominant models of gender relations. "How to be a woman is defined in terms of how to be a man and the reverse. Neither masculinity nor feminity exists as an absolute" (p. 73). Hence, autobiography is "more like a screen than a window" (p. 79), a filter through which the reader sees only one version of the writer's self and the experiences which she chooses to make public at the time of telling.
What are the various filters through which a woman's life story are written and read? What are the cultural expectations for a woman's writing about the self? Feminist literary critics, especially, can help us here, having analyzed five centuries of women's life stories, beginning with the first woman's autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kemp (1436). We have learned that women's autobiography, particularly that of white middle and upper-middle class Western women, demonstrates what Smith (1993) calls the "cult of true womanhood" as defined by a patriarchal culture: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. While traditional white male autobiography is characterized by self-absorption, self-assertion, self-promotion, and public expression, women's autobiography is characterized by self-effacement, responsiveness to others, an identity established in …