Life stories
Life stories

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Life stories

1.3 Your past experiences

Telling about your past experience, autobiography, is not just a question of ensuring that the record of the past is complete and representative. What also seems to be important is a need to tell. Giddens discusses the way in which self-identity is sustained through the constant retelling of biographical stories, drawing in new experiences, relating to other people and says that these are resources, helpful because: ‘a sense of self-identity is often securely enough held to weather major tensions or transitions in the social environments within which the person moves’ (Giddens, 1991, p. 55).

The playwright Dennis Potter was someone for whom a personal sense of the past was clearly important. Though he used popular songs to evoke memories in his TV plays ‘Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, he resisted the idea that this might be simply nostalgia:

… your own culture, your own language, your own communality which you shared with your forebears – is actually shaping the future, too. It's people without a sense of the past who are alienated and rootless, and they're losers; they lose out.

To make any political statement you first of all have to know who and what you are; what shaped your life, what is possible and what isn't. That's not nostalgia. That's a kind of grappling with the past – an ache for it, perhaps sometimes a contempt for it. But the past commingles with everything you do and everything you project forward.

(Quoted in Fuller, 1993, p. 23)

Dennis Potter is suggesting that people fashion identities from those bits of their past which enable them to cope with changes in society and the uncertainties and complexities they have to cope with on a daily basis. He makes a link between the past and the present. We use our memories of what was to tell ourselves the story of who we are now. Psychologists see this telling and narrating as beginning very early in life, often before children acquire proper speech. In this way our memories about ourselves come about through interactions with others, usually our parents. Here's an example where Paul (4 years 3 months) and Rebecca (5 years 10 months) are looking at photographs with their mother:

Mother: Do you remember being on this beach?

Paul: yuk, no.

Mother: don't you, when we went to Jersey, on the aeroplane, do you not remember that?

Paul: is that Jersey?

Mother: mm, look Rebecca's wearing a hat that says Jersey on it

Paul: look, what is that?

Mother: […] probably a book – we were going to go on that boat or a trip down the river and we took one or two books to keep you two occupied.

(Middleton and Edwards, 1990, p. 40)

Figure 3
Figure 3 Sharing memories

Paul's mother not only prompted him and helped him to recall events, she also showed him how to remember, by pointing out clues like his sister's hat and the book. It is in such ways that remembering becomes very much part of our inner lives, helping us to build up meaningful accounts of who we are. Psychologists interested in reminiscence point out the important role which such interactions play in developing a sense of the self in relation to others in children beginning well before the age of two (Fivush and Reese, 2002).

The importance of protecting memory is something which is emphasised in what are called Preparation Groups, where carers learn about the many different aspects of fostering and adoption. One activity invites them to ‘randomly list’ their own memories of childhood, both good and bad. The group facilitator writes these onto a flip chart and when there are plenty of ‘memories’ the list is torn in two. This dramatic action is meant as a reminder that this is what can happen to children's memories if they are not ‘held’ and protected by their carers. The group then goes on to discuss how carers can help children to hold and develop their memories.

Establishing an identity by remembering events from the past can be an important way of building links and establishing what is shared and common in groups of people as well as among people whose life experience may have been quite isolating or distant from what are seen as ‘normal’ life events. Atkinson found in her work with a group of older men and women with learning difficulties that by telling their experiences of hospital life they were able to identify shared memories and spark off forgotten ones. The group was going through the experience of leaving hospital and moving into the community. It was particularly important for them to be able to individualise their past experience because they were people who had been living institutionalised lives; it was also important for them to build up an account of hospital life which they could cope with and not continue to feel oppressed by. She includes an example from Godfrey and Marjorie who happened to be in the same hospital at the same time:

Marjorie: After 20 years we changed over, and it was Sister ‘Smith’

Godfrey: Was she on the children's ward?

Marjorie: She was on F2. And then we had ‘Moffat’. She was on Fl. She died in the end

Godfrey: She was a wicked old devil, she was! No wonder she died!

Marjorie: Old devil?

Godfrey: Yes!

Marjorie: You're telling me! And Smith!

(Atkinson, 1997, p. 65)

Not only were Godfrey and Marjorie and the other members of this group able to talk about their own individual experiences but through sharing their memories they also began to develop a particular group experience of hospital life. Sharing memories of long-term hospitalisation was painful for this group but they found that they could share some humorous memories of those times as well.

Activity 2 Different memories and shared memories

0 hours 10 minutes

Look back through some of the quotes and images included so far in this course. Do any of the accounts remind you of things that have happened in your own life? They may have been pleasant or painful memories. Perhaps things came back that you thought you had forgotten. Perhaps certain words triggered off particular memories to do with holidays, first experiences of training in a hospital, or perhaps it was an association with a television programme or particular piece of advertising. Jot down some key words for yourself as a reminder and add any particular things you associate with them. These might be places, people or things about yourself.


Holidays: I looked back and remembered a holiday in North Berwick when I was eight – my mother and I stayed at a hotel where we got to know lots of strangers. Car journeys: being sick in the back of my uncle's new car – I think it was the combination of the smell of the leatherette seats and the matches he kept striking to light his pipe.

One of our course testers found this activity ‘… almost amusing! I was amazed at what I remembered. Falling in a bed of nettles, school dinners complete with a caterpillar, living with my grandma … and much more.’

We've seen that talking about the past and listening to accounts of personal experience has become a popular and well documented activity. But why are stories and memories from people's pasts important for work in health and social care? Drawing on what you've just read there are a number of key points to be made.

Key points

  • Giving attention to memories means sharing and recognising aspects of each other's lives and perhaps acknowledging and understanding differences in experience.

  • Memories help to make public accounts which enlighten and serve to raise awareness of hidden or stigmatised experience. Henry Mayhew was something of a pioneer in that respect.

  • Encouraging people to talk about the past can be a way of helping them to manage change in their lives and establish identity in the present.

In the rest of this course we go on to look at some of these issues in more detail and to consider some explanations about the development and expression of identity at different life stages. Drawing on examples from childhood, the middle years of life and old age we look at examples of how talk about the past can help in the development of supportive strategies and lead to sensitive and appropriate practice with individual people. We begin with an example of life story work with a young person who has experienced fostering and residential childcare.


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