Life stories
Life stories

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Life stories

1.2 Where can you find life stories?

Life stories are everywhere. In adverts, magazines, music, sport, politics, chat shows, the messages we get are personalised through interviews and stories which tell us about quite intimate details of people's lives, feelings, emotions and even what feel like secrets. Autobiography and personal accounts have also become increasingly common means of revealing different versions of the past, with television and radio programmes focusing on ‘ordinary’ life events or the stories of ‘ordinary’ people. The better-known entertain with personal histories in ‘Desert Island Discs’, ‘In the Psychiatrist's Chair’ and ‘This is Your Life’. Family historians draw on the stories people tell about their relatives to research their family trees. Publishers record greater-than-ever sales for biographies and autobiographies. And it seems that the demand for opportunities to talk about oneself has never been higher. Counselling activities now account for a large part of the job market. It has been estimated that ‘over 2.5 million use counselling as a major part of their job’. (Persaud, 1993, pp. 8–9)

Biography and autobiography go back a long way. But it seems that it was in the nineteenth century that interest really took off. For example, life stories as examples of achievement were very popular. The most famous of these was Samuel Smiles’ classic study Self Help, first published in 1859, which included examples of famous businessmen, artists and scientists. Other nineteenth century writers celebrated their religious conversion, while others again, as working men, wrote accounts of their lives for the entertainment of better-off sections of society (Thompson, 1988, pp. 34–35). In 1831, Mary Prince, a runaway ex-slave living in England, published her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince (Ferguson, 1993). It became a bestseller and a major contribution to the campaign to abolish the slavery of black people. Other nineteenth century reformers drew directly on the experiences of poor people to shock their audiences into action. The journalist Henry Mayhew interviewed child workers in London streets around 1850. One of his most poignant accounts came from an eight-year-old girl working as a watercress seller who told him:

On and off, I've been very near a twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. No, it wasn't heavy – it was only twelve months old; but I minded it for ever such a time – till it could walk. It was a very nice little baby, not a very pretty one; but if I touched it under the chin, it would laugh. Before I had the baby, I used to help mother, who was in the fur trade; and if there was any slits in the fur, I'd sew them up. My mother learned me to needlework and to knit when I was about five…

(Quoted in Davin, 1996, p. 158)

Figure 2
Figure 2 Original illustration from Henry Mayhem's London Labour and the London Poor, 1861–2

More recently, disabled people have used their own personal histories to develop a collective awareness of themselves as a group sharing the same struggles against a disabling society. Barbara Lisicki remembers:

I wasn't a stranger to impairments because it had been born into my family, both my father and brother had impairments. Actually, my consciousness was from a very early age of really having to fight other people's voyeurism and curiosity. Me and my other brother used to pile in the noddy car with Andrew and we used to drive around. But when people used to stare at us when we went out together I used to say ‘What do you think you are staring at?’ Even as a kid I was on one level challenging people's behaviour towards disabled people even though I wasn't a disabled person at that time.

(Quoted in Campbell and Oliver, 1996, p. 36)


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