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We in America tend to an orderly progression through life that includes emphasis on self-realization, individualism and its relation to the society around us. We want to lead predictable lives of: go to school, choose a career, get married, have children, send them off to school, enjoy the retirement years and grandchildren, then die. What happens if unexpected events disrupt it? Becker contends that "Continuity is an illusion. Disruption to life is a constant in human experience." What does it mean to be "normal?" What does it mean to have a "disrupted life?" It all depends on what your expectations were to begin with.
Becker's goal in this book is to "examine the process by which people attempt to create continuity after an unexpected disruption to life." Cultural norms color the ways in which we do this involving such traits as gender, race, ethnicity and age and the choice of religion. Even when a disruption in our lives does not surprise us, we think of it as an abnormality; something has gone wrong. Most of the time, when this happens, we try eventually to make sense of it within the framework of meaning that we have acquired at that point. We seem to crave continuity. Anything that belies that is suspect.
This book is a result of several studies that entailed some type of change in an individual's wished-for life, e.g., infertility, illness or disability, career changes, or difficult family events. The studies involved individuals of middle age and older, both genders, as well as ethnic and racial minorities. Most of the examples she uses, however, focus on the issues of infertility and chronic disability--disruptions that cause you to question assumptions about your values, your body and how it works. The emphasis is on how people interpreted their unexpected situation rather than a biomedical analysis.
The process of integrating the disruption into our lives in a meaningful way is difficult, so Becker is particularly interested in how these people express this process. She sees the stories as "dialogues with culture and its constructs." Her examination relies quite heavily on hermeneutical theory, especially the metaphors that people use to try to describe how they feel. "Metaphor thus represents an intrinsic synthesis of interpretation and creation, in which previous interpretations yield to new, more complete ones." It is helpful in understanding her argument if the reader has at least some passing knowledge of postmodern hermeneutics, but it is not absolutely necessary.
Some of the most evocative examples she uses are the men and women from the infertility study. They have discovered that their bodies don't work like they expect them to. "The body becomes an unknown terrain that must be relearned; flawed and distorted." Cultural attitudes about childbearing and its relation to manhood and womanhood are reexamined through a new and uncomfortable lens.
Becker suggests several stages of coping for people who have had these life-changing events that are similar to those proffered by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross for dying. The first is a period of liminality: people are in shock and limbo when the event first occurs. At some point, they move to anger, often with "Why is this happening to me?" leading to frustration at what to do. Many get stuck at this point. Coping successfully with the disruption requires hope that they can integrate the situation into their daily life and Weltanschauung--a look toward the future. And persistence is absolutely necessary to achieve it. No matter at what point the person stops, the chaos has irrevocably transformed the original expectations and dreams in life.
"Disrupted Lives" spotlights how people cope in difficult, life-changing situations. The progression of the narrative is logical with cogent endnotes and index. However, her heavy reliance on hermeneutical theory may dissuade some readers.
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