The Meaning of OthersReview - The Meaning of Others
Narrative Studies of Relationships
by Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, and Dan P. McAdams (Editors)
American Psychological Association, 2007
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Mar 25th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 13)

CASSIUS: Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?

BRUTUS: No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.

"Accepting the fact that the human environment is social, the outerworld of the ego is made up of the egos of others significant to it. They are significant because on many levels of crude of or subtle communication my whole being perceives in them a hospitality for the way in which my inner world is ordered and includes them, which makes me, in turn. Hospitable to the way they order their would and include me – a mutual affirmation, then, which can be depended upon to activate my being as I can be depended upon to activate theirs." (Erikson, 1968, quoted here from page 117)

Several years ago in a lecture I presented at the Institute of Renaissance Studies at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival I used a conceptual map to focus on that exchange between Cassius and Brutus: intention – text – reading. Julius Caesar is a play rich in what one might call narrative psychology. Characters in a play or persons in life manifest themselves or become real in complicated ways that have to do with belief, action and interpretation. In an important way we see not ourselves but through the Other. The resulting sense of self is a cultural construct and not a ghost in a machine.

Characters or persons are healthy agents just to the extent that there is a balance between what they believe, what they do, and what others believe about them; as well as what they believe others believe about them. Characters or persons are unhealthy or incomplete just when there is a rupture between what they say and what they do, or between what they believe and what they are. Think of your beliefs as what you are; your actions as performances and the responses to those actions as interpretations by others. When there is a rupture in the belief set and the actions we call the error self-delusion. Brutus, for example, thinks he is the Brutus of the past and that the world is a reasonable place subject to logical interpretation. But he ignores the logic of his own emotions to kill his friend.

When there is a rupture between what we are and what we do the sin is called hypocrisy.

A third error, or sin, occurs when we misread a situation. Cassius kills himself because of a fateful misreading in which he "misconstrues everything." When you take your reading as the only reading, you have also sinned.

"The eye sees not by itself; But by reflection…" could well be the basic insight of modern or post modern narrative psychology. We negotiate a sense of self as we write a self-story, respond to situations, act in some way or another, interact with the Other, read the "text" of our culture, internalize the complex interpretation, and refer to it as "I".

The Meaning of Others contains twelve chapters, by seventeen contributors, each chapter a stand alone study, which combine to form a unified whole that is readable, interesting, and provides wise counsel for further studies in the field and for practical application. The most efficient way to provide prospective readers with reasons to buy the book is to list the shortened chapter titles:

1.      Narrative and Relation: The Place of the Other in the Story of the Self

2.      Love in the Narrative Context: The Relationship Between Henry Murray and Christiana Morgan

3.      Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin: Toward a Lacanian Poetics

4.      From Island to Archipelago: Narratives of Relatedness in an Urban Youth Organization

5.      Earning a Secure Attachment Style: A Narrative of Personality Change in Adulthood

6.      Transitions in the Process of Identity Formation Among Japanese Female Adolescents: A Relational Viewpoint

7.      The Relational Emplotment of Mixed Racial Identity [no ":"!]

8.      Vicissitudes of "Holding" in the Immigration Experience: The Case of Ethiopian Israeli Adolescents

9.      Connections of Care: Relationships and Family Caregiver Narratives

10.  Telling Stories About Therapy: Ego Development, Well-Being and the Therapeutic Relationship

11.   Give Love a Chance: Difficulties of Young Adults…

12.  Ongoing Relationships: Recounting a Lost Parent’s Life as a Means to Re-member

Each chapter in one way or another provides evidence for the claim that "an individual explores, finds, and ensures the purpose and consistency of his or here own life" through narratives, through the narrated stories heard and told by the individual in relationship with others in a cultural context of family, friends, and others. Think of a dramaturgical model in which such concepts as "character" and "moral career" are present. The concept of character refers to the effect of self‑presentation performances in the eyes of others. Moral career is the life‑history of an individual in the eyes of one of his or her different audiences (family, friends, colleagues, significant others). Because the model is concerned with the components of personality which are evident to others it is necessarily interested in the outward representations, or performances, of character, and with the stories told to researchers.

We respond to these same cues in watching a performance of Julius Caesar or any other dramatic production. We learn about character through soliloquy, through what others say about a character, and through the actions of the character. Just as in real life the characters learn who they are through the actions of others and of themselves.

The papers include studies related to mixed race subjects, immigrants attempting to redefine self in a new context, care-givers who struggle with the complexities of relationships in stressful situations, separation and individuality versus interdependency, as well as a moving chapter on loss. Each study presents its methodology, a statement of the theoretical framework employed, techniques for data gathering, and an assessment of findings.

Chapter 9, e.g., provides a description of the three levels of positioning used by the researchers in the study (195-6):

·         At the then-and-there level, I identified the key relationships referenced by each caregiver and the ebb and flow of those relationships over the course of the narrative.

·         At the here-and-now level, I explored the relationships that developed between the members of the group over the course of their exchange.

·         At the self-to-self level, I sought out the interior monologue the narrator held with herself as she worked out the emerging relationship with herself as caregiver.

and then unpacks the narratives which the shared stories of several caregivers present.

One cannot but think of another of Shakespeare’s lines, "Tell my story;" says Hamlet, "it has meaning," when thinking about these interesting case studies which rely on the claim that an individual explores, finds, and ensures the purpose and consistency of his or her life through narratives. (122)

This is a readable, interesting, and useful book for therapists, narrative psychologists and the general reader.

© 2008 Bob Lane

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC, Canada.

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