Mary Daniels Brown Q and A
Mary Daniels Brown is another practitioner I’ve run across as part of my Scoop.it curation of organizational storytelling. I am most intrigued by her work on narrative and perspective, as illustrated by these words from one of her blogs: “Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.” I am thrilled Mary Daniels Brown is participating in this Q&A series, especially since she went above and beyond in responding to my questions.
Bio: Mary Daniels Brown completed the course work, though not the dissertation, for a doctorate in English and American literature before changing gears and earning a Ph.D. in psychology. Her dissertation focused on narrative identity theory and life stories. She writes about literature at Notes in the Margin and about psychology at Change of Perspective.
Q&A with Mary Daniels Brown:
Q: “Perspective” seems to be the centerpiece of your work and philosophy. Can you talk a bit about your “perspective on perspective”?
A: One day my husband and I were shopping at Target when two men got into a confrontation at the end of the aisle. I don’t know what started the argument, and I don’t remember at all what it was about, but they were gesturing and talking loudly at each other. I think we left the aisle before the dispute was resolved.
After we had checked out and were walking across the parking lot, my husband said, “What did you think of the man in the Hawaiian shirt?” “What man in the Hawaiian shirt?” I asked. My husband stopped walking and stared at me. “The man who was arguing with the other man,” he said. “I know you saw him.”
Yes, I had seen him arguing with the other fellow. But because I’m always interested in the ways people interact, I had been watching each man’s face and gestures as they argued back and forth. What the men were wearing was irrelevant to me. My husband, however, is always much better than I am at noticing physical details about his surroundings. He focused on the Hawaiian shirt, whereas I didn’t even notice it.
As this story indicates, the concept of perspective has both a literal and a metaphorical aspect. In the literal sense, we see an object differently when we change the place from which we view it. In the metaphorical sense, we all view the world from a perspective created by the intersection of our temperament and our unique set of personal experiences, values, and beliefs. And because we are all unique, we all see the world at least a little bit differently than everybody else sees it. This is why two people may have very different memories about the same event. No one’s perspective is necessarily better or more correct than anyone else’s. The two are simply different.
A Native American proverb advises us not to judge other people until we’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. This advice encourages us to at least try to see a situation or an issue from another person’s perspective before passing judgment or starting an argument. Even if we don’t agree with another person’s perspective, just trying to understand that perspective can make us wiser and more tolerant people. And the world could certainly use some more wise, tolerant people.
Q: To what extent do you believe people construct their narrative identities differently in the digital world — for example on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and blogs — from the way they do “in real life”?
A: I used to think that perspective was the most important aspect of a person’s self-defining life story. But I’ve realized that context is just as important.
The contrast between the identity we create in the digital world and the identity we project in real life is a good example of the importance of context. In fact, the dichotomy of digital identity vs. real-life identity is a gross oversimplification. We all contain many, many selves, and which one we present at a given moment depends on the social situation. Although most of us have a basic core identity that remains the same, we project variations on that core identity in response to the social situation we find ourselves in.
In terms of online identity, for example, I have three accounts: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. LinkedIn is a site for professional networking, so on that site I focus on my education, my skills, and my professional experience and accomplishments. I don’t express my political leanings or my views on current issues such as abortion or gay marriage. However, I use my Facebook account to keep in touch with a limited group of family and close friends. My Facebook updates express my social values and political beliefs. My Facebook identity is much more informal than my LinkedIn identity. And I use Twitter mainly to showcase my professional interests, although I also try to include enough personal details to make me look like a real person. Last fall, for example, when my hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals, improbably won the World Series, I tweeted my moments of agony and ecstasy during the games. So my Twitter identity is somewhere between my LinkedIn and Facebook identities. Some people even have separate professional and personal Twitter accounts. But I don’t have “an online identity.” I have several slightly different online identities that I use for different purposes.
Most people also have several variations of their “real-life identity.” For example, we act differently in a meeting at work than we do when watching the Super Bowl on television with a bunch of friends. When we create a particular identity for a specific social situation, we are not being hypocritical but are making a prudent assessment of what aspects of ourselves we find appropriate to reveal under the circumstances. We match the narratives we tell about ourselves to our perception of the social context.Q: Interest in life stories and memoirs seems to be enormous at the moment. Why do you think that is? What makes people hunger to tell their own stories and learn the stories of others at this moment in time?
A: We humans have an innate affinity for stories. The earliest stories were told around the common campfire. Petroglyphs are the early expression of a community asserting its identity through its stories. Children who beg for “just one more” bedtime story are not simply jockeying to stay up later. They are truly enthralled by stories that keep them asking, “And then what happened? … And then what? … And then?”
Storytelling is a communal activity. We think about and explain ourselves in stories that we tell both to ourselves (internally) and to others (externally). Even the stories we tell ourselves are framed within the prescriptions and proscriptions of our culture. Shared stories tell us how other people function within their society and also transmit that society’s values, beliefs, and traditions.
I see the enormous current interest in memoir as a result of the economic, political, and social flux we now live in. When cultural norms begin to break down, we look for new stories to help guide us through change. Every memoir we read by people who have coped with issues such as faith, illness, rejection, infertility, divorce, addiction, financial hardship, or political oppression shows us how to live through these circumstances. The more upheaval we face in our lives, the more we need stories to show us how it is possible to live in our world.Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: Daniel Taylor’s book, Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories (Bog Walk Press, 2001), was a life-changing discovery for me.
Taylor argues that we can change our life by changing our life story. This book was the impetus for my return to graduate school to study what I later learned is called narrative identity theory.
Taylor’s book is written for a general audience, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this empowering area of study.Q: What has been your favorite or most meaningful project or initiative relating to life stories/narrative identity theory and why?
A: I loved working on my dissertation, which was about the life stories of five women who graduated from medical school between 1849 and 1905. Because these were some of the first women to train and then practice as professional physicians, they had no books to read about how to do this. They all wrote the book as they went along. Although they took somewhat different approaches to their work, they all faced the challenge of reconciling their life choice with a culture that was initially opposed to education and professional work for women.
Doing the individual analyses of the five life stories was fascinating, but even more exciting to me was the overall cultural progression of the stories throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The first two were very strong women who faced almost universal disapproval of their chosen life work. But by the end of the century, because the earlier women had provided a model, more women began to train as physicians and to document their own journey. As a result, the role of woman physician gradually became more acceptable to society.
People generally choose their life story from the plot lines that their culture makes available to them, and all of these women contributed to making life as a woman physician a possible choice for girls. In this way life stories, which are always rooted in a particular cultural context, can lead to social change.