Tag Archives: backstories

Who Gets to Tell Our Story?


Frieze of Columbus in the New World, US Capitol
Frieze of Columbus and Indigenous Americans in the New    World, US Capitol Rotunda

 There is truth in the irony that our most cherished possession is not exclusively ours to own.

We think that our most precious possessions are the things we have acquired or the relationships we have.  But for many people the “right” to tell their own story looms just as large.  Narratives of our personal or tribal lives may be the keys to understanding who we are and where we came from.  But in fact they are not exclusively ours to tell.  We don’t have proprietary rights to our own personal histories.

This is both self-evident and enormously consequential.   It’s not just that we can’t easily agree even about the foundational stories about our collective past.  What Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln actually achieved will always involve contentious narratives.  We can also be unpleasantly surprised by accounts of ourselves offered even by friends or relatives.

It’s apparent that anyone can write someone else’s biography.  Even biographers who are out of favor with their subjects or never met them are frequently eager to weigh in with their own versions.  For example, we are presently surrounded by multiple narratives that recreate the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  There’s Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography (Steve Jobs, 2011) and the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin film based on it.  Both recognize Job’s  vision for turning computing into a necessary life skill.  And both portray a garage innovator with a knack for ingenious design and an inability to acknowledge his co-visionaries.  Then there’s Alex Gibney’s very different documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015) detailing a single-minded marketing genius reluctant to engage with the unpleasant facts surrounding the Chinese factories that produce Apple products.  Amazon currently lists about ten books on Jobs. The point is that we can count on each version to offer a different person to readers.

The same is true for groups that seek power or legitimacy in the larger culture by presenting what are sometimes very different accounts about their pasts and their aspirations.  What’s the story of Scientology? It depends on who you ask. How has the institutional life of Catholicism evolved since revelations of widespread child abuse were widely reported at the beginning of the new century?  Skeptics and admirers routinely compete for attention to relay their stories.  In many ways the fissures that are spread across the culture deepen over time, often expanding into complete fault lines as interested parties vie for media access to “get their story out.”

There’s a whole lexicon of useful terms to represent these divisions.  We talk not only about “narratives,” but also “contested narratives,”  “counter-narratives,” “preferred narratives,” “backstories,” “storylines,” “myths,” “legends,” “lore,” “rumors” and “histories” that are disputed as “more fiction than fact.”  Facebook champions an individual’s own preferred narrative: a kind of carefully constructed window display of one’s life. Most other digital outlets focusing on the culture of celebrity capture readers by taking a very different turn:  favoring counter-narratives and backstories.  Sometimes they are even true.

Novelists who would seem to have the advantage of exclusive use of the products of their imagination are inclined to end up in tangles of their own making when readers find possible connections to the writer’s biography.  Readers can also be unforgiving if a scribe borrows another’s particularly traumatic narrative.  A few years ago the prolific Joyce Carol Oates came under criticism in New Jersey for embellishing on a news story about a college student found dead in a campus garbage container. The short story, Landfill, was published in the New Yorker, to the chagrin of the student’s family and others in the region.

For all of our hope that our stories can be communicated in ways that bring us the credit we seek, the fact is that we can never claim rights to exclusivity.  Ask anyone who has recently been in the news how well their views have been represented or how they were characterized. You are apt to get a response of mild frustration.  What we see in ourselves is probably not what those who retell our stories are going to report.  For individuals or groups without power this is sad to witness. Groups lose something basic when they lack the means to communicate their preferred narratives.  The rest of us battle on, even occasionally discovering a narrative that gives us far more credit than we deserve.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

Perfect Response logo

Communication as Context

quotes2There’s a natural truth to the familiar line, “he was quoted out of context.”  It could hardly be otherwise. 

When we think of communication we often talk of it as a product.  “This is what he said,” or “She was surprisingly angry when she explained the problem.” Thinking this way—that we can freeze moments and observe them—is unavoidable. But embedded in the recreation of our communication is a forgotten problem that frequently gets us into trouble.

We tend to forget that communication is actually a process. It exist as a reaction to a world of influences on a speaker that grow more invisible over time. While the words remain static on the page or in a recorded segment, the forces that shaped the speaker’s views drift toward obscurity. We can be like the Broadway producer that lifts the word “Amazing!” out of reviewer’s comments, neglecting the rest of the writer’s judgment that the director showed an “amazing misuse of a talented cast.”

I was reminded of how original meaning drifts far from what a source intended during a viewing of a BBC retrospective program about Ken Russell, the iconic British producer of a number of memorable films about artists and composers. His subject in one project was the English composer Edward Elgar. Everyone recognizes his Pomp and Circumstance March Number 1, which is both the unofficial British national anthem Land of Hope and Glory, but better known to Americans as the solemn march that frequently accompanies graduation ceremonies. Russell reminds us that the piece became popular during World War I, when it was more or less co-opted as a kind of anthem to British imperialism. But its use as a call to battle against Germany troubled the reclusive Elgar.[i] After all, Germany rather than fickle London was where he first gained a foothold as a recognized composer. He was also appalled to have his music associated with the defeat of so important a patron.

We are all like Elgar. Sometimes the music we have created is not what others hear. It’s a common rhetorical necessity to “correct the record” when someone offers a restatement of our views that shows little awareness of why they were made and the circumstances that produced them. “That’s not exactly what I meant” is the common reply, and a preface to contextualized details we may feel compelled to add.

This may be one reasons that reading legal documents that cite case law and precedents can be so annoying. Legal principles must stand equally for all cases ruled to be of the same type.  Context counts less than it should. But broad rules tend to obliterate important exceptions, exemptions, and unique circumstances.  For example, a law against loitering can be a bludgeon in the hands insensitive local police. On occasion we all loiter, meaning we linger in a public space, usually for reasons that are perfectly harmless.

There is also the common and often sly strategy to use another’s words for our own communication objectives. We can selectively cite an out-of-context phrase simply because it can better demonize another. The words are used as a marker of difference rather than an accurate rendering of someone’s full view. This can be a tactic of a headline writer who is intent on selling a story by making its subject look like a fool.

So there’s a natural truth about the cliché, “he was quoted out of context.”  It could hardly be otherwise. In truth, we can usually do a better job of representing the views of others by calling upon the latent historian in all of us. We often have a natural curiosity for the humanizing backstories of others. Fairness to an absent but quoted person demands at least a thumbnail reconstruction of the known circumstances surrounding their words.

[i] BBC, Ken Russell at the BBC, DVD, 2008.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

Perfect Response logo