I have a weird problem with personal stories. It is not that I don’t like them (I do quite a bit!). Rather, I do not trust them because I do not think that there is a “personal” that is not the product of some cultural force. I feel the problem acutely as a Mormon because I find that I am nearly incapable of telling a personal story, which is the dominant way that one’s life of faith is expressed. I marvel at how my fellow Latter-day Saints can so easily see symbolic importance in the events in their lives, wherein truths are revealed in compelling objects lessons. I am moved and persuaded by the moral lessons and personal stories of loss and redemption, challenge and vindication, or tragedy and reinterpretation. However, when I teach or speak, I find only meaning in the abstract, the theoretical, and the textual. When I try to find meaning in the events of my life, even to tell the story of how I have arrived where I am, I see only contingency and circumstance, rather than agency and meaning. I sometimes feel that I lack a narrative that holds my life together at all, and as a result I can feel disconnected from my brothers and sisters who dwell in such richly meaningful lives.
When I think about why I cannot tell a personal story, two main issues come to mind. First, I do not like categories. Anyone reading my blog posts for a while will have at one point or another noticed that I refuse to give any biographical details. For me, it is not just about “protecting” my identity, but about denying it. I feel too constrained by any biographical narrative, as if it defines me or reveals something about who I am. I tend to think that identity politics is about producing identity, rather than representing it. The categories we use, such as believer, ex-Mormon, Reform Mormon, apologist, liberal, feminist, or others signal the belonging to one group or another. For me these categories always fail to capture the rich complexity of anyone’s life, but also produce division and difference is ways that make me uncomfortable.
Second, our personal narratives do not represent some true accounting of events, but rather conform to prior structures, narratives, and scripts. These narratives draw on cliches to make them intelligible and entertaining. Faith and loss of faith narratives, for instance, reproduce narrative formulas like the dramatic moment of realization, the ignorant person of authority, the persecution for making the “right” choice, and the feeling of great love and acceptance in one’s new community. I don’t deny that this is how we experience these moments, but we must recognize that our experiences are shaped by our own expectations for how such events are to be structured and be scripted. No matter where one lands, the script is almost always the same.
Are narratives of no use at all? That is not what I am saying. In fact, narratives can be incredibly useful. How different communities structure their narratives can tell us a great deal about how they perceive the world, and even persuade us to alter our own perceptions. For instance, early Christian martyrdom stories depict Christians as conquering the Romans in a spiritual battlefield, even as they are being killed in the arena. Their deaths are scripted as victories. Such narratives reveal how early Christians sought to renarrate their violent executions at the hands of the Romans as victories. This early Christian retelling was ultimately quite persuasive, and affects even the modern retellings of these stories. These narratives tell us a lot about how historical communities (including our own) create meaning.
All of my anxiety about my personal narratives and those of others does reveal something of a personal experience. I do not doubt that my own resistance to categories and my attention to the habitus, or structuring structures, of the personal narrative, is itself the product of some set of life experiences. My lack of trust of narratives has itself been shaped by own life. Despite being a vigorous journaler at various times in my life, and being quite inspired by the Bushmans’ admonitions to keep a journal and to write intellectual and spiritual autobiographies, I remain frozen today when I actually try to write them out. I cannot help but feel dishonest when I try to fit my life into a narrative. What that may reveal is a kind of self-importance, refusing to believe that categories somehow apply to me, while insisting that they apply to everyone else’s experiences. But this is not right. I am unable to write about myself not because I think the categories do not apply to me, but because I am scared that they do.