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Journal of Humanistic Psychology http://jhp.sagepub.


The Nature of Epiphanic Experience

Matthew G. McDonald Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2008 48: 89 DOI: 10.1177/0022167807311878 The online version of this article can be found at:

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What is This?


MATTHEW G. MCDONALD was born and educated in Australia. He completed his PhD in existential philosophy and psychology in 2005 at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is currently employed as a visiting lecturer in the School of Psychology and Therapeutic Studies, Roehampton University, London. His primary research interests include psychology and consumption, alienation, poststructuralism, and existentialism.

The purpose of this inquiry is to investigate positive change and transformation that is sudden and abrupt, as defined by the term epiphany. Due to the disparate nature of the epiphanic literature, a thorough and wide-ranging review was undertaken, producing a set of six core characteristics, which were tested and interpreted from a self-identity existential perspective. A narrative inquiry approach to methodology was employed to collect and analyze participants epiphanies, from which three main interpretations were drawn. Firstly, the participants life-stories illustrate that an epiphany is a valid experience as indicated by support for the set of six core characteristics developed from the literature. Secondly, an epiphany is a profound illumination of the inauthentic and authentic modes of self-identity, which provide the impetus for a more honest and courageous encounter with the conditions of existence. Lastly, an epiphany is an intentional experience made significant and enduring by the ascription of personal meaning. Keywords: epiphany; self-identity; existential philosophy and psychology; narrative inquiry; authenticity

The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad; grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my
AUTHORS NOTE: Special thanks to Stephen Wearing, Shawn Rubin, Warwick Eaton, and Susmita Das in helping me to undertake and complete this study.
Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 48 No. 1, January 2008 89-115 DOI: 10.1177/0022167807311878 2008 Sage Publications
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Epiphanic Experience wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious Yes in answer to the question of my existence of an ultimate purpose. Frankl (1984, p. 51)

The powerful moment recounted above is an excerpt from Viktor Frankls (1984) Mans Search for Meaning, a memory from when he was a prisoner at the infamous Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp. Frankls experience can be best described as a sudden, abrupt, and positive transformation that was profound and enduringin short, an epiphany. When psychologists contemplate the nature of change, they usually refer to two broad areas, the developmental changes that occur over the lifespan (from birth to death) and specific changes that are effected through counseling and psychotherapy. Developmental change refers to any qualitative (changes in process and function) and quantitative (changes in height, weight, and intelligence) modification in the structure and functioning of human beings. On the other hand, counselors and psychotherapists effect change by working with their clients to overcome their self-limiting beliefs, helping them to gain insight and perspective while taking action in the process. Positive change and transformation in this respect is, more often than not, a slow incremental process, lasting for a period of weeks, months, or years. Terms commonly used in the therapeutic vernacular, such as working through, convey a gradual unfolding process. As Bien (2004) noted, The psychotherapist . . . will observe a series of micro-changes, marked by sighs and other physical indicators as well as increasingly insightful verbal expression, which gradually accumulate into something substantive (p. 494). Epiphanies, on the other hand, are sudden and abrupt insights and/or changes in perspective that transform the individuals concept of self and identity through the creation of new meaning in the individuals life. Epiphanies are momentary experiences of transcendence that are enduring and distinct from other types of developmental change and transformation. Due to this distinction, positive change and transformation that is sudden and abrupt is a relatively underresearched and underdeveloped phenomenon. Cde Baca and Wilbourne (2004) noted,
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Matthew G. McDonald While the occurrence of rapid transformations has been noted in psychology since at least 1902, these transformations have been considered mostly anomalies. They do not follow a learning model of behaviour change, e.g. the gradual modification of behaviour, frustrating efforts at explanation. (p. 539)


EPIPHANY: CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT The term epiphany is most commonly associated with the Christian feast held at the beginning of each new year. The holiday (holyday) is a celebration of three Christian miracles, consisting of the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Christ, and the miracle of transforming water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana (Eliade, 1987, pp. 132-133). The term is derived from the ancient Greek word epiphainesthai, which means to appear or to come into view (Arnold, 2002) and was used to refer to moments of sudden and significant insight (Paris, 1997). It was the Irish novelist James Joyce who reintroduced epiphany into the modern vernacular, using it to describe the sudden and profound insights of Stephen Dedalusthe central character of his book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce, 1916). Joyce believed that artists, like his character Dedalus, used their powers of observation and insight to transmute ordinary, everyday events into a celebration of humanity (Beja, 1993, p. 71). More recently, the term epiphany has been used in a variety of academic disciplines including social theory (Denzin, 1989, 1990), literary criticism (Beja, 1993; Bidney, 1997, 2004; Coen, 2000; Hayman, 1998; Johnson, 1992; Nichols, 1987), humanistic education (Goud, 1995), narrative psychology (Loyttyniemi, 2001; McAdams, 1996; Schultz, 2001), clinical psychology (Jaffe, 1985; Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998; Tennen & Affleck, 1998), and gay and lesbian studies (Jensen, 1998, 1999). Although the term has enjoyed popular application in these fields, its conceptual, empirical, and theoretical development has remained largely static. This task was initially taken up by Jarvis (1997), who defined an epiphany as a sudden discontinuous change, leading to profound, positive and enduring transformation through reconfiguration of an individuals most deeply held beliefs about self and world (p. v). The next major contribution to the terms development was carried out by Miller and Cde Baca (1993, 2001), who developed an almost identical concept they termed
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quantum change, which they defined as a vivid, surprising, benevolent, and enduring personal transformation (Miller & Cde Baca, 2001, p. 4). Given the disparate nature of the epiphanic literature and the limited literature reviews carried out by Jarvis (1997) and Miller and Cde Baca (1993, 2001), it was determined that an integrating framework was needed to give some semblance of order to the concept. To this end, a set of core characteristics, or attributes, was created by content analyzing (Krippendorff, 2004) the epiphanic literature, the results of which are presented in Table 1 below.

METHOD: NARRATIVE INQUIRY A narrative approach to collecting and analyzing participants epiphanies was selected for two main reasons. The first was its theoretical affinity with existential philosophy (Polkinghorne, 1988, pp. 125-155), and second, it is argued that an in-depth understanding of epiphanies can be achieved only by obtaining an account of the participants life history and with it, his or her temporal unfolding sense of self-identity. A theoretical sample (Charmaz, 2003, p. 104) was employed, which consisted of individuals who had a self-identified epiphany. The research participants were individuals introduced to the inquiry by academic colleagues. As part of engaging with potential participants, it was necessary to gauge their capacity for self-reflection and coherent verbal communication. Potential participants were screened via a preliminary interview (approximately 30 minutes) carried out in person or by telephone, and their epiphanies were compared to the characteristics outlined in Table 1. In-depth life-story interviews were carried out on 5 participants (only 4 will be reported here due to the constraints of word limit), eliciting a rich source of data. The life-story interview is designed to allow the narrator (the research participant) to provide a detailed account of his or her life, starting with his or her very first memory as a child and extending right up until the present day. It seeks to emphasize the participants developmental sequences, milestones, and turning points (Murray, 2003, p. 103). Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, and Zilbers (1998) narrative analysis matrix was used to guide the analysis process. Each of the interview transcripts was read several times to develop an in-depth

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TABLE 1: Concept Antecedent state Epiphanic Characteristics Description of Concept



Personal transformation


Meaning making

Enduring nature

Epiphanies are preceded by periods of anxiety, depression, and inner turmoil (Denzin, 1989, 1990; Jarvis, 1997; Jensen, 1998, 1999; Loyttyniemi, 2001; Miller & Cde Baca, 1993, 2001). Epiphanies are sudden and abrupt (Beja, 1993; Goud, 1995; Jarvis, 1997; Jensen, 1998, 1999; Miller & Cde Baca, 1993, 2001; Schultz, 2001). Epiphanies are an experience of profound change and transformation in self-identity (Denzin, 1989, 1990; Goud, 1995; Jarvis, 1997; Jensen, 1998, 1999; Miller & Cde Baca, 1993, 2001). Epiphanies are an acute awareness of something new, something that the individual had previously been blind to (Denzin, 1989, 1990; Goud, 1995; Jarvis, 1997; Jensen, 1998, 1999; Miller & Cde Baca, 1993, 2001; Paris, 1997; Schultz, 2001). Epiphanies are profound insights because they are deemed significant to the individuals life (Denzin, 1989, 1990; Frick, 2001; Miller & Cde Baca, 1993, 2001). Although the actual epiphany is a momentary experience, the personal transformation that results is permanent and lasting (Denzin, 1989, 1990; Jarvis, 1997; Jensen, 1998, 1999; Miller & Cde Baca, 1993, 2001).

understanding of the participants experience of his or her life. Each of the transcripts was then converted into shorter narratives to provide greater clarity and structure to the raw interview data, a task that also discharged my commitment to treat each of the participants life stories as an individual case study (Smith & Osborn, 2003, p. 54). To complete the analysis process, a number of quality control measures were undertaken to assess and evaluate the data; these included consensual validation with the participants and credibility checks carried out by academic colleagues and a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapeutist with

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25 years experience (Elliott, Fischer, & Rennie, 1999; Yardley, 2000). The following accounts provide a brief sketch of each of the participants life stories; they are presented in chronological order (i.e., childhood, adolescence, and adulthood) culminating with their epiphany(ies).

LIFE STORIES AND EPIPHANIES Peter1 Peter was born and grew up in a small town in rural New South Wales, Australia. He experienced a deprived and at times traumatic childhood due to his fathers alcoholism. Peter attended a local Catholic school, which he described as violent and forbidding. He was persecuted by his classmates in and outside of school because of his size and looks. Peter described his parents as generally neglectful; as a result, he suffered from poor hygiene and a lack of future aspirations, leaving high school at the age of 15. Peters first job out of school was training racehorses, which he described as one of the happiest periods of his life, yet he remained lonely and lamented the lack of any meaningful relationships. During this time, Peter developed an interest in writing and began publishing articles for a Sydney horseracing magazine. With this success, he eventually decided to become a full-time writer, going on to university to study journalism. Having completed his studies, Peter fell into a series of unsatisfying jobs in public relations. Peters life, though, was to turn a corner after he fell in love, married, and had two baby girls in short succession. After 12 years of marriage, however, Peter felt that his relationship with his wife had come to a dead end. It had become loveless, sexless, and sad. As his marriage broke down, he began to analyze his life more closely and came to the realization that it stood for nothing, that it was devoid of meaning and purpose, which eventually led to feelings of depression and suicidal ideation. Then one night, Peter had a dream in which he was giving a speech at his daughters 21st birthday. In this speech, he told the story of his life and how he had reached the edge of darkness, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Heros Journey (1990). In Campbells story, the hero takes the challenge to break through the barrierto not give up. When Peter awoke the next day, he
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realized that if he kept going as he was, he would not have the right to make that speech at his daughters birthday. That future moment, that visioning, was my epiphany to say, I want that moment. . . . It was an unforgettable vision. Michelle Michelle was born and grew up in a large coastal town in New South Wales, Australia. She described her family life as emotionally cold and uncommunicative. She described feeling as a child like an empty shell. At the age of 13, she suffered the first of many episodes of major depression and suicidal ideation. Just prior to leaving school, Michelle undertook a work placement as a nurse, which she thoroughly enjoyed and decided would become her future career. At the completion of her placement, the nurse in charge wrote a letter to her school career counselor and parents, noting that she had underperformed and that she was not suited to a career in nursing. Michelle was devastated by the news. Michelle left school at 16 and began her first job working in a bank. At the age of 21, she moved to Sydney with the goal of earning $100,000 by the time she was 30, in the hope of impressing her wealthy parents. Michelle began a financially successful career in the information technology industry, yet was still plagued by feelings of emptiness. She began psychotherapy and was advised to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. In time, Michelle was able to overcome her alcohol addiction, and she continued psychotherapy for the next 5 years, yet her feelings of loneliness and frustration continued to plague her. Eventually, Michelle became alienated from her fast-paced corporate lifestyle and decided to make a break by moving to a small country town where she bought herself a dog. With few possessions to furnish her new house, Michelle asked her mother to post a box of belongings she had stored away many years previously. When the box arrived, she found the letter written by the nurse in charge of her school placement explaining to her parents that she was unsuited to a career in nursing. The discovery of this letter after such a long period of time came as a great shock for Michelle, as she had pushed this desire completely from her mind. Suddenly and unexpectedly, she was reminded of her adolescent wish, viewing this chance event as a powerful message, using it to provide her life with a new direction and purpose. I always wanted to be a nurse! . . . It was like a veil was lifted. Im going to be a nurse.
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Janet Janet was born and grew up in the beachside suburb of Maroubra, Sydney. Her early childhood was loving and prosperous. Janet did well at school and made friends easily. At the age of 8, the boy next door stayed over one night in Janets bedroom. He forced himself on her, and she struggled to break free from his grip. Shocked and upset by what had happened, Janet told her parents, who sent the boy home. Her parents, though, blamed Janet for what had happened to her. I felt so embarrassed and abandoned. Looking back now, I can still recall having an almost out-of-body experience, as though the connection I had with my parents had been broken. Sadly, worse was to come. When Janet was 13, her parents had a party at their house where she was lured away and sexually assaulted by a 46-year-old customer of her fathers dry cleaning business. After this incident, Janet began failing school, smoking marijuana, and running away from home. As her relationship with her parents worsened, Janet left home for good at the age of 16. At 18, Janet gave birth to twin baby girls, whom she loved and adored. At 23, the relationship with the father of her children broke down. Janet began taking drugs and was eventually caught stealing medications from a doctors surgery. Before her court appearance, Janet was placed in a womens prison where she had her first epiphany. While sitting in her cell, Janet was suddenly gripped by a new and powerful fear, which motivated her to reflect on her life like never before. She realized for the first time that she actually hated the drug lifestyle she had chosen for herself and began to wonder what could be so terrible to make her want to escape reality. She then had a profound realization she took drugs to escape from herself. Janets second epiphany occurred when she was 31. Janets children, aged 13 at the time, made a special trip from Perth to Sydney to visit her. She had not seen her twin daughters in more than 3 years. Their vulnerability, innocence, and adolescent mentality made a powerful impression on her. As a result, Janet began to look back on her own life when she was 13. She began to recall the people and events of that time and realized she had lost her virginity at 13the same age as her daughters. This set in motion a sudden recall of events she had repressed for 19 years. A horrible feeling began to rise in the pit of her stomach. With terrible clarity, Janet realized a 46-year-old man had raped her.
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With the conscious awareness of this long-repressed memory, Janet began to piece together the chain of events that took place in her life after her sexual assaults; she began failing school, ran away from home, taking drugs, and behaving promiscuously. Cathy Cathy was born and grew up in New Zealand. Her childhood was difficult and unhappy. Cathys mother expected her, the eldest of five children, to help raise and take responsibility for her younger siblings. Her father was a heavy drinker prone to bouts of violence, which her mother bore the brunt of. Cathy recalls often having to hide with her brother and sisters in their bedroom to escape their fathers abuse. From an early age, Cathy dreamed of one day becoming a nun and schoolteacher like the central character Sister Maria from the film The Sound of Music. However, her mother told her that it would be selfish of her not to have children and that all girls dream of one day getting married. To escape her family abuse, Cathy left home at 18 and moved in with her boyfriend. Shortly after they married, she gave birth to a baby girl, the first of three children. After her second child, Cathy met a nun who was also a schoolteacher and academic. This woman inspired Cathy to go to university and train to become a teacher. Cathy enrolled in university and completed her teaching qualification 4 years later. During her time at university, Cathys marriage began to break down. It was during this period that she began to question her sexual orientation. After many months of inner turmoil, she came to the resolution that if she were to ever have sex with a woman, then she would remain a lesbian for the rest of her life. Her epiphany, she explains, was triggered by her first sexual experience with a woman. Having sex with another woman confirmed for Cathy that she truly was a lesbian. Everything in her life radically changed from that moment on; it was like crossing a bridge with no return.

EPIPHANIC CHARACTERISTICS The purpose of this phase of the analysis is to test whether the descriptions of epiphanies given by the participants support the six core characteristics (see Table 1) derived from the literature.
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Antecedent state: Epiphanies are preceded by periods of anxiety, depression, and inner turmoil. Each of the 4 participants, prior to their epiphanies, experienced periods of anxiety, depression, and inner turmoil, lasting for weeks and, in some cases, months. The participants also reported a range of other painful emotions prior to their epiphanies such as loneliness, suicidal ideation, remorse, despair, anger, alienation, and abandonment.
That one moment, that one look, that nonverbal communication to me said that youre living a lie here. Youre living a lie. Then I went totally silent and I went home that night and I cried in front of her [his wife] for the first time and said that I wanted to leave, that I wanted to kill myself, that I needed to go off and do this and I needed to go and do it myself and not have her involved and that I couldnt find any meaning in life. (Peter) I was earning really good money at the time. At the end of that period, I got a commission check for $70,000. I just remember getting home on that Friday night when the commission was through, knowing that Id been taxed half of it so there was $35,000 in my bank account. Thinking that obviously Id done what Id set out to achieve when I was younger. That I was starting to make all this money but I just felt like I was dying inside. The more money I earned, the more dead I felt. I didnt know what to do with it. Even if I did do something with it, it didnt really make me happy. I had nothing that I wanted to do. I didnt feel passionate about anything, so what was the point of having it? (Michelle)

Suddenness: Epiphanies are sudden and abrupt. Each of the participants epiphanies was sudden and abrupt, contrasting with other types of positive change and transformation that are typically gradual in nature.
I remember just sitting there and just looking at it [a letter]. I was on my own thinking, Oh my god, oh my god, I always wanted to be a nurse. I always wanted to be a nurse! . . . It was like a veil was lifted. Im going to be a nurse. . . . It was like a shock to the system. I recognized in that moment the kind of bizarre way that it had come about. Id sent away for this box and I was sitting there going through it. I also recognized that at the time it seemed to be, Thank God someone has told me or has sent me a sign. Someone has finally told me what I should be doing with my life. (Michelle) I always had this feeling that if I ever slept with a woman, then that would be it for me. I would never be able to go back to a man.
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Matthew G. McDonald It was like crossing a bridge with no return. . . . It totally changed my life from that day on. . . . It was the start of a new life; I was a lesbian. (Cathy)


Personal transformation: Epiphanies are an experience of profound change and transformation in self-identity. The most compelling element of the participants epiphanies was the change and transformation that took place in the way they viewed themselves and their world. The transformations were varied; they included finding a voice and expressing a purpose (Peter), identifying with nursing as a profession and metaphor for empathy and insight into self-identity and others (Michelle), the conscious recall and acknowledgment of the impact of childhood sexual abuse (Janet), and the creation of a new sexual orientation (Cathy).
And that was the point I had reached, and at last I realized that I was mythologizing my life, and I gave this speech about how I turned my life around. I was able to hold up a novel that I had published about an idea that Id always had. And I talked freely about what it was like to be Lucys father, and I talked about laughter, and I talked about silly things we did, crazy times, the inspirational times we had together. . . . I woke up the next day, and I realized that the way I was going, I was not actually going to have the right to make that speech. That future moment, that visioning, was my epiphany to say, I want that moment. (Peter) There was always the invisible control sitting on the back of my shoulder. I was always alert and fearful. I felt unsure of myself. . . . Since coming out as a lesbian, its now all right for me to be Cathy. . . . I feel that I dont need to please others nearly as much as I used to. (Cathy)

Illumination/insight: Epiphanies are an acute awareness of something new, something that the individual had been previously blind to. Each of the participants experienced a significant insight, which had the effect of illuminating elements of self-identity that had once remained in darkness.
I thought I was a dumb person all the way through my life. I thought I had no right to have a voice and have ideas, that I didnt have the skills. Any obstacle I could put in the way, I did. From that moment on of saying that Im writing a book for the one person that really matters, that moment to hold it up to Lucy or Sophie at their 21st is the only moment in life that had any worth or any meaning to live. (Peter)

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I think really from that moment [the epiphany] that I did get a sense that I had an identity. That I knew what my identity was a long time ago, that I knew what I should have been doing. But it had been taken away from me. . . . [Its a] sense that there is a place for me at the very heart of who I am. (Michelle)

Meaning making: Epiphanies are profound insights because they are deemed significant to the individuals life. Meaning making was manifested in the participants epiphanies by viewing a particular insight or insights as profoundly significant. For example, in Peters dream, we see the linking of a future event with the creation of meaning and purpose in the present; for Michelle, it was the rediscovery of an adolescent passion and desire; for Janet, it was the linking of childhood traumas with adult emotions and behaviors; for Cathy, it was her first sexual experience with a woman that consummated her long-held curiosity about being a lesbian.
My epiphany gave me something to live for, to move toward, instead of being dead. . . . In my own way, I started to find hope and some meaning about why I was here as I realized that I didnt have a story to tell; the people around me didnt get who I was. My work hadnt been done yet. It was an idea that saved my lifemy work hadnt been done yet, and I couldnt write my own obituary yet. And then I started thinking, Well, what does that really mean? (Peter) I realized that I didnt want to be mixing with these people [in prison]. Which was also the case when I was doing hard drugs that were illegal and you get off the streets. I didnt do it for the lifestyle. I didnt really like the people you had to mix with to get the drugs. They become a part of your circle because you are back there to get your supplies. . . . I didnt like that, so it definitely wasnt about lifestyle. It was for the effect of the drug. (Janet)

Enduring nature: Although the actual epiphany is a momentary experience, the personal transformation that results is permanent and lasting. The illumination/insights coupled with the significance (meaning) attached to it created a personal transformation that was enduring and permanent.
Im committed to healing my life now. There was so much rage, anger, resentment I once held toward myself, and the world. . . . I was doing things that I wasnt even aware of, so once you become aware, you become more in tune with yourself. . . . Ill never forget the experience of going to prison, and Ill now never forget what happened to me when I was 13 and the effect it had on my life. . . .
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Much of my time and energy is going into this court case because I want society to better acknowledge and protect children from sexual predators. To show them the very serious crime that was perpetrated against me when I was 13 years old, and the damage it caused. I also want my family to acknowledge that I need to confront and heal my issues and that going to court is helping me to do that. (Janet) Once you realize youre a lesbian, you never forget it; you can try and pretend that youre not a lesbian. Some women would stop at this stage and say, Put it behind you; get on with your marriage. Youve done it all these years. You can still do it now. I couldnt. . . . I dont believe you should do this. . . . Looking back now, I feel that I always had a lesbian heart. (Cathy)

MODES OF AUTHENTICITY: EPIPHANIES, SELF-IDENTITY, AND EXISTENTIALISM The purpose of this next phase of the analysis is to apply the philosophies of self-identity within the context of existentialism to the epiphanic phenomenon. The following discussion is set out under eight fundamental conditions of existence, or existentials, identified in the works of Soren Kierkegaard (1842, 1845, 1849), Friedrich Nietzsche (1892, 1895), Martin Heidegger (1927, 1987), Jean-Paul Sartre (1939, 1943, 1948), Medard Boss (Craig, 1988), Ronald Laing (1960), and Emmy van Deurzen (2002). The eight existentials include freedom, responsibility, choice, temporality, anxiety and depression, relatedness, the sociocultural world, and meaning and purpose. Each of these fundamentals has been placed under the heading Modes of Authenticity to signify the participants illumination of the inauthentic and authentic modes of self-identity that characterized their epiphanic experience. Self-Identity and Freedom
Freedom is not absolute. . . . There are objective conditions of facticity that consciousness does not control: natural laws, physical states, and circumstances independent of my will. Freedom, however, is absolute in the sense that what we make of our circumstances, how we respond to them, the meanings we give to them are free projects that are not compelled or necessitated by objective forces. Hatab (1999, p. 161)

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The participants insight into their inauthentic and authentic modes of existence provided the impetus to appropriate their freedom and begin creating a new self-identity. However, prior to their epiphanies, the participants lives were closed off to the full range of possibilities for being and relating (Craig, 1988, p. 3).
Id really resigned myself I suppose to living a mediocre life. I had an enormous ambition to achieve nothing and quite deliberately sabotaged my career and had gone the other way. I had really destroyed possible work opportunities and relationships. (Peter) At the beginning of year 11, I left school. Got my first boyfriend when I was 16. That was really nice for me because Id never really been touched before or had anyone to communicate with or anyone to care for me. This guy, he really loved me. When I was 18, I dumped him and he was devastated. . . . I had come to the conclusion that I had to make money. That was important because that had made my parents happy, or so I thought it had. (Michelle) You knew nothing of what it was like to be a lesbian, so you just never even considered it. . . . I guess through my teens before I got married, I had met a few women that I was attracted to. (Cathy)

Through the epiphanic process (suffering and transformation), the participants wider world was opened up so that what was once left in darkness (elements of self-identity) now tended toward illumination. As Heidegger (1927) noted, Dasein discovers the world in its own way and brings it close, if it discloses itself, its own authentic Being, then this discovery of the world and this disclosure of Dasein are always accomplished as a clearing-away of concealments and obscurities (p. 129). We can see this clearing away of concealments and obscurities in Peters symbolic dream where he became open to the possibility of living (as opposed to dying via suicide) so that one day he would speak at his daughters 21st birthday. Michelles life was opened up to the possibility of living more openly by casting aside her need to gain approval and validation from her parents and others by seeking wealth and prestige. Janets second epiphany was a clearing away of the concealments that hid her childhood sexual assaults. Cathy was able to appropriate her freedom by uncovering an alternative sexual orientation, enabling an expression of her deepest inclinations.

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Self-Identity and Responsibility Being condemned to freedom means being condemned to responsibility (Sartre, 1948). We are responsible for our actions, our choices, and the creation and ongoing definition of self-identity. Guilt is the result of Daseins failure to take responsibility for its Being-towardpossibilities (Heidegger, 1927, pp. 295-297). In the absence of essence, and in the absence of God, human beings are free to be what they adopt. Since man is thus self-surpassing and can grasp objects only in relation to his or her self surpassing, the individual is at the heart and center of her or his transcendence to which she or he must take full responsibility (Sartre, 1948, p. 55). However, each of the participants, prior to their epiphanies, eschewed their responsibility:
I really think looking back on my life I was a child trying to live in an adult world. Thats how I felt all the time. When there was a problem, whether it was relationships or people at work or when I was under a lot of stress at work, it would be nothing for me to be out in my car four times a week sitting there crying. The corporate world is just too difficult for a 7-year-old, and thats how it felt. (Michelle) When I ran away from home, except for the first time, I always ran away to the country. Traveling around the country was healing in itself, almost spiritual. I was trying to run away from me, but me was with me all the time. I didnt really have any profound realizations while I was doing that. It was just an adventure that brought me away from myself; it was movement, no permanence. I didnt have to look at myself, just a journey ahead and another adventure to be had. (Janet)

Nietzsche viewed responsibility as a commitment to a continually broadening process of appropriation and enlargement of ones capacity for a meaningful life (Nehamas, 2004, p. 88). For example, Peter, following his epiphany, began to take responsibility by making choices and decisions in order to begin creating a more purposeful life.
The very next day [after his epiphany] I approached Louise and said, I need to end our marriage. I cant live like this. I need to take responsibility for my life because Ive now got a job to do. Ive got something very important to do and Ive got to go and do it. Were not growing each other. I asked the question, Is this relationship growing each other? Are we producing more than the sum of our parts? Are we inspiring
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each other? And I couldnt answer any of the questions in the affirmative. (Peter)

Self-Identity and Choice Choice, like responsibility, is intimately connected to freedom and the radical contingency and nondetermined condition of human existence (Golomb, 1995, p. 143). With freedom comes responsibility, and with responsibility come choices for defining ones self-identity. For Heidegger (1927, p. 266), choice is the primary means through which the process of individuation occurs and the primary mode for overcoming alienation and the appropriation of ones possibilities. Sartre (1939, 1943, 1948) similarly saw choice as a tool for defining and constituting personal identity. Essence consists of what the individual chooses to do, so that actions are not actions of the self; rather the self is a product of action. Prior to their epiphanies, the participants capacity for choice making, and more broadly their means of relating to the world, was influenced and shaped by their alienation.
I . . . understood the concept of cowardice at a very early age. I knew it was actually wrong to run away from these people. . . . I would run away. Cowardice has been a huge burden in my life. (Peter) For years, that whole black suit thing and corporate working environment. I just hated myself because underneath I knew I was trying to be something I wasnt. It was like I had no choice at the time. I hated myself. (Michelle) There was always the invisible control sitting on the back of my shoulder. I was always alert and fearful. I felt unsure of myself. (Cathy)

As the participants grew into adulthood, their choices continued to stem from an alienated self-identity. This became the source of their anxiety, depression, and inner turmoil prior to their epiphanies, which generated a period of deep and penetrating self-questioning. A willingness to question oneself, Kierkegaard (1849) argued, arises out of the courage to become aware of ones alienation. This provided the participants with insight and perspective, inspiring them to create new and more authentic elements of self-identity.

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For Peter, it was a choice to accept that there was something deeper within him, a voice he could share with the world; for Michelle, it was a choice to renew and reaffirm a past passion and desire to become a nurse; for Janet, it was a choice to acknowledge the impact of sexual abuse in shaping her past, allowing her to reconcile her life in the present and to project herself into the future; for Cathy, it was a choice to create a new lesbian self-identity that incorporated more supportive self-beliefs and alternative values. Self-Identity and Temporality
Whenever Dasein tacitly understands and interprets something like Being, it does so with time as its standpoint. Time must be brought to lightand genuinely conceivedthe horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it. Heidegger (1927, p. 17)

Self-identity is a synthesis of ones past, ones future possibilities, and being ahead of oneself in making a present (Heidegger, 1927, p. 350). In contrast, theories of self-identity framed within the concept of linear time are alienating because of their preoccupation with the present at the expense of the past and future possibilities. Authentic existence becomes lost in linear time because it denies the narrative structure of self-identity, which is accomplished by cumulativeness, coherence, and direction (Guignon, 1993, p. 230). A temporal analysis of epiphanies begins with the experience of anxiety, depression, and inner turmoil in the months and weeks prior to the participants epiphany. According to Heidegger (1987, p. 46), the essence of depression is a privation of timeones past is contaminated, creating a barrier to the meaningful projection of oneself into the future. Each of the participants, prior to his or her epiphany(ies), viewed his or her past life through the prism of either victimhood (Michelle, Janet, Cathy) or omnipotence (Peter). The past was relived over and again as a series of either shameful (victimhood) or guilt-inducing (omnipotent) events. Through the pain of depression, the participants asked themselves fundamental existential questions (e.g., Who am I? What is the purpose and meaning of my life? Is my life worth living anymore?). This quest for answers illuminated their inauthentic and authentic modes of existence, providing the impetus and inspiration to uncover and reconstruct their life stories in more coherent ways. The participants achieved this by renewing their respective
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pasts by integrating them into a more unified narrative, enabling them to project themselves more meaningfully into the future.
I think I used to be the child I wasthe abused childbut now that child is OK. At the time, I thought everything about me was rotten. Really, I was a shy child. Whether things would have been different if circumstance had been different I dont know, but I think really I was quite shy and sensitive and would never have been the leader of the pack at school. Its just an acceptance that that was the child I was and that child is now actually fine. (Michelle) I was doing things that I wasnt even aware of, so once you become aware, you become more in tune with yourself. (Janet)

Self-Identity, Anxiety, and Depression

Emotion is not an accident, it is a mode of our conscious existence, one of the ways in which consciousness understands . . . its Being-in-the-world. Sartre (1939, p. 61)

Anxiety and depression represent a uniquely human experience because unlike animals, human beings are open to their world; they are interpretative, temporal, meaning-making creatures (Heidegger, 1927; Kierkegaard, 1845). The root of anxiety and depression is an overriding sense of meaninglessness concerning ones past and possible future, leading to a closing down of ones possibilities. In contrast to modern theories of psychopathology (Salecl, 2004), Kierkegaard (1849) viewed melancholy, irony, anxiety, and despair as the beginning of selfhood; they are moods that prompt a deep and penetrating inspection of ones existence, including ones tragedies.
The warden locked the cell door, and this terrible fear arose inside me. Im sitting on the edge of the bed and somebodys mouthing off in the next cell. Babbling on. Im looking around and Ive been told this is my home for the next 2 weeks until I go to court, and Im thinking, I cant believe Im in here. I want to get out. . . . Why am I here? Im not a bad person. Why have I ended up here? How is it that my life has become so out of control? (Janet) Youve had enough and you really dont care anymore about what others might think of you. I just remember asking myself the question, What about me? It really becomes about survival. You come to this momentous decision, Am I going to live, because I havent
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made a decision on that yet? If I am going to live, its going to be my life, because if I have to keep living like this, I am not going to stay around anymore. (Cathy)

It is argued that the trigger for the participants epiphanies was the manner in which they resolved their suffering. A common approach to suffering is to trade ones static, alienated self-identity for another static, alienated self-identity (Kierkegaard, 1849). In contrast, the participants in this inquiry chose to resolve their suffering by making a frightening leap toward a yet-to-be-determined self-identity (Golomb, 1995, p. 51; Sartre, 1948, pp. 27-28).
One of the biggest changes since my epiphany is that I feel I have permission to open the box titled Peters Identity. . . . What are the things in this box that actually says the identity of who this person is? And thats pretty exciting, and thats keeping me alive more than anything because now Im intrigued. I know its not an empty box anymore. (Peter) I used to always look at other people and think they do that well, their hair looks great, and maybe I should do that. A lot of them were men like my father that I looked up to. Since the epiphany, there hasnt been anyone. I really dont feel like that about people anymore. I dont want to be anyone else. I feel like when I meet people, theyre not on that pedestal anymore. . . . Since I have more of an identity about myself, theres not that great need to go out and find it in others. (Michelle)

Self-Identity and Relatedness Self-identity is always in context with others; we exist in a relational field. Our fundamental relatedness means that our awareness of ourselves is intersubjective (Heidegger, 1927, pp. 118-119; Sartre, 1948, p. 45). The participants capacity for relatedness, and the formation of an ontologically secure self-identity (Laing, 1960, p. 39), was arrested because of his or her relational experiences in childhood and adolescence.
From that time [the attack in the common], that set in place a chain of insecurity and inferiority about my looks, about who I was, my whole identity. (Peter) My parents ignored my sister and I; it was like this disease that ran through my whole family. (Michelle)

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She [her mother] was totally controlled by my father when he was around, and she played the submissive role. When he wasnt around, she would often complain to us children about him; however, when he was around, it was suddenly her and him against the kids. (Cathy)

As a result of their respective epiphanies and the creation of a more ontologically secure self-identity, each of the participants capacity for relatedness improved. Their epiphanies illuminated their isolation from, and fear of, others. As they grew in confidence, they became more honest with themselves and less defensive, pulling away their masks and learning to be more open and genuine with others. As Golomb (1990, p. 246) argued, it is only by changing ones relationship with oneself that one is able to change ones relationships with others. What is striking about the participants experience of life before and after their epiphanies is the courage they drew from making a leap toward a yet-to-be-determined self-identity; this had implications for each of the participants in the way they began to negotiate the fundamental condition of relatedness. For example, as Peter let go of his victim mentality, he was able to finally make a decision to end his loveless, sexless marriage. Michelles increased self-awareness and confidence, which stemmed from the construction of greater meaning and purpose in her life, gave her the courage to let go of her needy-dependent behavior, enabling her to forge deeper, less superficial connections with others. By facing and transcending her shame and guilt, Janet was able to summon up the courage to take the man who raped her to court. Cathys coming out as a lesbian gave her the courage to live by and express her own values, instead of trying to please and gain approval from others. Self-Identity and the Socio-Cultural World Nietzsche saw the process of authenticity as an artistic creation to be expressed in much the same way as a writer approaches a literary work; self-identity is uniquely distinctive with no template or pregiven standards (Golomb, 1995, pp. 68-69; Guignon, 2004b, p. 131). Nietzsche (1895) believed that because of the challenges posed by this monumental task, many individuals, and society more widely, prefer to avoid it. They do this by hiding behind social, political, and religious ideologies/identities or other alienated identities that seek to protect and immure against the conditions of existence. In the participants life stories, we see various sociocultural standards close down the possibility for authentic modes of existence. Downloaded from at MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE LIBRARY on January 27, 2014

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Catholic schools are very unjust places because they support the strong and subjugate the weak. Its a real survival of the fittest environment, like Lord of the Flies. (Peter) I remember my confirmation in church, and it just made me feel even more guilty for having allowed myself to be raped. It was around the time of my confirmation that I began smoking marijuana. (Janet) As I was growing up, I realized that homosexuality for both men and women was a taboo subject. I remember being taught by a teacher who was a lesbian, and when I told my parents, they explained that it was something that should never be talked about: You keep these things to yourself. . . . At school, homosexuality was only ever talked about in a derogatory manner or as a form of verbal abuse. . . . I had boyfriends at school and remember being well liked by them, yet you knew nothing of what it was like to be a lesbian, so you just never even considered it. (Cathy)

The participants epiphanies represented an overcoming of repressive sociocultural standards; for example, in Janets life story, we see the development of greater spiritual maturation away from organized religion, whereas in Cathy, we see a newfound courage to face societys prejudices toward homosexuality.
I have become very skeptical of religion. If you look at my parents, they are supposed to be religious, but theyre not spiritual people. Their religious faith has more to do with tradition in terms of what should be done rather than any emphasis on a spiritual life. . . . Since my epiphany, I feel I have become a more spiritual person, especially in the way I think about death. . . . Im definitely more spiritual because of it, but Im definitely not religious like my parents. (Janet) There is a lot of fear and prejudice around lesbians, or gay couples in general. . . . Because you are gay, people think that you are attracted to all women. This isnt right. Lesbians are attracted to other lesbians. . . . A lesbian is a woman who is attracted to other lesbians. (Cathy)

Self-Identity, Meaning, and Purpose A meaningful life begins with a commitment to openness, illumination, and insight and a commitment to ones possibilities as opposed to being closed off, concealed, and alienated (Heidegger, cited in Guignon, 2004a, p. 128). If we accept the idea that selfidentity is a vocation, then part of this task is to create something
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that is worth living and fighting for, even dying for (van Deurzen, 2002, p. 32). The paradox inherent in this struggle is that one must first pass through a crisis of meaninglessness (Sartre, 1938) by confronting utter despair (Kierkegaard, 1849).
I realized from the time I began working that I had been pursuing something, chasing something, some sort of purpose that was defined by career and not necessarily by a breadth of who you are, and an identity. So I wasnt building an all-round person. . . . After periods of crisis I simply fell into a deep sleep. . . . In a sense, I had become alienated from myself, everyone, and everything around me. (Peter) I was extremely lonely. It was like I was in this huge city. There were people bustling everywhere, and I wasnt a part of it. That made it even lonelier. . . . I would think, Where are they going? What have they got to do? These people have somewhere to go, something to do. They know who they are. They know what to do. Theyve got a loved one somewhere. It was always that sense of not knowing who I am, what Im supposed to be doing. (Michelle)

Meaning and purpose, according to van Deurzen (2002, p. 184), can be created only if we are prepared to make those commitments to our conscious dictates. Listening to ones inner voice offers insight into the contrasting modes of inauthentic and authentic self-identity, which stimulate an awareness and understanding of new meaning. Awareness of the various modes of existence offers alternative self-identities, ones with new possibilities, priorities, values, and basic assumptions. By listening to their conscious dictates, the participants became inspired and motivated to begin taking responsibility for defining themselves by committing to a purpose and, with it, a new direction in life.
I think thats what I want my mission in life to be. Someone who sits there and is a modern-day scribe of these things. Someone who can be a philosopher and share those stories with other people in life. Thats a mission now. I never realized that it was something that was accessible to me. I never realized that thats the mythology of who I am and what I want to be. So Ive started to get to the point of identity. (Peter) For me, nursing isnt about sticking up IVs and things like that. [Its a] sense that there was a place for me at the very heart of who I was. Its . . . about connecting with people. Thats what really sustains me. The money wasnt sustaining me. Money wasnt giving me that sense of connecting with people. (Michelle)
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CONCLUSION To sum up, the participants epiphanic transformations began with a crisis of meaninglessness and guilt associated with the deliberate closing down of their possibilities. This led to frustration, discontent, and eventually turmoil, depression, and neurotic anxiety. The participants strategies for avoiding the conditions of existence began to fail, out of which arose a distinctive catalytic depression characterized by intense self-analysis and a penetrating reflection on their situation in the world. They acknowledged and encountered the conditions of existence (freedom, responsibility, choice, temporality, anxiety and depression, meaning and purpose, and others such as death), which provided the impetus for a reappraisal and questioning of their basic assumptions, values, and beliefs. This created a dissonance between the minor insights gained during this period of self-analysis and the past choices they had made in their life. This process was coupled with a significant event, whether coincidental or not, in which the participants responded with sheer force of will and passion by summoning a profound insight or perspective into consciousness, which led to the painful realization of their inauthentic mode of existence. The participants resolved to overcome their alienation by undertaking a frightening leap (existential leap) into the unknown toward a new and more authentic self-identity, where they were prepared to acknowledge and negotiate the conditions of existence. In terms of implications, it is argued that this inquiry illustrates one process by which adult survivors of child abuse may achieve recovery. It provides an understanding on the nature of growth and transcendence in a population whose development in childhood is often seriously arrested. It builds on anecdotal evidence from the field of trauma counseling, which suggests that sudden positive transformations in adult survivors of childhood abuse are not a rare phenomenon (Tennen & Affleck, 1998, pp. 8688). In fact, sudden positive transformations in general are more common than many people think. For example, stories from participants of Alcoholics Anonymous are littered with accounts of sufferers who have reported the sudden and complete loss of the desire to drink, persisting for the remainder of their lives (Forcehimes, 2004; Kurtz, 1988). One of the most striking aspects of this inquiry was the way in which the participants negotiated the existential dilemmas in their lives, using them to redefine their self-identities, testifying
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to the power of human freedom and choice in triggering positive transformations. It also highlights the extraordinary resources that the participants called on to make positive lifelong changes, all of which occurred outside the consulting room. This suggests that other, less intensive forms of personal development, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, outdoor education (such as Outward Bound), and career development and counseling, have the potential to trigger positive change and transformation by creating opportunities for participants to reflect on the fundamental conditions of existence and the manner in which they encounter and negotiate these givens of life. Finally, epiphanies are just one type of positive change and growth among many others; they are no more or less important than other slower, more incremental types of positive change. Furthermore, authentic modes of existence may be illuminated through an epiphany but never permanently attained. Authenticity is a transient state of existence because the self, according to Heidegger (1927), is immersed in the average everydayin alienationand so is continuously drawn toward the inauthentic (Ciaffa, 1987). Therefore, epiphanies do not represent the final goal or endpoint in a journey toward self-becoming.

1. Pseudonyms have been used to identify each of the participants.

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