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Speaking silence: The social construction of silence in autobiographical and

cultural narratives
Robyn Fivush a
Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
First Published on: 29 June 2009

To cite this Article Fivush, Robyn(2009)'Speaking silence: The social construction of silence in autobiographical and cultural

To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/09658210903029404


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MEMORY, 0000, 00 (00), 111

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Speaking silence: The social construction of silence

in autobiographical and cultural narratives
Robyn Fivush
Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA
Voice and silence are socially constructed in conversational interactions between speakers and listeners
that are influenced by canonical cultural narratives which define lives and selves. Arguing from feminist
and sociocultural theories, I make a distinction between being silenced and being silent; when being
silenced is contrasted with voice, it is conceptualised as imposed, and it signifies a loss of power and self.
But silence can also be conceptualised as being silent, a shared understanding that need not be voiced.
More specifically, culturally dominant narratives provide for shared understandings that can remain
silent; deviations from the norm call for voice, and thus in this case silence is power and voice expresses
loss of power. At both the cultural and the individual level, there are tensions between culturally
dominant and prescriptive narratives and narratives of resistance and deviation, leading to an ongoing
dialectic between voice and silence. I end with a discussion of why, ultimately, it matters what is voiced
and what is silenced for memory, identity and well-being.

Keywords: Memory; Autobiography; Voice and Silence.

To a large extent, we are the stories we tell about

ourselves (Bruner, 1990; McAdams, 2001). As we
narrate experienced events to ourselves and to
others, we simultaneously create structure and
meaning in our lives (Fivush, 2008; McLean,
Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007). Through autobiographical narratives rich with explanatory and evaluative frameworks that weave together people,
places, and events imbued with psychological
states, intentions, and motivations, we create
stories that define who we are in time and place
and in relation to others. But what about what is
not said? Narrating our experiences by very
definition implies a process of editing and selecting, voicing some aspects of what occurred and

therefore silencing other aspects. How does voice

inform silence and, just as important, how does
silence inform voice? As Jean Braham (1995),
p. 45) states, We see the past . . . in something of
the same way we see a Henry Moore sculpture.
The holes define the shape. What is left
repressed, or what cannot be uttered, is often as
significant to the whole shape of the life as what is
In this paper I provide a framework for a more
nuanced understanding of voice and silence.
More specifically, I make a distinction between
being silenced and being silent; when being
silenced is contrasted with voice, it is conceptualised as imposed, and it signifies a loss of power

Address correspondence to: Robyn Fivush, Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. E-mail:
Parts of this paper were presented at the biennial meetings of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in July
2007, and many people have helped me think through the ideas expressed here, including David Pillemer, William Hirst, Monisha
Pasupathi, Kate McLean, Tillman Habermas, and the members of my ongoing research reading group, especially Regina Pyke,
Widaad Zaman, Theo Waters, Joanne Deocampo, and Marina Larkina*although, of course, any errors or inconsistencies are
entirely my own. This paper was written in part as a contribution to an interdisciplinary project on The Pursuit of Happiness
established by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and supported by a grant from the John Templeton

# 2009 Psychology Press, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an Informa business

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and self. But silence can also be conceptualised

as being silent, a shared understanding that need
not be voiced, and in this sense silence can be a
form of power, and the need to speak, to voice,
represents a loss of power.
In developing these arguments I posit that
both voice and silence are socially constructed in
conversational interactions between speakers and
listeners, in which voice and silence are negotiated, imposed, contested, and provided. Further,
these local conversational interactions must be
understood within cultural frameworks that define the shape of a life. Cultures provide canonical
narratives that are both normative and prescriptive about lives and about selves, and the ways in
which specific experiences conform or deviate
from these narratives create spaces for voice and
silence. As we talk about our past in everyday
interactions, what is said and what remains unsaid
between speakers and listeners helps us form and
re-form our personal memories that are the base
of our individual identity.
To place these arguments in context, I first
describe autobiographical memory and autobiographical narratives, and the role that language plays in intertwining the two. I then turn to
feminist conceptions of power, voice, and silence,
and discuss ways in which conceptualisations of
voice as power and silence as oppression may not
be adequate. In particular, I argue that silence can
lead to power through providing the space for the
creation of narratives of resistance and healing.
The concept of resistance narratives calls for a
more detailed discussion of culturally canonical
narratives, which I turn to in the third section.
I argue that shared narratives provide for shared
understanding, which does not necessarily have to
be voiced; rather deviations from the norm call for
voice, and thus, in this case, silence is power and
voice is loss of power. Finally, in the concluding
section I address why, ultimately, voice and silence
matter: for memory, for individual identity, and for
a sense of well-being in the world.

Obviously, autobiographical memory and autobiographical narratives are not the same; memories
are multi-modal, and include information encoded
and stored at multiple levels (e.g., implicit and
explicit, episodic and semantic); recent models of
autobiographical memories suggest that autobiographical memories are highly dynamic; each time

a memory is brought to mind, it is reconstructed in

the moment to serve the goals of the current
situation (see, e.g., Conway & Pleydell-Pearce,
2000; Rubin, 2006). Importantly, these reconstructions are based on bits and pieces of accurately
recalled information (see Rubin, 1996, for an
overview), but these bits and pieces must be
integrated into a meaningful whole to form an
autobiographical memory (as opposed to a fragment or an image), and this meaningful whole
most often takes the form of a narrative (Nelson &
Fivush, 2004).
Narratives are culturally canonical linguistic
forms that modulate the organisation of experienced events. Narratives provide a sequential
organisation that specifies the unfolding of an
event along temporal lines, but even more so,
narratives provide an explanatory and evaluative
framework for understanding how and why events
unfold as they do (Bruner, 1990; Fivush & Haden,
1997; Fivush & Nelson, 2006; Labov & Waletzky,
1967; Peterson & McCabe, 1994). Narratives move
beyond a simple script or chronology to imbue a
sequence of actions with causal links that explain
why one action follows another, and, critically,
does so within a folk psychology that interweaves
actions in the world with human thoughts, motivations, and emotions. Thus a narrative provides
an account of what happened that is dense with
interpersonal meaning and evaluation.
Clearly, language is a critical tool for organising
and expressing the past through narratives. Following from a sociocultural perspective (Nelson,
1996; Vygotsky, 1978), language allows both for
social transmission of culturally constructed ideas
and ideals, and for providing new ways of organising and representing personal experience (Fivush
& Nelson, 2004; Nelson & Fivush, 2004). It is
through language that we share our past, and
it is through language that we construct socially
mediated interpretations and evaluations of the
past (Fivush, 2001; Fivush & Nelson, 2006). It is as
we share the past with others through language
that events of the past take on different meanings
and different evaluations. Thus there is a dialectical relation between memory and narrative, in
that the ways in which the past is shared in social
interaction will change the way in which the past is
subsequently understood and remembered by the
individual. Although memories are not simply
linguistically represented, linguistically based narratives become a critical filter through which our
memories evolve.


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The role of language as a tool in the formation of
both autobiographical narratives and evolving
autobiographical memories suggests that how
and what is narrated about the past is pivotal for
what is remembered. Narratives emerge in social
interactions, in which certain events, and especially certain interpretations and evaluations of
events, will be validated. Through multiple tellings, narratives become accepted (or contested, as
I argue in more detail below) evaluative versions
of the past. In this way, narratives take on a moral
perspective, explicating not just what happened
and what it means, but what it should mean,
essentially getting to the truth of the matter
(Freeman, 2007; Sclater, 2003). Thus the question
becomes: Who has the right to say what really
Feminist theorists of autobiography struggle
with the question of who has the authority to
author the autobiography by placing arguments
about voice and silence within concepts of place
and power (Braham, 1995; Fivush, 2000, 2004;
Rosser & Miller, 2000; Yoder & Kahn, 1992).
Each individual is situated in a particular place
in cultural and historical time, in which specific
enduring aspects of the individual are valued in
particular ways, e.g., race, gender, class. Being an
individual of a particular race, gender, and class
provides and denies access to particular aspects
of experience (Alcoff & Potter, 1993; Harding,
1993). For example, a female in modern industrialised society has access to very different
experiences from a female in a traditional culture
200 years ago. Ones place in the world partly
determines the types of experiences one might
have and how one might be allowed to communicate these experiences to others (Fivush &
Marin, 2007). Thus power emerges from place,
and voice emerges from power. Societal roles that
are imbued with power have the opportunity
to shape the culturally shared narrative that is
both normative and prescriptive. Culturally canonical, or dominant, narratives provide a culturally
shared understanding of the shape of a life and
how a life is to be understood, and in this way
cultural narratives provide authority to define a
culturally appropriate narrative of a life, and the
power to validate certain narratives over others.
From this perspective, power gives voice.
However, power is a relational construct (Yoder
& Kahn, 1992); who has power in any given

situation and culture is always in process; power

is negotiated, imposed, taken, and given, and
speakers and listeners navigate voice and silence
in an ongoing dialectic in everyday interactions, as
I discuss in more detail below. Thus there are
multiple levels of accepted and contested narratives that co-exist and mutually influence each
other at all points. The culturally dominant narratives provide the most powerful narrative for
the group and this is the narrative that must be
constantly negotiated. Marginalised groups that
may be silenced at one level by the dominant
cultural narrative may develop narratives within
the group, often called resistance narratives, that
challenges the explanations and moral imperatives
imposed by the dominant narrative, as discussed in
more detail below. Importantly, it may be whole
events that are contested, or parts of events, or
specific interpretations (Fivush, 2004). Thus voice
and silence must always be conceptualised within
evolving power structures at multiple levels of
social organisation, creating multiple narratives
that may be in tension with each other.


In feminist conceptualisations of voice and silence, silence is seen as an absence or a gap
(Belenky, Clinchey, Goldberg, & Tarule, 1986;
Gilligan, 1982; for a review, see Simpson & Lewis,
2005; see Fivush, 2004, for a model of voice and
silence as it pertains specifically to autobiographical memory). In the words of E. Annie Proulx,
It didnt seem like the kind of story that would
gather with time, but instead would retract,
condense, and turn into one of those things that
nobody talked about, and in a year or so it would
all be forgotten (1992, p. 21). At its most simple,
what is given voice will be recalled and what is
silenced will be forgotten. Marginalised experiences or oppressed groups are not given credibility and therefore their voices are silenced.
But this is only one, albeit critical, conceptualisation of silence, that of being silenced. Silence
can also be conceptualised as quiet, restful,
reflective, that of being silent. Silence can be a
form of intimacy, being silent together, or a form
of privacy, being silent alone. Silence can be a
form of respect. One can even be silent in the
midst of speaking; by voicing some aspects of
experience, one may be silencing other aspects of
experience; talk does not always imply voice.

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Moreover, silence can be intentional or unintentional, momentary or enduring (for various definitions and typologies of silence, see Elson, 2001;
Kurzon, 2007; Scott, 1993). More to the point of
my arguments here, being silent can also be a
form of power; by not speaking one is claiming
that one need not explain or justify. Further,
by being silent, one can impose silence on others.
Clearly, the construct of silence, and therefore voice, is multidimensional and needs to be
explicated if it is to serve as an explanatory construct in psychological research. Here, I focus on
two theoretically critical aspects of silence: silence
as imposed, i.e., being silenced, and silence as
shared, i.e., the background of shared knowledge
and understanding that need not be voiced.

Silence as imposed: Being silenced

Being silenced is almost always conceptualised as
negative. Examples of this type of silencing
include the silencing of trauma in general and
violent trauma in particular. For instance, survivors of sexual violence are implicitly or explicitly
told not to talk about their experiences, and when
they do, they are either not believed or belittled,
or blamed for what happened1 (Enns, McNeilly,
Corkery, & Gilbert, 1995). Similarly, survivors of
horrific war trauma come home to families that
do not want to hear their experiences, tell them to
forget them, that it would be better not to
remember (Shay, 1996). The dominant cultural
narrative cannot absorb these stories; we cannot
live in a world where women are brutalised and
brave soldiers commit atrocities to ensure our
safety. Trauma survivors describe a conspiracy of
silence where they feel a need to testify to their
experiences, to make them real and to make
themselves whole again, but society will not let
them speak, leading to a fragmented or shattered

As discussed in Enns et al. (1995), there is some

controversy over whether sexual violence is still being
silenced in this culture and even some discussion over
whether narratives of sexual abuse are being encouraged in
therapeutic situations and in the media. This obviously relates
to the controversy over recovered and implanted memories,
which is well beyond the scope of this paper. However,
interviews with adult women who were sexually abused as
children by family members continue to indicate that the
majority of these women believe that their experiences are
being silenced within their own families and communities, and
that, if anything, the cultural changes in narratives of sexual
abuse have distorted their personal experiences through
biased characterisations of both victims and perpetrators.

sense of self (Janoff-Bulmen, 1992). As Susan

Brison (2002, p. 16) writes of her experiences
coping with a violent rape, . . . its essential to
talk about it again and again. Its a way of
remastering the trauma, although it can be
retraumatizing when people refuse to listen. In
my case, each time someone failed to respond I
felt as if I were alone again in the ravine, dying,
screaming. And still no one could hear me. Or,
worse, they heard me, but refused to help. This
concept of silence is essentially a loss of voice and
a loss of power, and can lead to loss of a coherent
identity (Brison, 2002; Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
Silencing occurs at the cultural level for
experiences that do not fit the culturally dominant narrative, and it also occurs at the conversational level with specific others who cannot hear
what the speaker is trying to say. This can take the
form of actually silencing, as in not allowing the
speaker to talk, or it can be silencing through
refusing to believe (Butler, 1999), deliberately
misunderstanding or re-interpreting the event in
ways that do not validate the speakers experiences (Brison, 2002; Janoff-Bulman, 1992), or
simply by being distracted and inattentive
(e.g., Pasupathi, 2001; Pasupathi, Stallworth &
Murdoch, 1998). Importantly, when speakers and
listeners accept one version of the story, by
focusing on one set of facts and not speaking of
or listening to another set of facts, the ignored
aspects of the story are subsequently more
difficult to retrieve from memory (Echterhoff,
Higgins, & Levine, in press; Cue, Koppel, &
Hirst, 2007); thus in the very act of voicing
some aspects of an event and silencing other
aspects, individuals create narratives in which
what is voiced becomes privileged in memory
and what is silenced becomes more and more
difficult to recall.
It is also possible for speakers to deliberately
silence themselves. Sometimes this may be simple
impression management (Snell, Belk, Flowers,
& Warren, 1988). But sometimes this can be a
deliberate decision not to share certain experiences with others because the speaker thinks the
listener will not understand or care, or because
the speaker believes the experience is simply too
hard to hear. In my own interviews with women
who had been severely sexually abused by family
members as children (Fivush & Edwards, 2004),
many women began the conversation asking me if
I was sure I wanted to hear their stories, that the
stories were hard to hear and there were things
I may not want to know. These kinds of concerns

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indicate the extent to which these women understand both that they are being silenced by others
who cannot bear to hear their stories, as well as
silencing themselves in order to maintain social
contact with others.
Finally, self-silencing can also occur defensively, when individuals cannot even tell these
stories to themselves (Elson, 2001). Individuals
may engage in active forgetting of experiences
that are too painful or disturbing to remember
(Brewin, 2003; Freyd, 1996), leading to an
inability to voice these experiences even if a
sympathetic listener was available.2 In the words
of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (Fivush &
Edwards, 2004, p. 11), Its still hard for me to
accept . . . there are occasions, even, I guess its
called denial, even knowing all of it. Once in a
while, I mean, it goes through my head, like, oh,
you know I must be nuts or Im making all this up.
I mean fathers, how could they do this? In these
cases, silencing leads to an inability or unwillingness to remember, creating a gap in ones understanding of the world and of ones self (JanoffBulman, 1992).
When silence is imposed, by self or by others, it
can lead to a loss of memory and a loss of part of
the self. Silence as loss of voice and loss of power
is virtually always seen as negative. In fact, this
kind of silencing can lead to both psychological
and physical problems. The ability to speak and to
be heard, on the other hand, is associated with
psychological and physical well-being (for reviews
see Frattaroli, 2006; Pennebaker, 1997). But
silence need not always be imposed; silence can
be shared, and in sharing silence a very different
conceptualisation of silence emerges.

Silence as shared: Being silent

In contrast to being silenced, being silent can have
positive benefits. Here I focus on being silent with
others, where silence is shared*although
obviously being silent alone can also have positive
benefits, as in meditation or quiet reflection. In
social interactions a listener can silence the
speaker through distraction and inattention,

It should be noted that some recent research on

repressive coping styles, in which individuals direct attention
away from highly negative experiences, may actually promote
resilience in the face of adversity (Coifman, Bonnano, Ray, &
Gross, 2007). Thus self-silencing in this sense may provide
some positive benefits.

and in this sense, silence can be punitive and

judgemental (Kurzon, 2007). But an attentive
albeit silent listener may be an invitation to speak,
and to be heard (Alerby & Elidottir, 2003; Scott,
1993). Similarly, when a speaker and listener
are silent together it may signal a breakdown
of communication, but it may also be a silent
attunement, a sense of simply being together in
the moment, that may actually promote healing
(Elson, 2001).
We also see this at the cultural level in
moments of silence to commemorate great
losses, and the use of sacred spaces to create
quiet reflection; these moments bring people
together and help create a shared history and an
emotional bond (Kurzon, 2007). In these situations, where being silent together creates a shared
space where the speaker and listener are emotionally attuned, silence may promote a sense of
belonging. Whereas high levels of emotional
distress may lead to feelings of separation and
alienation from others, a sense of difference or
otherness (Brison, 2002; Harding. 1993), creating shared silence may promote a sense of pulling
together, of sharing great emotions, and thus may
facilitate identification and affiliation with others.


Moments of shared silence can also provide the
space for the creation of a new narrative, a
narrative of resistance. When dominant groups
impose silence on marginalised groups, these
individuals experience a loss of voice and a loss
of power within the dominant culture. But when
marginalised groups come together, the narratives they tell among themselves may begin
to take shape. Resistance narratives use the
dominant narrative as a starting point, agreeing
on many of the main facts, but the subjective
perspective changes, and the moral stance slips
from the dominant to the marginalised narrative
perspective. Recent US resistance narratives that
have over time been able to modulate the
culturally dominant narrative include narratives
of the civil rights movement and the second wave
of the womens movement. Critically, it is by
claiming the moral truth that resistance narratives
gain their power. Through claiming the authority
to author the narrative, and especially the evaluative moral stance conveyed in the narrative,
resistance narratives can create chinks in the

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dominant narrative and begin to allow for the

construction of new, more nuanced cultural narratives to emerge.
Marginalised groups that are able to create and
maintain narratives of resistance that provide
them with a sense of shared history may be able
to maintain better psychological and physical
health than marginalised groups who are unable
to create and maintain a resistance narrative. For
example, Chandler and Proulx (2008) have examined cultural narratives among native tribes in
northwest Canada, and find that adolescents living
in tribes without a shared narrative of their own
history have substantially higher suicide rates than
adolescents living in tribes that have maintained
their own history in resistance to the culturally
dominant narrative. Thus, speaking through silence by creating narratives of resistance that are
shared among members of a marginalised group
questions the moral authority of the culturally
dominant narrative, and in this way can be


Thus far I have mentioned the idea of culturally
dominant narratives but have not yet discussed
them in detail. Cultures provide a shared understanding of what a life looks like, the types of
experiences to be expected and the ages at which
they are most likely to happen. For example,
Meyer (1988) argues that modern Western cultures divide a life into stages based on education
and work life, with the end of childhood and
beginning of adulthood coinciding with school
graduation and the beginning of old age coinciding with retirement. Although life stages may be
heavily based on biological factors (e.g., puberty,
childbearing), cultures modulate these biological
considerations in forming social expectations. For
example, with the advent of the second wave of
the womens movement, age of childbirth is now a
much wider culturally acceptable window than
previously (Rindfuss, Morgan, & Offatt, 1996).
Similarly, with modern life requiring more and
more education in order to become a productive
member of society, adolescence has stretched
out to include ages that were previously considered young adults (18 to 21 years old), and we
now have a category of emerging adulthood to
describe people in their early 20s. All of this is to
make the point that cultures define ages and

stages of a life that impact on how individuals

construct their own life trajectory.
Within psychology, there is growing evidence
that individuals, at least in modern Western
cultures, share a script or canonical cultural
biography of what a typical life looks like
(Berntsen & Rubin, 2004; Berntsen & Bohn, in
press; Habermas & Bluck, 2000). For example,
Berntsen and her colleagues have demonstrated
that when asked to list the most important events
that any given individual in the culture will
experience and the age at which they will experience that event, there is high agreement across
research participants of different ages, and different industrialised cultures in identifying the core
events that define a typical life. Thus the life script
is a schematised framework shared among members of a culture for representing a typical life
common across individuals.
Moreover, individuals seem to define their own
life narrative in relation to the cultural life script
(Berntsen & Bohn, in press). In constructing a
sense of ones own life, individuals reference the
life script and compare similarities and differences. Thus the life narrative is the story of the
individual life as it is placed within the cultural life
script. Further, individual identity is at least partly
defined by the life narrative. Who we are is linked
to the story we tell about ourselves (McAdams,
2001). Thus identity is guided by the life narrative
and the life narrative is guided by the life script.
As each individual constructs a narrative identity
that defines an individual life story of the self, they
seem to do so in relation to cultural expectations
of what a typical life looks like.
Although life scripts have been postulated to
be normative, describing typical events and ages,
they also serve a prescriptive function. It is not
simply that one typically graduates high school at
age 18, but that one should graduate high school
at age 18. It is not simply that one typically gets
married and begins a career path in ones 20s but
that one should get married and begin a career
path in ones 20s. Indeed, if one deviates from
the life script there is a sense in which an
explanation is needed, and this explanation takes
the form of a narrative. Critically, although one
may have narratives of culturally important transitions, such as high school graduation and the
birth of a first child, these narratives are
not explanatory (e.g., Pasupathi, Mansour, &
Brubaker, 2007); individuals do not need to
engage the listener in constructing a coherent
explanation of why this event occurred. In fact,

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unless something interesting or surprising

happened during this event (e.g., tripping and
falling on the way to the graduation podium;
spilling the wedding punch on your new in-laws),
these stories tend to be flat descriptions, with little
narrative tension. When the individual violates
expectations and/or deviates from the life script,
an explanatory narrative is necessary, and this
narrative changes the course of the life from the
culturally assumed life script. Thus one need not
voice the canonical but must voice the deviation
from the canonical. Individuals that conform to
the life script may remain silent, but those that
deviate must speak.
As argued by Simpson and Lewis (2005), in
contrast to liberal feminist theories that posit
voice as power, post-structuralist theories posit
silence as power; essentially the canonical is the
unmarked and therefore does not need to be
voiced. If the canonical is expected, there is no
need to voice it; it is the given, the invisible
background of shared understanding. This conception of silence is the freedom not to speak, to
be silent, the freedom to assume shared knowledge that comes from a position of power. The
need to speak, to give voice to experience, comes
from a need to explain, justify, rationalise, convince, both others and oneself. From this perspective, when power gives voice, silence is oppressive,
but when power gives silence, voice is justification.

Master narratives
Whereas life scripts provide a series of normative
and prescriptive events, master narratives provide
culturally shared evaluative frameworks (Thorne
& McLean, 2003). Narratives are empowering, in
that narratives move beyond description to provide an evaluative framework that carries moral
justification. Master narratives are essentially
cultural myths and motifs that provide a moral,
ethical, and affective framework for understanding events. A classic master narrative in American
culture is the Horatio Alger story of a young
poor immigrant boy who worked his way from
rags to riches. This story is a morality tale about
overcoming adversity, pulling oneself up by the
bootstraps, working hard and ultimately achieving
material success. It is the American Dream.
McAdams (2006) has identified a master narrative that is pervasive in American culture, the
redemption narrative. In this narrative the individual, often from an early place of privilege, faces

some significant adversity, and by facing and

overcoming this adversity becomes a better
person. It is a survivor narrative. Master narratives
may also be gendered. Thorne and McLean (2003)
found that males were more likely to tell John
Wayne narratives, in which the narrator overcomes adversity through individual strengths,
whereas females are more likely to tell Florence
Nightingale narratives, where the narrator succeeds through helping others. These narrative
motifs provide templates for the explanatory
narratives that are necessary when individuals
deviate from the life script.
Critically, master narratives provide more than
explanations; they provide the moral and ethical
guidelines of how a life should be lived (Freeman,
2007). In addition to the prescriptive events of a
life script, which can be said to define a good
life, master narratives provide the framework
for defining a moral life. A redemptive narrative goes beyond describing how adversity led to
success by describing how the individual has
become a better person, more prosocial, more
moral, more ethical, more appreciative of life,
through the very act of facing and conquering
adversity, which is itself a moral imperative: We
must be strong and overcome.
In summary, life scripts provide the form of
a typical and prescribed life. This is shared cultural knowledge and therefore may remain silent.
However, when individuals deviate from this
script, they must provide an explanatory narrative,
and this narrative will be influenced by the types
of cultural master narratives available that provide a moral and evaluative explanation of deviation. Thus a life narrative must explain why one
did not complete an education, why one did not
marry and have children, why one did not pursue a
productive career path; one does not have to have
a story of why one did complete school, marry and
have children, work productively. The deviation is
given voice, but the typical life script is silent. Note
that life scripts are not silenced; any individual
member of a given culture can provide the script.
Rather it is that the life script is the assumed,
silent canonical background, the shared cultural
knowledge, against which the narrative is told. As
assumed shared knowledge it is simply not voiced.
Deviations from the canonical require explanatory narratives, which themselves can become
morality tales and templates for others. Thus
what must be voiced and what must be silenced
are in constant tension, as normative, descriptive,
and moral cultural narratives evolve.


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Scripts within scripts; narratives within

Following from these arguments, life scripts become layered; there is the overarching cultural life
script, e.g., the American life script, but embedded
within this are scripts for sub-groups, including
racial groups (the African-American life script is
different from the Euro-American life script),
gender, ethnic minorities, immigrant groups, children of the 60s, and on and on. Each of these
groups develops its own life scripts in relation to
similarities and deviations from the overarching
cultural scripts. The points of similarity define us
all as Americans and the points of deviation
define the identity of the specific group. Within
these cultural groups are families, who also have
their canonical life scripts, and that are communicated through the generations through mythic
tales of family members (Fivush, Bohanek, &
Duke, 2008). Individuals are simultaneously members of multiple groups (and families as we move
in and out of marital relations). Thus, in any given
conversational context, different aspects of the life
narrative will need to be voiced or may remain
silent, depending on the shared understanding of
the speaker and listener.
The argument is not that an individuals memories are completely constructed in the social
interaction (e.g., Gergen, 1994), but rather that
the conversational context backgrounds certain
events and foregrounds others (Fivush & Buckner,
2003). For example, a female business executive
will share certain aspects of the life script with her
male colleagues that will lead to the voicing and
silencing of particular life stories, and this will be
different from the aspects of the life script shared
with her working mothers group. The particular
autobiographical narratives that will be told in
these two contexts will depend on different shared
representations of the world that will background
certain stories as shared understandings that do
not need to be voiced, different discrepant stories
that may need to be explained, and different
discrepant stories that will be silenced and not
told at all. However, it is also the case that if
certain stories are told certain ways multiple
times, the story becomes more entrenched. Cue
et al. (2007) have demonstrated that when certain
aspects of the story are repeatedly recalled, these
aspects become easier to recall subsequently.
More important, aspects of the story that are not
recalled by the speaker and not heard by the

listener become more and more difficult for both

speaker and listener to recall over time. Thus
in privileging certain aspects or evaluations of the
narratives, other aspects or evaluations become
more and more difficult to recall over time, and
thus become more and more likely to remain
Thus the argument is that individual life
narratives are fluid, dynamic constructions.
Depending on the cultural and conversational
context, particular canonical narratives will be
foregrounded that will help guide the retrieval of
particular memories. Most important, the canonical narratives will also guide the interpretation of
those memories; conformity does not need to be
explained or evaluated, and therefore these memories may remain unvoiced, but deviations must
be understood, and there are templates for these
kinds of narrative explanations. At the individual
level, over time, certain narratives and certain
interpretations may become more and more
stable, leading to a more stable life narrative
across contexts, and these may, in fact, become
the self-defining memories of the individual. In
this way, canonical narratives and life narratives
are in constant dialectical relation. At a cultural
level, multiple narratives are in tension, with the
culturally dominant narrative being challenged by
narratives of resistance, and as these narratives are
told and re-told, they may be integrated into the
dominant narrative, thus leading to evolving
cultural understandings of identity.

Truth and morality

As I have argued throughout this paper, narratives
provide a moral stance. People may agree on the
facts of what happened (i.e., accuracy) but if they
disagree about what those facts mean, the memory
is not perceived to be truthful in that the narrative
does not make sense (Bruner, 1990; Freeman,
2007). Truth emerges from the construction of
shared meaning, and shared meaning emerges
from the construction of shared narratives. When
the narrative is contested, there is a perception
that one narrative cannot be right whereas
the other narrative is, and, critically, the right
narrative carries the moral imperative (Freeman,
2007; Sclater, 2003). This is how resistance narratives can create change: through claiming the
moral imperative, resistance narratives challenge
the truth, not the accuracy, of culturally dominant


narratives. If truth were not contested, resistance

narratives would have no power.

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This analysis of voice and silence points to the
complex intertwining of remembering, speaking,
and silencing. Within culturally dominant narratives, where there are shared assumptions about
the events of a life, events that conform to the
script do not have to be told, yet these events are
recalled, as the skeletal backbone of the life story.
As do other types of generalised events representations, or scripts, life scripts provide schematised
versions of events, spare in detail, that provide the
shared cultural representations that need only
be referred to in passing (Nelson, 1986). Thus,
while individuals recall these events they do not
provide a rich narrative tapestry that is woven
with personal meaning. Rather it is those narratives that do not conform to the life script that
define individual identity, stories that differentiate
us from the norm, events that must be voiced; they
must be explained, justified, understood, and this
leads to narrative plot and tension. As Bruner
(1990) argues, narratives involve troubling a
problem that must be solved. Thus power derived
from conformity leads to being silent, a life lived in
harmony with the shared cultural script that does
not require rich compelling stories. In contrast,
deviation often leads to being silenced and the
need to gain back power through voice, to justify
and explain ones life.
A critical dimension is whether the deviation
from the culturally dominant narrative can be
heard when it is voiced. Some deviations may be
so threatening to the dominant narrative that they
simply cannot be heard and so continue to be
silenced. At the cultural level this may be historically modulated, as in the changing cultural understandings of violence against women, and the
kinds of stories of violence and abuse that can be
told and heard now that were silenced just a few
decades ago (Enns et al., 1995). When and why
certain groups are able to create these kinds of
resistance narratives that confer power and voice
is well beyond the scope of this paper, but within
the social science literature much has been written
about social justice movements, and how certain
stories begin to be heard (Kleinman & Fitz-Henry,

At the individual level, the life script provides

the expected background against which the life
narrative is created. Narrative identity is not just
what we remember but how we remember. As
Pasupathi et al. (2007) have argued, we can use
narratives to reveal who we are, to dismiss certain
events as not self-defining, to create causal chains
and explanations for how and why things occurred
as they did, and how and why one has become
the person one is. The master narratives and
motifs available in the culture guide these kinds
of individual narratives. Individual narratives of
deviation can be dismissed or explanations can
take the form of a narrative of victimisation. In
contrast, deviations may become resistance narratives, narratives that reveal and explain something
about the self that leads to gaining voice and
power; these are redemption narratives.
Not surprisingly, it matters what kinds of
narratives individuals tell. Narratives that are not
coherent, that cannot be linked to meaningful
explanations, can lead to identity confusion and
fragmentation; this is often what happens following traumatic experiences that are silenced, both
by the culture and by the individual, and cannot be
integrated into a coherent sense of narrative and
identity (Brewin, 2003; Janoff-Bulman, 1991). The
individual must have a community of listeners able
and willing to hear and validate their experiences
in order to create more coherent narratives, and
when they do, the evolving narrative coherence
is linked to higher levels of both physical
and psychological well-being (Frattaroli, 2006;
Pennebaker, 1997). Thus narrative and identity
are dialectically related, such that coherent narratives help create a coherent sense of self, and a
coherent sense of self helps create and maintain
coherent narratives (McLean et al., 2007).
But even if a coherent narrative can be formed,
it still matters what shape that narrative takes.
Individuals who create redemption narratives
from their discrepant experiences show high levels
of generativity, a commitment to the next generation and to the community, and they show high
levels of well-being (McAdams, 2006). Thus the
kinds of resistance narratives that individuals
create have far-reaching implications for both
their developing understanding of who they are
and for their sense of well-being in the world.
Ultimately the stories we tell matter. In the words
of Susan Brison (2002, p. 51), who lived to tell
the story of her violent rape, In order to construct
self-narratives we need not only the words with
which to tell our stories, but also an audience



able and willing to hear us and to understand our

words as we intend them.

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