Reflecting on Narratives: The Brian Williams Debacle

Reflecting on Narratives: The Brian Williams Debacle

by Anitra Fay, PhD

The Brian Williams debacle has me thinking again about an issue that has been of interest to me lately–the topic of Narrative.  In the press stories about Williams, many writers have speculated about why he described his experiences as he did, and the notion of narrative has received attention along the way. It seems like a great time to discuss what narrative really means and how narrative affects our lives.

Narrative, in simple terms, refers to our stories—Who am I? Where am I, how did I get here, and where am I going? In psychological terms, our narrative helps us to make sense of ourselves within our world and to plot our courses going forward.

Narrative can be addressed from many perspectives.

  • Our truth or reality is based upon our experiences and understanding. Gender, socioeconomic status, life experiences, ethnic identity, and race provide differences among us that cannot help but affect how we view ourselves and our life stories.
  • Our cultures handle narrative differently. Some would say that a culture is defined by the adherence of a people to a common story or narrative.
  • Politics hijacks narrative (at best, spin; at worst, propaganda). Lenin’s Tomb (Random House,1993) by David Remnick describes, as the facts unfolded following the fall of the Soviet Union, the painful narrative shifts of individual Russian citizens regarding Lenin’s atrocities committed against their loved ones who had disappeared with no explanation years earlier. What had been the narrative of the regime, adopted by the public and/or repressed upon fear of death, came crumbling down as the real story became apparent.
  • Various media forms impact narratives for individuals, our views of others, and our ideals. Effects of social media and communication, video games, and our ability to rapidly connect with others outside our immediate family groups and communities are topics among researchers studying narrative. Think of the discussions of bullying; the quick ability to slam a celebrity or politician for a mistake or mishap. The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain (2013), a film by Matthew Wolfe, documents the impact upon a college freshman quarterback of sports talk, sports blogs, and public opinion regarding a fairly complicated situation in which, in reality, the quarterback was only a fragment of the actual story.
  • Brain and neuroscience research show us that we have the capacity for continued change, learning new behaviors, habits, and patterns. As a result, we have the capacity to continue to structure our narratives or write new chapters for our stories moving forward through life.

The topic of narrative, as it turns out, is a big one that has gained footing since the late 20th century. The emerging concept of narrative involves a shift in thinking that has been well-documented by George S. Howard (American Psychologist, March, 1991) in an article that summarizes how even within the hard sciences such as quantum physics, theories are ever-changing as the field of knowledge progresses. Similarly, we experienced a shift in how we view other cultures, as we begin to see that different does not mean inferior.

In genealogical research, an area of great interest to me, we run across many Stories passed down from our ancestors.  Our good friend and former ArPA President Roger Williams, Ph.D., and I have had some great conversations about family stories.  Of course, the great fun in genealogy is discovering the story, ideally, of every one of your ancestors. What was the world in which she grew up, what were her hardships and losses, how did she live her live? In gathering information, we come across family legends. “Your great-grandfather ___ killed a bear with his bare hands.” How are we to interpret these stories now? Are they true? Of course, many are true, or partly true. We also may come across some that were designed or elaborated to enhance self-esteem, confidence in the face of immeasurable loss and tragedy. While I consider myself in the camp of genealogists who want to know the true stories, good or bad, things are not always so simple. One may be happy to find that an ancestor was a President of the United States or a royal monarch; but if it is discovered that the same president or monarch was involved in the Inquisition or the extermination of an ethnic group, how does one interpret that story?

Different career choices allow for different narrative acceptance.  By that, I mean that, for example, a storyteller or folk musician can play fast and loose with reality, and that’s considered creative, talented…although if their storytelling ekes into their interpersonal relationships, problems can ensue. An attorney will spend a lot of time constructing a narrative to fit the purpose of the case being prosecuted or defended, regardless of what the attorney may believe to be the Truth.  In the realm of the courtroom, no one bats an eye.

As psychologists, our jobs often require us to discern the presence of psychopathology, which leads to the inevitable questions: Where is narrative normal/helpful for the individual/family/group, and where does it become pathological?

The most likely place many psychologists have dealt with the concept of narrative is the incredibly positive experience of assisting patients in making sense of their lives, enhancing resilience in the face of tragedy, obstacles, or victimization.  The current perspective is that narrative happens within each of us, whether or not we are conscious of it. It is best to be aware of our narratives to be sure that our narratives are helpful, and to some degree intentional regarding how we meet the challenges in our present lives and for our lives ahead. Our ethnicity, nationality, religion, world view, experiences, and even our sports allegiances can be positive impacts upon our stories, as long as our stories are authentic and allow us to be healthy individuals in healthy relationships with those close to us and in the world around us.