A tale of minor heroism

Imagine a child who seizes the attention of those gathered at mealtime with the declaration, "Remember that time when ...!" Memories—in this case reminiscing—have a relational, conversational context for their (re)telling with, let us say, in this case, the whole family, who respond with warm interest; they join in, adding their own memories and extensions: "Yes, and or, "Gosh, what a legend, what a swim!" Part of contextualisation of "remembered occasions" involves the mode in which they are shared, in a sense their social rhetoric and illocutionary force—for example, as entertainment, amusing anecdote, showing-off, assertion, moral anecdote, and many other possibilities. In other words, memories are inserted within socio-narrative structure, signaled as an event "worth recalling", as aspect of family heritage, reference point, moral theme, and so on. In group terms, it creates coherence and familiarity. Fivush (2003) puts it well, when he contends that, "At least part of children's developing self-concept is formed in social interaction with others who help provide an evaluative and interpretive framework for understanding past experiences" (p. 10). It is a good illustration of the subtlety of social intelligence, how memories and moments are aligned, so as to maximise their import in the telling.

Perhaps this story has been voiced many times before and constitutes a quick link, as it were, to family reassurance, for example, "We are an adventurous family", or, "We are always so lucky". There may be photographs related to the occasion and pleasant feelings of solidarity may have been kindled through multiple, previous acts of remembering (of course, given modern technology, more and more of our lives have this photographic supplement). This secondary memory and shared narrative is important to many recollections, as the way a person recalls emotions and meanings associates to previous acts of remembering and sharing, in addition to the original event. Let us take up the story once more.

One (jealous? more objective? both?) sibling discounts the whole affair, saying it was "nothing special". Whose memory is accurate, or whose version is dominant? Now, to give the event more content, let us assume that the story concerns the saving of the family dog, "Lucky", from drowning, whilst on holiday. Perhaps the teller weaves an implicit story of his own heroism into the recollection, and, reinforced by family, it is told with pride. Perhaps the teller was six at the time and he loves to retell the occasion. Several years later, however, he cringes with annoyance that his parents still harp on about the time when he supposedly saved the dog from drowning, knowing full well that his dad got there first. In this case, perhaps the memory of saving Lucky was harmlessly sustained as childhood semi-fiction, now outgrown. A few years elapse. Ignored, because it no longer has salience, the memory stays dormant until late teens, when Lucky dies; the memory is briefly rekindled as an emblem of the family's attachment to its dog, who might even have been renamed on account of the incident; "lucky" by name, lucky by nature.

I trust it is clear that the "autobiographical" memory in question is saturated with meanings and organised through narrative structures, some reinforced by family group, others influenced by more internal sources (e.g., the child's maturational changes). These internal sources may, however, be also supported by cultural motifs, such as stories of heroism, nascent maleness, and the like—"Wow, you were a strong lad, just like father!" In another culture, the incident might be viewed less personally and more as a signal of some sort, for example, "There are no such things as accidents". But it also remains unique, relative to age and personal fantasies; as Ricouer (2004b) suggests, there is a real, irreducible "mineness" about memory.

Gergen (1994) offers a modern, constructivist view of memory that lifts it from simply being a private act of storage and retrieval within the self-enclosed mind (or brain). Invariably such memories are, or were, part of a conversational (i.e., narrative) exchange, which endow it with an intersubjective reality; in all-too-brief remarks, Foulkes and Anthony (1957) comment on the nature of group memory and the "social togetherness" of our experiences. Similarly, in expounding a narrative-based view of personal identity and remembering, Bruner (1994) underlines the selectivity and discursivity of memory, such as in the idea that one might exaggerate agency in many situations, especially if they concern positive outcomes and which might have a cultural as well as personal function. If human beings have a tendency towards maintaining consistency ("narrative smoothing"), this is sure to apply to memory of our pasts.

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