The goal of psychotherapy, according to Freud, is to understand the subconscious mind and to help individuals gain dominion over their unconscious impulses and drives. A growing number of recent memoirists and historians have a somewhat similar objective: to reckon with and break free from the tyranny of the past and the constraints of the culture we were born into.
That therapeutic view of history represents a 180-degree turn away from how history was conceived just a few years ago: as a bludgeon to lay bare the past’s sins and failings.
Two recent autobiographies by Ivy League presidents, which have quite deservedly garnered a great deal of public attention, exemplify the new turn.
Ruth J. Simmons’s Up Home describes her extraordinary journey “from Jim Crow Texas, where she was the youngest of twelve children in a sharecropping family, to the presidencies of Smith College and Brown University.”
Drew Gilpin Faust’s Necessary Trouble tells a very different story: of how a privileged white girl in conservative, segregated Virginia’s horse country, expected to become a poised young lady and to accept female subordination and racial hierarchy, ultimately resisted her society’s pressures and engaged in the activist movements of the time, opposing the Vietnam War and struggling for civil rights, student rights and women’s rights.
Many of the most noted accounts of coming of age, whether fictional or factual, are by or about men. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions, such as Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull House; Mary Antin’s The Promised Land; Wini Breines’s Young, White and Miserable; Lucy Larcom’s A New England Girlhood; Mountain Wolf Woman’s Sister of Crashing Thunder; Harriet Hanson Robinson’s Loom and Spindle; Anna Howard Shaw’s The Story of a Pioneer; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Eighty Years and More. It’s striking that the classic American accounts of girlhood are largely works of fiction, like Little Women and The Little House on the Prairie series.
Up Home and Necessary Trouble place growing up female front and center. Simmons’s account of her childhood is extraordinary: gripping, staggering and heartbreaking. Her description of a childhood in an isolated, rodent-infested tin-roofed clapboard shack, with a wood-burning stove, without shoes, with no running water, electricity or store-bought, coupled with regular whippings, is incredibly vivid: “There was never enough to eat. This state of affairs prompted near-fatal attempts to find food. One of my sisters once tried to eat a raw bird; another ate lye from a can she found in the house.”
“Racism had reduced my father to a shadow of the man he could have been, and he turned the demeaning arrogance that had victimized him on my mother, making her subservient to him in every way.”
In my judgment, Up Home will rank with Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, Malcolm X’s Autobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and Richard Wright’s Black Boy as one of the most powerful reflections on growing up Black in a society strewn with racial indignities, humiliations, abuse and denigration that, in Simmons’s words, too often produced a kind of self-hatred that was a consequence of white racism. She also unveils the inner conflict and guilt she “felt about leaving my familial culture behind.”
The question Simmons explores is why the circumstances of her early life—colored by race, segregation and poverty—“did not, in the end, define me.” Her answer is mentorship: “the extraordinary people who gave me the strength and means to pursue an unlikely path.” Reading, too, helped, giving “me an interior life that blunted the ugliness of my daily life.” Early on, she embraced an idea embedded in existentialist philosophy: “I alone am responsible for my actions, I thought, and ultimately I will be no more than the sum of the actions I choose.” But she also stresses the desire not to recapitulate her mother’s life, subservient to an undeserving man and suffering from repeated beatings and infidelity.
Some readers attribute Simmons’s success to good fortune: a scholarship allowed her to attend Dillard, a year at Wellesley laid the groundwork for Fulbright and Danforth fellowships and admission to Harvard’s doctoral program in French. Yes, these opportunities, which she describes as miraculous interventions, opened doors. Yes, her innate talent and determination enabled her to take advantage of the chances.
The messages I take away from her book are threefold. The first is that no one succeeds alone. Any success we have depends on others who encourage and support us. The second is that success, over the long term, is not merely the result of luck or circumstances, as sanctimonious cynics imply; rather, it requires hard work, discipline and gritty determination. Adversity can at times build character. The third: we should never forget the reasons—systemic, structural and ideological—why many do not flourish. We shouldn’t use Simmons’s success “as a stick to beat others who are struggling.”
Educators, in particular, must be the mentors that your students need to succeed. And that will require us to remove the barriers that those who aren’t truly exceptional to succeed.
The work of a master historian, Necessary Trouble situates Faust’s life in a series of contexts that shaped her upbringing—and that do a great deal to explain why her scholarship engages with issues of race, gender and war. There’s the familial context of fading wealth and privilege. There’s the social context of racial hierarchy under attack. There’s the Cold War context in which the glaring contradictions between American ideals and grim realities were growing increasingly visible.
Faust grew up in a period of ferment:
“It was a time when new possibilities opened doors and paths my mother and grandmothers could not have imagined; it was a time when ideas and even movements were emerging to challenge assumptions about race, gender and privilege my parents and grandparents had believed to be immutable.”
Unlike Simmons, who idealized her mother even as she sought out a new path, Faust’s relationship with her mom was fraught from the start. It was an ongoing argument “instead of a relationship.” After her mother’s death, a neighbor spat at Faust, saying, “You killed her, you know.” The future president of Harvard thought to herself, “At least I didn’t kill me.”
In Faust’s eyes, her mother suffered from what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name”: a deep dissatisfaction with her life, an urgent “yearning for something beyond the era’s ideals of domestic bliss” and “the distorting effects of living one’s life through one’s children.”
Yet like Simmons, Faust lacked, at least initially, role models of what a meaningful female life might involve. With words that I found stirring, she writes:
“We live our lives in accordance with the stories we tell ourselves about what those lives ought to be … Men have traditionally been offered ‘quest’ plots, stories tracing life trajectories toward action, power and accomplishment. Women’s lives, by contrast, have been channeled into romance plots, which culminated in fantasies of living happily ever after as they merged their identities into those of the men whose affections they were lucky or crafty enough to win.”
The 1960s was at once a time of possibility but also of grave risks. Toward her book’s end, Faust alludes to the privileged classmates whose lives went off the rails: the bad drug trips, the alcohol poisoning, the toxic relationships, the suicide attempts, the sexual experiments that went badly wrong and “that distorted or damaged lives—sometimes irreparably.”
“I did not disappear, like my friend Kit, into a Chicago jail and then into the Weather Underground. I did not blow myself up building a bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse, as one Bryn Mawr graduate a few years ahead of me did; I did not have to seek a back-alley abortion or drop out of school after the effects of a botched one, as one close friend did … and unlike Holly Maddux, who was a freshman at Bryn Mawr when I was a senior, I was not murdered, dismembered and stashed in a trunk by a charismatic but crazy countercultural Penn boyfriend.”
If I were asked to identify the book that inspired the trend toward treating history as a path toward healing, I would single out Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth. The Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning historian and law professor was the first to integrate her local elementary school. Today, she is asked how she and other Black Texans can love Texas when the state obviously “did not love them.” Here’s her response:
“When asked, as I have been very often, to explain what I love about Texas, given all that I know of what has happened there—and is still happening there—the best response I can give is that this is where my first family and connections were … Texas is where my mother’s boundless dreams for me took flight.”
She goes on, “Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places … without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses. That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so.”
We live in cynical times, when a mocking, disparaging skepticism and a grossly overblown negativity and glumness are the order of the day. We need to counteract that mind-set, and in a recent talk that I attended, Gordon-Reed, in an aside, suggested that part of the problem lies in K-12 schools’ failure to include enough biographies.
I think she’s onto something. As a child I (and Faust) gobbled up the highly fictionalized and sanitized orange-covered Bobbs-Merrill “Childhood of Famous Americans” series and, later, Random House’s Landmark biographies. Biographies for children need not whitewash the past. What they can do is instill a sense of agency and possibility.
Among the most powerful children’s books that I have ever read is We Were There, Too! by Phillip Hoose, which tells the fascinating stories of over 70 young people, from the boys who sailed with Columbus to “Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped from his village in western Africa and forced into slavery, Anyokah, who helped her father create a written Cherokee language, Johnny Clem, the nine-year-old drummer boy who became a Civil War hero, and Jessica Govea, a teenager who risked joining Cesar Chavez’s fight for a better life for farmworkers.”
In a 1937 essay published two years before his death, Freud likens psychoanalysis to archaeology. Much as an archaeologist digs beneath the surface to uncover layers of the past that have been hidden or buried, so a psychoanalyst seeks to excavate repressed memories and traumas to understand and resolve current psychological disturbances and explain present-day behaviors, emotions and thoughts.
History, biography and memoirs, too, by excavating a past that haunts us and shapes our lives, can serve a therapeutic purpose. In studying our personal or collective history, we inevitably confront complex, often unsavory, realities. We see firsthand the importance of contingency—that our lives are ultimately the product of our choices and actions however much these options are constrained by circumstances.
Gazing backward can also inspire us to do better going forward. History, biography and memoirs can provide us with shared narratives of resilience, survival and strength, serve as a source of collective pride and motivate our students to overcome contemporary challenges.
Historical and autobiographical research, when approached with an open mind and a willingness to engage deeply, can serve as a source of healing and growth. These accounts can foster empathy, helping us to better understand the challenges ordeals and traumas that our predecessors underwent. They can also help heal intergenerational wounds and contribute to a sense of catharsis by helping to validate the experiences of pain, suffering and injustice that previous generations experienced.
The process that Simmons, Faust and Gordon-Reed underwent in writing their books is, in my view, a process of deliberate reflection that we should all undertake. Shouldn’t we strive to piece together, as best we can, a coherent understanding of our lives and those of our parents and grandparents?