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Record Type: Review   ID: 1015

Disrupted Lives: How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World

Becker, Gay

This book by an investigator at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, who is also Professor of Medical Anthropology and Social and Behavioral Sciences there, was of profound interest to me. This is because her subject matter is how people find meaning and recreate their lives after experiencing major disruptions of their status quo. They became aware of how culture has posed problems for them, and this causes them to make personal probes into new sources of meaning to build their lives on. I have been doing something similar on a much smaller scale. Whereas Becker intensively investigated five groups of people: those coping with infertility, midlife disruption and change, reorganization of life following a stroke, late-life transitions, and chronic illness among elderly members of ethnic minority groups, I have studied individuals (of whatever age or cultural group) who have had an unforgettable anomalous experience. We both viewed our participants from a longitudinal viewpoint, noting how they responded to the disruption of their lives in ways that would allow them to reach some degree of resolution. We both have noted the important role played by metaphor. We both used a narrative approach. All of the people we studied were forced by their experiences to ask the basic question, "Why me?" But what we found was very different, even though we both studied the basic conundrum (koan?) life threw at our participants, of which Becker writes, "When disruptions occur, the temporary or permanent destruction of people’s sense of ‘fit’ with society calls into question their personhood, their sense of identity, and their sense of normalcy" (p. 30).

The big difference in our two studies is in how the participants resolved their problem. Becker’s dug deeper into cultural resources and found traditional ways of responding that were meaningful. To a lesser or greater extent, they found traditional ways of creating a new form of status quo, one that was still in line with the status quo of society as a whole. Mine, on the other hand, had to go beyond the bounds of traditional culture to create a new way of being in the world that was outside the "normal" status quo. Each person built on his or her unforgettable anomalous experience until he or she was able to create a new view of being human: a new identity, a new worldview, a new way of living and viewing life. My people left the status quo behind for good. They would never be the same again, and for that they are profoundly thankful.

There is common ground, however. As Becker, who writes with great clarity and sensitivity, points out, referring specifically to American culture, from which her sample was drawn: "People are likely to question who they are when they are confronting a disruption to life. When their taken-for-granted world is changing, they are forced out of predictable routines and ways of seeing their lives to handle the contingencies with which they are faced. Their identity may change, and they may see themselves anew. Although people may be preoccupied with their sense of self, that very preoccupation is cultural in nature" (p. 101). Although her participants were faced, as were mine, with "the conflict between meeting their need to restore order and living up to their normalizing ideologies" (p. 123), in her case, those who found workable solutions did so by being able to identify with and incorporate new normalizing ideologies: they switched allegiance from one normalizing ideology to another. For example, a woman who was infertile finally was able to let go the idea that to be a "normal" woman was to have children. She found new life and hope by joining a feminist group who helped her to realize other legitimate ways of being a woman and doing good.

The individuals I studied, however, were different. The conundrum life threw at them was one or more anomalous experiences, which were outside the culture’s normalizing ideologies to begin with. The solutions they found were also within the culture, but not generally accepted as part of it: nonconventional means of healing, developing psychic, mediumistic, mystical, and shamanistic abilities; following up on anomalous experiences that led them to discover a unique piece of information, skill, or way of doing things that proved to be the road back to at least partial acceptance within the culture by finding ways to connect with and give back to life and to the world, even if only a few people understood them. As they continued to change in order to live more in line with the insights and gifts they had been given, they found their niche in the world, which in some cases enabled them to become countercultural leaders with a considerable following. They would no longer be able to follow normalizing ideologies because personally and often professionally the nonordinary reality that claimed their allegiance was far more enriching and rewarding than anything the status quo culture could provide.

The modus operandi by which both groups realized their lives was the same: using metaphor, "people work simultaneously on changes in their identities and on changes in their lives" (p. 197). In this way they forge new selves and new worldviews.

It is evident that Becker is not only a sensitive interviewer alert to individual nuances and to the role played by metaphor in people’s lives, but she is a thorough scholar. The book is heavily footnoted, often with references embedded in highly interesting explanatory discussions of the point in question. I would prefer to have this more technical information embodied in the text, but I was grateful that the editors did not omit it entirely, and found myself sometimes "reading ahead" in the footnotes to prepare myself for when I returned to the text. Hers are the best footnotes I have ever read.

Publisher Information:Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. ix + 264. Bibl: 241-258; Chapnotes: 217-239; Ind: 259-264
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