Credit: Jesse Bering

One late summer day in 1970 in Brighton, Massachusetts, Katherine Ann Power, an articulate, starry-eyed sociology major from nearby Brandeis University and also a fervent Vietnam War protester, sat behind the wheel of an idling getaway car as her heavily armed partners in crime liberated a bank of its “warmongering” funds. (To properly overthrow the federal government, the group oddly believed, one must first pilfer then cleanse its dirty loot by reinvesting in antiwar causes.) Unbeknownst to Power, one of her peace-loving compatriots shot a police officer in the back as they fled, which was the making of a widow and nine fatherless children. Reportedly shocked by this botched robbery, Power assumed the identity of an infant who’d died a year before she was born and reinvented herself as “Alice Louise Metzinger.” She went underground in the small northwest Oregon town of Lebanon where, reminiscent of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, she dedicated herself to a life of contrition. Power became a doting mother to a young son and a loving wife to the local meat cutter; she bought into a popular restaurant, became an active volunteer, taught a class at the community college and even gave her car away to a neighbor.

Yet this former high school valedictorian, Catholic Girl Scout and one-time winner of the Betty Crocker Cooking award was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for fourteen of her twenty-three years on the lam. Hounded relentlessly by feelings of shame, guilt and paranoia, Power often tried tempting a vengeful fate. In her earlier years on the run, she even returned to her natural hair color so that she’d more closely resemble her own image in the “Wanted” posters hanging in her favorite bar. But nobody ever recognized her; the few people she confided her dark secret in were understanding and loyal, and there was only continued good kismet in her new life. By 1984, the few leads that once trickled in had all dried up and the FBI removed her from their “Most Wanted” list. For Power, it began to feel as though her punishment was the excruciating sense of undeserved normalcy and “happiness” she’d achieved. It was so insufferable, in fact, that in 1993, honoring, as she called it, her “contract with God,” she turned herself in to puzzled Boston authorities and served six years of an eight-year sentence.

For Janet Landman, a psychologist at Babson College, Power’s dramatic tale is the prototypical case study of regret and redemption. In an edited volume called Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition, a quickly forgotten book published eight years ago by the American Psychological Association, Landman describes some of her discussions with Power while the latter was incarcerated in prison for the infamous and disturbing crime that shattered the lives of so many people, including her own. “Narrative psychologists” such as Landman believe that such dramatic life stories allow us to glimpse universal aspects of human psychology not easily captured by experimental methods.

Not all of us have such literal skeletons hanging in our closets. But, like Power, many people have regrettably done things in the past that can’t be undone, surprising themselves with their own sins. Many of us also can’t help but mentally replay events that continually nip at our emotional heels, and have experienced life-changing episodes that—at least in our heads—represent a sort of sharp psychological dividing line between everything that was before and everything that came after. According to some social psychologists, the sort of subjective “spin” that we put on these nightmarish events, and particularly how we see them as having shaped our current and future selves, reveals much about our personality and can even be used to predict our tendencies to help others.

For one of Landman’s colleagues, Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, investigating the way in which people cobble together their own life stories is just as fundamental to scientists’ understanding of personality as are the more conventionally studied dispositional traits (which are those textbook global, stable, comparative dimensions of personality such as “extraversion” or “conscientiousness”). For example, “some people construct life stories that are modelled on classical tragedy,” says McAdams, “whereas others convey their identities as television sitcoms.”

As director of The Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, McAdams has largely spearheaded a new brand of social science research in the study of personality called the “narrative study of lives.” For hardcore experimentalists, this might sound uncomfortably psychoanalytic, but although McAdams has taken over the reins from qualitative and more interpretative intellectual forebears like Erik Erikson, in my view he’s done an impressive job at using rigorous, objective, scientific methods to study people’s psychological reconstructions of their own life stories. In an important article published in a 2001 issue of the Review of General Psychology, McAdams points out that autobiographical memory is intriguingly creative:

Life stories are based on biographical facts, but they go considerably beyond the facts as people selectively appropriate aspects of their experience and imaginatively construe both past and future to construct stories that make sense to them and to their audiences, that vivify and integrate life and make it more or less meaningful.

Using quasi-structured interview methods in which older individuals are asked about the major turning points in their lives and how these events have affected them, McAdams sorts through their responses using an elaborately detailed coding system, one designed to detect subtle, underlying themes in the way people “frame” these important events.

To put it starkly, McAdams has found there are basically two types of people in this world. First, there are those who view life-altering experiences during young adulthood (such as death, crime, addiction, abuse, relationship woes, loss, failure and other abysmal yet often unavoidable plights of the human saga) as “contaminative episodes” in their life stories, where prior to the event everything is seen, retrospectively, through rose-tined glasses and the event as a type of toxic incident that corrodes into the present and ruins the rest of the life course. In a contamination sequence, an emotionally positive event suddenly goes bad. And then there are those who view such dramatic events as “redemptive episodes” in their self-narratives, who, like Katherine Ann Power or Jean Valjean, eventually transform or redeem bad scenes into good outcomes, by becoming better people and benefiting society. As one might expect, those older folks who look back on their lives and see their various crises—big or small—as redemptive episodes that taught them valuable life lessons and changed them for the better (rather than ruining everything) are also the ones who score highly on scales of “generativity,” which is a measure of their positive, or pro-social, contributions to others, particularly to younger generations. This is the case for Powers; she’s now working at an AIDS non-profit in Boston.

McAdams’s most recent book, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, won the 2006 William James award for best general interest book in psychology from the American Psychological Association and is well worth the read. And this goes for those of you who, like me, tend to look back upon their life stories not so much as being comprised of thematic chapters, but rather as having the occasional episodes earmarked with the very pragmatic insertion of antidepressant tablets.

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.