PSY 101 Introductory Psychology
Instructor: Vincent W. Hevern, S.J., Ph.D.
Book Report Examples (Fall 2007)
The following are two examples of book reviews which I published in 2006 and 2004, respectively, in PsycCRITIQUES - Contemporary Psychology: The APA Review of Book. I am including them here for members of the class to see what how I go about doing a book review. Of course, I have a doctorate and 20+ years of working as a psychologist. I hope some of that experience shows. And, so, I wouldn't expect a book review in PSY 101 to reproduce what I have here. But, you might find something about how I introduce these reviews and what I cover in the reviews helpful as you prepare your own.
Title: The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By
Author: Dan P. McAdams
Place/Publisher/Year: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006, 400 pages.
As a young boy living in New York City in the mid 1950s, I looked forward every year to the week that celebrated the 4th of July. Inevitably, our local RKO General station, WOR-TV, would televise on its program Million Dollar Movie the 1942 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney as the showman George M. Cohan. And, like a booking in a theater, WOR-TV would broadcast that film nightly for a whole week and four times on the weekend. For my friends and me, mostly the children of World War II veterans, this was a special pleasure since we could thrill to its patriotic upbeat in song and dance again and again. Around the age of 10 or 11, I probably watched the film seven or eight different times in the same week. On screen an older Cohan (who died of cancer in real life soon after the film’s release) recounts his life’s story to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a nighttime meeting at the White House: from early years of hardship on the vaudeville circuit under the guidance of a loving family to his adulthood as a famous songwriter, actor, and producer. As the film ends, FDR presents Cohan with a Congressional Gold Medal for his songs like “Over There” which bolstered morale in the First World War. Cohan accepts the award and tells the commander-in-chief early in a new world war, “I wouldn’t worry about this country if I were you. We’ve got this thing licked. Where else in the world could a plain guy like me come in and talk things over with the head man?” Roosevelt responds warmly, “Well, that’s about as good a definition of America as any I’ve heard!”
A half-century later, I found myself similarly engrossed in this new volume by Dan McAdams–a penetrating and fascinating psychological, sociocultural, and historical analysis of that same America as it expresses itself in a comprehensive story that the author calls “the redemptive self.” Most broadly, McAdams argues that (a) adult identity is grounded narratively in the form of an integrative life-story that is first fashioned in late adolescence and early adulthood; (b) the Eriksonian task of middle adulthood, generativity (“an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations,” p. 49), finds expression in that self-narrative; and (c) the shape that this life story takes among highly generative adults in the U.S. is itself powerfully influenced by social and culturally-situated narratives expressing the theme of national and personal redemption. Thus, the “redemptive self” is the story that an individual in the U.S. may construct about his or her own life that shares or reflects at a personal level a broad coalition of beliefs rooted in the historical and cultural history of the American people as a nation. Generativity may be the universal challenge of human adults; but the form it takes in this country, McAdams claims, is tied to the nation’s beliefs in its own redemptive destiny.
The author is a product of Gary, Indiana in the 1960s, the son of divorced parents in an economically straitened home (his mother supported the family on her earnings as a telephone operator), and a graduate of Valparaiso University for a bachelor’s degree and Harvard for a Ph.D. in Psychology and Social Relations (McAdams, 2004). Most recently the director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, McAdams is a personality and developmental psychologist whose career has focused on the development of adults and how to integrate the psychological processes and structures identified among adults into a more comprehensive theory of personality growth across the lifespan. In the early 1980s, he began to interview middle-aged adults and gather data, both quantitative and discursive, to chart how these adults found identity in the stories they constructed about their lives and how personality variables like agency/power or communion/intimacy were linked to those stories (McAdams, 1985). Since coming to Northwestern in 1989, McAdams shifted his research efforts to an intensive study of high vs. lower generativity among middle-aged adults (McAdams, Diamond, de St. Aubin, and Mansfield, 1997) and between African-American and White adults (Hart, McAdams, Hirsch, & Bauer, 2001). The book reviewed here rests primarily upon this two-decade long research program while integrating a host of other psychological, cultural, and historical authorities in support of its theses. More than 400 references are cited and a substantial percentage of these reflect quite recent findings in the research literatures of the respective social scientific disciplines mirrored in the book.
What serves as the basic plot of the story of the redemptive self? This narrative is founded on the conviction that early in life the self (this story’s protagonist) enjoyed a special advantage or blessing compared to others who suffer or are less fortunate. The individual reaches early adulthood embracing a “firm and committed belief system that will promote pro-social action and provide life guidance” (p. 11) in the future. As an adult, the redemptive self experiences setbacks and difficulties that are overcome or teach important lessons. The adult copes with and advances beyond the adversities of life toward greater freedom and/or realization of his/her destiny while trying to balance conflicts between “strong needs for power and freedom versus his or her equally strong needs for love and community (p. 11) When the story ends, the individual will have contributed to the well-being of succeeding generations and left behind a positive legacy.
The strategy of this book involves a dialogue with multiple disciplinary partners in the conversation. McAdams recounts in detail America’s historical self-understanding as the redeemed society (the city shining upon the hill, the chosen people, manifest destiny) that continues to turn to its Judeo-Christian religious tenets as meaningful resources for building and living a life. Yet, this is also the nation whose promise of equality was almost fatally undercut by slavery and its continuing effects in racism and other forms of discrimination. Within this sociocultural matrix, McAdams patiently draws impressive parallels between society writ large and the elements of the basic plot of the “redemptive self” in the identities of individuals. His chapter on how African Americans have crafted adult selves of perhaps even higher levels of generativity than Whites offers unique insights into the dynamics of this segment of the American population. Further, McAdams contrasts the “redemptive self” to its opposite in a chapter on “contaminated plots” for those whose lives have been marked by addiction, criminal activity, and the like. He also forthrightly acknowledges significant problems with the redemptive plot in its propensity to promote undue individualism and exceptionalism in private life and to justify violent means in promoting the nation’s foreign policy.
To this reviewer McAdams has authored a very ambitious book that succeeds in great measure while remaining problematic in several respects. The sweep of his concerns are panoramic including developmental personality theory from Erikson onward, the social, cultural, and political history of the United States, applied psychology from self-help books to narratively-based therapies, and the impact of contemporary media upon their consumers. The excitement of finding how rigorous research methods might open links to pressing concerns in today’s society is palpable here. Instructors in courses in personality theory, social and cultural psychology, and capstone or honors courses (even outside psychology) should find their students fascinated by the provocative and engaging issues raised by McAdams. The book’s use of visuals are excellent: Important historical figures are highlighted with photographic portraits and succinct outlines of the most important points of each chapter are set off in very helpful boxes. The index is comprehensive. Most importantly, McAdams has included 45 pages of endnotes that clarify technical issues of research methodology, offer contrasting points of view, and permit the author to give personal voice to asides from the main text in fascinating ways. Readers shouldn’t miss those notes to gain the full flavor of McAdams’s intelligent commentary.
My concerns about this book are fewer, but nonetheless nagging. In the comparisons McAdams makes between the redemptive story as the plot of an individual’s narrative identity and the wider themes of redemption in America, I was not always convinced that these resemblances are sufficiently parallel. More specifically, McAdams offers so many differing texts of progression historically and culturally that “redemption” begins to assume an all-purpose cast more synonymous with the notion of “progress” or “success after struggle” than redemption more strictly speaking. Secondly, while the impact of the nation’s primal myths is compelling, McAdams doesn’t sufficiently consider the effects of class and economic structure on the ways individuals come to construe their own lives. In an autobiographical comment, McAdams (2004) notes elsewhere, “Adults I knew growing up in Gary seemed to live what I have since heard called a declension narrative. They romanticized their youth, but they had little good to say about the adult years: Danny, enjoy yourself when you are young, because it is all downhill after that…By the time they hit 25, they were reminiscing about the good old days” (p. 115). I would like to have seen greater reflection upon how narrative identity in the United States is affected by social class and economic marginality in line with questions raised by popular authors like Ehrenreich (2001, 2005) or even the late Michael Harrington (1962). A similar question might be posed about structural under- or unemployment that may impact health and psychological functioning profoundly (McKee-Ryan, Song, Wanberg, & Kinicki, 2005). These questions further link to a concern about potential generational differences in the way the “redemptive story” may be deployed in the stories of highly generative adults in the first decades of the 21st century. Rogler (2002) and others argue that cultural and historical experiences common to specific age cohorts may mark specific generations such as those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Those living through these two events were driven, Rogler claims, toward embracing social interdependence as a distinctive orientation to life. McAdams’s research subjects were mostly born in either the late Depression/World War II era or as “Baby Boomers” during the late 1940s and 1950s. Whether the plot of the redemptive self continues to manifest itself or how it may change in the lives of Americans coming to adulthood in the post-9/11 world of the 21st century will be a fascinating story in itself.
In his opening chapter, McAdams recounts that more than half the feature stories published in People magazine in 2001 and 2002 “were about redemptive changes in people’s lives” (p. 22). If he had turned to another index of popular culture, the “Top 250 Films of All Time” at the Internet Movie Database <http://www.imdb.com/Top/>, he would find evidence supporting his thesis as well: the 2nd most popular film of its more than 100,000 reviewers is The Shawshank Redemption (1994) while 4th place is occupied by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), another tale of struggle and deliverance from evil. More challenging, though, would be how McAdams might account for The Godfather saga holding 1st and 3rd places for the original and follow-up films respectively. He need not be concerned about Yankee Doodle Dandy. It doesn’t even make the list in the estimation of this newer generation of voters.
Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Metropolitan Books
Ehrenreich, B. (2005). Bait and switch: The (futile) pursuit of the American dream. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Harrington, M. (1962) The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan.
Hart, H. M., McAdams, D. P., Hirsch, B. J., & Bauer, J. J. (2001). Generativity and social involvement among African Americans and White Adults. Journal of Research in Personality, 35, 208-230.
McAdams, D. P. (1985). Power, intimacy, and the life story: Personological inquiries into identity. New York: Guilford Press.
McAdams, D. P. (2004). A psychologist without a country or living two lives in the same story. In G. Yancy and S. Hadley (Eds.), Narrative identities: Psychologists engaged in self-construction (pp. 114-130). Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley.
McAdams, D. P., Diamond, A., de St. Aubin, E., & Mansfield, E. (1997). Stories of commitment: The psychosocial construction of generative lives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 678-694.
McKee-Ryan, F., Song, Z., Wanberg, C. R., & Kinicki, A. J. (2005). Psychological and physical well-being during unemployment: A meta-analytic study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 53-76.
Rogler, L. H. (2002). Historical generations and psychology: The case of the Great Depression and World War II. American Psychologist, 57, 1013-1023.
Title: Healing Plots: The Narrative Basis of Psychotherapy
Authors: Amia Lieblich, Dan P. McAdams, & Ruthellen Josselson (Eds.)
Place/Publisher/Year: Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004. 232 pages.
The paeans to Ronald Reagan which marked the unrelenting US media coverage of his passing have quieted as I write this review while the earnest timbre of Bill Clinton telling his life's story now fills those same media just as comprehensively. We find ourselves serving as audience to both sides of the political divide as they carefully craft the narrative elements most likely to burnish their respective places in history. We listen to similar, almost commonplace themes--modest beginnings, parental alcoholism, and exceptional communication skills--linked to the plots of quite disparate but successful political careers. In tandem, Reagan and Clinton end their tales on optimistic codas as both offer a vision of new dawns and seemingly limitless possibilities for the American future. We are meant to respond with fervor and allegiance to their rendition of the perennial national myth. It seems all so straightforward: a world painted in primary colors.
The lifeworlds portrayed among the essays of Lieblich, McAdams, and Josselson's provocative volume on psychotherapy, Healing Plots, share few of the simplistic assumptions which characterize so much narrative in the popular media. Whether as client or therapist, the voices speaking here are far more tentative and hope for the future a much more uncertain achievement. The authors and editors understand that human lives are filled with nuance, contradiction, and unresolved dilemmas. Even in the most successful of psychotherapeutic outcomes, there may remain a sense of quiet, even painful resignation and acquiescence to a larger, more impersonal, and relentlessly demanding social and physical universe.
This collection of essays itself is the product of a storied past. Two of its editors, Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich, first collaborated on the pioneering book series, The Narrative Study of Lives, for Sage Publications between 1993 and 1999 when they produced six annual volumes (e.g., Josselson & Lieblich, 1993). Josselson, a clinical and academic researcher as well as a practicing psychotherapist, works in both the United States and Israel while Lieblich, a personality psychologist, teaches in Jerusalem and conducts studies primarily within Israeli society. For more than two decades both have published important studies charting the contours of individual lives, particularly among women and Holocaust survivors. As the current decade began, Sage ended sponsorship of the series and the American Psychological Association (APA) assumed publication support under its own imprint. Dan McAdams, a personality and clinical research psychologist and director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, joined the original editorial team. Thus, Healing Plots is the third volume in the renewed APA series which earlier examined lives at important transition points (McAdams, Josselson, and Lieblich, 2001) and explored the pedagogy of narrative research methods (Josselson, Lieblich, and McAdams, 2002).
Scope and Intent
The editorial introduction of the current volume places narrative at the heart of all psychotherapeutic endeavors: ". . . the process of psychotherapy can only be described in the form of narration. What therapists do and how they think about their work is infused with narrative principles" (p. 3). The editors propose to examine the relationship between therapy and narrative across quite a broad front. They raise questions about how therapy is shaped by narrative life assumptions, the kinds and qualities of stories patients tell, the ways in which therapists and clients handle complexity and narrative conflict, and how both narratives and identity change in the course of therapy. The ten subsequent chapters address those issues and are authored by an international group of 14 scholars and therapists: six working in Israel, four in the United States, three in the United Kingdom, and one in Finland. The authors include therapists and researchers employing a range of interpretive frameworks, e.g., psychodynamic, feminist, personological, phenomenological-existential, and literary. However, for readers hoping to find research aligned with Michael White and David Epston (1990) and the Australian-New Zealand approach to storied therapeutics, only the opening chapter by John McLeod on "postpsychological" counseling and psychotherapy offers even brief mention of "Narrative" therapy with a capital "N". While sensitive to sociocultural, class status, and political context, these authors remain for the most part engaged in therapy as an intra- and interpersonal effort rather than see themselves as active advocates for broader political and social change.
Who are the dramatis personae whose life experiences are recounted here? They are drawn from clients seeking help in one-to-one, institutional, outpatient, and group clinical settings. Five chapters present singe case studies involving an older White male experiencing chronic depression; an apathetic Israeli at war psychologically with his mother; an illiterate and desperately unhappy Israeli wife and mother; a passive upper middle-class American female in college; and an emotionally-estranged New England couple facing the husband's terminal illness. Five other chapters present analyses of in-depth interviews conducted with multiple participants: Finnish women physically abused by their male ex-partners, female victims of childhood sexual abuse in the United States, recidivist male offenders in British prisons, Israeli offspring of Holocaust survivors, and Israeli women living in households without men.
Theories and Analyses
The theoretical stances underlying these reports are similarly various. For example, Josselson (Chap. 6) recounts her individual treatment of Heidi, an American college student who relies upon her mother to author the fundamental narrative connections of her own life. In so doing, Josselson illustrates a striking confluence of narrative with object relations and attachment theories as well as significant pitfalls for therapists who might ignore their interactive effects. Hadas Wiseman and Jacques P. Barber (Chap. 8) demonstrate the utility of narrative formulations within the Core Conflictual Relationship Theme (CCRT) framework (Luborsky & Crits-Christoph, 1998) of short-term, supportive-expressive psychodynamic therapy. Their chapter offers a review of the "common interpersonal themes and patterns manifested by the second generation of Holocaust survivors in adulthood" (p. 156). Shadd Maruna and Derek Ramsden (Chap. 7) propose a multifaceted model for offender rehabilitation that combines elements of script theory, recovery group (12-Step) work, and even modest social advocacy within an overarching narrative framework.
While basic narrative may seem to consist mainly in the telling of a life's events, several of these authors explore the elusive but powerful role of silence and "not telling" within the context of therapy and how a therapist may be implicated in what is told or withheld. For example, Lynn Sorsoli (Chap. 5) analyzes interviews with four women who had suffered sexual abuse as children and their difficulties even as adults in communicating with friends and families about what they had experienced. For these women, "elements of their experiences … could not be presented in a coherent, logical narrative" (p. 106) and they were often frustrated by the gulf between themselves and their auditors. Therapists are cautioned that they may "overlook particular struggles around telling that exist both because of fears that words can compromise or even destroy relationships and because of a deeply held belief that if people cared, they could and would 'just know'." (p. 107).
Two chapters by Israeli scholars deploy more fundamentally literary and philosophical approaches to the plight of clients seeking therapeutic help and, in so doing, offer a bracing stance for clinicians. Nahi Alon and Haim Omer (Chap. 2) propose that the life stories of clients too often are molded by "psychodemonic" master narratives in which concepts like the devil, evil, and malignant possession derived from medieval mythology are reformulated into contemporary but no less demonic concepts, e.g., the "victimized carrier of unconscious wounds" (p. 34). They argue that these need to be replaced by a "tragic narrative" in which persons are not demonized, but suffering is understood as a part of life, bad acts as flowing from positive human qualities, the other accepted as one like ourselves, etc. Similarly, in a haunting case study, Michal Krumer-Nevo (Chap. 3) describes the burdened life of Sara, an illiterate almost retarded Israeli woman. She is trapped in marriage with an abusive husband and floundering as she tries to care for her six children, most of whom experience some disability or serious problem. Sara is inarticulate: she has neither the words to express her own situation nor a sense of any solution to her life's problematic unfolding. Krumer-Nevo argues that Sara's life can only be approached as a form of tragedy: in choosing initially to hide her illiteracy from her potential husband, she acted as a responsible but doomed agent who had made an "impossible choice" (p. 60) and now faces an ironic reversal of the fortune she had hoped to find in marriage.
I found Jefferson Singer's concluding essay the richest and most clinically helpful in the collection. He reports on a couple's estrangement, the self-defining shared memory of that rupture, and the course of therapy which led to a difficult reconciliation as death approached for the husband. He situates his therapeutic intervention with reference to cultural scripts, Adlerian theory, narrative and couples' therapy, and his own influential work on self-defining autobiographical memories (Blagov & Singer, 2004). He charts the paths of his clients' lives--as individuals and a couple, as parents and workers, as descendents of New England's settlers as well as persons with distinctive personal and medical histories. He tells us about his therapeutic interventions and their rationale and describes very keenly the couple's ways of responding. I've shared this chapter with both clinical colleagues and graduate students who have responded with the same enthusiasm I initially experienced in reading it.
My only major concern regarding this text as a whole lies in its potential usefulness among American clinicians increasingly under siege to manualized or unreasonably brief courses of treatment. While the CCRT framework of Wiseman and Barber (Chap. 8) uses a form of short-term therapy, the cultural and practical context underlying a significant segment of this book appears to involve more extended and available treatment options. For example, as Lieblich notes, "public psychological services in Israel offer long-term individual or family therapy when needed" (p. 173), a situation which does not describe the alternatives available to many within the United States and elsewhere.
Healing Plots does not claim to survey narrative approaches to psychotherapy comprehensively nor to advise clinicians on the general conduct of therapy from an explicitly narrative perspective. Readers seeking such a text will find that Angus & McLeod's (2004) newly edited handbook fills such roles more adequately. Rather, the essays here offer their readers an opportunity to reflect upon provocative and difficult human situations described by a sophisticated cadre of clinicians and researchers who share a narratively-attuned sensibility. They may prompt thoughtful discussion and fruitful dialogue about the potentials and limits of therapeutic intervention among both professionals and students in the advanced graduate setting. And, unlike so many of the tedious and shallow tales about the lives of our public figures regularly appearing in print and across the airwaves, these Healing Plots involving ordinary people in pain and loss can be told and heard more than once with intellectual reward and affective satisfaction.
Angus, J. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.). (2004). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy: Practice, theory, and research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Blagov, P. A., & Singer, J. A. (2004). Four dimensions of self-defining memories (specificity, meaning, content, and affect) and their relationships to self-restraint, distress, and repressive defensiveness. Journal of Personality, 72, 481-511.
Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (1993). The narrative study of lives. Vol. 1. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Josselson, R., Lieblich, A., & McAdams, D. P. (Eds.). (2002). Up close and personal: The teaching and learning of narrative research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Luborsky, L., & Crits-Christoph, P. (Eds.). (1998). Understanding transference: The core conflictual relationship theme method (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
McAdams, D. P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2001). Turns in the road: Narrative studies of lives in transition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.
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