PhD by Kevin Murray

Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, 1990

Narrative Psych


1. Introduction; 2. Narrative making sense; 3. Life manuals; 4. Life construction groups; 5. Travel space; 6. Travel and personal change; 7. Travel talk in context; 8. Narrative partitioning; References; A. Appendix

A        APPENDIX: Descriptions of Life Construction Process

A.1       Samara: Charmain, Penny, Robyn

The life of Samara was constructed by a chef, decorator, and housewife. Although the group felt secure about having a character on whom they could project their fantasies, they did occasionally demand the inclusion of some grit in the story to prevent it being too romantic. One of the interesting elements of Samara’s life is the role of education in realising her potential.

The group constructing Heinrich initially sought a difficult task. The construction of Samara began in the opposite manner by Penny determining that their character was female because ‘I can relate to it the best’.

The group quickly established Samara’s traits. Robyn stated that their character would be ‘intelligent, independent, secure...exotic’. She is born in the Hindu Cush and ‘spends her formative years travelling in Asia Minor’ (Robyn) in a caravan. They give her a black mentor, who is also the mother’s lover. Charmaine suggested she learns to read and write from missionaries, and Robyn added the trait that Samara loves animals and goes out into the jungle. Robyn then began to tell about Samara and her mother being taken up by a Maharaj and living in a palace. And Robyn added that Samara then had the urge to go out and learn about Buddhism in Tibet, where she stays in an all-male monastery in disguise. There Charmaine suggested she meet up with an American film director who is strangely attracted to her. When she decides to go back with him, Penny cautioned that they had to remember that ‘...up to this point she hasn’t seen anything of the worst in society’. This was the first note of the construction which reflected overtly on the implications of the growing narrative.

At this point the group began to discuss the elements of change that might be introduced in the story. Although being made much of because of her looks in America, Samara is ‘totally dependent’ (Penny). According to Charmaine, now that she can stay still in one place she has ‘ opportunity to think about where she can go from here’. Penny responded with, ‘She decides she wants an education’. In response to Penny’s question of what she wants to do with her life, Charmaine thought that she would have trouble with racism in the States, ‘She’s going to help the plight of the blacks’. To help Samara acquire the resources to act politically, the group first gave her an education. But after doing a Ph.D. in economics and politics, Samara becomes tired of the ‘plastic world’ (Charmaine) of Hollywood and so she starts to support herself. She works helping kids in New York, and becomes ‘...disillusioned with the American male’ (Robyn).

Now that Samara is equipped, the group had her gain experience. Robyn suggested she travel down South and Penny added that ‘She’s got to get a flavour of being in between’. So Samara finds herself discriminated against as much by blacks as whites. At this point Penny thought she should ‘...bump into someone really important in her life’, ‘A mentor’ (Robyn). Penny thought this was important ‘Cos she’s alone’s difficult for her to grasp onto anything at this point’. Samara befriends a female doctor who gives her direction. At one of the doctor’s parties Samara meets a charming 38 year old author, Thomas. They marry and her mother comes to the wedding. Thomas and Samara decide to ‘...go back to where she came from so that he can experience her youth through her’ (Robyn) and he ‘...can write about it’ (Penny) and ‘She can help the people’ (Robyn). By the time Samara is 40, ‘a devastating time of life’ (Charmaine), she is living in Africa, showing Thomas the land when she grew up.

Though the necessity of a crisis is not articulated by the group, they decide to subject Samara to an ordeal in her return to Africa. They worked with the idea of political instability: ‘There has to be a revolution’ (Robyn). ‘A military coup’ (Penny). During the coup Samara is imprisoned and becomes ‘thin and weak but her resolve strengthens’ (Penny). In the West she becomes a ‘martyr’ (Penny) and the Americans agree to give arms to the African country in order to have her released. Now Samara uses her power to ‘...speak on bad things that are happening in Africa’ (Penny). The experience of Africa strengthens her resolve when she returns to America and ‘...saw what was happening to the descendants of the African people’ (Charmaine).

A.2       Jean: Bob, Gail, Stephanie

Jean was created by a group that consisted of a single mother, a secretary, and a clerk. This group seemed quite interested in the process of construction and would often ‘throw’ things out in the path of their character to see how she reacted. This was particularly apparent in their reference to brewing ‘crises’. One incident worthy of particular note is the conversation Jean has with her mother.

The group constructing the life of Jean began their task with a character who lived on the moon. I suggested they should try a character ‘you can relate to’. They quickly established the life of a single mother working as a doctor with a mother to help her out. Bob suggested that they were ‘...eventually going to work into problem areas which reveal her personality, conflicts.’ In working on her sexuality, Stephanie established her first trait: ‘She’s a person first and a woman second’. This was interpreted as giving her a ‘cold clinical outlook’ (Bob), which Gail thought was a ‘defence mechanism’. Stephanie thought she had not had a chance to work out her ‘priorities’.

From this point, the group began to look consistently for ‘crises’ that would impel the life of Jean forward. Bob remarked, ‘She’s heading for a crisis’. Stephanie expanded that ‘We have a good crisis coming on about the kid’, and proposed to have her child playing up at school. Sonny is being victimised at school by an angry relative of one of Jean’s patients, and at the same time she is being chased by a keen doctor, Frank. According to Bob, ‘We’re building up to this crisis’.

Having established the grounds for the crisis, the group now constructed the problem of how Jean is able to recognise her  son’s troubles. They decided to have Jean confront the victimiser with a policeman and threatened to expose him if he continues. This is successful, and Jean enlists the help of Frank, who has now become a psychologist, to help with Sonny’s trauma. At this point the group felt they had a sense of their character, but there was a difference of opinion about whether Jean is a ‘Boadicea’ (Gail) or a ‘human person’ (Stephan­ie).

Again, crisis loomed. Sonny’s relationship with Frank was felt to be ‘...throwing Jean into another crisis’ (Bob). They decided it is time for Jean to have a ‘break’, which she is ‘entitled’ to and is ‘in line with her being independent’ (Stephanie). Bob repeated, ‘We’re going to have another crisis’. Jean goes off for a cruise, leaving Sonny with Grandma, who becomes sick, and Sonny is looked after by Frank. Sonny and Frank meet Jean at the airport. Jean is furious for ‘...not being allowed to make that decision’ (Stephanie). Gail remarked that in having Jean return to a son who is hostile in being denied his newly developed friendship with Frank, that ‘We’ve left her on a limb’.

Having cast their character out, the group begins to work on the internal workings of Jean. A talk with her mother helps Jean ‘see Frank in a new light’ (Bob); she starts to see him not just as a ‘professional colleague’ but ‘as a person’ (Stephanie). Gail thinks Bob’s suggestion of ‘romance’ is a bit ‘whimpish’, so they change it and it is Jean who is interested in Frank, who by now has ‘cold feet’ (Bob). Frank goes overseas to do research, and Jean realises how much she misses him, something reinforced by Sonny. In the two years while Frank is away, she becomes ‘mellowed’, feels ‘more vulnerable’ (Stephanie); ‘She’s discovered feelings in herself that she didn’t realise were there’ (Bob). Frank calls from Tasmania, where he is attending a conference on children with problems. She comes down for the weekend with Sonny, and they make a future date, and the story of Jean ends.

When asked whether Jean had control over her life, Bob said that she had ‘too much in the beginning’. The group thought the general principle of Jean’s life was becoming ‘wholly alive’. In general, though the group had differences, particularly around the level of competence in Jean, they managed to keep progressing by proposing elements of her life with the expectation that something might come of them.

A.3       Nicola: Fran, Jan, Peter, Thaïs

Two of Nicola’s constructors work in a corporation at management level, and the others are employed in teaching and advertising. The group was particular in being frank about their own demands of their character: they wanted Nicola to be both ‘good’ and ‘interesting’. One of the interesting points about the construction is the large role New York plays in the development of Nicola.

The group creating Nicola early in her construction showed they were concerned to be able to relate to their character. The group decided to ‘...stick to things we know’ (Thaïs). Nicola becomes an architect from Melbourne. Fran suggested she comes from a poor Western suburb, ‘...cos she struggled to overcome’. Peter referred to this ironically as the ‘battler syndrome’. Jan wondered ‘What’s going to make her interesting?’ and Thaïs agreed to make Nicola ‘interesting’. Then Fran asked Thaïs to come up with something ‘interesting’. At this request, Thaïs responded, ‘I think she’s got really pushy parents who have high aspirations, cos they had to work really hard’. Although the group does not subsequently take this up, one can note a similar strategy proposed here as in the construction of Missy.

In response to the discussion about Nicola’s origins, Peter said that ‘It’s [her career] got to be something of a triumph for her’. Architecture was appropriate as a career because it was something a girl would be unlikely to get into. Her interest in architecture was given by having her father as a ‘successful Italian builder from East Doncaster’ (Peter). Being an architect gives her an ‘intellectual’ and ‘cultural’ gap with her family. She is given the name ‘Nicola’ as an ‘average Italian name’ (Fran), which Thaïs thinks is going to be something that ‘...makes her fight to be an architect too, to be an individual’. They developed the mother into a sick woman, partly to provide the drain on family resources that makes it impossible to send Nicola to a private school, and also to increase the influence her father would have had on her.

Thaïs was the first to suggest the trait of ‘loner’. This trait was related to a conflict with conventional architecture and a ‘plodding’ father. Thaïs suggested Nicola’s ‘first big conflict’ comes when she takes a non-Italian boyfriend. In response, Jan said she would ‘ to throw this out a bit’ and get away from the Italian issue in her life. Thaïs saw ‘...potential for her to become an interesting person’. Fran responded that ‘She hasn’t broken away so far’, and Jan suggested that, ‘I think she should go overseas’. Some reasons were canvassed for this, and it was suggested that Nicola had a trait of ‘creative flare’, which linked with her Italian background.

From here the group began work on the internal side of Nicola. Fran considered that Nicola’s life was about to change and that ‘It is necessary to create conflict, reasons as to why she now does things’. Thaïs complained that Nicola was ‘boring’. She then considered that she meet a mentor, ‘Cos I think that’s very important’, and thought that Nicola was ‘...about to embark on a phase of her life where she doesn’t know the rules...and she has to make major decisions about where she’s going as an individual’. This was partly related to a worry about getting ‘...locked into family situations and not getting out to see a lot of things that she’s interested in to do with art, design, fashion and architecture’. Fran saw her as ‘having a fair bit of get up and go’, but thought that her father dies while she is overseas. Peter agreed, ‘I think it needs that dramatic impact’; this would create problems because she is ‘torn’ being living an independent life and the need to be a ‘bread winner’.

To help things along the group briefly considered what her life would be like when she is 42. Peter liked Fran’s idea that Nicola is living in New York while her two children are living with her first husband. The group then worked back from that to establishing that the husband is her first boyfriend, a loans officer for ANZ. They then worked on the grounds for her leaving him. Fran thought that Nicola had ‘...never reached her potential’, and Thaïs considered that was a ‘...driving underlying force for the whole love affair to take off’. As a ‘loner’, she was still ‘on the boil underneath’ about being successful.

The lover was given the name Pete, an archaeologist from Texas. When Thaïs posed the problem of her family responsibilities, Fran answered ‘That might be okay for her cos New York is one of the most fascinating cities’...’She likes the fact that she can look at a city and enjoy it and enjoy people. She doesn’t have responsibility’. While in New York she ‘...indulges her childhood passion of painting’ (Peter), and making clothes. Peter felt that Nicola is the type of person who would not just be satisfied ‘...soaking up the delights of New York’, and Fran suggested that she designs buildings there, ‘She’s finally using her talents’. And on trips with her husband she ‘ broadening her horizon’. Peter added that she designs ‘cheap communal houses for the natives’, which Fran agreed is important because ‘...she realizes she’s had such a comfortable life’.

Here Fran thought ‘We’re looking for a twist’, and Thaïs suggested that Nicola has been pretty ‘insulated’. Fran considered that at this stage she was becoming more ‘outward-centred’. Peter thought ‘She has to have some trauma’, but Fran disagreed, and wondered why a ‘...tragedy have to make her realise about being outward-looking’. Thaïs thought that Pete will die, but Fran responded that ‘It’s a dramatic device for no reason’. Instead Fran has Nicola combine the careers of architect and archaeologist in work in South America, but her heart gives up in the heat, and she returns, as Thaïs suggested, to Australia, but she later changes this to Italy, until Pete dies and then she returns to Australia, to die with grace.

Thaïs considered that Nicola’s main goal was to be ‘independent and fulfilled’, though she had to suffer until she became ‘harder of will’ and was no longer prepared to compromise. New York was ‘...her beginning to think maybe I can have control of my life’, and for Thaïs it ‘...precipitated her going further for herself’.

A.4       Untitled: Frank, Madge, Margaret

The group responsible for Untitled were friends with common experience in a self-help group in the outer Eastern suburbs. Part of the work of Untitled can be interpreted as the application of points related to self-help discourse onto the task of life construction. Though their life lacked coherence compared to others, their arguments provide interesting uses for terms such as ‘dream’ and ‘inner resources’.

The group who constructed Untitled decided early to create a person without specific details, such as a name. Rather, they would talk about its ‘ideals’, ‘What they have to fight against and how they cope with that’. They agreed to work with a character who had ‘dreams’ but felt unhappy in their work and marriage.

To deal with this disagreement they decided to each separately give their version of the life. Margaret’s involved a woman in her 30s who dreams of having a different life where she is wealthier and has the confidence of a different class, but she does not do anything about it. Madge’s life was of an extrovert who was forced by their environment into becoming an introvert, and so losing confidence in their dreams of ‘...becoming a great artist, writer, musician...’ The fortunes of Madge’s character change when they meet up with a group who accept them for who they are and they begin to ‘...dream the impossible and do it.’ Frank’s life consisted of a child from a broken family whose ‘gentleness’ is considered a weakness and who closes up as a result ‘of the hurtful things that were said’. He gets involved in the ‘romantic concept of marriage’ but that disappoints when his partner does not respond to him, and at 45 he begins to look for his ‘unreachable star.’

It is worth noting here that each of their ‘personal’ lives involves a dislocation of a character. This dislocation is constructed by imbuing the character with a picture of the way things should be which does not tally with the way things appear; this dislocation is mainly the result of a world that does not understand.

 After these lives, the group agreed that they all want the ambition of their character to be ‘self-sufficient’. Then there was an argument about whether this entails material security. While that argument rested unsettled and arose now and again throughout the session, they agreed that their life was about a person facing up to ‘problems’.

In response to the question of whether they felt that they had a ‘character’ yet, they explored putting him/her in a house where s/he has their own dreams unacknowledged by other occupants. As with money, the group differed in its ability to identify with a certain sexual life of the character. At this stage, the process of construction was seen as raising the awareness of the group: ‘I think we’re all learning something here’ (Frank).

By now the group felt they had a character and went ahead to make them the child of a broken marriage, with very strict moral upbringing in poor circumstances, and a sense of inferiority inherited from the mother. Margaret presented a childhood where through a sense of inferiority the person tries to be the centre of amusement and attains a superficial happiness. Frank drew picture of childhood spent in a poor Catholic family isolated in a Protestant neighbour­hood. Each scenario leads their character into the situation of personal crisis in adulthood. Margaret and Frank would have their character deal with the crisis through discovery of inner resources, ‘in a completely pure individual way’, and Madge would have instead them change through meeting a range of other people.

A.5       Missy: Gerry, Jan, Julie

A tertiary student, photographer, and public servant constructed the life of Missy. ‘Conflict’ seemed to be the dominant method of their construction. The conflict early in her life has particular significance in setting the scene for university, which is given a critical place in her development.

Compared to the three lives examined so far, the life of Missy is relatively normal. Her construction was characterised by a lot more argument and negotiation than the other lives. They began thinking about date of birth and class; her sex was decided without argument. An early direction was for Missy to be a ‘spinster’ (Gerry), and Jan agreed, ‘...just see what we end up with’. She also thought to include an ‘...affluent household cos that causes more internal conflicts’. Gerry contradicted this by claiming that working class homes have more ‘strain’. It is worth noting here that the group takes from granted that their character experiences conflict, what they argue about is the most convincing way of setting this up.

The first trait for Missy was to be a spinster. Julie added that she could be a rebel. And Jan posed the question, ‘But what is it about this person against others, that what developed in her childhood makes her rebel and not others?’ They agreed to have their character come from working class parents who had risen in society. The group then developed the story of the mother, which became one of a middle class secretary who fell pregnant by mistake to a working class used car salesman and was forced into marriage. The mother is now concerned to have her daughter rise back in society (‘She’s just interested in appearing rich’, Jan). The grounds for Missy’s rebellion is laid according to Jan by the combin­ation of a vain mother and a workaholic father: Missy ‘...grew up thinking [this] was normal and when she finds out it isn’t she rejects her parents’. Jan thus sets up a demand for a set of circumstances which allows Missy to recognise that her parents are different.

Here Gerry prefigured a later recognition from Missy: that she is the same as her parents. According to Gerry, ‘She’s rebelling cos she sees the parents’ material possessions are as important as she is and she doesn’t realise that their achievement was a means of getting her where she was’.

The group returned to establishing Missy’s realisation of difference. This occurs in the experience of education. Missy’s original interest in study is explained by her desire to please her parents (‘That suits the ambition of her mum’). Her next step is a private boarding school, which alienates her not only from other students, but also from home (‘So she doesn’t fit in there and when she leaves school and comes back to Melbourne, she doesn’t fit in there’, Jan). The group still did not think that Missy had yet recognised what she was in the eyes of her parents, particularly her mother. Without a way out of this conflict, the group tag their character with the ‘loner’ trait. Jan commented that this trait complemented being a ‘rebel’, because a loner is ‘that kind of person likely to rebel afterwards’.

Having Missy cast aside by society, the group began to fill in their character. Julie interpolated that Missy starts writing. Jan agreed and Gerry thought that this pursuit ‘...fills in her life’. In order to start Missy writing, the group has her witness her father having an affair. But rather than tell her school friends, Missy uses the experience to start a diary. She is further alienated when she is rejected by her boyfriend who is put off by her parvenu parents. In her adol­escence, Missy is accumulating experiences that have no audience other than her diary.

Missy was now ripe for some development. The group’s discussion concentrated on ‘when’ Missy’s ‘conflict’ would come. Jan thought it would come at university, ‘It’s a real total shock to her and she just goes wild’. She is an observer of both common and elite circles, ‘...can’t fit in anywhere’ (Jan); she is ‘a bit of a fence sitter’ (Gerry) who cannot find security in groups. All that her mother cares about is whether she will acquire a suitable son-in-law.

University began to be a significant episode. Jan continued, ‘So she’s got to uni and she’s finding she can express herself cos she’s not being restricted like she was at school. And she’s also with a social mixture, whereas at school it was all the one class and she didn’t fit it’. The story developed, ‘I think she gets more and more outspoken, cos she finds she’s talented as a writer and gets accepted into rebellious circles, cos she’s got that talent. And cos she’s mixing with that and has no other form of security like her family, she’s rejected all them, she slips into that really easily, so she becomes rebellious’. Then the group considered various options: confronting her parents, marrying someone who dies in the Vietnam war, going overseas. Here Jan observed, ‘I think she just needs independence’. The university provides the first space in which she can express her accumulated experience.

It is at this point in Missy’s life that the alternative recognition of sameness occurs. As Missy gets her first adult work, she begins to reflect on the good her parents have done for her (‘I think she can appreciated him more now’, Julie).

In another review, Julie suggested that Missy makes a few blunders (‘She has to go through the personality searching. The "Who am I?"‘, Gerry). Jan agreed and said Missy needed some ‘soul searching’. They go over the ground of Missy being a loner at university who finds expression, and then discuss a possible marriage to a man who already has children. Jan thought that she would end up being an ‘ordinary person’, whose work, though not famous, is authentic. The others agree, Julie added, ‘I want her to be more humane’, and thought that after the death of her parents she would be more ‘tolerant’.

Missy ends up living overseas - something supported by her ‘loner’ trait - living in a relationship of mutual respect with a quiet academic. She continues working without desire for public recognition.

A.6       Alex: Don, Rod, Tim

Alex’s creators included an inventor, a radio announcer, and storeman. More than most others, this group seemed keen to maintain their interest in the character by introducing twists to the story. The role of Alex’s experience in the South American rebel camp appears particularly critical in the development of his life.

Like the previous group, group constructing the life of Alex worked quickly. They began by determining qualities of sex, age, and country of birth. They started their character ‘on the borderline’ of Germany and France, during the Second World War, being smuggled out as an infant. Alex is adopted at six years by a Swiss Yodeller, who teaches him to juggle monkeys and includes him in his music hall. Tim suggested an entrepreneur discovers the act and takes it to America where the refugees ‘still want their old culture’.

At this point some character development was considered necessary. Rod advised that something should happen to Alex while he is young, because all they had at the moment was ‘the son of a Yodeller’. Tim presented Alex’s adopted father as dying leaving Alex in poverty. This is modified to the situation of his father losing his voice and not being able to support Alex. They considered whether something should happen to Alex on the way to America. Don thought it would be good to ‘have some adventures with the entrepren­eur’.

These adventures are mostly a trial to Alex. Rod claimed that ‘His innocence has to be lost somewhere here’. They have Alex at the age of eleven drinking out of loneliness, being caught and punished by Zac Washington, the entrepreneur, and taunted by prostitutes. Forecasting the end of the story, Rod offered, ‘So it’s Alex’s revenge on Zac at the age of 45’. Zac was further delineated as a ‘...cut throat, the epitome of the American bad life’. So the suffering serves to develop a project for Alex: taking control of his master.

The story continues. One of Alex’s monkeys escapes into a bullfight and Alex entertains the crowd unintentionally, which gives his act popularity. But all the profits are taken by Zac, and Alex starts to mix with street kids. Here, Rod complained ‘I’m getting bored with him again’, and Don agreed, ‘I don’t know where it’s going’. Rod elaborated that, ‘He’s sounding pretty normal. In some ways nothing really exciting about him at the moment, nothing that will punch right through the story’. Tim reflected that, ‘I think what we’re getting is a few background twists so when he gets to the States, all these things can start to come out’. At this stage the group was waiting for America to bring out the interesting complications of their character.

Alex arrives in America with Zac but without his monkeys. According to Tim ‘...this kid’s had a pretty rough start to his life and now it’s all going to happen’. New York is ‘a very big city. He’s never seen anything like it before. Everyone’s happy, it’s an interesting atmosphere’. After a couple of years on the street, Alex is abducted by a religious preacher and taken down south (‘I’d like Alex to be mothered again by the organization’, Don). The religious community is the opposite to the licentious environment he had been exposed to (‘He’s getting confused totally lost by the different cultures he sees’, Rod).

Now that the group has created the action, the focus changed from events by themselves to the consequences of this experience in terms of what Alex thinks. Rod asked ‘So what effect does this have on Alex?’, ‘...that’s going to give us something to go on’. After some talk, Tim presented, ‘I see him more as going to gaol doing something he didn’t understand’. They then agree on Alex being ‘strong’ (‘He’s had to have been strong to survive’, Rod; ‘Sees through niceness’, Don). Strength therefore is the product of the dislocation in America.

At this point the story took a new step with Don’s suggestion that, ‘Maybe he should start moving on his own, take off’. Their discussion about whether or not Alex is a loner ended with Rod’s statement, ‘What about the society is so strange and barren to him, he can’t get involved with it. He’s strong, but it’s inside’. This is where the group began to establish an internal life for their character. Tim began to consider the possibility of their character’s conscious­ness, ‘I reckon he should start thinking, what does he reckon he wants to do?’ Tim answered ‘He’s travelling to get away and to make a life for himself’.

Out on the road Alex meets up with someone who is not out to exploit him. Rod suggested that in Mexico they have Alex meet William Burroughs, in case they get a ‘too stock life’, ‘I’d like a surreal twist’. Burroughs is a friend to Alex, and provides him with the first sexual experience he has been comfortable with. But his stay in Mexico changes when he is arrested for carrying heroine. Here Don demanded, ‘I’d like to get him to Japan’. But as a compromise, Tim used the gaol experience to have Alex befriend a Japanese prisoner, who is quiet and strong like Alex. The experience of gaol adds to his stock of trails. While in gaol ‘He’s getting really tough’ (Don). They escape together and end up in a guerilla camp in Brazil, where Alex gets on with the ‘bad guys’, who had led a ‘difficult life’. ‘He’s against America, Germany, against everyone. Finally finds people he likes and can speak to and talks them into fighting. He’s matured now, he’s got his thoughts together, he’s grown up, and he’s decided he’s not going to take any more shit’ (Tim). Rod added to Tim’s story Alex’s desire to ‘make his mark on things’: ‘Maybe he goes back to America and seeks revenge’.

The story now climaxes in an end that had been forecast near the beginning of the construction. The background to his revenge is a realisation that ‘...the society he’s left in America is no better than the one he’s reached in Brazil that they’re rebelling against’. Rod continued that ‘We’ve got elements of Brazil that would be good, that build towards his psyche’. When Alex’s goal was questioned in the group, Don offered, ‘I think he more wanted some sort of action where he was in control for once’. Rod complemented that half-ironically, ‘It’s just a little man against the big society’. Alex’s revenge was finally given practical shape. The goal of killing Zac Washington with a trained monkey was established, which made sense for Rod because, ‘Zac Washing­ton can be a metaphor for the political system in America. If he kills Zac, then that’s enough’. At the end, Rod reflected that Alex realised his eventual aim when he went to Brazil and realised ‘...that there were others who’d had their aims crushed’. By the end the group were still undecided about whether Alex then turns the monkey on himself after it had killed Zac.

A.7       Naomi: Anne, Melanie

Naomi was the only character constructed by a group of two: both tertiary students. It is likely that this is one of the contributing factors to relative lack of argument involved in the construction. The pace of Naomi’s creation was extremely quick and it seemed as though she was constructed by any event at hand, even if improbable. It is interesting to consider her life in relation to Heinrich’s, as a tale of how superior intelligence takes one away from the world.

Naomi was very soon established as a neglected child, whose academic parents were not able to see beyond their theoretical expectations and communi­cate with their child. There was very little discussion about points. For example, Melanie introduced a housekeeper into the story and Anne continued ‘She has an affair with Col [the father] on the side’, and Melanie adds ‘Viv’s [the mother] not aware of this...’ The construction of Naomi sometimes included a kind of role playing, with Melanie and Ann taking on the voices of the characters in the story. One of the few points of disagreement in the construction was about the scenario where Col is killed off after he has left his wife and been deserted by his lover. Anne thought he was a ‘drag’, but Melanie created a story that would continue his life a bit longer.

At this point Naomi’s life undergoes a radical change. As academics, Naomi’s parents tend to neglect her, so it is not a surprise when Naomi falls into a swimming pool and suffers brain damage. Viv and her new lover find money to cure Naomi and they go to England for the operation. In London Naomi is abducted by punks and tied up. She is eventually released from them and brought to surgery. Anne suggested that the operation is a failure and Naomi dies on the table. Melanie countered this with the alternative of a career as a great writer. This became the path of Naomi’s life. After the operation she has no knowledge of her first three years. But drugs have distorted her brain capacity so that, with the assistance of tutors, Naomi displays precocious intelligence. Naomi’s life begins to have an internal direction. Once she has recovered, she travels to America in order to experience life and gain knowledge. Naomi is not interested in settling down, and she begins to take drugs at the clinic she has helped set up. At the end she is run over by a car in Harlem.

A.8       Acrobat: Carmel, Jane, Peter, Shane

The constructors of Acrobat were mainly teachers of northern suburb schools, with the inclusion of a gardener. The group often discussed the question of what makes a person, whether a person’s life is made of events or idiosyn­crasies. In the end their construction lends a critical role to education in the formation of consciousness.

This group were not concerned with the name of their character, showing more concern initially with inner development. The life of the Acrobat began rapidly with a Lithuanian circus performer who was travelling Northern Ireland with her family running off with a band of young contortionists. The contortion­ists tell her about the world and what is going on in Ireland. Her father is not happy because he thinks they ‘...are definitely not the right people to mix with’ (Carmel). Here Shane said he would ‘ her to meet people that are ordinary, as a counterpoint’. The Acrobat stays with a family in Dublin, but finds their situation the same as what she had experienced at the circus, only worse. Looking for a ‘way out’ (Jane) she takes up dancing at a pub.

At this point the group established that the traits of the Acrobat were ‘naïve’ (Jane) and ‘impulsive’ (Peter). There was some discussion about how naïve the Acrobat was. Though her circus background left her without much experience, she had ‘learnt pretty fast’ (Shane) how to survive.

Here some of the group expressed their dissatisfactions. Peter com­plained that the story was becoming ‘cynical’. Shane said he would like to ‘...colour her in a bit’. They discussed her passions, such as brushing her hair, and having hot baths. Peter thought that, ‘The thing that really determines personality is perhaps a bit intellectual conflict of ideas, coming into contact with things that make you take stock of what you’re like’.

She manages to find security in marrying a used car salesman, and learns to read and write and find out about the political situation. In calling for internal changes in their character, Shane claimed that the Acrobat ‘...hasn’t been exerting much pressure on the situations around her’. Carmel stated that ‘She can’t just change overnight’. Jane said that ‘Learning to read and write would be a big change’, and Shane felt this gives her ‘...another avenue for getting other people’s ideas’ rather than the talk of people around her.

Education shows her the possibility of internal life. According to Shane ‘She starts to reflect on individuals’ whereas before she’d just looked at people’s roles, like ‘liontamers’; ‘People...start to come out of the background’. For Jane that was for the Acrobat ‘...thinking about herself as a person, rather than just part of the whole’, and for Peter she was learning to understand people that before she had just treated as ‘furniture’. For Shane this was the important point ‘Now she’s started to reflect on that human beings are starting to stand out from their products’.

At this point it was suggested that she become involved politically, though her motivation was questioned. Jane thought ‘She would learn this better outside the country’. The scenario arises where she had been briefly involved with the IRA, but left because of differences of opinion, and her husband had been blown up in a car explosion that was intended for her, leaving her with enough money to leave the country.

Now the journey overseas becomes a possibility, and the group began to discuss the nature of this transition. Jane suggested she goes to America. Shane asked if there is a reason, perhaps ‘...that she’s undergone this awakening’. Other destinations are considered. Carmel observed, ‘Its about time she took stock of things’. New York is considered ‘...really exciting, it’s a place where people she’d identify with were but were also strangers’. There was some discussion about whether she is successful in New York. Because she is out of the dance scene, the group expected her to live it up for a while on her money, but then find herself lost.

A.9       Adrian: Bernie, Lynn, Monica

Adrian’s constructors included two teachers and a tertiary student. An initial concern with creating a ‘normal’ boy seemed to lead to a boredom with their character. Compared to the other lives, the life of Adrian seems a quite conventional heroic tale. For this reason it is interesting to inquire into the process of its construction.

The group that constructed Adrian chose to have a male life because ‘ might be more testing to the imagination’ (Monica). They began by giving him an age, considering his appearance and his family structure, older brother and two normal parents. His traits include being a little bit independent, demonstrated in getting his own breakfast, and riding a BMX bike.

The question now was the internal workings of their character. Bernie at this point asked the question ‘What’s wrong with him?’ She wanted to know ‘What gets him going?’ Bernie suggested that he might have someone favourite, a grandmother, Monica thought it might be a ‘favourite aunt’, and Lynn proposed someone with old stories, ‘...especially with that bit of adventure’. Bernie thought it would be like ‘...he had his own collection of strange objects that only he could relate to’.

 His school performance was discussed, but Bernie interrupted to say that ‘He has to develop so he doesn’t just end up getting married and having kids’; she thought ‘We have to get something moving’. Monica agreed that ‘We have to get some sort of direction going.’ This is the point where Lynn suggested that he be an airline pilot, which was taken up without argument. The project of being a pilot was given credibility by relating it to the already established trait of riding a bike, and a specially constructed experience of Adrian going up on a crop duster on his uncle’s farm: ‘It was quiet up there’ (Monica).

Having thus determined his project, the group turned to his relationships with others, particularly girls. The group gave him a motor bike, which he has purchased by careful saving, ‘He’s got a head on his shoulders’ (Bernie). He meets his first girlfriend at his brother’s 21st party, but her parents have to move interstate. He concentrates on his studies for a time, and later Adrian finds a girlfriend who is not as ‘possessive’ (Bernie).

The goal of being a pilot has few obstacles. While at the aviation school, he gets the idea about visiting other parts of the world, ‘So he can see what other people are like’ (Bernie). His study encounters difficulty but he pulls himself up. Bernie wanted something ‘...a bit out of the norm’ and Monica expressed a desire for him to have more friends, but they decided that he had problems with others because he is so particular about his bike. He graduates as a pilot and starts work, but Monica wondered ‘Where’s his own space? Where’s his own time to discover who he is?’

The group became quite dissatisfied with their character here. Monica thought he was ‘quite a catch’, and Lynn responded, ‘What a bore!’ Monica thought this was because ‘He can’t get on with everybody and everything. That’s why it’s unreal’. Monica felt Adrian has let life make decisions for him. Lynn said she was ‘sick’ of him, and Bernie advised a ‘drastic change’. At this point Bernie painted Adrian sitting on the death bed of his childhood friend, Arthur, and Monica suggested Arthur leave Adrian his diary, and this ‘...shakes him out of this nonsensical stupor he’s been in’. Lynn questioned this, but Bernie argued that ‘He needs something totally different, out of the way’, and Monica agreed, ‘He needs shaking up’. Lynn then relented and proposed that Adrian go on a ‘discovery tour for a while’. He sets out ‘...doing something more for himself and not for his career, cos it means nothing until he finds out who he is’.  While away he reunites with his brother and discovers the real person behind the simple image Adrian had of him.

When discussing how the diary had this effect, Monica proposed that there was a secret in the diary that would make Adrian leave his job. Bernie thought it was because the diary showed that it was written for Adrian, and that ‘hit home’. So he goes to the places that Arthur had experienced when he was young, 60 years ago. Then Lynn proposed a finish to the life by making him end his days as an old Arthur. Now, Bernie thought, he’d have ‘more sense of self, substance’. Lynn continued and has Adrian develop a similar relationship with a young person as his with Arthur.

A.10  Heinrich: Anne-Marie, Jessica, Simon

Heinrich’s creators included a shop assistant, film hand and young law graduate. The dominant problem raised in this session was that of constructing a life which was more than just a product of the film culture they had experienced. The struggle over this problem provides interesting information about how a group might deal with the problem of ‘verisimilitude’: what is seen to constitute a ‘life’ beyond the repertoire of conventional film narratives.

Heinrich was given his name at the end of the session. At the beginning of the session, Anne-Marie suggested they construct a German because ‘you never know exactly how to read them’. The group then established that he is a psychopath. His father was made a Nazi officer who takes home porn films, and operates a repressive house. The construction ceased here for a typical discussion of the merits of the story.

Striking up what would in the end be a consistent complaint by the group, Anne-Marie said ‘I keep feeling myself sinking into all these cliches’, Jessica agreed. Anne-Marie continued this theme, saying that she kept relating it to books and films, and Jessica thought that it had become ‘really linear’, and there was a problem in not being able to relate ‘from our experience’.

The group returned to concentrate on developing their character. For Simon the problem was to get Heinrich out of East Berlin. Jessica suggested that he just pack his bags and go, but this did not stop the group entertaining reasons for his departure by imagining various crimes he could have committed. Here the group began to think about the problem of motivation. Simon commented that they had not made Heinrich upset with life. Anne-Marie suggested an ‘...artistic streak and he’s aware of the sort of hypocrisy of his background’. Simon claimed,  ‘We’ve got to make him bitter’. Anne-Marie suggested he have a relationship with his sister, which Jessica thought had sexual overtones, thus forcing Heinrich to leave home when she gets married. Simon agreed and suggested he goes to Australia. Anne-Marie wanted America, but she wondered how he was going to get there. At this point they made Heinrich an obsessive reader and sent him to Venice. Here Jessica suggested an allusion to Camus’ The Outsider.

The theme of realism was raised again. At this point, Anne-Marie complained that the process was becoming ‘self-determining’, compelled to be a ‘reflection of myself’. I intervened and explained that this was alright for the exercise as long as all members could agree on the story. Anne-Marie said that she thought Heinrich considered himself ‘a man of lost causes’, and only way that could change would be ‘an event totally out of his control’. Jessica agreed that ‘...every step is pretty pre-determined’, but Simon objected that they could change that and suggested they ‘...put him back in the mainstream of life’. The rest agreed, except that Anne-Marie said she couldn’t see him ‘instituting it himself’. Simon’s response to this was to follow Jessica’s suggestion of moving to America, and to execute the move just like the ‘flash-forward in films’. Simon said, ‘I think we should go forward and try to set up a new life for him, something completely different’. Though Anne-Marie wanted a ‘link’, Simon claimed he was ‘...more concerned at two total opposites in his life rather than trying to overlap the two’. Jessica agreed with Anne-Marie that there had to be ‘some thematic reason why he’s done it if he’s to have any sort of relevant personality’.

A narrative link to this ‘other’ Heinrich eventually came from Simon, who proposed that he is ‘reborn’ in America. Anne-Marie suggested that he ‘end up like his father was originally’. Jessica agreed that he become a ‘user’. The catalyst for this change was created by sending Heinrich to gaol. There Heinrich finds ‘...rather than fighting lost causes, he does a complete turn, and thinks the only way is to exploit the system rather than be sucked up by it’ (Anne-Marie). Through a contact at the gaol he meets a mafia boss in Chicago and is set up running a business leasing porn videos to motels.

Having established a major change in their character, the group then explored its implications. ‘For the first time in his life he seems to be successful at something..’ (Simon); ‘He suddenly gets power’ (Jessica); ‘He’s becoming more and more like his father’ (Simon). Heinrich becomes respectable, and sleeps with lots of women, but only likes older women. Anne-Marie suggested he meet his older sister, and Simon confessed he was thinking of taking him back to Germany. He then presented the ‘solution to the whole thing’ which was to have Heinrich come across his sister in a porn film and ‘ takes him right back to the start again’. It makes him realise that he had understood the films as just ‘images’. As a turning point, Anne-Marie thought that seeing the sister was for Heinrich seeing ‘the other end of the scale to what he is on’. Anne-Marie described it as ‘a full circle’ when he meets his parents in East Berlin. At this point Jessica said she would like Heinrich to die now, and in response to Anne-Marie’s question, she requested ‘a way as futile and pointless and meaningless as he lived’. She suggested he get killed in cross-fire and be declared a hero by both sides, defying his last futile act, ‘the one definitive step that he ever makes’. Anne-Marie thought that was ‘the natural dramatic conclusion’. Jessica felt he had been exploited by both sides at the end.

Text is copyright Kevin Murray. For reproduction inquiries, email