Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 20

Chapter 22


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Chapter 21: Interpreting Autobiographies

            A common exercise in Individual Psychology is to interpret famous people’s early memories from their interviews or autobiographies. Analyzing autobiographical material is significantly more difficult than interviewing a live subject, because it is not possible to ask questions. Nevertheless, by examining the memories closely, and by also considering relevant facts about the person’s adult life, it is possible to glean a great deal of information about a lifestyle – as well as to get valuable practice – from autobiographical materials.
            Below are memories taken from the autobiographies of ten famous people. Read the memories and extrapolate as much as you can about the adult’s lifestyle. Each individual’s identity, along with my comments, is revealed at the end of this chapter.
            This exercise works particularly well in a group setting. You can compare one another’s interpretations of the early memories as well as share with one another any additional information you know about each famous person.

Autobiography 1: I would not be prompted.
            There is an incident which occurred at the examination during my first year at the high school and which is worth recording. Mr. Giles, the Educational Inspector, had come on a visit of inspection. He had set us five words to write as a spelling exercise. One of the words was ‘kettle’. I had misspelt it. The teacher tried to prompt me with the point of his boot, but I would not be prompted. It was beyond me to see that he wanted me to copy the spelling from my neighbour’s slate, for I had thought that the teacher was there to supervise us against copying. The result was that all the boys, except myself, were found to have spelt every word correctly. Only I had been stupid. The teacher tried later to bring this stupidity home to me, but without effect. I never could learn the art of ‘copying’.
            Yet the incident did not in the least diminish my respect for my teacher.

Autobiography 2: No room for cowards.
            Both my parents conditioned us to be tough in order to survive whatever life might throw at us. They expected us to stand up for ourselves, me as much as my brothers. Shortly after we moved to Park Ridge, my mother noticed I was reluctant to go outside to play. Sometimes I came in crying, complaining that the girl across the street was always pushing me around. Suzy O’Callaghan had older brothers, and she was used to playing rough. I was only four years old, but my mother was afraid that if I gave in to my fears, it would set a pattern for the rest of my life. One day, I came running into the house. She stopped me.
            “Go back out there,” she ordered, “and if Suzy hits you, you have my permission to hit her back. You have to stand up for yourself. There’s no room in this house for cowards.” She later told me she watched from behind the dining room curtain as I squared my shoulders and marched across the street.
            I returned a few minutes later, glowing with victory. “I can play with the boys now,” I said. “And, Suzy will be my friend!”
            She was and she still is.

Autobiography 3: I tumble.
            My first conscious memory is of running. I was three years old, and my mother was driving us in a horse-drawn buggy, holding my baby brother Don on her lap while a neighbor girl held me. The horse turned the corner leading to our house at high speed, and I tumbled onto the ground. I must have been in shock, but I managed to get up and run after the buggy while my mother tried to make the horse stop. The only aftereffect of this accident was that years later, when the vogue of parting hair on the left side came along, I still had to comb mine straight back to hide a scar caused by the fall.

Autobiography 4: I was determined to find something I could succeed at.

Memory 1

            But, for all of his proselytizing, Terry had a bad temper, and he used to whip me, for silly things. Kid things, like being messy.
            Once, I left a drawer open in my bedroom, with a sock hanging out. Terry got out his old fraternity paddle. It was a thick, solid wood paddle, and frankly, in my opinion nothing like that should be used on a small boy. He turned me over and he spanked me with it.
            The paddle was his preferred method of discipline. If I came home late, out would come the paddle. Whack. If I smarted off, I got the paddle. Whack. It didn’t just hurt physically, but also emotionally. So I didn’t like Terry ...

Memory 2

            I was determined to find something I could succeed at. When I was in fifth grade, my elementary school held a distance-running race. I told my mother the night before the race, “I’m going to be the champ.” She just looked at me, and then she went into her things and dug out a 1972 silver dollar. “This is a good-luck coin,” she said. “Now remember, all you have to do is beat that clock.” I won the race.

Memory 3

            A few months later, I joined the local swim club. At first it was another way to seek acceptance with the other kids in the suburbs, who all swam laps at Los Rios Country Club, where their parents were members. On the first day of swim practice, I was so inept that I was put with the seven-year-olds. I looked around and saw the younger sister of one of my friends. It was embarrassing.

Autobiography 5: The tone of disapproval.

Memory 1

            I was a shy, solemn child even at the age of two, and I am sure that even when I danced I never smiled. My earliest recollections are of being dressed up and allowed to come down to dance for a group of gentlemen who applauded and laughed as I pirouetted before them. Finally, my father would pick me up and hold me high in the air. He dominated my life as long as he lived, and was the love of my life for many years after he died.

Memory 2

            We went to Sorrento and I was given a donkey so I could ride over the beautiful roads. One day the others overtook me and offered to let me go with them, but at the first steep descent which they slid down I turned pale, and preferred to stay on the high road. I can remember still the tone of disapproval in my father’s voice, though his words of reproof have long since faded away.

Autobiography 6: The trip downtown.
            I remember a trip to a downtown shoe store with Father when I was still small. We had sat down in the first empty seats at the front of the store. A young white clerk came up and murmured politely:
            “I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.”
            Dad immediately retorted, “There’s nothing wrong with these seats. We’re quite comfortable here.”
            “Sorry,” said the clerk, “but you’ll have to move.”
            “We’ll either buy shoes sitting here,” my father retorted, “or we won’t buy shoes at all.”
            Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious. That experience revealed to me at a very early age that my father had not adjusted to the system, and he played a great part in shaping my conscience. I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, “I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.”

Autobiography 7: I’d be the life of the party.

Memory 1

            That day I asked a question that weighed heavily on my mind. I pointed to my Aunt Faye’s blouse and asked, “How come girls have humps like camels?” Suddenly, everyone was screaming like the room was on fire. “Ohhhhh! Did you hear what that child said?!” Of course, my mother was redfaced. And, the other women started having coughing spasms. And, I thought, “What did I do?” I remember being amazed at the reaction and kind of liking how I felt.

Memory 2

            I was never much interested in kids my own age. I always liked to listen to what the adults had to say because they always seemed much more interesting. One night in New Rochelle, my parents were having what I thought was a huge party, but I guess it was just two other couples over playing bridge. I had gone up to bed, but I’d crept back to the top of the stairs to eavesdrop on the party below. They were talking and laughing and having a good time, and I wanted so badly to be down there where the action was. So I hatched a plan: I would make a big showbiz entrance! I would slide down the banister in my pajamas, hit the bottom, land on my feet, and go, “Ta daaaa!” Right in the middle of the bridge game! I’d be the life of the party! Cause a sensation!
            …So I balanced myself on the top of the banister and slid approximately one inch. And, that was it. Suddenly, I fell like a nuclear missile – straight through a table with a lamp on it. There was a huge crash as the table collapsed and the lamp shattered. Everybody jumped up from the card game, scared out of their minds. But what an entrance! My parents rushed me to the hospital, where my spleen had to be removed. Which was so cool to me at the time – well worth giving up an insignificant body part. I’ve never really missed my spleen, anyway.

Autobiography 8: My birthday.
            I remember once it was my birthday and I thought. Well now, my birthday! I can choose prisoner’s base. I liked it much better than baseball.
            “Prisoner’s base,” I said.
            “Oh no, baseball!” they all cried.
            “But, Dad – it’s my birthday – certainly I have the right to –“
            “You have the privilege of making everyone happy,” said Dad. “It’s your birthday.”
            We played baseball. Unfair!
`           Another incident, sort of similar. When we were much younger, about eight.
            At birthday parties we used to have a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey contest. We’d hang a piece of material with the donkey drawn out – a full-sized donkey. The guests would be blindfolded and given a tail to pin on the donkey.
            On my birthday I did a bit of advance work. I knew where the donkey would be hung. I studied the rug edges which I could feel through my shoes – then nine steps – reach to the left – tail-high.
            When at the party I pinned the tail almost exactly where it belonged, Mother cheerily said, “Well, that was excellent. You –“
            “I won! I won!” I said.
            “Oh no,” said Mother. “You can’t win anything. It’s your party. You give the prizes.”
            Pretty dumb, I thought to myself. Life! Dumb!

Autobiography 9: The potato-hole.
            The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabin – that is, something that was called a door – but the uncertain hinges by which it was hung, and the large cracks in it, to say nothing of the fact that it was too small, made the room a very uncomfortable one. In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the “cat-hole” – a contrivance which almost every mansion or cabin in Virginia possessed during the ante-bellum period. The “cat-hole” was a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the centre of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter. An impression of this potato-hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed. There was no cooking-stove on our plantation, and all the cooking for the whites and slaves my mother had to do over an open fireplace, mostly in pots and “skillets.” While the poorly built cabin caused us to suffer with cold in the winter, the heat from the open fireplace in summer was equally trying.

Autobiography 10: She made me feel special.

Memory 1

            My earliest memories are of Aunt Marth. I was often left with her when I was little. She was a good friend to me, and she made me feel special. Her big house was not far from our little cabin, and even as a little kid, I could go there on my own. I can remember climbing up the steps to her porch. I couldn’t have been more than two or two and a half, and I had to struggle up the stairs one at a time.

Memory 2

            There was always as special treat that I could count on. Aunt Marth would sit me on her lap and ride me up and down as she would sing (a song with my name in it).
            I can remember being amazed that Aunt Marth knew a song that had my name in it. It never occurred to me that you could put anybody’s name in the song. And, after all, I was special. Why wouldn’t there be a song about a special little girl? That was the first song I was ever aware of, and it was like a drug to me. I used to clap my hands and squeal, “Sing it again, Aunt Marth, sing it again!”

Memory 3

            When I was about five, we moved away from Aunt Marth’s place. The men moved the household belongings on a sled pulled behind our mule. I don’t know exactly how far it was, but to a kid it seemed like a long trip. I said good-bye to Aunt Marth and toddled off behind the sled, holding on to my Aunt Tude’s forefinger. I remember tripping over rocks and cow ruts and fighting my way through briars and constantly asking, “Can’t we slow down?” But in the mountains there is a certain pace that survival sets for you, and it can’t be changed for one dreamy little kid being dragged unknowingly through a threshold of life.


Autobiography 1: I would not be prompted.
            Here, we see a person with a steadfast, even obstinate, adherence to the truth. It is beyond his understanding that a teacher should prompt him to cheat at a school inspection, and even after the teacher tries to explain to him that he should have copied, the explanations are “without effect.” This person is also tells us that he is taunted – his teacher tries to bring his “stupidity” home. Yet, despite the fact that his teacher has behaved unkindly and in a way completely antithetical to the recaller's own scrupulously honest lifestyle, this is an individual who forgives: “Yet the incident did not in the least diminish my respect for my teacher.”
            These are the memories of Mahatma Gandhi, the great leader who liberated India from British rule. Gandhi worked for civil rights in South Africa before developing his philosophy of Satyagraha, nonviolent civil disobedience. Gandhi did suffer for his work, enduring grueling hunger strikes, beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately assassination. At the same time, he forgave his opponents their transgressions and responded to violence with pacifistic measures. From his early memory, we may conclude that his adherence to Satyagraha entailed an adherence to principles of the truth as embodied in spirituality and, indeed, his autobiography is entitled The Story of My Experiments with the Truth.

Autobiography 2: No room for cowards.
            In this memory, we have a person who has been taught that it is important to fight back. Indeed, she has been ordered to fight back. “Life involves confrontations,” this individual is saying. “I am expected to face challenges aggressively.” At the same time, she believes that conflict does not have to lead to permanent hard feelings.
            This is an early memory reported by Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman who defines herself as “a fighter” and who has made a career of “playing with the boys.” In 1969, she enrolled in Yale Law School as one of only 27 women in a class of 235 students. She is well-known as the first First Lady to be assigned a key policy role – the task of overseeing healthcare reform. As a senator, she was successful at working with other legislators on both sides of the aisle, and as a presidential candidate she showed a tenacious ability to endure a lengthy battle. Is she up for another battle? That remains to be seen.

Autobiography 3: I tumbled.
            It is interesting that the memory begins with a description of “running” and we later learn that it is not the boy but, rather, a horse that is running. In a live interview, such a choice of words might suggest a tendency to exaggerate; in this case, we must avoid drawing such a conclusion because the memory is being presented in a dramatic format for a book.
            Nevertheless, the memory describes swift motion, which suggests ambition. There is also an element of rebuke in the memory; the mother protected the younger child by holding him while the older child was allowed to fall to the ground.
            Most dramatically, the story line is of falling, but subsequently, of getting up and running again. Here, we have an ambitious person who experiences serious set-backs but continues trying. This is the memory of Richard Nixon, thirty-seventh president of the United States. After serving as vice president during the Dwight Eisenhower administration, Nixon subsequently lost his bid for governor of California and his first bid for president. Famously, after becoming a two-term president, Nixon subsequently stepped down from office to avoid impeachment. (From this final fall, he arguably did not get back up again, although his later life did see him assuming more of the role of an elder statesman.)

Autobiography 4: I was determined to find something I could succeed at.
            In these memories, we see a clear contrast between a negative – even violent – event and a warm and nurturing interchange. Here is the life of a person who has experienced painful setbacks (being paddled cruelly) and triumphant achievements (winning a race).
            Doubtless, the feelings of hopelessness or outrage symbolized in the first memory fuel his ambition. We see a person who, in his own words, is “determined to succeed.” In the second memory, he vows that he will win the race, and he does. In the third memory, of swimming, we sense that he is not satisfied to remain in a situation that is “embarrassing.” In fact, in his autobiography, he later informs us, “I didn’t swim in the worst group for long.”
            These are the memories of cyclist Lance Armstrong who won the Tour de France a record-breaking seven times in a row and later had his metals stripped. The memories are of someone who will work aggressively to win and, as life bore out, this includes cheating. In addition, besides being an aggressive, world-class athlete, Armstrong also fought and survived a life-threatening battle with cancer.

Autobiography 5: The tone of disapproval.
            This person tells us that her father “dominated” her life, but we do not need to be told; it is apparent in the memories. In the first memory, of dancing, she pleases her father and his friends and is rewarded by being lifted up and held in the air. In the second memory, of riding on the donkey, she displeases her father and remembers acutely the sting of his disapproval.
            These are the memories of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife and first lady to President Franklin Roosevelt, and a formidable political figure in her own right who was the driving force behind the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later in life, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote that “the most important thing is to be helpful.”
            In these memories, we see someone who, when she makes the visitors happy, is rewarded. Indeed, to be “allowed” to dance before them is a reward in itself. Mrs. Roosevelt saw her life of privilege as one that carried with it responsibilities: Always to please, never to displease.

Autobiography 6: The trip downtown.
            These are obviously the memories of someone raised under a system of segregation. In fact, these are the memories of Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and leader of one of the world’s greatest and most successful civil rights movements. Notice how the memory echoes King’s approach to nonviolent protest: He watches his father voice his disapproval and boycott the store, all the while maintaining a tone of civility.

 Autobiography 7: I’d be the life of the party.
            It does not take much digging to uncover the personality of an entertainer in both of these memories. These are the early recollections of comedian Jay Leno. The first memory is one of discovery – he realizes that he can make other people laugh, and the feeling is enjoyable for him. In the second memory, we see how far he will go to “cause a sensation.” Entertainment is the be-all end-all for Leno; even after a severe injury, he is unperturbed. Rather than thinking about the damage or the pain, he is thinking “what an entrance!” He nonchalantly adds that he never really missed his spleen, anyway.
            The accident in the second memory might be suggestive of a certain recklessness, but Leno’s reflections later in his autobiography offer an alternative interpretation. He writes:

I always believed that being a comic required a certain tenacity, which I was lucky enough to have. To audition at places like Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, we would start lining up outside the clubs at two in the afternoon with hopes of getting onstage sometime after eleven that night…
            The point is, any idiot can have a life. But careers are hard to come by. I’ve never been better at anything than anybody else. Which meant that I would always just have to work a little bit harder to keep up or maybe even pull ahead. Like the turtle who raced the hare, I plowed forward, slow and steady. Even if it meant sitting on curbs all day or sleeping on the back steps of comedy clubs all night.

            So, the lesson hidden in Leno’s early memory of crashing from the banister is that it is important to try hard. Setbacks and challenges will happen, but Leno is nonchalant about them. The important thing is that, at the end of his ordeal, he has made “an entrance.” Through tenacity, he has furthered his career.

Autobiography 8: My birthday.
            As in example 5, these memories show a relationship between privilege and duty. Here, both memories take place during the girl’s birthday; obviously a day of importance to her and a situation that suggests, “I am special.” In both cases, although the girl tries to take advantage of her special situation (by going so far as doing “advance work” in the second memory), her expectations are deflated. Birthdays are a time for “making everyone happy,” for “giving the prizes.” When one is special, one has a responsibility to give to others.
            These are the memories of actress Katherine Hepburn. Before becoming famous in Hollywood, Hepburn grew up in an upper middle class family and attended the elite college of Bryn Mawr. With her life in movies, we can definitely see the elements of being special and of making other people happy. At the same time, we must wonder whether Ms. Hepburn also experienced disappointment in her inner life – a desire, never fulfilled, to win something for herself. She describes the etiquette protocols at her birthdays as “dumb” and “unfair.” Perhaps she felt something similar with her decades-long relationship with Spencer Tracy that never evolved into a marriage and that neither discussed publicly.

Autobiography 9: The potato-hole.
            Although, this does not read like the memory of a specific event, there is still information to be gleaned here. In particularly, we may focus on the fact that this individual recalls pilfering sweet potatoes from the potato-hole. From the text, we know that these are the early memories of a slave child. He describes to us in detail the poverty of his circumstances: a tiny cabin riddled with holes; hot in summer and cold in winter; no glass windows; a dirt floor. Add to this, the toil and debasement of slavery. Yet, in the man’s early memories, he has focused on the potato-hole, a storage bin for sweet potatoes in the middle of the cabin. He recalls collecting one or two potatoes which he “roasted and enjoyed.”
            This is the memory of African American educator, Booker T. Washington. The head of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington is perhaps best known for his Atlanta Compromise speech where he proposed that the black and white communities could enjoy economic interaction while remaining socially segregated. While criticized by many for being perhaps disingenuous and “the great compromiser,” this memory of the potato-hole shows a man who genuinely learned to find pleasure even under abject circumstances – a man who, doubtless, believed that others could do the same.

Autobiography 10: She made me feel special.
            In the first memory, we find a young person laboriously climbing up a high set of steps. As we have learned, motion – and particularly upward motion – can signify ambition. Add to this the fact that the young person lives in a “little cabin” and that she is now climbing the stairs to a “big house” and we see an ambitious climb from poverty toward prosperity.
            In the second memory, we learn that this person considers herself special. We also find out that music is “like a drug” to her.
            The final memory reinforces the themes of poverty and of careful progress; the slogging hike through the mountains echoes the laborious climb up the stairs.
            These are the memories of singer/songwriter and wealthy businesswoman Dolly Parton. Parton grew up in extreme poverty in the Smoky Mountains and, despite the odds against her success, she reached a place of prominence and built a life of material abundance through her own hard work and through her gift of music.


Armstrong, Lance. It’s Not Just about the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. © 2000, 2001 by Lance Armstrong. New York: Berkley Books.
Clinton, Hillary Rodham. Living History. © 2003 by Hillary Rhodam Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gandhi, M.K. The Story of My Experiments with the Truth. © 1993. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hepburn, Katherine. Me: Stories of My Life. September 24, 1991. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
King, Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson. © 1998 by The Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warner Books
Leno, Jay with Zehme, Bill. Leading with My Chin. © 1996 by Big dog Productions, Inc. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Nixon, Richard. The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. © 1978 by Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
Parton, Dolly. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. © 1994 by Dolly Parton. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Roosevelt, Eleanor. The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt. © 1958 by Curtis Publishing Co. New York: Harper and Row.
Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery. 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)