Finding Ourselves In Biographies

What makes us into who we are? I wondered about that early on, thanks to four rows of biographies in the children’s section of Porter Public Library. They were shelved separately from other books, even other biographies, in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Each featured a different person of importance, yet the worn spines looked very much the same when same lined up — as if to say greatness is consistent.

I rode my bike, played with friends, spent time in the woods behind our house,  and indulged in make-believe. I also read for hours every day. I took a stack of books home each time we visited the library. Usually a book or two about animals, a biography, and as much fiction as I could carry. I also brought books home from the school library each week. Typically I finished all the books before it was time to get more, then suffered without reading material.

I carefully selected books from the biography shelves. Initially I chose life stories of anyone Native American, any scientist, any artist. This was a smaller selection than I would have liked. Next I chose any book about women. Also a smaller selection that I would have liked. I worked my way through these shelves, skipping only the volumes about sports giants. Each book, written by template, found significant factors in the subject’s childhood that presaged their future greatness. Of course this led me to consider my own not-so-unique childhood. Being an introvert, I was somewhat relieved that greatness wasn’t in my future. Being  a child obsessed with suffering in the world, however, forecast that I might not grow up to make things better. This added to the burdens of my elementary years.

In my teen years I read well beyond those tired old juvenile biographies, finding books that illuminated these luminaries while showing them as human sized. I realized that people considered leaders in public life were quite likely, just like ordinary people, to be morally weak or otherwise plagued by common failings. My parents weren’t happy when I mentioned these revelations at the dinner table. “There’s nothing wrong with looking up to someone,” they told me. “What do you gain by diminishing heroes?” I thought it helped us see that people considered important aren’t so different from the rest of us. (I didn’t win those dinner table debates.)

I also began to read deeper, more revelatory biographies of people I admired. I watched plants grow through the mystical eye of George Washington Carver.  I hiked  into euphoric vistas with John Muir. I sank into despair with Jane Addams and rose from it as she found her purpose in a dream. I traveled and healed with Albert Schweitzer. I wondered if I might have survived, growing into wisdom as Elie Wiesel had. I fell into Huey P. Newton’s stark revelations about racism in America. I considered my own silence in relation to Maya Angelou’s childhood choices. I examined my dreams after reading Carl Jung’s insights. I crouched behind trees with Jane Goodall, considering our oneness with all creatures.

I suspect each of us is seeded with all sorts of abilities and possibilities. And when challenged, we are likely to do good. What we call “heroism” is explained, by those who exemplify it, as “I was just doing what anyone would have done.”

I remain fascinated by what makes us who we are, beyond neat templates. We can explain this as individual callings, ancestral legacies, trauma-encoded behaviors, archetypal journeys, the grand mystery of each life’s catalysts. Or not explain it at all.

I also remain fascinated by the stories that called to us in childhood, what those stories mean in our lives today,  and how stories of our own ancestors affect who we are.

What “important person” did you look up to as a child? What template was imposed on your childhood? How do you see “greatness” differently from an adult perspective?



9 thoughts on “Finding Ourselves In Biographies

  1. I read a lot as a child, and into my 30s (until paper and ink and other exposures made me too dizzy to focus).

    As an adult, The Life of Shabkar was a biography that I found very interesting.
    I’m currently reading Enlightened Vagabond.
    Both are about people who were very concerned with how to free beings from suffering.

    If I ever regain more brain power, I want to learn more about storytelling. These days it’s difficult to put many words together when my reality (due to disability) is so different from most others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing those two titles, Linda. They look fascinating. (I’m the editor for and not only will I read these books, I often contact publishers to ask for excerpts we can share with our readers. So this is very helpful!)

      I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through with chemical sensitivities. I do hope you are able, some day, to share your story. Storytelling isn’t a difficult art. It’s basic to our species. When I teach memoir classes I find people are most naturally gifted at writing when telling the stories most meaningful to them.


  2. I seldom read biographies. But auto-biographies are a different matter. Much more personal and insightful. But reading your post just now I think maybe I’ve been missing out and might go read some biographies. You have a way of writing that makes things sound interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Laura, I read every book in the house, which were most likely book club types like Kona Tiki. I will never forget the fiction “Moonspinners” that I found in the library one summer (which was made into a movie.) Magazines became more my thing, as they published a page of poets – even Judy Garland’s poetry was in Good Housekeeping! (swoon) Something happens when we see how others succeed. Which is why I am now looking at how we are programmed as young ones – by story and by media. (Wish me luck) xo

    Liked by 1 person

    • You and I are are indeed writer-sisters! I read everything in the house when I was a kid too, including a series called something like Condensed Books which was about as dry as a soup mix. I don’t remember poetry in Good Housekeeping but do remember a column called Can This Marriage Be Saved? in Ladies Home Journal which (even to me raised in a conservative household) seemed shockingly oppressive to women.

      We are indeed programmed as young ones. Throughout all of humanity the youngest ones were raised with songs and stories that passed on the history, beliefs, and values of their people. Now we cede our young ones to mass entertainment. I am still sure that the spirit is strong, and children wade through this looking for what calls to them, but hope a balance can be found.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We are indeed sister-writers! It may have been Ladies Home Journal who had poetry – I cannot recall exactly. Yup, those condensed books were dry (teehee)… I’m back from a quick trip to see grandkids and next up, those poetry reviews!!! xox I love Blackbird….. big love….

        Liked by 1 person

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