How, given one’s genetic heritage, personality traits, and childhood environment, do lives unfold as adults? Dan McAdams, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, and his colleagues have collected and analyzed the life stories of thousands of people from all walks of life. Dan’s book, Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, is an introduction to the field.
The Fairborn Institute’s current project in this area is researching and writing a detailed, psychologically-based, book-length life story, in this case, that of the researcher, Russ Genet (researcher as scientific guinea pig). The book is in its third draft and will be sent out shortly for final editing prior to publication. The chapter outline is given below.
The Long Road Back Home: A Life in Pursuit of Childhood Dreams
Author: Russell M. Genet, Research Scholar at California Polytechnic State Institute. Author or editor of two dozen books and over 200 scientific papers. BS electrical engineering, MS logistics management, PhD astronomy.
Genre: Memoir written as a series of adventure stories set within the larger context of a lifelong lost and found love romance.
Status: Third draft, 110,000-word text (440 pages) plus center photo section with captions.
From the Preface:
Some people tell jokes, well-practiced jokes for every occasion. I tell short personal stories drawn from a long and varied life. Some for polite company, others for the bar after a third drink. Over the years they have been fine-tuned based on audience reactions. Only the best survived.
Born bipolar and dyslexic, and raised in a dysfunctional family, I became the outsider who delighted in taking on and beating the system. Challenges generally considered too difficult or impossible were irresistible to me. Drawing on my natural bipolar mania, I constructed grandiose visions of how the impossible could be conquered, visions that, Tom Sawyer like, I used to enlist others in the cause. More often than not, vision met reality and the latest project succumbed to ignoble defeat and was quickly forgotten. However, occasionally a project worked and the improbable became reality. Challenge overcome, boredom set in, leading to yet another beat-the-system adventure in some new field, resulting in a (legal) “Catch Me if You Can” life. The successes became my polished adventure stories.
On long plane flights, if someone kept buying me drinks, I entertained them with my life stories in chronological order. The glue that bound my adventure stories together was the classic lost and found first love story, but with a twist. My first love was, of necessity, a secret one-way love; Cheryl was only twelve years old when, at seventeen, I joined the Air Force. Would I come back and marry her as her mother commanded? First love lost for three decades but found again. Rediscovery led, at first, to tragedy but, eventually, triumph. The uniform reaction by the end of the flight: you should write a book. As an octogenarian, I finally took their advice to heart.
I began by researching the science behind life stories. You name it, there is some scientist studying every topic, no matter how esoteric. Dan McAdams, Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, is Dr. Life Stories. He and his academic offspring have collected and analyzed the life stories of thousands of people from all walks of life. How, given their genetic heritage, personality traits, and childhood environment, did their lives unfold as adults? Dan’s book, Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, is a classic and has been my guide.
Being bipolar (Type II) was, perhaps, my most influential genetic heritage. Although primarily a blessing—thanks to sustained mild mania—it was also a near-fatal curse, thanks to a late-life severe depressive episode, the defining characteristic of bipolar Type II. Daniel Nettle, Professor of Psychology at Newcastle University, captured the relevant science in his book, Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity, and Human Nature.
Nancy Kalish, Professor of Psychology at California State University, Sacramento is the scientific expert on lost and found love. She found that first loves, even if secret and one-sided like mine, often lasts a lifetime, and that reunion, after decades apart, often brought great joy, disaster, or both. Nancy summarized her decades of research in Lost and Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances.
While understanding life stories may be a science, telling them is an art. Everyone loves well-told stories; it is a defining, built-in human trait as suggested by the title of Lisa Cron’s book, Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. The art of storytelling has been well captured by Blake Snyder, the famous screenwriter who, after analyzing hundreds of movies, distilled their story essence in Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. These and other books helped me structure my story similar to a novel or movie.
Born dyslexic and bipolar, and raised in an impoverished, dysfunctional family, Russ found refuge with his grandmother and his best friend Richard’s family. He read about, and admired, famous scientists and inventive engineers. A number of increasingly sophisticated telescopes, radios, and rockets emerged from his growing basement lab. He decided, in his early teens, that what he wanted in life was to become an astronomer and marry his best friend’s little sister, Cheryl. But Cheryl was too young, and dyslexia drove him out of high school.
Russ started a new life in the Air Force when he turned seventeen. After going over to the wild side while stationed in Morocco, he got back on track, started college part-time, and met Pat. He didn’t marry her as he still wanted to go back home and marry Cheryl. Instead, he fell madly in love and married the beautiful, Irish-tempered Ann.
Despite his dyslexia, Russ obtained a degree in electrical engineering. He then played to his dyslexic out-of-the-box thinking and bipolar grandiose visions to enlist others, Tom-Sawyer like, to circumvent conventional wisdom and constraints to realize his out-of-the-box visions. He began as a rocket scientist, becoming the inventive engineer he so admired when he was young. But once the improbable was established as eminently doable, he lost interest (letting the refiners of the possible carry on), and was off on new pioneering adventures as an aerospace logistics engineer, an instrument-rated flight instructor, a robotic telescope pioneer, a virtual fighter pilot, and a cosmic evolution synthesizer. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can, Russ mastered many different fields (legally).
Ann and Russ’s marriage eventually unraveled, and he married easygoing Joyce. But after Joyce had a stroke and lost her personality and memory, lonesome Russ found and started seeing Cheryl. They enjoyed a wild courtship which, sadly, ended in disaster due to Russ’ inability to effectively communicate with Cheryl—a self-assured free spirit. Three years after a complete mental breakdown, Russ overcame his emotional fears and finally married his secret childhood love. It wasn’t easy at first, but Russ and Cheryl eventually learned how to turn their romance into a deep and fulfilling late-life love, and live together in harmony. He obtained his PhD in astronomy alongside Cheryl as she obtained her PhD in philosophy. They shared two decades of life at Rainbow’s End and many creative adventures before Russ finally wrote his autobiography.
Table of Contents:
Prologue: The Letter
1. Life on the Goat Ranch with Pal
2. Mountain Camping with Mom
3. City Proper with Grandma
4. God Help Russell’s Lazy Mind
5. The Quest at Rainbow Ranch
II. The Road Away from Home
6. Dyslexic High School Dropout
7. Wild in Exotic Morocco
8. Dyslexic College Graduate
III. So Many Roads to Explore
9. Rocket Scientist
10. Aerospace Logistics Engineer
11. Instrument-Rated Flight Instructor
12. Robotic Astronomy Pioneer
13. Virtual Fighter Pilot Developer
14. Cosmic Evolution Synthesizer
IV. The Road Back Home
15. Found and Lost Secret Love
16. Making Dreams Come True
17. Rainbow’s End
Epilogue: Together Now Forever
Books: The science and art of life stories