Cultural models of narrative identity : the case of military autobiographical writing

  • Kulturelle Modelle narrativer Identität : Der Fall autobiografischen militärischen Schreibens

de Muijnck, Deborah Aline; Strasen, Sven-Knut (Thesis advisor); Schneider, Ralf (Thesis advisor)

Aachen : RWTH Aachen University (2022)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2022


This dissertation is guided by the research question how author-narrators (re-)create a stable narrative identity through non-fictional, autobiographical storytelling despite the experience of potential trauma. To answer this question, a qualitative study was conducted in which I analysed thirty contemporary autobiographies and memoirs written by cis-male British soldiers and veterans, which were published between 1994 and 2019. The mental health of the UK Armed Forces is a topic much debated by healthcare professionals, politicians, and the media. While the recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are relevant to this debate, the war in the Ukraine in 2022 furthermore emphasises that society must find ways to enable those shaped by trauma to heal. Naturally, the Humanities also need to find ways to adapt research questions and -processes to new phenomena deriving from such violent conflicts. In this study, I argue that the traumatising experiences of war may challenge individuals’ sense of stability by actively having to conduct, and/or by passively having to mandate and/or witness extreme forms of violence. Throughout this study, I have established that trauma may be narratively incorporated, ignored, or turned into a positively challenging experience through a variety of narrative patterns, methods, and approaches. This study is rooted in cognitive narratology, although I integrate selected research from the fields of cognitive anthropology, narrative psychology, and neurology. Due to the open nature of the research question, I developed a methodology that applies mixed methods consisting of Grounded Theory, hermeneutic text analysis, and comparative analysis, as these allow researchers to develop theories about the (re-)construction of narrative identity grounded in openly exploring narrative texts. As a result of this method, I identified the concept of cultural models of narrative identity (CUMONIs), which is regarded as the most important finding of this thesis. Based on CUMONIs, I hypothesise that British military authors will a) structure their autobiography or their memoir according to cultural models of narrative identity which consist of culturally conventionalised narrative scripts and of scripts of identity development. These cultural models of narrative identity confirm author-narrators’ belonging to the culture of the British military yet allow them to establish themselves as unique individuals in the frame of culturally accepted norms by integrating their unique experiences, character traits, and behaviours into these scripts. I further hypothesise that b) individuals who actively and consciously describe themselves as traumatised will use the realisation and verbalisation of trauma as the catalyst which creates an individual autobiography that typically deviates from normative cultural models of narrative identity applied by non-traumatised soldiers and veterans. While this study was able to confirm hypothesis a), hypothesis b) was only partially correct. Although traumatised individuals frame their individual trauma as a factor that triggers growth and deviation from established CUMONIs of the British military, I was able to identify one particularly trauma-centric cultural model of narrative identity. Although it builds upon previously established CUMONIs and deviation from these is triggered through the traumatic experience, its existence highlights that trauma-centric scripts exist as well that shape autobiographical storytelling processes. Next to CUMONIs, I detected a variety of narrative approaches towards integrating trauma into one’s autobiographical story. Furthermore, focus was set on narrative techniques of neutralisation, of which I identified several additional techniques next to those already established in narrative criminology and sociology. Finally, I have evaluated the impact of ideologically and politically charged we- and they-narration for British military author-narrators. Parallels were also found to the literary genre of the Bildungsroman and to varying conceptualisations of the (literary) hero. While individuals who suffer from PTSD are usually encouraged to openly communicate their trauma in verbal therapy, integrate it into their life-story, find sense in it, and eventually find healing through its verbalisation, this study has found out that a variety of narrative mechanisms and cultural models are not performed through open, transparent communication. Instead, many of them function with the aim to ignore trauma, belittle its influence on one’s emotional health, and highlight it as a positively exciting combat adventure. Individuals who are unwilling to accept their state of traumatisation might aim for the application of CUMONIs and of narrative techniques that support them in the (re-) construction of a narrative identity that represents a war hero who stoically carries his burden. Likewise, a variety of cultural models and narrative techniques support autobiographical storytellers in expressing their trauma, and to find meaning and healing in their experiences. These patterns and methods can be applied to incorporate traumatic events into the life-narrative and to present them as meaningful turning points, which are causally connected to eventual growth and increased strength in their personality development. Both strategies aim to present the individual as having lived a subjectively good life.