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Guided Autobiography Links Past, Present and Future

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

My 50th high school reunion, which I attended in a small town in Pennsylvania, was a great success.

After the evening festivities, most of us could not sleep. There was much to review and digest about our childhood and adolescent days. Our collective insomnia raised the questions: Why are reunions important? And how do they relate to our lives today and in the future?

A process called life review — also known as guided autobiography – addresses that connection among the past, present and future. The concept dates back to 1963, when Dr. Robert Butler used the term “life review” as a way to look back in time and analyze the meaning of one’s life.

Why and when should someone embark on such an exercise?

Let’s first address the “why.” According to James E. Birren, former dean of USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center, there are several reasons.

Guided autobiography helps you develop a sense of direction in life while taking the best of your past with you. By understanding your past, you gain the insight and strength to plot your future.”

And what about the “when”? Guided autobiography is useful when you can’t really see a clear future and feel that something is missing.

Everyone needs a sense of future. Many have planned their financial future and have done a poor job in planning their personal future. Finances are key, particularly in the current economy. The personal future, however, is one that has the meaning, purpose and passion.

Birren has worked for 30 years with more than 1,000 people, meeting in small groups, using the guided autobiography technique. Essentially, people write their stories and share them.

One person in his group said, “Things and trophies have moved down on my priority list and relationships with people have moved up.”

A woman realized she indeed was a hero. She raised two preschoolers, worked part time and went to graduate school at night. “I reviewed my life and found a hero in myself.”

In a book by Birren and Linda Feldman, “Where to Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom in the Second Half of Life”, (Simon & Schuster) the authors write, “There is no universal map for living a successful second half of life. There is, however, a process that will help chart the course and improve your prospects.”

Here are several examples of themes and questions from their book:

  • Theme #1: Events that significantly shape our lives. Who was involved in these significant events? What emotions did you feel?
  • Theme #2: Your family. Who was the powerful one in your family? Who offered support and nurturing?
  • Theme #3: Your work or career. How did you get into your work or career? What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • Theme #4: The role of money in your life. What were you taught about money? Did you have a lot or a little?
  • Theme #5: Love. What persons or places created the greatest feelings of love for you? Who was your first love?
  • Theme #6: Your life models. Who was your first model or hero? Describe teachers who made an impression on you.

These questions can be addressed alone or with a group. The latter is recommended because a group experience encourages a richness in sharing experiences and insights.

Life review is liberating. It allows us to recognize our accomplishments and deal with our failures. It encourages us to place our life in a context. Ultimately, it leads to a present life of greater meaning and a future that reflects who we really are.

According to Birren, “You are what you remember.” He encourages us to “live life as an adventure – but with awareness.”

In 1843, Kierkegaard wrote, “Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause – that it must be lived forward.”

Reunions are a wonderful catalyst to stimulate the process.

If you are interested in an on-line course on guided autobiography, go to

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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