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Awakenings: Autobiography, Memory, and the Social Logic of Personal Discovery



Taking a formal, sociocognitive approach to narrative analysis, I explore autobiographical stories about discovering “truth” in political, psychological, religious, and sexual realms of social life. Despite (1) significant differences in subject matter and (2) conflicting or oppositional notions of truth, individuals in different social environments tell stories that follow the same awakening formula. Analyzing accounts from a wide variety of social and historical contexts, I show how individuals and communities use these autobiographical stories to define salient moral and political concerns and weigh in on cultural and epistemic disputes. Awakening narratives are important mechanisms of mnemonic and autobiographical revision that individuals use to redefine their past experiences and relationships and plot future courses of action while explaining major transformations of worldview. Awakeners use two ideal-typical vocabularies of liminality to justify traversing the social divide between contentious autobiographical communities. Further, awakeners divide their lives into discrete autobiographical periods and convey a figurative interaction between the split personas of a temporally divided self. Individuals use this autobiographical formula to reject the cognitive and mnemonic norms of one community and embrace those of another. Advancing a “social geometry” of awakening narratives, I illuminate the social logic behind our seemingly personal discoveries of “truth.”