Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Prof’s new book explores stories of redemption

Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass and a few hundred of Prof. Dan McAdams’ research subjects all lived in different decades. But all have life stories that tell “redemptive tales” – stories in which they have turned a negative circumstance into a positive, impactful one.

McAdams’ “The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By,” explores and critiques personal redemptive stories, compiled from more than ten years of research conducted via interviews. The book, published by Oxford University Press, arrives in bookstores nationwide Nov. 10.

McAdams, a professor of psychology and of human development and social policy, said he hopes the book will appeal to an audience outside of academia.

“I want to reach out to the general reader who is interested maybe in psychology but also in American cultural history and current events,” he said.

McAdams and his research team first identified Chicago-area adults ages 35 to 65 who scored high on a survey that determined if they were “generative” adults, those who strive to make a positive contribution to society and leave behind a legacy for future generations.

“In general we found these people tend to tell a certain kind of life story,” McAdams said. “These adults are four times more likely to tell you that they were special in some way growing up – They see themselves as blessed protagonists in an unredeemed world.”

The adults surveyed did not necessarily connect these stories of redemption with a religious experience, McAdams said. In most cases, redemption was about personal change and recovery, often from being sick, ill or addicted.

His book opens with the story of Elliot Washington, an award-winning high school teacher who told McAdams he was often racially discriminated against in school and in his early teaching career. In high school in the 1960s, Washington was shut out of an all-white trade class that fed directly into Chicago industries. But Washington told McAdams that without this experience, he would be a plumber today instead of a high school teacher.

“People get strength from this kind of narrative,” McAdams said. “They almost look for negative things to happen.”

The book suggests that these stories are at the center of the American consciousness thanks to celebrated stories in American history, such as the plight of black slaves, which exemplify overcoming adversity to make large societal and historical contributions. But it critiques the redemptive theme as “naive” and “inflexible,” McAdams said.

“To think you can turn every event into a positive outcome is almost an insult to the cosmos,” he added. “Are we going to try to turn Hurricane Katrina into a positive event? It almost cheapens the pain.”

McAdams said these types of redemptive stories are ingrained into the American psyche and are frequently looked upon by Europeans as naive.

“We always admire the hero – the moral-steadfastness, the never-doubting,” he said. “This is dangerous and can be perceived by others as inflexible.”

McAdams began his research for “The Redemptive Self” ten years ago. The book hits on his primary interest, the psychology of the human narrative. He said he hopes to teach a course on the concept of the redemptive self, as well as Psychology of Personality class he teaches to Weinberg undergraduates every year.

Ed de St. Aubin, an associate professor of psychology at Marquette University and a former student of McAdams’, helped with the preliminary research for “The Redemptive Self” a decade ago. He said he hopes the book reaches outside the academic realm and becomes the type of book reviewed by publications such as The Atlantic Monthly.

“I’m really interested to see how this will be received,” he said.

Reach Amanda Palleschi at

[email protected].

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Prof’s new book explores stories of redemption