Meandering Toward Meaning in Michelle Herman's Stories We Tell Ourselves

Morgan Vogel Chinnock

Stories We Tell Ourselves CoverIn Stories We Tell Ourselves, author Michelle Herman explores dreams and the unconscious and how they relate to our waking emotions and relationships. As Herman’s first published collection of essays, the book carries forward a versatility indicated by her preceding four books: two novels, a novella collection, and a memoir that was a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award several years back.

In “Dream Life,” the first of the book’s two extended essays, Herman meanders through the subject of nightly dreams with a fluid structure that mimics the experience of dreaming, waking, and remembering. She recounts her own often-disturbing dreams. She grapples with the significance of dreams in the field of psychology since Freud. She discusses how different people respond to their own dreams and the dreams of others, some with obsessive fascination, others with annoyed disinterest. She shares findings on the evolutionary necessity of dreaming. She offers her own take on the meaning of dreams. At times, Herman looks at dreams as a literary theorist would, as the art of the unconscious, then swings into discussion of scientists’ findings, including researchers who write dreams off as mental trash. Through all the woven pieces of this essay, Herman’s voice is the steady, honest, self-aware, obsessive thread.

The book’s other essay, “Seeing Things,” continues the exploration of the unconscious and its role in our waking reality through another avenue, a rare condition called Alice in Wonderland Syndrome that Herman’s daughter began experiencing at age seven and a half. At random, objects would appear to her to be larger and then suddenly much smaller than they really were. The essay follows Herman’s quest to understand the cause of this syndrome and her resulting inquiries about how the unconscious helps us to process social surroundings, a discussion which inevitably involves the complex relationship between this unusually close mother and daughter.

Both “Dream Life” and “Seeing Things” root the reader in the real world through vivid anecdotes of Herman’s life experiences with her family members, particularly her grandmother and daughter. In these sketches, Herman invites us into her personal psychology and the unique and private dynamics of her family. She uses these relationships and thoughts to reveal the hidden fears, obsessions, sorrows and hopes that unconsciously influence our waking lives. “It’s not answers I’m looking for so much as better questions,” Herman writes at one point. This spirit of inquiry characterizes both essays. Herman’s openness to the greater world, along with her willingness to display her own opinions and experiences, creates an essay that is at once personal and global, confessional and critical, emotional and objective.

As a reader, I am not naturally drawn to the meandering essay style—I tend to lose interest without a driving plot or tactile sensory backdrop. So Herman had to do more work to draw me in. But I found that, just as my attention would threaten to drift, she would pull me back in with a personal story that rooted her mindful musings in the physical. Though I would not describe my reading experience as grippingly entertaining, Herman’s voice and structure kept my reading both thoughtful and attentive. If you are interested in the classic personal essay with a skilled new voice, Stories We Tell Ourselves is for you. Herman manages this style with grace and vivacity, and will lead you with a steady hand in a wandering exploration of dreamland and the unconscious: a shifting world that influences each of our lives, often just under the surface.


Stories We Tell Ourselves
by Michelle Herman
University of Iowa Press, 2013
ISBN 978-1-60938-153-0

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