When I first met my husband, Ryan, five years ago, one of the things
that attracted me most to him was his prowess as a storyteller. Ryan lights
up when he tells a story, no matter what the story is about, whether it
was the time he totaled his first car by running it into a backyard shed,
narrowly escaping death, or whether it was the tale of how his first college
roommate, Rodrigo de la Garza, managed to stay faithful to his girlfriend
back home for four whole days before he cheated on her while Ryan was
trying in vain to sleep in the same room. Through his descriptions of
people and events, the way he molds his phrases, and his unique evaluative
comments peppered throughout his stories, Ryan is able to transport his
audience to the exact moment that the narrative took place, and he usually
leaves people clutching their sides with laughter and gasping for air
by the time the story is over.
Due to his innate abilities as a storyteller and his entertaining personal
narratives, Ryan was a natural choice as an informant for this project.
However, I must admit that at first I was anxious about whether or not
Ryan’s stories were worthy of academic analysis. Over the
course of the semester, I did not recall reading any works of folklore
similar to the stories I wished to examine, i.e. tales from the suburban
childhood of a young, Caucasian male. Though I knew that I had always
loved Ryan’s stories, I questioned their folkloric merit: were they
as interesting and important as Kathryn Morgan’s stories about how
her family overcame racism? The stories certainly weren’t as foreign
or as colorful as the Mardi Gras festival traditions from the rural Louisiana
plains, but did that mean that they were undeserving of attention? My
fears were significantly assuaged, though, when I read selections from
Sandra Dolby Stahl’s Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative.
Her argument in defending the folkloric status of personal narratives,
even those as historically unremarkable as Ryan’s, “was that
even though the narrative content of such stories could not be corroborated
precisely (as traditional plots or motifs), still the values or attitudes
reflected in the stories are culturally shared and thus traditional”
(12-13). It then occurred to me that while Ryan’s narratives certainly
reflected attitudes and beliefs that were in some respects unique to him,
they were also consistent with the culture that produced him, thus backing
up Stahl’s claim that narratives are “culturally shared”
Confident now of the validity of examining Ryan’s narratives, I
was still left with the question as to which of his stories I should analyze.
According to Stahl, “The overall function of the personal narrative
is to allow for the discovery of the teller’s identity (especially
in terms of values and character traits)” (21). With this in mind,
I thought for a long while about which of his stories, for me, best encapsulated
Ryan’s character and his personality. I came to the conclusion that
the stories he told me when we first became serious about one another,
those that were about his first job collecting and selling golf balls
on a Reston golf course when he was seven, were probably some of the most
important stories in terms of how his personality was shaped during his
childhood. This particular period of Ryan’s life was somewhat unstable.
He recalls that “within a couple of months” of his family
moving in to the Reston townhouse where he was to live for the next three
years, his parents got divorced (Interview 1, see Appendix). His mother,
now a single parent, was working during the day, which meant that his
older sister, Erin, would have to watch him in the afternoons after school
let out until his mother came home at night.
Though a divorce is often a traumatic time in a child’s life, Ryan
was young enough and his parents were responsible enough about how they
acted in front of their children that today he doesn’t retain many
negative memories or associations from the period of time immediately
following the divorce. In fact, his recollections of the three years he,
his mother, and his sister spent in that neighborhood in Reston tend toward
the idyllic: “It was like one of those neighborhoods where you…could
go out and pick fucking blackberries and shit…and like,
during the summer there were fireflies, and stuff like that”
(1). Interwoven with his happy recollections of time spent in that neighborhood
are also his memories of collecting, cleaning, and selling lost golf balls:
“It was my first job and it was the job that I loved the most….
Out of all my jobs I enjoyed that more than anything, ‘cause I could
go out and explooore. I did it for the love of finding golf balls”
The two stories that I will examine for this paper both come from this
period of Ryan’s life. One story concerns Ryan’s unwillingness
to lower the price of his golf balls because a golfer claimed someone
else was selling them for cheaper. The other story involves Ryan’s
refusal to go with a stranger on the golf course that was trying to lure
him away. To me, they both express two values Ryan holds in high regard:
Ryan’s integrity, and his ability to follow his instinct as to whether
someone was on the level, or warranted suspicion. Additionally, these
stories encapsulate his worldview that the world can be tricky, or even
dangerous, but that trusting one’s “gut reaction” is
a sure way to navigate these obstacles. Lastly, while in many ways these
narratives appear to reiterate certain Western traditional values, they
also contain elements of subversion.
Clearly, I had heard these stories many times before in the course of
our relationship, and had even requested (or prompted in front of others)
the re-telling of these stories, so it was not difficult to draw these
narratives out of him. When I conducted the interview, it was an overcast
Sunday afternoon in March, one week after Easter. We were sitting on our
living room couch, curled up next to each other under a blanket. The light
was dim in the living room and the house, overall, was quiet and peaceful.
Needless to say, we were both extremely relaxed, and fortunately Ryan
had absolutely no trouble ignoring the tape recorder on the coffee table.
He required little prompting to tell his tales, and throughout the interview
I only infrequently interjected questions, or guided the interview slightly.
R: Uh, and then of course there was that one
guy that I told you about, that, I mean, I mean
You really have to have no soul to do this,
But he came up and
I was like on the
I think I was like on the eighth? hole or the ninth hole – somewhere
in the middle [cough]
Of the course, and, uh, the tee for it, and this guy was saying
“Oh! Well there’s a guy over on the first
hold sellin’ the golf balls for a nickel a pop!”
“O.k….uh, mine are fifty cents for the new ones or a quarter”
And I, and I wouldn’t budge! Because that’s
R: What I told him was, well, I’m pretty sure what
I told him was basically the equivalent of, well,
“You should go back and get ‘em from that guy, I can’t
compete with those prices!”
Um, something along those lines, but what a seven-year-old would say.
But basically I didn’t cave, and I’m proud
of myself for not caving, because, that would have been
I mean, but seriously, dude,
How cheap have you got to be to try to con…?
MK: A seven year old!
R: A seven-year-old.
I mean, my God, that’s just, like, you’re already gettin the
shit cheaper than you would at the club house.
I mean, that’s just ruuude.
But, didn’t cave, so, I’m happy with that.
* * *
R: The scary thing though was that one guy,
that was, uh, uh, getting back to the golf ball collecting that I told
you about before, where, you know, I’m on that one side of the lake,
The golf course side of the lake.
This guy on the other side the lake is like,
“Hey, c’mere kid.”
That’s no way you approach some kid, man, that’s
just no way you do that.
So automatically it’s off-putting.
He was like in his early twenties, had a moustache, uh,
Just kind of…
MK: Bad guys always have moustaches.
R: Yeah, yeah. He was just kind of
There was something that was just
Uneasy about him.
And when he started circling the lake to come towards me, that’s
when I got one of the passing golfers
Who, again, you can’t turn down a seven-year-old kid.
Asked him if he could walk me
And of course he said “Sure,” and, you know, he was walkin’
in that direction anyway.
So, when I start, when I got together with that guy, the other
And the golfer didn’t walk me to my door, but he walked me close
He walked me to, like, the creek that was just was just
like twenny yards from our house.
Our back door. So. I got home and Erin was there. So we were inside and
that was o.k.
MK: Was your mom home yet?
R: No, she wasn’t home yet, but when she was home
we told her about it.
That’s when she called the police and the police came out.
And, apparently there was some guy who had
Molested some, uh,
Kids who were my age, some boys who
were my age, like two neighborhoods over,
Or a neighborhood over, I don’t know.
I pointed him out in the picture line-up, and that was the guy
that they were looking for,
And I think they did catch him.
Now, granted, they couldn’t get him for anything that I…
But I think the guy was, definitely had issues.
MK: Well, you helped point him out.
R: Well, yeah, yeah, it definitely points out the fact
that it’s still a problem.
This guy’s still on the prowl, so…
I’m pretty sure they got him.
Before I come to my own analysis of the above stories, allow me to discuss
Ryan’s interpretation. These two stories are, in many respects,
structurally similar. In each of the stories, the young Ryan is approached
by a man who, though he would have Ryan believe otherwise, poses a threat
to him. Ryan sees through their benevolent façade, and quickly
extricates himself from the situation, unharmed. When I asked Ryan what
these stories meant to him, he said they represented, aside from his unwillingness
to be fooled, his ingrained sense of wrong and right. Ryan believes that
some people were born with a clearer idea of the difference between wrong
and right, while others’ moral sense involves a much broader area
of ambiguity. For his part, Ryan claims never to have had a difficult
time determining what was right and what was wrong; for him it always
came down to trusting his instinct. This world view that instinct is your
most reliable guide in uncertain situations is clearly expressed when
I asked Ryan his feelings about being approached by the potential child
MK: Did you feel scared when the guy was, like,
“Hey, c’mere kid?” or…
R: Well, I was, I was scared, I was definitely uneasy,
I wasn’t scared like I’m gonna start crying, or anything
But I was definitely uneasy. I mean,
Again, there was just something, I don’t know if it’s
instinct, or something like that, but you know when there’s just
something that doesn’t…
MK: Sit right…
R: Sit right. Exactly, so…I got away from that.
And boy! Think how diff’rent would be if I didn’t,
and actually did
Go to the guy. If I got molested
That would lead to, God only knows what kind of trauma
And I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with you now
Telling this story, because…
MK: It would have been too painful, prolly…
R: Well, it would have been painful, but I don’t
think I would have been able to have…
Or at least I would have had to work hard at it. I don’t
think I would be the kind of person that I am
If something like that happened. But, you know, in a given lifetime,
There are always these little fateful decisions, crossroads,
That you get to, where, you know, one direction, you’ll be o.k.,
the other direction [sardonic laughter],
According to Ryan, it was instinct that prevented this chance encounter
from permanently altering the course of his life. Additionally, although
the golfer who tried to cheat Ryan presented no threat to his physical
well being, had he actually succeeded in tricking Ryan, Ryan might still
carry the bitter memory of how a man took advantage of his innocence.
While the latter incident is different in degree from the threat presented
by the pedophile, is not significantly different in kind. In the opinion
of Jens Brockmeier, “[t]he practice of autobiography involves…not
so much documenting past events but positing possible pasts and possible
beginnings in the light of the end” (177) Though these narratives
are about things that did happen to Ryan, they are just as much
about what might have but didn’t happen to him,
Among the exoteric groups that exist outside of Ryan’s and my own
dyad, which Barre Toelken defines as “the smallest group that can
be called a folk group…[which consists of] two people who participate
in an ongoing relationship which is so close that each partner provides
an immediate reflexive counterpart to the other,” the stories retain
much the same meaning and function as was mentioned above (57). For example,
if we are watching television with friends and there is a story on the
news about how a child was cheated or harmed, Ryan becomes indignant and
tells either one or both of these stories. He is angry at the adult who
acted wrongly, and feels deep sympathy for the child who was the victim.
Ryan realizes that most seven-year-olds would not necessarily have the
presence of mind to act as he did when confronted with danger; in this
case, his stories function as both a warning to parents to protect their
children from and educate their children about the dangers the world presents,
as well as acting as an outcry against those immoral enough to harm an
innocent. (Interestingly, as we have gotten older and are more closely
approaching the time when we will be ready to have children, Ryan has
become increasingly irate when he hears about news stories where a child
was hurt or killed due to either the action or neglect of an adult.)
Most of the time, within our own esoteric group the story has these two
functions, as well the function of being re-told because hearing them
gives me pleasure. However, the first time I heard this story its function
was more reminiscent of what Kathryn Morgan describes as a “buffer.”
In Children of Strangers, Morgan writes that “Caddy legends
have served as ‘buffers’ from racism for the children in our
family” (xiv). In my case, Ryan’s stories served as a buffer
against my feelings of insecurity about my abilities to survive alone
in the world. To explain, when I was seventeen I was having some difficulties
with my parents which culminated in my being forced to move out of their
house. Understandably, I was extremely upset and felt both alone and unsure
of myself. Soon after this happened, Ryan told me these stories. Looking
back, it occurs to me that the seven-year-old Ryan and the seventeen-year-old
me were both in much the same situation. For the first time in our lives
we were separated from a parent, and we were also, for the first time,
forced to function on our own for extended periods of time. Ryan’s
stories do not shy away from the fact that the world can be treacherous,
but they both make clear that anyone, even a child, can, by acting intelligently
and trusting one’s instinct, survive on his or her own. I found
this thought enormously comforting at a time when I needed both solace
and confidence above anything else in the world.
Up until this point I have emphasized the morally righteous and comforting
qualities evident in Ryan’s stories. These stories allow Ryan to
do what Paul Ricoeur described as “the fundamental function of the
narrative [which] is to ‘construct the durable properties of a character,’
what he calls ‘narrative identity’” (qtd. in Brockmeier
181). The “narrative identity” that Ryan has constructed is
one that, on the surface, seems to reinforce the traditional American
culture that places value on moral certainties and the powers of the individual.
Lying latent within Ryan’s text, however, are elements of what Mikhail
Bakhtin would term “the carnivalesque.” When something is
“carnivalesque” in nature, it means the world has been turned
topsy-turvy, that it flouts the status quo. Traditionally, in Western
culture, older males are meant to be respected, their orders listened
to and heeded, especially by children. Their word is not only the law,
it is the absolute and unequivocal truth. Ryan, however, a small, scrawny
child saw fit to question the validity of their words and intentions,
and he got away with it with remarkable success. Or, as Bakhtin eloquently
words it, “one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation
from the prevailing truth and from the established order, it marked the
suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions…all
were considered equal during carnival” (10). Due to the divorce,
Ryan lacked supervision by an older male in his life, however, he realized
that this did not mean it was necessary for him to indiscriminately listen
to any older male he came across. He knew he had the power, a power that
was subversive and subsequently freeing in nature, to not listen to or
trust whomever was not an already legitimate, established, and acknowledged
authority figure in his life. This negotiation between traditional and
non-traditional cultural values, one conservative and one dynamic, makes
Ryan’s narratives a good example of how the twin laws of folklore
process operate within folklore.
Over the course of this paper I have explained how these narratives express
Ryan’s character, personality, and his world view, as well as reconfirming
and subverting traditional values. In addition, I have explored the different
functions Ryan’s narratives have taken on in different contexts
and found credible sources that argue for the folkloric merit of these
two personal narratives. None of this would have been possible had I not,
during the semester, learned how to collect and analyze folklore, tools
that I feel will be invaluable to me in the years to come. Initially,
I was apprehensive having only ever analyzed literature before, but I
came to realize that there was no reason not to treat folklore with the
same critical eye that one looks upon literature with. Though there were
some frustrations, such as the hours spent transcribing the interview,
overall I have found the experience enormously rewarding and worthy of
the time spent on it.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky.
U.S.A.: M.I.T., 1968.
Brockmeier, Jens. “Autobiography, Narrative, and the Freudian Concept
of Life History.”
Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology. 4.3 (1997): 175-199.
Project Muse. Johns Hopkins U. Lib., Washington D.C.. 25 April 2005 <http://muse.jhu.edu>
Morgan, Kathryn L. Children of Strangers: The Stories of a Black Family.
Temple UP, 1980.
Stahl, Sandra Dolby. Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Logan: Utah State UP,
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