“If I remember the way I think I remember…”
Analysis of Two Variants
of a Personal Narrative about a Near-Death Experience.

2005-014--Beata Duncan

This paper is property of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. Users are required to cite NVFA, paper ID number, and author.




Although I have never been in a life-threatening situation myself, I have always been fascinated with other people’s stories about near-death experiences. As it turned out, I did not have to go far in search for such a story, since my husband, Adam, remembered an incident from his childhood when he and his cousin Wayne almost drowned. I decided to interview both of them to see how well they remembered that incident. Although both narratives described the same incident, I was astounded to find out how different their stories were from each other, the main difference being the focus of their narratives. While Wayne, in his attempt to show himself as a hero, focuses on emphasizing and confirming his credibility, Adam, on the other hand, focuses on presenting Wayne as reckless and irresponsible, and depicts himself as the more cautious and mature one.

At first, I thought about interviewing Adam and Wayne together, but then I decided to talk to them separately to make sure that they described the event with a fresh mind, without being influenced by each other’s versions. Therefore, I interviewed Wayne first on the phone, and right after that I interviewed Adam in person. They did not hear each other’s versions before they told their stories, which made their telling more genuine. At first, I wanted them to meet and talk about the event after my interviews so I could observe their reactions to each other’s versions, but Adam strongly objected, and I never even mentioned that idea to Wayne.

Since I was talking to Wayne on the phone, and we could not see each other, I used “Hmm” and “Ok” quite a lot to make sure that he knew I was paying attention, but I decided to delete those in the transcript to have the story flow without interruptions. For that same reason, I also decided to delete redundant repetitions and sections that were not concerned with the narratives at all, such as Wayne’s explanation what a BB gun is. Since both stories are variants of the same story, and the purpose of my analysis is to point out the major differences, I decided to put the narratives side by side, so that the reader can see the similarities and differences more clearly. Both informants made pauses in their telling, and every line starts after one of such pauses, whereas larger pauses and other expressions such as sighs or laughter were all marked with parentheses. I also put question marks at the end of the phrases that sounded as if the informants were asking themselves whether they remembered something correctly and were listing possible options. The informants’ retelling voices are in regular cursive, and the passages quoted by them are in italics. To mark the words that were emphasized, I put them in bold.


Here is the transcript of both stories:

Wayne’s Version of the Story:

Wayne: Ok, well… God…(sigh)
Me: That was a while ago, wasn’t it?
W: It was a long time
We were small people
Me: (laughter)
W: From what I can remember, and you can check with him
But from what I can remember
he had come over to my house to visit my family
I don’t remember if we were alone or not
I just remember I had a BB gun
It’s a gun that shoots very small copper balls
He can explain it to you
That was what I think we were doing
We had left my house
And we had a BB gun
And we went into the woods
I mean I … I honestly don’t remember where we started but
At some point we had gotten into the woods like walking around and
We ended up at a large creek bed
At the bottom of a large hill by where I lived at
And it was… God, who knows, it must have been
I guess it must have been January or February
I really don’t remember
But I remember it was very cold, and everything was frozen
And… God, it’s been so long…(laughter)
I just remember at some point we were walking on the ice
On the creek
And… I don’t remember every detail,
but if I remember the way I think I remember it
the ice was cracking

Me: So you were both on the ice at this point, right?

W: Yeah, I think so.
I mean… I honestly… I can’t remember all
I can remember like the part with him falling in the ice
(pause) God… (sigh)
I’m trying to remember
I think and I could be wrong,
You can check with Adam because
I don’t remember
But I think he had the gun and I think
I mean we were just playing around shooting
trees and stuff
I mean we were not trying to kill anything
But I think at some point he had wandered off
Into a part where the water was much deeper
I mean the water was much deeper and running faster in that part
So it probably was harder for the ice to freeze thick
As opposed to the shallow parts
(pause) Then…I mean from what I can remember
All I can remember was
[pause] either I heard the ice crack or?
Or he screamed at me?
I can’t remember which but
I looked over and he was gone
The ice had broke completely through
And he was in
And then I looked closer
(pause) I could see his arms and hands
On the edge of the
‘cause I think and like I said you can check with him
I think the BB-gun went down the river
As far as I can remember
I don’t remember now
But all I remember was him
(pause) like the water was trying to pull him under?
And then I remember trying to run to him
But I kept falling through
Like the ice would break
I think the ice broke
I’m guessing two times?
I don’t remember clearly
But I remember trying to get to him and
as I was getting closer to him
my feet kept going through the ice and I would
Push back up and then
Go a little bit more
And I’d fall through
And then I remember grabbing his hand
(pause) and then I kinda pulled him up
He was trying to hold onto the ice
But I was nervous that he was gonna let go and go under
And then how would you know where to get him up
under the ice
So I grabbed onto him and he grabbed onto me
And then we were kinda pulling out of that hole in the ice
(pause) and then the funny part to me
Not that it’s funny at all
But I do remember (laughter – both of us)
That he lost his boots
And his boots got sucked off by the water
And his socks had pulled
To where the sock went like
A foot in front of his toe?
So he was running in the snow
With his socks floppin’ (laughter - both of us)
And then what was funny
He started running towards my…cause it was freezing…
I understand (laughter)
But I remember he ran up the hill
Going towards my house
And then I ran up behind him and got up and whatever and
From what I can remember we got back to my house and
And I think the funny part was if I’m not mistaken
And you can ask Adam
But I think the biggest part was that we were out with a gun
And I think we thought we were gonna get in trouble

Me: (laughing) Oh, for having the gun
Not for falling in the ice?

W: Yeah exactly
So we were kinda nervous to tell
what we were doing and
I don’t know I mean that’s really

Me: That’s a good story actually

W: I mean it was very strange because
He may remember it differently than I do
But I remember him being in the water
And holding on to the edge of the ice
And me thinking to myself fuck
If he lets go
What am I gonna do?

You know it was winter
It was wet melting and all
‘cause like the creek was really fast
And I was like if he lets go
He might end up in (pause) Woodbridge

Me: (laughter)

W: Or something
I don’t know

Adam’s Version of the Story:

Adam: I don’t remember exactly
But I was five or six
Me: So Wayne was…?
A: Seven – he was one year older than me
We were at my aunt’s place visiting
We asked our parents if we could go and take a walk
And then… all I can remember was Aunt Sharon and Dad said
Be careful down the river bed
Don’t walk on the ice ‘cause it’s not thick enough
Don’t cross to the other side
So we were like ok fine fine fine

And we’re walking
The dogs ran away from us
‘cause we didn’t have them on the leash
And the dogs ran across the ice
And they were sniffing around and doing stuff
And then Wayne was like
Ok well it should be safe
They could cross

I was scared to death
I didn’t wanna get in trouble
They’re not gonna know
Is what Wayne says
And when I was trying to decide
I don’t remember if he called me chicken or whatever
But in the meantime when I was debating what to do
He had walked to the middle or maybe a third
And before I knew he just fell through
And he’s splashing around
I don’t remember what he said
Something like help or whatever
I was like shit, I guess we are getting in trouble now
But then I was looking and I saw a branch
And I got a branch ‘cause I figured
He might wanna pull me in
So I got a branch
But to be honest with you it’s really short
(shows the length with his hands – a few inches)

Me: A stick? (laughter)

A: (laughter) it’s a little stick like a foot long
And I go out there
But he’s also heavier than me bigger
So I gave him the little stick

Me: (laughter)

A: And he was frantic so as far as I remember
I had the stick
And I don’t know if the ice broke underneath
I think he pulled me in or a combination
He pulled me so hard that I went to the edge
And then it broke and so I went
And I remember I lost a shoe in the struggle
But he was physically stronger too
So he actually was able to get up
I couldn’t get up all by myself
I was too weak
well you have to heave up
You have to have body strength to do it
And he was stronger than me
So he was actually able to get up on the side
And I held onto his pants
And all he kept saying was
Let go, let go
And I was like no
(laughter from both of us)
I was like Hell no
If I let go, I’m gonna drown
So I’m holding on
And he got up and I guess somehow as he was
getting up
I got enough grip to get up myself
As he was dragging himself out
I was able to drag out too
And got out of the water
Then the next thing I remember
He was sitting right next to the edge of the river
And he said Oh go for help. I’m too cold
I’m like we have to go. We have to walk.
If not we’re gonna freeze to death

And he’s like no no no why don’t you run up
And get some help and I’ll just wait here

I’m like no no no
So eventually I said
We’re going no matter what
We’re going together

we walked together back up
We walk in and I’m just thinking
I’m in so much trouble now
Plus I lost my boot
And my dad would be pissed
(laughter from both of us)
As soon as we walked in
They’re like oh my god what happened
Did you go in the river?

And then, I don’t remember exactly
But to my best recollection
Wayne said oh Adam fell in and I saved him
Or something like that
But then they rushed us both to
Two different bathrooms
To put blankets and warm us up
And putting cold water on us
And I’m like you’re crazy (laughter)
I want warm water
And then tea and whatever
And then I think I had a major cold
and what have you
And then I think my dad rushed me home
or something like that
I don’t remember
And that’s all I remember
about that particular episode


The most intriguing part of those two narratives is the fact that, in spite of being a description of the same event, they differ largely from each other. As Sandra Dolby Stahl discusses, the plot of a personal narrative is often created by the listener “in part as a response to the demands of the genre” (16), which needs a dramatic plot. In this case, Wayne builds a dramatic plot by making himself into a hero and saving his younger cousin from drowning. Adam, on the other hand, takes the story in a new direction and makes Wayne into a “villain,” who was the cause of the incident in the first place, and who almost drowned both of them. As Stahl notes, “a personal narrative always involves some manipulation of the truth of the experience” (18) and includes “a degree of falsification” (18). The two versions, therefore, show Wayne and Adam as two different characters: Wayne is either a hero (in his own version) or a “bad guy” (in Adam’s version), whereas Adam acts as “the smarter one” in his own story and rather helpless in Wayne’s story.

Using terminology from Mary Louise Pratt’s article “Story and Storyteller: Natural Narrative,” I see Wayne’s story fitting neatly in the pattern of a personal narrative. He begins with the statement “It was a while ago,” which serves as an "abstract," thus encapsulating the whole story in a simple pronoun “it” (Pratt 8). In this case, there is no need to introduce the story in any more detail, since I already asked him to tell me “about the incident, in which you and Adam almost drowned” (deleted from the transcript), and so we both knew what it was going to be about. In case of telling the story in a more spontaneous setting (for example as a part of a conversation), Wayne himself would most likely start the story that way, but since I already stated that for him, he only refers to it with the pronoun “it.”

Next, he moves on to the "orientation," in which he sketches a general picture of the situation that is talks about where the event happened (close to his house) and who was involved in it (he and Adam). The "complicating action" and "resolution," which are the “core of the narrative,” are the parts in which Adam falls in the water and Wayne gets him out (Pratt 7). Last, Wayne’s version is also full of “evaluative devices” (9), which are often “strung throughout the entire narrative, forming (…) ‘a secondary structure’” (Labov qtd. in Pratt 9). It is the evaluative devices that point to the different emphasis that each story has. Wayne’s version, besides showing himself as a hero, focuses on his almost desperate attempt to prove that he is credible. In his narrative, the evaluative comments belong to the category of sentence-internal evaluation devices called comparators, which, in Pratt’s words, “involve the use of some verb phrase construction other than the simple past of the narrative clause” (10). In case of Wayne’s narrative, those consist of the 33 instances of complete sentences containing words such as “from what I can remember” or “you can check with Adam,” the most peculiar one being “if I can remember the way I think I remember,” all of which strangely indicate that he is evaluating his performance and questioning his own words. He also mentions a lot of small details, such as seeing Adam’s hands on the edge of the ice or Adam running “with his socks floppin’,” in which he tries to build his credibility by showing how much he can actually remember.

At the end of his account, he goes back to where he started his narrative by saying that “[Adam] may remember it [the event] differently,” thus entering into a coda part of his narrative, which “[brings] the narrator and the listener back to the point at which they entered the narrative” (Pratt 8). Even in this part, however, Wayne attempts to clarify that he did his best to tell his story accurately, ensuring that I know he was not lying even if Adam’s version differs from his. The way Wayne ends his narrative again shows his self-doubt, in which he casually says “I don’t know” in his last attempt to build his credibility.

Adam’s version also follows the pattern of a natural narrative described by Pratt, but differs from Wayne’s version significantly. He starts with ”I don’t remember exactly,” which serves the purpose of the abstract by introducing the story in a similar way that Wayne did. His orientation is also similar and describes where the event happened and who was involved in it. Those two aspects of Adam’s story are basically the only similarities between his version and Wayne’s. The differences begin in the complicating action and resolution, in which Adam describes Wayne’s recklessness as the cause of the incident, and presents himself as the one that was more cautious and mature, and Wayne ends up being the opposite of what he was in Wayne’s own story – he is portrayed as a “villain” that almost drowned them both.

Although Adam does not try to present himself as a hero during the complicating action, he becomes one in the resolution of his story. Immediately after the incident, he is the one that “knows” they need to get home or “[they’re] gonna freeze to death,” thus showing exceptional maturity (he is six years old) that Wayne lacks, and becomes a “hero” by saving Wayne from freezing and convincing him to go home. Also, Adam’s evaluative commentary lacks the self-doubt that is present in Wayne’s report. Compared to Wayne’s 33 instances of “I don’t remember” repetitions, Adam only uses 11 of them, and those do not include sentences used by Wayne, such as “you can check with Wayne” or “he might remember it differently than I do.” Instead, the largest part of Adam’s story is devoted to showing how irresponsible Wayne was and how cautious Adam himself was.

Interestingly enough, what Adam’s version is abundant with and what Wayne’s version lacks is quoting the words of others or taking on the personae of the characters involved in the story (Swann 156). As Swann suggests in her discussion of the function of the personae or “voices” in written literary texts:

…an author's representation of the speech or thought of others (i.e. characters in a novel) runs along a line, from the narrator’s representation of a speech act to “direct speech,” in which a character is directly quoted, and then to “free direct speech,” in which a character is quoted without being introduced by an expression such as “she said…” (158-9).

Adam, in his version of the story, switches between directly quoting the characters and using “free direct speech,” while Wayne reports the event without quoting the other characters at all. This aspect of both versions once again shows the different focuses that each informant takes in his telling. Wayne’s primary concern is clearly to “get it right” or to present the events as truthfully as possible, hence his constant repetition of “from what I can remember” and similar sentences. Adam, on the other hand, focuses almost entirely on Wayne’s performance, in which Wayne fails to listen to Adam’s warnings, and, in the end, lies to their parents about the whole incident. Strangely, every time Adam uses direct speech to quote Wayne’s words, he emphasizes them with his exaggerated tone of voice, for example They’re not gonna know or I saved him. By doing so, he draws the audience’s attention to those words, thus indicating, without stating it bluntly, that Wayne’s words may not have been accurate.

Since my informants were the only witnesses (and participants) of the event, nobody can confirm or deny any of the versions. When I was interviewing Wayne, I already knew that his version was going to be different from Adam’s, but I resisted the temptation to point that out to him. As Stahl notes, “It would be an ungracious listener who would openly challenge any story that seems reasonable” (15). And both versions do, indeed, seem reasonable, since it is entirely possible that Adam was the only one that fell in the water, and Wayne “rescued” him (Wayne’s version), just as it is possible that they both fell in the water and panicked but, somehow, managed to get out of the water (Adam’s version). Stahl also says that among the essential features of a personal narrative is “a consistently implied assertion that the narrative is true” (15). According to Stahl, however, it is usually impossible to determine whether a particular personal experience narrative is true or not (15). One possible explanation for that Stahl defines as “literary enhancement” (15), in which the storyteller will exaggerate his or her story in order to make it “better” or more interesting to the listener. I also noticed that Wayne tended to tell his story in a hesitant voice while Adam sounded more confident. Despite the differences in the tone of their voices and the substantial differences in the storylines, they both seemed certain that their versions were true, and I strongly believe that this is how each of them remembers that incident.

Out of curiosity, I also interviewed Adam’s father, who was present when Adam and Wayne came home after the accident. Although he cannot know for sure what really happened, he did say that both children were “soaking wet” when they came home, which would indicate that they both fell in the water, which, in turn, would make Adam’s version closer to being true. Also, the father remembers Wayne saying, over and over again, that he “saved” Adam, but Adam, surprisingly, would not deny or confirm that, and it was Wayne’s version that the rest of the family heard. An important fact to mention here is that a few months after the incident, Adam left for Sweden with his mother and was gone for about 15 years, and did not keep in touch with any members of the family. Therefore, Wayne’s version was the only one that the rest of the family heard, and it was generally accepted as true. However, considering that it has been about 30 years since the incident, it might also be possible that neither version accurately describes what really happened. I also asked both informants how often and in what circumstances they ever tell that story. Wayne said that if someone ever brought up a story “about ice,” he would mention his story; otherwise, he does not talk about it very often. Adam said, on the other hand, that he talks about it when someone brings up the subject of a life-threatening situation, but he rarely talks about it because it was not his ”finest moment,” referring to the fact that, once in the water, he was mostly concerned with getting himself out. I find that statement peculiar because my impression is, which I included in the analysis, that he was, in fact, trying to present himself as smarter and more mature than Wayne. It appears, however, that he is unaware of it when he is telling the story, and, at the end, sees himself as weak and cowardly. Another explanation for that might be that Adam does not realize that the way he tells or remembers the story has changed throughout the years, whereas his perspective on the story has remained the same. As Linda Kinsey Adams notes, the teller “may see the events narrated in a new lights as she or he matures,” which might be the case with Adam (27).

In Mary Louise Pratt’s words, narratives concerning “danger of death or physical injury” are considered especially “tellable” and “occupy a high place on an unspoken permanent agenda” (9). Wayne’s and Adam’s stories certainly belong to that category, and I found it quite fascinating to examine these two narratives and the striking differences between them. Not only do those two stories imply how unreliable our memories can be, but also point to people’s attempts to show themselves in a positive light and always “acting cool” in dangerous situations.

Works Cited

Adams, Linda Kinsey. “Folk Narrative.” The Emergence of Folklore in Everyday Life: A Fieldguide and Sourcebook. Ed. George H. Schoemaker. Bloomington: Trickster Press, 1990. 23-37.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Story and Storyteller: Natural Narrative.” Text Book: An Introduction to Literary Language. Eds. Robert Scholes, Nancy R. Comley, and Gregory L. Ulmer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 3-12.
Stahl, Sandra Dolby Stahl. Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Swann, Joan. “A Man Amongst Men: The Intersection of Verbal, Visual, and Vocal Elements in an Oral Narrative.” Storytelling: Interdisciplinary & Intercultural Perspectives. Eds. Irene Maria F. Blayer and Monica Sanchez. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 145-161.

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