We all have our own personal story, which is how we explain to others our past and who we are. In the writings of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and narrative, volume 3 (University of Chicago Press, 1990), “narrative theory is a theory of personal identity rooted in the stories we tell about ourselves.” Think for a second about your own identity and how you make sense of it. Think about how the stories you tell yourself about your past; you may call them memories, but a memory is just an encoding of an event in your mind. You still need to make sense of that encoded event and place it within a time frame that you concocted or others coerced you into believing. This enduring identity that we hold about ourselves is tied into the narrative conviction that it is the same character — the same person — who continues through these diverse acts and words through life and death.
Yet, what if something challenges this narrative? What if we encounter a truth or an event that upturns a lot of what we believed to be true in our personal narratives?
A Look at Personal Narratives in Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica examines this very idea in the character arcs of the Sharons — model eight. In an essay by Daniel Milsky in the Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy Anthology, this idea of identity narratives is examined in detail. Before I continue, be warned, readers, I may include a few spoilers within Boomer and Athena’s story lines. If you don’t wish to read further, that’s fine, you can skip the next two paragraphs, as these next two paragraphs are the only spots where I will have a few minor spoilers in Boomer and Athena’s story lines. I am using them as examples of personal narratives, how these narratives relate to how we perceive our identity, and how these narratives can change.
For Sharon “Boomer” Valerii, she believes she is human and has this thorough narrative of her life as a fighter pilot with the Galactica. She believes she is a member of the crew and a woman from Troy, as well as Chief Tyrol’s lover. This is all aspects of her identity that she holds dear. However, as the first season progresses, Sharon begins to experience disruptions to this narrative that calls into question something she held incredibly dear — that she is human. How does she respond to these disruptions? For example in the episode “Water,” Boomer wakes up soaking wet not long after the bombs used to destroy Galactica’s water tanks are planted. She can’t remember why she is wet. Part of this is due to her being a sleeper agent and her stubborn refusal to acknowledge this truth could exist. This culminates in the moment where she shoots Admiral Adama — she has no memory of it, but the evidence that it was her is plain as day. This narrative disruption to her internal story tears Boomer apart, and the response from the crew — especially after the shooting — who proceeds to vilify her and treat her as a less than, an ‘other’, an Cylon, further disrupts her cognitive view of herself. She struggles to rewrite her internal narrative to include the idea that her identity as a human was fabricated. This is a shocking truth.
In direct contrast to Boomer’s story line, Sharon “Athena” Valerii knows she is a Cylon. She is tasked by Model Six and Doral to seduce Helo, who believes she is “Boomer” returned to rescue him. However, Athena finds that she has come to return Helo’s love for her and starts to identify more with his goals. Model Six, watching this transpire, chooses to call Athena by her chosen name rather than her model number, and her reasoning for it is summed up in the narrative of identity: “I choose to to think of her as one of them,” she says to Doral. Doral asks if it’s because she dislikes her. Six’s response is very telling: “Because in the scheme of things, we are as we do. She acts like one of ’em, thinks like them. She is one of them.” Here Model six is defining Athena’s narrative of her identity, one that coincides with the actions Athena has taken and how she interacts with Helo and his group. So not only do we construct our own narratives, but others construct narratives about us based on our actions. For Athena, this narrative constructed by the Cylons eventually ends up casting her out as no longer “one of them.” Athena had started to redefine her own narrative based on Helo’s love for her, especially as she starts to love him in turn, so when the Cylon’s tell her to either convince him to stay with her or kill him, she chooses to escape with Helo away from the Cylons. She has chosen to redefine her previous identity narrative as a Cylon into one where she lives as a human in a human relationship. Note she hasn’t rejected her Cylon identity, but only added to its narrative, enriching it with her new experiences.
Narrative Disruptions and Fragmentation
In both of these examples, we see how narrative disruption can cause traumatic effects as well as profound transformative moments. Not only do we tell ourselves stories about our own narratives, but others often will develop narratives about who we are. As Milsky writes in his essay, “The Narrative Disruptions of Model Eight,” one of the ways we construct these narratives is “to engage in the process of ’employment,’ the way in which we arrange events and actions that give a sense of wholeness to the story with a beginning and an end. Emplotment is what makes the story intelligible. The beauty of emplotment is that we are able to take discordant events and heterogeneous episodes of our lives and tie them together into a coherent plot permitting readability to our lives.” This readability to our lives is how we understand our own identity and past, and also plays a role in how we react in the present and make our decisions about our future.
However, like I mentioned in the Boomer example, events may transpire that call into question some of the deepest held beliefs about our identity, and this disruption can cause tremendous pain and torment. How we resolve that torment depends on how we take these disparate events and fuse them into a coherent plot, tying our lives into a readable whole. Some may do this by disregarding the disruption and trying to edit it out of their life, as if it never happened. However, no matter the amount of avoidance, the event still influenced us, and it can never be completely erased.
You can see a bit of this in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. At the end of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy end up in Narnia, very different from their lives on Earth. Eventually, over time, they integrate this disruption into their narratives and live out their lives as the Kings and Queens of Narnia. They have redefined their narratives to integrate this new reality into it, but once they are returned abruptly to Earth and their child bodies, this narrative is again disrupted. The magic may slowly cause them to forget parts of the Narnia narrative that had defined them for so many years, but it’s never fully forgotten. In Prince Caspian, it is revealed that the four had talked a lot about Narnia amongst themselves. They had tried to make sense of what happened, because not all of the memories were fully erased by the magic. Their abrupt return to Narnia in Prince Caspian further disrupts their personal narratives. Susan at one point in the group asks the others if they remember these ruins they are at, and she feels a great sadness at seeing them. Even though she cannot remember the exact details, her unconscious mind recognizes that seeing this should evoke sadness. This disruption to her personal narrative causes conflict and the longer they stay in Narnia, the more they remember the last time they were there. The books never dig too deeply into how these four characters integrate these disruptions into their narrative, but it is hinted that for Susan, after she and Peter are told they cannot return again, attempts to avoid the memories and move on as if it didn’t happen.
Avoidance of a narrative disruption often leads to further traumatizing moments, as no matter how hard we try, we cannot fully erase that dissonant event in our personal story line. Our mind may play tricks by inducing flashbacks triggered by what may seem random moments — something that we smelled, a sight we saw, a color, a person, or whatever the cause. This post-traumatic stress response is very common when a traumatic event happens in our lives. However, our running from these traumatic moments is often a type of self-defense mechanism. As Milsky writes about Starbuck’s running from her traumatic past, “coming to accept the factual disruption may be so traumatic that it could lead to an incoherent narrative and, thus, cause an identity fragmentation. In this case, we might imagine that the awareness of the factual disruption became so central to her story that she is unable to get a grip on her current narrative.” For Starbuck, integrating and accepting what happened to her risks fragmenting her identity as that avoidance had become part of how she defined her own identity. In her story line, she has to go through the fragmentation and put herself back together in order to find a coherent narrative to her personal story.
My Experience with Narrative Disruption
For trauma victims and those experiencing disruptions to our perceived beliefs and identity, this can be a common theme, as I know from my own experience. I spent nearly a decade and a half of my life trying to run from the idea of me not being a woman — I first encountered this thought in high school, but I had no words in which to describe it and had no way to process what this meant. This disrupted the narrative told to me by everyone in my family and amongst my friends — that my gender was female because that was how I was assigned at birth. I could be no other way. However, how I understood my own body served as a dissonance to that narrative. I spent numerous years hating how my body was because I understood cognitively that it was wrong somehow, but I didn’t want to face the idea of how it was wrong or what I could do about it. I didn’t want to disrupt the narrative people had thrust upon me for fear of losing them and everything I knew. My identity was tied up in a fabricated narrative, and when the sexual assaults happened, this further fragmented my identity. It left me doubting my memories and my knowledge about how my body should be. I struggled against accepting that the sexual assaults had happened, and tried to ignore them — tried to run from them. This sent me on a journey that spanned several states, but in the end, you cannot run from yourself forever.
Like Starbuck and the two Sharons, I had to finally confront my own self and my own truths. I had to make sense of the disruptions in my own personal narrative, and resolve the incoherent and fragmented parts of it. I had to redefine my narrative and start to heal from the trauma and the fabricated parts forced upon me by others. We are not static beings. The narratives we tell ourselves are forever changing as each day provides us with new experiences that we must now incorporate into our evolving narratives. Did these disruptions within my own narrative change my identity? No. I always knew that I wasn’t female, and this incoherence with the narrative given to me from birth doesn’t mean I changed my gender identity or that my identity was altered when I accepted that I was trans. Nor did sexual assaults alter my identity either — it disrupted it and forced me to either run from the truth of these horrid events or find ways of integrating it into my narrative. This integration does not condone what happened to me, but it does allow a way to heal and move past it so that it no longer haunts my footsteps.
This integration of a disruptive event is best shown in Battlestar Galactica when the Final Five discover they are Cylons. They decide to integrate it into their personal narratives by discussing this disruption right after the event happened. They stood together and declared who they are and what they stand for and how they will recommit to that. This integration allowed them to handle the disruption without fragmenting their identities, and it also minimized the traumatic post effects.
Post-traumatic stress often sets in because we do not stop to process the emotional impact of the traumatic event and integrate that event into our narrative. The longer we prolong that process the more intense and damaging the post-traumatic stress symptoms can become and is often why PTSD develops within people. In order to address PTSD, part of the healing process may require facing the traumatic moments and re-integrating it into our personal narrative in a way that invokes healing and coherence.
As a side note, integration of disruptive events may also explain how some people, when they encounter a person or event that challenges their religions beliefs or political beliefs, may choose to reiterate what they believe in order to attempt to deal with the disruption to their belief system. They are trying to integrate the experience into a box that makes sense to them, even if it means adding some fabrication to make that event fit. Accepting a truth that goes against your current belief system causes tremendous cognitive dissonance, and many may choose to run from it or alter the truth to better integrate it. It is rare for a person to integrate the truth as it is into their belief structure as this often may require some rewriting of their personal narrative.
We are resilient and imaginative species, and we adapt and re-tell our narratives in order to integrate our new experiences the best we can. Narrative disruptions can happen and cause conflict with our identity, but we can adapt and rewrite our narratives as these are never set in stone. Although we may redefine our belief structures and how we view ourselves and our world, that doesn’t mean all of who we are is now changed or lost. Some aspects of our core identity will often remain the same even during these transformative moments in our narratives.
Reference: The Narrative Disruptions of Model Eight. (2008). In J. Steiff & T. Tamplin (Eds.), Battlestar Galactica and philosophy mission accomplished or mission frakked up? (pp. 3-15). Chicago, IL: Open Court.