Analyzing Personal Accounts

Beverly Mack
The page of a diary with hand writing on it The book jacket of Living History featuring a portrait of Hillary Clinton and her signature Title page of Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, with the subtitle "A Native African and a Slave" and dedicated to the friends of the Africans. Title page of Patience and Power by Susan Schaefer Davis, with the subtitle "Women's Lives in a Moroccan Village."


Personal accounts, including memoirs, journals, diaries, autobiographies, and life histories, are important historical sources that help us understand the human condition. These are the stories we tell about our lives that usually portray a larger picture of a life in historical context. In reading a personal account of someone far removed from your own culture and historical period, it is possible to learn about the foreign within the familiar framework of an unfolding life. 


Personal accounts, including memoirs, journals, diaries, autobiographies, and life histories, are important historical sources that help us understand the human condition. Everybody has a personal history; every life has its share of joy and sorrow, victory and tragedy. These are the stories we tell about our lives that usually portray a larger picture of a life in historical context. In reading a personal account of someone far removed from your own culture and historical period, it is possible to learn about the foreign within the familiar framework of an unfolding life. The comparisons and contrasts between the lives of the reader and the subject inevitably spring to mind.

All personal accounts imply motivation on the part of the subject. A written document implies a certain level of literacy and an attitude of self-reflection. Orally recorded accounts require a vehicle of transmission, perhaps a scholar who records interviews with an individual. Sometimes oral interviews are recorded among family members or among people who share a particular cultural value, such as Appalachian mountain musicians. Sometimes an individual makes his or her own recordings or videotaped personal accounts.

Personal accounts can focus on particular events or may cover a life more completely. They sometimes involve recollections focused on extraordinary events such as participation in wars or catastrophic events, or explanations of unusual experiences. More recently, historians have begun to note everyday experiences as a measure of social order, so personal accounts can provide information on a particular “slice of life,” explaining the circumstances of coming of age experiences or the way of life in a specific region. Personal accounts have also been an integral part of oral history studies in regions that lack a legacy of written history. Many recent African histories rely on personal accounts to trace family and community connections.

In every case, the personal account is highly subjective, which is the basis of both its value and limitation. Personal accounts will not always be chronological; they are more likely to jump around, as our minds do, reflecting images of a certain experience from a variety of perspectives, even within one person’s own recollections. An eyewitness account of an event or time and place is invaluable, but it is also limited to one point of view. A personal account reveals only what an individual wishes to reveal and usually presents just one side of any story. Any personal account is but one of many stories that could be told about an individual, yet it is an important one that allows us access to a range of voices and perspectives.


How do historians use personal accounts?

Anthropology and other cross-cultural approaches have begun to influence the ways in which history is interpreted and various perspectives are valued. The voices of minorities have long been silent, or marginalized at best. They can often provide personal perspectives on historical events and offer insight into the past beyond official or formal sources.

What we know about the past is what certain individuals have decided should be preserved. In ancient historical periods, court praise singers preserved in oral poetic form the preferred version of succession as a hedge against usurpers. More recently, as scholars write their interpretations of history and biographies of significant players, the nature of history itself is shaped by their choices. It is important to know what facts they consider significant and which individuals they choose to study.

Sometimes political considerations silence certain voices. In Morocco, for example, the government has banned a book that recounts the long imprisonment of a family whose head opposed the reigning king in a coup 20 years ago. Depending on the political and socioeconomic views of the person asked, the account, published as Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail, is described as “brutally honest” or “full of lies.”

Personal accounts and oral histories allow scholars to delve more deeply into the complexities of human experience. These kinds of sources can bring forth the voices of people whose personal stories have long been ignored. Personal accounts can also offer comparative views on issues like public transfers of power between high profile individuals as effected in battles and political pacts, or provide an ordinary perception of a period in history, as experienced by the majority of people in the culture. Sometimes the quietest life is more insightful than the most visible.


Who is the subject of the personal account?

The subject is the person about whom the account is composed. The personal accounts of famous individuals often seem familiar—celebrities or politicians defending their reputations or confessing secrets. They tell the story of a life lived publicly.

The over of Living History by Hillary ClintonFor example, readers of the autobiography by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Living History, probably do not need many clues about its historical context or Clinton’s role in American political life. Readers of the late Althea Gibson’s autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, might not know that she was the first African American woman tennis champion. Clinton is well known in contemporary times to a broad range of people, regardless of their political or professional interests. Gibson, however, would be a familiar figure only to a more select group of individuals whose interests include sports history and civil rights issues in American history.

But what about accounts of people who are less well known? The first thing to ask when reading this sort of account is, “Who is this person?” How do they fit into a larger historical context? How do they identify themselves in relation to citizenship, age, gender, ethnicity, and education level? Think about the time and place in which the individual exists, his or her socioeconomic context. What living conditions might affect the individual’s worldview?

Next consider the individual’s particular role in his or her community. Does the individual speak from a position of power or authority? Why or why not? What is the accepted view of this individual’s place in society? Does the account suggest dissatisfaction with a perceived role? Or conflict in a personal situation? Or a celebration of the status quo? Why is this person offering an account of his or her life?

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Althea Gibson would explain their lives in different ways. While Clinton might take care to protect and defend her own influence and her husband’s political record, Gibson might be freer to talk about influences that shaped her rise to success in a world of sports long tainted by racism.


How does the form of the personal account influence content?

The form of a personal account influences its meaning and our understanding. Was this record of a person’s life experience written formally and for public consumption? Or does it come from a secret cache of private musings that the subject never intended for public display? Is the account handwritten or typed? Will this affect its length or breadth of detail? Was the account part of a larger work with broader perspectives, or is it a consideration of a particular moment in time?

How will women’s narrations differ from those of men? How do their views and roles in life affect their sense of freedom to write? Do men have a greater sense of obligation to record their life stories for posterity? Do they have greater access to education, writing materials, and publishing sources? Will the answers to these gender-related questions differ depending on the historical period? Socioeconomic status?

If the account was written directly by the subject, what was the format? What was the influence of the format on content? For many, literacy will determine the form of the account. For example, a personal account by a slave during the early American colonial period would have been written painstakingly, perhaps with a quill pen, on paper that was expensive and not readily available. In addition, there would have been precious little leisure time in which to write—assuming that the individual had experienced the luxury of having learned to write in the first place. What would such an individual write about? The issues that drove such a personal account would likely have been serious and pressing matters relating to social history or the impact of politics on personal welfare.

Cover page of Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley
The title page of Memoirs of Poems of Phillis Wheatley.

By contrast, the e-accounts of a 21st-century college student dealing with life away from home, also historically relevant, would reflect many years of education and self-reflection, a presumption of access to resources for the recording of personal accounts, and could more easily be limited to internal reflections rather than a struggle with political and social constraints. Thus the form of a personal account can tell us a great deal about the circumstances of the writer and his or her historical context.

The account’s voice reflects a choice that suits a particular audience and indicates motivation on the part of the narrator. The author is always speaking to a particular audience. Sometimes that audience is the self because some accounts are never meant for other people’s eyes. When other audiences are in mind, it may be readily evident in the language itself. Colloquial language indicates a desire to connect with a common audience, while formal language demonstrates the need to lend credibility to an account for public consumption.

In Islamic contexts, the personal account is a specific style called the tarjama, which dates to the 10th century. Although written by the subject, it uses the third person to evoke a sense of objectivity. Furthermore, the tarjama includes specific features and leaves out others. A person’s tarjama includes a genealogy, a description of formal education and Qur’anic memorization, the names of teachers, books and subjects studied, examples of the student’s poetry, and dates to verify and set in context the life story. The tarjama clearly is an account of all that matters: education in a spiritual context and place in the learned community.

This kind of writing, taking account of one’s life, reflects an individual’s character and piety rather than consisting of an internal monologue. In addition to the limiting nature of the tarjama itself is the gender bias found in some Islamic contexts. In Iran, for example, it has been rare to find a personal account by a woman because the nature of gender roles requires a woman to remain veiled, both physically and metaphorically. The personal accounts that do exist from this culture are, by virtue of their public nature, reflective of women less respectable than those whose stories remain hidden in the privacy of the domestic domain. While this is not true in every Muslim community, it can serve as a warning that what is written and told publicly is not necessarily representative of the whole community.1

Dale F. Eickelman, “Traditional Islamic Learning and Ideas of the Person in the Twentieth Century” in Martin Kramer, ed., Middle Eastern Lives: The Practice of Biography and Self-Account (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 39.


What is the motivation for the personal account?

A personal account rarely is written without particular motivation—every account has some agenda. Always consider why the subject feels it is important to share his or her life either privately or with an anonymous public. The narrator’s motivation will account for what parts of a life are discussed and what details are filtered out.

What motivated the author of the personal account? A mode of address, details of place and time of writing, and the structure of the account itself may all offer clues. Whether written or oral, a personal account is a subjective, selective account of a life recorded for a specific purpose, ranging from personal catharsis to revisionist history.

Was the account solicited or freely given? Is the motivation coming from the narrator or the recorder? If the account is written privately, the information contained in it is likely to be more personal, detailed, and indicative of private thoughts and emotions. If the account is gathered in an interview format with a scholar who is not well known to the subject, it is likely to be more formal and general.

If the subject writes an autobiographical account intended for publication, he or she has consciously selected particular incidents for public consumption. Although some private thoughts may be included, this kind of account will not be as intimate as the diary form. If a scholar solicited the story, rather than finding the account, the scholar’s reason for seeking the personal account will probably color the nature of the questions asked. In this case, the personal account will likely reflect the scholar’s interests more than those of the subject.

There are many motivations for the creation of personal accounts, including a focus on the self, on others, or on posterity. A narrator can offer perspectives on what he or she did, saw, or thought.2 These motives function to rationalize behavior, educate, and historicize. But these motives may not be immediately clear, and the reader may need to examine both the nature of the account and its contents to speculate about the reasons for its existence. A subject’s role in society is often a good indication of his or her motivations for composing a personal account. Does this subject have an agenda to defend or promote, such as a political position, social standing, or a place in the culture’s intellectual community?

An oral interview will be shaped by its format, context, and the particular circumstances of the session. Why is the interviewer interested in recording a particular personal account? That too will influence what is included or omitted. When the individual being studied is not living, the scholar must draw on historical sources for corroborative material to uncover conditions of the subject’s life that might not immediately be evident.

An image of Anne Frank
Anne Frank
A photo of Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir

The existence of a personal account indicates a need on the part of the subject to preserve his or her life story. Consider both the stated and implied reasons for the creation of such an account, and the value of the account as a representative voice in the culture. Was the account easy to write, or did the writer take a risk? Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs reflect a great deal about women’s roles in Europe around the period of World War II, but de Beauvoir was an intellectual who expected to speak and be heard, to have her works published and debated. Contrast her situation with that of Anne Frank, whose diaries were written in secret while her life was in danger during the Holocaust. The two women experienced a comparable historical period in very different ways, and their accounts reflect such differences. One had time, access to materials, and an audience, while the other had none of those. Yet each personal account is valid, representing as it does an individual experience of the era.

Bernard Lewis, “First-Person Account in the Middle East” in Martin Kramer, ed. Middle Eastern Lives: The Practice of Biography and Self-Account (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 34.


How did the account reach the reader?

Personal accounts can come to us directly from the subject or secondhand, collected by intermediaries. How the account reaches us will shape it in the process. If an individual writes his or her own story, the incidents in and nature of that life are preselected by the writer in response to his or her particular agendas, drives, and motivations. Certain factors will enhance or limit the narrator’s capacity to convey information: is the narrator barely literate (at one extreme) or influenced by a desire to imitate a certain style (at the other extreme)?

An image of Wole Soyinka
Wole Soyinka

Does the narrator enjoy the luxury of unlimited time and funding to contemplate a philosophy of life? For example, Bill Clinton’s memoirs have been funded generously by a publisher’s advance. Or is the narrator hiding notes written under duress, as with Wole Soyinka’s prison diaries, published as The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka? Soyinka was imprisoned by the Nigerian government for his activism in the Civil War of the 1960s. A consummate author and intellectual, he felt compelled to write during 18 months of solitary confinement. Lacking writing materials, he managed to scribble fragments of plays, poems, and political commentary in the blank spaces between the line of books smuggled into his cell. While compiling these for publication years later, he indicated the continued need for secrecy about who helped get the books to him, and even their titles, fearing for the safety of those who aided him. His prison writings gave him focus and purpose, and kept at bay the “daily humiliation of fear.”3

If an intermediary records the account, he or she often influences the narrator by intervening or asking questions. The intermediary shapes the discussion, even unintentionally, simply by being present. There are many perspectives on a life that one would write down in private, but would not necessarily share with someone else.

For an oral history, the transcription of an interview can change its nature. A summation of the account would render a very different portrait than a verbatim transcript, complete with hesitations and false starts that can convey important perspectives on issues that may be difficult for the subject to discuss. These reflect how people actually speak, while a summation expresses only what the collector felt was important. In addition, language and colloquial phrases are important in conveying the subject’s attitude toward issues or comfort level with various topics.

The Sample Analyses offer perspectives on personal accounts; one is written by the subject and the other results from oral interviews interpreted by a scholar. In each case, think carefully about the source. Was the author trying to argue a case on her own behalf? Was the subject a close friend of the interviewer? Is each person fluent in the language used? Was the interview summarized or are the subject’s words clearly stated? The last point is an important one, because a summary becomes an historical analysis rather than existing as a primary source.

Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 16.


How do personal accounts function in the larger context?

Consider whose personal accounts are most often sought and published, and why. It is usually public figures whose personal accounts are most popular. In the West, these are political figures, celebrities, athletes, and people whose accomplishments afford them power, and they are usually men. Women’s stories in the West are increasingly considered valid testimonies, along with accounts by people of color and those outside the highest strata of sociopolitical influence.

What does the subject of the personal account represent in the larger historical framework? How does this personal account expand the dimensions of history? How does this person’s life fit into the social order? What role does he or she play in the historical context? To what extent has she influenced the lives of those around her, whether in public, noted ways, or subtly, through private, personal support or instruction of others. As you learn about this person’s influence on those around her, does it change your perspective on the larger historical picture?

The perspective of ordinary individuals offers a deeper understanding of the culture in which they exist. This approach requires attention to the wider cultural context in which the individual develops his or her perspective. To gain this, the student of history must endeavor to understand the ethical foundation of the culture being studied, never assuming that it is identical to his or her own. Cultural “filters” color one’s view of the world, including gender, nationalistic perspectives, or religious preferences.

A photo of Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani activist for education
Malala Yousafzai Malik, Pakistani activist for education

Consider other sources that can offer insight, such as official documents (marriage, divorce, and birth records, public notices), archived newspapers (human interest stories, political coverage), and glossy magazines (regional and national views reflecting social trends of the time, setting a context). It is impossible to view history from a wholly objective position, but it is helpful to be aware of such biases. White ethnocentricity has been the basis of North American historical views. The predominant focus on men in history has been acknowledged only recently, and has begun to be redressed. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, except that it tells only a fragment of the whole picture. What were the women and children doing while the men were on the battlefield or publicly arguing politics? Personal accounts can help fill in the gaps and reveal for us greater depth of field, filling in the historical record to complete the picture.

Primary Sources

Original Manuscripts of Anne Frank

The page of a diary with hand writing on it

Born to a Jewish family in 1929, Anne Frank is most known for the diary she kept while in hiding from Nazi forces during World War II. The War broke out in 1939 when Anne was ten-years-old. As the measures against Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Netherlands became more brutal, the Frank family went into hiding in "the Secret Annex," a hiding place in an empty part of Otto's business, in 1942. Just before the family went into hiding, 13-year-old Anne received a diary for her birthday. In this diary, Anne recorded her thoughts and feelings on much of what happened in the Secret Annex throughout the two years she was in hiding, as well as short stories and copied passages from books she read. Anne dreamed of publishing a book about her time in hiding, and in May of 1944 began rewriting passages of her diary. As such, some passages of the original diary are rewritten to reflect a more mature outlook on the Annex and the people in it, and in some cases passages are completely omitted from the second version. By reading the two different versions of the diary, one can see Anne's priorities and relationships change, not only with the other people in the Annex, but with the War at large. These two versions of the diary show Anne's shifting attitude throughout her two years in hiding.

Before she was done rewriting, however, the Secret Annex was discovered and its occupants arrested in August 1944. Anne and her family were deported to Auschwitz, a concentration and extermination camp in Germany. In November, Anne was transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen camp in February of 1945 at 15-years-old.

This source is part of the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Living History by Hillary Clinton

The book jacket of Living History featuring a portrait of Hillary Clinton and her signature

Written shortly after being elected a United States Senator, Living History is an autobiography by Hillary Rodham Clinton, politician and former First Lady of President Bill Clinton. Living History is a memoir covering Clinton's early years and her time as First Lady. She details her role in shaping domestic legislation, including health care, economic and educational opportunities, and women's rights. Clinton used three ghostwriters, or people who write content for the stated author. Maryanne Vollers, Alison Muscatine, and Ruby Shamir were acknowledged by Clinton for the two years of work they contributed to Living History, but were not given co-author credits. Clinton was criticized for often overemphasizing seemingly mundane events during her time as First Lady, as well as significantly downplaying or glossing over issues President Clinton faced such as the Lewinsky scandal. As an active politician at the time of its publication, a goal of Clinton's was to draw more attention to the high points of her career so far, rather than remind the public of the negative. Living History was extremely successful, selling more than one million copies in its first month of publication.

This source is part of the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley

Title page of Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, with the subtitle "A Native African and a Slave" and dedicated to the friends of the Africans.

Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was an enslaved African American poet and author. Despite this, the work Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley was compiled and the memoirs themselves written by Margaretta Matilda Odell, a supposed "collateral descendent of Mrs. Wheatley." According to Odell, Phillis Wheatley was taken from Africa and transported to Boston when she was approximately seven-years-old, where the Wheatley family purchased her as a domestic servant. The Wheatley family educated Phillis, and she became the first enslaved person to publish a book of poems, titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in England in 1773. Phillis continued writing until her death in 1784. In her biography, Odell holds up Phillis Wheatley as representative of enslaved African Americans, rather than as "a solitary instance of African genius." The memoirs remain a core reference on Phillis Wheatley's life, despite not being written by Wheatley herself. Combined with the fact that it was published fifty years after Wheatley's death during a period of increasing divide on the issue of slavery, Memoirs and Poems functions both as the insight of an enslaved woman during the colonial period and how her legacy was utilized after her death.

This source is part of the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Patience and Power by Susan Davis

Title page of Patience and Power by Susan Schaefer Davis, with the subtitle "Women's Lives in a Moroccan Village."

Patience and Power, Women's Lives in a Moroccan Village is an anthology of anecdotes, interviews, and observations by American anthropologist Dr. Susan Schaefer Davis. Fluent in Moroccan Arabic and "comfortable" in the culture, Davis compile her work to combat previous studies of Moroccan women that were written from a male viewpoint and were frequently superficial in their content. Davis's accounts characterize Moroccan women as, above all, patient and powerful. In a majorly male-dominated world, Moroccan women exercise a creative variety of ways to assert their own authority in the home and in society, often by patiently waiting for alternatives to undesirable situations. The accounts in Davis's work attempt to establish a different view of Islamic women for a primarily western audience accustomed to more stereotypical perception of the Muslim faith. Instead, Davis's work reveals an extensive female support system among Moroccan village women, and she emphasizes their skill in patient, powerful, and self-assertive methods to achieve their needs and goals. Despite the first-hand accounts that appear in Patience and Power, readers should remain aware that Davis is writing as an American woman in Morocco. As it was originally published during the tail-end of second wave feminism in the United States, Patience and Power reflects ideals of the U.S. feminist movement in its stories about Moroccan women.

This source is part of the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi

An image on the cover of Dreams of Trespass featuring three women in Moroccan dress walking away down a hall decorated with aniconic ornament.

Written by Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood is a semi-fictional tale about a young girl growing up in a traditional Moroccan harem in the 1940s and 1950s. The main character, self-named Fatima, observes the experiences of the women around her and their struggles with restricting patriarchal rules. Fatima is surrounded by many women who deem the traditional harem as un-Islamic, and many like the characters of Fatima's mother, Aunt Habiba, and Mina inspire Fatima toward a less-traditional perception of Islam.

Dreams of Trespass has been seen as challenging Western stereotypes of Muslim women as quiet victims or odalisques, and is held up as an example of Islamic feminist literature since its publication in 1994. However, it also blurs the lines of autobiography, fiction, and history, which can all influence its authenticity as a personal account. Mernissi has been criticized for anachronisms within Dreams of Trespass, such as the authenticity of the use of the terms "harem" and "men's power" in Morocco during the time-period and the characters' easy understandings of medieval Arabic literature by the illiterate women in the harem. Considering Mernissi's feminist status, Dreams of Trespass functions as a personal account with a distinct agenda of shattering Western perceptions of Muslim women.

This source is part of the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Nisa, The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak

The cover of Nisa, The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak, featuring a headshot of a !Kung woman.

Made up of a series of analyses and personal interviews conducted by Marjorie Shostak, Nisa, The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman is an anthropological work about women of the !Kung tribe of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa told through the perspective of one individual, Nisa. Though not an anthropologist by training, Shostak learned the !Kung language to hear Nisa's vivid stories of village life, domestic responsibilities, and family obligations. Though Shostak was drawn to Nisa for her storytelling abilities, Shostak holds that Nisa is nonetheless indicative of all !Kung women. As the bulk of the work is made up of transcribed interviews, Shostak tells Nisa's stories in her own words, though through English translation. In Nisa, Shostak admits that her desire to study !Kung women was due to her own feminist leanings, and that she was fascinated by !Kung life because of its economy where women's labor is more important and its society were women freely discuss sex and sexuality. As such, Nisa has been characterized not only as a work of anthropology, but of feminist literature as well.

This source is part of the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Sample Analysis

Sample Analysis: Fatima Mernissi's Childhood Memoir, Dreams of Trespass

The cover of Fatima Mernissi's book Dreams of TrespassFatima Mernissi is a professor of sociology at Mohamed V University in Rabat, Morocco and an internationally recognized authority on feminism and Islam. This engaging account of her childhood includes descriptions of the secluded harem life she lived in the city as well as of the freer, happier time spent at her father’s country house where several of his wives lived. She depicts the calm garden and fountain in the heart of the city house, escape to the roof on hot nights, the view from the roof of the “outside,” forbidden to her in her adolescence, and a yearning to be free to go out into the world as her brothers could.

At the country house, by contrast, she hears stories about the wild wife who rode in on a horse and was “tamed” by her father, the wife who used to climb and sit in trees reading a book, and the picnic during which women swam in the river as they washed pots. It all sounds lyrical and pleasant. The city life confirms the Western stereotype of Muslim women being kept in seclusion against their will while the country life allows them license to control their actions.

Students at a Moroccan university described the book as autobiography, but many Moroccans call the story fiction. Other Moroccans simply dismiss the concern, saying that Mernissi writes for the West. Indeed, Western critics consistently have welcomed her works, especially this one. They applaud her ability to describe clearly a little-known culture that has long held fascination for the West. The notion that the book is fiction is based on the testimony of individuals who knew Mernissi as she was growing up and her own response to challenges in which she attests that the book serves to provide an accurate image of an amalgam of women’s situations.

The reader is left wondering what is true, yet the question of truth may have many answers. As a sociologist, Mernissi favors the case study approach to analysis, which can offer valuable insights. On closer examination, it is evident that her autobiography is not narrative, but a series of stories told to her by women of varied ages, classes, and backgrounds. Mernissi has used such storytelling technique effectively in several other nonfiction works. As a respected professor, an internationally known scholar, and an accomplished author and critic of Islamic law and custom with regard to women’s rights, Mernissi knows that her “Scheherazade” approach to communication, being a compelling storyteller, is an effective way to control and educate an audience without overt demonstrations of power. Ignoring criticism, she stands by her portrayal of life as it was for Moroccan women, confident that the picture she paints is accurate and informative.

As a teacher, I welcome the opportunity to draw all these contradictions into a conversation on the issues of truth and perception, especially in relation to the telling of a personal account. Mernissi’s views of growing up female in a traditional Islamic culture offer insight into stereotypes that she, a Muslim woman intimately associated with Moroccan culture, can offer. While everything she describes may not have happened exactly as portrayed, it nevertheless is representative of a Moroccan woman’s experience growing up in the 20th century. Mernissi paints a picture of life that is useful in offering insight into another culture, and more specifically, a woman’s particular place in that setting.

Furthermore, to some extent her portrayal of this as her life is indeed accurate in her own mind. After all, memory is selective: people’s responses to experiences vary and people’s memories of experiences change with time and influence. Events happen in a person’s life between lived experiences and recording those events can shape their telling. Mernissi’s account is valuable because it reflects her own internalization of the Moroccan Muslim culture in which she grew up.

It would be useful to compare Mernissi’s account with that of someone like a Daisy Dwyer’s 1978 study Images and Self-Images: Male and Female in Morocco or Susan Davis’s Patience and Power: Women’s Lives in a Moroccan Village (1983). Davis’s Western, anthropologically-oriented views offer good counterpoints. Mernissi’s description of growing up in urban and rural Muslim homes, with varying degrees of freedom, is true to the anthropological accounts of the region. Whether her personal account is literally accurate for her own personal experience or merely representative, it is nevertheless a valuable portrayal of one kind of life in a particular place and time.

Sample Analysis: Marjorie Shostak's Account of Nisa, a !Kung Woman

The cover of Majorie Shostak's Nisa, a !Kung WomanNisa’s story begins with author Marjorie Shostak’s introduction addressing the context for her conversations with Nisa, a woman of the !Kung ethnic group in southeast Africa. Shostak’s acquaintance with Nisa was not immediate, but evolved over a long period of field-work residence in the area. Shostak also had extensive contact with many other women whose testimonies confirmed the veracity of Nisa’s. Ultimately, Shostak decided that Nisa was the right informant on women’s roles among the !Kung because Nisa “understood the requirements of the interviews, she summarized her life in loosely chronological order; then, following [Shostak’s] lead, she discussed each major phase in depth.”4

The relationship that developed between Nisa and Shostak was that of teacher and student. And although Nisa and her family were fed and housed by Shostak during the period of their work together, it was understood that Nisa’s task was to teach Shostak about !Kung womanhood, educating her in a dispassionate way, as a caring, but objective instructor. Shostak conducted fifteen long interviews over a two-week period, and six more four years later. Nisa’s stories constitute only eight percent of all the interviews Shostak conducted with !Kung women, so she amassed a great deal of comparative data. Shostak rearranged the stories into chronological order for her book, but she tried to remain true to the nuances of !Kung forms of expression throughout the material.

One of the most important issues Shostak discusses in the introduction is her need to become capable in the !Kung language so that she could speak directly to the women among whom she did research. All cultures have different modes of communication within cultural subgroups that depend on slang, symbolic language, and nonverbal modes of communication. Even with the help of language tutors and hearing the language spoken all around her everyday, Shostak was unable to communicate in even a rudimentary way until she had been there six months, and the first real communication she had with !Kung women was in her tenth month of field work. This is the first level of “common language” necessary to the communication of personal accounts.

For Shostak and many other field workers, an important level of common language had to do with gender. Women are freer to talk with other women of foreign cultures than to mix with men. This also accounts for the relative dearth of material on women’s lives until very recently in the history of scholarship: most scholars in the field have, until the 20th century, been men who had little access to or focus on women’s lives. Interestingly, Shostak’s conversations with Nisa make for compelling reading because they are so ordinary: any young woman will be able to relate to Nisa’s own life, despite the cultural and geographic distance between them.

Section titles indicate a chronology from birth and first impressions through the discovery of sexuality, marriage, childbirth, maturity and old age. In addition, Nisa considers the universal questions of gender relations, health and healing, and dealing with loss in old age. Shostak considers that Nisa’s early memories may be more exaggerated than those of her more mature years, and cautions against a reader’s making Nisa’s story representative. It is but one of many such life histories that, because of their personal nature, will be different for each individual.

As young women reading Nisa’s life learn, there is as much about Nisa for them to compare as to contrast with their own experiences of being young and female in the world. Ultimately, no amount of common spoken language or shared gender identity will allow a field worker to know another’s perspective completely, but the investment of time devoted to language learning and familiarity with the subject’s place in society will lead to the acquisition of a deeper understanding.

Marjorie Shostak, Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (New York: First Vintage Books, 1983), p. 39.


Baisnee, ValerieGendered Resistance: The Autobiographies of Simone de Beauvoir, Maya Angelou, Janet Frame, and Marguerite Duras. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1997.

The author investigates the autobiographical works of four prolific women writers to examine the ways in which they choose to portray their own lives in their writings.

Beauvoir, Simone deMemoirs of a dutiful daughter; translated by James Kirkup. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1959.

Bjorkland, DianeInterpreting the Self: Two Hundred Years of American Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

This study sets out four models of self-understanding as they are revealed in American autobiography. Bjorkland analyzes these models as “dialogues with history,” and sources for data in the social and behavioral sciences.

Caplan, PatAfrican Voices, African Lives: Personal Accounts from a Swahili Village. London: Routledge, 1997.

This is an ethnography of a Swahili family in Tanzania with whom the author has been friends for thirty years. It explores the changes in their lives over that period of time.

Clinton, Hillary RodhamLiving History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Crapanzano, VincentTuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

This ethnography of a Moroccan man focuses on his psycho-social perceptions in response to his society.

Davis, SusanPatience and Power: Women’s Lives in a Moroccan Village. Cambridge: Schenkman, 1983.

Denizin, Norman K. Interpretive Biography. London: Sage Publications, 1989.

Denizen discusses how biographical texts are written and read, focusing on the gathering and interpretation of lives and the discovery of epiphanic moments in a life.

Dwyer, DaisyImages and Self-Images: Male and Female in Morocco. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Eickelman, Dale F. “Traditional Islamic Learning and Ideas of the Person in the Twentieth Century” in Kramer, Martin, ed., Middle Eastern Lives: The Practice of Biography and Self-Account,35-39. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Eickelman explores examples of self-images of Muslim men of learning to distinguish between the individual and the person (the individual is the mortal human being, while the person reflects cultural influence). He discusses the concept of tarjama, an autobiography that includes genealogy and qualifications of the writer and is written in the third person to indicate credibility.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler; translated by Susan Massotty. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Goodson, Ivor F. and Pat Sikes. Life History Research in Educational Settings: Learning from Lives. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2001.

This study considers the process of developing life stories and techniques, epistemology, social context, ethics, and dilemmas in the process of producing life stories. In the chapter on epistemology, consideration of life history from the perspectives of the life storyteller and the life historian are of particular interest.

Gibson, AltheaI Always Wanted to Be Somebody. New York: Harper, 1958.

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

This classic anthropological study began with the search for a personal account and resulted in the full-blown philosophy of the West African Dogon people, narrated by a Dogon elder, Ogotemmeli. Ogotemmeli felt the people’s philosophy of life was more important for a foreigner to hear than his own, small life story.

Kadar, Marlene, ed. Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

This collection of essays deals with the wide range of genres that constitute life writings: autobiography, journals, memoirs, letters, testimonials (including court testimony), oral accounts, fiction and poetics. Many of these are unintentional testimonies that are interpreted by scholars as personal accounts.

Kenyon, Gary M. and William L. Randall. Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth Through Autobiographical Reflection. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

This study is premised on the idea that every individual not only has a story to tell, but is a living story. Using story as the metaphor for life, the authors discuss the process of telling and retelling about our lives. They note that stories change in the act of preserving them in written form and that stories vary depending on what historical moment in that person’s life is reflected in the story. More importantly, they emphasize the fact that at any given moment each individual contains many stories; the one you are hearing is but one portion of that person’s experience.

Kramer, Martin, ed. Middle Eastern Lives: The Practice of Biography and Self-Account. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

This volume includes eight studies by scholars of the Muslim and Jewish Middle East. They discuss the idea of self-awareness and its documentation in these cultural contexts, the enduring legacy of personal account in this world region (dating back to Assyria and early Persia), and the relationship of personal account to political history.

Lejeune, Phillippe. “Teaching People to Write Their Life Story,” in On Autobiography, 216-31. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Lejeune explores the question of why and how one goes about selecting aspects of a life to recount.

Lewis, Bernard. “First-Person Account in the Middle East” Middle Eastern Lives: The Practice of Biography and Self-Account, edited by Martin Kramer, 20-34. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Bernard Lewis notes that the genre of first-person account in the Middle East dates back at least as far as 1991 BCE (Amenemhat of Egypt) and 1275 BCE (Hittite king Hatusilis) who recorded their accomplishments for posterity. Lewis discusses the impetus for autobiographies by men of learning, royalty, and religious figures. They sought to record their lives in the categories of “what I did,” “what I saw,” and “what I thought.”

Mernissi, FatimaDreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Childhood. Reading: Addison Wesley, 1994.

Milani, Farzaneh. “Veiled Voices: Women’s Autobiographies in Iran” in Women’s Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran, edited by Afsaneh Najmabadi, 1-16. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Middle Eastern Mongraphs XXV, 1990.

Milani explains the irony of Muslim women’s autobiographies, which require revealing what is concealed. The ideal in Islam involves concealing what is revered (the body, the privacy of the home), so to write a personal account is to diminish by expression what should remain private: thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Munson, Jr., Henry, Rec., Trans., edThe House of Si Abd Allah: The Oral History of a Moroccan Family. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Munson has recorded interviews with members of this Moroccan family who recount their perceptions of 20th-century history and talk about family members from the late 19th century to the present. His discussion of methodology in recording oral history is especially useful.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh, ed. Women’s Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Middle Eastern Mongraphs XXV, 1990.

This Harvard monograph consists of four studies of Muslim women’s autobiographies, with a focus on Iranian culture and the limitations there for women’s free expression of the self.

Ostle, Robin, Ed de Moor and Stefan Wild, edsWriting the Self: Autobiographical Writing in Modern Arabic Literature. London: Saqi Books, 1998.

The 24 essays in this collection address the genre of autobiography in the context of Arab culture. Three of the essays deal specifically with women’s works.

Oufkir, MalikaStolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Romero, Patricia, edLife Histories of African Women. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Ashfield Press, 1991.

This collection of seven brief life histories of African women spans the continent and several centuries of history. Some of these essays are based on interviews focused on women’s life stories while others are life histories reconstructed from archival materials.

Shostak, MarjorieNisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. New York: First Vintage Books, 1983.

Smith, MaryBaba of Karo, a Woman of the Moslem Hausa. New York: Praeger, 1964.

While Smith’s husband was interviewing traditional Hausa men in northern Nigeria in the late 1950s, she sat down to talk with an old Hausa woman named Baba who had lived through the British colonial occupation of Nigeria. This is the account of Baba’s experience living in rural Nigeria and seeing her traditional way of life affected by the arrival of the British. Her responses to Mary Smith’s questions frame the discussion, which is focused on domestic and political issues in a particular time and place.

Soyinka, Wole. The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Thomson, Alistair. “Life Histories, Adult Learning and Identity” and Mary Lea West, and Linden, “Life Histories, Adult Learning and Identity” in The Uses of Autobiography, edited by Julia Swindells, 163-76, 177-86. Bristol, PA.: Taylor and Francis, 1995.

This two-part essay investigates perceptions about education from the points of view expressed in life histories, with a focus on adult learning, motivation, and decision-making in the pursuit of education.

Vansina, JanOral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1965.

This classic text on field methodology in African history is wholly applicable to the assessment of personal accounts anywhere in the world. It addresses the varieties of testimonies a researcher encounters, such as: intentional, unintentional, hearsay, symbolic, stereotypical, idealized, fixed, and free. Vansina discusses the distortions that commonly occur as human beings struggle with the confluence of memory and historical context, endeavoring to reconstruct their lives and make sense of their times.


Beverly Mack is a Professor Emeritus of African Studies in the Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. She holds a PhD in African Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her training includes specialization in oral traditions in history and literature in Africa. She has done fieldwork in Nigeria and Morocco, and has also worked in Sierra-Leone, the Ivory Coast, and Guinea-Conakry. Much of her research focuses on the relationship between women and power in Africa, and her book, Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Women’s Scholarship and Song in Contemporary Northern Nigeria, was published in 2004.

How to Cite This Source

"Analyzing Personal Accounts," in World History Commons, [accessed June 13, 2024]