[R]edemption in particular is a popular, and particularly American, narrative. “Evolving from the Puritans to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Oprah Winfrey… Americans have sought to author their lives as redemptive tales of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility,” McAdams writes in an overview of life story research. “The stories speak of heroic individual protagonists—the chosen people—whose manifest destiny is to make a positive difference in a dangerous world, even when the world does not wish to be redeemed.”
The Bible might be sold as a short story collection subtitled ‘Stories of Redemption’. Inside we have standout examples such as:
- The Story of Noah
- Abraham and Isaac
- Lost Sheep
- The Prodigal Son
- Saul of Tarsus
Jonah Lehrer (or was it?) writes that the Redemption Story is very powerful in American politics, also:
- Ben Franklin went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation
- President George W. Bush was “born again” after years of drinking and troublemaking
- John McCain was a prisoner of war
It applies to some of the best-loved American celebrities:
- Lehrer also mentions Oprah Winfrey, who had a troubled childhood
- Drew Barrymore was a child star who came through addiction
- Nicki Minaj grew up in a violent home in Queens
The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.
The opposite of a ‘redemption story’ is known as a ‘contamination story’. Contamination stories end on a tragic note.
The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.
It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting, redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”
The most popular and memorable Hollywood movies end on a positive note, even when they end in tragedy. In children’s literature, there seems to be a rule that if the story doesn’t have a happy ending, the story must nevertheless end with a sense of hope. It is almost impossible to find a published children’s story which does not follow this rule.
THE TYPICAL STRUCTURE OF A REDEMPTION STORY
Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University,
- EARLY ADVANTAGE — the protagonist becomes aware of their special blessings; they feel marked from the start
- SENSITIVITY TO SUFFERING — the protagonist describes how they noticed the unfairness of the world
- MORAL STEADFASTNESS — the protagonist lives their life guided by a strong sense of right and wrong
- REDEMPTION SEQUENCES — moments in which a significant mistake or hardship – addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc. – becomes a means to absolution and grace, or what McAdams describes as the “deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state”
- EDUCATION PROVIDED BY THE HARD TIMES — the protagonist commits to “prosocial goals” and tries to “improve the lives of other people”
Let’s see how the structure of a redemption story lines up with the basic narrative structure suggested by storytelling experts.
- WEAKNESS/NEED — in fiction, protagonists need something wrong with them at the beginning. The hero of a redemption story is more like a superhero in that they have special powers which cannot be realised due to external factors. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them, personally.
- DESIRE — the hero in a redemption story starts to desire a different world because they have noticed injustice all around them.
- OPPONENT — the opponent is the society
- PROBLEM — mistakes and hardships — addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc.
- BATTLE — I’m guessing that’s described, too. How hard it was to overcome such hardships.
- SELF-REVELATION — corresponds directly to the redemption sequences
- NEW EQUILIBRIUM — ‘the protagonist commits to prosocial goals’
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF
One of the main messages to come out of America is: ‘Believe in yourself and you can do anything you set your mind to’. Many American children’s books express that message in the subtext.
Why are such stories so popular? Lehrer speculates that these redemption narratives ‘better prepare us for the “hard work and daunting challenges” of the well-lived life’.
To care for someone, or to agitate for social change, or to try to make a positive difference in the world, is to commit to a long struggle, a marathon in which success is mingled with failure and triumph is mixed up with disappointment. In order to not give up, it helps to have a life story in which pain is merely a precursor to wisdom, and every struggle an opportunity for growth.
EXPORTING THE DREAM
I believe that the Redemption Story can no longer be described specifically American. The USA has been exporting its stories for several generations now, and it seems the most popular story worldwide resembles some version of the redemption story.
Harry Potter is a British example. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Harry feels unworthy of the House of Gryffindor. By the end of the story, Harry has all the proof he needs that he truly belongs in Gryffindor. Ron and Neville also learn to believe in themselves.