Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Elizabeth Hirsh, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Debra Jacobs, Ph.D.


Pedagogy, Personal essay, Life-writing, Trauma, Empathy


The effectiveness of first-person narration for self-transformation and social change is indicated by exploring connections between three emergent discourses: illness narratives and memoirs by rape survivors in which the subject speaks from a privileged yet socially marginalized position about life-altering experiences; clinical discourse that elaborates treatment methods for empowering trauma survivors and helping them reconnect with the social world; and scholarly discourse that reflects on the relationship between trauma, self-representation, witnessing, and recovery. Post-Foucauldian theories of life-writing illuminate how the author-subjects of survivor narratives discursively reconstruct their shattered subjectivity in a therapeutic relationship with themselves and their readers. Cognitive and pedagogy theory illuminate how first-person narratives can foster multiple intelligences.

Data from the author's own teaching experience illustrates the strengths and potential pitfalls of first-person pedagogy. An abundance of memoirs have been written by rape survivors and by subjects with critical illness since the 1980s; in these texts, subjectivity is reconstructed, often with the result of empowering, validating, and reconnecting the writing subject to the social world from which she has become disenfranchised. College students analyzing these texts often feel sympathy for the autobiographical subject. In this way, first-person narratives foster a compassionate classroom environment, and are valuable tools for developing a student's emotional and cognitive capacities.Chapter One introduces my study and examines theoretical discourse concerning contemporary trauma narratives and autobiography theory. Chapter Two investigates sixteen rape memoirs using Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery to trace how writing about trauma helps the subject heal from its effects.

Chapter Three studies fifteen memoirs about critical illness to see how the subject employs warfare metaphors to describe the effects of illness on her body, and to portray herself as a hero figure. Chapter Four investigates the theoretical basis for employing first-person narratives in the college classroom to foster self-study, well-being, and empathy. Chapter Five presents data from my own teaching experience to demonstrate how incorporating first-person narratives into the college classroom does indeed foster self-study, well-being and empathy. As students come to see themselves as subjects of their own discourse, they also recognize and support another's right to work toward self-transformation.