Cheryl Svensson wrote a tribute recently to the late James Birren, a pioneer in the field of gerontology. Jim wrote the first Psychology of Aging textbook (1964) and founded the first school of gerontology in the nation. With Jim as dean, USC's school and gerontology center flourished. Best of all, he invented the "Guided Autobiography" approach to memoir writing. Here's Cheryl's story of how GAB came into being:
"One summer in the early 70's, Jim Birren took a sabbatical and taught a Psychology of Aging class at the University of Hawaii. The class consisted of for-credit students and older retirees who were part of the extended learning program on campus.
"As Jim told the story, the class was 'flat', dull, and not engaging. One day in frustration, he threw up his hands, told everyone to go home, write two pages on a 'branching point' in their lives and then be prepared to read it aloud in class the next day. This was an 'ungraded' assignment. Jim said that the next day, after they had all read their stories, the class came alive. The older people were talking with the younger students; they were making connections with one another that lasted throughout the remainder of the class sessions.
"Jim knew he was onto something but was not sure what it was. He returned to USC and gathered grad students (including his son Jeff) into a seminar class to research and study the history of autobiography, expressive writing, small group process, etc. From this he created Guided Autobiography, a small group process to help people write their life stories. Guided by a facilitator with 'priming' questions based on life themes, the students write two pages at home, return to class, and read them in their small group. The reading and sharing life stories in the small group is where the magic of GAB takes place.
"Jim Birren, the scientist, made a sharp turn in his own career path, a new branching point. His colleagues and peers must have looked at Jim--who changed from respected scientific aging researcher to soft academic interested in writing, life stories, group process--and wondered what happened? Jim was unfazed....
"Over the past 40 years, Jim has written three books on GAB, conducted many research projects beginning as early as 1980, and written countless articles. In the late '90s, a group of friends and colleagues of Jim's gathered around him at UCLA. By then he had retired from USC (a word Betty always said Jim knew how to spell but didn't know what it meant.) We formed the GAB workgroup (Birren disciples, when there were actually 12 of us), and sought ways to develop and extend GAB into new venues. We met as a group frequently and became best of friends. We created spinoff classes such as GAB II, Life Portfolio, Family History, and even an online e-GAB writing class. We built a website. We created a DVD legacy to Jim, we won the ASA award for most 'Innovative Older Adult Learning Program,' and Jim and I presented GAB workshops across the nation. We followed Jim's command to, 'Launch GAB!' "
Reprinted by permission.
• Why I love teaching Guided Autobiography by Lisa Smith-Youngs
• Guided Autobiography (The Birren Center)
• Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups by James E. Birren
• Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story by Richard Campbell and Cheryl Svensson. As of June 2021, Cheryl has trained 546 GAB instructors from 26 countries.
• Telling Your Story, dozens of useful links to resources for capturing your life story or someone else's.