Stories We Tell Ourselves by Michelle Herman

I will confess that I never would have read Stories We Tell Ourselves if I hadn’t met Michelle Herman.  It is really only because I have enjoyed her previous work and had the enjoyable experience of interviewing her that I would pick up a book like this let alone read it.

The two thought-provoking, extended essays that make up Stories We Tell Ourselves draw from the author’s richly diverse experiences and history, taking the reader on a deeply pleasurable walk to several unexpectedly profound destinations. A steady accumulation of fascinating science, psychoanalytic theory, and cultural history—ranging as far and wide as neuro-ophthalmology, ancient dream interpretation, and the essential differences between Jung and Freud—is smoothly intermixed with vivid anecdotes, entertaining digressions, and a disarming willingness to risk everything in the course of a revealing personal narrative.

“Dream Life” plumbs the depth of dreams—conceptually, biologically, and as the nursery of our most meaningful metaphors—as it considers dreams and dreaming every whichway: from the haruspicy of the Roman Empire to contemporary sleep and dream science, from the way birds dream to the way babies do, from our longing to tell them to the reasons we wish other people wouldn’t.

“Seeing Things” recounts a journey of mother and daughter—a Holmes-and-Watson pair intrepidly working their way through the mysteries of a disorder known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome—even as it restlessly detours into the world beyond the looking glass of the unconscious itself. In essays that constantly offer layers of surprises and ever-deeper insights, the author turns a powerful lens on the relationships that make up a family, on expertise and unsatisfying diagnoses, on science and art and the pleasures of contemplation and inquiry—and on our fears, regrets, hopes, and (of course) dreams.

But really, the same reason I have enjoyed her previous works, and enjoy talking with her, is the reason that these two essays are so engaging and interesting.

As I noted about the Kindle Single version of the first essay in this collection:

And it is Michelle’s ability to be engaging and to explore issues and ideas we all wrestle with (family, relationships, changes in our lives, etc.) that makes reading her so interesting. She pours so much of her life and personality into the writing that it feels more like a conversation with an interesting person than simply a non-fiction essay. You can imagine her life and her relationships – and use that as a lens through which to see your life or just to think about what it means to be human (if you tend towards abstraction like I do).

This remains true with the expanded version of the two essays that form this collection.

It is her personality and energy that carries the reader through subjects that might not normally be of interest and through personal details and perspectives that at first blush might seem overly personal or even mundane.  Michelle is able to take this problematic raw material and mold it into essays that probe and ponder, explore and discuss in a way that is both relatable and often thought-provoking.

Because despite the fact that no one wants to hear about someone else’s dreams, we are all fascinated by our own.  We are all seeking to bring meaning and structure to the chaos and unknowns in our lives.  Using her insights as a writer and teacher, as well as her research, she helps us sort through ideas and circumstances, narratives and images, and think about how our unconscious mind might relate to our daily lives, to art and to our relationships.

I like the way Kirkus put it: “An engaging companion offers a spirit of shared humanity.”  That is a good summary of Michelle “an engaging companion.”  And that is what makes her writing worth reading.

Despite having resisted the form of “creative non-fiction” for so long, Michelle Herman’s personality, style and writing skills make a great match for this form.  Stories We Tell Ourselves is a great example of why.



Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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