Beginning in 2014-15

I’m not sure exactly when the idea of this study matured in my mind. I began posting about my experiences as a young bird-watcher in the Facebook group Fältbiolog emeritus in the winter of 2014-15. The first announcement of my autobiographical intentions came at the end of Jun  2015, a month after I had left as director of the Medical Museion.  “As Søren Kierkegaard said, life is lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards”, I wrote on my own FB timeline, and continued: “Having always, for decades, explored new intellectual vistas, I’ve rarely had time or interest in looking backwards. Now it seems to be time to change the priorities. Time to take stock before the next phase, whatever direction it will take. γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself).”

“Are you drafting a memoir?, asked one of my history of science colleagues, Carsten Timmerman, and I answered: “Memoir sounds so boring. Autobiography is way too pretentious. I would rather call it a ‘spiritual exercise’ in the Augustinian confessional sense, based on my archive, my memories, and my library.”

From this moment forth, I was became increasingly involved in what soon developed into a full-time research enterprise, a ‘project‘. And accordingly, I changed my scholarly identity: from a professional museionist to an emeritus memoirist.

What I have done after June 2015

In the academic year 2015-16 I focused on revisiting my childhood and teenage years; I went through all archival material that I kept at home, mainly my grandfather’s diaries (more here); I also scanned hundreds of photos from my early life, and used much time trying to generate spontaneous memories from the age of 5-6 and onwards (more here). I also began to contact my former class fellows, all the way back to primary school, asking them to help me remember our school years.

Having collected all possible information I could get my hands on from the childhood and school years, I began to dig into my adult professional career, i.e., the 50 years from the mid 1960s to the mid 2010s. A few months before my formal retirement in November 2016 I moved all my professional papers — manuscripts, conference papers, lecture notes — from my office at Medical Museion into a small basement room in our house; having the material nearby made it much more easy to go through it chronologically. In the following year I browsed and took notes from the material up to the end of 1991.

In parallell with the archival work I read about memoir/autobiography writing and wrote reflections on Facebook, gradually widening the circle of friends and followers and soon realized that the platform provides a most useful virtual seminar for academic discussions and comments. Although I have presented the general ideas behind the study at a few academic seminars (see project outreach here), the major discussion platform so far has been Facebook.

Antecedents — before 2015

The concrete plans for the project formulated in 2015 were probably provoked by my impending retirement. But the idea didn’t grow out of the blue. There has always been something ‘autobiographical’ going on inside me before then.

I have been engaged in occasional reconstructions of my life, typically spending a day or two in the New Year’s break to recapitulate the year that passed. At irregular intervals I have also taken longer retrospective looks at my life, both personally and professionally, often attempting to divide it into ‘life periods’ of, say, five or seven years. In other words, I seem always to have had a spontaneous autobiographical impulse, which was kept down by other interests for decades, until retirement, when it was allowed to burgeon and flourish.

Another personal background is my involvement with psychotherapy. In the early 1980s, I spent several hundred hours in therapy with a Reichian therapist, where I learnt, through hard emotional, mental, and bodily work, to connect my behaviour and overt feelings with my more or less repressed and often painful early emotional experiences. These almost weekly therapy sessions gave me a practical understanding of the intimate relations between body and mind, which I later brought with me into my ‘existential’ approach to biography.

My long-term academic engagement with biography writing is obviously yet another important antecedent of this project. I spent almost 15 years between the late 1980 and the early 2000s researching and writing about the private and public life of a scientist and simultaneously reflecting on the genre of scientific biography (see resume, curriculum vitae, and publications). He too had a huge archive, and the joyful experience of excavating his archive and trying to build a coherent picture of the relation between his personal life and his science has most probably inspired me to do something similar; likewise my twent years of reflections on the genre of biography can easily be transferred to reflections on the genre of autobiography. In fact, it’s probably not too far-fetched to imagine that I’m now simply recapitulating my fascination with my former biographical subject, substituting him with me.

An even earlier antecendent for this project is probably my work on the history of ecology in the 1970s and early 1980, where I learnt to conduct oral interviews and reconstruct the history of an academic discipline as an assemblage of individual biographies. And even further back, I can track a propensity for understanding the world in terms of their genealogical and historical development — embryology, evolution, phylogeny, etc. So what is more natural than trying to understand myself in genealogical and autobiographical terms?