I am keeping a journal. I call it The Book of the Dead. By the time I finish it I shall be dead. I want to be ready, to have gathered everything together and sorted it out, as if I were preparing for a great final journey. I intend to make myself whole here in this Hell. It is the thing that is set before me to do. So, in a way, this path inward and back into the past is like a map, the map of my world. If I can draw it accurately, I shall know where I am. - Caro Spencer in As We Are Now (Sarton, 1973)
Caro Spencer is a character in a novel written by May Sarton (1973). She is a 76-year-old woman who has recently suffered a heart attack and been committed to a home for old people. Miss Spencer realizes that she will die in this place and has undertaken the task of writing a journal. This journal represents a reminiscence of her life. Through this past reflection, Miss Spencer hopes to understand her past, integrate it into her present, and accept and prepare for her mortality. We, as readers, are invited along on this journey.
Reminiscence in old age, whether verbal or written, as in Miss Spencer's journal, has often been viewed negatively. It has been seen merely as the rambling of an old man or woman who could not cope with the present. For example, in the novel described above, Miss Spencer's journal was viewed by the staff of the old people's home as the notes of a crazy woman. However, the process of reminiscence has come to be described as a normal developmental task of later adulthood. Miss Spencer's journey is an example of the process described by Butler (1963) as the life review.
It has been theorized that all individuals experience the life review during later life (Butler, 1963). According to Butler, as individuals realize that there is limited time remaining to them, they will examine what kind of life they have lived, and whether they feel their life was a success or failure. The life review process and the knowledge of completion of being are thus, according to this theory, inextricably woven together. Butler proposes that the life review process is often manifested as reminiscence and leads to personality reorganization in old age. It should be noted that this theory parallels that of Erikson (1959). Erikson proposes that the critical factor in accepting death is one1s acceptance of their personal life-career.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the life review theory proposed by Butler (1963). This will be contrasted by the theoretical position of Erikson (1959, 1982). Additional topics to be covered include: the relationship of life review to the death process, the relationship of the life review to disengagement, therapeutic uses of the life review and reminiscence, a historical view of the concept of life review, and my own personal perspective to the theoretical position of the life review.