Palo Alto Weekly

- January 3, 2014

Everybody has a story

In 'guided autobiography,' people tell their life stories and ponder wisdom gained

by Chris Kenrick

The death of her mother was the spark that ultimately led Palo Alto resident Sheila Dunec to make a major turn in her own career.

"So much was lost with her passing," Dunec recalls of her mother's death at age 84 in 1991. "In addition to my already profound grief, I had this overwhelming regret of why I hadn't asked her things, listened to the stories.

"She was sort of my model and my guide, but when it's too late it's really too late."

Dunec, a counselor who at the time was running anger-management workshops and teaching veterans at Foothill College, began advising her friends who still had living parents to "ask them questions, write the tributes, the expressions of gratitude."

She got interested in recording life stories and, ultimately, sought permission from Foothill to launch community-based classes in "life stories and guided autobiography."

Now retired from Foothill, Dunec offers her 10-week "Life Stories" classes at Avenidas, Grace Lutheran Church and in a private home in Portola Valley.

She's a firm believer in the psychological value of reviewing and recording one's life memories, crediting the late psychiatrist and gerontologist Robert Butler and gerontologist James Birren of the University of Southern California for pioneering work in the "life stories" field.

"Really reviewing and taking stock of one's life correlates with good mental health in older adulthood," Dunec said. 'It's one of the activities an older adult can engage in that correlates with successful aging and a positive view going forward."

Moreover, it's a gift that older people can give to children and grandchildren, she said.

"If your adult children are way too busy, caught up in the rush of midlife, trying to make a living and raise kids, you can bridge that gap by writing about things you'd like them to know about your life," she said.

"As children we're sort of meshed in a relationship with our parents, and it's hard to see them as independent young adults, navigating the same challenges that we do.

"Everyone in my class has a desire to be seen as people independent of the role of mother or father."

The "Life Stories" curriculum is not to be confused with a memoir-writing class, Dunec says.

She advises students to write about their life struggles, admit their mistakes and steer clear of romanticizing the past.

"If somebody's looking to publish a witty little collection, this isn't for them," she said. "This is not a rosy memoir class — we get into really tough stuff."

Toward the end of a 10-week session Dunec typically asks students to ponder death: their early experiences with it, their thoughts on immortality and what they would do if they knew they had just one more year to live.

"Like money, this is another taboo that we don't talk about much, but it's a very important subject," she said.

"We talk about making plans for the future — basically the bucket list — of what's important to you to learn, experience, express or finish in the time you have left. All the research concludes that people who've done the things that are important to them have a much better chance of greeting the end of life with peace of mind, a sense of equanimity, a sense of having completed life."

In the first week of Life Stories, Dunec asks students to share what's brought them to the class, what they'd like to accomplish and whether they're writing for anybody other than themselves.

In later sessions, students are asked to reflect on their lives chronologically — birth, family, growing up, adulthood.

Later, the themes shift to retrospection, as students consider how the world has changed, what's been gained and what's been lost. Other sections ask students to integrate the insights gained to "create a more authentic life in the present."

Sometimes Dunec adds a section on "The Times of Our Lives," in which students revisit their best memories and consider lessons learned on how to enjoy life. Another section, "Being My Age," asks them to try to assess honestly what it feels like to be their age.

Dunec says she finds continual inspiration in her students.

"People come to me and say, 'My life has never been anything out of the ordinary' — and then they start talking," she said.

One student in his 90s, Menlo Park resident Carl Clark, received military honors after his wartime heroism came to light in Dunec's class. Dunec brought the story to the attention of U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who worked for two years to secure military recognition for Clark, an African-American.

On the night of May 3, 1945, a kamikaze attack on the USS Aaron Ward instantly killed Clark's colleagues on a firefighting team, and, despite a broken collarbone, Clark, sprang into action to extinguish fires sparked by a subsequent kamikaze plane.

In a 2012 ceremony at Moffett Field, U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus bestowed the Navy and Marine Corps Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device, with Dunec, Eshoo and Clark's surviving child and his siblings — who are in their 90s — looking on.

"We were loyal Americans and tried to do our part," Clark said, acknowledging other black servicemen never properly honored.

Clark's story is among 42 oral history narratives of World War II collected by Dunec and others in a decade-long project that filled Foothill College's Smithwick Theater in its 2009 premier.

"We gathered people from everywhere, and it felt like we got so many of them in the nick of time," she said.

"It was important to get many different viewpoints. It was a world war, not just an American war, but we're so apt to just tell the American point of view. The heartfelt desire of everyone who participated was, 'Let's learn from this and never let it happen again.'"

Dunec estimates that several thousand students have taken her class over the years but has no real count. A few have continued with the class for as long as 15 years.

She's seen students publish books with their life stories, write moving tributes to people — known and unknown — who have inspired them, travel across the world to track down long lost relatives and fall in love in their 90s.

"I've had several love stories that have just bloomed, and it's given me the knowledge — not just the suspicion — that love can truly flower at any age. Who would've thought?

"I've learned far more than I've ever taught," she said. "I've learned about how to grow old well and what a difference attitude makes.

"I have the most remarkable students who are teaching me how to grow old and age successfully, both by negative and positive examples, but mostly positive."

Information about Life Stories classes is available by contacting Dunec at 650-565-8087.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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