Moments of Jon’s Life

Please read in the voice of YOU.

Meet Jon Adler. Jon was a public school theater kid from Newton, MA, who acted in high school plays alongside Anne Dudek and B.J. Novak. His senior year, he was involved in six of the thirteen productions his school put on that year, directing one of them.

After high school, Jon went to Bates College, thinking that he would study English or History because he really liked stories. After taking a class called “Representations of Mental Illness in Literature,” he found that it was really the characters that fascinated him. So he majored in psychology.

Jon knew that he wanted wanted to get clinical training as a therapist. Unsure as to whether or not he would want to do therapy full time, he began looking into graduate programs that would allow him to research personality and do clinical work. Through a serendipitous meeting with a current grad student at Northwestern University, Jon found his future graduate mentor, Dan McAdams (who had developed the theory of Narrative Identity as a major player in Personality Psychology).

Looking back, Jon now sees that he mostly put his own personal development on hold during undergrad, in favor of his intellectual development, a strategy he now wishes he could go back and undo. Towards the end of college and the years that followed, he worked hard on his identity and also came out as gay. At the beginning of grad school, he met his future husband. They were married six years later, in Massachusetts in 2008, back when it was the only state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage.

As they were not residents of Massachusetts at the time, Jon and his fiancé were told that it would up to the individual city clerk whether or not they could be legally married. Trying Provincetown as the “safest bet,” the clerks were very excited to fill out their marriage paperwork.

True to the teacher he would become, the marriage was as much a teaching moment as it was a celebration: instead of a traditional rehearsal dinner, they had a “catered conversation,” complete with readings, homework, and flip charts.  They led the guests in a discussion about the history and nature of marriage.

Back in Chicago for the last year of his PhD in Personality and Clinical Psychology, Jon needed to do a year-long residency, which occurred for him at a VA hospital in inner-city Chicago. He worked primarily with veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very intense position that was not the right fit, but still gave Jon a very good breadth in addition to his previous years of clinical training.

After his residency, Jon knew that he wanted a faculty job. He and his husband also knew that they wanted to have kids, ideally close to Jon’s parents in Newton, so location did factor into his job search, though he applied all over the Northeast and in Chicago.

He was mostly applying to narrowly-scoped positions in psych departments at small liberal arts colleges, until he saw the listing for an Assistant Professor of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Olin. Having lived in the area, Jon knew of its existence, and thinking that the job and school sounded exciting, he sent in his application.

He came into his faculty “Candidates’ Weekend” excited and he left really excited.

Eight years later, the rest is history.

At Olin, Jon (now an Associate Professor) is the only psychologist on the faculty and there are no psych majors to speak of. That means, “I get to teach the things that I think our students most need to know. I’m not preparing them for a major, so it really is about psychological concepts that are going to be useful to you in life, and not because the concepts are going to be useful to you in the 300-level of your major or because they are going to get you into grad school. So I’ve been able to organize my teaching entirely in around psychological concepts that I think are going to be useful to our students as people.”

Jon also does a lot of research into Narrative Identity, or making sense of the stories people tell about their lives. He collects stories, examines the themes (among other things), and then relates those findings back to mental health. He’s interested in identifying the most productive (for mental health) ways people make meaning of difficult experiences. He also makes the distinction between historical truth and narrative truth. One is the series of events as they objectively, verifiably happened, the other is the series of events as the narrator comes to make meaning of them.  It’s the narrative truth that serves as the foundation of our identity. Jon is also an editor at the Journal of Personality and he’s spoken with the media a lot about his research (this article in The Atlantic gives a nice overview of his field).

When he’s not being a teacher or a researcher, Jon returns to theater, although he personally enjoys directing more than acting. This semester he’s co-teaching a new course called Constructing and Performing the Self (the final deliverable, a fully-staged series of personal monologues written by students, will be April 20 and 21).

Back in 2011, FWOP had a free weekend at Babson’s Sorenson Theater where they weren’t planning on using the space, so they asked Jon if he wanted to direct something. He chose Our Town.

The play was written by Thornton Wilder in the 1930’s, set in the small, fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where everyone knows everyone. To Jon, Grover’s Corners was Olin. So he set out to direct the play with two goals in mind: to reflect our community (he got students, faculty (Mark Somerville!  Brian Storey!), staff (Sharon Breitbart!), and even faculty’s kids to act in the play); and to be an example at Olin of how out-of-the-box thinking can be applied to the performing arts.

At the beginning of the show, the audience was actually brought up onto the mostly-bare stage and they never returned to their seats.  They became the townspeople, wandering around the stage as a scene popped up here or there.

Jon will tell you what happened next:

“In the third act, the main character, Emily (played by Claire Barnes ‘15), has died and the action takes place in the town cemetery. We had the actors playing the dead walk out onto the stage with these white picture frames and lie down on the ground. That brought a chill to the audience; all of a sudden, you couldn’t just run around the stage because you don’t want to step on someone. So people sort of stood still and looked down the way you do in a cemetery.  

“And when the narrator of the play invites Emily to go back and visit her life, what happens in the play is she picks her tenth birthday. She goes back to her tenth birthday and she can only stand to be there for a few minutes because she realizes how little people appreciate all the details of their daily lives while they’re living.

“So the narrator takes her up out of her grave and walks to the upstage curtain, which I assume the audience thought was just the back wall of the theater, but in fact it opens to a very elaborate 1901 kitchen set. The Olin students built us a cast iron stove and there was Emily’s Mom (Kate Dramstad ‘13), in period dress with early morning stage lighting, cooking bacon, and you could hear it sizzling in the pan and you could smell it as soon as the theater curtains opened. She pours coffee that you can smell, and each of us in the audience has this experience that Emily is having. They’ve been in this imaginative space in their heads and all of a sudden, real smells and real sounds are hitting them, and it’s intense. So they’re having the experience Emily has and she can only stand it for a few minutes. Then the curtain closes and we’re back to the cemetery for the last thirty seconds of the play.”

The play was a wonderful community experience, one Jon would like to create again someday. But, for now, he plans to hold off anything big like Our Town until his kids get a little bit older and he has more time to devote to it (they’re 2 and 4, so sadly we may have to wait a while).

While we’re waiting, Jon thinks we could all benefit from working on our own personal narratives.  His field of research suggests that in adolescence we start to become the author of our own lives, rather than being a character in a story told by someone else (often our parents).  The first steps in self-authorship ask us to simply parse the flow of our lives into the key moments that make us who we are.  These “self-event connections” are the building blocks of Narrative Identity.  If you want to write it, great, but this is the kind of thinking we should all be doing as we start to live our own stories.

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