Robert Atkinson, Ph.D., is an internationally acknowledged authority in helping people tell their life stories. He is a pioneer in the development of the life story interview methodology and among the first to apply Joseph Campbell’s classic work on the mythological journey of the hero to contemporary personal mythmaking. His books in these areas, The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking (1995) and The Life Story Interview (1998), have been translated into Japanese, Italian, and Romanian and are widely used in personal growth and life review settings.
He is the author of nine books, including The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness (2017), called “…a must read by the widest of global audiences…” by Michael Bernard Beckwith, and Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story (2012), which was called “an exquisite exploration of the spiritual craft of soul-making” by Jean Houston. Of his memoir, Remembering 1969: Searching for the Eternal in Changing Times (2008), Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, said it was “profound, friendly, inspiring, and nostalgic… I loved it.” He also assisted Babatunde Olatunji with his autobiography, The Beat of My Drum (2005), of which Pete Seeger said, “It is good to have this book, with his words, to tell his story more completely.”
He received his B.A. in philosophy and American Studies from Southampton College of Long Island University, and an M.A. in American Folk Culture from SUNY, Cooperstown. Then his journeys took him to the Hudson River and a series of adventures, including: sailing on the maiden voyage of the Clearwater with Pete Seeger and his singing crew; attending the Woodstock music festival; living in a cabin in the woods near the Hudson River; visiting Arlo Guthrie at his farm in the Berkshires; having a synchronistic and fateful meeting with Joseph Campbell that became a mentoring relationship; being given a cell in a Franciscan monastery as a guest; and, returning to teach a course at Southampton College, all of which frame his memoir of that period, Remembering 1969.
Following the publication of his first book – Songs of the Open Road: The Poetry of Folk Rock and the Journey of the Hero (1974, out of print, but still around somewhere) – he completed his second master’s at the University of New Hampshire in Counseling, and his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in cross-cultural human development. He then did a post-doctoral research fellowship in adolescent development at the University of Chicago, which resulted in the publication of The Teenage World (1987), with his mentors.
He is professor emeritus of cross-cultural human development and religious studies at the University of Southern Maine, and director of Story Commons. At USM, he was the first Diversity Scholar in the College of Education and Human Development (2002-2004) and a co-founding faculty of the Russell Scholars Program and the Religious Studies minor. He has also taught a week long summer course sailing the Maine coast on a traditional schooner. In the fall of 2002, he was a faculty member on the Semester at Sea around the world voyage with 30 other faculty and 600 undergraduates. He has since sailed on Semester at Sea’s Enrichment Voyages a number of times as a workshop leader.
His other interests are photography (his gallery, where he enjoys sharing with others the beauty, mystery, and wonder of the world in which we live, can be seen here), sailing, biking, hiking, and traveling.
A year by year tapestry of interwoven opportunities and moments of truth…
- 1967 ~ Graduated from Southampton College, LIU; majored in philosophy and American Studies. 1st photograph, a seascape, published in East Hampton Star. Drove to Seattle in the summer to start a master’s program in Library Science at the University of Washington; dropped out after a month, drove back to NY.
- 1968 ~ Master’s degree in American Folk Culture, Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY; met Pete Seeger through a life story thesis on Harry Siemsen, a Catskill farmer/singer.
- 1969 ~ 1st article, a documentation of 5th generation Czechoslovakian glass-blowers, published in New York Folklore Quarterly. Invited by Pete Seeger to be part of the crew for the maiden voyage of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater; sailed with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Don McLean, Gordon Bok, and others as the only non-singing crew member; attended Woodstock. Pete Seeger’s mentoring, through his example and direct guidance, lead to a series of articles on the Clearwater in local magazines and Audubon. Received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to do an oral history research project for the Clearwater.
- 1970 ~ Met Arlo Guthrie and stayed at his farm in the Berkshires with Ramblin’ Jack and his family; returned many times. Lived as a guest in a Franciscan monastery for nine months. Met Joseph Campbell, who became a mentor and guide as well, after one of his Copper Union talks. Taught a course at Southampton College.
- 1971 ~ Taught on Oceanics, a prep school aboard a Norwegian square-rigger, sailing from Dakar, Senegal to Bergen, Norway. After the school year, hitched a ride and worked on a Norwegian cargo ship from Bergen to Kirkenes above the Arctic Circle in the land of the midnight sun. Returned to hometown, Riverhead, NY, to write. Started a community free school, Centerville Conservatory.
- 1972-1979 ~ Continued to write and hold a variety of jobs in NY, VT, SC, and NH.
- 1974 ~ 1st book published, Songs of the Open Road: The Poetry of Folk-Rock and the Journey of the Hero. Lived for a month in the village of Sete Cidades, San Miguel, Azores.
- 1981 ~ Master’s degree in Counseling, University of New Hampshire; taught undergraduate human development course.
- 1982 ~ Attended Harvard Graduate School of Education; Teaching Fellow in Harvard University undergraduate Folklore and Mythology program.
- 1985 ~ Ph.D. in Cross-Cultural Human Development, University of Pennsylvania; taught undergraduate course in human development.
- 1985-1987 ~ Post-Doctoral Clinical Research Fellow in adolescent development, University of Chicago; co-author of The Teenage World: Adolescents’ Self-Image in Ten Countries; taught in Continuing Education Department at the University of Chicago.
- 1987-2014 ~ Professor of Human Development and Religious Studies, University of Southern Maine.
- 1988-2014 ~ Founder and Director of Life Story Commons, University of Southern Maine; built an archive of over 300 life stories of people representing over 40 ethnicities.
- 1990 ~ Produced “Maine Lives on Stage,” a reading of life stories, with Portland Stage Company. Married Cynthia Deroche.
- 1993 ~ Produced the documentary video, Helen Nearing: Loving and Leaving the Good Life.
- 1994 ~ Recorded the life stories of sixteen National Heritage Fellows, recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as leading tradition-bearers of their communities, during a sabbatical leave.
- 1995 ~ Published The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking; among the first to adapt Joseph Campbell’s timeless pattern of the monomyth to contemporary personal mythmaking. Translated into Japanese. Taught a summer course on board a schooner sailing the Maine coast.
- 1996 ~ Co-authored with Patricia Locke, a MacArthur Fellow and Lakota elder and educator, an article on the Lakota view of the child, “Children as Sacred Beings.”
- 1998 ~ Published The Life Story Interview, which has become the international standard methodology for life story interviewing; translated into Italian and Romanian. Produced the documentary video, Gabriel Women: Passamaquoddy Basketmakers.
- 1999-2001 ~ Affiliate Professor, Psychology Department, Landegg International University, Wienacht, Switzerland.
- 2000 ~ Presented “Mystic Knowing in Four Sacred Traditions” at the First International Conference on Modern Religions at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
- 2001 ~ Produced “Calling Maine Home – Life Stories of Three Maine Elders,” a stage reading at the Center for Cultural Exchange. Published the article “Culture and the Evolution of Consciousness” in The Baha’i World.
- 2002 ~ Sailed around the world as a faculty member on the fall voyage of Semester at Sea, visiting ten countries: Canada, Japan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, and Cuba. Returned to photography.
- 2002-04 ~ 1st Diversity Scholar, College of Education and Human Development, USM.
- 2005 ~ Co-authored with Babatunde Olatunji his autobiography, The Beat of My Drum.
- 2006 ~ Produced the documentary video, Starting Over: Understanding and Supporting Refugee and Immigrant Experiences.
- 2008 ~ Published Remembering 1969: Searching for the Eternal in Changing Times, a memoir.
- 2009 ~ Co-authored with David Carey, Latino Voices in New England.
- 2010 ~ Led a workshop series on life storytelling and memoir writing on the Semester at Sea Enrichment Voyage to Central America.
- 2012 ~ Published Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story. Led a workshop series on life storytelling and memoir writing on the Semester at Sea Enrichment Voyage to Central and South America.
- 2014 ~ Founded StoryCommons, where life stories are recorded locally and shared globally.
- 2015 ~ Presented on the evolution of justice at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City.
- 2017 ~ Published The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness.