I’m sitting on a couch in a residential treatment facility, and I’ve just told a five minute story called “Why Man is Strong and Woman is Powerful.” It’s funny but stark. Man and Woman start out as equals, the story goes, but Man sneaks up to Creator and gets extra strength so he can make Woman obey him. In turn, Woman goes to Creator and gets keys that lock up the kitchen, bedroom, and children’s rooms, so she can have power over Man. After I finish telling the story, the women in the room chuckle knowingly.
“That’s just the way it is,” one woman says. “No woman can beat a man in a fight.”
“It’s not fair,” another one says, “but that’s the way it is. You have to trick men into doing what you want.”
All of a sudden, everyone starts talking. At first it is a venting session about men. I let the talk flow; they are warming up. The sharing is tangibly bringing them closer. They are looking at each other, nodding. All six women in this recovery program have a history of domestic violence. Acknowledging that history is key to their recovery. Sharing snippets from their secret pasts will help cohere the group and create an intimacy that will sustain the women on their individual journeys.
But I didn’t tell this story as a way of discussing domestic violence. I told this story as a way to explore unhealthy patterns in relationships. After about 5 minutes of free-flowing conversation, I say, “We’ve been talking about men’s physical strength. What about the image of women holding the keys? What’s that all about?”
Now there is a bit of awkward silence. I let it go on for a bit, then return to the images in the story as a way of entering into a difficult topic. “She gets the keys to the kitchen, the bedroom and the kids’ rooms. What do you suppose she does with those?”
“She locks him out.”
“Yeah. It’s her way to get back at him.”
“It’s her only chance to survive.”
“Hmm,” I say. “How would you describe that kind of relationship?”
“Screwed,” one of them says, and they all laugh.
“Power games,” another one says.
“Co-dependent,” another one says. I’ll call her L. She’s been in the program for six months, soaking up information and making changes in her life.
“Say more about that,” I encourage.
“Well, she’s using everything she can to keep him in line. Using sex and the kids. He’s pissed off but sticks around. He needs something from her—maybe it’s the kids. She needs something from him too. Maybe she feels like shit without a man. She thinks she’s ugly. Fat. She’ll never get another guy. So she sticks around too, and it makes her feel worse and worse. She hates herself.”
Every woman in the room is paying keen attention. L is surfacing shared issues. Painful, dark, and hidden memories are being safely evoked in the context of the story and L’s personal articulation of the dynamics of co-dependency. I feel the vulnerability in the room and the need to offer reassurance about the safety of the group. “Thanks for that really helpful sharing,” I say. “Now I’d like to invite you all to take some private journaling time to reflect on what the story brought up for you in your own life, and then we’re going to be working with the last part of the story, where Man and Woman find balance. After that, we’ll do a talking circle on the whole session.”
L is a leader in the group, and her continuing growth in dealing with her past while also looking towards a healthier future has made her a powerful model and inspiration. We have all learned a great deal from her sharing. One of the great strengths of healing story work in groups is that it inspires deep listening. Listening and speaking are intimately connected. Once we feel someone is listening, we feel emboldened. If someone is really listening, we can speak from our hearts; we find our voice; we say our truth. And deep listening happens in story circles. We begin to listen with check in. Then our attention deepens as we listen to the story. Stories are inherently interesting. When we listen to a story, we drop our personal preoccupations and simply attend to the narrative, which creates inner opening and spaciousness. After the story is over, that inner availability persists and allows us to listen deeply to ourselves and to each other.
In this deeply attentive atmosphere, the group develops its own momentum for change. Collective wisdom is harvested. As the storyteller/facilitator, I provide a story that opens up a field of possibilities, and I also guide the conversation and activities along a focused direction. But the learning, insights, and transformation come primarily from private reflection followed by conversation and sharing. The learning comes from the group itself and is the result of their life experiences. This is healing in and of itself. By articulating and sharing personal experiences the rough straw of life is spun into gold.
The Power of Metaphor
After I had been doing healing story work for quite a few years, I came upon Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards An Undivided Life. Chapter Six of this wonderful book is called The Truth Told Slant. In it, Palmer explores the power of metaphor and the use of stories and other forms that allow us to explore a topic indirectly, creating a sense of safety while trust develops.
We achieve intentionality in a circle of trust by focusing on an important topic. We achieve indirection by exploring that topic metaphorically, via a poem, a story, a piece of music or a work of art that embodies it. I call these embodiments “third things” because they represent neither the voice of the facilitator nor the voice of a participant. They have voices of their own, voices that tell the truth about a topic but, in the manner of metaphors, tell it on the slant. Mediated by a third thing, truth can emerge from, and return to, our awareness at whatever pace and depth we are able to handle—sometimes inwardly in silence, sometimes aloud in community—giving the shy soul the protective cover it needs.
Palmer’s insights capture my experience of healing story work in groups. The story provides metaphors that enable us to understand our lives in a more nuanced and holistic way. Metaphors allow us to access unrecognized parts of ourselves: both the fire-breathing dragons and the wise elders of our psyches. When I first starting doing healing story work, I assumed that group members would identify with the protagonists, the Cinderellas or Gawains. I soon learned that they also identify with the cruel stepmothers, wicked demons, or trickster figures. Much healing occurs when I present stories with variant endings. For example, in Vasilisa the Beautiful, one traditional ending has the stepmother and stepsisters burned to a crisp in their beds. A variant has Baba Yaga relentlessly scrutinizing the stepmother and stepsisters through the eyes of a fire-bearing skull until they reform. In groups I now present both endings and ask which ending they prefer. The discussion is enlightening. We talk about mercy as well as justice. We speak as the injured and as the injurer. Usually we recognize that we have played all the roles. We ponder the deep mystery of forgiveness.
Metaphors not only allow us to investigate our own psyches, they also create common ground with others. Imagine a group exploring Demeter’s grievous wandering after the loss of Persephone. As people make their own identifications with the story, one person might share that his grievous wandering resulted from depression; another might have wandered due to addiction; others might be grieving a loss of faith, a divorce, a chronic illness or unemployment. All of these seemingly disparate experiences can simultaneously be understood as unique to that person while also being a shared human experience. Stories thus help us gather up the shards of our lives and to become more integrated as well as feeling connected to a larger context. Listening to stories and reflecting upon them in a group help creates a community of meaning. This felt sense of shared larger meaning alleviates isolation, shame, and trauma and provides a source of hope and resilience.
Personal Story Sharing
When I first became involved with storytelling, I was confused about the nature and purpose of story. I had a writing background, so I had many biases derived from writing. My academic background was in English, so I made assumptions based on literature. I had been exposed to great professional storytellers, so I had a sense of inadequacy coupled with high performance standards. Twenty-five years later, I have more clarity. I make a distinction between public storytelling and individual story sharing. While I still do some public storytelling, my heart lies in the deeply human and ordinary act of sharing our stories. When I tell stories to small groups, it is for the express purpose of evoking personal sharing. I believe that perhaps, to paraphrase Thoreau, “in story sharing lies the preservation of the world.”
Christina Baldwin has written a wonderful book, Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story. Her book addresses both written and oral stories and is focused on the enormous personal and cultural value of sharing stories from our lives. She describes storycatchers thus.
“Storycatchers are people who value story and who find ways in the midst of their everyday lives to honor this activity. They signal to the rest of us that something important is happening in the moment and invite us to notice and pay attention. Perhaps we’re at a party and someone starts to speak about what at first seems an ordinary anecdote but soon grows into something more important. A Storycatcher notices and says, ‘Come, sit down on the sofa. I want to really hear you.’.”
I love the idea of story catching. I practice it in the daily rounds of life—at coffee hour at church, standing on the sidelines of youth sports, waiting in the long line at the nursery. People will tell you the most amazing things. Recently I’ve heard about intrepid gardening in Alaska, life in the minor leagues, and deep-seated longings to be a nun.
But I also have been a bit more intentional about story catching and have created some groups for people to share their stories. My colleague Gail Catlin and I led a four week story sharing group for developmentally disabled adults. Every week we did some basic breathing and stretching exercises then offered a simple prompt: Tell us something about yourself that no one else in the room knows. Tell us about someone who is important to you. Tell us about a good time in your childhood. Describe a place you lived in. We simply went around the circle and let people share. We had an egg timer that we turned over so everyone would know when the 3 minute sharing time was over. There was great delight and animation from everyone. We scribed the answers and brought it back to them as a collective story at the last session.
I’ve also led several spiritual autobiography series where we gather to look at our lives through the lens of spiritual questions and experiences. Typically I set a focus for each session, such as loss and longing, wilderness wanderings, or annunciations and new beginnings. Often I use a poem or short wisdom story as a way into the session. After journaling or art time, the group shares personal stories evoked by the theme. We may share in dyads, followed by whole group sharing. One partner may summarize or present the other’s story to the whole group. When we share our stories, we come out of hiding. We feel witnessed, and both our greatness and our shadow can be claimed. Oddly, it is sometimes more difficult for people to share glorious, shining experiences than it is for them to reveal their wounds. One of the most important aspects of story circles is that they allow us to see our hidden beauty. In a culture that more often describes tragedy than celebrates life, sharing truthful personal stories of the good can inspire us to a larger perspective.
Imagination and Psyche
I’ve recently taken a short course in facilitating transformative arts processes. The course was led by Peter London, an inspiring artist and educator. There were nine participants: a musician, a sculptor, a fabric artist, several painters, a photographer, a collage artist and me. I was the only participant whose art form was language-based. I took the course because I wanted to extend my repertoire of skills, activities, and processes for group work. I wanted to learn from others who were using different media for healing and growth work. I wanted to hear more about the underlying principles and dynamics of transformation. One thing I learned, more deeply and clearly than ever, is the foundational power of story.
Each participant designed and presented a “creative encounter,” a transformative arts experience for the group. After each encounter, we de-briefed, examining the structure, content, and impact of the experience. The encounters were very diverse. We listened to popular music from different eras, noticing our personal reactions; we made felt and wrapped it around soap and explored inner and outer worlds; we assembled natural objects into assemblages that expressed our preferred way of being in the world, and so on. Each encounter was intriguing, revelatory, and powerful. And the culmination of each encounter was story sharing. This was intentional. Peter had shared with us his belief that transformation becomes more deeply rooted once it is spoken out loud, and our inner world is witnessed and thus strengthened. As he states in No More Secondhand Art: Awakening the Artist Within,
“ …we need to design our encounters so as to provide time for retreating from the world of others so that we may plumb our inner dimensions undisturbed by the world as it is. And then we must provide time for reentering the world, sharing our discoveries, and having these same discoveries affirmed by our companions.”
Healing work always seems to return to story. Identity, purpose and meaning stem from narrative. The personal story we tell ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, about who we are and what our place is in the world defines how we see ourselves and our options. The larger stories that shape our beliefs about life either reinforce our personal narratives or create dissonance that challenges our constructs. Discovering, exploring, and ultimately choosing the narratives we live by is transformative.
For my creative encounter, I told “How Night Came Into Being,” (http://healingstory.org/how-night-came-into-being/) which can be found on the Healing Story Alliance website. It’s a profound Hindu tale about loss, grief, and new beginnings. After I told the story, we were silent while people simply connected to whatever was arising in them. Then I invited the group to contemplatively consider the questions, “What is coming to an end in me? What is emerging?” Then participants went into an adjoining room where I had laid out hundreds of images. People intuitively selected images that spoke to their questions and then had a few minutes for journaling. After journaling, there was paired sharing, followed by work in the whole group.
After a short break, the group discussed the encounter. Over and over the group affirmed that the story created openings that were extraordinary. The story guided their individual imaginations and opened up new areas of inquiry while also creating tremendous freedom to explore in a non-dogmatic, non-linear, non-directed fashion. The story was described as creating “a mytho-poetic atmosphere” that brought people quickly into a deeper layer of their psyche, allowing access to previously hidden material. In its essence, story springs from the imagination and psyche. The imagination and psyche are mobile, ever-changing, and perhaps infinitely renewable. When as storytellers we offer a story, we are offering water from the well of eternal youth. When we drink of those waters, we are refreshed. We are made new.
This article is reprinted from Diving in the Moon, an online publication of the Healing Story Alliance.
© Joan Stockbridge, 2013