If you were holding my resume in your hands, you might knit your brows in perplexity at my apparent vocational 180, from the literary arts to clinical social work. I had to justify that even for an unpaid internship. But the fields aren’t really so different: both involve stories, and the language we use to tell them.
From creation myths (the Raven who steals the light; the “Vows” section in the New York Times) to a well-written obit, I’m easily moved when a narrative thread drops a plumb line through a person’s or a culture’s history.
Stories aren’t without their hazards, though. In a single day, we can tell ourselves dozens, often contradictory, tracking the vicissitudes of feelings and fortune. Yet we tend to privilege certain of those narratives above others, sometimes with disastrous results. Many suicides, for example, could be seen as failure narratives: My life will never get better than this.
The interaction between biology and story is too much for me to take on here and now, but suffice it to say our biological states predispose us in narrative directions.
In relationships, our dominant narratives tend to map out the roles that we play. Many kids who come to counseling have been marked within their families as The Problem, so long and so exclusively that they seem to stand no chance of being seen as anything else. While parents may legitimately worry about safety and trust, kids equally legitimately don’t want to have to drag past mistakes alongside them.
The work of counseling, then, is to open up the story, let it breathe, and help it gradually evolve. I believe that we all deserve to play more than one role in our lives, especially to be both nurturer and nurtured. In some settings—at work, for example, or among acquaintances—relatively simple and fixed roles may make sense. But too many of us in our private lives conduct our own personal Stanford Prison Experiment, becoming the (unhappy) parts we play.
My still-much-missed client Luz was, at age 8, a great storyteller. “Once upon a time…” was all I’d have to say, then I’d take dictation. This started in our first visit, when I was fired up to try a narrative technique I’d read about. Through a Spanish interpreter, I asked Luz and her mother to tell me a story with animals playing their parts. (Luz’s mother began to cry relating the story of a daddy wolf who got sick and couldn’t provide for his wife and their children. Fortunately, that story ended well.)
Shy and brief at first, like Luz herself, the stories over time became more complex, until near the end of our time Luz told me this one:
Once upon a time, there were two turtles, and one turtle was Mama and a girl turtle named Luz. Luz, she always played with her dolls. One day, Mama Turtle said, “I’m going to the store—you stay inside and don’t open the window or door!” Luz Turtle was not listening; she was playing with her dolls. Then someone knocked on the door. “Ding-dong!” It was a hawk! The turtle, Luz, she opened the door and said, “What do you want, Hawk?” The hawk said, “I’m here to ask for a turtle to eat.” Luz ran upstairs and locked the door. The hawk was angry and flew up and then down the chimney into the room. Then he said, “Open the door, or I’m going to eat you!” and the turtle said, “Not by my shell!” The hawk knocked on the door, and the turtle escaped from the room through the window. “Where is that turtle?!” said the hawk. The turtle ran and found a fox—a police fox! The police fox said, “What’s wrong? Why are you running?” Luz Turtle said, “A hawk is chasing me! He wants to eat me!” The police fox asked, “Where is he?” Luz Turtle said, “In my house, in my room!” The police fox went to the house to talk to the hawk. “Oh, Hawk, go away—find another turtle to eat!” The hawk said, “What are you going to do about it?!” “I’ll put you in jail if you eat this little turtle!” said the fox. “I’ll get you next time,” the hawk said to Luz. After that, Mama Turtle came home. “What’s going on? Why is everything open? I told you to leave the door shut!” Luz Turtle said, “I’m sorry, Mama. I wasn’t listening.” Then she told the story about the hawk.
Luz had come to counseling with generalized anxiety, much of it related to border-crossing, separations, and the INS. She couldn’t bear to see her parents drive away, even on short errands. By the time of this story, however, several months into counseling, Luz seemed to have conquered her anxiety. With decreasing worry and increasing confidence, she began to act out other roles of childhood—kicking up a fuss about going to bed, for example, when she wanted to watch TV with her older siblings. (Luz’s mom seemed to take this in stride, fondly stroking her daughter’s cheek. Would that all parents could retain such positive regard when discussing tantrums.)
I see in the story of the turtle in peril a meeting and mingling of two major themes, fear and disobedience, with an experience of protection and survival—however tentative that survival might seem, from the hawk’s parting shot. Privately, because I love foxes, I delighted in Luz Turtle’s unlikely hero. (Had I told her they were my favorites? I couldn’t remember!) Openly, Luz delighted in her own wit, her “Not by my shell!” a turtle’s version of “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin!”
Luz, walking with me down the hall in her winter boots and pompom hat. From her, I learned a new genre: the preservation myth.
*Real names are never used here, to protect client privacy. Luz’s story shared with permission.