A NEW MYTHOLOGY

 

Luz's winter coat

 

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.

THE END

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.

THE SMARTOVATOR

Fidget toys

 

“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.