One of my favorite memories from my grandpa’s funeral is sitting around his kitchen with my cousins telling stories and jokes. That little kitchen filled up with people and laughter again, which my grandpa would have enjoyed. My grandpa was old and it was his time to go, but that act of storytelling helped to heal the wound of losing him.
I finished reading Tell Me a Story by Scott McClellan this week. It’s good stuff (you can read my review for more). Something Scott talks about in the book that I resonate with is the idea that telling stories can be healing.
I’m not a particularly good storyteller—that’s probably why I’m a writer. I like to edit and rework and figure out how best to tell a story. I work better in the written word than the spoken word. But I think part of what draws me to the word is telling stories. It’s self-indulgent, but one of the things I like to write is simply telling stories about my life. In some ways, I think that’s because there’s healing happening there. The telling of stories allows me to process, to figure things out, to think things through and find meaning or comfort or grace.
That’s probably why, in my moments of greatest distress, I turn to writing. I tell the story. Some of those stories aren’t meant to be told to anyone but myself, but still I tell them.
In adoption, I think this is why it’s important that we tell the stories. It’s easy to gloss over what could be uncomfortable details and avoid those stories. But by telling those adoption stories, we give voice to them, we shine a light on any “messy” details and we find a way to embrace them. A story gives us the narrative to do that. It gives us a voice and something to cling to when we’re confused or fearful.
Not Telling Stories
Not everybody finds stories to be therapeutic though. I think of my grandfather again. He never talked about his experience as a marine in the Pacific during World War II.
Right now I’m reading Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, a book I started right after Tell Me a Story, that has a relevant passage for this discussion (one of the benefits of reading lots of books). The author, Avi Steinberg, is talking about his grandmother in a sidebar that has nothing to do with libraries or prison, but a lot to do with story:
“I would have to beg her to tell me about her life in Poland,” my mother once told me. “She would begin to tell a story, but as soon as she mentioned anyone’s name, she would cut it off and say, ‘But what does it matter? Hitler killed all of them.’ Every story was like that.”
For my grandmother, who escaped Poland as the clouds gathered for the Nazi invasion, storytelling was something worse than painful. It was a simple impossibility. As far as she was concerned, there were no stories. Stories develop, move in some direction. Stories have endings, need endings. Tragedies have a final act that implicitly allows the storyteller and the listener to believe that even cruel death retain some value–namely, their worth as a story for the living.
“I am dead, Horatio,” says the tragic Hamlet. “Tell my story.”
My grandmother did not believe in this. For her, murder ended more than life. It ended the possibility of telling the life’s story. “He has my dying voice,” says Hamlet, “the rest is silence.” Even in life my grandmother didn’t have a voice, just silence.
Avi describes his grandmother as detached and unloving. Silence pervades her life to the point that she can’t even tell the stories of the greatest tragedy and escape in her life.
I think that’s a second tragedy.
Of course I’ve never had loved ones murdered, so what do I know?
Silence vs. Story
But I have experienced pain and anguish. And for me at least, I find comfort in telling the stories. Perhaps not always publicly to a crowd or on a blog, but at least going through the process of telling the story and letting the healing begin to do its work.
More than just for my own grace, storytelling allows our pain and tragedy to become a teacher for others. The holocaust teaches us of the importance of standing up to tyrants and protecting the minority, the dangers of scapegoating and stereotypes, and the depravity that exists in all of us. The firsthand horrors of war would have other lessons for us, if we only we had an opportunity to learn them. My own experience with adoption (both good and bad) offers lessons, when I’m ready and able to share them.
Silence can be dangerous. We’re certainly not comfortable with it, and we often fill that void with something, anything rather than the silence. That can often be fear.
Sometimes silence is good. Sometimes our trauma and pain may need silence. But other times I think silence is a way to hide, a way to continue avoiding the pain and a way to give into fear. Story can offer a way through.
It’s why the work of Mark Horvath on InvisiblePeople.tv is so powerful. He gives voice to the voiceless, inviting homeless people to share their stories. Through the simple act of listening and allowing them to tell their stories, Mark gives them dignity.