Nick Wood – March 2007

Just a snippet of a dream to share since last time - 'losing' my youngest daughter while busy running around dealing with demands from a variety of people - to which I woke abruptly with a shock and some relief it was 'only a dream'. This was obviously a message reinforcing the need to finding a better work-life balance, which I've since been managing more firmly – and I am relieved to report I have not lost anything or anyone, so personal or important, in subsequent dreams.

So I've been reflecting a bit on how these meaningful narratives or stories emerge or are constructed - both in dreams where they tend to be more fractured, opaque and surreal - and in conscious existence, whereby we tend to story our lives as if we were central characters - often with varying degrees of felt control in the situations we find ourselves. There is some suggestion we create stories around ourselves to develop a sense of consistent agency and identity; perhaps functional for survival in a potentially chaotic and demanding world. Certainly the early history of stories and myths appears to partly be an attempt to make sense of human community and experience within the wider setting of the cosmos.

One approach which has been developed clinically, that harnesses the human drive to create stories, is narrative therapy. This has been formulated with a view to helping people look at the stories that shape and influence their lives. Michael White in Payne (2000) mentions Jerome Bruner's summary of the elements of stories, whereby he suggests there are two simultaneous 'landscapes' within which a story unfolds. Firstly, 'landscapes' of action and agency; where intentions and behavioural events and the contextual situations they are manifest in are central. Secondly, 'landscapes of consciousness' where there are varying degrees of knowing, thinking or feeling. Bruner thus suggests the 'timeless underlying theme' of a story's 'fabula' (or plot) comprises a 'plight into which characters have fallen as a result of intentions that have gone awry…what one seeks in story structure is precisely how plight, character and consciousness are integrated.'

Thus narrative therapy provides a means for understanding the stories people bring into therapy - the interactions of actions (events) and 'consciousness' (feelings, thoughts and beliefs) that have produced a sense of life going awry - the 'plight' of the person. The essential components are thus (1) 'external' events and (2) 'inner' experience, both set in (3) temporal sequence and (4) producing confusion or distress. People in chronic distress tend to have a dominant story, with a negative pay-off in terms of inner feelings and external events - a classic example being a depressed person anticipating rejection and either avoiding contact, being oversensitive to 'evidence' suggesting rejection, or even precipitating rejection via their own unwitting and often 'unconscious' poor action or inaction. This in turn 'confirms' the negative storyline and further entrenches the story as an absolute one, reflecting Freud's notion of the 'compulsion to repeat'.

So the therapy component becomes a process of collaborative 're-authoring' of stories to develop 'alternative landscapes of action and consciousness', i.e. to develop new – perhaps hitherto dormant - personal stories, with (hopefully) different and more adaptive personal consequences. This also often helps people to 'externalise' difficulties as a problem with self-limiting and dysfunctional stories, rather than seeing them as intrinsically part of their character.

There appears to be an almost universal drive to tell stories too, reflected particularly in people who have been abused or subject to trauma. Part of the healing process can be a retelling of the traumatic story to another human individual – issues of guilt, anger and culpability are reframed in an often altered story, which validates the person and normalises their traumatised responses to an abnormal situation.

These issues of stories around trauma can also take place on a larger, sometimes national scale. The granting of amnesty to enforcers of the apartheid regime, many of whom had committed multiple murders and torture, was a highly contentious move by the first democratically elected government in South Africa in the 1990's. This was an initiative by the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) led-government, in the interests of national reconciliation and healing, and provided the basis for the creation of the 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' (TRC). The TRC was a formal forum for many difficult stories of abuse and trauma. (These are captured to some extent by Antjie Krog in her book 'Country of my Skull'.)

An interesting project in Aotearoa New Zealand which develops narrative approaches within the wider socio-political context and which also aims to utilise indigenous knowledge (e.g. Maori and Pacific Island), is the Just Therapy approach – as developed by Charles Waldegrave; Kiwi Tamasese; Flora Tuhaka and Wairi Campbell (2003).

Narrative group approaches have been developed too – an idiosyncratic variation on this theme has been developed by Ron Phillips in Auckland. Ron has written a classic journey-quest sequence of stories - Gem of the First Water - under the rubric of Therapeutic Story Intervention (T.S.I.) - TSI follows a protagonist dealing with a variety of developmental conflicts and eventful challenges, which progresses the main protagonist from an initial state of anger, disaffection and isolation, towards becoming more goal-oriented, empathic and positively involved socially at the end. I have participated in and observed these groups and have seen how this story has unwittingly engaged defensive adolescents via a process of vicarious identification and parallel processing of their own issues and events, leading to altered and more positively experienced lives at the end.

The works of narrative therapy works are a testament to the power of stories and perhaps one reason why they are both so ancient and so enduring - they help us make sense of our place in the cosmos and can also shape our current experiences and approach to life. So what story do you have about your life - is there a dominant one or are there perhaps several (possibly competing) ones that emerge in different contexts or when different feelings or experiences are more evident? As a teenager, I had an adolescent gloomy angst ridden one, about why try anything when the world would inevitably be burnt to a cinder when the sun goes nova? (I was fortunate enough to grow up within a family where there was sufficient love and resources to enable thinking about wider stories at all, and eventually political ones too.)

Now, I am more optimistic about the 'story arc' of my own life – but I'm acutely aware there are many global shaping stories which need to be faced up to and positively engaged with, in whatever small measure one can – e.g. global warming, issues around war and ethnicity, religion and culture. One potentially powerful way of participating, of course, is through the creation of yet more stories of hope and healing…

And I hope to comment next time on some of those I have been reading too - from stories within Farah Mendlesohn's Glorifying Terrorism to Michael Cope's Spiral of Fire. Hopefully I will have some stories to share from Cape Town, South Africa too, perhaps from Oscar Mpetha High again.

To stories…

Payne, M (2000) Narrative Therapy. London: Sage Publications.

Waldegrave, C., Tamasese, K., Tukaha, F., & Campbell, W. (2003) Just Therapy - a journey. Adelaide, S.A.: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Nick Wood – March 2007.