the healing power of stories

I’ve just uploaded the fourth talk from last October’s Story Symposium:

“The Healing Power of Stories” by Chuck Slocum

Here is the way Slocum sets up the discussion:

One of the things that began to weigh on my heart recently — not for any particular reason, but just in thinking — I began to become very aware that there were no doubt a lot of women in the audience for the film Juno who had made the opposite choice from Juno and had had abortions, and nonetheless were in the audience for that movie. There were some women no doubt who had made the same choice that Juno makes and had given up a child for adoption. No doubt there were other women who had raised the unanticipated child themselves. And I have not had the opportunity to sit down with any women in any of those categories and talk to them about the experiences of seeing that movie. No doubt, though, that it’s a very different experience than me watching that movie. No doubt it’s a very different experience for them from watching other movies themselves.

I’d be interested to know how that film interacted with their own personal experience… how the film mattered for them. Did it confirm their choice? Did it confront it? What was it like to have such an intimate aspect of their own life and such a difficult choice dealt with in this screen story and have to relate that to their own life? In some ways, you don’t even have to go to see a movie like that to have that confrontation happen, because it’s marketed so prominently that even the marketing of that film and the public discussion of that film brings up that confrontation with the experience of the individual.

Well, in some ways Juno is not a great example for this type of exploration because we don’t really know how it turns out. Juno, the movie, ends too early. We know that Juno expects to go back to her normal life, but we don’t really know how it turns out years later. We know that the adoptive mother is happy with her family of two, but we don’t really see what happens after that.

But it provoked for me this larger question of the way that stories affect each of us as we travel our own individual psychological journeys and then happen upon films or television programs that are relevant to wherever we’ve been traveling personally at a timely moment. If we’re at a vulnerable place, can a film contribute to our healing, and to the contrary, can it hurt?

Essayist Joan Didion writes that We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. We look for the sermon in the suicide, or for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices, and we live by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. Then she goes on to explain that this process broke down in her own life. She writes that she began to doubt the premises of all the stories that she had ever told herself. Indeed, she experienced a breakdown because the things that were happening in her life didn’t fit the stories that she had told herself to understand the world. This was all in the same year she was named Woman of the Year by the LA Times.

Professional therapists sometimes use similar language to that used by Didion. Patients who are seeking therapy routinely will share their perception of their own situation with a therapist, and this is almost uniformly shared in story form, quite naturally. Some therapists write letters to the patient summarizing their perspective on the situation, perhaps in a way that the patient hadn’t previously appreciated. Sometimes they’ll write a letter to the extended family, if it’s a family issue, describing the situation as the therapist sees it, or sometimes they’ll have the patient write the letter to the family. Sometimes the therapist will write a hypothetical story about an alternate future, a future that gets around the problematic behavior and where the patient copes with the problem, or they’ll have the patient write that letter about their own alternate future. The goal is to relate the problem to factors that the patient may not immediately see, and to provide the patient with plausible alternatives. Often the patients themselves are guided through creating those alternatives. The key is to have the patient recast themselves from victim to victor. In our language, the patient is writing a hypothetical third act for their own life.

Is that the same thing that Juno is doing for some of those audience members? Do all or most films have that same kind of potential? Does it have to be intentional? Do they have to be serious films? Can they be comedies? Can they be other kinds of movies?

You can listen to the entire presentation in any number of ways by visiting the Act One Story Symposium site here.

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