Archive for March, 2014

posted by Amy on Mar 22

Human beings are story-tellers. Story telling is essential to how we make meaning, and how we pass on culture to subsequent generations. Listen carefully when someone is talking to you about an important event or person. You will hear stories. They won’t always be very interesting, believable, coherent, or uplifting, but when we describe our lives we do it in story form. There’s a setting, a mood, a genre. There are characters. There’s description.There’s some kind of conflict or tension. There’s action that rises. There’s some kind of crisis, reversal, conflict or other peak to the action. Then there’s “falling action” and a denouement, or resolution.

Identity is tied up in story too. In our early years we store up mental models of the world and of the kinds of relationships that are possible. These models are profoundly shaped by how well or how poorly our attachment to significant caregivers goes. The next phase involves collecting images. The next phase is forming ideology. And the final phase, which goes on for the rest of our lives, is narration. Unless we’ve gotten trapped into chaos or rigidity, the stories develop and change as we keep having experiences that validate or refute the original mental models.

If a person or family experiences trauma, narratives become “broken.” A traumatic event gets frozen or encapsulated. It remains unavailable to the part of the brain that integrates experience into a narrative whole, with coherence, plausibility, characters, a plot line, and underlying themes. Instead, it intrudes on the trauma survivor, taking the form of pre-verbal feelings and automatic “fight or flight” reactions. The way trauma is stored, in the body and/or the limbic system instead of in the frontal cortex, inhibits the normal meaning-making and narrative-constructing processes. Broken narratives don’t get reshaped or reworked. They are driven underground, where they indirectly and subconsciously fuel unhealthy behavior. People and family systems remain captive to the broken narratives, and they see no way out.

Neither side of my family had very good stories. A few meager anecdotes got told over and over again. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of something that could have been a founding myth or a cautionary tale, but it would be fragmentary–more like a bullet point than a tale of any sort. Occasionally little tidbits of data broke through the screen that usually obfuscated the past, but they would not be contained in story. I heard rumors about a great uncle, but without any context. An aunt tells of one odd punishment, and how she used her imagination to blunt the force of it. There’s very little else. My mom had three sisters. My dad had one surviving brother and a sister. (His older brother died in infancy, before he was born). I have no idea what kinds of things they and their siblings did as they were growing up. There are brief, sketchy details, characterizations of relationships, but no narration.

We had “no talk” rules about feelings or grievances, and particularly about alcoholism or addiction. Although some triangulation, and lots of gossip, took place, direct questions were discouraged. To this day I don’t know why my father failed to finish his college degree. He got to his fourth year and something happened. I don’t know what. My parents didn’t talk about their jobs or their adult friends. I don’t even know if they had friends. I know for awhile they were in a bowling league. And Mom sometimes sang in the choir at our church.

I am beginning to sort out my own story. I have always had an excellent memory, but there are blank spots. There are some things I can’t even consider thinking about or writing about without triggering a sense of dread. Considering how scary some of the things I do remember are, it makes me wonder what’s been suppressed.

Edited 5/4/2014 to add a missing preposition and correct a misstatement about my father’s siblings.






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