A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in a University of Washington Health Sciences fall kick-off event focusing on homelessness and health. This is, of course, where I work, and I was being asked specifically because they chose my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness, as the Health Sciences Common Book for Academic Year 2016/17. That is both an honor and a responsibility that I take seriously. So when they asked me to do a reading from my book for the event, I agreed. Then, the event organizer asked me to read a section of my book specific to the lived experience of homelessness. I decided to read a few passages from the pivotal chapter titled “Catching Homelessness,” about the time I had spiraled into a deep, dark depression that almost took my life. “Okay, sure, I can do this,” I thought to myself as I prepared for the talk.
It is one thing to write about some of one’s rawest, excruciating, and stigmatizing life events. It’s another thing to share that writing in a book that is published and read by people, including by many of my students and colleagues. But—as I discovered—it is altogether a thing in a different league to read passages about those events out loud in a crowded university auditorium.
I managed to make it through my reading without falling apart, but the next morning I wrote in my journal: “It went okay, but was a bit odd. Almost like I was some sort of display of homelessness trotted out for the students like a case study patient in medical Grand Rounds. It was really strange to just dive headfirst into the book—rip my chest open—read a few passages from when I was hitting bottom, lying on an old cot in a storage shed.”
It felt unkind to myself and unethical when I reflected on it later. Even though I tried to give my reading some semblance of a context, it ended up just feeling as if I had done a flashing freak show. Lesson learned: trust my instincts and my professional training as a writer and not be persuaded to read anything that emotionally raw.
But it also made me reflect on why as a society we seem to demand that sort of voyeuristic display. And it drew me back to a review of some of my favorite ethical guidelines on storytelling, such as these for digital storytelling on the Story Center website under “Ethical Practice in Digital Storytelling.” And here is an excellent overview by Kelsen Caldwell (formerly in the University of Washington School of Medicine, Health Sciences Service Learning and Advocacy group) of ethical considerations of storytelling in health advocacy work with communities: “The Ethics of Storytelling.”
I thought through some of these complex ethical and personal issues about the process of sharing my personal story of homelessness this past summer when I made my “Homeless Professor” digital storytelling video. It utilizes an excerpt/adaptation from Catching Homelessness and is linked here. And here is one of my favorite DS videos about homelessness by Wayne Richard: “Sofas.”
In addition to the DS videos linked above, here is a list of what I consider to be positive uses of narrative advocacy on health and homelessness—and yes, I am certainly biased in favor of the positive attributes of the first three:
- Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net
- Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins
- Skid Road: The Intersection of Health and Homelessness
- Facing Homelessness
- National Health Care for the Homeless Council’s “Health Care for the Homeless Stories” series