Stealing Stories

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Kris W. “Wall of Distraction” Photograph on canvas. 2011—Youth in Focus/ On display at the UW School of Social Work, Seattle

The commodification and co-optation of stories—of individuals and communities—is something I have been thinking about lately at both a personal and professional level. Personal, as I reflect on the various critiques of my medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, 2016). And professional, as I walk through the medical center where I work and notice the larger-than-life patient testimonials (read: advertisements) for the medical care they have received—and read the various gut-wrenching personal stories of people who will be adversely affected by the current Republican-led efforts to “reform” our healthcare system.

In addition, I am thinking about this issue as I finish final writing and editing of my next book manuscript, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins. The following is an excerpt from the chapter/essay “The Body Remembers”:

“Telling the story of trauma—of survival—may have the capacity for at least aiding in healing at the individual level, but then there is the added danger, once shared, of it being appropriated and misused by more powerful political or fundraising causes. Stories can be stolen. Arthur Frank calls these hijacked narratives. “Telling one’s own story is good, but it is never inherently good, and the story is never entirely one’s own.”

An intriguing example of a stolen story is the one included in Rebecca Skloot’s narrative nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells the story of the “stolen” cervical cancer cells from an impoverished and poorly educated black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s—cells that scientists at Johns Hopkins University Hospital subsequently profited from through the culturing and selling of HeLa cells—cells which killed Henrietta Lacks and cells which neither she nor her family members consented to being used and profited from. Skloot, a highly educated white woman, has profited from the use of the Lacks’ family story, although she has set up a scholarship fund for the Lacks’ family members. I am reminded of the proverb that Vanessa Northington Gamble shares in her moving essay, “Subcutaneous Scars,” about her experience of racism as a black physician. Dr. Gamble’s grandmother, a poor black woman in Philadelphia, used to admonish her, “The three most important things that you own in this world are your name, your word, and your story. Be careful who you tell your story to.”  (From “Subcutaneous Scars” Narrative Matters, Health Affairs, 2000, 19(1):164-169.)

  • See also my previous blog post “The Commodification and Co-optation of Patient Narratives” from February 11, 2011. Re-reading this blog post, I remembered that it was deemed too controversial and critical by a university librarian to include on our narrative medicine university-sponsored blog site (now inactive—the library blog, not the librarian).

Homeless Feet Come Full Circle

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Josephine Ensign/ foot care at Cross-Over Clinic, Fall 1986, from Freedom House brochure.

“I did a lot of foot care at the clinic… Of course, it had its Biblical roots, but there was something about foot washing that most people found comforting and even pampering…I knew that having your feet cared for could somehow make you feel better all over…Almost all the homeless patients I saw had foot problems. They had to walk around town to get to different agencies, meal sites, and day-labor pools. They walked in the rain and the snow and the heat, usually in ill-fitting, secondhand shoes with dirty, holey socks, and carrying heavy backpacks.”~ from my book Catching Homelessness: A Nurses Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, pp 86-87.

In this excerpt, I was referring to homeless patients I cared for when I worked as a nurse practitioner at the CrossOver Clinic in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the mid to late 1980s—over thirty years ago. But I could be (and indeed, am now) writing about currently homeless people and foot care here in my adopted hometown of Seattle, Washington.

There is this brief part of a haibun (prose mixed with haiku) reflection I wrote after helping with a foot clinic at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter in the University District near where I work: “Tonight in the homeless shelter a 19-year-old man from Georgia says, ‘My momma always told me not to go barefoot and I didn’t listen. That’s why my feets so bad. And I have to walk everywhere on them now.’ He reaches down and gently rubs his brown gnarled feet soaking in a white plastic basin. His feet are darkly scarred and calloused: the feet of an old man.

walking barefoot/we find our way/though cruel paths scar”

(From Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, in the haibun/chapter titled “Where the Homeless Go”).

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And there is this description of a foot care clinic I helped with at Mary’s Place, a downtown Seattle women and children’s homeless drop-in center: “The most delightful—and tender—foot clinic patient we had that morning was the petite three-year-old daughter of a young North African immigrant mother. The child pushed around a pink plastic toy shopping cart from the shelter’s playroom, and she wore a dress, bright striped tights, black Mary Janes, and a huge pink feather boa around her neck. She came and sat on a metal folding chair while one of the students washed her mother’s feet. The little girl wanted her own feet to be given the same attention, so her mother removed her shoes and tights. Baby toes! So cute!… I wanted to scoop her up and protect her from the traumas, the abuses of the world. But, of course, I knew I couldn’t do that. It made me sad to watch her toes curl up in delight as she splashed her feet in the basin of soapy water.”

(From Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, in a chapter titled “Walk in My Shoes.”

IMG_0678And finally there is this King5 TV news report on the University of Washington School of Nursing foot clinic I helped with a few days ago (“UW Nursing Students Host Tent City Welcome Party” by Heather Graf, January 13, 2017). Rusty, the homeless resident of nearby Tent City 3 (currently on the UW campus), told the nursing student working with him that he had never felt so pampered. Small things go a long way. They always have and always will.

On (Not) Letting Go

imageHaving read, and liked, Jonathan Kozol’s previous books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, I looked forward to reading his recent medical memoir The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father One Day at a Time (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).

While there were parts of the book that I appreciated, including Kozol’s candidness about the relative loneliness of his life and his reasons for wanting to extend his father’s life as long as possible even after Alzheimer’s disease had ravaged his father’s mind and body, overall the book was frustrating to read. It felt as if it had been written in a hurry and not edited carefully. For instance, there were frequent awkward and overly long (as in six to seven lines in length) sentences that detracted from the story. And I really did not care at all about the long sections of the book pertaining to Eugene O’Neill and his family and personal dramas. It felt more than unethical for Kozol to have mined his psychiatrist father’s notes pertaining to his patients, including O’Neill.

Kozol comes across in this book as an overly-privileged and entitled man who blames all of his father’s doctors for under and mis-treatment of his father’s health conditions. He does on occasion show some self-insight, as in this passage: “At some level, I think I was aware that selfish motivations of my own might very likely be at stake in the decisions I was making. …As nonresponsive as he often was, and physically enfeebled as he had becomes, I could not escape the crazy thought that I still needed him.” p. 151. That part of the book, a look inside the decision-making process for a family member such as Kozol who defies medical advice and staunchly fights for his father’s life to be medically extended as long as possible, made it a worthwhile read. That is a mindset that I do not understand, both as a medical provider and as a family member. Having read this book, I do have greater insight and compassion for people who hang on to their loved one’s lives far past what would appear to be prudent.

My Homeless Shadow

IMG_1542“Most of us live homeless, in the neighborhood of our true selves.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen

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A few years ago, while working with Public Health– Seattle & King County on a medical respite project for homeless youth, my own homeless shadow resurfaced. I was in downtown Seattle at the YWCA women’s shelter, waiting inside the front lobby for the rest of our group to arrive. We were scheduled to have a tour of the facility to see how they ran their medical respite program. I’d taken the city bus and had purposefully dressed down in jeans, a sweater, and a raincoat. It was late afternoon, raining out- side, and I saw soliciting, pimping, prostituting, and drug dealing happening on the sidewalk in front of the shelter. The members of my medical respite group were buzzed in the front door. At the same time, a homeless woman resident walked up to me and asked, “Did you stay at a hotel last night on Aurora instead of here again?” Aurora Avenue is one of Seattle’s main prostitution areas. I looked up at her in alarm. “I’m sorry. You must have me mixed up with someone else. I’m not staying here, I’m just visiting.”

The people in my group overheard this interchange. Later, they teased me about it, saying how preposterous it was. I was a university professor, for God’s sake! There was no way I could be homeless, much less a homeless prostitute. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my cover had been blown, that I’d been found out, that my homeless shadow was showing. You were homeless—why? What was wrong with you? Those are the questions people ask me—or want to ask me—whenever they discover I was homeless. Coming out of the closet about my own homelessness was never an option for me. It could derail my career, hurt my family, and marginalize me even more. It was largely why I had moved across the country to Seattle, to escape the memories of having been homeless in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. But standing there in the YWCA shelter, I recognized the irony—and the hypocrisy—embedded in my reaction to the woman’s question. Here I was an outspoken advocate for people who were homeless, while secretly judging them, and by extension, judging myself.

Homelessness is exhausting and soul sucking. Homelessness has marked me. Like the star-shaped surgery scars on my belly, the body harbors secrets. Homelessness is a type of deep illness, a term coined by sociologist Arthur Frank for an illness that leaves you feeling dislocated, an illness that casts a shadow over your life. That shadow never completely goes away. At some point it was time to acknowledge my homeless shadow, time to remember.

Note: This is an excerpt from my recently published medical memoir, Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: SheWrites Press, August 9, 2016).

Past Forgiveness: Part 1

DSC02140The following is an excerpt from my book manuscript titled Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (under review). I’m sharing it here—and now—because I know of at least one young woman out there in the world who probably needs to hear these words. I’ll post a a “Part II” soon.

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In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag writes of the meaning of images depicting tragedies and traumas. Towards the end of the book she contends, “There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”

But I wonder if reconciling, if forgiving, is always predicated on forgetting. And, is forgiving always a good thing?

As I began writing this essay, a young white supremacist shot and killed nine black people during a prayer service in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The day after this hate crime atrocity, the relatives of those murdered came together and gave a public declaration in which they called on the shooter to confess his crime and repent. He was not admitting to any wrongdoing or crime, yet they forgave him for murdering their loved ones. They said that they called on their deeply held Christian convictions to guide them in this matter.

Was their quick and very public forgiveness a form of Christian witnessing, a rebuke to the Devil, to evil in the world? Or was it something else? I realize I am treading on difficult ground here, that being within my white privilege I can never know what the family members of those victims experienced. Of course, there is something admirable and noble in turning anger and vengeance into love and forgiveness. But then that becomes the standard and what if there are relatives of victims who can’t or do not want to forgive the white supremacist murderer?

Forgiveness is a peculiarly Christian thing to do.  Having been raised within an exclusively Christian worldview—with its turn the other cheek, forgive a person seventy times seven, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors—I hadn’t realized that other major world religions like Judaism have different views on forgiveness. In Judaism, forgiveness can only be granted by the aggrieved person, and only after the perpetrator has asked for forgiveness and has made both atonement and restitution.

Forgiveness is also a peculiarly female thing to do; it is emphasized in traditional gender roles in Eastern and Western societies. Women are conditioned to be the family and community peacemakers, and forgiving is viewed as an essential part of that role. People who forgive are supposed to “soften their hearts,” release their anger and sense of revenge in nonviolent, nonliteral ways.

Robert Enright, a Catholic psychologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, has developed a 60-item Forgiveness Inventory to measure forgiveness, and an 8-step program leading to forgiveness. He has been dubbed “Dr. Forgiveness.” Through his research, he contends that people who forgive lead healthier and longer lives than those who “stay stuck” or “hold on to” resentment and a lack of forgiveness. He advocates the use of the “two chair technique” in counseling someone to forgive. The person sits in one chair facing an empty chair representing the person who wronged them. They tell that person—that chair—how they feel. Then they sit in the second chair, try to see things from the other person’s perspective, and talk things through with the imaginary person until they achieve forgiveness.

There is even an International Forgiveness Day, the first Sunday of August, established by the World Wide Forgiveness Alliance. (It has been changed to October 7th for 2016 for some reason.) The 2015 Forgiveness Day was on August 2nd, and at 2pm on that day people were called “to take two minutes to forgive someone and join over 2 million people in the Wave of Forgiveness.” On their website, they featured photographs and testimonials of the 2015 Heroes and Champions of Forgiveness. Most were women and it seems that most were women of color, a fact I find ironic given the power dynamics inherent in forgiveness.  I took the online 33-item Forgiveness Quiz with questions such as “Forgiveness is a sign of weakness,” and “I believe that revenge is devilish and forgiveness is saintly”—an echo of Alexander Pope’s famous line of poetry “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Most of my answers to the quiz questions using their Likert scale were neutral because my real answers to these questions were “it depends.” Nevertheless, my composite score told me I tend towards being a more forgiving person. Even though I think it is a rather silly and oversimplified test—and I question our society’s insistence on forgiveness, especially gendered forgiveness—I find my test result to be comforting. I also find that comfort disquieting.

Who Will Tell the Story?

DSC00528“My hometown of Richmond, Virginia is a city anchored to its past by bronze and marble Confederate shrines of memory, by an undying devotion to the cult of the Lost Cause. I was born and raised in the furrowed, relic-strewn Civil War battle fields on the city’s tattered eastern edge. A captive of its public schools, I was taught official Virginia history from textbooks approved by the First Families of Virginia. But I came to understand the shadowed history of my state by caring for its outcasts.

These lessons began while I was in nursing school. The modern hospital of the Medical College of Virginia curled around the former White House of the Confederacy like a lover. My clinical rotations were nearby in the crumbling brick former colored-only hospital, which then housed indigent and homeless patients, as well as prisoners. Most of these patients were black, so I called it the almost-colored-only hospital. The prisoners, shackled to their beds and accompanied by brown-clad guards, were from the State Penitentiary, located across town. One of my patients was a death-row inmate. When I spoon-fed him his medications, I was simultaneously afraid for my own safety and ashamed of being an accomplice to murder. I knew I was nursing him back to health only to return him to be killed by the state. I wanted to talk to him, ask about his family, about his life in and outside of prison, but the stone-faced armed guard loomed over me. I knew from experience not to discuss my ambivalent feelings with my  nursing instructor. She considered these to be inappropriate topics. I wanted to finish nursing school as fast as I could, so I kept silent.” (pp. 57-58, from my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net, Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016.)

I was reminded of this passage from my book this past week as I read the NYT article “Who Will Tell the Story of Slavery?” (Lorne Manly, June 29, 2016). Manly describes the (sadly to me, oh so familiar) political dueling going on in my hometown of Richmond over the location of the National Slavery Museum. Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder (our nation’s first elected African-American governor, who was more recently also the Mayor of Richmond (2005-9), wants to establish the museum in the former First African Church (now owned by the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University and located next to the main hospital I describe above). But the current powers-that-be, including the current Mayor Dwight C. Jones, want to locate such a museum at the historic site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, a former slave prison, dubbed ‘The Devil’s Half-acre,’ the site of which was recently located and excavated. (see the Smithsonian Magazine article “Digging Up the Past at a Richmond Jail,” by Abigail Tucker, March 2009.)

The Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, where I’ll be doing a Catching Homelessness author event (Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.), is located a few blocks from the site of the former slave prison in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond. Perhaps I’ll include a reading of this section of my book. And not keep silent anymore…

The Pebble in My Shoe

IMG_1805“I write about what most fascinates me right now,” said John McPhee, by way of Robert Michael Pyle, both amazing trail-blazers, or perhaps trackers, of that strange beast that is creative nonfiction. McPhee has written books on subjects such as oranges, the island of his Scottish ancestors, family doctors, college basketball players, the shad as Founding Father fish, and the history of the birch-bark canoe (my personal favorite). Pyle, who is also a biologist, a lepidopterist (butterfly expert), and founder of the Xerces Society for invertebrate ecology (saving our butterflies and bees), has written about butterflies and trees and Big Foot and life. My favorite contemporary female trackers of, or perhaps more fittingly, expanders of the boundaries of creative nonfiction are Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) by Williams and A Book of Migrations (London: Verso, 211) by Solnit remain two of my all-time favorite books.

Each of these great writers of creative nonfiction sweep us along on explorations of their own current fascinations, obsessions, questions–the pebbles in their shoes, as one of my writing mentors, Stephanie Kallos puts it so aptly. What is it that you carry with you, that at each step insistently reminds you of its existence? The pebble of obsession doesn’t have to be a large rock-sized, inscribed with the muse-whisperer one as shown in the photo here (my historian son made that for me a few years ago–coolest present ever!). But is should be of sufficient significance to be likely to matter to other people besides yourself.

My pebble, my obsession, is and has been for many decades now, the wicked problem of homelessness. I call it a wicked problem, not so much because it is evil or immoral (which I happen to think it is), but because it is so vastly complex a problem that it defies easy solution. Hence, all the well-meaning but expensive and time-consuming ’10 Year Plans to End Homelessness’ implemented (much more than 10 years ago now) in so many U.S. cities, and that largely failed. The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. (Read their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169.)

Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)

But who would we be, as individuals, as a society, if we didn’t even try? That is the core question, the obsession, the pebble in my shoe.