Stolen Stories

P1020721Telling the story of trauma—of survival—may have the capacity to at least aid in healing at the individual level, but then there is the added danger, once the story is 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.” (1)

An intriguing example of a stolen story is the one explored in Rebecca Skloot’s narrative nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that tells the story of the cervical cancer cells “stolen” from an impoverished and poorly educated black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital subsequently profited from culturing and selling these HeLa cells—cells which killed Henrietta Lacks, cells which neither she nor her family members consented to anyone using or profiting from. Skloot, a highly educated white woman, has also now 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,” written 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 you own in this world are your name, your word, and your story. Be careful who you tell your story to.” (2)

**The above is an excerpt from my chapter/essay “The Body Remembers” from my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Francisco: The University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2018) page 81.

  1. Arthur W. Frank “Tricksters and Truth Tellers: Narrating Illness in the Age of Authenticity and Appropriation,” Literature and Medicine 28 no. 2 (Fall 2009): 185-99, page 196.
  2. Vanessa Northington Gamble, “Subcutaneous Scars,” Health Affairs 19, no.1 (February 2000): 164-69, page 169.

Why Write?

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From the 2017 Northwest Network for Narrative Medicine Conference, Portland, Oregon

Recently, in a writing workshop on social justice issues, I was given a copy of Terry Tempest Williams’ essay “Why I Write” and in response to the reading of that brief essay, was given the writing prompt, Why do you write?

A simple enough (and in some ways too simple, as in a middle school level) writing assignment, but one that I happily took on. Beside my desk at home hangs an excerpt of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Why I Write.” In this essay he includes a list of “four great motives for writing” and they include (here in abbreviated form):

  1. “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one.
  2. Esthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. (…) Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose—using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive for.” pp. 312-313 in, A Collection of Essays by George Orwell, London: Harcourt, Inc. 1946.

So here is my prose poem, “Why I Write”:

  1. I write because my fingers are ink-stained. I write because if I don’t, my pen will explode.
  2. I write to make sense of the world. I write to court chaos.
  3. I write until the rivers of my mind run clear. I write until glyphs are superfluous babble-brook praise.
  4. I write unless there are enough reasons not to. I write unless it is unsharable, and then it stays inside, inscribed, worm-tracing scars.
  5. I write journals, research proposals, reports, patient chart notes. I write poems, blog posts, essays, chapters, books, and marginalia.
  6. I write personal mission statements. I write to humanize health care for patients, providers, and communities.
  7. I write my name. I write my different names beneath the kitchen cabinet of my childhood.
  8. I write because I was here. I write because I am here.
  9. I write to remember. I write to forget.
  10. I write. I am a writer.

I opened this post with a reference to the social and environmental justice writing of Terry Tempest Williams. I close with one of my favorite passages of her writing that I stumbled upon this summer. It is from her book An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (Vintage, 1995). It reminds me of why I write; it reminds me of the importance of women writers in our world:

“As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems.” p. 59

 

 

Summer Reading Challenge: Global to Local

FullSizeRender 2For my third annual summer reading challenge list of books with a social justice slant, I’ve decided to focus on global to local from my Pacific Northwest (Seattle) corner of the country. These are all excellent books to read no matter where you happen to live. Here they are from the top of the pile working down:

 

Past Forgiveness: Part II

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The 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 and several older women out there in the world who probably need to hear these words. (“Past Forgiveness: Part I” was posted on August 3, 2016 and linked here.)

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I have spent my entire life—or at least my entire life from when I first became fully aware of myself—trying to find a way to forgive my dysfunctional family. Mainly my father, the charismatic narcissist minister who liked to grope my budding breasts and then pretend he had only been trying to show me fatherly affection. Or, that he was only sponging my chest when I was ill in bed with a high fever from Red Measles when I was fourteen. “What kind of Freudian psychological hang-ups do you have about your father?” he asked, when I grew old enough to confront him on his groping behavior. As if.

And my mother, my strikingly artistically gifted and intelligent mother who preferred to live in a surrealistic, made-up world of her own, trying to be my friend instead of my mother. She chose to believe my father and not me. As if. She told me that my panic attacks, which developed in the immediate aftermath of my father’s first groping episode, were really sent by God as a dark night of the soul, and meant I just needed to pray harder. As if.

And even my three older siblings, and especially my oldest sister who had been like a second mother to me, who believed my father even after his death as he partially disinherited me. My siblings who continue to admonish me to get over my anger, to forgive and forget, to leave it all in the past. As if.

As if anger is a bad thing. As if anger isn’t protective, propelling, and proper in unjust situations.

As if I was right all along: I had been adopted. I firmly believed this as a child. I was born long after my siblings. My two childhood best friends were both adopted and their parents didn’t tell them this fact until they were older. I held a deep conviction that I was not of this family.

As if I was right all along: in order to survive, to heal, to thrive, I needed to sever ties, become un-homed, move far away to the Western frontier of Wallace Stegner’s “native home of hope” and make my own way, my own family, my own home. What does it mean to be homeless when home was never a safe place? In such cases, it is not possible for young people to runaway from home; they can only run towards home.

As if family secrets were legitimate heirlooms to pass down to future generations, squirreled away in cedar chests along with crocheted bedspreads and starched baby clothes.

My father never acknowledged his wrongdoing, never confessed his sins of groping me, of groping my maternal aunt when she was young, of groping at least one of his granddaughters. How can I begin to forgive him?

As if.

I spent many years of my adult life swinging wildly between minimizing the trauma, “it could have been worse,” to full-body catastrophizing, drowning in the role of victim, “I am scarred and damaged beyond repair,” before realizing that is how our psyches cope with such trauma, and that the window of opportunity—of strength and hope and healing—lies in the space between those two extremes. It requires embracing the white-hot contradiction of the two truths. As if that were possible.

Until it is possible. Through a combination of fatigue, fortitude, and sheer inexplicable grace, it becomes possible.

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.

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.

Going Home

IMG_7388I was born and raised and became homeless and then ‘back-out-of homeless’ in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, as the Capital of the Confederacy,  is a complex city with a complex history. I left Richmond in 1990, ostensibly to move to Baltimore to go to graduate school, but mainly to try and leave the ghosts of my past behind. But there’s that irritatingly true maxim of “wherever you go, there you (and your ghosts) are.” That’s why I researched and wrote my forthcoming medical memoir Catching Homelessness: A Nurse’s Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (Berkeley: She Writes Press, August 9, 2016). It was an attempt to make some sense of my past, of my relationships–including my relationship to the South that formed me.

For my book, in a chapter tilted “Greyhound Therapy,” I end with this paragraph:

“Here’s the thing: some geographical cures do work. Sometimes it takes radical change to get your life back. I wanted to move as far away from my birthplace of Richmond as I could get. It was a place I found disorienting. Once I graduated, I took a full-time academic nursing job in Seattle and I got my son back full-time. I also met a wonderful man, Peter, and his young daughter, Margaret, who have both become my family, my home. I can now revisit Richmond—for a short time—and not get lost.”

But then, in a recent essay version of “Greyhound Therapy” published in the Front Porch Journal, (Issue 32, May 2016) I added the sentence, “The real truth is I no longer return.”

Be careful what you write. Less than a month after I wrote that sentence I was back in Richmond, eating at my favorite restaurant there (Comfort), as a pitstop on my family’s cross-country road trip to Washington, DC. And today I found out that I will return to Richmond again this fall, for a Catching Homelessness book reading/signing at my favorite Richmond indie bookstore, Fountain Bookstore, located downtown in Shockoe Slip, an area with a sullied history of slave and tobacco trade. So for all of my friends and relations,  and former co-workers at the Daily Planet and Fan Free and CrossOver Clinics, and students/faculty/staff/alums of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, and fellow members of the James River Writers Association, come on down to the Fountain Bookstore on Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 6:30pm and we can share stories of the meaning of home–and of homelessness. And of writing your way back home.