The story blog

All story, all the time.

Entries in story (3)


the enduring power of story

The lump of a thing slouched in the curve of my torso as I dozed. A dog? We were in a hotel; our dogs were at home. A travel bag left on the bed? That didn’t feel right, either. Reaching in the dark, I prodded the thing and felt a doughy blob that jiggled and heaved at my touch, except it was too heavy for me to budge, so I tried to scream for help. It came out as a weak moan, barely able to wake my husband who lay next to me. Finally the thing sighed deep as if to say, “Oh, all right, I’ll leave,” giving me a good pinch with strong, marshmallow fingers before rolling off the bed.

It was a nightmare of course, of the type I’ve not had in years, and then mostly during my early recovery from sexual abuse. The nightmares were variations on the assault, a reliving of that original terror as my subconscious sought to rewrite the story of the trauma. It’s a story I’ve told and re-told myself, and others, in order to defuse its power. Over the years I’ve incorporated it into the woman I am, and while it’s one story of me, it's neither the only, nor the major, story of me. 

Survivors of sexual assault may have reactions years after they’ve processed their trauma and moved on. Triggers are typically times of transition – marriage, pregnancy, sending kids to school or college, for instance. I’m not a parent, so none of those situations apply. 

But tonight I was able to stamp a label almost immediately on the cause of this nightmare: Powerlessness. It was such a textbook psychology case – complete with a miniature of Dan Aykroyd’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Man symbolizing my inability to act – that later it would make me laugh. The only thing missing was the thought bubble over my head. Except it had nothing to do with my abuse. I was in Austin to speak at an event, and no sooner had I arrived there than my sister texted to let me know our mother was in the emergency room. Mom’s Alzheimer’s has developed slowly. She’s had a couple of falls, and several infections, but never any other injury or illness that would land her in the emergency room. I’m all too familiar with the setbacks that hospital stays mean for dementia patients; my mother-in-law never walked again after a hip replacement. Knowing this, I felt the need to be there with my mom, to do what I could to make sure she retained as much functionality as possible in the wake of whatever illness she was battling. But I was hundreds of miles away.

“Let me know if I need to come home. I’ll leave immediately, get on a plane from here,” I messaged my sister. She told me to stay put for the moment, and I tried to get some sleep in case I had to catch a flight in the middle of the night. But that was difficult; when presented with a problem, I need to act. I’m not good at waiting; it makes me feel helpless. And sometime as I waited for the next text, powerlessness used my past trauma as a door into my dreams and jammed its fat self on the bed with me. Twice I woke up pushing him away.

My mother spent only the weekend in the hospital and I was able to delay going home to her. But the nightmares were a lesson in the endurance and power of story. I’ll get to that shortly, but first, there was something else I realized about myself. I don’t like ceding control any more than I like waiting. I need to see what’s coming down the road all the time. When in a restaurant or theater, I sit where I can see as much of the venue as possible, and never with my back to the door or in a spot I can’t quickly escape. I’ve always attributed the need for a 360-degree view to my years as a photojournalist – needing to be able to see everything in order to best compose photos, needing a quick exit in order to make deadlines. But, now, I wonder; does this need for control stem from my earlier history?  

Maybe (again, could this be any more textbook psychology?), but that matters less to me than story’s lasting power. Throughout my life I’ve returned to favorite authors and characters, never failing to glean something new from their story. In the same way, my personal story returns to me and shapes itself to key moments challenging and teaching me something new each time. Once, I wished the story of my abuse had never been written, but as the years passed I learned to make it my own. In re-telling it I’ve not only diluted its power over me, but I’ve turned the tables and given myself power over it. Like Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters character, maybe I’m learning to give powerlessness a shape I can deal with, even laugh at, so when old trauma rears its head, I can recognize and put it in perspective.









the sacred space of story

In 1993 while in Brazil working on a project about violence against women, I met a model whose boyfriend had doused her with alcohol and held her over a gas stove. The reporter with whom I was working had arrived ahead of me by days, and my job was to document with photos the lives of the people we were featuring in this part of the project. When a translator introduced me to the model, a black woman with a smile that still radiated beauty from her scarred face, she sent her young son out of the room and closed the door. Then she took off her clothes and through the translator told me to look at her body, a canvas of skin furled and tightened by flames.

I misunderstood. Thinking she wanted the damage documented I raised my camera. But, no, that wasn’t it, she told the translator. This, she made clear, was for me only, so that I could see what this man had done to her. Though I was there in the role of documentarian, this moment did not make it onto film. Still it lives with me because it was an instant in which she shared something of herself and trusted me with it. I can’t put words or thoughts in her head, but I believe that she simply wanted to connect with me so that no matter what else I might photograph of her life I should remember that she was human.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that narratives – in this case, the bit of story embodied in damaged flesh – have an inherent power whether they are witnessed by one or by thousands. And that power lies in the ability to form a connection among humans.

Over the summer, I led a small group of women who sought to put into words a significant moment in their lives. Over the course of seven weeks we sat around a table and through readings, writing exercises, and group feedback, each woman drafted a personal narrative. Sure, they want to publish their work. But I think that in this process they also sought to make sense of these stories, to see how they’ve shaped their lives over the years and to come to terms with these significant events. And, they wanted to share these stories with others.

One of the pleasures of this class was that while we all come from different walks of life, we experienced compassion for one another and for our disparate life journeys. Like the Brazilian woman with whom I shared little beyond our gender and the knowledge that because of it, others will discriminate against us, our class was filled with moments when the spheres of our lives touched, where we could share a bit of common ground.

The weight of how stories connect us to one another is something that I also explored with high school students at a literary festival earlier this year. The annual event exposes students to the likes of Billy Collins, Anchee Min, Michael Chabon, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Tobias Wolff, among other literary stars. In my small role I led several classes in which the students mined their own lives for story. Though I’ve done this several times before, I approached the classes differently this year.

We did a series of timed writing exercises and some of them shared the results of the work. They saw how turning off the inner sensor we all carry allowed their minds to go beyond the surface stories they’d taken for granted in their lives. At the end of class I told them that I don’t expect, or even hope, that they will all go on to become journalists, novelists or poets. The point of exploring and sharing these personal stories was to let them see that where they connect with the stories of others is a powerful place. It is where we can recognize one another’s humanity, and sometimes it’s the only place that allows us to see one another not as black, or Christian, or gay, or straight, or liberal or conservative, but simply as people with similar wants and needs. After all, as I told these bright young people, when they are in the working world leading companies, doing scientific research, practicing law, treating patients, or teaching university classes, no doubt there will be people they do not like. And yet, they will have to find common ground in order to co-exist, if not get along. 

In that sense, I believe that these spaces – these touch-points where we explore our commonalities rather than our differences – are sacred. We may not always document these moments into history, but I believe they further the evolution of our souls, and they are a good place to begin the process of understanding. Like the woman in Brazil who disrobed that I might know a part of her story, these moments ask of us: See me. I am human, too.




Authors for whom I've been waiting this year

The advent of digital books has meant that virtually every day there are what seem to be thousands of newly published books. It can be overwhelming to browse books online because there are so many from which to choose. And even if they are just a few dollars out of my pocket, it's disappointing when a book doesn't live up to the hype. And I'm not even talking about the self-published, which are hit or miss in terms of quality. I've absolutely loved some self-published books, and absolutely hated some of them. I'm talking about all books.

Yes, I am a hard critic because reading is an experience like no other. In some ways I believe reading to be (at its best) the most interactive experience of all. A good book allows me to sink completely into someone else's story and literally get pleasurably lost for a while. What isn't interactive about that?

So, on that note, here are a few of the books I've been waiting for this year and which have recently been published or are about to hit the virtual bookshelves:

Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke. Because he writes mystery novels with a literary bent and with such an attention to craft that his words are pure pleasure, even when they are about murder and greed.

Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride, by Alyssa Harad. Because I heard about this book a couple of years ago from a friend who happens to be married to Alyssa, and the reviews this memoir is getting are very good. Besides, who can resist a title like this one?

Hell or High Water, by Joy Castro. Because Joy is a writer who wrote the amazing memoir The Truth Book and I hear she is as good a fiction writer as she is a memoirist. Also, because I took a memoir writing workshop with her years ago and I learned that she is an exemplary human being and the workshop still helps me tremendously with my own writing and that of my students.

Broken Harbor, by Tana French. Because ever since I read In The Woods, I've learned that you can write suspense in a literary way. While I did not like the ending of In The Woods, I felt the execution of the rest of the book was great. I've read the two subsequent books that followed In The Woods, and in some ways they were even better.