This book began as a project between author David Denborough and the creator of narrative therapy, the late Michael White. Denborough worked alongside White for 15 years, then carried the book to fruition following White’s death in 2008. He has written an excellent work that provides guidance in how to both tell and change your life story in thoughtful, well organized, and meaningful ways.
The book begins with the story of a boy with asthma so severe that he cannot talk in a normal way. Just from that part, you would think he would be a lonely boy. I don’t want to give the story away, but it begins in a striking way that conveys that the way you frame your life and what you emphasize changes how you experience and live it. It is a technique I use in my own life and in therapy every day. Indeed, this story and the book overall gave me ideas for growing that practice.
Denborough gives us a structure for telling our stories. The first and major concept is that we are not our problems — a premise that fits well with the recovery movement in behavioral health, and in healthcare in general: The person is not the “illness.”
In narrative therapy, you can externalize the problem, give it a name, and have a conversation with it. In doing so you change your relationship with it. You can map out your story, and you can find a team of supportive loved ones to listen to it. You can develop rituals to help you with the transition to healing.
Denborough illustrates this, drawing from the lives of people of all ages and from many cultures around the world. Reading these accounts is a privilege, as they are quite moving.
Much of the work in this book deals with healing from and coping with the effects of trauma. I was reminded at times of the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work on the journey of the hero. We hear the stories of those who have been raped, who have lived through war, and whose cultural history has been one of oppression, and how they use narratives to begin to heal.
Two parts especially stood out. There is an extensive section on dealing with loss, whether it be the loss of a life or the loss of memory. For this, Denborough offers tales of how individuals have created structure and ritual and narratives that give them dignity and a legacy of love.
In our culture, when you are having difficulty with the death of a loved one, you are told you need to say goodbye. Denborough turns that notion on its head. Perhaps you need to say hello again, he writes. Because someone has died does not mean they are gone. They live on in our memories, in the feelings of what might have been and of loss. It can be a long process, but Denborough shows that there is a way to honor both our loved one’s memory and to honor our relationship with them.
Our culture also seems to have difficulty with those who are dying and with those who are just starting to lose their memories to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. But, Denborough writes, you can develop rituals and stories to make those last steps on the journey ones of meaning and of building memories. I was impressed by how he showed a way to find love, respect, and compassion in these contexts.
The other area of particular interest to me was on how our stories fit into the bigger picture of history. Denborough is Australian, and the history of Australia includes the displacement and repression of indigenous peoples, including the Stolen Generations. Like the whites who came to what is now United States, Australians took the children of aborigines from their families in order to “civilize” them. And here in the U.S., of course, we are also saddled with the heritage of slavery.
Denborough explains that it important not only for those descended from the oppressed to cope and heal, but for those descended from the oppressors to come to grips with this history. Narrative therapy can help with this by prompting us to use our sense of curiosity, our sense of decency, and our ability to listen with both our hearts and our minds in order to heal.
I hope that the tools and the ways of thinking and being that Denborough writes about become more widespread. If they did, I think we would treat ourselves and others with more respect and compassion.
Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience
W. W. Norton & Company, January, 2014
Paperback, 320 pages