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There is so much I want to say and share about the importance of having a coherent narrative, and how one achieves that. Sometimes I think its simpler and clearer to talk about it in educational rather than psychological terms…in as far as what we learn early in life creates the template for all that follows. We know this, as therapists…it seems obvious. But we forget. A poet I read just last week, Grace Gluck, said it beautifully: We look at the world once; in childhood…the rest is memory. This idea was echoed later in the week at a guided meditation I attended, the teacher said: The Buddha found enlightenment, not in the study of books, nor acts of service, but by sitting beneath a tree and suddenly recalling one clear memory of his childhood…what it was like to be a child. We call this Beginner’s Mind. The attempt to see things without the biases our lives have wrought. We must re-member in order to re-learn. We must have the memories in order to re-consolidate them into something less traumatized or distorted. I call this Narrative Reconstruction, and it requires a kind of forensics that is both active and mindful.

What is Narratology?
Be a meaning-maker

Narratology is a growing field across many disciplines. Basically, a narratologist helps people make sense of their lives through the way they language and hold their stories. If a medical doctor asked their patients for their ‘stories’ along with their symptoms, they might gain a better understanding of what their ailment means to them, how they will cope with pain, why they might fear medication, etc.

If a teacher asked their students for their story, they might understand blocks to learning, fears of participation, why homework never gets done, what is at stake with failure, what they are passionate about, etc. I begin work with every new client, by asking him or her to tell me the story of them. This is not bio-psycho-social — a record of symptoms, or breakdowns or meds. It is the story of their lives, something we rarely if ever have the opportunity to tell another human being in one fell swoop. When a client first calls, I will inquire as to where they are feeling stuck and in what way they wish shift, but when we meet, it is their story that interests me, both what they tell and how they tell it. And while they tell it, I am listening through the lens of their stated stuckness.

What is dramaturgy?
Be a Questionologist.

The telling, however, is not a monologue…it’s a dialogue; the questions that I ask while they tell, are as important as the material they share. The questions evoke memories and connect dots. How many of you have had the experience of clients claiming not to remember much of their childhoods? Fifty percent of mine do not, most rarely have memories before the age of five and often not before ten. Ten years is considered the belly of our childhoods. This is not only a product of dissociation or trauma. This is also a product of neglect. Often no one ever helped our clients to voice their experience of an extraordinary event or even an ordinary day. No one ever helped them to make sense of a major life change or loss. Sociologist, Jules Henry, wrote a text entitled Pathways To Madness, half a century ago; he demonstrated that healthy families have something in common: a shared narrative. What is held in awareness together is not held in shame, and when shame is loosened, and narrative flows, there is no trauma. In fact, some neuropsychologists now describe trauma as ‘a narrative interruption’. So…our work as listeners to these stories of ‘them’ is to question everything they say, as a dramatruge would question every line in a play to make sure the story is coherent. In my former life I was a playwright and a dramaturge – which is like an editor who makes sure that the world of the play is coherent and consistent. A play can span an entire life of a character…in only two hours – that’s sessions number one and two! As I listen to their stories, I might notice out loud that they have talked about everyone in the family except their father, or that they seemed to have gone from pre-school to middle school in their narrative, leaving out the very lower school years in which, it turns out, that their best friend died in a car accident. Something they rarely if ever think about, but now notice – since I asked – a connection to their abiding and paralyzing fear of driving cars. I had a client who began her story at the age of twenty – the year, it turns out, that her father died. I call this a narrative rupture. There are two crucial components to this kind of dramaturgy; radical questioning and radical listening.

What is Radical Listening?
Don’t let the words go by. 

Radical listening is a kind of mindfulness. There can be no zoning out; we are listening for specificity. If a client says ‘things in my home were chaotic’, I ask what the chaos looked and sounded like…I might have a very different notion of chaos than they do. If they say their father had a viscous temper, I ask for an example. If they say their mother had a drinking problem, I ask how many glasses or bottles she consumed, how she behaved, and how they felt in the presence of this altered state. It may sound obvious, but when my trainees report on their client’s sharings, I am always amazed at what they accepted at face value or assumed about what their client meant. And as I am listening and asking, I am always on the trail of how these early learnings and experiences of the world and the adults who inhabited it, are related to the presenting problem; just as I will listen through that lens to everything they share in every subsequent meeting. And when there is a connection, I ask if they see it as well. We are collaborators, not expert and novice. A client of mine reported that his bipolar father terrorized him, his siblings and his mother. As we reviewed the terror in detail, it became clear that he had avoided the brunt of it by staying very busy with chores and schoolwork and keeping off the radar of violence, by doing well. When I asked him how this early solution may have taught him something that became problematic, as most of our young solutions do, he was able to connect his own dots by noticing that, yes, he had come to see me because workaholism was literally killing him…

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This has been an excerpt from The Story of You by Gail Noppe-Brandon. To download the full article, and more excellent material for the psychotherapist, please subscribe to our monthly magazine.