I am a psychiatrist and Narrative Therapist with an interest in philosophy and history, especially poststructuralism, social constructionism and hermeneutics. My daily work is in a Family Medicine residency program, where I try to help the residents develop some knowledge and skill at understanding people's problems in the context of the many discourses that pull them toward pills, procedures, and "productivity" and away from listening so as to develop narrative empathy for peoples' predicaments. I hope to use this blog to share interesting info about these things, and to refine my ability to describe what's precious but not widely appreciated in this work.
Following Foucault, I believe that even in the most disempowered of lives, there is always lived experience that is obscured when we measure those lives against abstract, universalized norms. Narrative therapists seek to develop ways of thinking and working that bring forth stories of specific persons in specific contexts so that they can lay claim to their otherwise marginalized stories and live out the possibilities those stories reveal for their lives.
The stories we tell about our lives are not necessarily those lives as they were lived, but these stories become our experience of those lives. A published narrative of an illness is not the illness itself, but it can become the experience of the illness. The social scientific notion of reliability—getting the same answer to the same question at different times—does not fit here. Life moves on, stories change with that movement, and experience changes. Stories are true to the flux of experience, and the story affects the direction of that flux.
All the stupidity and the arbitrariness of the laws, all the pain of the initiations, the whole perverse apparatus of repression and education, the red-hot irons, and the atrocious procedures have only this meaning: to discipline man, to mark him in his flesh, to render him capable of alliance, to form him within the debtor-creditor relation, which on both sides turns out to be a matter of memory - a memory straining toward the future
We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms […] In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.
Several months ago, I was at a school event where a very young black girl was standing shyly off to the side as I was chatting with some 6th grade students after my presentation. She gave me her notebook and asked me to sign it, which I was glad to do. It was a book of her own poetry and short stories. I smiled and said “I’m so glad to meet a young writer!” She beamed at me and said “I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.” I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, “But I’ve never seen them in person.” To this young teen, an author of color was a mythical creature, not to be believed, until she’d seen one in person. She couldn’t believe in her dream to become a writer until she saw for herself that a real life POC had done it. This is why we must continue to fight for diversity in children’s literature. For all of our children, so that they can see that we exist and that they can believe that their dreams of becoming whatever they want, can come true.
This story reminds me, too, of something I always talk about which was that I never met an author until I was like 25. Until then, I didn’t think I could be one because I thought being an author was for special rich people who lived far away, probably in New York, and had some secret access to that whole world. (This was before the internet.) So I can totally imagine how a non-white kid who only ever met white authors would think the way the girl in this story does.
Adults are models of possibility. We need to model all sorts of possibility for all sorts of kids, and can’t ever assume that they just “know” about things existing that they don’t get to see and experience for themselves.
Especially when you’re a poor kid or otherwise not privileged in some way or come from an addicted family, you tend to have people around you that have those same limited and limiting beliefs. I never had goals or ambitions modeled for me by the adults in my immediate family. No one ever said I could and should try things that I wanted to do and have dreams and take risks. I learned survival and getting by, and making do with what you have and staying safe. I was a poor kid, and got that. When I multiply my own experience by a factor of also not-white, I can start to catch a tiny glimpse of what the girl in Ellen’s story and kids like her are up against.
I can stand in front of kids and talk about my background of poverty, and the dysfunction I grew up in, and I do do that, to share my own struggle to achieve a goal. But when I’m talking to a roomful of not-white kids (and I’ve been to plenty of schools like that) I know it’s not the same as if they could see someone who looks like them telling that story. Thanks, Ellen, for sharing this.
I didn’t believe that I could be a writer until I learned that SE Hinton was 1. a woman and 2. from Oklahoma just like me. I was born and raised on a farm. I went to a small school in a very rural area. Like a lot of people, I thought writers were mystical creatures (and dead Europeans). Learning THE OUTSIDERS was written by someone more similar to me than different changed the course of my life.
It is SO important for young people with dreams to know that people who resemble them (in all ways…race, gender, socioeconomic status—everything!) have achieved the same dreams.
So dream. Share. Repeat.
Even an experience is not, and never is, perceived in its completeness, it cannot be grasped adequately in its full unity. It is essentially something that flows, starting from the present moment we can swim after it, our gaze reflectively turned towards it, whilst the stretches we leave in our wake are lost to our perception.
To commit to love is fundamentally to commit to a life beyond dualism. That’s why love is so sacred in a culture of domination, because it simply begins to erode your dualisms: dualisms of black and white, male and female, right and wrong.
I think you don’t give up hope on these things. We have— look at the American political tradition. Look at the— one of the interesting things that Piketty says is that serious progressive taxation of high incomes and great wealth is an American invention. We invented it, and we invented it in the early 20th century, right at the peak of our Gilded Age. And somehow we found it in ourselves to turn— to find political leaders, people like Teddy Roosevelt, who are willing to say, “This is a bad thing, we do not want the society that is emerging here.” So I think things can change. What— if you ask, you know, are we going to get a wealth tax, a global wealth tax before the 2016 election? Well no, we’re not. Might we get one by the 2024 election? Possibly.