Stories: identity and community
Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work
I have just finished reading Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work edited by Richard Rose (Rose, 2017), a detailed and inspiring book focused on the importance for looked after and adopted children in knowing their own stories. I was particularly inspired by part 1 where Rose set’s out his approach including games, wall paper, art materials and the support of the child’s primary carers’. He described how
“life story work is therapeutic, supportive and in some cases liberating” (Rose, 2017, p. 20).
For Rose, a life story is so much more than a pretty presentation of the medical facts, it is their real story, answers to their real questions. I thought back to a life story book I had seen which included a ribbon showing how large the babies head was when they were born, I remember thinking that was lovely. As I read Rose, I started to question this – I have no idea how big my head was when I was born, nor is such information relevant to my sense of self. Compare this with a list in chapter 14 of the questions asked by looked after children:
“• Is my mum alive?
• Why can’t I live with my mum?
• Does my mum/dad have a job?
• How did mum and dad feel when I came into care?
• Why was I sent to live with my Aunt Helen and not my uncle Jeff?
• Why is it ok for my sister to live at home and not me?
• What do my parents look like? What do my siblings look like?
• Why do I have to leave the placement with Bill and Jane?
• Where do my brothers and sisters live?
• What do my brothers and sisters like doing?
• How do I pronounce my brother’s name?” (Stokes, Mattiuzzo, & O’Keefe, 2017)
If you did not know the answers to this list of questions, if you did not even know who you could ask these questions to, how would that impact on your experience of being you? What fantasies or nagging fictions might you write in to fill this list?
“The knowledge of who we are and where we come from forms the basis of our identity. Gaps in this knowledge cause insecurity, and for children who have been removed from their birth families as consequent to neglect and abuse it almost invariably leaves them with a residual sense of self-blame.” (Moore, 2017, p. 20)
Part 2 and 3 of the book considers different settings for the children and young people, some who have been adopted, some in family foster placements, some in children’s homes, some with a history of multiple homes which they have moved between, some in Europe, some in America, some in Australia, one with children who are deaf. In each context the approach is tailored to meet the specific needs, so the intervention is always child centred.
The importance of Our Stories for everyone
As I reflect on this book I notice that stories have been a theme threading through much of my career, used for many purposes with different groups.
Knowing our own history
Earlier this year, I attended a training ‘Introduction to African Psychology’ organised by the Centre of Pan African Thought. One of the participants described his culture where the family would regularly chant the names of all of their ancestors going back several generations. The group was invited to introduce our ancestral self:
• I am daughter/ son of …. (name parents)
• Who were ……… (what were they known for)
• Grand child of …
• Great grand child of ..
• Who used to live in …….. (name country)
• Who currently live/ most recently lived in ………. (name city/ country last lived)
• Who went there for/ because of ……. (e.g. reason for immigration/ landing)
• Whose ancestors lived in ………” (McInnis, 2018, p. 10)
For the trainer, knowledge of personal and family history was a key aspect of personal wellbeing.
Who am I – Cross Culture
During my work in Interfaith, stories were important. Working with the School Linking Network to bring together students at different faith schools, the first element of exploration, before the meeting, was always “Who am I”, here is one example activity for Primary aged children:
“Pieces of a Puzzle: Children could make a jigsaw puzzle of themselves, by drawing a self-portrait and cutting it up into five or six pieces. On the back of each piece they could write about an aspect of their identity. This activity is a good way to open a discussion about how complex identity can be, due to the many factors shaping it, a bit like pieces of a puzzle.” (Schools Linking Network, 2008 ).
Only once the children had established that foundation was it then possible to think about “Who are you” as the ‘other’, and progress to what was shared and what was unique about those identities or communities.
My place in the world
Our stories also impact on the environment we live in. My Undergraduate Professor Sally Mackey has recently been researching place attachment, what stories do we hold about our environment – is this somewhere we feel we belong? Is it somewhere we take pride?
“Performing place increases place attachment, place attachment increases wellbeing. We can indeed keep a sense of self in a disrupted world” (Mackey, 2017).
If we can change the stories about a place how will that impact on the litter or on the crime rate? I remember listening to a head teacher talk about the school often being vandalised and broken into, she set out to create an adult learning programme and erected a sign saying “please look after YOUR community school”, the narrative changed and the incidences stopped.
Where am I going
As a youth worker I worked with many adolescents who were exploring their identity or felt they did not belong. An exploration of where they have been helped them to understand who they were and where they were going. Because it is hard to apply yourself in school when the most compelling story you know is that ‘the gang will look out for me as long as I keep making them money’. Because it is hard to think about university when you have been repeatedly told that you are a looser.
Collages and life-line’s to order their experiences and their journey were particularly useful tools for this exploration, looking at the wider stories of ourselves.
In dramatherapy, stories are an important way we explore our sense of self, our experiences, our place in the world, our communities of belonging, our beliefs and values, our vision for our futures. Returning to Rose for our last thought: “We are a collection of stories. It is in the telling of these stories that we understand who we truly are, how we perceive ourselves, how we see others and eventually how we are able to understand how other people see us.” (Rose, 2017, p. 70)
Mackey, S. (2017). Keeping a Sense of Place in a Disrupted World. TEDxRoyalCentralSchool. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkju7hhtQFg
McInnis, D. M. (2018, 04 14). Introduction to African Psychology. Holborn, London, UK.
Moore, J. (2017). 6. A Dramatic and narrative approach to life story therapy, facilitating attachment in adoption. In R. Rose (Ed.), Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work: Developing Trauma-informed practice for working with children, adolescents and young adults (pp. 117-134). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Rose, R. (2017). 1. Introducing the therapeutic life story model. In R. Rose (Ed.), Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work: Developing Trauma-informed practice for working with children, adolescents and young adults (pp. 20-29). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Rose, R. (2017). 3. Communicating with children – therapeutic life story work techniques. In R. Rose (Ed.), Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work: Developing Trauma-informed practice for working with children, adolescents and young adults (pp. 52-91). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Rose, R. (Ed.). (2017). Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work: Developing Trauma-informed practice for working with children, adolescents and young adults. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Schools Linking Network. (2008 ). Identity Work – CPD 1 SESSION 2. Retrieved from Schools Linking Network.
Stokes, M., Mattiuzzo, A.-E., & O’Keefe, N. (2017). 16. Learning to understand – Life story work at metro intensive support services in New South Wales. In R. Rose (Ed.), Innovative Therapeutic Life Story Work: Developing Trauma-informed practice for working with children, adolescents and young adults (pp. 287-307). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.