Healing Storytelling: An Old Technique that Reaches the Young

by Lorna MacDonald Czarnota.

For the past ten years, I have worked with at-risk youth. One of the facilities I visit regularly is a residential treatment center or minimum- security detention center. Although it originally housed only girls, three years ago the facility added two boys’ cottages. It currently houses up to 30 boys in addition to the girls, whose maximum number is 160.

When first asked to work with the youth, I developed Stories of Choice and Empowerment®, a girl-centered curriculum that combines stories and activities dealing with making good and bad choices, the consequences of those choices, and empowering youth with the knowledge that they always have a choice. When asked to work for the first time with the boys, I developed a boy-centered curriculum called HeroQuest®. This program was designed to take the participants on the hero’s journey to find the hero within each of them and to discover a community or family mentor. I deliberately designed this program for the boys because, while I had worked with combined groups of boys and girls, and girls alone, I had never worked with just boys. During a recent group of sessions, I worked again with a boys’ cottage and decided to try the Choice and Empowerment® curriculum, modifymg my story list to include stories that would speak to the boys in particular. The first two sessions are always “getting to know you” sessions that include learning about metaphor. After those first two weeks, the program builds on issues significant to the youth through a series of stories, activities, and youth-generated story sharing.

During this last set of sessions, one boy asked what I consider to be the $50,000,000 question. “Miss, why do you tell us stories?” I knew he was “playing me,” but the question gave me real pause for thought. Why do we tell stories to help people heal? I’m sure there are many different answers to this question, but this is the one I gave him.

“I tell you stories because the stories are full of truth.”

He countered with another question. “How do you know it’s true?”

My reply, “Because it is not my truth. It is not your truth. It is everyone’s truth, and you find what you need in the story. All you have to do is watch the characters. You can learn about what happens to them as they make the choices for themselves. Just watch the characters.” No more questions.

Using Metaphor

Metaphor is another central part of my work as a healing storyteller. I believe the key to most of what we can learn about ourselves, and use to help us heal, is in the metaphors. This is why I always spend time discussing metaphors before we get into the meat of the programs. It was also the topic of my recent keynote, “There’s a Kingdom in the Closet: Daring the Dark and Healing Through Story,” for the New River Valley Educators of Young Children in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The title itself is a metaphor for early childhood fears of what is beyond the closet door late in the night. Rather than defining the darkness as armed with whatever device has been given them, can brave the dark, face the foe and conquer their fears. I think of powerful stories as weapons or shields for the hero to use in those moments of darkness. One way to be confident that our youth have these tools is to make sure they are exposed to many powerful stories from an early age. Of course, by powerful story, I do not mean cleaned up and “prettified•” Yes, Cinderellas may not find their handsome prince, but the metaphor in the tale is not about that. Rather, it is a story about a female hero facing the odds,  persevering, and maintaining her sense of self and her integrity. The framing message: “It is possible for us to get what we hope for and need without giving up our true selves.” That is an important message to grow up believing in. Many of the youth I work with have “sold out” for the “quick fix.” Helping them  find themselves again, and find ways in which to maintain their integrity even at difficult times, is empowering for them.

Just Watch the Character

Stories save us from pain by allowing the characters to take the fall in our place. While getting my  teaching degree many years ago, I discovered that children’s life experiences affect the way they hear a story. We see a story through the eyes of our life experiences. I can describe the bloodiest horror in the world in a stoiy, but if you have never actually experienced that, the impact for you will be much less than seeing a graphic visual display of that horror, such as what you might view on television or in a movie. Your experience will be on the surface of that story. But if you have really experienced something like this in your life, the story will take you to a deeper emotional level. Regardless of whether you have or have not had such traumatic experiences, most people would not choose them. Yet, sometimes experiencing these severe life challenges help us, and a story can take us there safely. The characters in the story can “walk through the fire,,and show us what happens. They show us how we might handle a similar situation and allow us to see their growth and their folly. As we gain life experience, we gain knowledge of alternative choices the characters could make, and therefore choices we can make.

The Pattern of Story

As a storyteller it is easy to become bored with the standard formula story. However, a story pattern is often a tried and true formula, one that speaks to the human condition. Stories that have stood the test of time usually have done so for this reason. Purposely changing them to suit our own fancy as  storytellers is like adding water to the medicine supplied by a trusted physician. It loses its potency.

Listeners seem to have an innate sense of story pattern. Perhaps due to life experiences or perhaps basic human instinct, they know what will happen next, or at least what should happen. The listener may even know, before the characters, the results of their actions. How many times have you watched a scary movie or even listened to a ghost tale and shouted out to the character, “No don’t open the door!” You know what is waiting for them. You also know the character is not going to hear you and will open the door anyway. You, as listener, expect it because that is the pattern the story takes.

It is okay for the ending to be what the listener expects. They take satisfaction or comfort in that. For many at-risk youth whose lives have been turned upside-down, an expected pattern is especially comforting. In fact, this is why many make the same bad choices again and again. The expected is familiar, therefore less frightening.

However, it is also okay for the ending to be different than what they thought. This allows them to see other options and helps break inappropriate cycles. It’s okay for the story not to have a happy ending. At-risk youth understand that life is not always happy. Yet, like most people, these youth want life to have a promise of goodness too. Like the sun rising everyday to show that we have a new chance, these youth need to know that tomorrow could be better than today, and they can turn their lives around. In one activity I do with the youth, I ask them to write a wish on a slip of paper for me to plant in my garden. Four wishes are fairly common; “I wish to be with my family,” “I wish for money,“I wish for love,” and “I want to make something of myself.”

The purpose of the dark story, or one with an unhappy ending, is not to spread doom and gloom but to show the listener another reality. This is also true of a “happily ever after” story. It is just another possibility. The key is to achieve a balance in the stories that we tell. The really hard part is keeping our personal beliefs and ideas out of the process. Present the stories as they are, for what they are, while encouraging the listener to look more closely at what the story has to offer. Every story has its time and place.

Why Tell Stories to At Risk Youth

There are several significant reasons for telling stories to at-risk youth:

  • The Need – The most basic reason is because at-risk youth need to be exposed to stories. Many of these youth have skipped over important developmental stages in their lives. This may be due to not having family support or because of trauma. A physical or emotional trauma may result in a youth becoming emotionally isolated and withdrawn for protection. The more stories a person has in their “arsenal,” the more they have to draw from in daily choice-making or even in crisis situations.
  • A Moment of Peace – Because so many of these young people have experienced trauma and their every day is filled with challenges beyond their years, a storyteller brings a moment of peace in their troubled world. Stories for these times should not be our darkest and most difficult. They should be funny, thoughtful, or promising.
  • Positive Adult Youth Interaction – The loss or lack of family support, abuse, neglect, and real physical danger are sometimes inflicted upon these youth by the very adults they should be able to rely on. This creates a serious problem with trust issues. They may not be mindful of it, but young people often generalize those fears to include all adults. Telling stories to youth is one step toward showing them that not all adults wish them harm.
  • Modeling Behavior – Stories can demonstrate cause and effect and show the youth a variety of ways to handle different situations through the outcomes of character actions. These stories can range from our silliest noodlehead tales to heart-throbbing love stories, and our darkest tales.
  • Youth Stories – Telling our personal stories and discussing story form can help the youth to open and share their own stories. This not only gives them a voice, which is empowering, but shows them that they matter. One issue many at-risk youth deal with is not feeling worthy of life and all the good things it has to offer. This is a message that has been reinforced by their families and their teachers. We can counteract that negative message if we are willing to hear their stories and accept all the “warts,” making allowances for individual expression and a variety of story forms, including spoken, written, poetic, artistic, and movement.

Knowing the Success of the Work We Do

We cannot know if we reach every young person or exactly how we reach them. As storytellers, we need to accept that. I’ve tried surveys before and after a program to determine if attitudes have changed,  without much success. I have come to a place of acceptance that I do what needs to be done and the youth take what they need from the moment. I accept that I will be successful with some youth and not with others. And I accept that it might be twenty years before the light of a story flashes into life for one young person, or it may be never.

After a particularly difficult session, one where the youth tested my patience and my sincerity, one girl asked me why I keep coming back. My answer was not unlike the answer to the boy regarding why I tell stories. Yes, ten years later I can say I’ve taken my fair share of abuse, but for every frustration I can count a hug, a smile, an excited greeting and someone asking when I’m coming back. I can still feel the rush recalling the summer day when a teenage girl walking down the street with her friends, stopped, turned around, and shouted “Storyteller?” Next thing I knew, she ran toward me, arms open, and gave me huge hug. My measurement of success is holding onto these experiences, knowing that one youth was touched in some way for some moment. My hope is that the stories they hear will surface when they need them.

I tell the stories because they have truth. I keep coming back because the truth is needed.

This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2008.

Lorna MacDonald Czarnota holds a master’s in special education and a bachelor’s in creative studies for young children. In addition, Lorna has certification in trauma counseling from the University of New York State at Buffalo. An award-winning storyteller, author, and humanitarian, Ms. Czarnota is the founder and president of Crossroads Story Center, Inc., a not-for-profit using story, music, and art to reach at-risk youth. She is a workshop leader, keynote presenter, and teaching artist whose work has taken her to conferences, festivals, schools, libraries, museums, runaway shelters, and detention centers throughout the United States, Canada, and Ireland since 1985.

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