Story Telling and Healing

by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Back in the 1980’s, when I was still in graduate school studying Cultural Anthropology, I was already a validated "writer" with a Masters in Creative Writing. I had finished an autobiographical book that was to become Memories of My Ghost Brother, both memoir and fiction. I was also studying Korean narrative folklore, Shamanism, and translation from a Semiotics and Structuralist perspective.Those were the good old days before Deconstruction, Critical Theory, and Postmodernism had thrown the wrenches irreconcilably into the social sciences. It was the days when an anthropologist could still pretend to write an ethnography and when stories could be said to actually "tell" something. Now, two decades later, with Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault dead (and nobody, not even Claude Levi–Strauss,wanting to be the new guru of French Theory), things seem to have calmed down and become more apparently matter–of–fact once again.

In the interim, both because of and despite all the heavy Theory I studied, I had learned a few things about reading and writing, things that made simple acts very complicated. But now I can also see that there are some fundamental things I learned about storytelling, things that cut through the underbrush of theory, back to the days before I was even a student. One of them can be put very simply: Telling a story causes you to become its audience,and when you listen to yourself, you learn something about yourself that you did not know before. (By "telling" and "listening," I also mean writing and reading.) To this basic truth about storytelling and writing, I would add another truth, this one gleaned from my childhood exposure to Shamanism: Serious storytelling not only has the potential to heal, it can and does heal. This is no surprise to those who practice psychoanalysis(either Jungian or Freudian), in which it is understood that storytelling is a way for the unconscious to hide meaning from the conscious (Freud), or for the subconscious to send a message to the conscious (Jung). But what I did not realize, perhaps because I had been academically preoccupied all these years, was that this sort of therapeutic storytelling happens all the time, not only in the context of therapy or meaningful conversation, not only in thelanguage of dreams and disguised autobiographical writing, but in the way we go about living our everyday lives.

Let me look at two case studies, one I recall from my study of Anthropology and the other from my own life. Both cases involve childbirth and both involve the role of symbols and storytelling. Both have important, real–life consequences.