»I could not believe the power these stories have«
Susan Perrow, M.Ed.Hons, has an extensive background in teaching, writing, and storytelling. She is giving workshops and training seminars for teachers, parents, and therapists – in Africa, Europe, the US, the UK, Asia and China. Her story work is also published in: 'Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour’ and ‘Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children’. Both have been translated into several languages, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Croatian and Slovenian. ‘A Spoonful of Stories’, Susan’s e-book series, was launched in 2013.
Like you wrote in your book: In the beginning, there was the word … How can we understand the differences between therapeutic stories or fairy tales, folk-tales and fables?
That is very difficult to answer. Because every story has the potential to be therapeutic! Many fairy tales, with their deep wisdom can be quite therapeutic. Today, nature stories are particularly effective. There is a wonderful environmentalist, David Suzuki, who says that if children would grow up hearing stories about a river flowing through their town, or about a forest at the edge of the city, they could more easily connect to nature. As a result, they would less likely become, for example, a manager of a factory that pollutes a river or cuts a forest - simply because they have that connection through the story. So nature stories can have a long-term therapeutic effect. Also, sharing our own stories can be therapeutic. So there are many genres with therapeutic potential.
My work with writing therapeutic stories is not something that I planned. I was a math student and I did not even like creative writing. I stumbled upon this power of healing storytelling, in my life as a mother of three sons and my work as a teacher. Today at my seminars I teach people how to write their own therapeutic stories. I encourage them to write them, because even with many existing useful stories, sometimes in life there is a specific situation, that needs a story to be crafted just for that circumstance. A person might search and find a story that perfectly matches what they need, but sometimes that just isn’t possible.
Nowadays I get emails from all over the world. Just recently a mother from America wrote that she has to explain to her children, that they can’t see their father anymore because he is an abusive alcoholic. And her 10-year-old daughter thinks it’s her fault. So I crafted a story about a two Captains with their families on the boat. When one Captain was at the helm, the boat would sail safely. But when the other one was at the wheel, the boat would crash into the reefs and there would be leaks. So the irresponsible Captain would have to go to shore to have more sailing training. And that is what was truly happening to the father. He was not in prison, but he got a restraining order and mandatory therapy.
I started this work when I was teaching children. But then when I sent my first collection of stories to the publisher, he said that I can’t give the readers the fish without the fishing rod. I just wanted him to publish the 80 stories I had written together with the documentation on the therapeutic effect of the stories. But he also wanted me to include how I find ways to write these stories. At first, this was a difficult process for me as there is no recipe on how to write a therapeutic story. It is not like a cooking class. And sometimes I do not use any method at all. I just get an intuitive feeling, a connection if you will, straight away. I was asked to write a story for the children of Norway after the terrible massacre that happened on the island there. At first, I thought this is too big for me, but then I went for a walk. That is one way I get my ideas. Or I sit and meditate. Then I did some research on the Internet and I saw people in Oslo carrying roses in processions down the streets. Roses which represent hope for the future. I had an intuitive flash and my story was created; a rose in a castle garden had a thorn that grew inward and killed the plant, so all the petals fell down and the whole of the courtyard was shrouded in mist and everything went silent. But later, when the mist cleared, every place where a petal had landed a new rose had grown.
I could never say that I write fairy tales, but when I have these intuitive flashes I feel I get close. Though sometimes when I write, like the story with the ship Captains, I feel like ‘giving birth’. It’s hard work. But I have mind maps that help me with the challenges. And I use lots of metaphors. So this is what I do. I stimulate creative writing and playing with metaphors for the people at my seminars.
After some years of running my seminars, I found that people weren’t writing stories just for children, but also for teenagers, adults or elderly people. They were writing stories for people in midlife crises or stories for themselves because they were sexually abused or had other trauma as a child and had never come to terms with that. In my second book, I share more about that. I have had so many different experiences in my work when it comes to the healing effects of storytelling that I could talk for ages. In the beginning, even I could not believe the power these stories have. At one of my seminars, I had a mother who had a three and a half years old boy who was still breastfeeding. That does not mean anyone should judge women’s breastfeeding choices, but she looked very weak. She was so devoid of life force she could hardly sit up. I asked her if she was all right, and she said she came to this seminar to write a story to wean her child from breastfeeding. She said she has tried every possible strategy with no success. She wrote a story and within a week the boy was weaned. Even as she told me that, I was surprised at how a story could do that? Since then I never had this mistrust again.
We cannot say that a story will totally heal a person; we have to be careful that we do not become arrogant in regard to that. Many times a story might help just a little, but its value is in its naturalness; like homeopathy. It also empowers the person who wrote the story, so it is a two-way process.
I was really moved by your work and as an anthropologist and I try to understand the broader context of your work. When we try to be inspired to care about our environment we often reach back to our heritage that also includes storytelling. On the one hand, we have technology, consumerism, and capitalism written in codes. And on the other, we have stories and people talking to each other as fellow human beings. Are stories like a bridge between us and the connections we have lost?
When we talk about stories it brings up the question: what is imagination? I have explored this in various cultural contexts and also from a poetic point of view. The poet Owen Barfield writes about two worlds – the everyday visible world and the spiritual invisible world. He gives great encouragement on how to bridge the two worlds – he describes this as a rainbow bridge of imaginative activity. This is the realm of storytelling, symbolism, and metaphor. The author Jacques Lusseyran talks about how poetry connects us back to heaven. His book ‘And there was light’ is the most amazing read. There is so much I want to say here because you mentioned stories as a bridge.
From my experience with technology, I have to say I have a positive attitude towards it. How else could I have found a connection to Slovenia or Korea or to all those different places that I visit? So technology can bring many good things to our world. But at what cost! I find that in every country that I run my seminars, people come thirsting for stories, people come seeking a balance. I would say that all art forms are needed to heal this divide that has occurred and to help us become more human again. Because our humanity is in our stories! Also it is in logical thinking and the technological outcomes! It is our intellect that has brought us so many advances. Unfortunately, it has become such a dominant force. Some school systems, like the Waldorf approach, are story centered and acknowledge the importance of balancing the rational way of learning and knowing with the imaginative way. In Vancouver, Canada, at the Simon Fraser University, they are researching how to make learning by stories the center of their education system. There is a woman in London, Margot Sunderland, who is in charge of training at the Child Centre for Mental Health. She describes storytelling as a natural language for children. It is exciting to discover that there are academics across the globe who are trying to find the way back to a balanced approach of teaching and learning. Because using stories is not a new invention – they have been around since humans could talk!
In the US there are clinics for people with eating disorders that work through fairy tales. It is exciting to find these things, because there is a huge crisis with eating disorders in many countries.
I would not demonize technology. It is more how people choose to live with it.
I know. There is this joke about St. Peter at the gates of heaven asking why all the people are looking down with their fingers moving across pretend screens. Technology is very tempting. Even my husband and I have to be careful!
I never forgot the prophetic film ‘Until the End of the World’ by Wim Wenders way before smartphones in 1991. He portrayed how people became addicted to portable screens. I am wondering if people at your workshops use Disney’s characters in their stories. Many childhoods seem to be saturated with Disney’s productions. And not in a positive way.
Interesting question. So far it has only happened a few times. At my workshops, I play random story-making games to stimulate the imagination to flutter and fly. Maybe that is why they leave such commercial influences behind so quickly. Perhaps this is also a sign people are thirsting for real stories. In every single country, I have worked, the groups of people who come to my seminars mostly produce amazing stories – ones I could never have written. I am just like a midwife. That is my most important work. Writing books is also of course, because that is how I get to tour the world, and my work can reach further with books.
There are of course other story writers with different methods and approaches. I can’t claim I ‘know the way’. However, one important factor of my work with my therapeutic writing is that I document the cases. Science can’t explain how a story can have such an effect, you see. But science does except documentation as a proof. I learned that when I did my Master’s thesis. If you can document that a specific story was written for a person of a certain age, and made an evident change in the behavior that was observed by some person or people, then you are helping scientists to see what is happening.
I am moved to tears. It might be that we are actually discovering again, what the Western colonizers suppressed in many cultures. But we are the natives now.
Good insight. What you said is interesting because I used a story as a part of a protest in Australia to protect a local lake. For thousands of years it was a birthing place sacred to our indigenous women – the lake was shaped like a uterus with a stream of water going out to the sea. Then a developer came along and bought the land. His plan was to build houses with jetties at the waterfront for boats. Anyway, the local community stopped it. We had many protests and once a whole group of protesters met at the beach, right where this stream from the lake was meeting the sea and I told the story. It was called ‘The Keeper of the Lake’ and it encouraged people, especially the children, to build a wall around the lake as protection. This wall was a part of the story, that the local animals were building it to save the lake. And as the sand wall was being built in real life the newspapers took notice. But someone said to me, how can I think that I have the right to do this, since I am not an aboriginal. That really hurt. But after long reflection I came to what you just said. I am an Australian. I was born here.
It goes even deeper. Most of us lived under the oppression of some kind, under kings, dukes, … different governments. We are the natives of many lands that are never talked about.
There is so much bad stuff. Bob Brown, now a retired Australian politician gave a speech about optimism. It was so inspiring; it actually turned it around for me just when I was about to give in to despondency. The only hope for the world is that we stay optimistic in the face of so much horror happening all around. I try not to give too much energy to the negative stuff, but I stay informed because I think that is important. Otherwise, you live in a bubble. And every so often, a story can make a positive difference. Like recently in Bulgaria. A father of a little girl died in his sleep and as a result, this child was very afraid to fall asleep. She didn’t even want her mother to go to sleep. For weeks the mother and daughter were in a sleep-deprived state. A group of psychologists wrote a story to help the situation and after hearing it the girl could not wait to go to bed and have a good night’s sleep. Only time will heal the terrible grief of losing a father and a husband, but until then, at least they can sleep so that they have the strength to mourn. So when a story makes such a difference in the lives of people like this, I think to myself, it is important to focus on continuing this work.
Photo: Gregor Bajt Illustration: Warwick Goble, The Book of Fairy Poetry (1920)