For Your Ears Only

Sunday, 31 May 2020 00:00

I’ll stick to the facts. It was an icy Monday to Tuesday night and I witnessed a burglary committed by a man who I first thought was either a drunken friend, a demented relative or the drugs dealer of the family living next door. It was only a few moments after he broke the kitchen window and crept inside that I realized that he was probably not an acquaintance.

Soon afterwards, a police officer arrived to take my statement. He was very experienced in his job, as he told me, with more than twenty years of service. Giving a statement itself is a strenuous process, as the time factor is crucial – the sooner the better, as details fade or get distorted with the passage of time. As for me, the more details I was asked to give the more uncertain I felt for what I had seen: The perpetrator’s trousers might have been blue, or gray. The man’s head might have been shaved, or bald, or perhaps a little bit of both. The pressure to “be sure” was playing on my memory. But there was another fact that the officer needed to know: What was I doing there, at 12:30 on a Monday to Tuesday night?

In the officer’s mind everything had (or must have had) a clear and simple explanation. In mine, my presence at the exact moment was a result of complex, mystically intertwined forces. I was there because I had been called there by something that mandated that I had to be there: Something beyond me. It was not a coincidence. “It was a coincidence,” I said. Of course, that was not enough for an officer, who doesn’t believe in mere chances in a crime scene. I knew I had to give him a story he could understand: “I had been working late,” I began, “and was about to go to bed, when I decided to take a look at my car, because my window broke down today and was left ajar, and I wanted to check if everything was alright.” The officer’s face shined. “A coincidence, then” he said smiling, and suddenly he trusted me. It made sense to him – and even to me, as I said it. He wrote everything down, reciting my words in a mesmerizing, poetically repeated manner: “I saw…” “I saw…” “I saw...” A citizen interested and worried about her property happened to be at the scene of the crime, at the exact moment that the crime happened. Law and order knows property and can contain this. 

 

In the same manner that the police officer was looking for patterns that felt comfortable according to his training, many professionals’ way of thinking – think of eg. teachers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists –  is shaped according to what they have been taught and what information they are trying to elicit. Of course this applies not only to professionals, and factors such as cultural background are equally important, but this sort of uniformity is more evident where actual training is involved and a perceived hierarchical order is presumed. The speaker then, just like I did, feels more obliged to conform to these patterns – that she knows or guesses with varying success – and shape her story accordingly. The result is a concealed power struggle, where the one party is trying to evade and at the same time use the tricks of the other party.

    In this way, we end up with some short of “systemic storytelling” that infiltrates our own thinking and leads to crude categorizations that do justice to no one. The efforts of a few professionals to dismantle the “authority figure” in their circles as a hindrance to productive communication are in vain, partly because one cannot unlearn what has been learned and partly because most people professionals interact with professionally recognize them as authority figures, treat them accordingly and expect of them to behave as an authority figure in their position is expected to. In other words, the bias is always there, affecting both sides. 

 

Literary theorists have observed this dynamic and call the effect of the reader – in our case the listener – on the shaping of the story and its meaning “reader response.” It will be interesting to look at how systemic storytelling creates patterns that shape society and how the “self” is created, fed and kept running in loops according to the same principles.

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Intro

Friday, 27 March 2020 00:00

Those who identify as storytellers – like all artists – may as well identify as gods, for the story holds the power of creation. Stories govern people’s lives, relationships and identities. Stories are alive. They form and reform us. Their malleability and our flexibility define our ability to survive, at least mentally. Of course, in a sense there are no new stories, as there is no parthenogenesis – and not only in art. Who we are and what we do, what we create, are products of and additions to something already existing. 

The centrality of the story in the formation of identity is indisputable. But what kind of stories form and affect our identity today? We could roughly identify two sets of stories that we come across and cast their reflection on our sense of self: Those that are personally tailored to us and stem from our immediate environments and interactions (which are also heavily socially burdened) and the communal stories that are inherited with attributes such as gender, race, class. And among all this information, myth and speculation that creates our cast, we seek to find the “self” through the creation of our personal story. Is there a “self” outside the voices of all these stories? Is there a “true core” that we find if we break the externally formed mould that confines it? To support or dismiss its existence is largely a matter of belief, or indeed disbelief, almost identical to the search for the “soul”.

In older, less self-centered times, people would find solace, courage and inspiration in myth and song, in folk tales and fables. As our lives and intellect became more complicated, there arose the need for more personalized approaches, handed to us by the advancement of technology, as books and – much later on – films were added to our resources. People started asking in greater numbers who they were, began trying to make sense of the self. Inspired by the same linearity and continuity of the traditional stories and the characters they looked up to and identified with, people started writing their personal stories along the same lines.

These stories were and still are made of the fragments of the storytelling we’ve been subjected to and our reactions to it. Our thoughts are, in many ways, not our own. And since stories are so powerful, they have the ability to support, but also to trap us. Once a story becomes concrete, once it shapes us and our societies, what does it take to uproot it? What do we do, when a story is ailing, spreading its ailment to its hosts, its listeners and believers?

This is just one of the questions this series of essays will attempt to answer by examining the function and manifestation of the story in our personal and communal lives and in different disciplines, from fortune telling to psychotherapy. We will look at accusatory narratives and why it is so difficult to overturn them, as well as the effect of power relations on the credibility of a story and on the formation of personal and social identity.

Published in essays
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