Posted tagged ‘Storytelling’

A Story Is A Type Of Medicine

October 17, 2010

This is a different post than I normally do on this blog.

  Someone I know as an on-line friend recently shared with me that she’s been going through a really excellent period of her life.  She and her husband have 2 young girls with autism.  I urged her to share her story with an on-line support group in which she participates.  She indicated her hesitation was around members of the group wondering if her experience was a fantasy—she emphasizes it was real and meant a great deal to her, but worried about not being believed.  I thought I’d share my response with you, since it touches so much on Storytelling  and the recent suicides of gay and lesbian young people:

My Dear S,

I was trained as a traditional American Indian Storyteller.  I’ve used traditional legends in my work as a Family Therapist.  We’re taught that sometimes, people need stories more than they need food.  A story is a type of map that tells you where you’ve been and where you need to go.  Sometimes a story is so powerful…the story tells you.

To put it less poetically, a story can be understood as a “script” that directs your action in the theater of Life.  That’s why one of the first questions I’ll ask of a new couple who come into therapy is about what sort of role models they had for being part of a couple.  In a nation where about half of all marriages end in divorce, many young (and not so young) adults don’t have the experience of a healthy, happy set of parents (or grandparents).  They don’t have modeled for them how to argue—or indeed, how to fight, in a way that’s healthy or loving.  What many have modeled is how to be resentful, how to be constantly angry, or how to consistently blame.

While some therapists say “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” it’s difficult to go back and “reprogram” a person’s personal history.  But one of the things you discover as a therapist, is the “story” (model) doesn’t have to come from a person’s parents.  A story is like water…it seeks its own level.  It goes where it needs to go.  A model of a viable couple may come from a movie, or a book, or from me telling them, “Well, last week this is what a couple who were sitting exactly where you’re sitting, told me about how they solved a problem similar to yours…”

To put it another way, American Indians consider stories to be a type of “medicine.”  For American Indians, our meaning of “medicine” combines the idea of “healing” and “holy.”  Just so, the other thing I have tried to teach my university students and professionals in training—the only difference between medicine and poison is the dosage.

Just as there are Stories that can be used in healing, there are Stories that can be used in poisoning.  Some Stories can kill.

In the past few weeks, there have been a number of stories of young gay and lesbian people who committed suicide because of treatment by others of their sexual orientation.  Even more disturbing to me is the knowledge these are only the needless deaths that have been picked up and made known by the major media.  There are deaths like these that happened in silence, or happened and were silenced. 

This is an example of the Power of Story.  Children who grow up with a message that they are damaged…that they are “bad”—that they are a mistake and an “abomination” can learn to believe such a Story.   A Story can kill.

A few moments before I read your e-mail, I was watching this video:

It’s about a little boy who enjoys “pretty” things.  It’s about how much he enjoys dressing up in sparkly dresses and dancing.  It’s about how his family and 8 year old brother think his behavior is fine because it makes him happy and they want him to be happy.  It’s about the mother going to his school to be “pro-active”—that instead of waiting for school children to make fun of her son or bullying him, to ask about how his school teaches respect for difference.  It’s about the whole school being involved.  It’s about the mother writing a children’s book about her son being a “Princess Boy” so her child’s Story could be used as a teaching tool in the school.  The book is now being sold in bookstores.

A Story is like water.  It seeks its own level.  It goes where it needs to go. This is the story of this little boy in Seattle, who likes to dress up in sparkly dresses and dance because it makes him happy.  But the reality is…the Story of a little boy is a “real” book.  The Story of a little boy is a “real” video clip that was shown to viewers of a program on a major television station, which has since been seen by hundreds of thousands of people on Youtube, and may eventually be seen by millions.

Should you tell your story?

There’s a wonderful storyteller from Chile.  Her name is Isabel Allende. In an interview on National Public Radio, she laughed and said, “Of course I’m a liar.  A storyteller is a type of liar.”  A real storyteller is able to tell an audience the truth it needs to know.  A Story is often a type of lie.  Does a hero always win in “real” life?  Will the Princess Boy always be greeted with love and respect in “real” life?  Stories are a type of map.  In the “real” world, there is a great deal of chaos.  Awful Things Happen.  Stories are tools that can help give a person a meaning to chaos.  Stories can tell people to look at tragedy, at pain, and to continue going forward. Sometimes people need stories more than they need food.

I taught for many years in the clinic of a medical school.  Do you know what a placebo is?  Most people use the word in a dismissive way—“It’s just a placebo.”  One of the most common references is that a placebo is a “sugar pill.”  A provider gives it to a patient instead of “real” medicine.


The word comes from the Latin for “I please.”  But here’s the “real” part of the placebo effect.  Pharmaceutical companies hate placebos.  Do you know why? Because the FDA requires them to test their new drugs in a double-blind way against placebos.  This means the persons doing the testing and the patients don’t know if they are about to get the “real” drug or the placebo.  Why do the pharmaceutical companies hate the placebo?  Because over and over again the patients get better results from the placebo than they do from the “real” drug.

A Story is a type of Medicine.  A Story can heal.  A placebo is a type of Story.

I was once on a panel with Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained physician famed for his work in Alternative Medicine.  This is what he said about placebos—that we were missing the whole point of them.  A placebo proves there is nothing that can be done by a pharmaceutical intervention that the human body can’t perfectly duplicate on its own.

Will members of your group believe your story, even though it may seem by some to be a “fantasy?”  You know what I think?  I think that even if your experience didn’t happen…it should have happened.  It should also happen in the future, where another good couple, where another good set of parents…get a taste of happiness. 

I have worked very hard to give couples the stories they need to become better couples.  I need your story as an additional tool to help couples to become better couples.

Do I need your story to be true?  Your Story is already true.  Did it need to happen exactly the way it was Told?  No.  Most Stories don’t.  That is why a Storyteller is a type of liar. 


To put it another way, a Storyteller is like a weaver who takes the dirty wool from smelly sheep and makes a beautiful cloth from it.


  Is the cloth the “lie” of the dirty, smelly sheep?







  Or did the weaver reveal the beauty and usefulness of what a sheep can be—the Truth of Sheep?  As a Storyteller do I take the raw resources of what “really” happened? 






 You bet.  But I don’t hand an audience those raw resources anymore than a weaver hands someone in need of warm clothing a handful of unwashed wool.

A Storyteller does not always tell human beings about what they are…a Storyteller tells people what they can be.  A Story is a type of map.  It can show people where they should be going.

I am privileged and I am honored by the story you have shared about you and your family. 






I feel better having heard it. 

 I thank you.