A Big Question You’d Like to Ask Your Therapist: “What is Your Story?”

512px-Norman_Saunders_-_cover_of_Marvel_Science_Stories_for_April-May_1939

The ultimate question is always: “What is your story, doc? Not just hints about your life or anecdotes that are instructive or amusing, but a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. What is the truth, if there ever is such a thing, about how you came to be the person you are?”

To start, I didn’t learn anything in my first 20 years. OK, I did learn some things, but many of those needed unlearning over the coming decades.

I listened to stories and — much later — became a good story-teller, to which my children will attest. I had to get over the awful stories I imbibed in order to tell my own. Mom’s stories were tragic, a snapshot of her childhood unhappiness as Jeanette Fabian: the misery of her starvation due to poverty, tuberculosis due to starvation, and the Great Depression driving it all. From these I learned fear of what might (and would, in her estimation) go wrong. Much time passed before I recognized many things were already going right for me; and I could improve still more if I took hold of the chances before me and deafened myself to the footsteps of disaster at my back.

My father, Milt Stein, told funny tales he made up out of nothing. Dad and I were co-hosts in an imaginary radio program of his invention when I was tiny. The “broadcast” was called the Jedna Chennai Peanut Show, named after two Polish language newspapers he sold on Chicago streets as an 11-year-old; and, I imagine, I was the “peanut,” an edible he loved to the end of his days. Real peanuts and me, I mean.

The major stories of dad’s life had to do with acts of self-assertion, something he didn’t always do, but made a difference when he did. The tales were told and retold. For example, he took a course in wood shop in high school, requiring him to make things with saws, planes, and other tools. He was poor at this, but did manage to build a shield, one of the items the instructor said was enough to pass the course.

Somehow he failed. Undeterred, Milt reminded the teacher of his statement about the requirements to get a passing mark. The instructor grudgingly changed dad’s grade to that of a “conditional” pass: if he completed the next course in the sequence with an acceptable mark, dad would be awarded the lowest possible “pass” in the one just finished, thanks to his barely adequate shield. It didn’t occur to me then, but there was a message within the oft-told anecdote: to stand up for yourself and keep plugging. In other words, not mom’s prediction of impending disaster: in effect, that a brick will inevitably fall on your head if you walk beside tall buildings.

My mother was trying to protect me from repeating the trauma of her own life, but succeeded only in terrifying me. How difficult for a parent to grasp the world has changed — the world of their child is not the world of their childhood. I spent 20 years and parts of several more living in the shadow of Jeanette Fabian’s catastrophic youth. Sometime later the sunlight conveyed indirectly by my father broke through the threatening clouds called “your future.” Dad’s “shield,” quite real in my imagination, might be used to push through the everyday battles of life. I needed only to decode his obscure message: the advice to stand up and keep plugging; the advice I don’t think he realized he conveyed, but awaited my discovery nonetheless.

LESSON: You are going to grow up with stories; the things said and those unsaid, like pieces of a puzzle; the anecdotes of your parents and perhaps your grandparents, and some composite version of all the tales you hear as they collide with each other and form a “family” story. You will also fashion a tale from the lived experience of your own existence. NONE OF THESE STORIES IS TRUE! They represent, instead, one of many possible ways to make sense of life in general and the specifics of our time on the planet, in particular. DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THEM. DON’T IDENTIFY TOO CLOSELY WITH ANY OF THEM. Your relatives’ stories are not yours. You can’t relive them, even if that were a good idea.

As far as your narrative is concerned, you are in the middle of it now. Your story is malleable, like bronze in the hands of a metal sculptor. The creation is a work of imagination and slant, giving you lots of room to experiment — to change its shape. The architecture isn’t frozen until you live it. Indeed, not even then, as you reinterpret the events. You can be the guy who didn’t pass his wood shop course cleanly or the one who persuaded the teacher to do the right thing.

Change your story and you will change your life, your life satisfaction, and the lives of those around you. Think you will crash and burn, and you cut the chances of prosperity. Believe you are as good as your press releases, a self-made person who never benefited from any luck or help from others, and you will be full of hot air and look down on those around you. Every one of us must change our story as we walk through time — refining, redefining, recreating; and making the best of what we have learned from others, all we’ve experienced, heaps of our successes, and a dash of suffering.

What’s your story? You never know whose tiny ears are listening.

The top image is the April-May, 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories. The artist was Norman Saunders, restoration by Adam Cuerdan. The cover is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

23 thoughts on “A Big Question You’d Like to Ask Your Therapist: “What is Your Story?”

  1. And thanks for yet another good story, Peanut.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Judy. 😉 Of course, my dad never called me that. As I said, we try to make sense of things, but the stories we tell ourselves are all wide of the mark, if not frankly dishonest. Sometimes the stories serve us, sometimes not. Indeed, I never thought about how the third word of the “radio” show was chosen until I wrote this.

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  2. This was great and I agree entirely. Your articles are so interesting and many times a conversation between JoEllen and me. Thanks so much for the insight and telling us a bit about yourself. I loved it.

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  3. Such an interesting post Gerald. Recently my six year old niece is asking me to tell her stories of when we, my brothers ( one of them being her father) and I were young. Its a real worry what to say to her as my brothers and I were severely traumatised by our father and my brother and I were bullied all through school. I cant even really say about all the ‘fun’ things my brothers and I did together as our father was constantly pitting us against each other so we weren’t really close and have managed but struggled to maintain family connection with one another. I seriously can only think of about 3 benign stories of my childhood to tell her. I certainly don’t want her to know the truth of our upbringing. It makes me sad because when I was young I was always asking mum to tell me stories of when she was a little girl, i loved hearing those stories over and over again. I would love to have the same experience with my niece but I dont want her carrying the legacy of the previous generation. It does bring me alot of joy though to know that she will never have to experience what we did. I think I will just have to become a great storyteller like you.

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    • Thanks for this, Claire. Of course, you don’t have to answer the questions. You can also tell her different stories, fairy tales, read to her, etc. Most of the bedtime stories I told my kids were created on the spot. Some characters made repeated appearances in different stories. It was fun for the teller and the listener. Any tale has to have some sort of challenge or difficulty. How the trouble is mastered is the key. If you can give her a sense of that (without scaring the wits out of her), you will perhaps be doing her a favor.

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  4. I love the shield story! I hope to weave a tail of similar symbolism, though I wonder if resilience can be taught or if it needs to be discovered while weathering one’s own trials.

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    • * tale (iPhone has interesting ideas about homophones…)

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    • Thank you. I think resilience can be nurtured, if not taught. Encouragement is part of it, good models (parents who “show” and don’t just “tell”), and help with framing a defeat in such a way as to be both sympathetic and make sure that a pattern of avoidance doesn’t develop. No simple answer, of course, and much depends on understanding the child’s nature.

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  5. Thank you for a thoughtful post. It seems like one’s story is largely about memory. Memory seems to be a tangled web of story and truth, and reaction to that story and truth. I imagine what matters most is one’s perception of the memory and then what one does with their reaction to the memory.

    The whole idea of your life as a story has intrigued me for a long time. I am the author of my story but often I am writing it with my eyes closed. It’s only after the chapter closes that I can go back and read it. And that, frankly, is somewhat scary. I am afraid the book will close before I take ownership of the story.

    I wonder how a person determines the central narratives of his or her story? I can easily identify the main characters, the setting, even most of the plot of my story but the theme? The theme appears to be not unlike that tangled web I referenced above.

    “If you’re going to have a story, have a big story. Or none at all.” Joseph Campbell
    This quote has run around and around in my head for the last couple of years. I don’t understand what a “big story” is but I am intrigued by the words.

    Again, thank you for a thoughtful post. I suspect I will be pondering this one for awhile. JT

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    • Thanks, JT. I think you are on to something important: the role of memory. We tend to think of memory as photographic — reproducing something accurately. But the brain is imperfect and we end up with something photoshopped even before the rationalizations and massaging comes into play. “Writing with your eyes closed” well-captures how we go through life most of the time. “A big story?” My dad certainly didn’t have one, though I think he was quite satisfied with how his life turned out. In 1932, the depth of the Great Depression, he was 21 and without a steady job, despite his best efforts, for most of the year. I’m sure he had lots of company in the belief that he might never be able to make an acceptable living and have a family of his own. In the end he did both and thought himself a success. Grandeur and wealth were never in the picture and their absence never bothered him. He married the love of his life, was able to retire comfortably, and thought his three sons had turned out well. So we have memory, stories, and how we evaluate the memories and stories. When others think of us I imagine they tell different stories about us. Perhaps there is no truth, only truths.

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      • Here’s the thing: I’m not even sure if I wrote the story (eyes opened or closed). It feels now more like the story was directed by something else. The family of origin and the cultural institutions actually wrote most of my story (and I imagine most of all our stories). I followed their script and ended up with what might appear to be an ideal closing few chapters: a solid education and a strong public service career, a 30+ year (not perfect but pretty good) marriage, two responsible and kind adult children, and a modest home in a spectacularly beautiful part of the country. It’s a good story and I should just enjoy it but I have to wonder what my own version (absent the culture) would have been.

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      • drgeraldstein

        Good point, JT. We could have lived any number of possible lives. If one includes the number of lives had we been born into a different family or culture, then the number is staggering. As you say, many influences not of our making. Then there are the choices we do make, though they are still influenced by our history and the histories of our forbears. Imagine not marrying your wife as just one big game changer. Any life, no matter how long, can’t encompass all the possibilities. It sounds though, that yours is a worthy story and one you’ve had a big hand in.

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  6. thank you for sharing. i had a traumatic birth with my oldest son (6 years ago). it just dawned on me in reading your post that at bedtime he wants me to make up a story of him being a baby. i always create the story of him sneaking out of the room and getting into mischief and he thinks it’s hilarious. i’ve never shared his birth to him as scary or upsetting — these stories are healing and joy-bringing for both of us.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Stories are wonderful and necessary. I told my own share of funny stories to my kids at bedtime. Thanks for sharing a bit of yours.

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  7. “Change your story and you will change your life, your life satisfaction, and the lives of those around you.” Thanks for that, Dr. Stein.

    While I read stories to my sons, I never told them stories about my life before them. There was too much pain in the past to burden their lives. The present had challenges of its own. We shared the story of our present lives; each one interpreting the story in our own way. It’s only in recent times, since reuniting with my family, that I’ve shared some of my past with them.

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    • Children often fill in the blanks left by parents with a traumatic past. Holocaust survivors typically did not share their stories with their children, at least until late in life. Nonetheless, the children knew enough about the history of the period to be impacted. Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” was the first book that dealt with the second generation effects of the trauma. For those parents who do not have a “public,” generalized history, it is probably easier to protect children from a kind of toxic knowledge.

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  8. Really enjoy your blogging. It’s intelligent and insightful and a unique perspective that clients never get access to (in good therapy that is). Thanks! Perhaps you could consider writing a post on when therapists make mistakes and how to handle that with clients. Maybe you already have. Haven’t been following that long.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Much appreciated, Gayle. I have dealt occasionally with therapists’ mistakes, but will take a look to see if anything I’ve written has targeted that in detail. If I have, I’ll respond to this again. If not, I’ll give your suggestion consideration. Thanks for following my posts.

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  9. Your posts are always just what I need to hear, Dr G, very well put together and easy to apply to our own lives

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