Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shaping Story

I read an interesting article in the March 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine. You can't read the whole thing without a subscription, but here's a link in case you have one. The title is "Giving Up the Ghost - The eternal allure of life after death" and its by Leslie Jamieson. The main bent of it relates to a child psychiatrist researcher who collects stories about children who believe they are experiencing dreams/visions/knowledge from a former life. In particular, she discusses the story of a young boy thought to be a reincarnated WWII fighter pilot.

The thrust in this direction is interesting to me, but only in a passing way. What is most interesting to me is the story that the main family he/the article studies tells their story. Many times during the article, Jamieson, who is clearly also interested in this aspect, points the light back at the projector, so to speak, and glances at the parents, in particular, to see their attitude, note their relationship to the story.

When Jamieson speaks with a child psychiatrist about whether or not reinforcing the story, any small details at all, could explain the past-life belief, he says:
"It doesn't have to be an overt, egregious process," Ravitz said. "It can be very subtle." Even the fact of attention itself could be an engine of reinforcement...As a specialist in forensic child psychiatry, including sexual-abuse allegations, Ravitz has seen the extent to which a child's testimony can be influenced by context: how an interview is conducted, what kinds of questions are asked, how the nature and order and progression of these questions might shape the responses they elicit.
Jamieson is not trying to disprove the story, any of the stories, though she admits she is a skeptic. She, too, seems more interested in the ways we tell stories and live and make memories than in dis/proving.

Inherent to the investigation of memoir, for me, is the investigation of memory. And as a survivor of sexual abuse, I am of course interested in trauma in particular. But overall, I am curious about how we live our lives, how we re-member those shapes. And even under that I am also curious about  how we shape that material. We are always telling stories - about ourselves and others. It is how we make sense. And when a story becomes famous, as the Soul Survivor story has, then we see how we respond to others responding to the story being told. The meta-layers of memory, story-telling and writing are powerful and need practice to survive through.

In closing, Jamieson speaks to the more universal quality of seeking narrative, owning her role in this as a journalist:
It seemed to me that they were just a family seeking meaning in their experience, as we all do. In this case, the human hunger for narrative -- a hunger I experience constantly, and from which I make my living -- had built an intricate and self-sustaining story, all of it anchored by the desire to care for a little boy in the dark.
Maybe there's no universal syllogism. Maybe, instead, there's an imperative: whenever a child is crying out, we shouldn't just listen, we should consider the ways our listening might change the story we're hearing. But we should also keep listening, even after comprehension fails and we're left with pieces we can't fit together, the parts of a machine whose blueprints are missing, whose function we don't know...We can still appreciate the wild mechanisms of the human mind and heart.
And this, as I always say, is what is under writing for me. This is what makes the practice of contemplative writing contemplative - that we see, and understand it to be, as much about life as it is about writing. That how we relate to our story is how we relate to ourselves and ditto with others and others' stories. 

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