“I’ve never told this to anyone before.”
“Please don’t laugh at me. It’s so weird to talk about this. But it’s great to get it off my chest.”
These are phrases I’ve heard both as a clinical psychologist and a personal historian. While personal history is not, strictly speaking, therapy, it is my experience that the two have many things in common. Telling the story of one’s life can be a hugely cathartic and exhilarating process of self-discovery, and sometimes redemptive, regardless of context.
You now have about ninety-nine percent of the facts of my life.
But it feels so unfinished. My actions feel disembodied.
I am haunted by emotion, I’m all heartache and shame.
Perhaps I am seeking atonement, I don’t know.
But I do know that I need the world to bear witness to my soul.
These were the words of my very first personal history client. Intentionally, I had tried hard not to “play therapist” to a deeply troubled man who, as it turned out, wanted to leave a profoundly true legacy. When he said that to me, I was stunned, but I am nothing if not a therapist, so I put on my “shrink’s cap” and dove into the work of crafting his story: right past the logical, into the psychological, to interpret his life as he truly saw it, through a kaleidoscope of emotional entanglements, perceptual distortions, and memories that had evolved with each new experience. Looking back, it was truly one hot mess. However, it was only by wading through the muck that we could excavate his most subterranean truths, and give him the psychological release he desperately sought.
Of course, for most personal history projects, there is no need to put our clients on the proverbial couch. They are not required to have psychic epiphanies. The personal historian doesn’t need to call upon trained therapeutic skills—or refer their clients for professional help. But when the stories run deep, and new insights are mined, the experience has been transcendent for both the client and myself.
An 80-year-old Holocaust survivor spent two years telling me his story. Ultimately, he was able to reconcile the blessings of his present life with the devastation of his past, and he found the strength to visit the village cemetery back in Poland and ask his family, in their graves, to forgive him for surviving.
An 83-year-old great-grandmother revealed a secret that haunted her for sixty-six years. As a 17-year-old secretly married, Jewish partisan in the forests of Czechoslovakia during World War II, she gave birth while hiding alone behind a tree. Still attached by the umbilical cord, the baby began to wail. The noise alerted a Gestapo soldier who instantly appeared at her feet. With baby in one hand, her own gun in the other, she raised her weapon and shot and killed the soldier. While she did not feel guilty, she had never before told this story because she did not want her daughter to think that her birth was sullied by, or inextricably linked to, death. Her daughter was now grown, with children and grandchildren of her own. Telling the story was transformative: her secret was in the open, and the trauma she feared she would pass down to the next generation was expunged.
These stories are not easily come by. But the memories a person reveals, no matter how shocking or transgressive, are new only to me, not to them. When I listen to these stories with equanimity, the narrators do not feel the need to censor to protect me from the violence of their memories. Sometimes, I simply need to fake aplomb. When my heart is breaking, I need to have the greatest presence of mind and to focus on listening so that I can hear with my intellect what my heart most desperately wants to refute.
I do not feel that most people are unduly fragile; we have reservoirs of strength to call upon in times of stress, particularly when sheltered within the compassion of an understanding listener. I believe that the ability to cry is a sign of strength, not weakness. It helps to have the training of a therapist, but it is most important to have compassion, patience, and intellectual curiosity, to seek out and listen to the still, small voice.
~APH: Life, Story, People~
About today’s contributor: Teri Friedman, PhD, a member of the Association of Personal Historians since 1999, is a psychologist in private practice in Westchester County, New York. She has extensive training and experience in interviewing and oral histories. Through her business, Reminiscence, she creates books and audio interviews on CD. She also lectures on the therapeutic aspects of writing, and conducts Memoir Writing workshops and Life Story Projects in schools, senior centers, and synagogues. She travels across the US and Canada for her work.
Elderly woman. Photograph by James McTaggart, October, 1974, under project for the Environmental Protection Agency. This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the National Archives and Records Administration as part of a cooperation project. The National Archives and Records Administration provides images depicting American and global history which are public domain or licensed under a free license. Holocaust Memorial in Miroslav, a town in Znojmo District, Czech Republic. Photo by Fet’our, via Wikimedia Commons and released for use in the public domain.