Stories of Survival May Have Therapeutic Aspects

I’m a survivor. Perhaps that’s why, as a personal historian, I connect so well with people who have endured difficult times. Many feel compelled to tell me their stories. I know from first-hand experience that telling your stories—the good, the bad, and the ugly—can be a big part of how well you survive and move on.

I’ve also learned that there is no set timetable to this. I’ve recently completed my own memoir that deals with painful periods from my past, including losing both of my parents at a young age. Everyone has to come to terms on his or her own about when is the right time to share difficult stories, whether they are intended for public consumption or just for family and closest friends.

Recently I worked with a man who decided the time was right to tell his story. His is a story of survival under the most horrendous of circumstances—what has gone down in history as the Bataan Death March.

Nineteen-year-old “John” wanted to see the world after graduating high school in June 1941, so he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force with two friends. Given a choice of assignments, John chose the Philippines.

Only months later—December 7, 1941—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The following day the United States declared war on Japan. John’s unit came under fire from Japanese warplanes, and the Battle of the Philippines began. The Americans were outgunned by the Japanese and suffered high casualty counts. They retreated to the Bataan peninsula, hoping that other U.S. troops would come to their aid. None arrived, so the men fought until they could no longer hold out.

In April 1942, the Americans surrendered. Historical records confirm the Japanese inflicted unspeakable horrors on their prisoners as they forcibly marched 75,000 men from Bataan to prison camps in the north, beginning on April ninth. The prisoners endured great brutality and tremendous hardship on the sixty-mile trek in tropical heat without food or water. The exact death toll was never determined but is estimated to be around 18,000 men, counting U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war.

John survived this inhumane trek and lived to tell his story.

“I was lucky,” John said. “Because I was in the back of the line, I could see what happened to those who resisted or fell. They were shot, stabbed, or decapitated. I kept walking and learned that my will to live was fierce. I never gave up.”

Years later, John returned to the Philippines. He bears no ill will towards the Japanese. He says that he will never forget his wartime ordeal, yet he forgives his former enemies.

When I think of John’s survival and his struggles, I apply the lessons he learned to my own life. I know that the will to live is strong. In her books, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a writer, counselor, and clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, calls this the “Life Force.”

I also understand that telling our story—in writing or in audio or video—can be a part of coming to terms with tough times and wrongs inflicted upon us. Some wise personal historian once said, “Telling your story isn’t therapy, but it is therapeutic.” I believe that, and that’s a big part of why I am honored to help people like John tell and save their stories.

I think the key to helping people with stories like this is to establish rapport with your subject, research what they endured, ask open-ended questions, and then sit back and listen. Be aware of your subject’s responses and, if the interview becomes too intense, give him the option to stop talking or continue at another time.

What about you? How have you worked to tell your own stories of survival or helped others?

~APH: Life, Story, People~

About today’s contributor: Libby Atwater has been a member of the Association of Personal Historians since 1998 and served on the association’s board. Through her business, Choose Your Words, she has been telling people’s stories for more than twenty years and specializes in print and audio biographies. She contributed to the APH anthology, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, and recently completed a memoir of her early years, What Lies Within, available on her website. Its sequel, What Took You So Long? is in progress.


The Open Window photo by siegertmarc (The open window, uploaded by MaybeMaybeMaybe) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Other photos courtesy Libby Atwater.

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3 Responses to Stories of Survival May Have Therapeutic Aspects

  1. Oh, amazing what people are able to survive… My friend Mary had poems and drawing that helped her survive anorexia, and years later her family wanted her to add something to them. I listened as she shared her experiences, and we partnered her stories with the poems and drawings, creating a book that illuminated the poems and gave them context. These were stories that she simply couldn’t give voice to alone–and so we walked together through the memories. It is now a book she has shared with many people, and it continues to touch people who are struggling, not just with anorexia. What an honor it has been to help her give voice to her stories.

  2. Leah Abrahams says:

    I produced a book for a couple who were married in 1950. The wife just died and her husband called me because he wants to “add to the book.” I know that what he really wants to do it talk about her because they had a strong, vital marriage for more than 60 years and he is devastated, grieving, lonely and asking why he needs to live. I’m hoping that getting together with him will give him strength to get through these difficult times and rediscover his Life Force.

  3. Leah, you may want to purchase a wonderful book on grief and healing written by my colleague Pickens Halt and published and edited by me. It is called “How We Grieve: Regression and Regrowth.” We sent 30 copies to a grief counselor who is working with the families in Newtown, CT, and she is extremely grateful for our support. You can find this book on my website.

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