基調報告 “Helping People Tell Stories: Narrative Research on Troubled Lives”
Arthur W. Frank (University of Calgary)
Let me begin with a complex, academic word, narratology. Several years ago I was driving back from a conference with a colleague whose shares my interest in narrative, but the narrative expert in their family is actually his wife, who is a professor of divinity and writes about narrative in the Gospels. He described her work as being narratology. Because this technical word is used in different ways by different disciplines, I asked him what he meant. He thought for a moment and then replied that narratology involves asking: “what story is someone trying to tell, and what gets in their way.”
If a literary theorist were asked what narratology is, the answer would emphasize specifi c aspects of narration, including: temporal sequencing, point of view, characters, and plot (Charon, 2006). But my colleague's statement of narratology—what story someone is trying to tell, and what gets in their way—has an elegant simplicity that I find useful especially for thinking about narratives of illness, disability, trauma, and other life troubles. As people work to tell stories about these troubles—and that work is often a genuine struggle—they are seeking to understand what story they are telling. Narrative analysis, as I want to present it, is less about the analyst saying what someone's story is about; instead, narrative analysis witnesses storytellers' struggles to understand what story they are telling, and narrative research can help people with these struggles. Because stories are often defi ned by the forces that oppose their telling, storytellers' understanding of what obstructs or hinders their storytelling—what gets in their way—helps them to recognize what story they are telling. I want to discuss how narrative researchers can help people to understand what gets in the way of their storytelling, and help them tell the stories they are trying to tell.
The negative research question—what makes it difficult for people to tell stories about their lives—is probably the better place to begin, because academic research in social sciences does its best work demystifying conditions of people's lives that cause trouble, but also conceal how they are causing trouble. Stories of life's troubles are difficult to tell. These stories are not already there, waiting for storytellers to speak them and researchers to come along and collect them. I hope we all feel uncomfortable with that conventional social science verb, collect, when it is applied to narrative research, because it negates what is actually happening in the complex conversational interaction that research actually is (Mishler, 1986; Riessman, 2008).
Telling stories of troubled lives is an act of discovery. Storytellers discover, in the act of piecing together the story, what their experience has been. The fi rst important value of the story is to be the occasion for that piecing together of experience. More important, as storytellers hear themselves tell their own stories, they may be able to discover why they need that kind of story. But, this storytelling as discovery can easily be disrupted.
First and most obvious, other people, groups, or institutions have interests in preventing certain stories from being told. Perhaps these people or groups did something that caused the storytellers' trouble, or perhaps they have done less than they might have to relieve that trouble. The stories recorded by the sociologist Kai Erikson (1976, 1994) in his books about what he calls man-made disasters are good examples of stories that some people need to tell, and other people want to prevent being told. Erikson studies suffering that results when communities are injured by the activities of corporations that engage in practices that generate risk. Corporate creation of toxic waste is a one example. These corporations would have fi nancial liabilities if linkages were established between their activities and the suffering of individuals and communities. Stories would establish those linkages.
Erikson's work generally begins when he is contacted by lawyers representing communities that have suffered such injuries. His work often ends in courtrooms where he serves as an expert witness for those who have been injured, entering their stories into the public record of the court and advocating for financial judgments on their behalf. In his work, the idea of something trying to stop the telling of the story is quite literal; what tries to stop the telling of stories is the corporation's attorney. In other instances, what hinders the telling of a story of suffering can be more subtle and less easily observed.
In my own research on illness stories, those who consider themselves dedicated to helping heal people often end up making it more diffi cult for these people to tell their stories. Physicians and nurses fi nd it troubling to hear patients' stories of how the medical system actually increased their suffering. Those stories may be about injuries resulting from medical error—and in North American, about one patient in seven suffers some medical error—or about the side effects of prescribed treatments, or they may be about institutional processes that are less than caring, or they may be about particular healthcare workers whose actions caused their patients increased suffering.
The families of ill people also have diffi culty hearing how these loved ones continue to suffer despite the family's efforts and best intentions. Those caring for an ill person want everything to be well, and they are working hard to make everything well. They take it personally, as a failure of their efforts and even of their intentions, when stories are told that describe how things are not well for the patient. Family members try to stop these stories in subtle ways, by cuing the ill person that such stories are inappropriate and undesired. Ill people, perceiving those cues, become silent, holding their stories within. That holding stories within becomes another source of suffering. A second force that stops people from telling their stories is the nature of the trouble that those stories seek to understand and communicate. Several years ago, at a conference in Sweden, colleagues and I discussed what we called “ broken narratives” (Hyden and Brockmeier, forthcoming). One category of broken narratives includes stories about traumas so deep that speaking of them is difficult if not impossible. Memoirs by the adult children of survivors of the Holocaust and of wartime traumas express this brokenness. Two sisters who are the authors of a recent family memoir about the Netherlands during World War II write: “Our grandparents rarely spoke of those times. … So what follows comes not from them but from clues left behind, like ghosts' footprints. … We were compelled to search out their story when we realized it was disappearing” (Hillen, 2008). Note the paradox that the wartime story disappears, as the generation passes, without ever actually appearing, as a whole. Fragments of the story are all that are told, often through indirect references that the children had to learn to interpret (Eisenstein, 2006).
These family memoirs contrast two kinds of narrative suffering. There is the suffering of the survivors of the initial trauma, whose experience is simply too awful to be relived in a fully detailed telling. And there is the suffering of the adult children who have spent their lives needing to hear stories of what made their parents who they are. Each form of suffering has a need that works against the need of the other form.
A complementary form of broken narrative includes stories that had been forgotten within community memories, often because of violences to the continuity of those communities. Jo-Ann Archibald (2008), a member of an Indigenous, First Nations community in British Columbia and an educator, writes about stories that the Elders in communities describe as having “gone to sleep”, by which she means that Elders vaguely recall a story, but no one can remember all the details. Archibald facilitates what she calls storywork in which story fragments remembered by different elders are pieced together to form a reconstructed whole story.
Archibald's narrative research emphasizes that this loss of community narrative memory is not simple forgetting over time. The disruption of narrative memory occurred because of specific actions taken by the Canadian government, especially forcing First Nations children into residential schools, in which every effort was made to erase cultural memories and indigenous languages. The forgetting of stories happens as a direct consequence of this 20th century form of colonialism.
A third factor that gets in the way of people trying to tell stories is the inadequacy of the narrative resources those people have available to tell the story they are struggling to tell. People learn to tell stories as a skill. We humans, early in our lives, learn what a story is, and we learn particular ways to tell stories. We learn how to introduce a story, how to develop the plot, how to describe characters, how to tell the story from a consistent point of view, and how to create the sense of an ending to the story. Our learning, adequate or inadequate, becomes our narrative resources. The problem is that those resources may not be adequate to tell the stories that need to be told, especially stories of trouble and suffering.
Narrative resources are not strictly personal; rather, they are collectively shared. People learn to tell stories, and they acquire narrative resources, within families and communities. Thus, people generally lack resources to tell stories about whatever has not yet been the subject of their communities' stories. To return to my earlier examples, communities generally do not tell stories about the kind of extreme victimhood that was experienced during wars or, among Indigenous people in Canada, during the forced removal of children to residential schools. Although most families have experiences of illness, stories about the suffering of chronic illness and disability may not be told, especially to children. People's difficulty speaking of these troubles begins with a simple lack of suffi cient examples of similar stories, from which narrative resources can be learned.
Fortunately, narrative resources can be repaired. I recently read an especially moving story about narrative repair. A schoolteacher, Jane Jacobson, described teaching children who have radically disrupted lives. They no longer have homes, many have been in legal trouble, and their school is as much a residential shelter for these children as it is an educational institution. One day as Ms. Jacobson attempted to fi nd a story that would speak to these children's reality, she began to tell one of the most familiar folk tales in the Western tradition, the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, as collected during the 19th century by the German philologists, the Brothers Grimm. The story begins with parents who are too poor to feed themselves and their children, so they conspire to send the children into a forest where they will become lost and die. The children in this shelter had never heard this story before, and they became deeply engaged in what happened to Hansel and Gretel.
Jacobson (2008) describes her students' experience of listening to the story: “They had lived Hansel and Gretel's story of neglect and poverty, but until I read the story to them, they had not known how much our culture could confi rm or refl ect their own experience.” Jacobson's telling of this story, a story that most children would have learned much earlier in their lives, worked as a narrative repair in the lives of these troubled children. The 19th century folk tale gave them the fi rst resources they need not only to tell their own stories, but also it allowed them to imagine themselves belonging to a storytelling tradition in which their stories have a part.
The acquisition of narrative resources is more than learning to tell diverse kinds of stories. Telling stories can be a means of achieving a place in a community in which these stories have a place. Experiencing one's stories as having a place within a community—having the telling of those stories be accepted and honored—does not in itself remedy suffering. But it does begin to remedy the sense of alienation and craziness that people feel when their communities seem to offer no narrative resources to express what these troubled people feel has happened to themselves.
These, then, are three forces that stop people from telling stories: other people and their interests, the depth of traumatic experiences, and the lack of narrative resources. Narrative research has a responsibility to study what prevents people from telling stories, so that people can better deal with these forces. As many folktales tell us, being able to name something is itself a form of power. Even if people cannot do away with the forces that hinder their storytelling, naming these forces is a form of empowerment against them.
Narrative research's complementary and more positive responsibility is to help people to tell stories that are not easily told. I want to be clear that in the research I imagine, the social scientist not only accepts but actively embraces having a reactive effect on those who participate in research. The contemporary term for seeking to have a reactive effect is action research, and the narrative research I am calling for is one kind of action research.
Narrative researchers can help people tell stories, fi rst, in the way we conduct our interviews. Interviewing can, of course, take many different forms. In some interviews, a single question may be asked, eliciting a long story to which the interviewer simply listens. That is probably the most desirable form of narrative interview, but the storytelling does not always progress smoothly. As I have already discussed, many people have encountered listeners who try, more or less actively, to stop their storytelling, or to shape the stories in particular ways. The opposition that many storytellers have experienced has turned them into tellers of fragmented stories. The interviewer must undertake the storywork of reassembling these fragments. Here again, I borrow that useful term, storywork, from Jo-ann Archibald's work with Indigenous communities that have had their narrative memories cut off by state intervention. Storywork also describes what Jane Jacobson is doing when she tells folktales about suffering children to her troubled school children, in order to repair their narrative resources. Interviews can be occasions for coaching storytellers to tell more fully formed narratives.
Researchers do storywork when, after listening to a story without interruption, they invite elaborations of the story that has been told briefl y. These elaborations can include asking for more detail about specifi c characters. For example, an interviewer might ask a participant to return to a character and provide a more complete physical description of that person and then expand the scope of follow-up questions that teach the interview participant how to narrate a character. Or, an interviewer might ask for a more visual description of the scene in which the story takes place. Or, the interviewer might ask the participant if she or he remembers specifi c dialog as it was spoken. The most extensive elaborations may ask the storyteller about some aspect of the plot that seems to be missing. Please note that I am not recommending asking storytellers how they felt about what the story describes. I try not to ask about emotional reactions, but rather to let the story itself indicate appropriate emotional reactions. The questions that I recommend keep the focus on the plot, characters, and scene of the story. These questions seek to encourage and develop the storyteller's capacity to tell fuller stories.
Asking storytellers to elaborate specifi c details certainly involves the risk that the interview participant will create details that are only vaguely remembered. But then, all narrative research depends on memory, and memories are perpetually being elaborated. The advantages of the narrative coaching that I'm suggesting are, first, that a more detailed story becomes part of the research record. Second, and signifi cant to the action program of action research, the interview participants learn to become better-equipped storytellers of their lives. As the interview teaches narrative resources, it encourages people's confidence that what they says matters to someone else. All storytelling depends on that confi dence.
Narrative research begins with storytelling in interviews or during other kinds of community meetings. Research culminates in some kind of report, whether that takes the form of the court testimony that Kai Erikson prepares in his research on man-made disasters, or if it takes the form of journal articles to be read by practicing clinicians, or by policy makers, or by fellow academics. Curiously, few research reports seem to be written for the research participants, and narrative researchers should consider that form of publication as well.
Research reports, as third-person accounts, necessarily risk doing violence to the stories that people have given during research. Perhaps the most serious risk is that research reports can appropriate the stories that researchers have been told. In North American academic work, appropriation is a serious accusation against research. Academics are charged with taking people's stories away from them and using these stories to advance interests—including the career of the researcher—that have little benefi t to those whose stories are collected. Appropriation most often takes the banal form of academic reports that depend on the inherent power of people's stories, claim to add something to these stories, but then fail to say more than the storyteller has already said. I read too many narrative studies of illness in which I fi nd myself wishing the researcher would simply keep quiet and restrict him or herself to the most direct representation of the stories she or he has heard. Nothing the researcher says seems to approach the evocative power of the stories being quoted, yet those stories are made to reappear under the rubric of the researcher's authorship.
Researchers always risk the appropriation of retelling stories without signifi cantly adding to their force. We do our work with the great disadvantage of not knowing nearly as much about the lives of the people we study as those people themselves know. Yet, we can add to stories in at least three signifi cant ways, and these three are considerable.
First, publication, despite its inherent risk of appropriation, adds value to stories. Publication vastly expands the circle of those who become witnesses to those people's suffering, or who simply gain an appreciation of the everyday realities and struggles of others' lives. The literal meaning of publication is to make public; making public also preserves, especially in an age of electronic data storage. Our publication of people's stories gives those stories a permanence and broader public hearing; that is a minimal value. We academic researchers also have considerable power to call attention to stories that would otherwise remain unattended, because we supposedly have expertise. Part of what publics expect from us is an editing function. One value of our work is to sort out that which is worthy of attention from that which can be disregarded. It may be questionable how qualifi ed we are to perform this function, but then, it is questionable how qualifi ed journalists, publishers, and other public editors are. The point seems to be that reading publics take seriously what we publish, because we supposedly have the expertise to put before them what deserves their attention.
The value of publication is summarized in a phrase that the Canadian storyteller Thomas King (2003) uses in a book he wrote about stories, especially Indigenous stories. King places at the centre of most chapters a story about experiences of First Nations people, and most of these are deeply troubled stories refl ecting various levels of oppression. King is acutely aware that these stories are not generally known, because the lives of First Nations people are relatively invisible to most Canadians. So he ends each chapter with a refrain telling readers that they can do whatever they want with the stories that he has told: readers can undertake some action in response to the story, they can tell the story to others, or they can forget the story. But what readers cannot do is claim that no one ever told them such stories. “You've heard it now,” King repeats, in the refrain that ends each of his chapters. Every publication of any stories, but especially troubled stories, should end with that refrain. You've heard it now.
A second value that we academics can bring to stories is to connect stories of storytellers who may be unknown to each other, or stories between which the terms of connection may be not be self-evident. In the space of my remarks today, I have connected disaster stories, illness stories, war and Holocaust stories and Canadian First Nations stories; those connections could be expanded. The danger of these connections is that particularities of individual stories and community lives can get lost. The advantage goes back to what one of the great sociologists of the 1950s, C. Wright Mills (1959), described as the value of sociology: to connect personal troubles to social issues. The genius of any person's story is its ability to express the experience that makes that life unique. But that expression by itself, alone, can leave the storyteller isolated. Stories need connection to other stories, because those story connections also connect people.
The enormous advantage of being a narrative researcher is not that we enjoy any interpretive privilege with respect to understanding any person's specific story. Instead, a narrative researcher has the advantage of being able to hear many stories. Most simply put, we researchers get around more than most people. The metaphor of a bee or a hummingbird often occurs to me when I think about narrative research; we researchers do our share of the work of cross-pollination. We perform narrative pollination, and that allows stories from one place to inform and enrich life elsewhere. And, going back to the task that Mills set for sociology, we can help people to feel less alone, but showing what their stories, and their troubles, share with others. Narrative research can become a medium of connection.
A third value of narrative research is that we can help those who have not yet been able to tell their stories but want to. As narrative research shows what resources people have used in telling stories of their troubled lives, it performs the work of narrative repair that I discussed earlier. Those who are not yet able to tell their stories need only to see others using the narrative resources that they lack, and they acquire these resources for themselves. With these narrative resources, they become able to tell stories they could not tell. In becoming able to tell their stories, these people claim experiences—literally parts of themselves—that had not been entirely theirs. The best I can express this complex idea is to say that as we humans live our lives, some parts of those lives can be lived but not experienced, because experience requires a narrative framing. Experience requires stories.
In my view, narrative research is an inherently limited enterprise, yet crucially important precisely because of its limitations. Narrative researchers need to realize and accept—and honestly tell their readers—that they can never understand the depth of the stories they hear; that is, what those stories truly mean in the lives of those who tell them. But that defi cit of understanding is nothing more than the human condition. I refl ect increasingly on how little I know about what it is to live the lives of the people closest to me, much less about people whose lives are lived at enormous distance from mine—not only geographic distance but also distances of economic resources, symbolic values, forms of kinship and community, cultural memory, and many other distances. But for us humans, our stories, fragile and incomplete as they may be, are as close as we can get to each other. The mandate of narrative research, most simply put, is to help people to become closer by knowing each other's stories, and to help individuals know their own stories.
As a closing comment, let me suggest that we might do well to think less about our work as narrative research or narrative analysis, and instead to think of ourselves as engaged in narrative response. In everyday life, people tell stories in anticipation of others' responses. The quality of those responses creates the relationship, or lack of relationship, between those people; a minimal response creates a minimal relationship. I encourage the researchers I work with to close their interviews by asking research participants what response they would like to the stories they have told. What groups of people do they want their stories to be heard by? What would they like to have happen, when people hear their stories? What participants tell us need not limit our responses, but our responses can begin with what they tell us, and develop from there. As we craft responses beyond what people have asked for, we can continue to ask ourselves: “Am I responding in a way that will develop the relationship that I want to have with this person?” Or: “Am I using this person's story in a way that they would appreciate, even if they could not anticipate that use?” Guided by such responsive questions, our research can help people tell stories they need to tell.
Archibald, Jo-ann. 2008. Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Charon, Rita. 2006. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. New York: Oxford.
Eisenstein, Bernice. 2006. I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. McClelland & Stewart.
Erikson, Kai. 1976. Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Erikson, Kai. 1994. A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. New York: Norton.
Hillen, Ernest. 2008. Review of Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski, The Occupied Garden: Recovering the Story of a Family in the War-torn Netherlands. The Globe and Mail, D3, March 29.
Hyden, Lars-Christer and Jens Brockmeier (eds.). Forthcoming. Health, Illness, Culture: Broken Narratives. London: Routledge.
Jacobson, Jane. 2008. Finding their way home. Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 2, pp. 34-35.
King, Thomas. 2003. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford.
Mishler, Elliot G. 1986. Research Interviewing: Context and Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Riessman, Catherine Kohler. 2008. Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. Los Angeles and London: Sage.