Narrating HerStory

Narrative, according to Merriam-Webster’s definition, is the representation in art of an event or story. The representation can be expressed through song, poetry, dance, paint, or in my case, a novel.

Writing was my escape as an adolescent girl. I hand-scripted my first novel on lined-paper in a three-ring-binder, sitting at a desk in the corner of our family room. It was my first practice at telling a story; a story that I hoped would one day come true: a dream job as an edgy journalist; owning a sporty car; falling in love with a man who was not only attractive, but faithful, hard-working, and most of all, devoted. This story was a form of narrative—a representation of all that I’d desired; ideas and values that had already shaped me; longings for fulfillment created in part by a fractured family. 

In my years as a therapist, narrative took on new meaning, particularly when I saw more than one client in a family. How could two siblings tell such dramatically different versions of childhood having shared the same parents, home, and schooling? Could it be that our reality and our ability to recall events is not so much a re-telling of history, but rather a personal perception of the past? Get two siblings in a room whose parent had a drinking problem, and it might go something like this:

    “Mom was a drunk!” 

    “Are you out of your mind? She just liked her wine.”

Narrative psychology says that our own preferences, biases, likes, dislikes, our personalities, if you will, color not only how we see the present world, but how we perceive the past.

As a therapist, narrative psychology taught me that I didn’t need to “get to the bottom” of a client’s experience or go on a fact-finding mission. Rather, I needed to climb inside a person’s narrative to understand how she experiences her life; that if I understand her view of the past, I might assist her in her current relationship and life problems. 

All of us have narratives of our past. I know people who live and dwell in yesterday, bringing up past hurts and limitations so palpable that if feels as if a lead weight is attached to their ankle. There are those of the opposite extreme who lock away the past, unaware of how present behavior is so deeply connected to the past. Neither is particularly productive.

There is a third way of recounting our past, and that is to examine it, challenge the lens with which it is viewed, and if necessary, reinvent the narrative. 

    “I used to say that my mother was an addict, and that all she cared about was herself; that I was not lovable enough. At fifty, I now see that my mother’s addiction limited her ability to love, and that this had nothing to do with my being loveable.”

It has been seven years since I published my first novel, Out of Breath, a psychological drama told through multiple viewpoints about child loss, addiction, infidelity, recovery, and grief. 

Since that time, my life has had radical change: my father died, my own personal addiction resurfaced, our family went through chaos, I found recovery, our family is healing, and I visited dark places that needed to be seen through a different lens. My narrative changed.

Pink & White, my most recent manuscript, is the story of two people Elizabeth and Andy, who share their narratives with one another over the course of a year.

Andy is a Vietnamese nail manicurist who escaped Vietnam in the late 70s after the fall of Saigon. His life-changing decision: to leave behind his infant daughter at an orphanage in hopes that an American family will adopt her. Did she survive? And if so, does she know of him, wonder about him?

Elizabeth, a social worker at a trauma hospital and sober woman for thirty-plus years, is caring for her ailing father who is dying of dementia. Her life-changing decision: to leave her job and care for her father full-time, a father who was once everything to her, nothing to her, and then for years, a source of pain and grief.

Elizabeth visits Andy’s nail salon, and over the course of many months they let us into their narratives as they revisit wounds that have defined them. Together they weave their own story birthed out of the longing, pain, loss, and complexity in father-daughter relationships. 

This blog is born out of the idea that examining our narrative can be freeing; that revisiting the past is more than nostalgia. I left my hometown of Santa Cruz, California, at seventeen; I moved back at forty-nine. Much has changed, but much has remained the same. I round corners, stumble along hiking trails, treasure hunt along the beach, and I am here for the first time, and also here for the 100th time. In revisiting some of the darkest spots, I am letting in light, even if it is a sliver amongst the shadows.

Narrating HerStory will step into these places of light and dark and shadows, and open up my narrative to be retold, and perhaps reborn. 

For my readers, it’s an invitation to examine history or “herstory” by reflecting on one’s narratives, to participate in looking at the dark and the light. Doing this is not simply a form of examining one’s belly button, but rather to experience freedom and liberation.

To quote Eleanor Roosevelt:

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”