The Gift of Sharing Sacred Stories


"Bernice, you don't have to tell everything you know," my patronizing father often said to my mother, with the same sarcastic chuckle he might use for a child who was embellishing a wild story of some creature from outer space. These moments were always awkward, especially for Mom if she was just getting to the critical point or punch line of a narration she was sharing with dear friends who had never heard that specific episode from her past.


Story-Telling, a Lost Art Form

As the second oldest of four daughters, all who had learned early to embrace the traditional Deep South way of passing along life's stories, there was a sacredness to most every story she told, even  without the mention of any form of deity.

Even today, my mother, at ninety-two, doesn't know how to talk without telling stories. Same as I don't know how to write without doing so. Nor do I like to read anything that's not chunked full of stories.

Because those closest to her could not bear her telling some of the most traumatic stories for most of her growing-up years, once she had the freedom to share, I believe those stories became all the more precious. Especially the ones surrounding the loss of Beatrice, the oldest of the four girls, who sat side by side with my mother, sharing the same desk in a one-room schoolhouse until the day this aunt-of mine-to-be, whom I was never privileged to know, passed away suddenly, leaving her "twin" so devastated and alone, forced to grow up suddenly, often without feeling that anyone cared.

Most people loved my mother's stories, even the sad ones. Yet, not all were sad. Some of the most dramatic were comical. She spoke of sometimes being like a young woman who had only one dress--a new, blue one that she wore every day, until her mother asked her in the presence of a friend if she was going to wear the new dress, the blue one, or the one she wore yesterday.

As she mimicked odd or obnoxious characters she'd learned to tolerate in her youth or in other places our family had later lived, all total strangers to her nodding listeners, it was easy to see some connection to another individual, practically identical in mannerisms. For everyone can relate somehow to a story well told, whether the hook is tolerance, acceptance, courage, joy, love and endearment, loss, hunger and deprivation, jealousy--all of these common emotions the people listening could relate to.

If others were annoyed by the lengthy narrations, it never showed. Yet ever-so-slightly, I'd sometimes see a twitch of discomfort during the awkward silence that followed my father's rude remarks, which I'm now certain registered with my mother as shaming. Only a couple of his man-friends would ever dare intervene, either verbally or by giving my father the "evil eye" of comradeship that also said: "I mean business" as only good friends seem able to do.

"Never mind, Bernice. Go ahead. Don't let him stop you."

She didn't, whether anyone spoke up to defend her or not, and neither do I to this day. I am not going to squelch any story that I believe has value for doing the Greater Good, especially. In that, I am proud to be my mother's daughter.



The Power of an Advocate

Oh, the wonder of an advocate, she must have thought when one of Dad's friends did stand up to him on her behalf! Empowered not only to finish the story, Mom would inevitably remind my father, once back home, that it wasn't fair for him to speak to her as if she were a child, especially in front of others. Certainly not when he had a platform every Sunday morning, as a minister, to speak as long as he chose, with nobody ever daring to tell him to sit down and shush up.

Remorsefully, he'd vow to do better. And sometimes he would for several months before starting the whole cycle again that I now recognize as "the cycle of abuse," as common with emotional and spiritual abuse as with physical or sexual.

So why was my father so uncomfortable with his wife's stories, I often wondered?


Comparing Notes

Was he somehow jealous? After all, Dad always said he didn't have any stories to share that he could remember from decades past. Or if he did, there was no use sharing them, he declared. They just weren't important. He wanted to "only live in the present," which I now understand was all he could possibly cope with.

Like many high-functioning professionals, however, he had many stories that needed to be told for his own healing, if nothing else--stories that I know now my mother would have understood, for she's heard them, even though Dad took to his grave, where they stayed until his younger brother decided not to take them to his own final resting place. Which is why this dear uncle gave me a bittersweet gift of insight shortly before this own death, telling me (and my mother, in turn) of the horrors he'd been forced to witness that had sent him into PTSD many times, as a secondary victim, driving him to drink heavily at times when he couldn't muster up the enormous, keen sense of humor that Dad and both his siblings had used as a coping skill since their teens to cover multiple deep sorrows, also of neglect. That's how Dad entertained us, laughing all the way, which was a lot better than "constantly beating the tar out of his own kids," as he sometimes put what he felt like doing to us, though we had no idea of the flashbacks he must have had that were far more than the typical (though still abusive) whippings of the Great Depression that kids commonly got in his day.

Until my uncle finally spoke to me three years ago, the only hint I'd had was from a report that came from one of my father's closest friends. It was years after my own children were born. This man spoke about walking up on my father unintentionally and getting a glimpse of deep scars on his back that had remained hidden from my mother, she tells me, due to his odd habit of seldom removing his shirt in her presence, even to sleep.

"Oh, I got those crawling under a barbed wire fence to steal some watermelons once," Dad explaned the scars to his friend who had always doubted the story.

Uncomfortable with my mother's feelings, like many men, always assuming that others shared his, Dad was very good at projection. If if they did, others feelings weren't his to fix for them at my mother's expense.

In spite of all of this, both my parents set a good example in many ways for their children. To this day, I live by my mother's motto: "Whatsoever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." To her, if you didn't intend to do a thorough job of a task, you just might better consider not doing it at all.

I cannot help wondering how much more carefree their lives would have been, however, if they'd gotten the help they needed to overcome their personal Adverse Childhood Experiences early on. I also wonder how many times men in the Old Boy system choose to protect buddies from facing their own personal demons caused by ACE's rather than holding an irresponsible colleague guilty of multiple boundary violations or crippling effects that may be preventing an entire cluster of buddies from facing themselves.




The Opportunities for Transforming Stories Never Ends

By the time I was a teenager, I realized Mom was obsessing with the same stories by telling them to me repeatedly when she had no other audience. In all fairness to my father, I suspect she may have been doing the same with him. Stuck and eventually in clinical depression, she no longer laughed with my dad about much of anything. 

At my repeated urging, born from the tough love instilled in me professionally by some of my own mentors, both my parents eventually sought professional help, which led to happier and freer expression. Yet, they each remained guarded. In fact, Mom is just now coming out with many stories of childhood trauma that she's telling me only for the first time, each that help me make sense of some of the gaps in the stories she did feel safe in sharing freely. I am glad she feels safe; and as a result, I have the privilege of seeing a magical transformation before my eyes each time I visit. There's a twinkle in her eye that I've not seen since my own early childhood. Every time I talk to her, she speaks with wonder of the gift of life and how she is enjoying it so much even in dementia. She's doing it by telling stories to anyone who will listen, and oh how her sister residents enjoy those stories!

To many southerners, same as a lot of feminists, what some see as meaningless, trite, or even forbidden stories are actually gifts, spiritual stories that need to be shared for a variety of reasons, even if not until late in life. They serve as a reminder that "the Spirit does not shrink from the subjects from which we shrink," says Wil Gafney, associate professor of Hebrew at Brite Divinity School. "She will be there with us through the difficult work." While we need to use discernment when telling stories that might make some uncomfortable, we need to welcome one another's stories and be prepared to respond as those stories resonate for us, taking us to places we need to visit on our own journeys--whether to deal with unresolved conflict and trauma or to abide with others who are struggling with that process, for whatever reason.

******

Miller's website has been a source of enlightenment for survivors and advocates since 1997. Author of six books, three specifically on the topic of collusion with abuse in the faith community, include her 2017 release, Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (available also in Kindle form).



Comments

  1. Beautifully written and expressed. Thanks once again for the "Light" you shine.

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  2. Your encouragement is much appreciated, Susan. Definitely the most taxing blog entry I've done since starting this newer blog. My father's story is still so very fresh, saddens me to think what he went to his grave with, most likely out of shame more than anything. Whenever he spoke of his father it was with such somberness, never speaking of him as an abuser, only that he as a son had messed up and given his father so much grief. The way it must have played out in his psyche, I now believe, is just an example of what so many men who go into helping professions have somewhere buried, as well. It is one of the most unhealthy professions I've ever known--largely because these guys are so reluctant to ask for help, even when they are trying to be the Great Spiritual Physicians!

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