Deciphering Culture

Short takes: Storytelling — illness narratives as healing tools

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Almost everyone’s life has been touched by a serious illness, whether their own or someone close to them. As with most everything else, we make sense of the experience through creating narratives. In a thought-provoking and insightful post on Nieman Storyboard (The implications of plot lines in illness and memoir), Victoria Costello discusses the use of “narrative therapy” in healing and how encouraging clients to change the story they are tellling of their illness can “can have a real impact on treatment and survival.”

Studies show, for example, that when a wife includes her husband in the story of her breast cancer, in effect changing the protagonist in her narrative from “I” to “we,” treatment becomes more effective and her chance of survival improves. In psychotherapy, when a client sees a redeeming value in the abuse he suffered in childhood – usually that the hardship has made him a stronger person – studies by Dan P. McAdams show that this “redemption narrative” provides the client a higher level of life satisfaction. (for the rest)

The discussion of the Arthur W. Frank’s work (the sociologist who developed the concept of the illness narrative) left me determined to check out his book The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. As a storyteller, I was drawn to Frank’s definition of three types of illness narratives: the restitution narrative (restoration “to good health due to the marvels of modern medicine”), the chaos narrative (“the illness moves randomly…from bad to worse and back to bad before getting worse again”), the quest narrative (“the ill person meets suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest”). A story may shift narrative structures as it goes on: not every descent into chaos is without hope and a seemingly Quixotic quest can find success. It is as true here as it is in the other stories that frame our lives.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 3, 2011 at 7:02 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Jeffrey,

    It was a pleasure meeting you yesterday. I find this topic (storytelling – illness narratives as healing tools) particularly interesting.

    At the retreat, I found your phrases very meaningful, and I plan to apply them to my own life. I feel like I’m just beginning my own healing journey.

    Best to you. I look forward to exploring this topic.


    Heidi Koerlin

    December 2, 2018 at 2:49 pm

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