Andrea Steffens: founder-director
I have always loved stories, something I've traced back to my maternal grandmother who visited our family for a few months every year. She was basically bed-ridden -- I was the only child I knew whose grandmother had been hit by a train.
And, I was her willing companion when she journeyed into memory and regaled me with near fairy tale stories of her life that reached back into the era of the Irish and English horse drawn carriage -- both sides of the family raised race and steeplechase horses. She had old sepia photos -- many on tin that showed her, unrecognizable to me then, in brocade ball gowns, standing next to a carriage or an elegant house. She was fierce that I know who my people were. And so I learned the importance of story telling in developing identity and connection to tribe. Human beings are, after all, herd animals which translates into being tribal. I was hooked. My father also was keen on story telling about my ancestors, our Scottish family, my tribe, m y clan who like our Irish ancestors fought the good fight, fought for their freedom for centuries at great price -- there are I am certain toxic stress symptoms that our family carries and has added to as there are those themes of symptoms of adverse experince that carry through the generations. It all made sense as I learned about the intricacies of how the body responds to severe stress. Responses to trauma suppress or activate DNA -- transmission of trauma is as real physically as it is psychologically in attachment difficulties. So the legacy of toxic stress symptoms pass from generation to generation and one of the ways in which that sequence is interrupted is through telling the story -- in a quite specific way, a directed way -- one that is natural to human beings as listener and teller, a natural response to adverse experience. Talk about it. Tell me. Tell me. Think of the times you have been cornered by someone who has had an accident, a loss, a tragedy. She will tell the story over and over while you have thought or said eventually " would you get over it already!" But she doesn't and shouldn't. Part of the healing of an accident, a loss a tragedy, a shocking event is that the story must be told and told and told until it stops quivering and lies relaxed and quiet. We know what to do with story -- we are wired for this. And this story demands an audience, a community, a patient deep listener. A Witness. The real tragedy is when the story that wants to be told, isn't -- that the story lies silent quaking and trembling for an entire life. These are the stories we want.
Over the years, I grew to love memoir, one person plays, autobiography and yes, even confessional poetry. I became a performance poet as I put the stories I knew and created into share-able form. To this day -- today even -- I continue to serve story. I overhear them standing in lines for whatever reason -- groceries, tickets, entrance to football games, at the bank, waiting for dinner reservations, in Macy's checkout line. Wherever I am, i hear them in loud conversations or whispered -- in restaurants, the subway, in the waiting room at the doctors office. We are surrounded by stories -- just pay attention to your day. See how often you hear a story...about something, anything.
As a child, I planned to raise horses and be a poet. Then, bam! My mother died when I was fourteen. My life changed and it would take many years before I realized the trauma that I carried with me from the occasion of her death. It wasn't until I began my work with sexually abused women in California and with Vietnam vets in Alaska that I recognized many of the symptoms that so disrupted their lives were mine. I recognized PTS in people recently out of prison, in inner city people and Native American friends whose cultures were decimated with an impact that lasts to this very day as is reflected in a higher than usual rate of alcoholism, suicide and imprisonment. Now. Events or conditions do not have to be life threatening to create toxic stress nor something that is directly experienced. You don't have to be a combat vet to have symptoms of toxic stress -- they exist in people regardless of war or natural disaster, ethnicity, age, location, gender and are nearly epidemic in the world -- doctors Robert Anda and Vincent Filletti co-authored a study of 17,000 people in the famous ACE study -- Adverse Childhood Experiences impacted the physical and mental health of the adults those children became. Doctor Anda has spent the 20 years since the study to explore trauma in communities like yours or mine and realized the near epidemic toxic stress in the world at the community/family level. Doctor Anda recognizes that we must address the shared trauma by asking community members to learn resolution techniques -- and this has been mission of Ashlar since its inception: creating lay team of Narrative Arts Facilitators. I think it is important to know that we do not favor one method over another -- we know/have been trained in and created a variety of responses that address the remediation of toxic stress symptoms.
My biggest undertaking for my own healing was a large and complete memoir which gave the attention that story needs. Ritual and repetition. I made appointments with myself everyday to write my story using methods to set up the writing that I can show you to surprise myself (so my rational brain couldn't hijack the process from the creative/unconscious self where the real memory and thus, healing comes from). Because my approach to writing my life, was to tell the story over and over (delete the inaccuracies, as memory sharpens and details emerge) I edited the inaccuracies and I worked the story. And as I (or you) edited and worked the story into form, I worked it out.
I have come to understand how and why writing the way I did it and the way I taught others works to heal. And I expanded these methods to include techniques that exist in different cultures. Some I learned first hand from my Tlingit and African American friends (the use of ritual), and others from books written by of Mircea Eliade, Marie Louise von Franz, Ellen Jane Harrison, Nor Hall and Lyn Cowan, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as well as my studies with an Eskimo Medicine man. These were the ways I learned about ritual with its many healing ingredients that I had been using instinctively in my workshops, classes and individual sessions. I also discovered a few years ago, long after I had begun to teach writing, that the methods I used/developed are closer to the theater methods of Stanislavsky than creative writing.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislavski's_system) Basically I was writing for theater and interestingly, the next step in teaching writing was taking the writing into the realm of theater -- I read my work as did my students. And methods and ideas came to me, they came as they have come to others, not because we are special but because we are human and this drive to tell the story is in such specific ways is our human inheritance -- as many people are proposing, the need to tell our stories is an instinct. Our stories are going to get told in one setting or another. Think about this next time you start telling a story --the telling links you to your early ancestor who sat with others around a fire, drumming, chanting, telling.
In most, if not all cultures the important stories were told in a ritualized form: told repeatedly, redundantly, again and again. So I say,for those important stories, if you can't get to us then I hope you will find a friend and/or another writer, an artist, or a story teller, someone who will Witness -- Witnessing, an important function for all of us -- a friend who will listen deeply, who will receive your story in the total presence of Deep Listening and ride with it as you tell it, retrieving all the details you can -- exactly what the event was, or the condition, when, where, what and how your body felt, what you decided about your life from this or these experiences. Tell and listen to yourself as you tell it. Repeat it. And to those of you still suffering after years of silence, know that your story waits for you. It wants to be told. It stays there right at the edge of your awareness and if you don't find a way to approach and tell it, it will kidnap you, hold your life hostage. And yes, it needs to be held in an environment of safety, trust and Deep Listening. Your life, like those of many others, could change dramatically for the better in telling that difficult story that waits to be told.