This essay came to mind after a courageous woman shared her story in one of my writing classes this week. This 2008 essay was accepted for publication on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “This I Believe” website. -Sarah White
I believe in the power of story—to entertain, to teach, to heal.
I teach reminiscence writing workshops. I take my writers—mostly older women—through a curriculum of discussions about the craft of writing, and assign suggested topics to write on. But the part of the workshop people really come for is the story-sharing. We take turns reading our stories, and receiving the feedback and suggestions of our fellow writers. Over the course of the six weeks, we get to know each other, trust each other. The stories become more intimate and honest.
One time, for the last session, I had assigned the topic “My Lips Are Sealed”—write about a time you were asked to keep a secret. I thought I would get stories about summer camp, bridal showers, that sort of thing.
What I got was women’s stories about the pregnancy that came at the wrong time.
One read her story about an unplanned pregnancy that resulted in marriage to a South American doctor—who subsequently stashed her in his home country, isolated in the family compound. It took her twelve years to escape with her little boy.
Another read her story, from twenty years earlier. She had chosen to put the baby up for adoption—and wrote about the pain of choosing that over enduring the shaming of her neighbors.
We listened to each other, quietly, with sympathy. What woman hasn’t worried about the baby that came when it wasn’t wanted, or the baby that wouldn’t come when it was?
And then, the eldest of the participants spoke. “Well!” she said. “I always wondered what happened to you girls.” Pursing her lips primly, she continued. “We noticed the way you disappeared in high school, and we always wondered what became of the pregnant ones. Thank you for telling your stories! Now I finally know!” We broke into laughter then, not at her, but at us all, and the tragic comedy that is being female.
I had to leave as soon as that session ended. But one of the participants told me, the others stayed talking for almost two hours. None had ever spoken of these things before. Finally, those women’s baby-stories had found a way into the world, to be loved for what they were.
I believe in the power of story.
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