Sunday, December 6, 2009

Healing Biography: The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing Your Life Story -- Part I of an Essay By Bridget Holding

First, I was a writer, and then I became a psychotherapist. In that fertile ground where psychotherapy and writing meet, is ‘life writing,’ which covers biography and autobiography. In my role as biographer, my work has ranged from supporting celebrities to write seven hundred page books, to helping people with serious mental health issues to take part in the wonderful project ‘Your Life On A Postcard.’

The critic James Atlas recently wrote about life writing in the New York Times Magazine. He said that ‘the triumph of memoir is now an established fact.’ Instead of reading fiction about ordinary people (the technical definition of a novel, as opposed to myth or legend), we now read nonfiction about ordinary people. It seems that we've come almost full circle: the memoir has displaced the novel as the literary genre of our age. We've returned to first- and third-person narratives of ordinary people in everyday life. This provides a kind of omniscience in which biographers and their subjects view earlier experiences in the light of later ones.

But what of the subjects of my biographies? They play a very active role in the process. When a person provides me with material from their life, they are, in a sense, writing their autobiography. French academic Philippe Lejeune provides probably the most helpful working definition of autobiography. To paraphrase him, he says that, in a true autobiography, the author, narrator and protagonist must have the same proper name. I would add that for me, a mark of autobiography is that there is no hiding. The subject stands up and says ‘this is me’ rather than creating characters behind which he or she can hide. To write an autobiography is to take responsibility, publicly, for your life and actions. It is therefore a noble, (and often terrifying!) act. I feel grateful to anyone who confides in me in this way, who collaborates with me to record the story of an individual life.

And I would like to suggest that it’s not just a process of recording information, it is an act of invention; there are many creative aspects to writing so called non-fiction. To begin with, our memories are selective. Then we have to decide what to reveal to our biographer and the editing of the material involves many choices. I would go further even than this. It is a tenet of mainstream literary theory that ‘language creates the world’ that we don’t truly see something until we have a word for it. This is true of our life stories. To some extent, our life comes into being in the act of writing it down. This can be terrifying idea, but it can also be liberating.

In fact, life writing gives us all the freedom in the world to create ourselves. In his books Path of Least Resistance and Your Life As Art, Robert Fritz says that you, the subject of the book or the postcard, can create your life as an artist develops an artwork. You can conceive of the life you want as an artist conceives of a painting, and take strategic actions to create more of what you truly want. You can inhabit the life, as an artist looks at a picture on the wall. Your life can be your work and you can be its author. How exciting! The truth is that people are endlessly remaking or discovering themselves. There are always new horizons, new problems, and new opportunities. Keeping this in mind can give us perspective on our lives, and help us to feel creative and in control. What better place to start from as we begin to record our life stories.

In times of crisis, pain, or struggle, or just because life is busy, we rarely get the opportunity to step back and see the wider picture, to get perspective on our lives. This is what being the subject of a biography enables us to do. It’s particularly helpful to be witnessed by another, with their perspective, their fresh pair of eyes. In much of our lives, we hide the parts of ourselves that we do not like, that we are ashamed of. Often we aren’t even aware that we do this, and of how harsh we are towards ourselves. The process of healing is about being okay with however we are. We are always doing our best. We are always good enough. Sometimes we do things we regret, but deciding to do something differently next time can be helpful. Dissolving into shame is not. Can we put into our life stories some of those events in our lives that we are ashamed of? Can we show to the world the parts of ourselves we usually hide? Being okay with ourselves is a state of contentment. Of course, we must undertake this process cautiously, as it can make us feel vulnerable. If we are fragile, working with a trained professional is advisable.

To give you a sense of how I use biography in my psychotherapy work, I’ve recently been working with a client who had an extremely physically abusive childhood and who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When we wrote the postcard of her life, there were great gaps in her memory. She remembered almost nothing between the ages of six and twelve, when the worst abuse occurred. We’ve worked gradually to write the postcard. Where many people find it easy to sit with me for forty minutes and reel off their life story, this woman found it a slow and excruciating process. But gradually, over months, taking time to acknowledge the emotions that came up with every memory, we have completed her life story on a postcard—a supreme achievement. Over this period, her symptoms of PTSD have eased. I’ve also had a client who suffered from multiple personality disorder. In his psychic world, there were twenty-four people. Each one had distinctive mannerisms, clothes, and voice. It was extraordinary and unnerving, to watch him change hour to hour between these personas, who were of varying ages, genders, and dispositions. This client’s life was very difficult, as the voices of these personas bickered for the high ground in his head. Even getting dressed in the morning was a nightmare. They all wanted to wear something different. Imagine doing the postcard for this client! But we did, not one postcard, but one for every sub-personality. Through the process they became more distinct, the first small step on the path to encouraging them to step aside in favour of one single personality. I feel very privileged when I witness the struggle and bravery of clients such as these. People, particularly those with serious mental health issues, often experience themselves as fragmented, as being ‘in pieces.’ The therapeutic process is about taking all the parts of us that are disowned, and bringing them into a whole, into cohesion. The postcard is a lovely metaphor for this: it’s such a contained, neat, precise form. The haiku of life writing. My client with multiple personality disorder started off with twenty-four postcards and now only has five. Maybe one day, he will only have one and will be able to say ’this is who I am.’ This is what he yearns for.

When we tell our stories, details unfold, clues become moments of epiphany, feelings are processed, and stuck energy is discharged. We begin to notice the patterns that repeat through our lives, called repetition compulsion by Sigmund Freud. We see which of those serve us and which don’t. Through being the subject of biographical writing, we can bring closure to the unfinished aspects of our lives. We can grieve and move on. And these changes can happen in six hundred, as well as in twenty thousand words. So let’s find our self in the writing. Who do you want to be in your life?

[This is part 1 of an article, from a series on ‘The Psychology of Writing.’ Please contact Bridget Holding if you are interested in knowing more (bridgetholding [at] madasafish [dot] com).]

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