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  • Writer's pictureVancouver School For Narrative Therapy VSNT

Story Telling Rights, Narrative Arcs, Redemption and, One Big Thanks

“A hungry sound cam across the breeze

So I gave the walls a talking."

~ Shane MacGowan (1957-2023)

Hello Everyone.

I sincerely want to thank you for all your inspired, sometimes cheeky, and always thought-provoking correspondence through this last year. Our connection means the world to me. 

Below is your 25% off ~ membership discount code.

Many thanks. Happy Holidays. You are the absolute best!

Discount code is: narrativenewsletter2024


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The discount code will be active until January 18, 2024.

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Redemption Story


Lately I've been thinking a lot about 'the redemption story'. A rather popular narrative arc that seems, from where I stand north of the 49th parallel, particularly American. 

Americans (and to be honest Canadians adhere to this storyline just as easily sometimes) tend to author lives as redemptive tales of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility.

I think at its simplest and most basic core, a redemptive story is one that progresses from negative affect to positive affect. You may be familiar with redemptive stories, even if you have not heard the term directly. Think of popular cultural narratives like - illness to recovery, rags to riches, suffering to salvation, etc.

This concept of redemption seems to be one of those ‘master narratives’ that became confidently rooted in the analysis of U.S. history and values. Some sociologists argue the U.S. prefers redemptive stories due to their resonance with the victor’s colonial history of the country + all the ways the redemption arc reflects certain unshakable values like individualism, grit, and a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality.

I’m guessing you’ve now made the link to how the redemptive narrative can (of course) be connected to and is supportive of our present day neoliberal social and economic model. Check.

And I imagine the smarty pants of our bunch have already hooked together the redemptive story line of atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility to the practice heartbeat of the large and ever-growing majority of individualist and essentialist inspired mental health practice frameworks (CBT, EFT, psychodynamic, etc.).

On a side note, I just want to point out that psychotherapy as it is most commonly practiced in the developed countries from which most of the readership comes from - was at the outset guided through the firm hand and context of Western philosophical, scientific, and religious traditions, principles, and values.

From these traditions, psychotherapy has been, and continues to be, deeply attached and 100% utterly devoted to a philosophy of individualism where it remains (after all this time), far less concerned with the relational, cultural, political, and contextual influences at the heart of a practice like narrative therapy practice (:

OK continuing on - Redemptive stories tend to speak of the heroic and individual protagonist, optimism, and exceptionalism  the chosen people if you will  whose manifest destiny is to make a positive difference in a dangerous world, even when the world (and communities within their own borders) do not necessarily wish to be redeemed.

I suppose another kind of double trouble arrives in the rugged individual redemption narrative when redemption isn't at all possible.

Since the redemptive tale is one of privilege, and not fit for those who can't and/or are not afforded equal opportunities because of fundamental structural inequalities preventing them from having any control over their circumstances.

I'm speaking about those that have little reason or evidence to believe that 'things will get better' ― and view the evolving history of the present as both an illogical and unattainable choice.

Story Telling Rights

Last week I read through a popular couple therapy self-help book (that was published fairly recently). The title piqued my interest as it appeared to have a non-individualist sounding take on couple relationships.

I found myself pulling for the author, and getting curious about how he was going to narrate the couple’s stories. And I was curious how they’d situate the relationships conflicts and possibilities, contextually and relationally.

Oof - what a let-down. If the authors purpose was to demonstrate a therapy practice showing what an overbearing, patronizing, all-knowing, confrontational therapist expert looks like in the act of responding to a couple’s lived experience, well – he nailed it.

The self-help book took me back to a conference when I heard a presenter speak about story, client identities, and mentioned something like, “Be very careful of the stories you tell about yourself, and the stories others tell about you, because eventually they will find a way to live you”.

I heard this as a relational practice speaking to histories, influences, norms, politics, and the myriad of characters that shape our stories.

I also felt it as a cautionary tale about how our field holds traditions of privileged naming and storytelling rights regarding client stories.

All this reminded me of an abbreviated version of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s description of the relationship of power/knowledge in his question: What can be said, who can say it, and with what authority.

Thinking of Foucault transported me back to my twenty somethings when I had just graduated as an MSW. And how astonished I felt with suddenly being afforded bonafide client ‘naming rights’.

Frankly, I felt awkward being awarded these naming rights as I knew full well, I didn’t know things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know. So the idea of using these naming rights in real life therapy situations scared the living daylights out of me.

After graduating, I was incredibly fortunate to land the best possible therapist job available in Vancouver. Everyone on the team was super talented, at least 8 years older than I was, and mentored me whenever possible. I loved them.

I’d look forward to our weekly supervision and case conference meetings where highly intellectual, consequential, theoretical, and fascinating speculations and interpretations about client lives were the order of the day. And then we’d go to lunch.

After I met Michael White, I began to politically and theoretically stand behind a different set of values and began resisting the ‘interpretation temptation’ and critiquing expert storying positions.

In saying all this, I have come to respect and realize just how much the sharing and privileging of unchecked story telling rights about client lives is a deeply connecting part of our therapy culture. I feel the practice can be very harmful for the client but helpful to the therapist community.

I have another memory about standing up for a clients story telling rights by way of the lengths I went to (albeit unsuccessfully) to persuade APA to support the title ~ Who has the Story Telling Rights to the Story Being Told?, for the 1st and 2nd Editions of my Narrative Therapy books (the 3rd ED. is coming out in late Spring 2024 - so maybe 3 times a charm. Ha!).

One of the joys being a narrative therapist is listening to the unpredictable alchemy of material, understandings, and values a person chooses to include in the story (*however making a ‘choice’ is never independent as it finds itself under the sway of many relational-cultural influences).

And how the multitude of ways the story is told, received, and imagined, can both reflect on who they might be, who they remember themselves to be, and the future of who they just might become one day.

I have so many great therapists and thinkers to thank that helped me turn away from shutting these client possibilities off for the sake of maintaining the privilege of pinning down a name and etiology.

And you know, I don’t actually enjoy hearing myself slam the self-help author. There’s no fun in it all. In response, I have to ask myself, ok hot shot - have you listened to yourself lately? What do your responses, reactions, and re-telling’s about client stories sound like? What would they tell a reader about where I stand, what I stand for, and why?

A question might be: How is it we are using our story telling rights and ‘expert’ naming and interpretation privileges to speak of, address, language, persuade, and advocate on behalf of the contexts, relational stories, and people we see inside the therapy room.


Removal Words

Ok – Over the last year did you come across a popular word that slowly began to grind on you?

A word that suddenly seemed to boss its way into the modern lexicon. And now it’s bloody everywhere. The nerve!

Alright then, if you were given the chance what would your one ‘removal word’ of 2023 be? C’mon, surely you have one.

Alright, alright - I’ll go first. My word? You might be guessing Swifty but no - I feel this gang of young women are on the precipice of doing some remarkable political work. You will see.

My removal word for 2023 is: ‘TRIGGER’ (oooh mama).

And to be clear I don’t mean:

A) To release or activate by means of a trigger especially: to fire by pulling a mechanical trigger or to trigger a rifle.

B) And I also don’t mean to cause the explosion or to trigger a missile with a proximity fuse.

No, I mean, you know, that other terribly hackneyed, pedestrian, having lost all meaning, substance, and consequence meaning of the word . . .

Trigger Warning

VSNT faculty member David Nylund sent me an article a while back after our many conversations about a certain phenomenon. The piece below makes a great case to reject a practice known as ‘Trigger Warning’. Written by one of our favourite trans academics and authors Jack Halberstan – his book Queer Art of Failure book is a must read. Enjoy.



A Personal Narrative Arc

The Madigan and Cash families grew up together on the same street, three doors away from one another, in a place known as Scarborough - the 1st burb of both Toronto and Canada.

Our neighbourhood took a lot of flak; known to outsiders as ‘Scarberia’. Regardless of how our home was viewed, deep down we were proud to come from the most criminal place in all of Canada (: Ha!

Our mothers were best pals (who both died remarkably early), and our fathers were always out helping the poor and dispossessed. A few of the Cash siblings remain some of my oldest and dearest friends.

A Boxing Day celebration/tradition involving both families (in Ireland known as St. Stephen’s Day celebration) began back in the 80’s.

Historically, these celebrations involve traditions around food, live music, rounds of joke telling, and occasional dancing. This went on for years. Then it stopped.

But this year the hooley is revived by the reigning matriarchs of the two families. When my daughters and I drop into Toronto for the holidays, this party will be one of the highlights.

One reason I love these gatherings (and yes it does kind of follow the newsletter theme of identity formation and narrative arcs) – is that as much as we acknowledge, love, and adore each other’s present day lives and accomplishments, at this event, in just so many ways, we remain back as we were, frozen in time. And no one would dare change this.

There is no getting away from how any of us will be received, responded to, and viewed. Why? Because somehow our collective memory, stories, and long-time reputations, proceed us. And together we enact, embrace, and embody a certain collapsing of the temporal world.

Coming to us Madigan’s on the Cash family side is the Chair of a University Dance department, the long-time Director of Research for Canada’s national newspaper, the President and CEO of the Canadian Independent Music Association, an award-winning journalist, a JUNO award winning musician + a few more painters, editors, composers etc.

What I’m trying to point out is this; despite who we are and have become in the present, we embrace each other (in more ways than we realize), through the preferred reputations we gained, were given, and remain storied through, from when we were children and youth.

And everyone is received and storied in their historical best version. Our present-day engagements of these stories could of course never be the same as they once were, but the way we hold each other and our collective relationship ‘among the stories’, feels like we each play out this beautiful poetic verse, in unison, synchronised, and all together.

For example, I have a little sister whose name is Mary who I always refer to as ‘my little sister’ (she doesn’t seem to mind).

Mary will be lovingly acknowledged at the Mad/Cash gathering as our little sister, having a great sense of humour, good at sports, awkwardly cool, curious, competent, our father’s favourite, and someone who has a deep affection for animals etc.

This is the time-honoured ethos and story attributed to Mary. It is who she is, front and centre, and this has never changed.

Despite the fact my ‘little sister’ Mary holds down this massive job (I can’t begin to imagine) as the Head People Officer for the City of Toronto (such a great job title). Mary oversees 41,000 employees.

My point is, notwithstanding her present life accomplishments, she will be joyfully received within her growing up reputation, as one of the younger members of this tribe, and responded to like – you might engage a younger person when you were 18 and they were 14 years old. And no one seems to wish this to be any other way.

The sweet adulation for all she has realized in the present is offered up from a position of her younger reputational storied self. Why? Well, I think it’s simply because - no one growing up could have ever imagined our little sister (or anyone else) achieving such lofty heights.

I grew up in a strong Union neighbourhood. For close to 35 years my father paid dues to the IBEW and in turn, they took great care of my Irish immigrant family. Growing up I thought everyone belonged to a Union.

Unions, when it comes to the needs of a working class of a liberal democracy - nothing else makes seems to make any sense; morally, organizationally, financially, politically, or structurally.

And to throw support towards government policies that wish to stop the working-class from organising feels properly crooked. And then some.

I wonder what kind of principled democracy or political party would not afford workers the freedom to organize and have a say?

I mean, why on earth would working people leave their livelihood regarding pay, time off, over-time, seniority, benefits, the right to strike, working conditions etc. - entirely in the hands of the owner/employer?

Recently the United Auto Workers members at General Motors Corp. ratified their brand spanking new contract, following the lead of workers at Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV. The official vote follows tentative deals in late October that ended the 6 1/2-week strike.

Ok here is the breath-taking part for workers and their families: The GM agreement includes a 25% wage increase throughout the duration of the contract that expires April 30th , 2028, and an 11 percent wage increase once the agreement is ratified. 

Workers will also receive cost-of-living pay adjustments, which were terminated in 2009, and job security at battery plants for electric cars. Temporary workers will be converted to full-time after nine months, and GM workers can reach top pay after three years, down from eight. Wow!

I imagine the Union workers new contract has done more for mental health than all the psychotherapists in Michigan (and parts of Southern Ontario!).

Ok that’s about it for now.

Thanks so much for getting yourselves all the way to the bottom.

Please feel free to write me directly at:

Wishing you and all the many people you love and care for – much peace

and hope in the year to come.

Stephen x

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