Updated: Dec 10, 2019
STORY TELLING RIGHTS
Back during my doctoral school days, I began examining the idea of story telling rights. The idea (and eventual practice) was shaped through a reading regime on the ‘politics of identity’. At the theoretical forefront were scholars like Gayatri Spivak, Stuart Hall, Donna Haraway, Edward Said, Stephen Tyler, a sprinkling of others and of course Michel Foucault. I developed a series of intellectual crushes despite the fact I was swimming in the shallow end of their cleverness pool. And I totally admit to fantasizing what it would be like to host a dinner party with all of them and got so as far as knowing (or was fairly certain) I’d serve poached salmon (: ‘Identity', wrote 80’s feminist writer Jill Johnston is ' what you can say you are, according to what they say you can be’. I took this to mean that whatever it is the experts of psychological knowledge (or colonial/patriarchal power) are saying about what and who persons are – could no longer be considered a fixed or finalized story of the person(s). These days, Johnson’s declaration is standard fare for many narrative therapists, but during the early 1990’s the idea felt novel, disobedient, rebellious and bright minded. I first heard myself speaking about narrative therapy relationship with story telling rights and asking the question: ‘Who has the story telling rights to the story being told?’ (the original title of my 2011 book), during my second narrative therapy ‘homestay’ traineeship when I was living with Michael and Cheryl White. After observing weeks and weeks and weeks of Michael’s live practice (from a vantage point a mere 3 feet away) I brazenly declared one afternoon that story telling rights were organizing his therapeutic questions. At the time, Michael was my primary teacher and (arguably) the best therapist of our generation. So my proclamation was quite bold by any ones metric (: But luckily, his ever-present kind-heartedness ruled the day and he agreed with the appraisal. A month or so ago, I was delighted to receive a present day representation of narrative therapy’s historical relationship with a story telling rights-based practice. An up and coming (and obviously quite talented) narrative therapist sent me a draft paper critiquing the practice known as IWP. Their deft observations questioned how IWP can act to obscure the issues of: power, patriarchy, privilege, and story telling rights. I couldn’t agree more . . . The paper bypassed IWP’s dubious history of transcript ‘rendering’, exaggerating research claims and practice efficacy, however, the author did offer a respectful first-person analysis questioning IWP’s rather obvious inattention to: power relations, race, gender, structural inequalities, and the question at the heart of narrative therapy practice values: who has the story telling rights to the story being told. Well done! And high marks to this new author for including a well suited Michel Foucault quote: People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what they do does (in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 2014, p. 187) I do hope ‘a version’ of this paper sees the author published somewhere. The idea of story telling rights expanded when I began shaping my narrative questioning practice to fit with the UN’s charter of human rights and justice. I first walked the practice out as an experiment within a hospital based Adult Eating Disorder Psychiatric Ward (I was consulting to 2 days a week). Members of the Vancouver Anti-anorexia League (I’d helped create) emerged out of the hospital ward and took up the idea of “Human Rights = Anti-anorexic story telling rights”! And with tremendous passion and commitment, the group moved headlong into expressions of direct political action (read about this amazing group in the new 2019 book). The practice of therapeutic letter writing campaigns (based on the habit of writing local and federal governments during my time in the anti-nuclear movement etc.) was developed alongside the League as well as our idea of creating ‘communities of concern’ to support any and all persons story telling rights. By weaving together the ethos supporting the Anti-Anorexia League with the relational/contextual values upheld in the UN charter of human rights, a rights-based narrative therapy practice was eventually adopted by the hospital ward. I’m sure you can imagine how amazing it was to eventually witness the psychiatric ward embrace our charter of Anti-anorexic League rights and freedoms. As a side note: VSNT performed the idea of story telling rights a wee bit further by financially hiring peer/insiders (from the League and our therapy practices) as qualified ‘persons with knowledge’ who taught in our narrative training programs and offered reflections on live therapy response teams as far back as 1994/1995. Today, I’m happy (and cautious) to report that many years later, a current debate ensues as scholars and policymakers discuss how to bring a human rights-basedapproach to mental health policy. Since the 2017 UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, an ongoing debate has erupted as scholars and policy-makers discuss the integration of human rights- based approach to mental health policy and practice. The UN report calls attention to “human rights abuses, power imbalances, and an overreliance on biomedical conceptualizations of mental health that lead to those seeking help to be harmed or neglected”. Advocates standing by the UN report, argue the proposal of a human rights framework in mental health would be instrumental toward providing high-quality mental health support that is accessible and protective of rights to “autonomy, health, life, and social inclusion”. Proponents of the rights-based focus in mental health policy and practice call attention to the social determinants of “health, such as poverty and systems of oppression, as a counter to an exclusively biomedical understanding of individuals’ mental health”. Really (: Further, they chose to focus on the “global burden of obstacles”—the impediments people face as they endeavor to attain health and receive quality care—rather than the “global burden of disease” discourse. Well, well, well – the world of mental health is ‘potentially’ catching up with our longstanding values and practices of narrative therapy. And it’s about bloody time! As an international narrative therapy community, we must consider finding ways to organize and support this rights-based movement in mental health policy. Congratulations for pushing your values forward all along the way.