Daria Kutuzova, Russia
One of the developments in narrative practice in Russia that seems interesting to me is the fact that interest has not been limited to the therapeutic or social work communities. As some materials have been made available as free-access online publications, they have been found and explored by people from all walks of life. Narrative approaches give people in societies where the sense of community was destroyed the tools to enhance the re-building communities, starting first in the Internet though creation of communities united by shared concern, and gradually taking these project into ‘real life’ (‘offline’) space.
The narrative worldview, with its respectful attitude to the interlocutor, with its accent on community and enabling contribution, linking lives around shared themes, and exploring new territories of identity, is becoming a (sub)cultural phenomenon, inspiring people to create enclaves of alternative forms of communication with oneself and others, and providing tools for the realisation of this. For example, the narrative practices of outsider-witnessing and ‘definitional ceremony’ were taken up by organisers of the first ‘undercover’ queer Christian conference in Russia (it had to be ‘undercover’ for security reasons, because homophobia, ignorance, and aggression are quite strong in our society), and it made the atmosphere of the conference so much more open to celebration of diversity.
In our context, there is a frequent need of crisis response (because of large-scale accidents, bombings, and so on). Narrative approaches enable the members of crisis response teams to find the hope-eliciting questions regardless of how much time is available for counselling; it helps the members of the teams to be in touch with the things they give value to in life, and thus withstand the onslaught of despair, fear, anger, and helplessness. Looking at the responses to trauma and not only its effects – creating a double-storied description – has turned out to be a very efficient way of working both via phone and in direct communication. What also seems very important is that in situations of violence and crisis, the focus of the narrative approach is not limited to the ‘victims’ in a narrow sense of the word, and ‘perpetrators’. The witnesses to a crisis can also be attended to in a way that is helpful in restoring their agency and sense of community.
The future of narrative practice in Russia
Recently, there have been several initiatives from aspiring narrative practitioners to join together to explore and refine their ways of practice.
Narrative practice is used by activists working in various areas of reform – for example, reform of juvenile justice and introduction of restorative justice practices – and programs of teacher education on queer-related issues, and harm reduction programs for drug users and their relatives. There is hope that in the future, more non-government organisations will take on narrative approaches as a part of their modus operandi, and use them also for strengthening the partnerships between different spheres of social reform. There is hope that more mutual support groups based upon the methodologies of narrative practice will be created, empowering different marginalised communities.
We are expecting an upsurge of interest in narrative approaches, when the translation of Michael’s book Maps of narrative practice to be released in May 2010, and with the following release of a series of books on narrative practice, translated as well as written by local practitioners. There is a tendency to explore the possibilities of using techniques of drama, playback theatre, and expressive arts within work based upon the narrative worldview, which will bring narrative practice closer to what seem to be the locally-accepted forms of healing and change. Thus, narrative practice will continue to contribute to the reinvigoration of local cultures.
Michael’s ideas are being carried on in significant ways
Some practitioners said that Michael ‘gave them back the verbal genre of therapy’, after being disappointed in other verbal genres on offer. The most important thing that they received from the narrative approach is the non-expert, de-centered but influential stance of the therapist.
One of the most important principles and commitments that Michael shared was his position in relation to possible re-traumatisation of the person in the centre. He stated frequently that our responsibility as therapists, as people who aspire to help with healing, is to create conditions where the person who had suffered from violence and trauma will not be re-traumatised. This means the creation of a ‘riverbank position’, a different territory of identity, from which the person can contemplate the experience of trauma. Also, the idea of the ‘absent but implicit’, especially when it is exemplified in the form of alternative understandings of pain (as testimony, tribute, and so on) has turned out to be extremely helpful. This is something that has become a frequent practice among members of crisis response teams – when people are shaken and dispossessed of the sense of certainty, to help them to become aware of the precious things-that-are-not-things, that crisis doesn’t have the power to dispossess them of. The practitioners find it really helpful to be able to use questions, and not imperatives, to invite people into this awareness.
Local innovations in narrative practice
One of the local innovations seems to be ‘transposing’ a training exercise for developing ‘good questions’ into the context of group therapy. In this case the members of the group listen to a summary of the self-appointed storyteller’s story (the storyteller is a member of the group), and during a short time (3–5 minutes) come up with all kinds of questions that they would like to ask the storyteller. They keep in mind that their task is to contribute to the rich description of the storyteller’s preferred story (or stories). One after another, the people in the group voice their questions, and the storyteller gives immediate feedback about whether these questions are good or not-so-good ones, and chooses one or two questions to answer, thus starting the next round of work. The questions are based, first and foremost, on the narrative orientation, and sometimes on the ‘maps of narrative practice’, but are not limited to the maps. Many good questions are asked when the members of the group pay attention to the genre of the emerging story, to their perception of a genre that might be suitable for the preferred stories of this particular storyteller. The group facilitator ensures that the questions asked are not re-traumatising for the person in the centre, and invites the members of the group to discuss the ‘bold assumptions’ (norms and taken-for-granted beliefs) that might inform some not-so-good questions, thus encouraging deconstruction and statement of position. Groups conducted in such a format are conducive to developing reflexive thinking, of skills of eliciting preferred stories (in communication with others and oneself), of expressing resonance of experience.
Cultural considerations and narrative practice in Russia
The word ‘document’ has a negative connotation in our context, because of the power-over of the bureaucracy, when ‘with a paper you are a person, and without a paper you are a bug’, as the local saying goes. So, when narrative therapists trained by teachers that come from English-speaking cultures suggest to the people who consult them, that there is a possibility of creating a ‘document’, the response they get is usually not enthusiastic. Therefore, there is a challenge to develop culturally-sensitive ways of creating some sort of reminders that would help a person to be in touch with their values and special skills. Some of these ways include co-creation of non-verbal, material artefacts to serve as ‘talismans’. For example, a person who successfully passed the interview for adoption, despite being in a same-sex relationship (which is a huge impediment in the local context here), and cannot really share the good news with their network of friends because of not having come out, can choose a trinket to wear that would remind them of the importance of having passed this interview. The person can touch the trinket or see it in the mirror and remind themselves about the important values, for the sake of which all these difficulties are dealt with.
Our culture also values reading and writing very highly indeed. So, when the therapist offers to co-create a book on the person’s experiences, this is met much more favourably than the idea of a ‘document’. Bookmaking, autobiographical writing, and journaling seem to be some of the culturally-appropriate ways of using the written word in narrative practice in our context.
A wish for the future of narrative practice
One of the wishes that I have in relation to the future of narrative practice in my context is people getting together more in non-formal, genuine environments to practice; more grassroots initiatives, taking narrative practice into life-transformative action and social action, instead of confining it to the sphere of ‘talking cures’.
Another wish is more research to be conducted on narrative practice, to bring it from a marginalised position in the psychotherapeutic community to a position where it is respected, accepted, and last not least, funded.