by Sekneh Beckett-Hammoud, Australia
I was born to a Lebanese Muslim family with a rich storytelling tradition and surrounded by the folklore of the Tales of Arabian Nights. I recall the story of the Sultan of Persia, Schahriar who was heartbroken. In revenge, he would execute a new wife daily. A young educated woman in the kingdom, Scheherazade, becomes determined to cease the Sultan’s barbarous practice and to free the women from the fate that loomed before them. She marries the Sultan and with the threat of death, she diverts him by weaving daily stories of adventures, mystery, and wonder. However, she skilfully leaves the narratives incomplete, so that the Sultan’s intrigue spares her life for another day. Through the adventures and power of storytelling Schehrazade offers the Sultan, the kingdom is finally met with harmony. Narrative practices connected me to the ways in which telling stories preserve and honour our lives. It also invited my excitement to engage with a ‘spirit of adventure’ (Epston & White, 1992, p. 9) that I longed for in my therapeutic endeavours. Trained as a psychologist, the focus was on privileging the experts’ narrative of patient’s internalised understandings of problems, and I was expected to find evidence-based solutions for these problems. This was until I was introduced to Michael White where he referred to his work being practice-based evidence and it privileged the narratives of peoples’ lives. Like being captivated with the narration skills of Scheherazade, I prepared to go on an expedition; taking along wonder, intrigue, and curiosity with the young people I work with who meet with poverty and discrimination. Narrative therapy supported the development of a resource bag which had a telescope that put the focus on ideas such as ‘people are not problems, the problem is the problem’, lives are multistoried, and people are active agents, and a compass to navigate the other hidden narratives that await discovery, that is, the absent but implicit. We voyaged in ways that renders visible power relations so that the conversations did not cease, and we explored ways that preserved young people’s lives in the face of dire circumstances. The most cogent aspect of my narrative engagement is that the young people and their families were consulted and conversations checked in with their own knowledge about the problem, and the skills and resources that could address these problems. I embarked to put these tools into action and in creating distance from the problem through externalised language. I began to witness young people reclaiming and performing different meanings of self. Travelling therapeutically continues to be supported by the maps of narrative practice that navigate the many terrains encountered through conversations. However, on this spirit of adventure, I was also met with obstacles that could invite me to travel a path of taking for granted that people I worked with could communicate in similar ways. For example, when speaking the Arabic language, nouns are either referred with the masculine or feminine. No other therapeutic intervention supported me to respond to this dilemma like the narrative perspective. It invited me to take a position of curiosity and respect in addressing the elements of the history, politics, and context, to loiter around the effects rather than impose universal Western understandings of language. This supported my exploration to experiment with new skills when words and meanings became lost in translation or with young people whose exposure to language is very limited. So if the limits of language are the limits to the world, what other languages can we access with creative means to begin to hear or see other stories that link me to their world, what atlas would support this expedition? This link has become evident on voyages through my work with people from diverse backgrounds exploring their sexuality, particularly when ‘coming out’ is not a safe option; we discovered ways of inviting people in to their lives. Other investigations have ventured to the lens of photography. I receive many referrals from respected psychiatrist colleagues requesting that the ‘patient needs to develop insight’. In collaboration with the ‘patient’ we use photography to explore what ‘health professionals’ might not see through their eyes, to bring in-focus, snapshots of the other narratives in the ‘patient’s’ life. The most liberating destination I have found with narrative therapy is that people are the experts of their lives; they can be respectfully consulted. I have fond this idea particularly useful when meeting with the ‘stance’ of ‘resiStance’. Being decentred, but influential supports ways to re-author this stance and to discover stories of ethics, values, and treasured connections. A young person once said to me in the context of negotiating our therapeutic ventures that ‘even if we are on the same footy field, we can get knocked out if we just sit doing nothing and not try out different skills!’ I often hear the people I consult express ‘thanks for not giving me advice,’ ‘it’s nice to be heard and not told what to do,’ ‘no one’s ever asked for my opinion.’ Narrative practices continue to slake my excitement; they invite movement and exploration that garner my intrigue and curiosity, synonymous to a captivating adventure chronicles. To conclude, if I rubbed the lantern and one of the genies appeared from Scheherazade’s stories and granted me three wishes for my engagement with narrative practices, my hopes would be as follows:
- To continue the learning rigour, so that the legacy of Michael White’s contributions and the work of respected colleagues evolves to stimulate innovative practice and a ‘sense of historical continuity’ (Myerhoff, in Denborough, 2008, p. 58) – to identify with our past and possible futures.
- To access creative ways that maintain engagement and sustenance in the lives of practitioners and the people we meet.
- To foster a community of collaboration, finding the ‘unity in diversity’, where the voices of the people we meet are privileged. And, despite the many terrains we might endure, to keep the stories alive, and find ways to revel in that spirit of adventure!
Denborough, D. (2008). Collective narrative practice: Responding to individuals, groups, and communities who have experienced trauma. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications. Epston, D., & White, M. (1992). Experience, contradiction, narrative and imagination: Selected papers of David Epston and Michael White, 1989–1991. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications. Note: Many of the key narrative concepts that Sekneh refers to in this reflection are explained in Michael White’s Maps of narrative practice (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2007).