Harriet Tubman’s Storied Journeys

written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson


Araminta “Minty” Ross, born into slavery in 1820, flees her plantation in Dorchester, Maryland and somehow manages to make her way 100 miles on foot to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she takes the free name that we know her by today—Harriet Tubman. 

Tubman’s life as an agent for the Underground Railroad is the subject of the Academy Award nominated movie, Harriet, and she also has a key role in Ta -Nehisi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, which tells the story of a young man with a similar background and talent who also becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad.harrietdirector

Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo, tells Tubman’s life story as a fairly classic Hero’s Journey. As a girl and young woman, Minty Ross watches several of her sisters being sold to far away slave owners and being taken from her and the rest of her family. She marries a free African American, John Tubman, and obtains legal documents that confirm that her mother’s previous owner granted her children freedom—only to have her current plantation owner rip up the documents. Cynthia Eviro as Harriet TubmanUnable to bear a lifetime of enslavement, she flees north on foot (leaving her husband behind because she does not want to endanger his free status) and makes it to Philadelphia, a “free” state. Tubman joins the Underground Railroad and repeatedly risks her life to bring hundreds of black slaves to freedom even after her former owner places a large bounty on her head. Her ability to guide so many runaway slaves to freedom earns her the nickname, “Moses.” How does an actual person, rather than a mythical god or cartoon character pull this off?harriet-1563893309

 

Although the movie focuses almost exclusively on Tubman’s near magical successes, it provides a few hints on how a real person could become Harriet Tubman. When Tubman returns to Maryland after becoming a free woman, she discovers that her husband had presumed her dead and is now wed to another woman who is pregnant with his child. Tubman leaves him to his new family and now, single and childless, can take life-threatening risks without being psychologically torn apart by conflicting maternal loyalties and obligations. From the time that she gives up on her husband and marriage, Tubman is portrayed as being more devoted to freeing slaves than to personal relationships. 

Tubman is also depicted as having extraordinarily strong faith and intuition that manifests as spiritual visions and premonitions that forewarn her of imminent danger. Although the exact nature and origin of her visions is not explained (she is religious and also had a severe head injury as an adolescent), they seem to have given Tubman a combination of intuition and decisiveness that led others to trust her in the face of formidable odds. In the movie, her former master’s mother declares that she wants Harriet caught so she can be burned alive at the stake, “like Joan of Arc”—another well-known vision-driven crusader. HarrietFeat

A final element that may explain Tubman’s intense focus is suggested in a short scene in which Tubman is shown in a stately Philadelphia home, crying while working as a domestic alongside another maid who looks at her quizzically. It’s not hard to imagine that, having risked her life multiple times and survived a perilous solo escape to Pennsylvania, Tubman would not be satisfied with a “free” life of making beds for a wealthy white family. But what can an illiterate runaway slave without any family do?  Tubman decides to become a freedom fighter.

At the end of the movie we are told that Tubman went on to become a spy for the Union Army and the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. In her later years, she worked for women’s suffrage and started a rest home for former slaves. She lived to be ninety-one.

Harriet TubmanAlthough the movie follows a Hero’s Journey narrative arc, I suspect that Tubman’s lived experience was at least as much a heroine’s journeyas hero’s journey. Her headaches, trances and visions were likely the result of the severe head injury she suffered when a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave and hit her by mistake. She suffered from epileptic-like seizures and hypersomnia—the inability to maintain normal consciousness during waking hours—for most of her adult life. Perhaps the adrenaline produced by being in terrific danger played a role in helping her feel alive and engaged after her head injury.

PBLA2A-00003Tubman was periodically recognized for her contributions to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War as a spy, nurse, scout, strategic advisor, and troop leader. However, she never received any pay for her work in the war and was denied veteran’s compensation for many years. After being heralded by newspapers for her work in the war, she was accosted by a train conductor while riding back to New York, where her parents lived, and was instructed to move to the less desirable smoking car. She produced government papers entitling her to ride in the car she was in and refused to move, whereupon the conductor enlisted several other passengers to help him force her to move, breaking her arm in the process. Most of her life, Tubman was penniless or nearly so, and what money she had was often spent providing food to the boarders who had even less than she did.

The movie, Harriet, depicts many of the amazing feats this determined woman accomplished. I look forward to another telling that shows the complexity of strategies Tubman used to persevere through her many challenges, hard times,  tough decisions, physical and emotional stresses, simple pleasures, and heartbreaks. I would welcome another story that depicts the myriad of ways Harriet Tubman helped herself and others who once were counted as only 3/5 people to believe and experience themselves as whole.

In Ta-Neshi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, The Water Dancerprotagonist Hiram Walker is portrayed as a male soul-kin to Harriet Tubman. Both were born slaves and both have similar talents for feats of miraculous transportation. In the magical realism of the novel, this talent is referred to as “conduction”—the ability to move people “magically” from one place to another based on the strength of the conductor’s desire and memory. Coates portrays Tubman as a mythical figure who appears and disappears and reappears at important moments. Hiram Walker, her psychic kin, is much more humanized and his story allows Coates to explore the psychological implications of post-freedom identity and purpose. Walker, too, becomes a daring agent for the Underground Railroad and much of the book leans toward a hero’s journey until he must confront how to integrate his family and community ties into his quest to fight slavery and re-connect families separated by it. I believe The Water Dancer is ultimately more of a heroine’s journey than a hero’s journey.

And, of course, the struggle continues.unnamed

Ta-Nehisi Coates


Where the Story Begins

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


In our last blog, we discussed the role of the ending of a journey story. In this post, we’ll show that where and how a journey story begins can be equally important.

A journey story does not always start at the beginning of the journey. Sometimes, as in Barbara Leckie’s short story, “Kicking the Stone,” the beginning of the journey is revealed later in the story through flashbacks or character narration.

The opening of a story must hook the reader, so many journey stories begin with a moment of conflict or danger. In a hero’s journey story, the first stage occurs in the “ordinary world,” yet the story often open right at the precipice of the call to the adventure. This is particularly true when the “ordinary world” is routine for the character but new and intriguing to the reader. For example, in The Hobbit, the reader or viewer has barely learned what hobbits are when Gandalf arrives to invite Bilbo on an adventure. In the opening of a hero’s journey, the hero is often portrayed as being like everyone else at the beginning of the story—a quiet hobbit smoking a pipe outside his home as he has done many an afternoon.

But there are almost immediately hints that something greater and unusual (and usually dangerous) is about to happen. The reader quickly understands that the hero will not remain ordinary for long.

In a heroine’s journey, the story may begin with the betrayal (which hooks the reader). Alternatively, the heroine may be presented in a world they are expected to belong in, but the heroine is internally or externally at odds  with this world. At the opening of the story the heroine may be at the point of trying new life strategies, and/or nearly ready to leave where they are. For example, the first act of the play, I Want to Go to Jail, opens with the main characters deciding to try a new picketing tactic because they are not satisfied with the results they have achieved thus far in their attempts to convince the country to grant women the right to vote. The fight for female suffrage in America did not begin where the play opens, but playwrights Pam Swing and Elizabeth Dabanka begin the journey of the play at a time when the suffragists are ready to separate from the more feminine tactics they have been using to try to win the vote.

Stories do not have a single “objective” place or moment where they must begin or end. We live in an interconnected world where actions lead to and impact multiple other actions, where every experience and event has multiple causes and consequences extending through time in different directions, involving ramifications we cannot fully see or appreciate. A storyteller’s task is not to tell the definitive story of a person or event, but a story that may increase the listener’s understanding or appreciation of some aspect of another person and/or of the world. The place where the storyteller chooses to begin the story shapes our understanding of the meaning of the narrative.

In the recently re-issued collection of essays on social movements, Hope in the Dark, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit, the author challenges us to re-envision where stories—even the stories of our own lives—begin. As the informal storytellers of our own world, we tend to see big, hard-to-miss, events such as the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or the 2008 economic crash, as concrete moments that “changed everything” and started a new story or era. In Hope in the Dark, Solnit asks us to consider whether the “new era” really began with an explosion, or whether the beginning of this new way of life actually started quietly at an earlier time.

As informal storytellers, we live our history as we make it. We are constantly narrating our lives and our perception of the world to ourselves and those around us. Because of this, we tend to view the “end” or outcome of a story as the situation in which we currently find ourselves. Our current actions will shape the lives of those who come after us, but we can’t clearly look back from the future–we only know how the story “ends” now. We describe our current situation as the result of what has come before. Thus, we shape our narratives by look “backwards” towards “the beginning” and then telling it forward to the present moment.

Our understanding of ourselves and our reality changes if we simply consider that the story might begin somewhere other than where we assumes it does. Too often, history is written by and for the victors to glorify and validate their actions. A dominant person or group will start the story in a place that diminishes the experiences and achievements of “outsiders.” Dominant groups and people structure their narrative, consciously or unconsciously, to reaffirm their power.

Solnit suggests that if you feel trapped by lack of progress or by failure in the present moment, you should look back further for the “beginning” of the story.  “[I]ncremental changes have happened quietly, and many people don’t know they have begun, let alone exploded.” “The powerful would like you to believe [their story] is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable,” writes Solnit.

“[A]nd lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view…. For a time, people liked to announce that feminism had failed, as though the project of overturning millennia of social arrangements should achieve its final victories in a few decades, or as though it had stopped. Feminism is just starting, and its manifestations matter in rural Himalayan villages, not just first world cities.”

What story might you understand differently by beginning in a new place?


Where the Story Ends

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


One of the questions we are most frequently asked by our readers and workshop participants is “How do you know where a story ends?”

Where to end a story is one of the most important decisions a storyteller makes. A story ends when a central character finds what they are looking for—even if it wasn’t what they thought they set out to find—or finds what they didn’t know they were looking for.

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Where and how a teller ends (and begins) a story frequently determines whether the story is a hero’s journey, heroine’s journey, or other journey story. The ending can be even more important than the nature of the events being described. For example, if you tell the story of Joan of Arc and end with her leading the French to an unlikely victory over the English at Orleans, the story would likely be a hero’s journey. If the story then continues through her capture and trial for witchcraft—depending on the perspective—it could be a hero’s journey (Joan as martyr) or a heroine’s journey (Joan seeking understanding and serenity in the face of a rigged trial). If the storyteller then reflects on Joan’s life and meaning from the present day, the story could be a hero’s journey characterizing Joan as an inspiring icon to generations of women and the French following her death. It could also be a heroine’s journey that reflects on recent theories regarding Joan’s mental health, or on the differences in how passionate male and female leaders are treated. Or it could be a Journey of Integrity, in which the narrator reflects on Joan’s decision-making process through the lens of victory, defeat, and the years since her death.

The Hero’s Journey ends when the hero finds success or the ultimate boon. He has achieved his goal, returns to his society, and/or is recognized by his peers as having achieved success. The hero is a master of two worlds—the inner world which makes him a good leader/hero and the outer world which allows him to be a leader or proclaims him a hero.

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The hero’s journey also ends with the implication that the hero’s success won’t be snatched away any time soon. It’s a kind of happily-ever after ending. If a sequel is anticipated, perhaps the hero’s success will lead to other complications that provide the chance for a new hero’s journey, but the success won’t be undone—at least not for that hero. If the success is undone, the former hero tends to become a supporting character (no longer the main character). They may become a wise elder or a mentor who urges the hero of the next generation to reclaim, recapture, or make additional progress on a larger problem that wasn’t anticipated when the first success was achieved.

In a hero’s journey, there is always the sense that success is right around the corner. Their journey is not envisioned as a long, imperfect struggle that will continue forever. The hero’s agency—his or her ability to bring about change—is central to the hero’s journey arc, so the journey usually ends shortly after the hero accomplishes their final feat and/or their victory/ability is hailed by others.

In a heroine’s journey, the story ends when the heroine recognizes and experiences wholeness. Life includes both success and failure, vulnerability and ability, self and others, and a larger world. The heroine’s self is not necessarily dominant or foregrounded, even over long periods of time. The heroine’s final goal is not to defeat or dismiss vulnerability, or failure, or sadness, or pain, or self, or others. Their goal is to integrate and value all these as necessary and valuable aspects of the human experience. It is rare that this experience of wholeness is solely an internal realization; a non-dual world is also manifested in the events of the story. It may be tempting to try to view wholeness as a resolution to a story in which the unpleasant aspects of life are part of the past but not the present, or new understanding will eliminate future suffering—but that is a hero’s journey.

Several of our readers have wondered if the heroine’s journey is more depressing than a hero’s journey. Many heroine journey stories have heartwarming or uplifting endings. For example, in the play about the women’s suffrage movement, I Want to Go to Jail, the story ends with a celebratory moment after a group political action. However, the main characters and the audience (which has the benefit of hindsight) understand that more action will be required before women are able to vote.National Womens' Party picketing

Green Book

Another example of a heroine’s journey that ends on a positive note is the 2018 movie, The Green Book, which tells the story of an African American pianist traveling through the American south in the early 1960’s with an Italian-American bouncer who serves as his bodyguard. The story has a heartwarming ending when the jazz pianist drives through the night so that the bodyguard can get home for Christmas. The jazz pianist is then is welcomed into their home, but it remains clear that the pervasive racism that has followed the pianist throughout his tour has been neither “solved” nor “conquered.” The odd-couple main characters have grown personally and relationally within the racist societal backdrop. The heroine’s journey doesn’t end with a sense of a “once-and-for-all” victory.

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The end of the Healing Journey revolves around forgiving the self and sometimes others for not being able to control even one thing that you feel you most need to control. In this journey, the protagonist’s rage against the wound is at the center of the story. This may also appear as the apparent unfairness of an injury/illness, or the protagonist feeling overwhelmed by the cards they have been dealt. The protagonist often tries at first to solve their dilemma with a hero’s journey approach. For example, she might imagine that if she fights her illness hard enough, she will be healed, or that if she just accepts her illness instead, the conflict within will be resolved and she will get better. The hero’s journey promises that you can get well. The heroine’s journey involves finding compassion for one’s self and others whether or not you recover. The Healing Journey usually involves a point of absolute break-down, where the injured one wants to quit, and possibly die. Then there is a moment or experience of beauty that surprises them, and allows for a shift in perspective, a shaft of light to enter their consciousness. Sometimes they give up trying to control, sometimes they give up magical thinking, sometimes they give up, giving up—the action can vary. What is important is that the protagonist forgives him/herself and an imperfect world.

A Journey of Integrity involves both the protagonist action and awareness (culminating in the moment of integrity), and also the witness/viewers’ awareness of and reflection on the meaning of the protagonist’s action. These stories may end with the protagonist returning to ordinary action in the ordinary world, but they also often jump forward in time or expand geographically so that the narrator or audience can see and comment upon the protagonist’s action within a larger context.

Readers and listeners always evaluate the meaning of a story through the lens of its ending. No story has a single, objective endpoint. As storytellers, we shape the readers’ experiences and the meaning of a story through the endings that we choose.

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In our next post we will discuss how the storyteller’s choice in where to begin a story affects the journey.

The Post-Mythic Journey of Integrity

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


Today we are going to describe a new narrative arc that focuses on non-mythic human  experience and the embodiment of human possibility. The Journey of Integrity differs from the mythic Hero’s Journey and Heroine’s Journey in several important ways. First, the limits on a human being’s ability to control or impact the world is central to the journey rather than being an obstacle to overcome. The Journey of Integrity draws its power from the protagonist being an ordinary person, not an unusually talented hero or superhuman. Second, the protagonist in a Journey of Integrity recognizes that the world is a complex non-linear system that may continue to ramify geographically and in time beyond the story. Moreover, the success of the journey is not defined by changes in the external world. Third, the journey often comes as an interruption to the protagonist’s goals and life journey rather than as a call to adventure or invitation for personal transformation. The journey tracks a deepening of conviction rather than the protagonist’s transformation. Also, witnesses or readers play an integral role in the story which affirms the ability of ordinary people to speak out or act in a way that elevates our belief in human possibility.

Integrity Journey by Nancer Ballard
A post-mythic journey for ordinary people affirming the best of humanity.

Stage One: Protagonist sets out on their own journey, goal or path.

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, and their dreams and goals are identified. Unlike the hero’s journey, and often the heroine’s journey, the integrity-driven story usually doesn’t start by focusing on the journey that ultimately defines the story. The moment that lies at the center of the Journey of Integrity requires a veering away from pursuing what the protagonist thought was her goal.

Stage Two: A concerning situation presents itself as a background event.

The protagonist learns about a concerning situation. The situation is often the sort of abstract concern we hear of half a dozen times a day—an act of corruption, a fire set in another county, someone has been accused of a crime, a group of people are being dismissed or ignored, a medical crisis has arisen in another country, etc. The protagonist is following their own journey and the situation may have nothing directly to do with the protagonist’s goals or those close to the protagonist. Stage Two emphasizes a real potential concern, the ordinariness of real concerns, and our tendency to screen out concerns that have no immediate effect on us.

Stage Three:  Protagonist continues on their path as they observe or become increasingly aware of the unfolding of a concerning situation.

The protagonist experiences growing awareness of the unfolding of the concerning situation. Consciously or unconsciously, the protagonist begins to track developments. The protagonist may hope that they have overestimated the seriousness of the situation, or that the situation will be resolved through the natural course of events, or that someone else who is closer to the situation, or whose job is to respond to such situations, will take action.

Stage Four:  The Protagonist grows more concerned about the unfolding situation.

As previously described, the unfolding situation often presents an interruption to the protagonist’s intended journey, goals, or plans rather than a manifestation of them. Stage Four addresses the central conflict of whether the protagonist will choose to interrupt (and potentially derail) their own plans and goals in order to respond to the concerning situation. The protagonist weighs difficult (e.g. worthy, but competing) feelings, priorities, values, and actions. This stage focuses on the problem of weighing alternative positive values rather than eschewing negative temptations or meeting the increasingly difficult tests of skill.

Stage Five: The concerning situation isn’t resolving. Protagonist is convinced someone needs to take action.

In Stage Five of the Journey of Integrity, “need,” “agency,” and “urgency” converge. The concerning situation may be deteriorating. Or time may be running out to fix the problem before it causes far-reaching or irreparable consequences. Or the protagonist may realize that the concerning situation is only the tip of the iceberg. The protagonist feels the need for action but may believe that there are others in a better position to make change or avert disaster. The protagonist is likely to tell a confidante that they feel someone needs to take action or speak out. They may try to gather support for group action, hoping that they can provide support and honor their prior commitments by not taking a lead role. Others may either agree that action needs to be taken or contend that action is useless. In Stage Five, the protagonist often begins to differentiate themself from others either by the intensity of their convictions or because they start to daydream or actively plan how action might proceed. Although the protagonist hasn’t yet committed to action, their mind turns over possibilities and strategies.

Stage Six: Others may try to dissuade protagonist from taking action.

The protagonist actively mulls over the “what ifs” of taking action and focuses on how to take action or speak out rather than whether to do so. Others may be alarmed at this change of focus and try to dissuade the protagonist from taking action. They warn that action could lead to adverse personal consequences (such as being dismissed, denigrated, fired, or being denied a long-sought opportunity). Action could also derail the protagonist from achieving their own goals by taking up too much time or attention, causing them to miss opportunities, or overtaxing them in an area unrelated to their personal goals. Moreover, taking action could be useless and a waste of time, or lead to disappointment and cynicism. Those trying to dissuade the protagonist may be justifying their own inaction, or they may have seen similar situations and realize that adverse consequences are real, and that the protagonist will not avoid them by acting out of good purpose.

Colleagues, friends, and/or family offer logic or reason to try to dissuade the protagonist from taking action.  However, because the protagonist is often deeply empathic or emotionally attuned to those affected by the unfolding situation, logic is not enough to dissuade the protagonist. There may be differences in scale between the consequences to the protagonist and the consequences of not taking action. (What is losing a job compared to a child losing their parent?) On the other hand, the protagonist is not naive. They understand that they may suffer as a consequence of taking action and that the outcome is beyond their control and perhaps beyond the ability of anyone’s control.  Stage Six of the Journey of Integrity differs from many mythic/epic journeys in that the protagonist consciously grapples with how to act given the limits of human control, time beyond the moment of reckoning, and the nonlinear complexity of cause and effect.

Stage Seven:  The Protagonist decides they must act or speak out regardless of the consequences. 

The Journey of Integrity protagonist’s decision to act arises from a deep conviction that the action must be taken, and must be taken now, or at a particular time regardless of the personal consequences. Stage Seven of the Journey of Integrity is akin to the existentialist moment. In existentialism, authentic existence means one has to envision or “create oneself” and act in accordance with this self rather than in accordance with one’s role, or societal demands, or personal history. In the Integrity Journey, the protagonist may begin to mentally and/or physically prepare for possible adverse reactions or ramifications of their decision on their own life or journey. They may confirm that they do not want to act, but realize that they have the ability to act in this time and in this place, and others cannot, or will not. They often feel like they have no choice, because not acting would be a betrayal of who they are what they stand for or how they want to live their life.

Like Søren Kierkegaard, who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, the Journey of Integrity protagonist recognizes, at least implicitly, that it is up to the individual—not society, or religion, or the state—to give meaning to life and to live authentically. The protagonist in a Journey of Integrity, like existentialist writers such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, focus on the power of an individual to act out of conscience (rather than for specific outcomes) and are acutely aware of their own and others’ vulnerability and the randomness of individual fates.

Stage Eight:  Action is taken. In the moment that action is taken, the protagonist’s self and values are one.

At the moment of action, the protagonist’s values, beliefs, knowledge, experience, hesitancies, trauma, and abilities come together in the decision to act and also fuel the action. The protagonist sees that the world has more moving pieces, forces, and people than any one person, including the most powerful of people, have the ability to control. A mythic hero’s limitations may serve to make the hero appear humble or increase plot suspense, but viewers and readers are never really afraid that the hero won’t succeed. However, in a Journey of Integrity, the protagonist is profoundly aware of their and others’ human limitations and accepts those limits. In speaking out or acting, the protagonist simultaneously affirms who she or he is, and the kind of world that they want to live in. Because the protagonist has chosen to act from non-logical, non-strategic values regardless of outcome and others’ reactions, the protagonist often experiences a moment of profound freedom or power that may feel ironic or surprising in the context of taking significant personal risk in a high stakes situation they cannot control.

Stage Nine: The chips fall where they may. The result is important to the story but is not the measure of the protagonist’s worth.

The protagonist’s original journey may be helped or thwarted by their action of integrity. The protagonist’s action may have important, slight or no apparent consequences in the external world. If the teller wants the story to be a hero’s journey, then the protagonist will be rewarded for their bravery even if that outcome is somewhat unrealistic, or the focus of the story will shift to the positive results achieved by the action. Unlike a hero’s journey story, real world results are important in a Journey of Integrity story, but they are not viewed as a measure of the protagonist’s worth or the value of having taken action. In a Heroine’s Journey, the heroine’s action is likely to bring about an experience of community within a larger world. In the Journey of Integrity, the protagonist’s action is implicitly for the benefit of a larger community, but the protagonist may or may not experience a greater sense of community as a result of taking action.

Stage Ten: The protagonist continues life in the ordinary world.  The world may or may not be changed.

The protagonist is changed as a result of their action, but this change is a deepening awareness and affirmation of who they are, rather than being transformed into a new person. Once the moment of integrity is over, the protagonist returns to their ordinary world as an ordinary person (albeit a person who, for a moment, has acted in a remarkable way). Sometimes the protagonist is hampered in returning to their ordinary life by those who would want to make the protagonist into a hero or use the event for their own purposes. The protagonist understands that the power of their action lies in it being available to an ordinary human being rather than associated with a god-like being. They may be declared a hero or heroine or may become a leader, at least momentarily, but the heroic status is likely to be short-lived, and it is not the protagonist’s destination. In a Journey of Integrity, the protagonist’s leadership is based on inspiration rather than extraordinary talent, intellect, or power over others. Such inspiration may flare for a moment, but its subliminal impacts can linger for years.

Stage 11Those who witness the moment of integrity reflect on the nature of the world (or their new understanding of it) in light of others’ reactions to the action. Regardless of the world’s response, the protagonist’s act stands apart from the reaction as an act that affirms humanity’s capacity for good.

A story of integrity often ends with a depiction or narration on the ramifications of the protagonist’s action in the world. The ramifications can be major or minuscule. Whether the act was successful in fulfilling its mission and how long the change lasts will affect witness’ view of the goodness or fairness or cruelty of life, but the protagonist’s act cannot be denigrated by other characters’ reactions. The response to the protagonist’s action can give witnesses a sense of hope, confirm cynicism, bring relief, or evoke other feelings about the witness’s place in the world or view of humanity. However, regardless of the world’s response, the protagonist’s act stands apart from a cruel, or receptive, or crazy, or indifferent world. Their action affirms the possibility of good people, good works, or good results and demonstrates the power of the individual to represent the best of humanity for its own sake.

Unlike mythic tales, the witness never forgets that the protagonist is a human being, who–like the witness, viewer, or reader– suffers and tires, and can feel humiliated or elated, relieved or betrayed. Indeed, it is the protagonist’s human-ness that gives the Journey of Integrity story meaning. In the moment of speaking out or taking action, a palpably human protagonist enacts our best values and by doing so, elevates the reader or witness’s sense of positive possibility for humanity.

Willa Cather’s “Coming, Aphrodite!”; The Hero and Heroine’s Perspectives on Success

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard. 


Willa Cather’s short story Coming, Aphrodite! includes both a Heroine’s Journey and a Hero’s Journey—with a twist. Published in 1920, it chronicles a woman undertaking the Hero’s Journey while a man simultaneously undertakes the Heroine’s Journey.

Originally a small-town girl from an Illinois prairie, Eden Bower has set her sights on becoming an international-stage star when she moves next door to Don Hedger, an orphaned and independent artist living in a small New York apartment.

nyc broadway theatres 1920sEden has wanted to an actress from the time she was very young and is convinced “that she would live far away in great cities, … be much admired by men and … have everything she wanted.” This vision guides Eden throughout her life and she accepts advice (such as changing her name from Edna to Eden) from anyone whom she believes can move her closer to international fame and adoration. She goes to New York, where she believes she is fated to find someone who will take her to Paris. In New York, Eden is for the first time momentarily free to do what she wants, when she meets Hedger who presents her with the opportunity for a new life perspective .

Meanwhile, Hedger, who has grown up in foster homes, has already brushed up against recognition and prosperity as an artist which Cather describes as twice having been on the verge of becoming “a marketable product.” However, Hedger has turned down easy renown because he recoils at being stuck doing “the same old thing over again.” Hedger wants to follow  his inner artistic intuition  and supports his modest domestic needs through occasional commercial work.

As neighbors, the Eden and Hedger (the story refers to the female protagonist by her first name and the male by his last ) have several brief and tense odd couple-like interactions and then fall into a  brief romantic relationship. Their affair begins after Hedger invites Eden to Coney Island, a trip which Eden uses to insert herself into a hot-air balloon performance (for which she has no training) to show off her talents. Hedger, upset by her disregard for his feelings in taking such a this “foolish risk,”  forgives her in part because he recognizes that Eden causes him to consider things “that had never occurred to [him]” before.

Their different worldviews, which initially intrigue and excite them, soon lead to conflict. Eden does not understand how there can be any achievement or purpose in being an artist that “nobody knows about” and criticizes Hedger. Eden wants to be popular in the eyes of the general public and she cannot forgive Hedger for consciously rejecting fame. For his part, Hedger believes he has already found success because he works for himself on projects that please him. Hedger wishes to create new things and paint for other artists “who haven’t been born” yet. He is looking towards a future, but it is one that values internal personal progress and ingenuity, not one that is subject to the taste of popular culture. He chides Eden’s focus on public approval, telling her that “a public only wants what has been done over and over.”

After their fight about success (which, of course, cuts to the core of their identity and sense of place and value in the world) Hedger is hurt more than he’d previously imagined possible and leaves Eden for several days “to be among rough, honest people.” when he returns he is ready to forgive Eden and attempt to integrate their lifestyles so they can continue their relationship, but in his absence Eden has found a way to get to  Paris, so Hedger finds only a hastily written note of explanation.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the hero’s journey as  “a hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.” Eden has embraced this (hero’s) journey and managed to become successful (at least by her lights). The story picks up when Eden returns to New York after performing in an opera in Paris. She visits an art gallery to ask about Hedger in order to find out if, in her absence, he has become rich and famous. The gallery owner tells Eden that Hedger is a well-received and influential artist among the New York crowd who has gained the respect of others for being “original” and “changing all the time.” Eden cuts the gallery owner’s explanation short, demanding to know if he’s much talked about in Paris, saying that’s all  she wants to know.  The story then pulls back closes with a wonderfully enigmatic paragraph description of Eden sitting in a car after leaving the gallery as she is being driven to her next performance.

hermione lee secret selfIn Coming, Aphrodite!, Cather presents her readers with a complex  discussion of success. Both characters find the success they seek, and  Cather is careful to present a neutral view. But by the close of the story one senses that her sympathies lie with the Heroine’s Journey.

To learn more about Willa Cather and read her short story Coming, Aphrodite!, you can find it here or in Hermione Lee’s wonderful collection, The Secret Self: Short Stories By Women

The Heroine’s Journey of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a historical fiction novel that profiles the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini resists telling Keckley’s story as a hero’s journey arc in favor of a more complicated, seering heroine’s journey.  Keckley, an African American  lived from 1818 to 1907. She lived as a slave for thirty-seven years before earning her freedom by becoming an expert seamstress for wealthy women in the pre-civil war Washington D.C. area.

Engraving_of_Elizabeth_Keckly (1)When Abraham Lincoln is elected President, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln selects Keckley from among numerous applicants to be her personal “modiste.” As her modiste, Keckley has the responsibility for designing and creating the First Lady’s gowns and dressing her for important occasions.  Mary Todd Lincoln is viewed as an outsider by Washington society women, and Keckley becomes the First Lady’s trusted confidante. If the story had ended here, it would be a hero’s journey arc – e.g., former slave overcomes great odds to become a member of the White House’s trusted staff through her own ingenuity and skill during the years in which Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation.  But Keckley’s life and Chiaverini’s story are more complex and don’t end with Keckley becoming a celebrated seamstress and Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante.

Mrs. Lincoln was a complicated woman with many physical maladies who never fully recovered from her grief of losing her youngest son shortly after Lincoln was elected President. Keckley’s son dies in the Civil War, but but Mrs. Lincoln is so fraught by her own grief that she cannot empathize with Keckley or the thousands of other mothers whose sons are killed in the war.  Her husband’s assassination as she sits next to him is yet another terrible blow.  Mrs. Lincoln is portrayed as being unprepared to leave the White House and live on her own after her husband’s assassination. She has grown psychologically dependent on Keckley’s support, so Keckley reluctantly agrees to accompany her to Chicago although Mrs. Lincoln is unable to consistently pay her.

Elizabeth_Keckly_UNCChiaverini chronicles Keckley’s post-White House life with the increasingly debt-ridden and mentally compromised Mrs. Lincoln. When the money runs out, Keckley tries to earn a living by writing  her remembrances of her time in the White House, by writing her remembrances o her time in the White House, but is betrayed by her publisher. Although Keckley intends her  portray Mrs. Lincoln with sympathy, the book causes a public outrage in large part because Keckley, an unschooled African American, has dared to give voice to her impressions o the inner workings of the White House. Moreover, her publisher ignores her instructions and  adds the contents of Mrs. Lincoln’s confidential letters to Keckley.  Not only does Keckley fail to earn any much-needed money from the book, she is scorned by the public and Mrs. Lincoln refuses forgive her, see her, or believe in her good intentions.  The novel follows Keckley’s subsequent efforts to recover her life as an independent seamstress and her years as a dressmaking instructor in a college. When she suffers a stroke, she is gain without means and is forced to reside   at the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children a few blocks from the White House. Keckley endures a multitude of hopes and heartbreaks, and Chiaverini offers no “final” triumph (or failure).

In the book’s final chapter, Chiaverini depicts Keckley, then in her 80’s, being interviewed by a young reporter who asks  what it is like to be so famous. Keckley is described as being fully aware of the world as it is—fame and fortune can wax and wane.  Effort, intention, and justice play a role, but success is  often short-lived and followed by heartbreak.  Keckley informs the reporter that knowing famous people does not mean that she herself was famous, and that it would be fool hardy to take pride in something so fickle and fleeting as fame.

9780142180358-lMrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker closes with an affirmation of the complexity and dignity of Keckley’s whole life, including her losses. Instead of focusing on Keckley’s unusual role in the White House, Chiaverini observes that “[Keckley] had lived a full and fascinating life. She had known the most remarkable people of the age, and she had never refused to help the humble and down trodden.  Despite its disappointments and losses and heartbreaks, she would not have wished her life a single day shorter—nor, when the time came for her to join the many friends and loved ones who had gone on before her, would she demand an hour more.”

To learn more about Jennifer Chiaverini and/or read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, consult your local library or go to https://jenniferchiaverini.com.

 

 

 

 

Wholeness Introduces Herself to Promises of Happiness and Success

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance Savannah Jackson.


Unlike Heroines’ Journeys, The Hero’s Journey ends with the hero returning to his tribe, kinsmen, country, or home with the Elixir. In Hero Journey stories such as the Lion King, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Wonder Woman, the hero (male, female, or otherwise) finds the treasure, restores his tribe’s lost honor, learns the magic code, or discovers the key to success and is rewarded with recognition, status, and respect.

Maureen Murdock describes the heroine’s quest as an “inner journey toward being a fully integrated, balanced, and whole human being.”  Although Murdock focuses on the integration of feminine and masculine personality traits, the heroine’s journey can be understood as a quest to integrate almost any two dichotomies, binaries, opposing concepts, or ideologies. Victoria Schmidt’s version of the heroine’s journey concludes with a “Rebirth– the Moment of Truth” when the protagonist faces her own (and others’) fear with compassion and returns to the “perfect world” or  “the world seen for what it is.”  The reward for the journey is an integrated connection to the world and something larger than herself.

The Heroine Journeys Project team believes that the Heroine’s Journey is, in essence a search to affirm and experience wholeness. By definition, wholeness necessarily includes both sides of a binary including the masculine and feminine, but also success and failure, perfection and imperfection, joy and grief, happiness and despair, respect and disrespect, glory and stunning disappointment, etc. The world and human experience encompasses each of these things, so respite from disappointment or suffering is temporary so long as life, or the story, continues.

Creative Cycle by Nancer Ballard

Artist book by Nancer Ballard depicting pleasant and unpleasant aspects of  creative cycle

Throughout our lives, most of us are told that loyalty, hard work, sacrifice, and some notion of universal fairness (sometimes called Destiny) will bring us Happiness and Success and eradicate our suffering, frustrations, and disappointment. We are taught that it is possible to “make it,” and become our family/tribe/community leader or win a coveted personal relationship and live happily ever after…. or at least a relatively care-free comfortable life.  Many of us know differently but still secretly believe in the mythical hero’s journey arc because we have grown up in a binary-soaked culture and recoil from the unpleasant aspects of wholeness we have been led to believe are unnecessary.

A few months ago I was given a poem by Lynn Ungar (which she has graciously allowed us to share) that describes the kind of stories and lives that royalty and most of us commoners actually live rather than the make-believe myths we think we want to live.

The Story

I’ll tell you a secret.
There is no happy ending.
Also no tragic conclusion.
The prince and princess don’t
live happily ever after.
They live happily sometimes,
and sometimes they are stricken
with so much grief that they know
their hearts will explode—
which never actually happens—
and sometimes they are
well and truly and deeply
bored, and ready for the tiniest
of catastrophes to shake them awake.

They will not, of course,
live ever after.  No one does.
But they might have children
who carry on the royal line,
or friends who tell the story
of how the witch showed up
at the baby shower, or maybe
they planted trees. One way
or another the story
inevitably continues.
Pray that it is some kind of
story about love.

In this poem, love is viewed as the best glue for a full evolving life rather than the reward that ends the story-life arc with flatlining good fortune. A good working definition of “love” is an enduring, positive, attentive connection between two (or more) separate beings that creates a relationship.  The relationship is distinct and larger than its individual members or constituents. Love does not abolish loneliness and vulnerability, but having a positive, enduring connection with others can make the pain of being alone and being imperfectly understood tolerable. A loving connection also provides company in times of vulnerability.

In Maureen Murdock’s formulation of the Heroine’s Journey, the final step in the cycle is integration.  Integration has several meanings. It can refer to the act or an instance of combining disparate elements into an integral whole—as in the integration of personality.  But integration can also refer to harmonious behavior of individuals within a larger environment, or to the coordination of distinct previously segregated elements within a unitary system—as in the integration of a school system.  In other words, integration can refer to blending or synthesizing or to the coordination of parts in which the parts retain their individual distinctness and integrity within a larger whole.  Love draws upon both types of integration. Unless the individuals in a loving relationship maintain their individual selves and identities, the result is a merging of one person into another, or domination and subordination, rather than connection borne by love. Love’s connection also produces a relationship which neither person can create by themselves.  Their relationship, a product of their connection to themselves and each other, is a third thing that is something different than the sum of its parts—just as a story depends upon character, action, motivation, and result but is more than the sum of these elements. As in a relationship, each element in a story is necessary and significantly influenced by other elements but can still be somewhat differentiated from the other parts.

Integration of the masculine and feminine, and whatever other binaries are at stake, can involve blending, synthesis, or the coordination of separate elements that retain their individuality within a larger whole.  The best stories and fullest of lives involve evolving combinations of each of these.

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We appreciate Lynn Unger’s allowing us to share “The Story” in this post. To learn more about Lynn Unger’s work and/or purchase her book of poetry, Bread and Other Miracles, go to http://www.lynnungar.com.