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.

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. tumblr_pikcqdTIGC1u8gqcko1_400If 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.joan_of_arc_704 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.

luke & reyThe 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

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.” Green BookThe 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.

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.DSC_0510 - Copy 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.

 “Gloria: A Life”: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, and move at the speed of trust”   

By guest blogger Maureen Murdock; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.

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Last year my partner, Bill and I went to a matinee performance of “Gloria: A Life, ” Emily Mann’s play about Gloria Steinem. The setting at the Daryl Roth Theater in lower Manhattan was arranged as if we were in a consciousness-raising group. The stage area was in the middle, carpeted with Persian rugs like Ms. Steinem’s own apartment. We, the audience, sat around the stage in bleacher-style rows covered with multi-colored pillows. Six aisles allowed for non-Gloria characters to come and go as scenes changed.  Images of Gloria’s life were projected above the stadium seating on two opposite walls. Christine Lahti, looking exactly like the feminist trailblazer in black bell-bottoms and tinted aviator glasses played Gloria.

Gloria_Steinem_1977_©Lynn_Gilbert

The first act traced Gloria’s life from small town girl taking care of her mentally ill mother in Dayton, Ohio through her rise to become an icon of the Second Wave of Feminism.  What was poignant is that Gloria became a journalist to get away from her mother and found out years later that her mother had been a newspaper journalist herself before Gloria was born. Her mother was then abandoned by her husband and became terminally depressed. Gloria realized, like so many of us who have had depressed mothers, that she ended up living her mother’s “unlived life.”

Film clips of Gloria from her time undercover as a Playboy bunny, to her early reporting on the women’s movement, to her involvement in the creation of Ms. Magazine (with many others in her living room), to images of her addressing the crowd at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D. C. appeared on the walls around us as the play evolved. Other actors played many other feminist leaders such as Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller, black and Native American leaders often left out of standard histories.

When her husband of three years died of cancer, Gloria turned to Wilma Mankiller. Wilma told Gloria a story about her own near death experience in her forties which included such a feeling of ecstasy that she didn’t want to return to the living when  given the choice. However, she did make the decision to live and assured Gloria that her husband probably was also gifted with an ecstatic release from his suffering in death.  The whole idea of death being an ecstatic experience gave me hope.

Gloria Steinem,  Image by © MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters/CorbisGloria had her own #MeToo moment before the movement was named. A New York Times editor suggested to Steinem that they “discuss her work in a hotel room this afternoon”; and in 1963, when she was sitting in a cab ride in between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, Talese said, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Perhaps the most important part of Gloria’s coming of age was finding her voice by listening to others in consciousness-raising groups and speaking with other women. It surprised me to learn that she had a fear of public speaking and so she always invited another feminist like Florynce Kennedy or Bella Abzug with her colorful hats to share the stage with her. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle,” she says in the play and that’s exactly what the second act consisted of. At the end, there was a 20-minute talking circle in which we, the audience, were invited to share our own responses to what we had seen in the play or what we had lived. The guidelines were principles enunciated by Black Lives Matter projected on the walls in big letters: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, move at the speed of trust.”

The lights came up and the first person to raise her hand for a microphone was a 16-year old girl. I was pleased to see such a young woman present because most of the audience—almost all women and the few men—looked like survivors of the nineteen sixties. She said, “ I’m 16 and I grew up with a mother who always told me I could be anything I want to be. I appreciate the sacrifices that Gloria made for all of us and I’m really grateful to my mother for giving me the confidence that I can be anything I want to be.” Impressed by how articulate she was, we all clapped as Christine Lahti said, “There is the next Gloria Steinem!”16steinem1-articleLarge

An older woman, sitting high up in the bleachers said, “I want to tell you what it was like in the ‘60s. My husband was a student at Yale and I worked in the library to support us. There was a man who worked with me in the library and I found out that he was making more money than me. I talked to some of the other women who worked there and we went to our boss and asked for a raise. Our supervisor said, “Well, he’s a man. Someday he will have to support a family!” The woman replied, “Well, I am supporting a family. My husband is a student and I work to support us both.” (I nodded, thinking back to how I worked on a psych ward while my first husband was in law school). Having received no satisfaction from her supervisor, she went above him to one of the Deans, who eventually gave her a raise. She interrupted our applause by saying, “Wait! There’s a happy ending to that story. I got promoted and now that man works for me!” We all roared with approval.

There were a couple of men who raised their hands to speak. One man, who appeared to be in his early ‘50s, said, “I work for a company whose name is not important. I wanted to give a woman who works with me a 20% raise. I was told by the HR department (managed by a woman) that I could only give her a 10% raise. So I said, ‘Oh, I see. She’s a woman. We always pay a woman less.’ We all groaned. As he gave up the mic, he said, “She got the 20% raise. It works every time.” We hooted and hollered!

Another man, with thin graying hair, on the other side of the theater, took the mic and slowly said, “I have been crying throughout this entire performance. It touched me deeply.” We all got quiet and the woman sitting next to him put her arm around him. He continued through his tears. “I have been thinking about how oppressed I have felt throughout my entire life.” His comment surprised me.

When he spoke the word “oppressed,” I thought he was going to admit to situations in which he had oppressed women and apologize. Or that in seeing the play and identifying with women, it began to dawn on him that he had been oppressed during his life as well. But he didn’t explain how he felt oppressed and I began to feel cynical. This show was about how women have struggled against inequality and I felt that he was co-opting Gloria’s story for himself. He continued, “I’m 72 years old and I was a feminist before any other man was a feminist.” The audience sighed. I wanted to scream. How dare he claim that for himself.

Here was a man pulling on our heartstrings by comparing what he saw as his own oppression to the oppression of women we had just witnessed on stage. The principle of Low Ego had been abandoned: instead the man was inducing the audience into expressing sympathy and taking care of him.  Christine Lahti could have explained that the play wasn’t about male oppression, or called attention to the message on the wall.  She didn’t do either, at least not on this afternoon.  Instead, she fell into the trap of equating men’s and women’s circumstances by saying–with great warmth–“Thank you so much for your courage and your tears.”

He  successfully hijacked the moment.  But I am sure I wasn’t the only one who had noticed that the self-proclaimed first male feminist hadn’t grasped the concept of low ego.   And a moment is not the journey. As Gloria—A Life, Gloria Steinem herself, and many of the other speakers that day showed us, when you encounter high egos blocking the way, it’s a call to step around them–and keep moving.Gloria Steinem at Women's March, Photo by Jenny Warburg

Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. teaches memoir writing at UCLA and in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s memoir certificate program, “Writing Down the Soul.” She is the author of the best selling book The Heroine’s Journey, which delineates the feminine psycho-spiritual journey, as well as four other books: Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and MemoryFathers’ Daughters: Breaking the Ties that Bind; Spinning Inward; The Heroine’s Journey Workbook, and Blinded by Hope: My Journey through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction published under a pseudonym. Maureen Murdock b&w jpeg

You can find her blog on her website:  www.maureenmurdock.com

Facing the Witch: The Aletis Heroine’s Journey

by guest blogger, Jody Gentian Bower; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson. Jody Gentian Bower, PhD., is a cultural mythologist and the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.


In the 1980s, I belonged to a women’s book club. Over time I noticed that most of the novels we read featuring a female protagonist had a similar plot. Then I realized that many of the great novels by women, the established classics, followed the same plot. I found a similar plot in the biographies of many noted women.

The idea that women authors* have been telling a consistent story for centuries wouldn’t leave me alone. Yet I couldn’t find any discussion of this plot by scholars of literature. The Heroine’s Journey by therapist Maureen Murdock, Women Who Run with the Wolves by folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Jean Benedict Raffa’s memoir The Bridge to Wholeness touched on some of the motifs I’d seen (and opened my eyes to a few I’d missed), but their approaches were not quite what I was looking for. My fascination with the literary plot itself eventually led to Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.

I came to call this plot the Aletis story—aletis being an ancient Greek word that means “wandering heroine.” Allerleirauh_by_Arthur_Rackham (1)Her story is not defined by an external quest like the Hero’s Journey plot. Instead, her journey takes her farther and farther away from home until at last she finds the place—both within and without—where she is able to create the life that she has always longed for. Unlike the hero, who proves himself a man by a heroic act that enforces and preserves the idealized vision of the status quo of the community, the Aletis finds her inner worth and bases her life on what she values. She doesn’t ask anyone else to change, but her example often causes her community to shift out of old ways that no longer work.

I call her the wandering heroine because she keeps moving, keeps on leaving situations where she cannot be herself. For example, Jane Eyre longs for a life lived fully, with passion. She chooses to leave her adoptive, abusive home to go to school; chooses to leave Lowood School and her teaching job to become a governess for strangers; chooses to leave Mr. Rochester when he asks her to compromise her integrity; and chooses to leave the safe harbor she’s found with her cousins when St. John tries to force her into a loveless marriage. Eventually, the Aletis finds (or, like Jane, builds) her own home where she can put down roots and create what she was meant to create. She provides an opportunity for others to do likewise, like Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, who draws a community of like-minded creative people to her—including her own formerly abusive husband.

But first the Aletis must journey into the wild place, the place of danger, the very place her family and community have warned her against. In old tales like “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she goes from her little village into the forest where the scariest thing of all, the witch Baba Yaga, lives. Bilibin._Baba_Yaga (1)In many recent stories the wild place is the big city, the center of sin and crime. The heroine has been taught all her life to fear this place, yet she is drawn to it.

In the wild place she encounters the witch. The wicked witch is often the villain of a hero story; the hero must defeat her. But in Aletis stories, the witch becomes the girl’s teacher. The witch must be approached with respect; not as an enemy, but not in a craven way either. The heroine has to prove herself to the witch, and the first thing she must prove is that she respects herself too. She must stand boldly before the witch and tell her what she has come for.

The witch sniffs, unconvinced. She sets the girl a series of impossible tasks. These tasks require the girl to use discernment—to sort out the good seeds from the bad—or be diligent and unwavering as she spins the mountain of straw into gold. Her commitment provides the magic that allows the task to be accomplished. Once the girl passes the test, the witch gives her what she needs.

Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is a modern Baba Yaga, feared by all who know her. (“Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestly” evokes someone in touch with divine power.) The heroine Andrea, newly come to the big city from her small town, walks boldly into Miranda’s demesne and asks for a job. Miranda sniffs, as do all the sycophants around her, but she lets Andrea stay and sets her a series of increasingly impossible tasks. After Andrea passes the tests, Miranda recommends her for her dream job, investigative journalism. Andrea will not only get to write but will have a positive effect on the wider world.

The Aletis story teaches us how to go willingly into the heart of the unknown. It teaches us that when we come face to face with those we’ve been taught to fear, we don’t have to fight them or defeat them. Instead, we must stand firmly in our integrity as they test our commitment to learning from them. In showing them respect while maintaining our own self-respect, we often receive their respect and ultimately, their cooperation and aid.

To learn more about Jody’s work or purchase a copy of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Journey, click here.

*And a few visionary men. Shakespeare’s Viola of Twelfth Night, Charles Dickens’s Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn of The Lord of the Rings are examples.

Healing Together: Empathy, Integration and Community-Based Reparations

This is the  second in a two part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


Students at Fort Resolution

Students at a residential school in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.

In our most recent post, we examined the experiences of indigenous children within the Canadian residential school system. The practice of involuntarily removing children from their communities and cultures, which formally lasted for 165 years, fundamentally altered the lives of indigenous people and their communities. Our last post used the Heroine’s Journey as a framework in the attempt to better understand some of the impacts on survivors and the processes by which indigenous people were intentionally stripped of their identities. In this post we will use the Heroine’s Journey to approach the healing process.

The “history” of the residential schools does not have a beautiful, cathartic, final moment that marks the completion of indigenous people’s traumatic journey. A single monetary payment or moment of clarity cannot suddenly rectify what is now almost two centuries of hurting. The heroine’s journey is a cycle of stages that can occur non-linearly and can be passed through more than once.

“The residential school system took away my language, my culture, and my identity…People are left with a [need for a] sense of belonging. You want to find your sense of belonging and identity.”

Michael Cheena, Survivor

Though the residential school practice officially ended in 1996, another decade would pass before the survivors received a formal apology from the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (See statement here). PM Harper’s acknowledgement that the federal government has caused lasting harm to survivors, family members, and communities was an important moment of recognition and apology. Harper also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) at this time; it is composed of both indigenous leaders and nonindigenous members. Seven years later, in 2015, the TRC officially declared the residential school system to have constituted cultural genocide and issued a list of 94 “Calls to Action” for how to move forward with reconciliation and reparations. The Calls to Action include such things as eliminating the discrepancy between educational funding for aboriginal schools and non-aboriginal schools; calling upon the Canadian government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights; and providing adequate resources to social workers to help keep Aboriginal families together.

Children_at_Fort_Simpson_Indian_Residential_School_holding_letters_that_spell_“Goodbye,”_Fort_Simpson

Indigenous children at the Fort Simpson residential school in the Northwest Territories.

Progress has been slow, and a large amount of work remains to be accomplished. As of March 2018, only ten of the TRC’s 94 proposals had been completed. Harper’s 2008 apology did not include survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador because the residential schools in this province were not directly managed by the Canadian federal government when the schools were opened (the province did not join Canada until 1949). This apology finally came with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement in November of 2017. Although Catholic missionaries, priests, and nuns were instrumental in establishing and teaching in residential schools, in March of 2018, Pope Francis decided not to apologize for the role of the Catholic church in the residential school system.

“You know they were trying to tell me that’s this church, or this place we’re in, you know, I had to do, I had to be this perfect, perfect person or whatever. And yet at the same time, that’s not what I saw. Because I thought to myself, well, if you’re a priest and nun, how come you’re doing this to this child, or you’re doing this to me, and I would say it out loud, and I’d get more lickings.”

Julianna Alexander, Survivor

The Canadian government’s formal recognition is an important first step, but first steps are just that—they are not the journey’s end.  Many questioned Harper’s 2008 apology when only a year later, he stated at the 2009 G20 Pittsburg Summit that Canada has “no history of colonialism.” In September of 2018, students at an Alberta school were asked on a multiple-choice exam to name a positive effect of residential schools on indigenous children. This is like asking one to identify the benefits of false incarceration. It is not indicative of a society in which both indigenous and non-indigenous people have embraced the process of healing, which requires a long-term collaborative effort.

There was nobody there to give any hugs. There was nobody there to say goodnight. There was nobody there to even wipe your tears, or we will hide our tears… Late at night you can hear somebody crying. I don’t know what time it is. There’s no time or nothing that I know, but I know it’s very late at night. There’s nobody to tell us. Everything we do in there is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, is what I hear. Couldn’t do anything right.”

Florence Horassi, Survivor

The Canadian government continues to negotiate settlements and reparations with indigenous individuals as well as working toward providing adequate funding for schools on reserves. Indigenous communities continue to be at odds with the Canadian government in the effort to achieve reparations that truly respond to survivors’ and communities’ needs.

The government has focused on payments to individual survivors depending on the number of years they spent in the residential school system. Some indigenous people have criticized this as an insulting attempt to put a price on human suffering and loss of cultural identity. Although some money has gone towards healing and education programs, indigenous communities have called for more community-based, intergenerational reparations. Those who went through the residential schools are called survivors, and their children are called intergenerational survivors. This stresses the impact that the school system has had on indigenous communities beyond those who personally experienced the residential schools. Providing financial aid only to survivors who are still alive does not address many of the issues that indigenous communities face today.

We will Protect our Nation for our Future Generations

Indigenous people protesting against the C-45 bill in Ottawa as part of the Idle No More movement

Individual reparations alone do not address the deeper level of the persisting trauma. Individualizing reparations fails to acknowledge that the survivors are both individual victims of violence and group victims of a dominant group’s systemic dehumanization. Reparations and healing must consistently recognize and address both.

The heroine journey framework emphasizes that healing is not an oppositional dichotomy between natives and settlers in which natives reclaim their cultural identity simply by convincing settler that they deserve respect. Nor can settlers atone for the natives’ traumatization with one apology and a donation.  The heroine’s journey is a one of non-linear movement toward wholeness. Attempts to erase what has been done or purchase forgiveness doubles the initial violation and continues to marginalize indigenous peoples. Healing is not what the federal government determines to be adequate or affordable funding according to non-indigenous standards.

We cannot alter the past injustices suffered by indigenous people faced through the residential school system. However, we can continue to recognize what has happened and to address long-lasting and multidimensional impacts honestly and empathically. We must  consistently be aware that healing from trauma is neither linear nor subject to a quick fix. And we must not let this, or other similar things, happen again. We cannot participate in the healing of communities and their members while also treating them as separate and other. To  heal the split between the original and dominant cultural identities in the pursuit of wholeness, we must listen to the requests and needs of indigenous communities and incorporate both the experiences of the survivors and the role of the dominant culture in survivors’ experiences into our consciousness.

“That’s our belief as First Nations that we don’t just think about ourselves. We have to think of the next generation and the ones yet to come…They’re not here yet, but we have to prepare for them. And preparing means we’ve got to put down that hurt and that pain we carry now. We can’t let that be our life.””

Viola Papequash, Survivor

For more information on the history of the residential school system, and the indigenous experience and perspective, you can visit wherearethechildren.ca/en

“We Undertake this Healing Journey Together”; an Indigenous Peoples’ Pursuit of Wholeness

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


“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience …”

– Where Are The Children website 

Complicated stories rarely fit neatly into the theoretical stages of Mauren Murdock or Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey cycles, as we’ve seen in stories such as Willa Cather’s Coming, Aphrodite! and Barbara Leckie’s Kicking the StoneThe real life stories of people who struggle toward wholeness–and toward being recognized as an essential, respected part of the larger world’s narrative–are even more complex. In this post, we want to recognize and examine the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Canada.

Beginning officially in 1831 and extending to as recently as 1996, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, and placed in residential schools. The residential school system was ostensibly designed to help native youth assimilate into the settler Canadian society, but the schools functioned more as work-houses. In these schools, the children were constantly reminded that they would never belong in their own communities, nor in the settler communities. Virtually all of the children endured years of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. An estimated 35-60% of the children did not survive the experience. The residential school “history” is a story that stretches into the present day. Today, native communities continue to struggle with survivor’s trauma, substance abuse, and interpersonal issues.

This post will view the experiences of the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis’ children and communities through the lens of a heroine’s journey framework. Can doing so can help us to empathize with those impacted by the Canadian residential school system and to become allies in the joint effort toward recovery and reparation?

Study Period at Roman Catholic Residential School

A study period in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.

Using Maureen Murdock’s heroine journey arc, the indigenous children’s involuntary removal from their communities can be interpreted as a separation from the born-into culture (which Murdock terms “the feminine”). Similar to the so-called feminine approach to child-rearing, the traditional indigenous educational approach emphasizes guiding and nurturing children when teaching them holistic life skills, while also recognizing and respecting the integrity of the child.

Murdock’s separation from the feminine often involves a heroine’s voluntary decision to reject a limited identity that has been thrust upon them by society. However, the forcible separation of indigenous children from their identities better resembles Victoria Schmidt’s betrayal. This stage launches the heroine’s pursuit for wholeness. The indigenous communities experienced a profound betrayal when their children were taken from them. Although some indigenous community leaders had wanted to learn more of Western culture, and to consider how some integration might be beneficial, they never intended to reject the native identity, community, or way of life.

The non-indigenous narrative may have claimed that the residential school system would allow the children to identify with the dominant culture (eg. the masculine) and assimilate (eg. gather allies). However, this was not the reality. The children were discouraged from befriending each other and were punished for speaking their native languages. The “teachers” consistently humiliated the children and physically punished them for anything the teachers deemed to be mistakes or misbehavior. Few staff or faculty provided any comfort or support. Instead, they inflicted, or turned a blind eye to the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of the children by those in positions of authority.

On the rare occasions that children saw their parents, many children did not know how to communicate their experiences, which were so foreign to their native lifestyles. Some children reported feeling ashamed and did not want to explain what had been done to them, or they felt too distant from those in their native communities, which seemed to be a separate reality. Those who did seek help were ignored by law enforcement. Many children entered the residential school system between when they were four and seven years old and were forced to remain within the system for eight or more years. Their roads and trials seemed to stretch on forever.

“The residential schools thing is the biggest factor that has shaken the Indian people down to their roots and it’s the thing that has changed our total look on history.”

Basil Ambers, survivor

Indigenous children may have imagined that they would experience a boon of success when they survived, finally exited the residential school system, and could return to their communities. The community may also have imagined its children would be able to heal and reintegrate when they returned. Both the children and their communities suffered and continue to suffer from the trauma of the forced removal, separation, and abuse.

The community leaders were able to take control of and abolish the residential schools, but the trauma remains. This ongoing impact can be likened to Murdock’s feelings of spiritual aridity. In many cases, the children subjected to mistreatment within the residential schools grew up to have children who were also taken from them, as were their children’s children. Unsurprisingly, many survivors and their families are troubled by alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anger, doubts regarding their ability to control their own lives, an inability to fully connect with either native or settler identities, and/or a lack of experience creating and functioning within loving, supporting relationships.

Students at Blue Quills Residential School

Students at Blue Quills Residential School in St Paul, Alberta.

The children and their communities have been irreparably damaged in that they cannot reestablish the life and identity they would have had without the residential school system. The strategies that were forced upon them to help them contribute to mainstream Canada have not had the desired benefit. Neither their traditional (so-called feminine) nor Western (so-called masculine) living strategies work for them and this situation can be seen as parallel to the initiation and descent to the goddess stage.

Survivors have tried (and continue to try) to reclaim their indigenous identities, practices, and cultures. This is akin to Murdock’s yearning to reconnect with the ancestral (goddess). Their ability to reclaim their cultural identity is complicated by the fact that multiple generations have had their identities stripped from them.

Reconnecting with their indigenous identity and then reconstructing their relationship with a non-indigenous society is an even more complicated, reciprocal, nonlinear process. It necessarily contains provisional solutions that may later be changed or replaced, and effort on behalf of both non-indigenous and indigenous individuals and communities. Healing and the pursuit of wholeness involve both a yearning to connect to one’s own origins and the need to heal the original/dominant cultural identity (eg. the mother/daughter) split. Indigenous community members can provide some of the necessary support, but the burdens of healing cannot rest solely on those hurt by the experience and legacy of trauma. To expect indigenous communities to provide for all of their own healing for tragedies foisted upon them by the dominant society is to continue the marginalization of indigenous people. Wholeness is a process that involves all of us.

Cree Students and Teacher

Cree students and teacher at the All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan. 1945.

In our next post, we will focus on the present-day relationships between and among indigenous peoples, the Canadian government, and non-indigenous people. We will consider what the heroine’s journey framework might teach us about strategies for healing and pursuing wholeness.

“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience. Only through understanding the issues can we undertake this healing journey together.” 

– Where Are The Children website

For more information on the history of the residential school system, and the indigenous experience and perspective, you can visit wherearethechildren.ca/en