Back in the 1980's, when I was still in graduate school studying Cultural Anthropology, I was already a validated "writer" with a Masters in Creative Writing. I had finished an autobiographical book that was to become Memories of My Ghost Brother, both memoir and fiction. I was also studying Korean narrative folklore, Shamanism, and translation from a Semiotics and Structuralist perspective. Those were the good old days before Deconstruction, Critical Theory, and Postmodernism had thrown the wrenches irreconcilably into the social sciences. It was the days when an anthropologist could still pretend to write an ethnography and when stories could be said to actually "tell" something. Now, two decades later, with Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault dead (and nobody, not even Claude Levi–Strauss, wanting to be the new guru of French Theory), things seem to have calmed down and become more apparently matter–of–fact once again.
In the interim, both because of and despite all the heavy Theory I studied, I had learned a few things about reading and writing, things that made simple acts very complicated. But now I can also see that there are some fundamental things I learned about storytelling, things that cut through the underbrush of theory, back to the days before I was even a student. One of them can be put very simply: Telling a story causes you to become its audience, and when you listen to yourself, you learn something about yourself that you did not know before. (By "telling" and "listening," I also mean writing and reading.) To this basic truth about storytelling and writing, I would add another truth, this one gleaned from my childhood exposure to Shamanism: Serious storytelling not only has the potential to heal, it can and does heal. This is no surprise to those who practice psychoanalysis (either Jungian or Freudian), in which it is understood that storytelling is a way for the unconscious to hide meaning from the conscious (Freud), or for the subconscious to send a message to the conscious (Jung). But what I did not realize, perhaps because I had been academically preoccupied all these years, was that this sort of therapeutic storytelling happens all the time, not only in the context of therapy or meaningful conversation, not only in the language of dreams and disguised autobiographical writing, but in the way we go about living our everyday lives.
Let me look at two case studies, one I recall from my study of Anthropology and the other from my own life. Both cases involve childbirth and both involve the role of symbols and storytelling. Both have important, real–life consequences.
Case #1: Mother and Muu
In his famous essay, "The Effectiveness of Symbols," the Structuralist Anthropologist, Claude Levi–Strauss (considered by some to be the "father" of Narratology, the scientific study of storytelling), talks about Shamanism and psychotherapy. He describes and analyzes a shamanic healing ceremony practiced among the Cuna. The ritual involves the shaman singing a song whose story and symbolism help a mother through a difficult childbirth. By making use of a coherent and organized mythic story during the ritual, the shaman helps the mother through the painful ordeal of giving birth. Her pain is given meaning in a larger narrative of struggle among spirits, and when the story resolves in her favor, she is led into a psychological state that has real effects on her body — she is able to relax, making the childbirth easier. Levi–Strauss observes:
The shaman provides the sick woman with a language, by means of which unexpressed, and otherwise inexpressible, psychic states can be immediately expressed . . . .bring[ing] to a conscious level conflicts and resistances which have remained unconscious . . . . The manipulation must be carried out through symbols, that is, through meaningful equivalents of things meant which belong to another order of reality.
The narrative in the Cuna ritual involves a personified spirit called Muu, whose role is to help nurture the fetus. In the painful childbirth, the Muu has gone beyond its usual role and also captured the soul of the mother, and the shaman must intercede, fighting the Muu with the help of other spirits in order to rescue the mother's soul and save the child. The performance of the ritual is emotional, vivid, dramatic, and specific. Personal, often intimate, details from the life of the mother are woven into the narrative as the shaman battles with the Muu.
For the Cuna, the ritual is straightforward. The narrative literally describes the battle, and the shaman's victory over the overreaching Muu is what saves mother and child. But as Levi–Strauss notes, an essential element in the shaman's treatment is to allow the unconscious to express itself in a way that the conscious can understand. In the shamanic ritual, this involves the language of symbols — things that have meaning because we have agreed upon the meanings attributed to them. What the Cuna play out literally is, by scientific standards, symbolic and figurative. There is no Muu. There is no battle of spirits. But playing out the drama performs a sort of therapeutic analogy.
Levi–Strauss compares the shaman's role to that of the western psychotherapist, whose role is also to mediate between the patient's unconscious and conscious. He says, "in both cases the purpose is to bring to a conscious level conflicts and resistances which have remained unconscious." In the same way that the shaman's ritual begins with a narrative that includes details specific to the patient's life, the psychotherapist evokes detailed narratives from the patient during treatment.
In psychoanalysis, a process called "abreaction" (which usually happens at a cathartic moment) discharges the negative emotions associated with trauma, whereas in a shamanic ritual, the patient's physical, psychological, or spiritual problems are discharged at a particularly intense juncture in the narrative. In both cases, an experience is "provoked" or evoked. The shaman is a vicarious narrator and the psychoanalyst is a listener, urging on the patient's narrative, and both achieve healing by facilitating communication between the unconscious and the conscious. In psychoanalysis, we talk about the conscious and the unconscious (or subconscious); in Shamanism, we talk about the world of humans and the world of spirits.