The storytelling self is a social self, who declares and shapes important relationships through the mediating power of words.
– Dyson, A. H., & Genishi, C. (1994). The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and community. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
My parents were both inveterate storytellers.
My dad, often the life of a party, would keep people in rapt attention as he wove multiple story lines together into one or more of his favorite themes: unfair or unskilled management, beleaguered labor, untrustworthy owning class, and the like. If there was any quality of fable in his stories, it was their unwavering theme of hope that the little guy would survive.
On the other hand, my mother’s stories were not as elegant or formulaic. She had none of the Polish/Russian poet in her that was my dad. Her repeated tales were often told for a laugh and embroidered to heighten the sense of suspense before the punch line. There was another type of story she told, however. These were pure fabrications, either devoid of truth or so stretched that they had snapped into some account unrecognizable to those who witnessed actual events. These stories appeared to bolster her sense of herself: better loved as a child, more cared for, less poor, gentile, better educated.
I do not typically call my mother’s stories lies, but I think of them as confections, sweets that do not nourish, gummies that get stuck in the craw. Her life trajectory required this creativity; mine did not. She was raised in an era that required that immigrants provide plausible reasons for their move to the U.S. Stories were written to provide new identities. They were written to explain away the privilege of Whiteness and the humiliation of poverty.
Perhaps my father’s and mother’s stories have prompted me to question stories with titles like “School Choice,” “Right to Work,” “Free Market,” and “Organic.” Maybe I am overly sensitive to stories like “Pro-life” that is anything but pro– or life. Like my father’s stories, these suggest a hopefulness of sorts — choice, right, free. But like my mother’s, they are not literally true. They bolster the sense of the greedy as having humanity at heart while they steal educational opportunity, economic opportunity, nutrition, and reproductive justice.
It seems like some stories function to give us a sense of community, but maybe that sense comes at the cost of being kept in our places.