Healing Stories:

The Use of Narrative in Counseling and Psychotherapy

Edited by Stanley Krippner, Michael Bova, Leslie Gray  
Charlottesville, VA:  Puente Publications, 2007. 384 pp.  ISBN: 978-0963450142.  $27.36 (Paperback) 

Reviewed by Louise Sundararajan, Ph.D., Ed.D.
PsycCritiques, 53, Release 29, Article 5

Stanley Krippner, a leading researcher on spirituality and healing practices across cultures, and his colleagues (M. Bova, Gray, Kay) have taken up the ambitious project of editing a two volume series on healing stories. The dividing line between the two volumes seems to fall along the conventional distinction between the religious and the secular, with the volume on healing and spirituality (hereafter referred to as SP) covering religion, culture, and mythology, whereas the volume on psychotherapy (hereafter referred to as PS) healing that takes place within the clinical framework.   Another line that roughly distinguishes the two volumes is the divide between the non-medical model (SP) and the medical model of healing (PS).  These distinctions are arbitrary, thus it comes as no surprise that the SP volume also contains a sprinkling of psychotherapy cases (Krippner & Feinstein; Montiegel; Booth; Freedman; Bynum).  Nonetheless, the two volumes deal with different albeit overlapping themes:  The SP volume revolves around the nature and power of stories, whereas the PS volume focuses on how narrative sheds light on the nature of psychotherapy.  

Healing tales: The narrative arts in spiritual traditions [SP]

The SP volume is a collection of stories on healing and spirituality.  These are powerful stories that run the whole gamut from personal stories in every stripe imaginable--life transforming stories (Belas; Sherman-Levine & Ayars; Piedilato), story of a pet dog (Simurro), writing (Paguaga), dreams of a Balinese artist (Carpenter & Krippner), stories of dissociation (Cohn), and stories used in acting (A. Bova, Kawano), to cultural stories-- Italian (M. Bova & Coluccio), Jewish and Irish (Follette), and Native American.  The most adequately treated stories are Native American, which form one section of their own and are accompanied by introductions that ground these stories in the larger conceptual framework of belief systems (Richardson; Kremer). 

Traditionally, stories teach us something important (Underwood).  What insights can be gleaned from the SP volume?  First, myth can serve as paradigm of healing, as is demonstrated in the myth of goddess (Nold), and the trickster myth (Holland & Combs). I like in particular the application of the trickster myth to healing: "Healing . . . does not mean closing our wounds but learning how to see through them" (Holland & Combs, p. 444).  There are other nuggets of insight to be found.  I learned that the learning story of Native Americans (Underwood) reveals the triadic structure of story telling (the teller, the listener, and the story), which is consistent with the semiotic framework of spiritual healing (Sundararajan, 2007).  I also learned that critical distance is a crucial factor in expressing emotions in acting (Kawano, this volume), as well as in illness (Frank, in PS), an observation that is consistent with my emotion refinement model (Frijda & Sundararajan, 2007) of processing emotions.  Lastly, I learned that contrary to the promotion of positive emotions in the contemporary West, negative rather than positive dreams tend to be shared in the Native American tradition (Krippner).

Healing stories: The use of narrative in counseling and psychotherapy [PS]

This volume begins with an introduction to the storied nature of our existence (Barclay), showing again a sensitivity on the part of the editors to the need to ground conceptually the phenomena under investigation.  The narrative net is rightly cast wide enough to include metaphors and imageries.  A wide spectrum of therapies have been presented, ranging from treatment of trauma (Stewart & Neimeyer; Hammond), to dream work (Schwartz; Ellis), age regression (Hammond), art therapy (Koepfer), and movement therapy (Serlin).  In comparison to SP, this volume is more conceptually oriented, which gives more substance for the analytical mind to sink its teeth in.  How does the narrative mode shed light on psychotherapy?  To answer this question, there are at least three paradigms to explore--writing (Perrine), drama (Heide), and art (Rosenbaum & Bohart).  There are other conceptual threads to be followed.  I shall confine myself to two observations and one question.

The first observation is that a binocular vision would serve us well to give importance to personal mythologies (Anderson & Holmes; Lawlis) on the one hand; and on the other, to recognize the communal nature of stories, as Frank (this volume) points out that stories are relationships to be entered, an insight that finds ample support in the SP volume.  My second observation is that the medical model that undergirds this volume is masked by the conventional hero myth (Campbell, 1990).  While the hero myth is functional for individuals confronted with illness and trauma, does it serve the field of psychotherapy as a whole?  Doesn't it unnecessarily narrow the scope of healing as much as the medical model does?  This leads to the question I intend to raise, namely, the need to evaluate our stories for their far-reaching ramifications. 

Krippner (Introduction, SP) points out that stories heal as well as harm, and the need for a critical analysis and evaluation of narratives seems imperative.  However, this assumption — that not all stories are created equal--is contested by Frank (this volume) who claims that nurturing change is to believe sincerely that the story you are hearing needs no change.  Indeed, Vogel (this volume) points out that there is a tension between diagnosis and the constructivist narrative perspective.  Driven underground by this tension is the implicit awareness that myths need growth and change as much as our own lives.  This implicit awareness is evident in the therapy techniques of revising our stories (Feinstein, Krippner).  True, as Holland and Combs point out, "we need the ordering, clarifying, all encompassing power of fiction" (in SP, p. 444) to construct meaning out of chaos.  Yet, the organizing power of the narrative may sometimes purchase stability at the expense of flexibility. Put another way, myths can promote as well as hinder change and growth. Therapy techniques exist to challenge the prevailing myths and to restore the balance between stability and flexibility (Feinstein; Krippner).  But one important question remains to be explored, namely whether the growth retarding factor of narratives resides in the narrative structure itself (the tentative answer is yes, see Sundararajan, 2008).   A related question is whether there are different forms of narratives, some more conducive to change and growth than others.  A case in point is the protonarrative. 

Protonarratives are small stories, stories that are deficient in plot development (Sundararajan, 2008; Frijda & Sundararajan, 2007).  Without much of a plot, these small stories invest minimally on the explanatory, and maximally on the evocative function of narratives, to invoke Perrine's (this volume) felicitous categorizations of writing. Or to borrow a useful distinction from Rosenbaum and Bohart (this volume), the protonarrative privileges style over content in its representation of experience.  If the full fledged narrative may be compared to mature cells, protonarratives are akin to stem cells — the advantage of the latter lies in their enormous stores of variation, and ready adaptability.  In other words, protonarratives are less likely than conventional narratives to purchase stability at the expense of flexibility. Examples of protonarratives are imageries used in art therapy (Koepfer), movement therapy (Serlin), musical techniques of termination in psychotherapy (Rosenbaum & Bohart), and imagery training (Remen), to name just a few obvious cases in this volume — cases which can be more fruitfully explored, I believe, within the framework of protonarratives. 

Overall Evaluation

Taken together, what marks this series one notch above the garden variety of healing myths and stories is its testimonial tone of voice.   Read about how the Zen koan incorporates Meister Eckhart (Aston, SP), how Campbell's work (1990) on the rites of passage breathes new life to experiences of illness (Perrine, PS), and combat veterans experience (Paulson, PS), and how Castaneda's (1987) vision quest is re-enacted time and again in the personal stories of hiking (Mason, SP), and you will see what I mean.  But the most eloquent and convincing story tellers are Native Americans.  If you ever wonder about the healing power of stories, read about a Native American man who had been in and out of jail before he was exposed to the indigenous myths and rituals (Heidlebaugh, SP). 

What's it like to have life without myth:  "Life was like a flat piece of paper, and there was nowhere to go in it" (p. 279).  After his participation in the cultural resurgence of the Canoe Nations: "Now, life is like this."  He crumbled up a piece of paper and laid it gently on the floor.  "There is a shape to things and I can travel through it."  (p. 280)

Krippner's claim (Introduction, SP) that storytelling connects the etic and the emic is validated by many chapters (Frank in PS; Kawano in SP, for instance), in which the personal testimonial tone blends harmoniously with the scholarly and reflective tone of the writers to make a most powerful presentation of the phenomena under investigation. This sets a new standard for scholarly writing, which I hope will be followed by more researchers in the future.  Over all, the chapters in both volumes are well written and accessible to a wide spectrum of readers--the lay person in search of a personal myth, practitioners who want to expand their repertoire of healing, students and professors in need of reading materials for under-graduate classes, graduate seminars, or research topics — each will find in this series a treasure trove of both inspiration and knowledge.

Campbell, J.  (1990).  Transformation of myth through time.  New York:  Harper & Row.
Castaneda, C.  (1987).  The power of silence.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.
Frijda, N. H. & Sundararajan, L.  (2007).   Emotion refinement: a theory inspired by Chinese poetics.  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2,  227-241.
Sundararajan, L. (2007, August), Spiritual transformation and emotion:  A semiotic analysis. In J. Koss-Chioino & L. Sundararajan (co-chairs), Spiritual transformation and emotions, Symposium conducted at the 115th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association,San Francisco.
Sundararajan, L.  (2008).  The plot thickens — or not:  Protonarratives of emotions and the Chinese principle of savoring. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 48, 243-263.