Wednesday 11 March 2015

Storytelling at an adolescent mental health unit

Every week I spend an hour with a group of young people in a mental health unit.  Here I am Benjamin’s ‘sailor’ type of storyteller, not the ‘farmer’ type – my itinerant status is of positive value, as I bring from outside the institution stories and ways of being, but do not have more than the absolute minimum insider knowledge of their patient status.  Thus we can ‘meet in a different room’ – a provisional space of provisional meanings and limited mutual knowledge, in which identities can be experimentally rewritten on a regular basis.  My own 'power' is also dampened by my lack of foreknowledge or control of who will be there this week, and what mood they will be in, and what they will want to do – equalising us further.  Like a sailor visiting a port, I walk into the saloon looking for old friends or new acquaintances, and see what’s up.  Like the children climbing the Faraway Tree, I do not know what land I will be entering when I clamber up the ladder each week, or how welcome I will be. 

Like our identities, the narratives we partake of are also provisional, tenuous, stories for this moment whose meaning could change by next week.  Trying to pin them down even for two weeks in a row usually fails, as the land has rotated.  Their ‘storyness’ is thus always to the fore – they are always bizarre texts from nowhere, decontextualized gifts for decontextualized people.  They must be ‘open’ stories (Rowe 2007) and ready for irreverent handling.  I am saying, ‘Look, here is more of what I have seen that the world contains.  See how most people haven’t worked it out yet – I certainly haven’t.  There are possibilities here.  Do you want to do something with this?’  Then I am dependent on someone generously accepting this invitation in order to make the session work.  We share anecdotes the story reminds us of, other possible versions, facts that might explain this or that in it. I could not have and do not have any intentions regarding their interpretations, behaviour, illnesses.  Rather I search for willing collaborators with knowledge that complements mine.  

The challenge is to set up this ‘different room’ rapidly in such a way that its rules are understandable to all and all wish to come into it.  Where young people have been working in companionable isolation, each on their own project on separate and safe islands, to draw everyone towards a central focus needs delicacy and no coercion.  Then, I must try to make clear each person’s rights as regards the story: their pre-existing membership of a community who have knowledge that will affect it - its lowly and servant status – its gift that may be accepted, refused or subverted. 

And yet none of this means the story may be told casually.  It is still a ‘story-child’ (Gersie 2001) whose robes must be carefully arranged, to give it the best possible expression, and to show how any words offered in response to it will be treated.

This is ‘relational art’ (or relational storytelling) in Bourriaud’s (1998) sense, art that temporarily alters relationships through focus on an intermediary object, or may even cause the boundaries of an institution to flicker for a little while.  This flickering is of little use if it is illusory, however sometimes it is more than that, because a conduit opens up to the adult world, or the artistic world.  Opportunities arise for respect and recognition of talent and privileged knowledge – an exhibition, a conference, a chance to try out a future role.  The story then becomes the intermediary not just between storyteller and ‘participants’ but a possible means of meaningful communication between struggling young people and the world that is struggling to receive them. 


Benjamin, Walter (1936) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hale, Dorothy J (ed.) (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Bourriaud, Nicolas (1998) Relational Aesthetics. Les presses du reel.

Gersie, Alida (2001) 'Telling stories, hearing tales: alternative approaches to easing a great burden

Rowe, Nick (2007) Playing the Other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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