Choosing Our Stories,
Choosing Our Selves

By Gail Catlin

The subject of my baby book always provokes animated conversation among my siblings. My oldest brother Kent’s baby book looks like it is wrapped around an egg—the front and back covers rounded over tomes of data, greeting cards, photos. My sister Lynn’s book, faded from use and age, has lace doily borders from school artwork and the like flopping out the sides. David’s baby book is newer, its pages made wavy by glued-in photos with written entries.

By the time I, the youngest child, was growing up, the family was full and heavy. My mother’s health was beginning to fail, and baby books were not high on the list of priority or practicality. As a result, my pink book lay untouched, its spine unbroken, in a box on the shelf. Occasionally I would open the book to see if the pages were starting to fill up. But after several years it became apparent that the book would tell my story only if I told it myself.

My siblings chuckle when they recall how I created my own baby book at age ten. They like how I declared my “first steps” at eight months and how I “first began to speak in full sentences” at thirteen months. They are amused by how I created my “first letters” in my ten-year-old script. During this conversation I usually smile and observe the goings on, alternately proud and sad.

This story separates me in many ways from my siblings and tells a bigger story than is apparent. Inventing my own baby book was an act of self-creation in the face of alternative stories that were not empowering. It was an innately human impulse of finding meaning where there had been none. Ultimately, it both grew me and bound me. To this day I don’t know the “truth” about when I started walking or when my first tooth broke through. Instead I have a story I told about myself and then attempted to fulfill.

As might be expected from a story character that walked at eight months and spoke like Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address at thirteen months, I became an adult driven by ambition and achievement. I moved from the baby book to student body president to executive director and then chief operating officer of a huge association. Along the way, I got a master’s degree, got married, had children, built wealth, and rarely skipped a beat. Unfortunately, by 40 I had hit burnout. The way in which I “knew” myself as a child—star of the family, head of the class—had held me tight. My crafted identity required constant accomplishment, which became unsustainable. One day the story came apart, and I awakened into a nightmare of someone else’s life. Whose story was I in? The story that had created me was now confining me. My growth and spirit were tethered by the need to keep up the precocious pace set forth in the baby book, and that pace was damaging me. As with most breakdowns in life, I was faced with a crisis of meaning.

Experts who write about midlife tell us that in our middle years we return to the “intersection” that occurs around ages 18 to 23, when circumstances and pressures chose our path for us. At midlife, we re-enter that intersection and, with wisdom of years, re-examine our path. In midlife, I decided I needed a new story—a story that could sustain me into my later years, providing different actions and options.

My first step was to deconstruct the stories that had created me: I was the sunshine in the family; I was like Dad. My name was Perky because I was full of energy. “Perky” became “Mrs. Perkins” when I wore my special hat and bossed the family around. I was “going places.” These roles had taken me well into adulthood.

When I explored these narratives, however, I found deeper meaning in the shadows. I was the sunshine after my grandmother’s suicide; my birth wrote a new chapter for my parents. I was like my Dad because my mother’s mental illness made womanhood scary for me. I was Perky and full of energy because I wanted to stay busy, both to attract validation and to avoid facing a difficult home situation. I was bossy because I was compensating with control. I was going places because escaping home was a survival mission. These old stories demanded healing.

We all are born into a story that is being written before we arrive. A family is always in the midst of a script. Then we are written in and learn our lines. Society becomes another author, as it establishes stereotypes for our character—economic status, academic level, gender, race. Rarely are we aware of who and what is authoring us, who or what has authority over our story. Such authority is usually discovered because it no longer serves—when we experience a crisis of meaning. The crisis manifests as brittleness, and we often break. To heal from this place, to become resilient once more, requires the act of creating a new narrative that places us back in possibility and choice—a story that aligns our self with our sense of meaning. Ultimately, healing is the act of becoming whole once more in our stories, discerning what is empowering and shedding what is dead.

The Paulist Press published a fascinating study of Hispanic women’s stories of their spirituality. These narratives were filled with great sadness and hardship—struggles with cancer, deaths of children, extreme poverty. Remarkably, the women told these stories with pride because they had created meaning from their trials. The meaning derived from a theology that God would not have given them the trials if they were not strong enough to bear them. So the women made meaning out of their struggles and could even feel gratitude for the challenges, seeing them as gifts from God. In finding meaning, they found solace, dignity, and purpose. Other frames of meaning would have placed the women in much different roles in their stories, roles such as victim, target, or the oppressed. Given the immense power of story to create an empowering or disempowering frame, we can understand essayist Barry Lopez’s statement: “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

My colleague Joan Stockbridge and I facilitate the Story Project at a homeless shelter for women, using journaling, biography, traditional folklore, and personal storytelling as tools for increased self-awareness and personal empowerment. Our students are in the fight of their lifetimes as they struggle with stories that have brought them to the brink. During an eight-week curriculum, they are asked to observe their past as story, identify their role and the roles of others in creating nonproductive patterns, and create a new narrative of power for a new life. They are undertaking a most courageous endeavor, and I am moved every time I am in the classroom.

One woman put her finger on the pulse of the issue in telling how she was sexually molested by her brother, beginning at age three and then regularly until she left home. “No matter what I do,” she said, “this rape, this incest is the center of my story.” She tried to go to school, but the memories of abuse interfered with her concentration. She tried to marry, but her intimate moments were reruns of assault. She tried to value herself but felt only the sensation of being discarded. In this story, the woman was her rape. She was her incest.

Through work and courage and listening to others’ stories, through the miracle of learning and transformation, this woman began to separate her trauma from herself. She reclaimed herself as a free protagonist in the story and demoted the rape and incest to circumstance, event, and plot. She relocated herself in the story. The incest was no longer the center; she was the center of the story. This was tremendously healing. She had moved from brittleness to resilience, no longer broken by her story but bending with it.

The empty pink baby book of my childhood could tell a story of maternal fatigue, even neglect. But I now understand that the opportunity to write my own story was an early gift. It was a chance to create a path that served me until it was no longer useful. And I learned early that my life continues to be a story that I write over and over again. Authoring my self through story has become my healing. It has made me whole and is a steadfast affirmation of faith and hope.

Writer and teacher Gail Catlin, M.P.A., lives with her family in Carmichael, California. She teaches at Women’s Empowerment, a program for homeless women, and at Chapman University. Her work focuses on the transformative and healing qualities of the stories we tell—personally, organizationally, and culturally. She holds degrees in political science and public administration and has completed doctoral studies in cultural anthropology.

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