Healing Benefits of Storytelling

Beverly Morten


Personal narrative is a relatively new science that employs the technique of autobiographical storytelling to facilitate well-being and record social historyi. Narrative studies indicate a variety of health benefits derived from storytelling, whether the stories are written or orally expressed. Some scholars criticize narrative as a reliable science because autobiographical storytelling shifts integral components with each telling and audience creating biased, distorted or flawed accounts that for testing purposes may be misinterpreted by the researcher (Pennebaker “Telling” 13; Rosaldo 115; Bruner 143-5). This opinion is countered by distinguishing between “life story” and “life history” (Peacock and Holland 368; Carlick and Biley 309; Gaydos 255). Personal narrativeii is an expressed story with details that can fluctuate with each tellingiii and should not be confused with life history whose details must remain constant since they have actual existence as factiv. There are many ways to define “the unfolding of one’s life” through story: “personal narrative, self story, personal story, life story, life history and life journey” (Gaydos 255); “life reviews” (Korte 180). The focus in this review of literature addresses the health benefits from the life story narrative because studies indicate promise as strengthening techniques in the construction of a stable family unit as well as the individuals that make up the family unit.

Narrative also is a form of documenting “social history” (Scott-Sturdevant 7; Carlick and Biley 310; Cohen et al. 36; Gaydos 255). Most recorded history revolves around famous individuals, events, and objects whereas narratives record social history from life events of common people” rather than “exceptional people” (Scott-Sturdevant 7)v. Social history offers validation and credibility to “ordinary folks’ life stories” through experiences woven by endurance, struggles and joys that “reflect shared history, values, beliefs, expectations and myths” (Scott-Sturdevant 7; Cohen et al. 36; Gaydos 256). Each storyteller has a unique background and perspective into a historical time where the storyteller can “attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day” (May 14).

Autobiographical Storytelling

Personal narrative as used in this review of literature refers to autobiographical storytellingvi in the form of written or oral history. A narrative must be structured in an “ordered sequence of events” and expressed using a stylistic form that is “coherent” to the listener (Pennebaker Telling 12, 14; Chaitin par. 21; Gaydos 256; Cohler 177-8). Narrative enables the storyteller to draw conclusions and to make sense of life’s “critical events” (Polkinghorne 146; Carlick and Biley 310; Cohler 177).

The family unit used in this review refers to mother, father, biological and adopted issue, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and ancestors. Family members are not required to live at the same residence or be alive.

Cultural Influence in Autobiographical Storytelling

Storytelling is a behavior pattern found universally in all cultures (Cohler 172). Since the cultural community circumscribes social and personal practices, narratives “must be embedded in and constructed out of a person’s particular cultural environment” (Polkinghorne 144; Chaitin par. 1, 21; Brems par. 1; Bruner 140; Cohen et al. 36; Cohler 180; Korte 136-7). Through “ordinary folk” stories, the audience has opportunity to grow from the narrator’s experiences to “construct collective pictures of whole societies” (Scott-Sturdevant 7). Narratives that survive decades of telling are historically important because they document the “cultural and language issues” belonging to the narrator and narrator’s time period opening a portal to explore priceless “unsung historical groups” (Scott-Sturdevant 7-9; Brems par. 3).

Technological Influence in Autobiographical Storytelling

Technology has influenced the art of narrative expression through the “world of memory devices” because modern devices provide an extension to the time span a story can be told and retold (Korte 26). Technology has advanced how autobiographical storytelling is recalled through “external devices” from “tinfoil cylinders, electronic recording devices to scrapbooks” (Korte 11, 13). Recording devices have taken personal narrative to a new level for both storytellers and audiences. No longer is storytelling confined to one family unit while sitting around the holiday table. Recording devices can now extend the narrative to unlimited audiences and tellings. Scrapbooks allow the family a creative visual outlet to celebrate and fortify special family bonds and illustrate the uniqueness of each family member.

Women as the Main Legacy Keeper of the Family Unit

Women have long held the key position as legacy keepers. The story-keeper role has origins dating from the Greek culture when they introduced the goddess-woman “Mnemosyne…who was given the gift of memory” and has the responsibility of “registering births, deaths and the passing of the seasons” (Pinon 47). No matter who is the prominent “Keeper of Everything” in the family unit today, the importance centers around collecting and organizing the stories that will be of “historical significance and general human interest” for future generations (Scott-Sturdevant 3).

Critical Event Narrative

Personal narrative in this review of literature is categorized into four groups. The first group, “critical event” narrative, centers on the rhythm in day-to-day experiences of the “people, places, objects, events and feelings that go into the life story” (Korte 5). Experiences range from birth through death and include noteworthy or challenging events like marriage, anniversaries, divorce, pregnancy, adoption, school and religious activities and funeral ceremonies.

Whether in print, film or spoken, storytelling is the pulse in daily life and a compelling outlet to “construct coherent and meaningful stories for ourselves” (Pennebaker Opening 103; Cohen et al. 41). A healthy aspect of narrative helps the storyteller “organize seemingly infinite facets of overwhelming events” into a story with components that are “smaller and easier to deal with” which can guide the storyteller to “a resolution” (Pennebaker Opening 103; Pennebaker “Telling” 11-13; Cohler 172; Ridgway 399).

Three age groups where the use of narrative is extremely valuable for developing life-management skills that encourage positive emotional and physical development and growth: babies, children aged two to ten, and the elderly. While every age group benefits from narrative use, this review will highlight these three groups.

Babies receive their first experience in narrative and storytelling through lullaby. Lullaby initiates the process of teaching story structure, language and culture while being embraced in the warmth and security of parental love. In lullaby the “science of imagination” takes its first step that teaches the formula for making future wholesome relationships and to develop a curiosity of the world (Bruner 141, Brems 3).

With receptive and open minds young children are eager to embrace the world. The basic building blocks of life are taught through story, and children thrive in an environment rich with daily narrative content. Preschoolers exposed to written and oral storytelling have greater opportunity to develop indispensable life-managing skills (Brems par. 3; Cohler 180). Edgar Jackson observed that “nursery rhymes…are resonant to the needs and interest of the child as they speak in familiar and comfortable ways about things that can distress a child” (Jackson 88).

Life-management skills developed through the use of narrative include an advanced vocabulary, a curiosity in the science of the world, age-appropriate social skills and emotional expression; these skills contribute to understanding the big world around them (Pennebaker “Telling” 11). The most profound skill that facilitates a healthy mind comes when children learn to spell their names. Once this skill is mastered the power to constructive narrative is literally at their fingertips.

The elderly are another area where using narrative may be of great benefit. Realizing they are the “last living witness to a particular piece of history or a vanishing way of lifevii” many elderly retreat to a world of isolation (Korte 173). The University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension created the Senior Autobiography Workshop to “help older adults write about their lives in a way that would enhance social and family networks and improve seniors’ self-esteem, important factors in maintaining physical and mental well-being” (Collins par. 1). The workshop traveled to senior centers where instructors “got seniors thinking, talking, writing, and sharing details of their lives” and ended with a publishing of printed works in the form of in diaries, cookbooks, scrapbooks, plays, art, songs, or any form of printed material the senior chose.

The results from the program as a wellness tool for the elderly showed improved memory, renewed interest in social networking and improved self-esteem; all important factors for maintaining long-term independence and outlook at the aging process. The seniors’ participation fostered “bridges with family” as they conducted phone calls, wrote and visited friends and relatives in order to obtain pictures and memorabilia or to check facts for their narrative. While the seniors produced their life story for themselves, they were encouraged to also view it as a legacy for their family (Collins par. 1, 3, 7, 13, 15).

Adversity Narratives

The second type of storytelling, adversity narrative, covers experiences that manifest from events emotionally overwhelming in content such as oppression, injustice, overwhelming health issues, trauma, disasters and death (Cohler 183). Individuals experiencing overwhelming health issues, trauma and death do not always benefit from narrative. Those who employ life story as a wellness tool use it to make sense out life and construct an acceptable tomorrow (Gaydos 259; Pennebaker Telling 10). Suicide, schizophrenic and cancer patientsviii living in a stage of denial refuse to acknowledge telling a story with an acceptable outcome because “trauma causes us to question who we are” and doesn’t easily answer the inescapable “horrors” currently facing the individualix (Pennebaker Opening 109; Carlick and Biley 310, 312; Gaydos 255; Pennebaker “Telling” 12; Cohler 184; May 26; Ridgway 339). Lacking the necessary skills and drive to construct a brighter tomorrow or to “discover new meanings,” they slip into a world incapable to “re-establish one’s sense of directionx” (Bruner 153; Carlick and Biley 312; Gaydos 254; Pennebaker “Telling” 10; Cohler 184). While experiments conducted by Pennebaker and others emphasize there is no quick fix to overcoming traumatic events, they do indicate “that for many people, writing can reduce the grieving time” or “move beyond” the memory of the event. (Pennebaker Opening 83; Carlick and Biley 309; Cohler 185; Pennebaker “Telling” 15; Ridgway 339).

Results from a study conducted by James Pennebaker (1990), on “surviving spouses of suicide and car-accident victims,” Pennebaker concluded, “surviving spouses that talked to others about the death of their spouse reported fewer health problemsxi” (Pennebaker Opening 21; Brems para 1, 2). Stories can be used to reveal inner pain or to confront feelings of profound sadness, so those who didn’t talk with others about their “spouses’ death were clearly a health risk” (Pennebaker Opening 21-22).

Respondents who handled the trauma of their spouse’s death with “avoidance of the topic” developed health problems such as “migraine headaches, insomnia, recurrent unwanted thoughts, higher levels of anxiety, depression and recurring stomach problems” as well as suffering from feelings of being “desperate and lonely” (Pennebaker Opening 23, 25). Pennebaker’s conclusionxii after more than a decade of research and studies on narrative as a wellness tool: “if you can get people to talk or write about their problems, their health improves” and because prayer works as a form of “disclosure or confiding” those who “prayed about their deceased spouses” were healthier and happier than those who didn’t pray (Pennebaker Opening 24, 25; Pennebaker “Telling” 3).

Studies from around the world agree with the findings Stanley Cobb wrote in a groundbreaking article in 1976. Cobb’s article focused on the health benefits of having a “friendship network during times of stress” (qtd. in Pennebaker Opening 108). Furthermore Cobb found that a “friendship or social support network protected people from illness and death following a wide range of tragedies and that health problems following rape, miscarriage, death of a family member, job loss, divorce and other traumas are greatly reduced if people can turn to close friendsxiii” (qtd. in Pennebaker Opening 108).

Social History Storytelling

“Social history is the study of ordinary people’s everyday lives” where recorded history is looked at from the “bottom up instead of the top down” and not focusing exclusively or primarily on the “elite and famous” (Scott-Sturdevant 7). Today’s generation can see the trials and tribulations the previous generation lived through and gain encouragement knowing someone else lived through a difficult experience…and survived (Cohen et al. 36). Social history narrativexiv helps illustrate how a previous generation of common people resolved economic struggles, cultural issues, immigration and migration, fads, health and illnesses, marriage and family planning issues, religious and political views.

Social history narratives contain the cultural and oral history of people. Native American Indians have healing stories. These healing stories “carry the wisdom of our ancestors, the cultural myths and legends, is like speaking the ancestral language, because these stories contain the blueprints for healing that our cultures and tribes have followed since antiquity” (Mehl-Madrona 108). Lewis Mehl-Madrona confirms the importance of the social history narrative as a wellness tool: “Great stories, especially those from the oral tradition, make ancient and hidden wisdom accessible to our working brain, the part of us that makes decisions and figures things out” (Mehl-Madrona 108).

In the 1980’s the state of Washington created a project where they brought 400 people to various county and city libraries so that they could write their life stories. From this project 110 autobiographies were published and are shelved along side the official accounts written by historians (Korte 179). The outcome of the project allowed the community to see “the place in history” from the eyes of the common people (Korte 179).

Oral Storytelling

The last category, “oral storytelling,” promotes family values and “closer social bonds” from stories that have been passed down through the years (Pennebaker “Telling” 15; Brems para 1; May 33). Granddad tales, stories of sensitive issues like black sheep and family secrets, anecdotes, holiday traditions and lullabies to eulogies are contributory to transmit people’s knowledge and experience to the next generation. In the construction of a stable family

“everyone has something of value to say” creating a thriving family environment where each member can “discover a wisdom and warmth that gives a new dimension to their relationships” and celebrates “belonging to a wonderful group of people – your family” (Hofmann x; Stryker-Rodda 25; May 33).

Furthermore, the positive qualities of family members don’t disappear at death. With eulogies the living finish the deceased’s life stories by reflecting on unique strengths and influence they received from the deceased. A century later a descendant can visit the ancestral grave and learn about noteworthy traits from the symbols engraved on the tombstone. A strong family connection with the past can lay a healthy foundation to a confident self-image today.

Children, who grow up in an environment rich in opportunities of shared familial experiences including being read to, listened to and encouraged to express themselves are better adept at handling life’s critical and adverse events; especially in areas where behavior may become destructive like drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and peer pressure. A confident and competent child will make a successful transition to adulthood. Experiencing a positive self worth through narrative can give the members of the family unit a “sense of belonging to a wonderful group of people” (Stryker-Rodda 25) whether they are members we see regularly, only once in awhile, or through a story about an ancestor from a long time agoxv.

Every older adult in the family unit is a living repository waiting to be opened and exploredxvi. Memories, records and documents normally reserved for safekeeping are just waiting for an opportunity to be sharedxvii. Once those “relatives die or lose their abilities to remember or communicate” so does the opportunity to listen and learn from their stories (Scott-Sturdevant 200). Experiences shared in narrative instruct the next generation life is for living and share skills required to help it happen (Sanchez 266). Construction of a happy family unit is strongest when stories are shared around the table and from one generation to the next: “discovering firsthand accounts we come to know people for the first time or to know them better” (Scott-Sturdevant 200). Personal narrative can make the family unit stronger to handle the ups and downs of life.xviii


Results from hundreds of studies by Cobb, Pennebaker, Gaydos, and others, on narrative as a wellness tool is clear: a healthy life can be created by using written or verbal storytelling. When people construct the self to be a healthy and happy individual, all their family relationships improve and this leads to a stable family unit. While “mother-father-child-grandparents” are the common family unit, extended family such as aunts, uncles and cousins can be included in a family unit who benefit from narrative use. Oral stories, memory recording devices, and social history narratives help create an environment where happy relationships are fostered. The powerful tool of narrative can teach how to weather the critical and adverse events while in the security and love of family, as long as there is someone willing to tell the story and someone to listen. Recent acknowledgment of social history narratives as a noteworthy form of literature will hopefully produce further studies for mainstreaming social history narrative into the classroom. Students who can connect a personal history with the past may be more interested in the overall academic classes of history and the English language. Students may even get excited to make a connection between something a previous ancestor or person experienced and getting excited about learning is one more way personal narrative can facilitate the construction of a stable family unit.

i Elliot, Doug. “What Storytellers Say About Story.” Access date 20 Oct 2006. http://traubman.igc.org/story.htm “Storytelling helps us make sense of our lives and helps us share our being.”

ii Harley, Bill. “What Storytellers Say About Story.” Access date 20 Oct 2006. http://traubman.igc.org/story.htm “Stories are at the very heart of being human; they talk about where we’re from, where we are, and where we’re going. They’re like bread; you need to hear and tell them everyday.”

iii Example: Let me tell you about the train wreck I was in…

iv Example: I was born April 9, 1958 and grew up in Temple City, California.

v Koproske, Lucille B. “What Storytellers Say About Story.” Access date 20 Oct 2006. “Storytelling is a compelling force in bringing together people of diverse race, religion, age and political views.”

vi Korte, John. White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. Page 135, Autobiography being the story of a life.

vii Korte, John. White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. Page 173, “Tell us about when you were young, Grandpa. What was life like before television, before radio, before antibiotics? What was it like when you could actually be sent away to become someone’s apprentice, when you had to be quarantined when you were ill, when marriages were arranged by parents? Scholars want to record oral histories of all manner of events-massive migrations, economic depressions, political revolutions, natural disasters, genocides-and they must make their recordings before all the survivors of the events have died. The history that only the oldest generation knows comes, of course from their hill of reminiscence.”

viii Ridgway, Priscilla. “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability: Learning from First Person Recovery Narratives.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 24 (4) 2001:335-343. Proquest. Pasadena City College, Shatford Library. 24 Oct 2006. <http://www.pasadena.edu/library> Page 337, “Deegan tells us that she gave up, because “giving up seemed like a solution when one lives without hope” (Deegan, 1994, p. 153). She characterizes her deep sense of despair as “a wound with no mouth, a wound so deep that no cry can emanate from it” (p. 153).

ix Ridgway, Priscilla. “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability: Learning from First Person Recovery Narratives.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 24 (4) 2001:335-343. Proquest. Pasadena City College, Shatford Library. 24 Oct 2006. < http://www.pasadena.edu/library> Page 338, “One hallmark of recovery is the movement from a position of passive adjustment to a stance of active coping.

x Ridgway, Priscilla. “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability: Learning from First Person Recovery Narratives.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 24 (4) 2001: 335-343. Proquest. Pasadena City College, Shatford Library. 24 Oct 2006. < http://www.pasadena.edu/library> Page 339, “Your label is a reality that never leaves you; it gradually shapes an identity that is hard to shed” wrote Leete (1989, p. 199). These women tell us that, for a time, they lost a sense of their own strengths and unique personality and experienced a deep lost of self-esteem. Power inequities that exist within the treatment system only serve to compound this problem. The use of controlling power by staff members engenders a sense of powerlessness that steals courage and harms self-respect, according to Lovejoy (1982, p. 609). “Power games create winners and losers; I was a loser” she write (p. 607).”

xi Pennebaker, James. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guildford, 1990. Page 22, “One respondent to the Pennebaker questionnaire concluded “the support of true friends and being able to have someone listen and hurt with you was a great outlet for the pain” while another respondent said “look forward to life and the opportunities that it may bring.”

xii Pennebaker, James. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guildford, 1990. Page 106-7. “Finally, I strongly recommend support groups. In most cities, there are groups of people who have suffered traumas similar to yours. For the loss of a child, groups such as Compassionate Friends or Bereaved Parents can be invaluable. Similar groups are available for people who have lost a lover, spouse, or family member due to suicide, AIDS, or other tragedy. Other organizations that focus on specific problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, smoking, victimization from rape or violence, and spousal or child abuse can be found in most areas of the country.”

xiii Ridgway, Priscilla. “ReStorying Psychiatric Disability: Learning from First Person Recovery Narratives.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 24 (4) 2001:335-343. Proquest. Pasadena City College, Shatford Library. 24 Oct 2006. < http://www.pasadena.edu/library> Page 340, “Deegan (1994, p. 153) tells us of people who “loved her and did not give up,” who “remained optimistic despite the odds.’ Their love a “a constant invitation…calling [her] forth…to be more than [she] was” (p. 154). Support and help flow from many people, including family members, spouses, and caring informal helpers. Unzicker (1989) describes a loving family who, though strangers to her, took her into their home for a year and did not treat her like she was “crazy.” Later, she actively chose people to become a part of what she calls her “real family,’ including those who “believed in [her]…supported [her]…loved [her]” (p. 75) Reliable social support is “invaluable” to recovery says Leete (1989).

xiv Scott-Sturdevant, Katherine. Organizing & Preserving Your Heirloom Documents. Cincinnati: Betterway, 2002. Page 1, “It dawns on you that you have your great-grandparents’ World War I love letters. You not only have a family history treasure, you also have historical documents that tell a story. It is your ancestors’ experiences through their eyes and words. Even strangers would enjoy reading this story. You have primary sources that historians could use as resources.” “Maybe one of your family members wrote a memoir. My grandmother Kate Dickey Harper did, and she was a good storyteller. But her memoir is somewhat short and incomplete, as was her life. She wrote when she was ill, at her children’s request. She wrote on brown paper, folded like a book, in pencil, making the pages difficult to sort in order and the handwriting faint and hard to read. Yet she described a girl’s life on the Kansas, Colorado, and Arizona frontiers-again, material of general and historical interest.”

xv Young, Andrew W. History of the Town of Warsaw, New York. Buffalo: Press of the Sage, Sons & Company, 1869. Page 276, “William C. Hatch was born in Colchester, Conn., and married Jerusha Deming of Westfield, Conn. They came to Warsaw about the first day of January, 1815, and settled in the north-west part of the town, where his sons, Wm. T., Milton D., and Walter M. now reside. Walter M. Hatch married Sally Sherwin. Their children are: 1. Lucy M., who married Oscar H. Hibbard. 2. Lyman. 3.Walter, who married Lois Bentley, and has a son. 4. Elvira. 5. George. 6. Albert. 7. Flora.”

xvi Holloway, Martha. “What Storytellers Say About Story.” Access date 20 Oct 2006. <http://traubman.igc.org/story.htm> “Stories are bridges from one mind to another.”

xvii Oral story by HR Bob Thalimer: “After a long, hot dusty day helping your Granddad and Great Granddad mine during a trip to the Thalimer gold mine (in Kelso, CA), my friend and I looked forward to our meal of sauerkraut and wieners. While the Granddads were finishing up the days work in the mine, Mike and I returned to our camp site which was on a portion of the bluff about 50 feet below the mine entrance and about 150 feet up from the desert floor. We got the fire going and put the sauerkraut and wieners in the pot. Unfortunately we forgot to pack the lid to the pot because as we were heating dinner off in the distance we saw a large dust devil swirling back and forth around the desert floor. As luck would have it the dust devil found its way straight to our pot of sauerkraut and wieners! What are the odds of that! Since that was the only food we brought from home, that’s what we ate, dirt and all. We were so hungry we barely noticed the grit.

xviii Parent, Michael. “What Storytellers Say About Story.” Access date 20 Oct 2006. <http://traubman.igc.org/story.htm> “When we tell and listen to stories, we can almost feel our souls breathing fully and deeply. Our capacity to see options, to visualize possibilities, to imagine expands and we are somehow more alive.”


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Swora, Maria Gabrielle. “Narrating Community: The Creation of Social Structure in Alcoholics Anonymous Through the Performance of Autobiography.” Narrative Inquiry 11 (2) 2001: 363-384. John Benjamins B. V. Amsterdam. Keeler: English 1C required reading. Shatford Library, Pasadena City College, Pasadena, CA. 26 Oct 2006. <http://www.pasadena.edu/library/>