Telling Stories

The psychoanalyst's office is the place, perhaps above all others, where people tell their private stories. When analysis works at its best, each session begins with three radical assumptions: Each person has a story, their story makes sense, and it's worth listening to.

Donald Williams, Jungian analyst (Boulder, Colorado)

from The Educated Heart (a work in progress)

The psychoanalyst's office is the place, perhaps above all others, where people tell their private stories. When analysis works at its best, each session begins with three radical assumptions: Each person has a story, their story makes sense, and it's worth listening to. Each session of analysis or therapy for the past ninety years has asserted that we all have a unique, compelling, and coherent story. This is revolutionary. Not so long ago, only gods, goddesses, kings, queens, and heroes had stories worth telling. The rest didn't have a voice. Not so long ago, we incarcerated the "mentally ill"—they didn't have intelligible or honorable stories. We silenced the victims of abuse, rape, poverty, and sexual or racial discrimination—we didn't want to hear their stories. It was even hard to listen attentively to the stories of our own children. For most people, it is still hard.

Psychoanalysts do listen—that's their job. Ninety-five years of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy taught us how to listen respectfully to ourselves and to each other. Listening respectfully—to oneself, to dreams, to private internal dialogues, to other people—is the hardest thing that psychotherapists and patients do. As analysts and therapists listen, they and their clients collaborate on stories. Together they take apart, analyze, and rewrite the old stories of childhood and the family, of love and work. They come up with new stories, amended histories, revised maps, and epiphanies. In any therapy worth its salt, the therapist grows along with the patient. Each educates the other's heart.

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are not practiced in a vacuum. The words and stories that pass back and forth session after session eventually move into the larger world and touch us all. Therapists and patients act on the new stories they value, and they pass on new truths to loved ones, colleagues, or strangers on the street. You don't have to enter therapy today to know the value of remembering, talking, and listening. You can live without reading Freud or Jung but still enter a relationship knowing how to distinguish your baggage from hers, still expect that you will both talk about your feelings. Without therapy we wouldn't have learned to be so interested in nuances of feeling or the intricacies of anxiety and depression.

The stories of therapy create new truths of the human heart, new, first-time feelings and ideas. Consider for a moment one important way in which psychotherapy changed us and changed the lives of our children. Because of therapy, we understand the effects of child abuse as never before. Psychotherapists, however, didn't just discover child abuse—they enabled us to feel the abuse and know it for the first time.(1) When we say, "This is child abuse," we identify a constellation of meanings and feelings that didn't exist fifty years or five hundred years ago.

Therapists and clients talked about abuse, thought about it, found the words for it, wove stories, generated new feelings, and subsequently, created new values. I don't think that child abuse was fully experienced or known as abuse until we found the words to say it. Two hundred years ago, John Wesley could sincerely say, "Break the will if you would not damn the child . . . .. Let a child from a year old be taught to fear the rod and cry softly," and his Methodist congregation revered him.(2) Today we call this child abuse. Today we tell different stories of childhood and the family, and as a result, we feel and think differently. Western culture has taken a new turn. Our feelings about children and the family are new feelings. The stories we tell back and forth educate our hearts. Our stories create new maps and new landscapes.

When we tell our stories, we want to create a vivid and continuous dream in the listener's heart and mind. As John Gardner says, this dream is the aim of all fiction, all stories. (3) As an analyst, therefore, I look for the language, details, memories, events, and metaphors that make the analysand's story precise and vivid. I watch for the distractions, defenses, and narrative flaws that break the continuity of the dream. We all, as I said earlier, have a unique, compelling, and coherent story to tell. When psychotherapy works, the patient can tell her or his story with narrative competence and create a powerful, vivid, and continuous dream in the analyst's mind.

The Educated Heart stands on three convictions. First, we create our lives and the world with the stories we hear and tell. In other words, we maintain our world primarily in conversation—inner dialogues, face to face conversations, and a vast series of conversations we carry on through books, newspapers, films, magazines, television interviews, electronic mail, Compuserve forums, and paintings worth a thousand words. Dreaming does not stop.

The second premise is this: Psychoanalysis is a revolutionary form of conversation, the first to consistently respect any private story we dare or feel compelled to tell. Psychoanalytic talking and listening occur at appointed, ritualized times and places, with exacting linguistic conventions, ethical codes, aesthetic guidelines, and scientific standards. I suspect that we have only explored a fraction of the potential in this extraordinary form of conversation.

Thirdly, the stories therapists and patients tell in therapy affect each other, heart and mind. Each insight they achieve educates each other's heart. Good stories find their way from the consulting room to friends, families, strangers, and if these stories are vital enough, they find their way into the public domain.

For most of us, the stories we depend upon work like morality plays (Seek this above all; avoid that at your peril...), like manuals for adulthood (Here's how to...), or like private prayers to soothe and protect us (Now I lay me down to sleep...). Well-ordered fictions can be reliable maps and compasses (You are here, there's a road there...) and sometimes cosmologies (In the beginning...). We could not make death or birth, love or tragedy, human experiences without stories. We would not recognize, experience, or understand the meaning of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, wonder, grief, or desire without good stories. We will always need new stories and the retelling of old stories.

This book expresses my conviction that we live and breathe in the neverending currents of dreams—these dreams are the stories we tell ourselves and each other and the stories that even sleep will not stop. The aim of this book is to examine stories—the old stories that may still define us and the new stories we may need to risk. I am interested in the stories patients tell therapists, the stories therapists tell, and the cultural stories we all listen to and tell. I hope to convince you that the best stories are not always the official stories. Psychotherapy, after all, is about everything unconscious, disavowed, dissociated, repressed, forgotten, or never experienced. Psychotherapy always looks for the unofficial story.

In The Educated Heart I want to recapture some of the revolutionary spirit once enjoyed by psychoanalysis. We now take psychotherapy for granted. There are millions of people doing therapy. Because therapy is so commonplace, therapists are no longer revolutionaries—they are more like specialists and technicians who can speak with authority on dreams, child development, family systems, antidepressants, and eating disorders. Because millions of people engage in psychotherapy, we inevitably dilute the original potency of our psychoanalytic ideals.

While we concentrate on treatment goals and plans, medications, and health insurance coverage, we may forget the excitement of disciplined inquiry and the value of the examined life—this is a hazard but not a crime. If a patient experiences chronic, disabling depression, an appropriate anti-depressant can make all the difference in the world. If a patient struggles with panic attacks and cannot afford therapy, they can be grateful for insurance reimbursements and short-term therapy. If six sessions of couples therapy, newly negotiated standards of conduct, and homework assignments in communication put an end to spouse abuse, then we can all be grateful. There is, however, still no substitute for long-term analysis—Jungian or Freudian—and the practice of psychological reflection.

Since millions of people talk to therapists, the cultural effects of psychotherapy are more profound now than they were in the heyday of psychoanalysis. Imagine the numbers of people who have said to their partners, "I want you to listen to me the way my therapist listens to me," or "I want to know how you feel." People didn't say those things fifty or a hundred years ago. The intimacy people desire today is not the intimacy that earlier generations practiced or imagined. When millions of people sit in closed, quiet rooms and talk about their lives, they gradually change the psychological fabric of the world for all of us.

As all analysts know, the more we talk, the more we discover. Because millions of people talked to analysts of one persuasion or another about their memories of childhood, we now think and feel differently about childhood. After several decades of analysis, many of us now see children as young, bright-eyed explorers in love with the world. We no longer think of children as blank slates, willful menaces, future servants, or the sexual denizens they were once thought to be. Psychoanalysis changed and continues to change our convictions and our experiences of children, childhood, parents, and parenting. Future adults will be different adults.(4)

The Educated Heart is structured like analysis: It follows a thread but the thread does not stretch tight between two points. The chapters, like individual analytic sessions, are brief, self-contained narratives. I have written about the events of therapy, the small details of psychological life, and the big themes of contemporary culture. I keep trying to find new ways to see how psychotherapy works and to stretch the limits of our vision of character, our story of what it means to be human.

My reference point, the place where I stand, is analytic psychotherapy—Jungian and Freudian. I am concerned with the health of our analytic stories—they are sometimes vigorous and sometimes disabled by allegiance to theories we should have outgrown. As a Jungian analyst I sometimes think Jungians have a harder time outgrowing Carl Jung than Freudians do in outgrowing Sigmund Freud, and this, of course, disturbs me. Jungian psychology cannot stay traditionally Jungian and relevant to our time and place. Jungians cannot confidently lay claim to timeless, archetypal truths because there are so few truths today that are unaffected by time. Nor can Jungian psychology be served by relaxing intellectual—analytic—standards and joining the New Age ranks.

We still suffer from the always fresh wounds of emotional repression that Freud and Jung treated. And we still suffer from the loss of meaning that so preoccupied Jung. We live, however, in a world vastly different from the one in which these two men worked. Therapy may always focus on familiar experiences of desire, rage, guilt, shame, emptiness, and out-of-control emotions, but psychology will soon have to address the dizzying effects of growing up in a fast-changing world of uncertainty. The old truths can no longer authorize our lives. Today, all truths are suspect. The old ideal of character—hierarchical and authoritarian—cannot healthily claim our allegiance. The patriarch is dead—or should be. We need new stories with new characters. The is a battle today between old authoritarian principles and individual rights of choice. This battle is so central to our lives that we wage it over our bodies and our sexuality—women's rights, abortion, sexual freedom.

I intend to present Jungian analysis and psychotherapy as a completely original storytelling collaboration. To simplify things, I'll usually refer to "therapists" and "therapy" and avoid the more limiting words like "analyst," "analysis," and "analysand" except as necessary. I use the word, "patient," because it has an edge to it; "client" sounds too neutral, "analysand" too esoteric, and I haven't found a word that adequately expresses what "patients" in therapy do or experience. The patient sometimes acts like the author of her story-in-the-making and at other times like a character in her own or someone else's story. "Author," "character," "editor," "collaborator"—these words may come close but they don't have the force yet to uproot the plain, familiar words, "patient" and "therapist."

Just as any plant grows this way or that in this or that soil and climate, so stories depend on a cluster of different contexts—like history, geography, audience, and storyteller. This book, too, exists in context. The ideas presented here grow out of my personal history and character as much as they grow out of the theories I studied. The following chapters grow especially out of my day-to-day experience of people who shared their stories with me in therapy and in Jungian analysis.

It seems honest to present ideas at times in a personal context, to provide impressions of soil and atmosphere as I remember them. In keeping with the value I place on scholarship and the distaste I experience for jargon, I tried to base my work on careful research but to avoid the specialized vocabularies of psychoanalysis or other disciplines. I prefer a language close to the lives we live though this natural voice often eludes me.

With my patients I listen carefully and use their words to talk about their experiences. I don't remember the last time I talked with a patient about an "archetypal complex" or the "animus" though I mastered such language in Jungian training in Zürich. I learned the Freudian language later but I also do not talk about Oedipal complexes, internalized objects, or idealized self-objects. The specialized language of psychoanalysis evolved to name new fractions of human experience, to explore further. This specialized language, however, also works all too well at letting some people in and keeping other people out. Specialized language maintains a special privileged class. This political use of language violates the spirit of psychoanalysis and of all psychotherapy which strives to honor all individuals, to transgress all boundaries of class or condition.

I still remember, twenty-five years later, a piece of dialogue between Leopold and Molly Bloom inside the intellectual wizardry of Ulysses:

—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It's Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.(5)

I read those words in the springtime of 1965, and the words seemed just right to me. They still do, and I try to present ideas and tell stories in plain words.

Copyright 1995 Donald Williams.
All rights reserved.


1. Freud discovered the psychological effects of sexual abuse but then disavowed his discovery. For a discussion of the history of Freud's incest theory, see Janet Malcolm, In the Freud Archives (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984).
2. Anthony Synnott, "Little Angels, Little Devils," in Child Development Today and Tomorrow, ed. William Damon (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1989), p. 28.
3. John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 31.
4. Compare Daniel N. Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), pp. 276-277. "If seeing the infant as different begins to make the children, adolescents, and adults different enough a generation later, then we will be seeing different patients at that point— patients who will have experienced a somewhat different infancy and whose interpersonal worlds have developed slightly differently. The therapeutic encounter with this new patient will again require changes in clinical theory and search strategies. Just as infants must develop, so must our theories about what they experience and who they are." These line conclude the Epilogue to Stern's important work.
5. James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: The Modern Library, 1961), p. 64.