Story-telling is one of the most powerful forms of sharing truth known to humankind. A story can contain so many different kinds of truth. A story sticks in the mind longer than a syllogism or a propositional truth claim. And the thing about stories is, we all have one.
Sometimes it takes courage to tell your own story. But it is necessary. If you don’t tell your story, chances are someone else will. And whoever tells the story gains power over it. Do you want someone else’s words expressing your personal experiences, or do you want to choose the words of your story yourself?
A couple of months ago, I came across a blog called Homeschoolers Anonymous. It’s a forum for homeschoolers to tell their own stories. I began reading story after story, constantly finding mirrored there many of my own experiences. The stories told tales of spiritual, psychological and physical abuse. They spoke about the harm of authoritarian parenting, the fact that lack of socialization really is a huge problem for homeschooled children, the pain and regret and family rifts that result from many doctrines pushed by the radical right-wing arm of the homeschooling movement. Reading these stories I felt angry. I cried for all of us, for the suffering and for the fact that so many of us were moving on and finding healing and somehow building lives for ourselves. And most of all, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I am not alone. We are not alone. We speak of our personal experiences and find common ground in the very wounds and burned-over fields we had thought no one would be able to relate to.
It was so comforting to find others telling stories similar to my own because I find that I have trouble taking control of my story, even in my own head. You see, when you grow up in a hierarchical, authoritarian Christian fundamentalist environment, you have a single narrative which your interpretation of your experiences must fit into. That narrative is reinforced over and over again, especially since many fundamentalists are very quick to talk about other people’s lives or tell you about your own life using these terms. “Sin,” “rebellion,” “pride,” “selfishness,” “ungodliness,” “worldliness,” “backsliding”…these are the categories I had to fit everything into if it was not in line with my parent’s ideals for the perfect Christian life.
In an authoritarian home, you’re not allowed power over your own story. You are handed the words of an authority on all matters and you must accept them as true. Thinking for yourself is sinful. This is why it has taken me a long time to start framing my story in my own words. I can see the transition in my diaries, from stilted descriptions of spiritual things which sound like they are just someone else’s words parroted back to convince myself, or endless agonizing about why I was so sinful, to finally taking my own thoughts seriously and using words that came from my own head to describe my life.
A diary is one thing. The residual voice in my head narrating my life in Christian fundamentalist terms can be ignored, or argued with, or told to shut up. But sharing your story out loud is an entirely different matter. Because when you finally do gather the courage to share your story out loud, most people want to tell you that you’re wrong, and that their interpretation of your life is truer than your own.
These homeschool alumni who bravely shared their stories are being criticized. Homeschool advocates are trying to negate the stories collected at Homeschoolers Anonymous by claiming “My homeschool is never like that!” or “Your parents didn’t homeschool the right way.” or “Your current viewpoints are proof that your parents never taught you the things I’m teaching my kids.” Even well-documented claims that the Home School Legal Defense Association is fighting for a parent’s-rights agenda that will be extremely conducive to child abuse are written off by a simple assertion that it’s just not true. It’s incredibly frustrating seeing this happen. I am willing to hear parents tell stories of how great homeschooling is for their kids (though I’d be much happier to hear young adults who grew up homeschooled tell stories of how great it was, since the players in the conversation are mostly not parents and we’ve already heard from our parents countless times how good they believe homeschooling is). But I am not willing to hear anyone try to negate these stories of how bad homeschooling has been for so many people. I’m especially not willing to hear stories of outright abuse be dismissed with basically a pat on the head and an assertion that the survivor’s experience is totally unique. If we want to dialogue constructively on a topic, we need to first allow one another the basic respect of listening to each other’s stories and believing them.
One more thought on story-telling. I don’t like hearing an authority figure telling a story about or on behalf of those they have authority over. I don’t care what the authorities think, I want to hear the people’s stories from their own mouths. Because story-telling is empowerment. You want to empower yourself, of course, but you need to empower others as well. If we all bravely commit to telling our own stories and listening to other people’s stories, we might together be able to find the next steps in human progress. Whatever our past, there’s something in each of our life stories that can make the world a better place if we speak it and collaboratively explore what it is we have to tell.