Personal storytelling, values formation and claiming a place

On a Monday in early March 2016, the twelve members of the Delft Safety Group arrived at a large warehouse space with blank white walls and plastic garden furniture. Over five days, I facilitated the group through a personal storytelling process3: the walls filled with drawings, instructions and ideas, and tables were covered in cuttings of paper, pieces of clay and scattered art materials. We started playfully with games and exercises that explore creativity, and open-ended maps of life experiences. Then we turned to the organising question for the storytelling: Tell a story from your own experience of when you felt secure or insecure in Delft. From this simple but grounded prompt, members of the group began to tell their stories. On that Monday afternoon, we sat in a story circle to listen to the first telling of each person’s stories. Despite the many fears and possibilities for mistrust, especially given my position as a foreign white woman, the group took the opportunity to speak. This was more difficult for some than for others. Faquir,6 one of the older men in the group, eventually became so overwhelmed by his own story about how his children were targeted by gang members that he stumbled into silence. We sat in silence and eventually he continued, speaking slowly and quietly. Next, Soeraya7 reluctantly spoke about how her child was violated. As she continued to speak, more and more words began to stream out of her, and she spoke without stopping for over thirty minutes. After three hours, nearly every person in the room had become overwhelmed by the emotions of telling their stories.

When the first day of the workshop ended, the facilitation team sat with the trauma counsellor who had been observing the workshop to discuss how people were coping with the process and the situations in their lives. As we turned our attention to each person and how best to proceed, I noticed that my phone was constantly buzzing. I checked it and discovered that a child from my children's school had been raped and murdered at the park near our house, where I often go with my children to play - an unsettling reflection of the same stories I had listened to from Delft for the whole day. That evening, as I returned home to my middle-class neighbourhood, the people from Delft returned to their homes where murders (like that of the young woman in my neighbourhood) are a regular occurrence. I felt completely overwhelmed by the contradiction between my own sense of privilege and my emotional response to the stories: because of the stories emerging from the group from Delft, I felt a sense of loss of safety in my own life and for my family and the realisation of how difficult it is to live with violence. Over the rest of the week, the group from Delft worked through their personal stories through a range of creative techniques, and all twelve people came back every day and finished telling and creating their stories. I had a new sense of respect for how hard this was for them, as I struggled to deal with the emotions surrounding the death of my children’s classmate.

As this vignette shows, the storytelling process is characterised by silences as much as by words, and by affect as much as events. The stories go through many versions, with different silences and things left unsaid, before they arrive at a final version. Yet through this process, storytellers are able to articulate their experiences without leaving out affect. And this form of storytelling allows the teller to claim recognition as a subject; to have their experiences recognised. Roland Barthes describes the shift of claiming subjectivity: 'I myself am my own symbol, I am the story which happens to me' (Barthes 1977: 56). The next section is an excerpt of the transcript of the final version of one of the stories that was told through this process.

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