The power of stories
There has been a significant narrative turn in the social sciences over recent decades (Andrews, Squire, & Tamboukou, 2013), which emphasises the importance of stories in how people make sense of their social worlds. Stories shape the ongoing process of how we interpret and reinterpret our experiences, helping us construct our biographies and sense of self (Woodiwiss, 2015), connecting and integrating the past with the present. They are not fixed but shift in light of changing circumstances and understandings. There is often only a tenuous link back to an event and sometimes none at all.
Researching the Savile case has convinced me of how individual stories both draw upon and feed into a wider public narrative and it is to this process that I now turn. While we make sense of our lives through stories, we are constrained in the stories we can tell by the narrative scripts that our culture makes available and which determine which stories can be told and heard (Woodiwiss, 2014). Woodiwiss’s (2009) research with women who claimed to have experienced sexual abuse in childhood but subsequently retracted is important in identifying how such claims can emerge from a general sense of disaffection in life, aligned with the availability of checklists of symptoms of CSA presented in selfhelp and self-improvement literature.The CSA story reflects and runs alongside what Furedi (2004) identifies as the therapy culture that has come to dominate the contemporary Anglophone world.This powerful cultural narrative informs the stories that individuals can and do tell, making it difficult to tell alternative stories.
In the context of residential child care, individual lives interleave and resonate with a public narrative that tells of endemic abuse. In such a context, people can, for a host of reasons, write themselves into the prevailing storyline. The Canadian philosopher, Ian Hacking, in his work on the memory wars that were fought out over the course of the 1990s, notes, “When vile stories are rampant, minds that are sufficiently confused, angry and cruel will turn fiction into fact” (Hacking, 1995, p. 28). One might at least ponder how many of those making claims against Savile did so because the public story that was circulating offered them something on which to hook a range of personal troubles and motivations.
To identify this possibility' is not to diminish the importance of the stories people tell or to suggest that all accounts of historical sexual abuse are false or questionable, which is clearly not the case.There is a need to hear peoples stories respectfully but also to pay attention to the context of their construction. In the Savile case, a key protagonist changed the published story of her time at Duncroft to include claims of abuse by' Savile only' after accounts of him being there began to circulate publicly, raising questions as to whether this public story might have prompted personal recollections or whether it gave the author the opportunity' to write herself into a wider cultural script. Such questions merit academic interrogation.
Listening to peoples stories is the bread and butter of social research. In a wider political climate in which we are exhorted to validate peoples experiences, it can feel inappropriate to question stories.Yet, using stories for the purpose of research requires questioning. Riessman and Quinney (2005), in their review of narrative research in social work, conclude that there are few good examples of the genre largely because researchers do not subject peoples stories to the same methodological or analytic rigour that they might to other forms of research. Rather, stories are left to speak for themselves, “an indefensible position for serious scholarship” (Riessman & Quinney, 2005, p. 393). A concern for serious scholarship would ask questions of Yewtree’s ready' acceptance of claims of abuse, highlighting the importance of research perspectives in offering an alternative, rigorously argued account to set alongside those laid down by the police and childrens charities.
Similarly', in his critique of the prominence given in the social sciences to narratives of suffering, Atkinson identifies that while sympathy' might be an entirely appropriate response to people s stories, it should “not substitute for social science” (2009, para 2.12). Like Riessman and Quinney (2005) he highlights the importance of an appropriate analytic framework to making sense of stories, arguing that the failure to apply such “constitutes a betrayal of any claims to well-warranted knowledge” (Atkinson, 2009, para 4.4).The failure to question any of the claims made against Savile leaves anyone wishing to understand this central cultural episode with little of substance on which to hang any conclusions.
Suggesting that stories may not always be all they claim to be is not an exercise in either abuse denial, nor is it a self-indulgent expression of academic purity that ignores the experiences and needs of victims. One of my motivations for raising such issues is to question the headlong rush to victimhood that characterises contemporary society (Campbell & Manning, 2014). The victim label is rarely a helpful or attractive one. Telling a story does not heal wounds; people can be imprisoned as well as liberated by the stories they tell (Tavris, 1992), consigned to endless and formulaic repetition of a victim story. In fact, given the linkage between stories and identity, privileging one story over others is problematic in that it might render other, possibly more adaptive, selves less or unimportant, ‘fixing’ one identity at the expense of other possibilities. We only need look around to the serial victims who circle, restlessly, around child abuse inquiries never finding the ‘closure’ promised by a therapeutic discourse. One might legitimately ask whether the lives of those former pupils of Duncroft who made the initial claims against Savile are any the better for having done so or whether they might now regard themselves as pawns in a wider political game?
Conclusions and recommendations
A number of lessons might be drawn from the foregoing account. As someone who is drawn to ideas of narrative in research, this project has confronted me with the need to recognise that people achieve some sort of meaning from their stories, while reconciling such a perspective with the realisation that their stories often bear little relation to any wider reality. Moreover, when others are implicated in such stories to their detriment, facts matter. Certainly, the social world is much too complicated to be accommodated within simple realist accounts, which look only for facts. On the vexed question of historical abuse, for instance, just because a case cannot be proved does not mean something didn’t happen or that those claiming that it did should be disbelieved. But, neither should we go so far along the road to discount facts altogether in favour of mere solipsism. We need to go to the next level and explore where a particular subject perspective might arise from (Silverman, 2006). Such perspectives do not arise spontaneously but, as previously argued, are constructed and sustained by particular interests in particular cultural and political contexts. So, the researcher has to balance sympathetic understanding with facts. This is especially important in situations where the subject matter of research can elicit powerful, visceral reactions, which can make it easier not to ask questions.
Part of the difficulty in researching historical abuse is that the subject is currently bound up in a single linear story of rights abuses, resultant trauma and the right to redress. This reflects the dominance of particular disciplinary and knowledge regimes defined by therapists and lawyers (both human rights and personal injury).The privileging of one source of knowledge and one ‘voice’ is a major constraint to other ways of thinking about what is undoubtedly a ‘wicked’ social problem. It hinders the ability to unpack issues both theoretically and instrumentally, making it difficult to gain a more comprehensive understanding from which policy and practice might develop. Good research into ‘wicked’ social problems requires that researchers draw on ideas from a range of disciplinary perspectives to create new ways of thinking and problem solving around issues where there is no easy or readily accepted answer.
My final point is, in some respects, a personal reflection on what has kept me going in this and similar projects when it would be easier to walk away. There are two reasons: the first is that the subject matter is intellectually fascinating and perhaps all the more so because it involves going against the grain, encouraging the belief that I am unearthing knowledge and understanding that is not countenanced in conventional accounts; the second is to do with research integrity, which goes beyond procedural requirements, to involve subjecting knowledge claims to scrutiny, uncomfortable though this might be.This ought to be the role of the social researcher. It requires, at a personal level, a capacity to resist hasty reactions and look below the surface of what seems obvious and keeping an eye on the ultimate purpose, which is a search for as near to the truth as one can hope for. This is a story to live by, and one that draws upon particular values. This value dimension is captured in the conclusions of a philosopher writing on the issues raised as a result of the Savile case erupting after his death:
Rightfill judgement weighs the evidence carefully, avoids snap conclusions and notes any potentially mitigating circumstances. Even where the crimes alleged against the dead are appalling, charity joins hands with justice in urging us to remember our common human frailty before we rush to condemn. One day people may come to pass posthumous judgement on us; and the same care and discretion (with a dash of mercy) that we would wish to be brought to our case we should ourselves employ when speaking about the dead.
(Scarre, 2013, p. 318)
Finally, coming back down to a more practical level, in an era where there is growing concern about the social significance and impact of research, questioning the origins of the Savile scandal potentially destabilises the foundations of the policy shifts in criminal justice that followed in its wake. One of the former Dun-croft residents recognised this when she said “if all this Duncroft stuff could be debunked then the rest of it is going to fall apart” (Smith & Burnett, 2017, p. 15).
1 See http://gtr.rcuk.ac.uk/projects?ref=ES%2FL011778%2F1
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