The Power of Storytelling
I told her the story of Persephone, the teenage goddess, who one day was in a beautiful meadow picking narcissus flowers with her mother, Demeter, and the next day found herself in the deep, dark underworld. The earth had suddenly parted on that spring day and she had been swooped up by Hades in his thundering chariot and taken away from her mother to be his queen. I told her how Demeter panicked when Persephone was missing and appealed to Zeus, the king of the gods, for help. When he was unwilling to provide her with assistance, she became distraught over the loss of her daughter (with whom she had been extremely close) that she became depressed and withdrawn. Since Demeter was the chief mother goddess and in charge of the harvest and all growing things, this meant no more food. As famine spread across the land and people were left starving, Zeus relented and agreed to help rescue Persephone from the underworld. She could come back as long as she hadn’t eaten anything there.
And so, when Persephone and Demeter were reunited, the first question Demeter asked her daughter was, “What did you eat?” Persephone admitted Hades had fed her pomegranate and that she had eaten three seeds. This meant that Persephone could no longer spend all of her days with Demeter and had to return to the underworld for three months a year in the wintertime, when she would reign as queen. She would return every spring, not simply as an innocent maiden, her mother’s daughter, but also as a wise one who could visit the underworld and return with ease, able to help others who needed safe passage to and from its darkness.
When Melissa, my 15-year-old client who had struggled initially with compulsive eating, then anorexia, and now bulimia, first heard this story she told me how she could relate to once having had a very close relationship with her mother. Now she felt estranged from her and it seemed as though all her mother was interested in was what she was doing with food and not the big, important things in her life. She felt she couldn’t talk with her mom about her darker thoughts and feelings because her mom either wouldn’t understand or would “fall apart” and things would “get worse.”
Throughout the course of treatment, we revisited this story over and over again, and each time, Melissa could find more personal meaning in this ancient myth – how her father, like Zeus, didn’t want to get involved in her recovery at first, but later did, as he recognized the seriousness of her eating disorder; how she experienced strong feelings and urges that seemed to come out of nowhere and plunge her into dark moods that held her hostage; how she sometimes felt guilty for eating the smallest amount of food and it seemed like her relationship with food was ruining her life and upsetting her mother; how frightened she was of her sexual feelings and yet found herself attracted to the “bad boys” who, like Hades, treated her like a queen but could also get her into big trouble. Eventually, toward the end of treatment she was able to identify with the goddess who was no longer just an innocent child but one who, as a result of having undertaken a most difficult journey, now had some skills and understanding that could help her navigate more confidently and safely through life. She stopped seeing herself as simply a victim of forces beyond her control, and instead began to feel like a strong young woman willing (and able) to plumb the depths of even her darkest emotions.
Myths are stories that have stayed alive in human imagination for thousands of years because there is a ring of truth in them about shared human experience. To some extent, all of us who have been adolescent girls can identify with some aspect of Persephone’s story: growing up and separating from our mothers; journeying into the unknown; being overwhelmed by dark emotions; feeling overtaken by unconscious forces that seem to come unexpectedly out of nowhere; having strong sexual impulses that can sweep us off our feet; or experiencing trauma or some sense of innocence lost. For those who struggle with eating disorders, the pivotal role that food plays in this story can be especially compelling and poignant.
The healing power of story lies in its ability to arouse strong emotions by allowing the listener to identify with its characters. It can serve as a means of externalizing inner conflicts and providing us with metaphors for internal and interpersonal dynamics. Younger adolescents who have difficulty talking directly about their own traumas find storytelling allows them a vehicle to express their feelings about trauma through the characters’ experiences. Older adolescents may have difficulty pinpointing their feelings but can easily imagine the feelings of the protagonist in a story. In therapy, the discussion of Demeter’s question to Persephone upon being reunited (“What did you eat?”) can help a client discover what underlies her own reactions to that question and issues around her own eating behavior. It becomes obvious that what appears to be a simple question is actually fraught with tremendous meaning. And through this exploration, a client can begin to understand the symbolic meaning of her relationship to food and eating. She can begin to see connections between her eating behavior and her relationships with others.
According to Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf schools, the intellectual powers of rational thought, judgment, and critical thinking that awaken upon the onset of adolescence need to be rooted in the ground of feeling and imagination in order for them to develop properly. Without imagery, which he referred to as “living pictures” seen in the “eye of the mind,” intellectual concepts cannot be fully grasped. When we work with adolescents who have distorted body images, irrational beliefs about food, or an inability to grasp the abstract, symbolic nature of their eating behavior, storytelling can be an exquisite means of cultivating an ability to imagine and feel the inner truth of their disordered eating. Once the truth is glimpsed by the mind’s eye, and felt in the body, it can then be easily brought into the full light of consciousness.
Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst and author on the feminine, addictions, and eating disorders, believes that storytelling and the use of metaphor have more of an immediate impact than abstract analysis when working with eating disorders. “So long as it’s theory, it’s removed from the actual feeling…if I put it in a story form or use images, the mind may not hear it, but the body responds. And if it’s reverberating in the body, sooner or later it’s going to get through to consciousness.” (4) According to her, the healing power of metaphor lies in its ability to provide us with images that can transform unconscious material into conscious awareness.
Through storytelling, teens struggling with disordered eating can learn the language of metaphor, which can help them intuit the existence of deeper meanings and truths. As they become more and more proficient with this language, they can understand how food can be a symbol for emotional nourishment, and how eating can be an attempt to respond to inner hungers for attention, acceptance, affection, or appreciation. They learn to interpret “fat attacks” as “fear attacks” and understand how fat can represent their fears of rejection, intrusion, uncontrolled sexuality, or saying “no.” They can recognize that discussions about food, fat and body parts among their friends are actually coded attempts to deal with a myriad of feelings they don’t quite know what to do with or how to talk about. They can understand that when others make derogatory remarks about the female body, these comments are simply expressions of insecurities and not statements of fact that should be taken to heart. They can learn to perceive the underlying meanings and motivations behind the images and messages delivered to them through the media via magazines, TV, movies, the internet, and music, and in doing so, can begin to develop a resiliency to the onslaught of restrictive, demeaning and oppressive images that bombard them on a daily basis.
And, as a result of telling and retelling the stories of their own personal journeys to hell and back, they can embody the energy of Persephone. They can be light-hearted, adventuresome maidens with hopes and desires who, having explored the deep underworld of the unconscious, carry within them wisdom beyond their years. They can learn to discern the deeper messages behind their eating behavior, and embrace the wisdom of their bodies, feelings and intuitions. By doing this, they become better equipped to navigate the turbulent emotions and intense sexual and social pressures that adolescence can bring.
The Power of Storytelling by Anita Johnston, PhD ©2002
(first appeared in The Renfrew Perspective, Winter 2002)
1. Bolen, J.S. (1984). Goddesses in Every Woman: A New Psychology of Women. San Francisco, CA; Harper & Row.
2. Meade, E.H. (1995). Tell it by Heart: Women and the Healing Power of Story. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.
3. Richards, M.C. (1980). Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
4. Woodman, M. (1993). Conscious Femininity: interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.
Understanding and Treating Eating Disorders through Metaphor, Imagery, and Storytelling 3 Dates & Locations! Greece Retreat Ikaria & Peloponnese Islands September 18-28 2018 In this presentation, Dr. Johnston will use a lively mix of folk tales and myths to...read more
A Women’s Retreat
LOCATION: FRANCIE’S ITALIAN VILLA-STYLE HOME IN PASO ROBLES, CA
JUNE 24TH-29TH 2018
This 5-day retreat, atop 80 acres within the hills of pristine vineyards and farmlands, will be lead by Francie White and Anita Johnston. Accommodations include Francie’s home, and nearby beautiful homes with stunning views, as well as local bed & breakfasts.
Traditional folk tales and multicultural myths can be used as powerful tools in the treatment of eating disorders because they are repositories of ancient wisdom about the human condition and because they teach the language of symbolism, imagery, and metaphor. These...read more