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The Wounded Storyteller (Part 2 of 3): The Chaos Narrative

Posted on Mar 6, 2007 by

The first kind of narrative Arthur Frank writes about in The Wounded Storyteller is the restitution narrative. That’s the one where a person goes through some kind of illness or trouble and then becomes restored to one’s old self. (X = X.) The second kind of narrative possible in the wake of illness or loss is much less tidy. I can’t think of a simple equation that could represent it. The second narrative is the chaos narrative. It’s the kind of narrative that results, often, when the restitution narrative breaks down.

Frank writes:

Chaos is the opposite of restitution: its plot imagines life never getting better.

An example Frank uses here is that of a woman with chronic illness trying to take care of her mother who has Alzheimer’s. She’s trying to tell something of what it’s like—a glimpse of the chaos in the kitchen—as she’s trying to make dinner:

And if I’m trying to get dinner ready and I’m already feeling bad, she’s in front of the refrigerator. Then she goes to put her hand on the stove and I got the fire on. And then she’s in front of the microwave and then she’s in front of the silverware drawer. And—and if I send her out she gets mad at me. And then it’s awful. That’s when I have a really, really bad time.

Chaos stories can feel really, really bad.

They’re hard to experience.
They’re hard to tell.
They can also be hard to hear.

But, Frank argues, it’s necessary that they be heard. He writes:

The need to honor chaos stories is both moral and clinical. Until the chaos narrative can be honored, the world in all its possibilities is being denied. To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for. People whose reality is denied can remain recipients of treatments and services, but they cannot be participants in empathic relations of care.

To deny a chaos story is to deny the person telling this story, and people who are being denied cannot be cared for.

He’s saying a lot here, and I’m quite sure not everyone would agree with him, but I think he’s onto something. He continues:

Those living chaotic stories certainly need help, but the immediate impulse of most would-be helpers is first to drag the teller out of this story, that dragging called some version of ‘therapy’. Getting out of chaos is to be desired, but people can only be helped out when those who care are first willing to become witnesses to the story. Chaos is never transcended but must be accepted before new lives can be built and new stories told. Those who care for lives emerging from chaos have to accept that chaos always remains the story’s background and will continually fade into the foreground.

He’s walking, I think, a delicate balance here. Getting out of chaos is desirable. But you can’t get out without first honoring it somehow.

So how is a person to honor chaos?
And how do you eventually find your way out?
Can writing help?

I’ve found it can sometimes help during chaos just to begin to name it as chaos.
Oh, this is chaos.
A person could write just that line, I suppose. Oh, so this is chaos.
Oh, I see.
X is no longer going to be X.