By John Soderlund
Narrative therapy stresses the need to rework the stories by which we understand ourselves, with a view to replacing a tired old story with a new, fuller account which offers possiblities for change. But, apart from the odd piece of letter writing and record keeping which may be part of the process, there is seldom anything in the way of documents to show for the therapeutic endeavour. Three Johannesburg therapists with a bent for writing have restoried the focus of their work lives with the launch of a business to document the stories of families who feel the need for a written history of where they have come from.
What do two psychologists and a clinical social worker have in common? In the case of Tracey Segel, Graeme Friedman and Jonathan Morgan, it ís that they have put their therapeutic and literary skills into a business which involves writing almost forgotten memories, fragments, and family histories into fully fledged and richly described life stories.
The end product is a sizeable, bound volume on the history of a family, gleaned from extensive interviews with its members, documents and old photographs.
Their venture, "The Life Story Project Capturing Oral Histories", is not that different in its execution from narrative therapy. But the end results bear little resemblance.
"Some clients opt for the classic leather-bound look but others prefer to have it look more like a cutting edge Picador soft cover imprint. Still others prefer to incorporate more photos and other family material and the end product is a less wordy and more visual, coffee table format," says Morgan.
"The way people used to preserve the memory of a loved one, or of themselves, was to get their portraits painted. This art form is less popular than it used to be. Nowadays, storytelling and documentation is the thing," Morgan adds.
These three Jewish story traders have allowed their own lines to cross and to converge. Their story began in 1997. Morgan began researching and documenting his family history on his fatherís side and working it into a book called the "Stone Age Bagel". It describes a car journey with his father, Issy Morgan, to an abandoned farmhouse in Leslie.
Issy, who came to South Africa from Lithuania in 1924, is driving. Jonathan sits beside him with a hand-held, audio tape recorder, capturing the ancestral stories. The book also includes Lithuanian birth certificates, marriage certificates, Grandpa Ben's dompas, and other archival material. Whilst digging it all up, Jonathan thought, "wouldnít it be great to do this for a living?"
Meanwhile, Segel began interviewing her grandfather in 1998 with a view to completing an account of his life. "The stories were jumbled and patchy and not in chronological order," she recalls. "I soon discovered that it was not so easy to put pieces of the story together and that Iíd left it very late. I thought I would be willing to pay someone to do this for me."
Her wish to have her grandfather ís story written up, and her hard-won experience of the special skills required to do it, made her think: "If I want this, there must be many others who want it too." And the Life Story Project was born, combining Segel's interviewing skills with Friedman's writing ability.
Their first commission came in September 1998 from the family of a woman who had died a few years previously. Her name was Miriam Addelson Froman Schwarts, affectionately known as 'Nanna'. Her story was reconstructed from the testimony of her daughter, sisters and grand-daughters. "Miriam was a vivacious, adventurous woman who was loved by her family.
They wanted to honor her memory as well as document her life for future generations. With Graeme and Traceyís help they now have a 120 page leather-bound life story entitled Nanna, replete with photographs, maps, documents and a family tree," says Morgan.
In early 1999, the trio "found each other", say Friedman and Segel. The "Stone Age Bagel", Morganís paternal familyís story, was re-edited, more professionally formatted and included in the fledgling company's portfolio.
The collective skills and experience make more obvious sense of their move in this direction. Segel is a clinical social worker who works as a researcher, counsellor and counselling skills trainer. For many years she was the Assistant Director of the 702 Crisis Centre in Johannesburg.
Friedman is a writer and psychotherapist who has won three literary awards. His first novel is due to be published soon, and his short stories have been included in various anthologies of South African fiction.
Morgan is also a writer and a clinical psychologist. His narrative therapy orientation, a spell as a freelance journalist and the publication in August 1999 of his novel "Finding Mr Madini" equipped him well to weave together the often disparate strands of a family's story.
The three are presently busy with two other projects, fielding several others and are determined to devote more time to completing commissions, says Morgan. A commission carries a multi-thousand rand price tag and can take several months to complete.
"We all agree on the therapeutic nature of the process, and that the project has historic significance. Not knowing where you come from is like trying to follow a movie you walked into late. Sometimes even 10 seconds is enough to make the story difficult to comprehend," comments Morgan.
"It's all about identity," adds Segel. "So much of who we are is tied up in where we come from. Social upheavals and diasporic trends which continue today with emigration and global relocations, have made it difficult for Jews to properly record their own stories and great histories."
"These are so easily lost and deemed irretrievable," agrees Friedman. "It only takes one generation to make a broken link in the chain."
Morgan says the project is also about taking up the challenge to record a history of the Jews in Africa, or alternatively, a history of Africa through Jewish eyes. The methodology is one that is more likely to avoid sweeping generalisations and totalising claims to truth, he argues.
An associated part of the Life Story Project's work is the facilitating of life story workshops, run by Morgan. Rather than write or document the stories themselves, these aim to assist those with stories to tell, (or with lots of curiosity around other peopleís stories), to begin the process of documentation, he says. "Every family has a natural storyteller and a rich history. In most families you will find at least one gifted or enthusiastic storyteller and this energy can be harnessed. The capturing of this can be a very rewarding and healing process. Our workshops are about jump starting such collaborations."
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