The Power of Story

January 8, 2018

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”[1] Stories have power. Stories liberate. In these dark political times, stories are our best hope of remaining connected despite the forces that would tear us apart.

How can we use stories not only to entertain but as a tool of resistance and change?

This Is Our Brain On Stories

For thousands of years, humans have told stories. We sat around the campfire in the primordial forest and taught our children the valor of heroes, the evil of villains, and the path of the righteous—all through story. Since time out of mind, our lives have revolved around stories. Why? It turns out that our brains are uniquely wired for story.

Dr. Paul Zak is a neuroscientist who found that when the brain is exposed to story, the body releases oxytocin—what some call “the love hormone.” Oxytocin plays a significant role in social bonding and increases our sense of empathy, morality, and altruism. In a groundbreaking experiment, Dr. Zak exposed test subjects to commercials and movie shorts with a strong narrative on such “hot-button” issues as terrorism, gun control, and racism.[2] The increased oxytocin levels in Dr. Zak’s test subjects motivated them to take positive action. In this case, they donated money to charities that dealt with those issues though they were never asked to do so. Dr. Zak concluded, “These findings suggest that emotionally engaging narratives inspire post-narrative actions.”

In short, stories have a biological impact, and they motivate us to take action.

Story as Medicine

I am both a storyteller and a collector of stories. My earliest memories are of sitting around the fire in my grandmother’s courtyard in St. Marc, Haiti, listening and learning from her stories. In countries like Haiti where stories are alive in the fabric of the culture, they represent a living legacy and teach us how to navigate a difficult world.

A few years ago, I stumbled on a German folktale that served a similar purpose. The Enchanted Quill goes something like this:

There once was a young woman mired in difficulty. She worked for a prince and princess who did not appreciate her, and she was menaced by a huntsman, a caretaker, and a servant with a strange neck that was twisted from constantly watching doves.

The maiden sought help from her fiancé, a prince disguised as a crow. “Pull out one of my feathers,” said Crow, “and if you use it to write down a wish, the wish will come true.” The young woman did as she was told.

The next time the huntsman tried to enter her bedroom for reasons that could not be good, she wrote: “Let him spend all night taking his boots off and putting them back on.” When the caretaker tried his luck, she wrote, “Let him spend all night opening and closing the door.” And when the servant dared his turn, she wrote, “Let him spend all night opening and closing the door to the dovecote.”

And this is exactly what happened.

But her thwarted suitors were angry and they crafted three whips to beat her. When the maiden learned of this, she grabbed her crow feather and wrote: “Let them whip each other with those devilish switches!” The huntsman, the caretaker and the servant turned those whips on each other. When the mean prince and princess tried to intervene, they received more lashes than anyone else.

The crow arrived, and now he had turned into a prince. He rode with the lovely maiden to his magnificent castle.

The path out of harm’s way is laid out in The Enchanted Quill story: Write it down, and turn that negative energy back on itself. This small bit of advice from across eons of time works, at least according to modern science. Researchers at Stanford University wanted to support first-generation and underrepresented minority students who typically achieve less academically than their peers.[3] This achievement gap, according to researchers, “can be attributed, in part, to negative stereotypes that may trouble such students about how members of their groups have historically been less successful in college than others.”[4]

These students stand in the shoes of the menaced maiden. While she had to confront the Huntsman, the caretaker, and the servant with the strange neck, the college students had to battle self-doubt, and negative stereotypes from peers and even their professors. Their demons came in the form of questions: “Why am I feeling lonely? Why was I criticized? Why am I struggling?”[5] What saved the maiden, it turns out, could also save the students.

The entering college students got to read vivid stories from upperclassmen who were also first-generation or from underrepresented minority groups. These stories told of going into battle—of the problems the upperclassman once faced, and how they overcame them. The entering college students then wrote their own stories about the challenges they anticipated facing in this new and sometimes hostile environment. They reminded themselves these challenges were not insurmountable. They could succeed. And they did. This simple exercise closed the achievement gap between the students from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds and their peers by 31 to 40 percent.

Making Stories Work For Us

I spent the first week after the 2016 election curled in bed watching Madam Secretary. It was inconceivable that a man who bragged of grabbing women by their genitals—and had the nerve to label others rapists—was now President of the United States.  Numbing out seemed my best option, and then I stumbled on Toni Morrisson’s words:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Once more, the Huntsman, the caretaker, and the crooked-necked servant were beating down the doors of our sanctuary. They were up to no good, and only a story could save us now. I started writing a novel about a courageous lawyer fighting against injustice because I am a lawyer who desperately wanted to be brave and fight against injustice.

In the past, I might have told myself that stories are a waste of time at such a crucial moment. We need a good lawsuit (and an impeachment trial). There is truth in this, but we also need stories. It is stories that trigger our “love hormone” and keep us connected to one another. In stories, we can lay out our heart’s desire and defeat the demons at our door.

Marjorie Florestal is a lawyer and novelist. Her most recent novel, When Death Comes For You, is a legal thriller exploring the 1990s Haitian refugee crisis. It was acquired by Kindle Press, an Amazon Publishing company, and will be published in Spring 2018. You can find more of Marjorie’s writing on her personal blog.

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