Her Story, Your Story, Our Story:
an Afternoon with Women who Have Escaped the Troll
Published in LANES Museletter, 2012
By Regina Ress
What message do you want to send to other women who’ve been captured by a “Troll?
“Love yourself enough to leave.”
“Don’t settle for less.”
Last June, I spent time with a group of women in a “resettlement” program. These are formerly incarcerated women who have come through abuse and who are actively in the process of changing and reclaiming their lives. The women are part of a support group that meets once a week at the Community Partners in Action Resettlement Program in Hartford, Connecticut. I brought fresh strawberries from my friend’s spring garden, an old European fairy tale, and some questions.
I am currently helping to launch a non-profit organization, Healing Voices-Personal Story, whose mission is to bring awareness to women’s strivings to overcome abuse through the distribution of film and video. Having worked with women in several correctional facilities, I am keenly aware that women who end up in jail generally have a history of abuse. Bad stories; bad endings.
But do all bad stories have to have bad endings? Is there a way to learn and grow a new story?
The story I brought to Hartford last spring was one of the Grimm’s Tales. It describes the trials of a Princess who falls through the crack in a glass mountain and is forced to be the house drudge of the long-bearded Old Rink Rank. She loses all sense of herself, even forgetting her own name. This young woman is eventually rescued, not by a prince, but by her own efforts. When she hits rock bottom, something shifts in her psyche and she finds her own way back up to the light.
I told Old Rink Rank, adding my own voice, asking a question or two within the telling, but not changing the original Grimm version. It is a spare story. It is a very clear story.
The women in our group listened with great attention, nodding at times, often uttering a chorus of
“uh-huhs” at recognizable moments in this story of abuse and redemption. After the telling, in response to my questions, as well as their own, they fleshed out their understanding…and mine as well…of this classic tale. Our discussion was lively, filled with recognition and gritty wisdom. The women very much took control of the conversation, finding questions and answers themselves, often engaging in a kind of debate over issues raised in the story. We looked at how easy it is to fall though the cracks, losing ourselves to the “trolls” ever waiting to use us for their own purposes. The story does not tell us how and why the Princess turns her situation around. But these women knew:
“All that hard work gave her strength.”
“When you hit rock bottom, when you are fed up, that’s when you make the changes.”
We also discussed two possible endings. The Princess, having trapped the old man by his long beard, sets him free once she has returned to the world. In the Grimm version, her father, the King, has him killed. We looked at the justice of this. Then we looked at a more forgiving model, the possibility of not taking revenge. A different kind of justice.
As our time was quite short, we did not get in to our own personal stories. However, it was clear that all of us, group members, case workers, and I, recognized aspects of our own lives in this timeless tale. And working with it in this way helped us all clarify and enlarge our understanding of our lives.
Two of the women commented to me on their way out that they never understood that “those old stories actually meant something.” Ah! This storyteller quoted a favorite adage in the storytelling world: The stories are not good because they are old; they are old because they are good.
And they do, they most definitely do “mean something.”
Storytelling is not just kid stuff. We, the storytelling community, know this. Indeed, we know that “kid stuff” can be….and should be…meaningful at its core. Life long learning begins with those
bedside stories of survival, of compassion, of what life holds, offers, and teaches. And for those
whose stories takes some bad turns, stories and storytelling can help us find our way out of the
woods and home.