Sunday, August 12, 2012


Written originally in 1997 and revised in 2006
BY Andre B. Heuer D.Min. LICSW

"I feel duped," Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. "But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers."

She added: "I sat on this stage back in September and I asked you, you know, lots of questions, and what you conveyed to me and, I think, to millions of other people was that that was all true."

"No," she said, "the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James, that's a lie."

Live on 'Oprah,' a Memoirist Is Kicked Out of the Book Club
NYTimes EDWARD WYATT Published: January 27, 2006

The above is an excerpt from the Oprah show on January 26. The show focused on Oprah's concerns that many of the incidents in Frey’s book "A Million Little Pieces" were fabrications and embellishments and not factual. She stated that she felt duped.

In my 20 plus years in the storytelling and literary community I have questioned how some stories presented as actual personal experiences are told as being factual even though most or all of the facts of the stories are embellished and/or fabricated. The teller often justifies this fabrication by saying that the embellishment serves the metaphorical truth of the story. When Mr. Frey stated the same basic principal in defense of his book Oprah said, "No," she said, "the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James, that's a lie."

My questions about the responsibility of the teller to be accurate in a story that is presented as being an actual experience arose many years ago. After hearing a story I asked the teller if the story was about a real experience. His answer was basically the same as Mr. Frey that the story was metaphorically true but not necessarily factually true. The story was about a farm accident and it was very inspiring story. When I learned that the story was not true and mostly a fabrication I felt manipulated and duped.

There are many questions raised in both the storytelling and literary community because of the Frey controversy:

1) Can we embellish and fabricate parts of our personal stories and justify it as a device of serving the metaphorical truth of the story, and/or of moving the story along?
2) What are our ethical obligations to our audience and readers when we present a story as based on a real story?
3) What are the expectations of our audience and our self when we tell or write a story based on a real experience?

In my mind there is a level of authenticity that listeners expect self when we tell or write a story based on personal experience. People listening to a story presented as an actual experience are being invited into a relationship with another human being and to a real experience. Therefore when a teller or writer fabricates or embellishes the story there is a basic human betrayal of trust between the teller and the listener and/or the reader.

In experiential stories there probably is room to interchange the chronological order and emphasize various aspects of the story to enhance a certain thread of the story and room for a teller to say I am going to tell you in my voice the story of an experience of another. However, the listener understands and is clued into the intent of the teller. In this way the trust is not broken between the teller and the listener or reader. It seems however to fabricate and pretend something is real when it is not is questionable. The reader of a story based in personal experience is not preparing for a fantasy but is preparing to be touched personally. To suck a listener into a fabricated personal story or an experience is neither clever nor witty especially to the reader. Finally, my experience of tellers who make up personal stories is they soon loose their audiences. Somehow the listener detects the lack of authenticity.

This article was initially published "The Ethics of Telling Personal Stories," Grapevine: Northlands Storytelling Networks, Minnesota, vol. 17, No. 2 (1997) and reprinted in the Oklahoma Tattler, Summer, 1997 and Stories, Vol. 10, No. 4, Summer, 1997. And revised in 2006.

Storytelling and Healing in Liberia

From 1999 to 2003 Liberia experienced a devastating civil war that destroyed the infrastructure of the country and large segments of the population were displaced or fled to refugee camps. Most Liberians endured torture and war trauma including rape, physical mutilation and the murder of men, women and children. As a result of these experiences many of the victims experienced psychological trauma and exhibited multiple physical symptoms such as back and stomach pain, headaches and digestive issues. In 2007 I received a Human Rights Fellowship from the University of Minnesota to work with counselors from the Center for Victims of Torture in Liberia. I conducted trainings for lay counselors in the use of storytelling to treat war and torture trauma victims and collected the personal stories of the counselors. The following is a description of one part of the training that describes one approach to the use of storytelling to foster healing.

The counselors started the creating of their story by turning their attention to their physical symptoms and making a list of words that vividly described both literally and metaphorically their symptoms with the descriptive words the counselors chose a sound and a movement to portray the symptoms. They used the words, sound and gesture to develop the first character of the story. The second character was created by the counselors making a list of words that contrasted or were opposite to the list for the first character. The counselors were then asked to become aware of the words in the second list and connect the words to any body sensations and find a sound and gesture that portrayed what they were feeling. The words, sounds and gestures were then used to create a second character. In the training the counselors were instructed and given time to have the two characters meet, befriend each other and learn from each other. The interaction between the two characters gave rise to a story usually in the form of a folk or fairy tale. The counselors then paired off and used a telling/listening technique to share their stories. After the telling/listening exercise the counselors in a group began to do the movement and sound associated with their two characters moving back forth between the two sounds and gestures. The cacophony of the sounds of the counselors blended into a rhythmic beat and their movements merged into a celebratory community dance. During the dance a counselor would sing a meaningful phrase from his/her story and the other counselors would sing the refrain back in a call-and-response style of song. The dance lasted until the counselors each sang their refrain.

This storytelling experience fostered healing on several levels. The development and the telling and hearing of the story provided an opportunity for personal healing and resolution. The dancing, along with the call and response facilitated community and cultural healing. The whole process encouraged movement from isolation to relationship with self, community and culture. At the end of the sessions the counselors reported feeling freer and experienced a lessening or a disappearance of their physical symptoms.

My Mud Story

This story was previously published when I was in Africa but disappeared. I am now reposting it.

On the road to Voinjama after working with a group on story and clinical practice the driver and I came upon a seven foot deep mud hole in the road. In one lane a truck tipping precariously to one side wallowed in the mud and in the other lane mud covered people dug, pushed, and pulled a car trapped in the depths of the huge mud puddle. My driver determined not to be delayed pulled to the front of the entourage passing several vehicles. He got out and began to discuss the situation with the other blocked travelers.

Quickly he and the others came to a decision. He unhooked the winch with the intention of pulling the two day stuck truck out of the mud. My driver along with several others began to give directions including to me and I soon found myself behind the wheel of the vehicle.

In the mean time the muddy people in the other lane managed to push the car out of the deep mud hole. My driver immediately assessed the situation and realized that we could not budge the truck even with my expert driving. He quickly detached the winch from the truck and was about to position us to use our four wheel drive to navigate through the now empty hole when a small two wheel drive car dove into the hole.
This blog was published previously but some how disappeared. I am now reposting...

Now this common practice allows the driver to receive all the necessary help he needs to get pushed or pulled out of the hole and to be able to go on his way. So we or should I say my driver quickly positioned us to pull the car out of the hole and once out to place our vehicle in line to be the next to take the plunge. Once we pulled the car out my driver quickly unhooked and rewound the winch and drove our vehicle to the edge of the hole. In our four wheel drive vehicle we launched forward and careened straight down into the seemingly cavernous mud pit. We bounced off the walls of mud and sloshed through the water. I must admit I loved it. And the good news with the four wheel drive and the expertise of my driver we made it through to the other side. However, this was not the end of the story.

Just before we were to take the plunge the UN Pakistan forces arrived with heavy trucks and winches. They introduced themselves shook hands and assured everyone they were there to help. Once free and speeding down the road I felt less guilty leaving the others stuck in the mud. I knew the UN forces would free everyone we left behind in the mud. Well, at least for that particular mud hole in that particular moment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Idleness, Work & Virtue

The following spoken word essay was performed on October 15th 2011 at Cheap Theater. The theme of the evening was Idle. This was for me the first time performing an essay. My usual fare is either storytelling in the oral tradition or the reciting of poetry. So this night was an experiment and a stretch. I would suggest that you read the essay out loud for it is written to be heard. Hope you enjoy the essay and of course your feedback is welcomed. Cheap Theatre is held in a cabaret space next to a German restaurant and bar.

I am not sure what came over me but when the theme of this evening at Cheap Theatre was announced my soul leapt. The experience I would say was somewhat religious. As I reflect I believe this was due to the theme word idle. Initially what came to mind was not idle as being lazy but idol with a ‘o’ as in the worshipping of false gods. Now I should explain this transformation of the word idle to idol is perfectly understandable not because they are homonyms or homophones that are easy to transliterate but because I spent several years in ministry. I cannot tell you the number of hours spent in theology classes discussing idolatry. Now the discussion of idolatry was not focused on graven images but on money, success, power and the many other possible idols that turn us away from leading a moral life dedicated to compassion and justice.

Yes, I went to a seminary where God was associated with the poor, justice and compassion rather than identified with sending immigrants back to where they came from and eliminating social programs to reduce taxes. Yes, I went to a seminary where as a person of privilege I was educated to serve the poor and seek justice, and it was not about being served by the poor while paying unlivable wages to them.

After reflecting on the word idol with an ‘o.’ My mind quickly drifted to the word idle as in being lazy. And being who I am I began to contemplate the moral issues associated with idleness.

As a young boy I learned about the evilness of idleness. Sometimes the learning was direct and experiential as when told to get off my duff, do my chores and quit being lazy; however most of the time the lessons were subtle and covert, implicit rather than explicit. Now I never heard anyone directly quote Benjamin Franklin’s admonition “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” but the idea was silently woven through every facet of the culture. Beside the implicit message that “the idle man is the miserable man.” I was also taught explicitly and I still hear the voice of my mother saying, “A stitch in time saves nine,” “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “penny wise and pound foolish,” and “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

The cultural messages were clear and unspoken. The poor man, the underachiever and the unsuccessful man were idle man who lacked initiative, were reckless with their lives and possibly mentally and morally deficient. In fact my uncles made it very clear idle people were not just lazy but as a French author succinctly put it, “Idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel.”(R. Adler) My uncles would point towards the poor neighborhoods, as perfect examples, were laziness and idleness caused crime and all other sorts of depravity.

As a youth my psyche was routinely imprinted with the warning that idle hands and minds were the devil’s workshop. “For Satan always finds some mischief still for idle hands and (minds) to do.”(I. Watts) I would begin my confession “Father it has been one week since my last confession. I had impure thoughts six times and I did impure actions six times.” I was lectured rather loudly about the dangers of idle hands and mind. Much to my embarrassment I am sure that my mother heard, as she waited to confess her sins. As the passionate lecture ended I was warned that if I continued and did not keep my hands and mind busy with virtuous actions I would soon go crazy. Red faced I would quickly leave the confessional keeping my head down as not to meet my mother’s gaze.

Now if these lessons on idleness were my only experiences this would be the end of the story and in fact there would be no story to tell you. There would be no plot, no conflict to resolve, no lesson’s to be learned and no redemption to be had. Further I would not be standing in front of you in this den of idleness were drinking and frivolity are encouraged and idle conversation the norm. Most likely I would be at home finishing up my chores or involved with some other terribly constructive activity rather than idling my time away performing for you.

Sundays for my family, the Sabbath, was a do nothing day. We’d go to church, eat breakfast usually consisting of eggs, bacon and sweet rolls and then do nothing. There was no other cooking on Sunday only snacks, not for religious reasons but just because. Sunday was the day to do as little as possible. No plans and no chores to be accomplished. Sunday afternoons my parents would steal themselves away to the bedroom shutting the door tightly for a nap. We children were given strict orders not to disturb them. Often on Sundays we visited grandma to talk, play cards, and watch football or maybe take a short trip to the lake. At the lake we would sit and do nothing things -eating, swimming, tanning and building sand castles. Sunday was the day to idle away. The rest of the week was busy working and preparing for work. There were moments of quiet sitting on the porch doing nothing but most of the week was a whirlwind of activity.

As a child I found great pleasure in doing nothing but I also was aware that my activities were dismissed simply as “play.” I often heard: “Wait into you get older. Enjoy it while you can. There’s no free lunch.”

As a young boy I learned that when I grew up I needed to earn my idle time or vacation as it became known. For fifty weeks of work I would earn two weeks of idle time. For five to six days a week of work I earned a few hours of leisure time per week. For forty some years of work I would earn the right to retire and be justified in idling. I saw the cost to my uncles in earning the privilege to have time to do nothing. Tired, unhappy, and broken by their work as a baker, sanitation worker and a laborer in a paper mill their lives were punctuated with poor health. I saw my uncle’s lives spent as they struggled to earn a living in order to have a small taste of the good life but they experienced very little nothing time before they died. I did not see the hard working man as “the happy man” that Benjamin Franklin promised. I saw as I grew that the rich had plenty of leisure time to travel, party and to do nothing. This was their right by their status as landowners, factory owners, and financial wizards. They knew how to earn money off the labor of others and in so doing acquired an abundance of leisure time. I saw this at the prep school I attended. These observations were enough to make me doubt Franklin and the others who in their pontificating assured me that the “happy man” was the busy man and the idle man plainly miserable.

In 1932 the philosopher and Nobel prize winner Bertland Russel wrote an essay In Praise of Idleness.
He writes:
I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

In time I too have came to believe that the virtuous life is in living a life of idleness focused on doing nothing things rather than in working one’s life away. A case in point is the life of Jesus. He drank wine, worked sparingly, encouraged others to drop their work, encouraged the woman Mary to sit around and shoot the breeze while her sister Martha busily worked in the kitchen and in his sermons continuously spoke of feasts and parties. In general Jesus seemed quite happy and content roaming through the hills. In the end the authorities were not too happy with him but the authorities could not keep him down. Another example of an idler was the poet Rumi. This deeply spiritual Persian poet idled away days in a tent making love, drinking wine and from this deeply spiritual experience poured forth some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

In fact I came to agree with Robert Louis Stevenson in his Apology for Idlers when he writes “To be idle requires a strong sense of personal identity.” In his apology he describes St. Joan of Arc as an individual considered as an idler. He writes: When they told Joan of Arc she should be at home minding women's work, she answered there were plenty to spin and wash.

So what is the answer of establishing the virtue of idleness in our culture?

Let us fellow Jesus’ and Rumi’s examples, let us develop a strong sense of personal identity as Stevenson encourages and let us promote Bertrand Russels’ solution In the Praise of Idleness. He proposes:
…In countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing.


It is not enough to intellectualize about the virtue of idleness. What is necessary is an experience of idleness, a sacramental moment one might say. Poetry is one such vehicle of experiencing the sublime. So to finish my essay Carol Stoddart will join me and we will read my two voice poem “Nothing Things.” We will be accompanied with a metronome.

Nothing Things

sitting on the porch
drinking a cold beer
smoking a cigar

warm sun
gentle breeze

telling a story

a crow caws
a dog barks

speaking to my son
rocking in my chair

a child plays
a neighbor mows


a squirrel scampers
down a tree

nothing things
useless nothing things
are all i can be about

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Genetics Alliance Conference Presentation

I thought I would share my experience of presenting this past weekend at the Genetic Alliance on storytelling. My initial response to the request to speak about story to an organization involved in genetic disease was panic. My interest in genetics and how to encourage gene expression to foster healing of mind, body and soul through story was (and is) an important part of my personal study but I never considered myself as having an expertise. As I met the other presenters I learned that the focus of their use of story was to inform, advocate and provide support for those facing the challenge of genetic disease. They were intrigued by my understanding of the genomics of storytelling and healing. The focus of my presentation was to suggest that an understanding and study of the processes of gene expression, the creation and telling of story, and the ultradian cycles of learning, creativity, and activity/rest could suggest more effective approaches to foster healing of mind, body and soul.

I shared my own experiences with individuals facing the challenges of chronic and acute illness and with training counselors dealing with war and torture trauma in Liberia and Thailand. I also cited research on psycho/social genomics and the role of the arts. Finally, I presented the positive results of a study on Narrative Exposure Therapy that uses a storytelling process. In the NET study brain scans showed that the hippocampus of those who were suffering PTSD increased in activity and size after participating in four to eight sessions. (PSTD suffers' hippocampus are usually smaller than control groups.) This would indicate that NET story approach actually fostered neurogenesis on the molecular level.

Finally, throughout the session I shared stories but the one with the greatest response was the story of my experience with a tribal doctor in the Alaska. When asked if she still had visions, dreams and stories. She said "No." When asked "Is it because you living your vision, dreams and story?" She said, "No" again. After a pause she leaned forward and said, "I am my vision, I am my dream and I am my story." I also mentioned my experience in Liberia in which they added "We are our family story, we are communities story, and we are our clans story." I shared how stories are not products outside of ourselves but are actually who we are. This is a concept that from a genetic and epigenetic perspective is understood and affirmed in discussions by advocates to scientist. By the end of the conference I felt more confident and affirmed in my understanding and knowledge of the role of genomics in fostering healing. A humbling experience to say the least. I learned so much from so many good people.

After the session a teenager came up to me and asked if I would help her tell her story. I said, "Yes." I found that she had a metabolic genetic disease from birth that usually leads to death within a few days of birth. She spoke of what it is like knowing that she could die at any moment and actually has been in danger so many times that she could not count. As I helped her with her story I was touched and more than a few times brought to tears. In fact several times during the conference I was brought to tears. Not, much more to say about this but we will continue to work together on her story.

As usual talk of collaborations took place and two possibilities are all ready in the works. I know that the staff spoke of adding a greater focus on healing using the arts and storytelling. We will see what is next.

Below is the mission statement of the Genetics Alliance and a website

Genetic Alliance Mission Statement
Our mission is to promote awareness and understanding of genetic disorders so that high quality services for people affected by genetic conditions are developed and made available to all who need them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Dancing with Demons: Homelessness and Mental Illness

Last night at the Northlands Conference I performed my "Dancing with Demons" a work-in-progress. The audience's response was positive and their feedback helpful. Most importantly the audience stated that they gained insight about the life of those who are homelessness and face challenge of mental illness. My hope is to now hone and refine the piece. I am hoping the work can be used to advocate for programs and services and also challenge some of the harsh judgmental attitudes towards the homeless.

Below is a little more information that was included in the program about the performance.


Mental Illness and Homelessness

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill (National Institute of Mental Health, 2009). In a 2008 survey performed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 25 cities were asked for the three largest causes of homelessness in their communities. Mental illness was the third largest cause of homelessness for single adults (mentioned by 48% of cities). For homeless families, mental illness was mentioned by 12% of cities as one of the top three causes of homelessness.*

Dancing with Demons

I walk down the street. I am uneasy. She screams. Her arms push frantically through the empty air. She slips to the ground. She covers her head. She screams “Go away, go away,” but the demons do not go away.

This story and others from across the country are the foundation of tonight’s performance. The stories written originally as poems are based on my experiences of the homeless over the last fifteen years. I believe my motivation might rise from my own experiences of traveling up and down the East Coast. I did not know where I would sleep or whom I would meet. Mostly, I was lucky but not always.

*National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back Home

When I arrived back from Africa a couple of years ago I wrote a poem called “Home but not Home.” I am feeling this way today. After three days of being home I find myself slipping in time and space between Thailand and Minneapolis.

Images of Thailand spin in my mind & keep me awake. I say to myself "I am in Minneapolis not Thailand. Go to sleep" However I know better. In Buddhist villages during Songkran a string is threaded from the temple to every home & connects everyone to the Buddha. I believe that one strand of that string attaches my heart to the land, culture & the people. So a part of me remains in Thailand & part of Thailand remains in me.

LA was a perfect transition point before coming back to Minnesota. I was staying in Korea Town and was able to hear an Asian language, had noodles for breakfast and gave and received a bow. Home Sweet home! Another 45% of the population was Latino and spoke primarily Spanish and I don't. So it was not much different then being in Thailand. When the Fed ex man spoke to me in English I almost didn't understand him.

Now when I awake in the morning in Minneapolis I look around my room expecting to be gazing through a mosquito net but there is none. My windows are closed and covered with curtains rather than open with the sun pouring into my room through the grates. In the quiet of the morning I expect to hear the temple bell, the monk’s chant, the rooster's crow, the migrant worker's shout, and the motorcycle's sputter. These were unwelcome sounds in Thailand that invaded my morning sleep. Now these sounds only remain in my imagination. However when I awake in Minneapolis the quiet is deafening.

I would like to share with you one of the major accomplishments while I was in Thailand. The training of Burmese monks by Fortune staff was a breakthrough on several levels. The Burmese monks were trained by two women and a young man. One older man stated that he had never seen monks being trained by women. The Fortune staff realized that they did have knowledge and skills to share with Monks and gained confidence in their abilities. The counselors were able to adapt and create a mental health session for the particular needs of the monks. This process released them from thinking that they needed to follow previous trainings word for word. They now know that they can create specific targeted programs for different audiences. Most importantly the training provided both knowledge about mental health for the monks.

I wish to thank you all for your support. I was not able to answer every email but know I appreciated each one and they helped me feel connected to my home. This ninth and final email brings to a close my sharing of this journey. I hope you enjoyed the correspondence.