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.