Let me tell you a story.
Our eight-year-old son Jeffrey* was making his breakfast. We asked him an innocuous question–what he wanted on his toast, perhaps. He fell to the floor screaming. My husband and I watched him kick and slam his fists into the floor, tears splattering against the tiles. Each time we spoke to him he’d howl, flail his limbs, then curl up with his head under his elbows. After half an hour he’d calmed down, but wouldn’t tell us what triggered the outburst.
Then I found a note deep in Jeffrey’s schoolbag asking him to write down three significant events for each year he’d been alive. You won’t be able to remember events like your birth or first steps or words, but your parents can help you with this, the note said.
I recognised the problem immediately, because we can’t tell Jeffrey anything about his birth. We don’t know what his first words were, when he took his first steps or if he had a favourite toy as a baby. My first memory of Jeffrey is of a four-year-old with a cheeky grin, sizing us up, hiding under a coffee table and sneaking biscuits off the top.
We didn’t know Jeffrey existed until five days before we met him; until three weeks before he joined our family. Our son–he is our son; we are legally his parents–spent his early years in foster care. Foster carers are required to keep ‘life stories’ of kids in their care, including photos and listing events, visits, holidays and significant milestones. These books are the narrative, the consistency, of a child’s life. They travel with the child. And Jeffrey does not have one.
The uselessness I felt watching my child thrash around on the floor, unable to hold him because touch is a trigger when he’s upset, was overwhelming. It was equally heartbreaking telling Jeffrey we knew nothing about those milestone events, and the chances of finding out are miniscule because the first four years of his life are a gaping hole, almost as non-existent as his life story book.
‘Almost’ because he remembers some significant moments. He’s told us about being hit–both at ‘home’ and in care–hiding from people and being left alone in public. Jeffrey remembers other things that he doesn’t want to tell us because they make him sad and he doesn’t want to make us sad too. He has recurrent nightmares about ‘the bad men’ who come into his room at night and hurt him.
He was upset because he didn’t want to tell his class about the ‘bad stuff’, and that’s all he can remember.
Jeffrey’s story, his identity, is formed by what’s been omitted from his narrative as much as what’s been included, and once a chapter’s gone it’s gone for good. The information from Jeffrey’s birth family ranges from guesswork to deliberate lies that conflict with Jeffrey’s memories, confusing him further.
As storytellers we make omissions all the time. Fiction writers kill off superfluous characters or subplots, journalists make constant judgements about which quotes and facts are important, we leave out inconsequential details when telling our mates a yarn.
Every one of us is a storyteller and storytelling is part of our vernacular. A skilled orator can ‘spin a yarn’, lying children are told not to ‘tell stories’, tales of sadness and hardship are ‘sob stories’, unbelievable narratives are ‘tall tales’.
When you first meet someone, say at a party, you swap stories. You talk about who you are, what you do, where you’ve been. You discover you both barrack for the same football team. You recall that team’s dramatic grand final win–where you both were, how you both felt.
Over dinner friends swap stories about work, families, hobbies, home, travel, good meals, bad meals, customer service problems with telecommunication companies.
We seek connection through story. Talking about your weekend with colleagues, debriefing with your partner at the end of the day, chatting with the checkout operator at the supermarket – all these interactions are storytelling. From the oral tradition of Aboriginal Dreaming to religious texts to the European folktales that evolved into the fairytales we recognise today, story carries a message. Some are warnings, some are entertainment, some are instructional; but they become integral to our identity.
The stories we absorb or reject inform our values, our beliefs and decisions as a culture and individual. What we take in, what we chose to tell others–and what others tell us about ourselves–make up who we are. All these stories, our tangled narrative threads, interweave us; knot and stitch us together. Omitting what you were wearing from a story is understandable–it’s unlikely to be relevant. Other exclusions can be destructive–the denial of people’s pasts, for example. Telling entire communities their stories are less relevant than others. Failing to give anyone the tools or opportunity to speak in their own words. Gagging the storytellers.
The narrative of omission compounds. Each missing thread creates a weak spot in the fabric that might not become apparent until it’s triggered by a seemingly innocuous event and leaves us ripped open on the floor, craving stories we didn’t know we’d lost. Whether it’s a single child or the community, what’s excluded has as much impact as what remains, and it’s up to us all as storytellers to ensure that narrative is complete, that the stories we pass on make us solid.
That night, as we looked at photos and talked about holidays and pets, Jeffrey struggled to limit himself to three events per year post-foster care. In the two years since that day he’s become a storyteller himself through words, drawings and mischievous photos on hijacked phones. He often talks about his past–and future–as his frayed threads entwine with longer, stronger fibres. Between us we can weave the words that patch holes and ensure what could’ve been ‘the end’ is now ‘to be continued’.
*not his real name