How Stories Change And Heal

In 101 Healing Stories (Burns, 2001), I told the case ofJessica, a six-year-old who reminded me of something about the power of stories to change. Because the power ofstories to connect with people who may have chosen not to connect in other ways continues to fascinate me, I will repeat Jessica's story in a summarized version, first, because you may not be familiar with it and, second, because (even if you are) I now have a follow-up to the story that was not available when I last wrote about her.

At her tender young age, Jessica was considered different, abnormal. She had been labeled an elective mute: a child who chose to speak only to whom she wished—and, for Jessica, that meant only her immediate family, who considered her vocabulary, sentence structure, and fluency of speech to be comparable to that of her peers. However, her teachers were bound by an educational system that demanded measurement and accountability. There, Jessica was not playing by the rules. She could not be assessed on verbally based measures of academic progress or intellectual functioning.

She had attended a school psychologist and private clinical psychologist who tried to assess and treat her with most of the current, standard approaches. I was told they attempted to measure her IQ, tried to get her to talk through puppets, and set up a behavioral reinforcement schedule for her classroom . . . but because she provided no speech whatsoever at school, there was nothing to reinforce. Jessica remained an elective mute, and as I listened to all that had been tried and failed, I was not sure I had any additional strings to my therapeutic bow.

As I spoke with her mother, Jessica sat on the floor drawing, thus giving me the opportunity to address her indirectly while apparently conversing with her mother. My therapeutic intent was, first, to normalize selectivity of speech, and second, to set an expectation of change, so I talked with Jessica's mother about how we all choose with whom we want to speak and with whom we do not. Some people we like and, thus, communicate with openly and easily, while others we may not want to talk to at all. My aim was to confirm Jessica's power to be selective, and reassure her about the normality of choice.

To set an expectancy of change, I told her mother a true story about a childhood classmate of mine, called Billy. Nobody at school had ever heard him speak, but there was a rumor he spoke at home. Billy was teased by other kids. They poked fun at his silence. But nothing changed . . . until one day.

At this point of the story Jessica stopped her drawing and looked up at me. I continued to keep her mother's gaze and proceeded with the tale.

That day the door of the cupboard at the back of the classroom was ajar and a feather duster protruded through the gap. As we filed into class, Billy's eye fell on the protruding feathers and, without thinking, he exclaimed, "Sir, there's a hen in the cupboard!" Everyone laughed and after that Billy spoke.

Jessica, who had stopped drawing to listen to the story, picked up a fresh sheet of paper and, in a few moments, passed me a drawing of a bird.

"What's this?" I ventured to ask.

"Tweetie," came the reply.

"Who's Tweetie?" I pressed gently.

"My canary," she answered.

Jessica's mother looked as incredulous as me. I was the first adult Jessica had spoken to outside of the family in her whole six years. At the next session, she bounced into my office so chatty that my secretary asked, "Can you reverse this process?"

Jessica's story of resolving her elective mutism did not end there. In some ways that was just the beginning. Though she had extended the range of people with whom she spoke by two (myself and my secretary), she still needed to expand that ability into other situations in her life. While it was great that she would chat garrulously to my secretary and was eager to relate to me the events since our last appointment, she had still not generalized this into the classroom or playground environment, and so I spoke with the school principal, who was very cooperative and keen to assist. She gave Jessica's teacher permission to come to an appointment. With just the three of us present, Jessica was happy to talk with her teacher. They had been studying the solar system and when the teacher began to ask her questions, Jessica readily and casually listed off the names of the planets—much to her teacher's surprise.

The challenge then became how to generalize her speech into the classroom, a process I began with successive approximations through further stories, role-play with my teddy bear, and therapeutic exercises. There were many questions I asked her. When she began to speak at school, to whom would she speak first? And after that person, who next? Would she talk softly, loudly, or normally? Would she say just one word or a whole sentence? We agreed on softly to one or two close friends. Each step was reinforced and the next encouraged as she began to extend her abilities to more people and more situations.

Since I first wrote about this case, Jessica's grandmother, who initiated Jessica's consultations with me, reported she now speaks with neighbors, has friends visit for sleep-overs (at which her mother has to tell them to stop talking and go to sleep!), and has even stood up in front of the class to give news. Her grandmother's words were, "Since she has started, she hasn't stopped."

Three years after she attended sessions with me, I was surprised to open my mail one day and find a letter from Jessica herself. It read as follows:

Dear George. Remember me Jessica. I saw you when I was six. I hope you are going well. You helped me a lot in talking a bit louder at school. I've got a lot more friends now because I've been talking louder. I spoke on the Broadcast on the Microphone.

Thank you for helping me.

From Jessica.

A year later I phoned her mother to seek permission to publish Jessica's letter, and also spoke to Jessica. She was bright, cheerful, and animated in her conversation. According to both Jessica and her mother, she has continued to maintain her progress.

In the case of this six-year-old, I was powerfully reminded how metaphors can hold a unique ability to facilitate connections where other language forms may not. The empowerment for Jessica to change an established pattern ofbehavior had come not just through a story, but through one told so indirectly that it was apparently being communicated to someone else.

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