"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Child Abuse Fires: Storytelling to Soothe Souls

Dedication of this entry goes to Don Doyle in guiding my development of the Greek tale of Hephaestus in connection with my research below. I also thank German Scientist Alexander Gerst who graciously gave me permission to post this picture.

Child abuse rages across the nation like wildfire. These flames, if left alone, could create lifetime scars for anyone who has experienced this violence. Storytellers soothe the burns so that the abused can be healed on physical and emotional levels. Rather than extend messages of hope and healing for the child’s experiences, storytellers can use traditional stories such as found from the Greek mythology of the gods Zeus, Hera, and Hephaestus. The hot embers of anger and frustration among youth and adults can be cooled so that love and kindness can sprout from the ashes.

For a fire to be extinguished, however, the fire must be located. Until the 1980s, child abuse was not detected or considered a threat to the nation (Child Abuse, 2006). Although society recognized that abuse occurred, awareness was low until the media covered controversial abuse cases. Much of society expressed concern to such a degree that the federal government took action.

Through the U.S. Congress in the Family Service Act of 1988, abuse was seen as any “physical . . .injury. . .[or] negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child under the age of 18 by a person who is responsible for the child’s welfare is harmed or threatened thereby.” Emotional abuse and sexual abuse were included in this document (quoted in Mufson & Kranz, 1991, p. 26).

With definitions announced, the reports exploded. In 1997 there were 3,195,000 children reported as being abused and neglected (Child Abuse Facts & Statistics, 1998). Abuse happened regardless of culture, color or creed. Many cases continue to be connected through substance abuse, poverty, and legacy of child abuse; these conditions alone do not merit that child abuse occurred (Ito, 1995; Mufson & Kranz, 1991).

Currently, various organizations aim to increase awareness of child abuse through seminars, workshops, and other programs. Awareness is believed to prevent abuse cases. Anne Cohn Donnelly, former executive director of the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, stated:

To be successful, child abuse prevention efforts must ultimately take into account the various causes—both personal and societal—that play a role in the evolution of this problem. The consensus in the field [of child abuse prevention] is clear: No single approach, no single program is sufficient to prevent abuse; all elements of a comprehensive approach ultimately need to be in place. Yet our prevention efforts must begin somewhere (quoted from Children Today in Ito, 1995, p. 33).

Storytelling may appear in these programs, although this art is not the main focus compared to other areas such as dance, drama, writing, music, painting, sculpting, and film (Ito, 1995). The Free Arts for Abused Children (FAAC) has about 80 facilities throughout California that focus on creating a safe, creative, and artistic environment for victims of violence. Former president of FAAC, Elda Unger, said:

We have a motto at Free Arts that expresses the essence of what we endeavor to achieve in service. The motto is: ‘Art Heals.’ The whole idea is to encourage the creative process in children through artistic expression that will help them to communicate better and to have greater self-esteem (Ito, 1995, p. 77-78).

Many art projects span over eight weeks and are combined with counseling sessions, which may have the abused and the abuser present. Unger observed the rapport and love achieved through such activities so the family relationships can mend in a supportive environment. Since there is focus on the art rather than directly on the abuse, the defenses are lowered so counseling can be successful.

Stories can also address child abuse in an indirect manner, especially when shared through traditional and multicultural tales. If the stories focus on someone else who is being violent or of someone else who is abused, then the listeners can turn from their own personal experiences and hear the message (Margerum, 2005). Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona of family practice and psychiatry, expressed, “Each time a person remembers the story or relives part of it, the story seems to act upon her. The more it acts upon her, the more she starts to believe its implicit message, even if she can’t verbalize that message” (2005, p. 36).

Traditional stories contain wisdom passed through the years, sometimes being thousands of years. Some versions of old tales have been squeezed so only to reveal the barebones. When the original rich content is kept within these old tales, the wisdom becomes more apparent. A mix of current attitudes and beliefs to old tales also makes it easier for people to relate to the stories. As shared in Inviting the Wolf In, “To tell something that begins with our everyday world and leads us into the terror and beauty of the old stories is both a gift and an adventure” (Niemi & Ellis, 2001, p. 70). This quest to find meaning is complete when discovered on a universal level.

To examine how traditional tales can be internalized in a message for child abuse, let us consider the Greek tale with Zeus and Hera. They were husband and wife and the most powerful Greek gods and lived in Mt. Olympus that consisted of seven peaks and glorious gates guarded by the weather deities. Despite having wonderful surroundings and a lovely wife, Zeus was an unfaithful husband and had over 21 children outside the marriage. Hera, upset, was thrilled when she and Zeus had a son, Hephaestus. She was happy until she saw how the ugliness of Hephaestus compared to other deities. Hera took the baby by the foot and tossed the baby from Mt. Olympus and into the sea. For nine years, Hephaestus was presumed dead (Bellingham, 2002; Daly & Rengel, 2004; Dixon-Kennedy, 1998; Nardo, 1947; Roberts, 1995; Stookey, 2004).

Nine years later, Hephaestus returned to Mt. Olympus when his mother, Hera, accidentally discovered him and learned of his blacksmithing skills. Time continued and Hephaestus witnessed a violent argument between Zeus and Hera. Arguments were common between Zeus and Hera, yet Hephaestus took this particular moment to defend his mom. Zeus threw Hephaestus from Mt. Olympus. Hephaestus broke both legs when he landed on an Aegean island, Lemos. Hephaestus became known as the ugly and lame god yet he was also known as the most kind of all the gods (Bellingham, 2002; Daly & Rengel, 2004; Dixon-Kennedy, 1998; Nardo, 1947; Roberts, 1995; Stookey, 2004).

In Greek mythology, many gods ate or killed their children. Today, we may not experience abuse to such extreme, although death of spirit and emotions are real through isolation. Some kids are isolated from love and affection and are less likely to fight the terrors of loneliness and helplessness. Storyteller and author Ramon Royal Ross observed:

Yet accounts of children raised in isolation from others, never knowing a caress or a kiss, unaccustomed to the generous strength of a hand given to help, are unvarying in their dismal evidence. Without the touch and feel of others of our kind, we grow up less than what we might have been (1996, p. 24).

Children who grow up in these sad circumstances are often afraid to tell anyone else of their problems so that the abuse can stop. Some of the main reasons that children hesitate to report the abuse is because of the following: Guilt, Shame, Fear of the Family, Fear of Losing Love, Fear of Threats to Self or Family, and Concern for the Family. The child may hear repeatedly from the abusive parent or from the non-abusive parent that the pain was inflicted because it was the child’s fault and deserved the punishment, even if the punishment was as severe as forcing a child to be burned on top of an oven. Shame emerges as the child feels helpless and weak, two attributes that are frowned by their peers. The fear of the family depends of if other family members are aware of the abuse in the home. If siblings or the non-abusive parent are aware of the violence, then the abused child wonders why the pain is not stopped. The child may see this as an affirmation that the abuse should continue. Despite the abuse, the child may have fear of losing love from one or both parents. To lose the abuser to jail may be a bigger peril than the pain. Upon telling someone else outside of the family, the abusive parent may threaten to increase the pain or inflict another family member. Finally, the family may depend on the income that the abusive parent earns and the family may not financially survive upon the abusive parent’s imprisonment (Mufson & Kranz, 1991, p. 69-74).

These fears can be manifested in traditional stories as well as in the present day. From versions of the Zeus, Hera, and Hephaestus story, we may not hear the emotions beyond what is revealed through the plot. For example, did Hephaestus feel guilt for being abused? The first time he was thrown from Mt. Olympus, he was a baby. Perhaps Hera did not feel loved from her husband due to his promiscuity, and, upon hearing the cries of baby Hephaestus, felt that here was another being who did not love her. In the United States, one woman abandoned her child because of the crying, even though babies naturally cry for food or for care (Mufson & Kranz, 1991).

A question left unanswered of the first fall from Mt. Olympus: Where was Zeus when Hera dropped the child? At the point of the story, Zeus could be considered the non-abusive parent. He may have felt that Hera was justified in her actions, especially if he believed that ugliness was a terrible offence. When Hephaestus returned to Mt. Olympus nine years later, did Zeus comfort the boy by saying, “Mom couldn’t help it” or “You know Mom loves you” (Mufson & Kranz, 1991, p. 48)? Perhaps these words sided Hephaestus to his mother when the argument between Zeus and Hera ensued. Now Zeus transforms into the abusive parent and Hephaestus is tossed from Mt. Olympus the second time. The Greek tale could have ended with Hephaestus as a bitter god, filled with anger and frustration, yet he triumphs and is known as the most kind of the gods.

Few people know this Greek tale and it is up to the storyteller to share similar stories to victims of violence. The storyteller, in relation to the abused, may have the role of family member, friend, counselor, teacher, or even someone that the child recently met. Each role determines how the story can be given.

Part of creating the best atmosphere for telling a story is to decide on what is the “Most Important Thing” for each story in the program as well as the “Most Important Thing” for the storytelling event (Lipman, 1999, p. 198). Is this a therapy session? Is the purpose to increase awareness of abuse? Is the purpose to heal those who have been abused? What do you want the audience to remember?

Most likely, the two audiences faced to address child abuse will be teenagers and adults. The teenagers receive the highest amount of abuse due to statistics although infants tend to receive more severe pain, many times resulting in death (Mufson & Kranz, 1991). As for the adults, these may be victims of child abuse who still need to heal. Another set of adults may be the abusive ones. Still, a third set of adults need heightened awareness of the violence that could occur in a home like theirs.

When sharing stories for youth, the hero of the story bonds faster and longer when closer to the age of the listeners. Youth may see themselves as the hero. The storyteller may give chances for the children to create elements of the story, such as character dialogue or scenery description, so the children can overcome their feelings of helplessness as a result of being abused (Margerum, 2005). This is one way for the child to be part of the storytelling experience and in this way “The shift away from seeing oneself as powerless, as a victim of external circumstances, begins with telling one’s own story” (Niemi & Ellis, 2001, p. 13).

The storyteller may give more attention to the reactions of the audience when with youth so as to be able to make judgments of understanding. A difficult story that addresses child abuse would be placed in the middle of the program as the first story will build trust between the teller and the young listeners (Lipman, 1999).

Adults also need to build trust with the teller. Again, the difficult story is placed in the middle. Rather than focus intently on the audience reactions, more attention can be given to the story itself (Lipman, 1999). The complexities of the Zeus, Hera, and Hephaestus tale can be elaborated such as the legacy of abuse created by the parents of Zeus and Hera.

Unlocking scenes that bring emotion to the teller can change the level of trust in the room. If the audience is concerned for the emotional welfare of the storyteller, then the concert has transformed into a therapy session. There is a difference between therapy and a therapeutic story. If the listeners did not intend to be the ones to help the storyteller, then the story should be told in private, possibly with a counselor (Niemi & Ellis, 2001). On the opposite side, storyteller Glenn Morrow declared, “Therapy is not [the storyteller’s] job. But you don’t want to take listeners to a place in memory or imagination and strand them there” (Morrow, 2003, p. 25). Before leaving the audience, share a story to bring hope and peace rather than dwell on the darkness and dangers of child abuse.

As the audience, whether composed of kids or adults, ponders on what was shared by the storyteller, then healing may occur. Some therapists call this Narrative Healing. This process assumes that the wounded, whether of physical illness or emotional pains, holds the cure within by the story shared of how they came to be in their condition (Mehl-Madrona, 2005).

A frustrated and confused victim of violence would produce different brain waves than of another person who has confidence and happiness. For one person, the perception of the world is a place of cruelty and of the soul’s belittlement. For anther person, the world is a place of trials that can be overcome. Perceptions affect the person’s experiences. Experiences influence the brain waves, and the brain waves regulate the body (Mehl-Madrona, 2005).

A storyteller can guide a story to have positive brain waves so that a positive change can occur in the victim’s condition. The listeners may substitute different details so that the stories speak more clearly to them. Although the storyteller tends to share the stories, the storyteller should be attentive to nonverbal and verbal cues from the listeners in this healing process. Without trust, storyteller may gain no insight; many people spend much of life hiding feelings from others so as to not appear weak (Rooks, 2001).

Even if the listeners trust the storyteller, there may be self-blame for what happened to them in regards to abuse. Blame can cause listeners to block the story and the message. The storyteller may begin the program by expressing the idea that there are few things that can be controlled in life. Broken relationships are beyond the fault of one person (Mehl-Madrona, 2005).

According to Coyote Wisdom, many types of stories can assist the storyteller. The first story is the Creation Story. This does not mean a story of how the world was formed. Rather, it is a story of when the hurt and pain first appeared. The storyteller may ask the person on a one-on-one basis of what and how the victim predicts to be the cure to the affliction. The foresight must be asked of the victim before actual healing takes place. The proposed cure should be consistent to the victim’s original story of how the pain appeared. Therapist Lewis Mehl-Madrona uses multicultural tales, mainly Native American, to guide the victim on a possible format or idea. There are places he asks questions of the victim as if that person is the hero in the story he is relating. The purpose of a creation story is to instill in the victim that healing is possible (2005).

The second story explained by Mehl-Madrona is the Stealing Fire Story. This builds upon the creation story, as now the victim desires to change their present circumstances just as many tricksters in cultural stories desire to gain fire so as to have a better lifestyle. With the desire to change in place, then it is time for the Transformation Story.

These stories provide proof to the victim that change is possible. The more transformation stories told, then the listeners internalize the stories and naturally transform themselves. Mehl-Madrona declared, “By hearing stories about other people’s transformations, we learn how to engineer our own” (2005, p. 68). Yet, rarely do people want to change on their own, so having a storyteller as well as fellow listeners provides the support group required.

Storyteller Syd Lieberman witnessed the outcomes of such transformation whenever he teaches his workshop entitled “Storyteller as Caregiver”. He had “heard story after story testifying to story’s power to heal and transform, the need to tell stories from trouble, the need to tell these stories and somehow transform your trouble, face your trouble” (Collins & Cooper, 1997, p. 46).

After all the efforts of the storyteller, the healing may not happen. Thus, there was no transformation in the audience. Lipman comforts by saying:

It is the nature of storytelling that sometimes no transformation will occur. This is not necessarily a personal defect of yours. This may be, instead, the nature of your high calling: when you blow the trumpet, it may happen that no one will be ready to answer . . ..

When transformation fails to appear, you will return to your garden. Like any experienced gardener, you will have ideas of what to try next time—and no certainty about what will work. And when transformation does come, you will welcome it with joy, gratitude, and humility. You will have served, at least for that moment, as an agent for the truing of the world (Lipman, 1999, p. 209).

The storyteller, if persistent, can see the flames of rage and frustration cool among the countless victims of violence. For the quest to heal others, traditional tales serve as tools for the storyteller, such as with the Greek tale with Zeus, Hera, and Hephaestus. Child abuse may continue to explode across the nation, but the burns can be soothed. Some fires of wrath can be prevented as long as the world is full of storytellers who care.


Bellingham, D. (2002). An Introduction To Greek Mythology. London: A Quantum Book.

Child Abuse. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 8, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocld=9024056

Child Abuse Facts & Statistics. (1998). National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. Retrieved July 8, 2006, from ­­­ http://www.dayofthechild.org/dc98/Library/pdf/991204.pdf

Collins, R. & Cooper, P. J. (1997). The Power of Story, teaching through storytelling. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorsuch Scarisbrick.

Daly, K. N. & Rengel, M. (2004). Greek And Roman Mythology A To Z. New York: Facts On File.

Dixon-Kennedy, M. (1998). Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Ito, T. (1995). Child Abuse. San Diego: Lucent Books.

Lipman, D. (1999). Improving Your Storytelling, beyond the basics for all who tell stories in work or play. Little Rock, AR: August House.

Margerum, J. (2005). Storytelling as a Therapeutic Tool. Telling Stories to Children. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Press.

Mehl-Madrona, L. (2005). Coyote Wisdom, the power of story in healing. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company.

Morrow, G. (2003). Taking Care of the Audience. A Beginner’s Guide to Storytelling. Jonesborough, TN: National Storytelling Press.

Mufson, S. & Kranz, R. (1991). Straight Talk About Child Abuse. New York: Facts On File.

Nardo, D. (1947). Greek and Roman Mythology. San Diego: Lucent Books.

Niemi, L. & Ellis, E. (2001). Inviting the Wolf in, thinking about difficult stories. Little Rock, AR: August House.

Roberts, M. J. (1995). Myths Of The World—Classical Deities And Heroes. New York: MetroBooks.

Rooks, D. (2001). Spinning Gold out of Straw, how stories heal. St. Augustine, FL: Salt Run Press.

Royal Ross, R. (3rd ed.). (1996). Storyteller. Little Rock, AR: August House.

Stookey, L. (2004). Thematic Guide To World Mythology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Until we tell again,
Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educator, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799

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