Category Archives: storytelling

Toxic Tales – The Lemming Lie

lemming-763780_1920This is the third article in a series on Toxic Tales.  Now it’s gonna get messy.

Have you ever heard the phrase – “Don’t be a lemming” or “If you friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”  Up until a few months ago, I thought lemmings were mammals that willingly followed the group and would jump off a cliff just to follow the crowd.  I grew up “knowing” that fact.  A few months ago I was reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine about white owls and stumbled onto a section about lemmings, their major food source.  The journalist threw in a line about a nature documentary that staged the mass lemming death to create a dramatic ending. Huh? What?

I rolled up my sleeves and investigated the mystery of The Lemming Lie.

Here’s what I found. Back in 1957 Disney produced a nature documentary called White Wilderness about the arctic. The producer needed a dramatic ending so he herded a group of lemmings and drove them off a cliff.  Families gathered every Sunday to watch the Wonderful World of Disney, so when the documentary was aired millions saw a group of gerbil like rodents tumbling off a series of rocky cliffs, many falling to their deaths, others being swept away into the ocean.  White Wilderness won the 1958 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Animal Planets lists Lemmings Suicide as the #1 animal myth.

The Lemming Lie really bugged me and I wasn’t sure why.  After all I’m a storyteller, I tell and write lots of fiction.  As a story coach I help lots of folks find and tell their stories. Here’s one of my favorite lines, “know the difference between truth and facts.”  I tell folks to not get hung up on listing every event or even focusing on the right order of things.  But this is different.

Blatantly creating a false fact (and not disclosing its falseness) is toxic.  Today there is an abundant use of story in TED style talks, as a teaching tool, and as a motivational device.  Factual stories are now told everywhere. I heard a local politician tell an emotional story that swayed the audience, but I spotted the fabricated fact.  Some might argue, it’s only a story, and even if it is presented as a true story, we shouldn’t be gullible, but I disagree.

Since stories are sticky causing us to remember them longer than other forms of communication, the false facts embedded in these stories are also remembered.  There is a difference between fiction and non-fiction.  Listeners also recognize simplifications or generalizations in stories, however if the teller, writer, or film documentor is presenting something as fact, which he or she knows is a lie, the story will chisel doubt, skepticism, or false ideas into the audience.

Have you discovered a Lemming Lie…something you accepted as truth in a story, book, or movie, which is false?  I’d love to hear about it.

Here’s a link to the clip about lemmings from White Wilderness https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOOs8MaR1YM

Do you want to work with Rivka. Check out her Story Coaching page?  http://www.simplyextraordinarytales.com/story-coaching/

 

(note-I read a lot about the lemming myth and found one video that sited a cartoon published a couple years before the documentary was released. Since documentaries take time to create, I’m not sure which came first, but using a cartoon character as source material to justify staging a “true” event, seems like a stretch to me. This illustrates the problem.  Once a lie is embedded into our social consciousness, it’s hard to let it go.)


 

Toxic Tales: “The Worm in the Apple Stories.”

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Toxic Tales come in all shapes and sizes.  I’m going to focus in on a very common type in this post.  I originally thought of calling it the “Oh You’re Gonna Suffer Stories” but decided to be a little poetic and call them “The Worm in the Apple Stories,” because these nasty little tales burrow into listener’s consciousness and often end up spoiling experiences.

These stories are often personal, although not necessarily the teller’s personal experience. They can also be historical or a bit of a tall tale. The story is aimed at a person or persons preparing to go somewhere or do something, and is presented as a warning or a tale of woe.

Pregnant moms and couples often encounter Worm in the Apple Stories, especially at parties or gatherings. The teller will approach the pregnant woman or couple and launch into an account of something difficult, painful, or terrifying that happened to them or someone else.  A bit of drama and emotion is usually part of the mix.  It might go something like “My sister tried natural birth and she screamed for 48 hours… or my friend wanted an epidural but nothing worked then she fell off the bed, ripped out her IV lines…   You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard both of those stories told in detail with lots more drama and promised pain.

Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about discussing aspects of birth or sharing birth experiences in a caring and authentic way.  These stories are told to get attention, raise emotions or for the enjoyment of the teller. I taught childbirth classes for a couple years and was a doula for decades.  Many parents told me about these stories and how it caused them distress.  Sometimes the distress manifested as nightmares or self-doubt, other times they became nagging memories that accompanied them to labor or early parenting. And just like a worm in an apple, they damage some of the fruit (experience).

Another example of this type of toxic tale is given when a person or people are going into something new.  It might be a planned vacation, starting school, or a new job or adventure.  The enthusiastic listeners will hear stories about tragedy, hardship, or sorrow that happened to someone else.  I once was told about a shark attack when I was headed for a vacation. The attack happened a decade before and not exactly where I swam, but I found myself checking the water and tensing up at the thought each time I went into the water.

These stories are usually not told to purposely ruin your experience; I believe they are usually told to draw attention.  The toxins released by these tales may be minor, although for some, they linger.  If you hear someone starting a wormy tale, you can stop them or walk away.  If you have heard one of these tales and you’re having trouble shaking off the negative images, seek out positive stories and/or information to put things in a proper prospective.

Toxic Tales-Bigotry and Prejudice

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A couple people have told me that all stories are neutral, they can be good or bad, it just depends on how you tell it.  Although that does apply to many examples and it might make people feel good, it’s not true.  There are some stories that are hurtful and harmful no matter how they are told. Some stories are weaponized and others infused (sometimes unconsciously) with hurtful elements that define the story. Good examples of inherently harmful stories are Tales filled with Bigotry or Prejudice.

Let’s look at two types of prejudicial stories:

  1. Stories created especially to promote and increase hatred of a specific group of people.
  2. Stories with characters that encourage and promote negative images or beliefs around a specific group of people.

Stories that Promote Hate

Example – Blood Libel

This ‘traditional tale’ has been told and retold for centuries. Specific names and places change with time but the plot is consistent.  This anti-sematic story usually begins with the death or disappearance of a non-Jewish child.  Then the discovery of some evidence is found that ties the death to the Jewish community because they needed the victim’s blood to make matzah or wine for a holiday or ritual. This is one of history’s cruel ironies because Jewish law prohibits murder, sacrifice, and consumption of blood.  (note- that’s why kosher meat is salted after it is butchered-to draw out the blood.)

One of the earliest examples of the story can be traced back to 1144 in England.  The story then spread through Europe and beyond.  The myth has been used to justify violence against Jews, leading to the deaths of hundreds of men and women. Unfortunately this story hasn’t  gone away and has been mentioned as recently as 2014 when terrorists sited blood libel as the reason for a shooting in synagogue in Israel.

 

Stories that infuse Negative Stereotypes into a specific group or race:

Example – Little Black Sambo

Little Black Sambo was written by Helen Bannerman in 1899.  The illustrations, some story elements, and names of the three main characters – Little Black Sambo, Black Mumbo, and Black Jumbo – are especially offensive. Although the story isn’t inherently racist, the hurtful images linger and have taken on significance as racist symbols. A new version of the story was released in 1996 with new names and pictures, but many objected saying the story carried too much hateful history.  I suppose you could argue that this story can be retold, but only by changing the elements that connect it to the original story.  By doing that, you’re creating a different story.

Some stories carry histories of hurt that are not easily forgotten.  I’d like to take it one step further.  Maybe they shouldn’t be forgotten.  Are we ignoring or glossing over this history of hatred by changing names, titles, and plot elements of stories that carried prejudicial messages?

 

(note: I considered adding pictures of the cover of Little Black Sambo but decided against it.  I thought it might be hurtful or triggering to some of my blog readers.  If you’d like to see the varied art, search google images using the book’s title.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Weekly Blog

lost-1605501_1920I started a new series for this blog just a little over a year ago.  I had finished the series on “Junk Stories” and was ready to begin a new series on Toxic Tales: Stories That Cause Harm.  I wrote an outline, began research, and started the first article.

…And then…I stopped.

I stopped working on the series and the blog.  I continued creating spoken word stories and other written content, but the blog drifted into silence.  At first I thought about the content but procrastinated.  Eventually I pushed it out of my mind.

Today is the December 17th, 2018, two weeks before the year is over.  I opened my blog this morning and looked at the picture.  Whatever blocked me from writing a year ago is still here.  I looked at the picture and went about my work until midday when I finally read the last article.  I agree with everything I wrote, so why am I still pushing against writing this series?

Here’s what I’ve come up.

Art is fun.  All art forms are fun to create, experience, and enjoy, and it’s easy to just leave it there.  Stories fill up a lot of our time.  We listen, tell, write, watch, and read stories.  There’s a part of me that just wants to enjoy the story and not think too hard. If I admit (especially on a public blog) that stories can be harmful, I need to take responsibility when I encounter toxic tales. Part of me just wants to have fun, but another (wiser) part of me knows better.

So I’m stepping forward.  Over the next few weeks I’ll explore how stories can be harmful or dangerous. I hope you’ll join me in this (sometimes scary) exploration.

Toxic Stories: Stories That Cause Harm

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The story is the most powerful form of communication. This idea not only applies to verbal and written communications but other types of human expression as well.  If a story can be infused into other forms of communication such as  the music, visual art, and dance, they will be more accessible and memorable.

The story structure with its beginning, middle, and end is sticky and approachable. As children, we are drawn to story. When we grow old, we remember and find purpose through our stories. During every stage of our development stories wait for us and we search them out to be entertained, to understand, and to be understood. Stories connect us as individuals, communities, and societies.  Stories allow us to form identities on many levels.

Yep, stories are powerful…

But that doesn’t mean they are always good.

This very powerful form of expression and communication can be used for good and for bad—no, not just bad, some stories can be downright evil.  In my last series of articles, I wrote about junk stories: these stories fill you up like junk food, and if over consumed can affect your mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.  This new series will focus on toxic tales: stories that can cause harm.

We can often look back in time and identify stories in history, literature,writing, and folklore that generated hate, self-loathing, and confusion, but when they are presented as popular culture or “the next big thing,” it’s often difficult for the target audience to understand how toxic a tale can be.

I’m not suggesting that stories, movies, books, or shows should be banned.  Banned content often becomes more popular, besides, poisonous prose is often embraced.  The best way to protect yourself from toxic tales is to learn how to identify it and then refrain from creating, consuming, and/or promoting it.

I will focus on one form of toxic tales at a time focusing on my experience storytelling and story coaching.  Please send me your thoughts about different types of toxic tales…and I encourage you to list specific movies, stories, shows, and books.

 

Next: Toxic Tale #1-Promoting Hate through Discrimination

Recipes for a Whole Story Lifestyle

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Consciously choosing to live a balanced and rich life requires us to choose to listen, read, and tell a rich variety of stories. In this final article in this Junk Story series we will explore the elements necessary to build and maintain a Whole Story Lifestyle.

Let’s go back one more time to our food analogy to understand what is needed in each healthy story we consume as well as our overall story diet. Although there are tens of thousands of recipes for any given food type, each recipe will share basic elements. So, let’s say you want to bake bread. The recipe will require a leavening agent such as yeast, sour dough starter, baking powder, etc. You’ll also need one or more grains like wheat flour, rye, cornmeal, millet, and so on.  We can’t forget a liquid; it can be as basic as water or we could add milk, orange juice, beer, or something else. Include seasoning and/or flavor and the bread is ready to be made, baked, and eaten.   The types of ingredients will vary for different types of foods, so basic ingredients for a soup or a salad will be different than the ingredients for a bread.   Obvious, right?

Same applies to the stories we consume.  Ask yourself, are you enjoying stories from different groups and do they have the basic elements.

Each type of story requires basic elements. Stories need a beginning, middle, and end. Stories that jump to the middle are confusing. Endless stories are unsettling and can lurk in your memory without resolution. Historic stories need accuracy not only in general facts but also in details. News stories and stories with philosophical concepts need balance. Folklore and mythic tales need to honor their core.

Remember to consume a variety of stories.  If you are stuck in one area, consciously add different types of stories and media forms. Limit the amount of junk stories you take in every week.

Share stories by becoming a listener, talking about the shows, books, movies, and tales you enjoy.  Become part of the chain of stories by telling and passing down family traditions, experiences, and ideas through oral stories.

As a story coach I not only help you find and create your stories, but I also make suggestions and guide you in your exploration of stories in all forms.

Finally, become aware of toxic stories and avoid them.  Since stories are the stickiest form of communication, when we take in toxic content, it lingers in our brain and causes harm.

Living a whole story lifestyle has a dynamic impact on all aspects of your life. Opportunities and awareness will increase as well as your general feeling of well-being when you actively vary and choose the stories you consume.

 

New Series: Toxic Tales

 

Where to Find Nutritious Stories (7 in a series of 8)

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OK, you’re ready to change your media habits and begin to consciously choose stories that nourish your mind, heart, and spirit, but what do they look like and where can they be found?  If you’ve been filling up on junk stories for a while, it might be difficult to identify healthy stories.

Let’s go back to the food analogy.  A person might reason – vegetables are healthy, potatoes are vegetables, therefore French fries are healthy…right?  Of course not.  Don’t just look at story styles or media delivery, look for stories that deliver insight, information, and inspiration.  Look for balance and honesty.  Healthy stories can also playful and fun.  Remember watermelon, strawberries, salmon, garden ripened tomatoes, and dark chocolate are all delicious and healthy.

Let’s look at a few places you can find healthy, fun, and challenging stories.

Comic Books, Super Heroes, & Graphic Novels– I thought I’d start the list with a fun source of stories that are often dismissed.  Modern comic book super hero stories are today’s myths and fairytales. Folklore provides a non-threatening format to explore and understand challenges of the human condition. All of the most frightening and confusing issues we face today are explored by DC, Marvel, and Independent comic companies.  Superman was a response to Hitler’s concept of ‘Supermen’, Batman & Jessica Jones are characters shaped by trauma who fight against their inner demons and PTSD, and Spiderman dealt with adolescent challenges.  Not all comics are great, but it’s a great area to explore modern folklore.  Take a few minutes after reading a graphic novel or seeing a superhero TV show or movie to think about it and find the issues hidden in the story.

Classic & Original Sci-Fi & Fantasy – This category might also surprise you.  Society is changing at supersonic speed and philosophical science fiction offers a platform to explore and question how humanity will cope with these changes.  Joseph Campbell helped George Lucas infuse the hero’s journey into Star Wars and it’s had a resounding effect on generations.  Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Issac Asimov, Mary Shelly, and Ray Bradbury are all fantastic writers who choose sci-fi/fantasy as their genre of choice.  NOTE-there’s a lot of junk sci-fi/fantasy too, so look for stories that offer you new perspectives.   (There’s a new website offering authors an easy way to show their stories. Futurism.media.com  I just posted one of my sci-fi short stories-check it out. https://futurism.media/authors/rivka-willick  )

That Book or Movie on Your List Recommended by Friend – We all have lists of books, movies, live shows, stories, blogs, etc. that friends have suggested and we intend to one day do it, but we haven’t yet.  Stuff on this list may be a little challenging but it’s usually pretty good once we open the cover or go to the show.  Junk usually doesn’t stay on the list-if it’s easy we do it first.  Go back to the recommended list and pick out a few nourishing stories this week.

You Know it’s Good but it Takes a Little Effort – Ken Burns documentaries fall into this category for me, I enjoy them but I have to stay focused and think.  Historic stories, documentaries, or stories from other cultures fit in this category.  Consider this the vegetables on your healthy story menu – pick the ones you like but make sure a few are consumed on a regular basis.

Classics – Stories (in all media forms) that last for generations prove themselves as great by their longevity.  Language and technological advancements may cause many classics to be a bit of a challenge, but the wisdom and mastery in these tales are worth the effort you put into them. Try to hear, see, or read a classic every now and then.  I try to take on a classic novel every couple months.  Classic short stories and movies I tend to enjoy in batches.

Both Sides of a Story – It’s human nature to seek out the stories that support your point of view, but that’s like eating carbs and skipping the protein.  This balanced approach applies to all disciplines, not just politics.

Learn to Listen to Stories Live storytelling is an essential ingredient to any healthy mind-heart-spirit story diet.  When a story is told live, the listener becomes an interactive part of the telling.  Encourage family members, friends, and co-workers to share stories.  Seek out professional storytelling performances for adults (or hire a teller for your events). Attend book lectures, plays, and comedy shows.  Support live performances, you will thrive.

 

Please help me add to this list of healthy stories.

There’s just one more article in this series-Recipes for a Whole Story Lifestyle.