I’ll admit that I sometimes like to watch true crime documentaries or listen to podcasts. When I do, my mind often generates more questions than conclusions about the people involved. Questions like, “Who are the person’s family and loved ones?” “Where were they raised?” “Where do they call home?” “What do neighbours and coworkers have to say about them?” and “Do I have anything in common with them?”
If the story only offers one-dimensional portraits of the people involved, I find myself quite annoyed because these stories are personal to me. When I was a child, my father spent some time incarcerated, but I always knew there was more to my dad than the trouble he encountered with the law.
Everyone has more than one story to tell.
My work as a therapist gives me daily reminders that we are all multistoried. That is, there are many storylines that play out in our lives. However, one dominant story often becomes the headline – the sum total of who people believe we are.
Consider those who are charged with crimes and end up spending time in prison. They start to live with the label of “criminal” or “convict,” along with the connotations those labels bring with them. It’s easy to see how these labels constrain our imagination and the possibilities for that person to reinvent or reclaim who they are beyond a singular label. Not only do they feel the impact of how the world views them, they may also internalize the meaning of that label.
There are many storylines that play out in our lives. However, one dominant story often becomes the headline – the sum total of who people believe we are.
Now imagine being able to connect wholeheartedly to another important identity that is often fraught with complications and multigenerational impacts – being a parent. I am a parent of two teenagers, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, it is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. It’s also the most tender part of my identity – one that I worry about, feel vulnerable in, and that occasionally keeps me up at night, fretting about the decisions I’ve made.
Despite the difficulties of parenting, I am thankful that I have the ability to fully engage in it. When people are incarcerated, that part of who they are often goes into remission because regular contact and proximity with their children are no longer possible. And sometimes shame, anger, or conflict can get in the way of keeping whatever bond does exist between the incarcerated parent and their child.
It’s important to claim your personal identity.
As I was listening to the radio on a recent road trip, I heard about a program at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre called “Storybook Dads.” It’s an opportunity to enhance connection, attachment, and identity for both father and child. The father is filmed reading a bedtime story for his child(ren), he writes them a personal note, and both are sent home along with a new pair of pyjamas and a copy of the book in a backpack.
This is both brilliant and heartwarming, was my first thought as I listened. The child has an opportunity to experience their dad in a nurturing, caregiving role despite their physical absence. The father has an opportunity to provide comfort and love to his child through this outreach. For some fathers in the program, it may even break a pattern where they were not on the receiving end of a bedtime story from their own fathers due to incarceration. I know this was a big factor in my own father’s life.
So why am I writing about this for this week’s blog? Well, it’s related to the content discussed in our Narrative Therapy workshop, which offers plenty of opportunities to get excited about the possibilities of reclaiming one’s preferred identity through the stories we tell about ourselves, and who we invite to hear them.
Don’t let others choose your preferred identity for you.
Sometimes we feel limited by a storyline that only collects the mistakes we’ve made and our perceived shortcomings. Judgements and preconceived notions based on our age, gender, health, socioeconomic status, or the colour of our skin are just are few of the things that can impact these stories.
Listening to some of the experiences of both the volunteers and fathers involved in the “Storybook Dads” program reminds me how important it is to acknowledge the multi-storied nature of our lives. For those of us outside the experience of incarceration, we are reminded that these men have many other aspects of who they are. If we want to help them find productive, loving paths when they leave the system, it only makes sense to see them as more than just criminals. Encouraging them to be the best fathers they can be is one of the most powerful ways of helping them connect to a preferred role.
Whenever I’m watching a true crime show or listening to a podcast, I’m looking for the storylines that tell me a little more about who the person is. These stories illustrate the complexity of their lives, and present opportunities for redemption. I invite you to look out for those alternative stories that might surprise you in how they allow for more compassion – for yourself and others. I know it’s made a big difference in my life and the lives of my children.
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