Something exciting, both heartening and disturbing is happening in recent years. It’s women’s storytelling of violence. One by one, courageous women rise and share stories of the violence – sexual, physical, emotional, and economic – they’ve endured. First, there was a trickle, then a flow, and then a river of stories. A river of stories confirming the sad truth: there is not a single woman among us who has not suffered from some form of sexual violence at least once in her life.
These stories are inspired by the #Metoo movement, and by women’s long and old tradition of telling stories to survive and to heal.
And every story I read awakens in my body the memory of each and every forced touch, violent and intrusive, and brings back the notions of pain, disgust, fear and shame.
It was 27 years ago. My son, Daniel was five. We lived down town in an old house, at the end of a small, almost invisible alley, just off the high street. I was on my way home, Daniel asleep in my arms, and as we turned the corner, I noticed him, stalking us. I hate stalkers; I hate how the slow down when you do, pick up the pace when you try to make a run for it. I hate the way they make you feel so insecure and vulnerable.
Outraged and out of breath, I started screaming.
I wanted the whole street to hear me, for every single light to shine through the window. I screamed at him at the top of my lungs to leave us alone, to get the hell out of my street. I told I’d scream until all the neighbors will come down. He turned and walked away. And I knew, there and then, that every scream I let out was for all the times I didn’t, for all the times I just froze, very quietly.
Yes, I, too, like so many other women, have such stories to tell. They are kept in some drawer, deep down in some closet. Because you so want to let bygones be bygones and just forget and move on.
But these stories, if we don’t unleash them, they grow really scary demons in our souls. They cast a shadow over the great joy that is in intimacy which is the fruit of choice. They rattle that basic, vital sense of security we are entitled to.
So when we share these stories, we set ourselves – and other women – free.
We provide an account of what the world, our society, our work places; our public spaces look like through our eyes; through the eyes of women.
Men should listen to women’s storytelling of violence.
Because for every woman that was affected by violence there is a perpetrator, or a policy maker who voted against an important piece of legislation. Because every woman survivor of violence has men in her family and her community who stand by her.
Because men are also victims of violence.
It is important that men will listen to these stories, so that together, we could overcome the monster of violence. Because positive change begins when silence is broken.
Women’s Storytelling: Chasing the demon away with the fire of story. Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima
“Coats made of words”: Women’s Storytelling of Imposed Silence
“And I continue to spin, and weave, and toss those coats made of words to the air – hoping that someday, somewhere, they will set someone free (358).”
Some years ago, I wrote a paper on the potential healing power of folk and fairy tales for women and children, victims of abuse. Writing the paper was a journey through endless pages of tales and texts. In this journey I came across a book: Mirror, Mirror on the wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Of this collection of women writers’ encounters with fairy tales, one touched me the most: “Transformation” by Terri Windling.
Windling articulates, so poignantly, how folk tales and myths can help us make sense of our own stories: “In the pages of myth and folklore texts I discovered what it is I had been through: a rite of passage, a shamanic initiation as practiced in cultures the world over, a journey to the underworld and a ritual rebirth (357).”
Folk and fairy tales are filled with violence, cruelty and injustice, but also with magic, triumph of good over evil.
Women’s Storytelling: The Three ravens
I grew up on this story, about the princess and her brothers and the wicked step mother who casts an evil spell on the brothers and turns them into ravens. To undo the evil spell, the girl must take a vow of silence and weave coats from nettle leaves for her brothers. Her fingers bleed, yet she keeps silent for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days, until the coats are complete and the spell is broken. Here’s the tale, recounted by the magnificent John Hurt, the Storyteller.
Like so many folk tales, it is both so beautiful and so disturbing. It is made of the potent raw materials that make up the magic formula: an absent, spineless king, a wicked queen (a worthy opponent), princes and a princess, sweet and meek and suffering.
It is a disturbing story of forced silence. A story of extortion and sacrifice, of toxic relationships between (step)mother and daughter.
For the contemporary feminist that I am, it is a tale that perpetuates the concept that women must compete for resources and power in a male-dominated society. Too often in folk and fairy tales, women who are powerful, are either wicked witches or wenches. This, while the non-violent heroism of women goes unnoticed, or unappreciated.
But folk and fairy tales continue to thrive because they are multi-layered
Folk tales are a simple way to say more. Sharing the story of the three ravens is a great way to start meaningful conversations about these disturbing, yet important issues: male and female representations, women’s storytelling as agency, and about the relationship between mothers and daughters.
As storytellers, we have the capacity to disturb the silence. Silence may be forced upon us, or we may wrap ourselves in silence out of fear, or shame, or guilt. Sometimes we keep silent to protect ourselves or others, and sometimes we keep silent because there’s no one there who listens.
Sometimes, the best way to set someone free is to tell a story; to untangle the knot of shame.
Women’s Storytelling: Breaking the spell of silence. Illustration by Daniel Gouri DE Lima
 Windling, Terri. “Transformations.” Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Bernheimer. New York: Anchor Books, 2002. 350-358.