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Tell It By Heart:

Women and the Healing Power of Story
by Erica Helm Meade

Book review Copyright © 1997 by Bert H. Hoff

Erica Helm Meade, Tell It By Heart: Women and the Healing Power of Story (Chicago: Open Court, 1995). Order on-line

Tell It By Heart: Women and the Healing Power of Story
by Erica Helm Meade
Order on-line

Those of us who have heard Robert Bly, Michael Meade, Malidoma Somé, Clarissa Pinkola Estés or others know how powerful the fairy tales and stories from other cultures can be, in helping us to make sense of our own lives, in the time and the society in which we live. Like poems, they have a timeless quality that speaks directly to the heart, to the soul, if we let them.

But an important part of the power of these stories is lost as Robert and Michael tell the stories in groups, in books or on audio tapes. We hear these stories in groups, or on a tape, and the story speaks to us directly. But that is only part of the true art of storytelling, storytellig as a tool for personal healing. In my interview with Clarissa Pinkola Estés she hints at this; that part of the art of the cantradura is knowing when and where to tell the story. In the "ripeness of time," when the kairos time is right. But Tell it by Heart is such a powerfully rich book because it demonstrates beautifully how this works. It is the person-to-person level of this book--making a difference in individual people's lives--that is the strength of the gift that this book has to offer.

This is an excellent, delightful book by Erica Helm Meade, Michael Meade's wife and a powerful storyteller in her own right. Erica uses storytelling in her private therapy practice and on a personal level in other people's lives. I can't recommend it highly enough!

As a student intern, Erica found herself working with a seven-year-old abused girl who had seen her father stuff the bodies of two young women in the trunk of the car and later bury them. It was Erica's telling the story of "The Giant's Secret," where the "Wake Up Girl medicine" is the key, and group's re-enactment of this tale several times, that gave Gina and the other girls in the group permission to tell their own stories and go down the path of healing from their abuse. In another group for abused girls it was a Hawaiian mother's telling of a Pele story that provided the key. The mother pointed out that she had to learn when to be Kuan-Yin-soft and when to be Pele-fierce, so she could protect her daughter.

The chapter that fascinated me the most was about a week-end retreat for five very busy and creative women artists. Erica began by telling the story of the Pelasgian creator Eurynome and laying out a map of nine realms of creativity in the story. Throughout the weekend, each of the women wove her own creativity into the fabric of this map of creativity.

There are many such stories in this book. But perhaps the most valuable chapter, for storytellers and for those who listen to stories, is her chapter which lays out clearly and concisely what Erica calls the thirteen healing powers of story. She does this, of course, in the form of a story, a story of Irene, who suffers from seasonal depression, and her attraction to the myth of Kore and Demeter. Healing stories:

  • arouse strong emotion,
  • allow for identification,
  • help externalize conflict,
  • externalize long-term memory,
  • teach people to trust their emotions,
  • provide metaphors for interpersonal and internal dynamics,
  • internalize wise, helpful or comforting figures,
  • model alternative attitudes and stances which help people cope with hardship and forge new paths,
  • help people come to terms with duality, ambivalence and strife, to move toward a philosophical perspective on life,
  • demonstrate a capacity to accommodate manifold interpretations, morals and meanings,
  • apply to the collective as well as to the intricately personal, and
  • contain the sacred and its conveyance of ancient wisdom.

This is an incredibly important and valuable book, beautifully and movingly done. As I said, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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