Using Story to Help Heal

silverman.jpeg About the presenter: Ellen-Marie Silverman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP has been a speech-language pathologist for almost 40 years and is an ASHA Fellow. She is trained in transactional analysis. Ellen-Marie has worked in a private school, inpatient and outpatient centers, skilled nursing facilities, and home health. She has addressed her own stuttering through Eastern psychology theory and methods, including meditation. A member of several university faculties, Ellen-Marie has authored or co-authored more than 40 professional publications. She wrote Jason's Secret, a middle reader novel, to address the alienation, isolation, anger, and hurt that can accompany stuttering problems. She is founder and CEO of TSS-The Speech Source, Inc.


by Ellen-Marie Silverman
from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

It seems plain and self-evident, yet it needs to be said: the isolated knowledge obtained by a group of specialists in a narrow field has in itself no value whatsoever, but only in its synthesis with all the rest of knowledge and only inasmuch as it really contributes in this synthesis toward answering the demand, 'Who are we?' -- Erwin Schrodinger, 1933 Nobel Prize Winner for Physics

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A tourist noticed three men working on an urban lot where a synagogue was being erected. Approaching one, she asked, 'What are you doing?' 'I'm a stone mason,' the man answered. 'I cut stone. That is what I do.' Turning to the second, she asked, 'What are you doing?' 'I'm a brick layer,' the worker replied. 'I lay bricks. That is what I do.' Addressing the remaining worker, sweeping the area with a broom, she asked, 'What are you doing?' 'I am building a beautiful temple for God and the people,' he answered smiling.
-- Hasidic Tale


Think about what our world would be like without story. No myths, tales, fables, folklore, dreams, anecdotes, history or even gossip to shape us. How different our family, culture, and society would be. How different we would be. It is almost unimaginable, like contemplating the sound of a song that has no melody. Story comprises the fabric of our lives. Knowing that, we can use story to help ourselves change.


Story helps fashion who we are and who we think we are, what we are and what we may expect to become. Stories told to form our perception of ourselves, the world around us, and our place in that world exist in earliest recorded history. They abound in the Hebrew Scriptures, referred to by some as the Old Testament. These stories of epic creation and destruction, relationship, partnership, civility, obedience, and passion inform and sharpen our perceptions leading to shared values and behavior, as do their counterparts in many other traditions (Campbell, 1988; Fraser, 1923). They function as a staple of rabbinic teaching (e.g., Polsky and Wozner, 1989) including that of Jesus, who taught primarily through parable. By activating multiple sensory channels while recounting common experience, stories serve as teaching tools that indelibly reach not only the mind but the heart. Story tellers, revered throughout history and across cultures as depositories of prized human experience, use these riches to teach and heal (Estés, 1993). Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Jungian analyst and story teller in the Latina tradition, elaborates (1993, pp 4-5):

. . . many of the most powerful medicines, that is stories, come about as a result of one person's or a group's terrible and compelling suffering. For the truth is that much of story comes from travail; theirs, ours, mine, yours, someone's we know, someone's we do not know far away in time and place. And, yet, paradoxically, these very stories that rise from deep suffering can provide the most potent remedies for past, present, and even future ills.

So, too, fictional stories can heal. Written to expose layers of the human soul and the world political by keen observers of humanity, such as Aesop, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka,Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, C. S. Lewis, Lois Lowry, J.K. Rowling, and Maurice Sendak, they guide us to our place and contribution in the world.

Children with stuttering problems experience stories as guides to self awareness and sources of inspiration as all children do as they open to their messages. I remember still sitting on my grandfather's lap when I was four asking him to repeat a particular folk tale that only he told me. I did not quite understand the main character, the circumstances of his life, or the essential meaning of the tale, but the story riveted me. Thinking the way a child does, I thought hearing it again would make its meaning clear to me, so I asked my grandfather to repeat it. He did over and over until I no longer asked to hear it, not because I understood it but because I didn't. Many years later facing a critical personal challenge as a middle-aged person, I spontaneously recalled that story and discovered the valuable meaning it held for me. Biographies saved my life. When I was eight, I discovered a series of stories in our school library about famous people when they were children. As I digested one after another, I came to believe that, like the main characters, I, too, could survive and even succeed, if, like them, I was good; lived what I believed no matter what; and worked hard and well as long as necessary.

Stories about others are not the only ones to influence our thinking and behavior. By the time we are three, we are scripting, casting, and acting out our own life stories. Shakespeare penned in As You Like It: "All the world is a stage, and all the people are the actors." Loretta LaRoche (1995), stress management consultant and humor therapist, admonishes us to sharpen our self-perception by acknowledging the scripted nature of our lives. She asks quite seriously: "Do you get it yet? You are the director of your own movie."

Many prominent therapists believe living a scripted life in unawareness leads to cumulative personal dissatisfaction. For example, psychiatrist and founder of Transactional Analysis, Eric Berne (1977), helped people heal themselves by showing how to identify limiting, essentially subconscious, scripted behaviors and replace them with purposeful, skilled actions. Psychologist Daniel Goleman (1985), author of Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1995), advises us to examine the stories we tell about ourselves and the world to flush out the lies that foster delusion and court unhappiness. The discipline of journaling, for example the private Intensive Journal Program ® developed by Ira Progoff,, and the public sharing of thought and experience known as blogging, identifies certainties that limit our perception of reality, especially our own potential.

Spiritual teachers in Buddhist, Native American, and Judaic traditions also believe in the necessity of living a mindful existence to heal. The teachings of the Dalai Lama, e.g., (2001) and zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (2000) detail methods for increasing personal awareness. Caroline Myss (1997), medical intuitive, reports an anecdote identifying one Native American approach to healing. According to Dr. Myss, a Navajo World War II veteran heeded the recommendations of his tribal council to "...reclaim his spirit..." through the recollection and then release of his experience as a POW in Nazi Germany. As a result of his modified perception and relationship to that aspect of his past, he regained the use of his wounded and wasted legs. Kabbalists, i.e., Jewish mystics, believe our individual stories highlight teachings of the Torah (Gafni, 2004 ). They call on us to claim and share our stories as the gifts each of us brings into this world.

Citizens of the United States have been writing personal and family stories at an unprecedented volume during the past decade or so. Ostensibly to give as gifts of labor to dear ones, telling personal stories helps complete our life's journey, for many of us sense a life unshared is a life not fully lived.


Bibliotherapy and narrative speech pathology can help heal. Because this conference focuses on the needs of children and adolescents, I will comment on the application of each to their needs and imagine you will be able to see possibilities they hold for adults.


Bibliotherapy, first used in the United States with hospitalized World War I veterans, was applied to children for the first time in 1946, but only indirectly. Experts provided parents guides to help them select books to underscore desired societal values (Agnes, 1946). As children's literature changed from pedantic moralizing to presenting the world through a child's eyes and from idealizing painless circumstances to portraying challenging life situations, such as death, Alzheimer's Disease, AIDS, disabilities, divorce, and gay parents, bibliotherapy with children and adolescents shifted to child-centered experiential learning with the revised goal of helping children overcome their problems. Not unexpectedly, given the relatively low incidence of stuttering and presumed low readership demand, few published stories depict a child wrestling with the various dimensions of a real-life stuttering problem. That is precisely why I wrote Jason's Secret (Silverman, 2001), a middle reader novel where a 10 year-old deals with his feelings about stuttering, communicating, and speech therapy, without a saccharine ending, and am preparing an accompanying user's manual (Silverman, in preparation, 2004). Two other books also have bibliotherapeutic application: Ben Has Something to Say (Lears, 2000), a picture story book depicting a boy momentarily overcoming his fear of stuttering through concern for a dog, and Sometimes I Just Stutter (de Geus, 1999) containing several anecdotes from children and teens who stutter and one fairy tale about stuttering. These three are not the only books showcasing children with stuttering problems (, but, in my opinion, they are best suited to bibliotherapy.

What makes bibliotherapy effective is:

1) Reading about other children approximately the same chronological age who have faced problems they face helps readers better manage feelings of isolation and

2) Considering a characters' thoughts, feelings, and emotions helps:

  • Identify and express feelings
  • Develop awareness that problems can be solved, including their own
  • Enhance problem-solving skills
  • Amplify social skills

With the current interest in reality programming on television, children and teens may find comparing their lives to that of book characters more compelling than ever.

Bibliotherapy can be conducted with an individual or in a group. While many respond well, some do not. Those unable to: 1) See themselves and their lives reflected through book characters, 2) Face their problems, and/or 3) Readily transfer new insights into daily life require other interventions to help them develop a realistic, helpful perception of the process of change.

Narrative Speech Pathology

In narrative speech pathology, a term I coined after learning of narrative medicine, the fast-growing medical practice where story trumps questionnaire in diagnosis and treatment (Thernstrom, 2004), the process is consumer-centered. The narrative specialist, possessing "... competence to recognize, absorb, interpret and be moved by the stories of illness..."(Thernstrom, 2004, p. 44) encourages clients to share their histories uninterrupted while practicing analytical listening to both the content and form of the narrative, e.g., its temporal course, images, associated subplots, silences, where the tellers first begin telling of themselves, how they sequence symptoms with their other life events. Practioners write their stories of patient care using a process called Parallel Charts. They analyze the structural elements of their writing using narratology, a formalist literary theory applied to story, which focuses on structure, i.e., elements of contingency, intersubjectivity (relationship of writer to subject and reader), genre, and diction. Some practioners encourage patients to write pathographies written as part of a three-part chart where patients and physicians write about themselves and their sense of the treatment process and respond to each other's accounting. Applying the process to children can involve drawing, painting, singing, musical instruments, and dance as well as writing.


To the extent we live our individual stories and prepare children and teens to do the same, we encourage the orderly growth of ourselves and each other.


Written Material

Agnes, S. (1946). Bibliotherapy for Socially Maladjusted Children. Catholic Educational Review, 44, pp. 8-16.

Berne, E. (1977). Intuition and Ego States. New York: Harper & Row. Campbell, J. (1988). The Power of Myth. New York: Broadway Books.

Dalai Lama (2001). An Open Heart. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

de Geus, E. (1999). Sometimes I Just Stutter. Memphis: The Stuttering Foundation of America.

Estés, (1993). The Gift of Story. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fraser, J. (1923). Folklore in the Old Testament. New York: Macmillan.

Goleman, D. (1985). Vital Lies, Simple Truths. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Hanh, T. N. (2000). The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh. Pennsylvania: Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc.

Lears, L. (2000). Ben Has Something to Say: A Story About Stuttering. Albert Whitman and Company.

Polsky, H. And Wozner, Y. (1989). Everyday Miracles. The Healing Wisdom of Hasidic Stories. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Silverman, E.-M. (2001). Jason's Secret. Bloomington, Indiana: 1st Books.

Silverman, E.-M. (2004). Jason's Secret: A User's Guide. In preparation.

Thernstrom, M. (2004). The Writing Cure. Can Understanding Narrative

Make You a Better Doctor? New York Times Magazine, April 18.


Gafni, M. (2004). The Soul Prints Workshop: Wisdom Teachings from the Kabbalah Illuminating Your Unique Life Purpose. Boulder: Sounds True.


LaRoche, L. (1995). The Joy of STRESS. Boston: WGBH.

Myss, C. (1997). Why People Don't Heal and How They Can. PBS.

June 28, 2004