Listening to His Story Through Her

One of my habits (or disciplines to make it sound rather more impressive) in recent years has been to invite those whom I am meeting, for whatever reason, to share something of their personal story with me if they so wish. Just to make it clear, this includes not only those coming to ask for personal help or counselling, but also those engaged in various forms of academic or professional activity with me. I am struck by how often I am part of meetings and gatherings where not everyone knows each others’ name, and where the knowledge of each others’ personal stories is virtually non-existent. In my view any group is impoverished if this is the true state of affairs, but that is another matter. This column is exploring another dimension of personal stories.A few days ago a mother came to see me because she was concerned about her son. We sat by the fire in our lounge. Over a cup of tea, I invited her to explain to me why she had come, by telling me the story of her son’s life from her point of view. As I prepared to listen I was conscious how much Carl Rogers and Paul Tournier have influenced my whole approach in such situations: Rogers because he always symbolically threw his own categories and framework out of the window before meeting a “client”; Tournier because he always tried to create a warm and friendly conversational setting when he met his clients.

So it was that she began. She agreed that I could take notes, and I waited to hear how she would start the story. The start is foundational in every way. Her opening words were, “We always knew that there was something not quite right about my son”. And then the story flowed. At fifteen he started taking cannabis. He was diagnosed at the Bethlem Royal Maudsley Hospital as being on the autistic spectrum and put on the anti-psychotic drug, Risperdal. That had worked well for some years, but when he had refused to take it because it had caused such weight gain, his worrying behaviour resurfaced: hearing voices, being paranoiac about neighbours, and destroying furniture. She was worried out of her mind.

At my request we went back over the story. He had struggled at school both in his studies and his relationships. He preferred playing with Lego to playing with his peers. He eventually got in with a rebellious group, hence the cannabis. And he got virtually no qualifications.

So what was he good at, I mused? What did he enjoy doing? There was no doubt about it: anything to do with electronics, apparently. Without instructions he could understand and connect seemingly any circuit or device. This is the sort of work that he would very much like to do.

As she talked with me it had become very apparent that the mother loved and cared deeply about her son. This came through in what she said, what she didn’t say, and the feelings that I had about her son through her. But I had no idea about the relationship between her son and his father. This was a complete blank. He was not sitting with her, and he did not figure in the story apart from the very first word: “We always knew…” When I mentioned this she responded so quickly that we were obviously into an area of very strong feelings: her son blamed his father for everything, especially for not stopping him taking cannabis. I continued to listen and note, putting a line for emphasis beside this part of the story.

Were there other children? An older brother who was married and living in the USA. There were no such issues in his case.

What about work, I wondered? He had a job at a garage, but the others there teamed up against him. How did that show itself, I mused? They coughed as a way of ridiculing and annoying him. And as it happened, he couldn’t stand his father’s cough either. Things were becoming a lot clearer and very alive. It was almost as if the son was in the room.

The mother continued to speak freely and with perfect English, but her family roots were in another continent and culture. She didn’t refer to this, but it was there for me to see. I wondered about her son’s identity. She thought that he probably saw himself having more of her family roots than British or English.

And so it was that the person and story emerged: his story, through her. It turned out that he and I had met briefly, and that he might like to see me again.

It was yet another very human story: I have been privileged to listen to so many. And it was one that she was relieved to tell me. As I listened I was seeking to do everything to hear the particularities, the nuances, the texture, context, relationships, and especially the feelings in and through all this. Gradually a person had taken shape, a son that she loved so much, for whom she had done all that she could, for whom she had made many sacrifices (not her word) for him, and towards whom she was understandably very protective. An individual son, and an individual mother.

And yet, I found myself on well-tried territory at the same time. Over the years we have lived alongside, and sought to help and support several young people who have had to negotiate similar trajectories of culture, ethnicity and religion. They have all had to struggle (that is not too strong a word) to find their identity in a confusing life-trajectory, very different social contexts, and amidst competing claims and loyalties. They get mixed messages from others, and have to tread a lonely, ill-defined path. Is it totally surprising that they tend to feel paranoiac or “hear voices”, take cannabis and relate most readily to those outside the mainstream?

Again and again I have been alongside them, seeking to listen to, hear and understand them. As I have done so, my respect for each one has always grown. It has been like the pioneering journey of an explorer of hitherto unknown areas of the planet. They must teach me, of course, because their personal journey and their identity is one that only they can travel and know in any deep sense.

But this leads me to mention one of the hidden gems of British therapy, Nafsiyat ( It is an intercultural therapy centre that takes seriously exactly such issues of inter-cultural journeying and the tensions this implies in the search for meaning and identity. Why, I wonder, is it so little known and utilised?

How can we possibly listen to people’s diverse stories without realising the unique and very lonely, individual paths and choices they are taking?

As for the mother and her son: she wrote after our evening together to say: “Thank you so much for the time you spent listening to me. I did feel listened to.” Perhaps that will be the experience of her son too in his own time.

My hope is that in time there will be emerging communities of those who are able to share their inter-cultural stories in settings informed by professional wisdom.

Meanwhile I suppose this has helped me to understand the nature and story of Mill Grove a little better, because it is just such a setting. It was where I grew up, and I may not have understood this aspect of my own story fully enough.

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