Witnessing to story

A large part of my experience here has been to witness. At Magdalene, witnessing often means listening to stories. Whether I hear them in the small group meeting I co-lead, in one-on-one interactions, or as I interview potential residents over the phone, my job is to listen carefully to the stories that are told. At this halfway point in my summer, I’ve been reflecting on the personal stories I’ve had the privilege to hear. In my experience as a student, theologians and theorists of all kinds often analyze the importance of narratives, but I’m grateful that my time at Magdalene has shaped my understanding of the role of narrative for individuals in recovery. That the Magdalene program is a two-year residential program with women living and working together in community means that each resident is at a vastly different point in her recovery–in her story–than the next. The nature of the program has given me the opportunity to see how stories change–in how they are understood and how they are shared with others–throughout the recovery process.

TelephoneOne of my main duties as an intern at Magdalene is answering the phone to take messages, tell prospective women or social workers about the program, and to complete entrance request applications that put a prospective resident on our waiting list. These applications require me to ask very personal questions regarding the particular woman’s history. While I’m constantly struck by their honesty and willingness to share in order to seek help in our program, I can imagine that talking to me, a stranger, over the phone about mental illness, addiction, and prostitution is not an easy thing to do. Having daily conversations with women seeking entrance into the program alongside daily interactions with women currently in the program adds an entirely new dimension to my reflection on personal narrative and healing.

These stories can be painful. I listen to these women describe their current and past situations, record their responses, and know that this is merely a beginning step in their Magdalene journey. As Maureen H. O’Connell writes in her essay on Dorothy Day, “She refused to shield herself from the ugliness of poverty precisely because of the sharp contrasts it brought into focus for her: the inherent dignity of persons assaulted by these conditions and the God to be encountered and loved in those people” (She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, 174). It would be fairly difficult to shield myself from suffering and “ugliness,” to use O’Connell’s language. And focusing on such harshness is perhaps not the most productive thing to do in the context of Magdalene. But on a fundamental level, the program couldn’t function for these women if we didn’t pay attention to or document the “ugliness” of the things these women experienced prior to their entrance in the program.

These reflections brought me back to a moment from one of my earliest days at Magdalene. An individual at Thistle Farms, the social enterprise side of the Thistle Farms Magdalene organization, had approached Sara, the program director at Magdalene about wanting to interview some of the more senior residents. I listened to Sara explain to two of the women who have been here the longest about the nature of the interview. She made it exceptionally clear that they would not be asked to tell their story, but to speak on their personal growth since entering the program. At the time I understood this to be an explicit expression that these women would not be exploited for their stories, and I think this was an incredibly important point to establish. But this distinction between the recitation of a history–like that of answering entrance request application questions–and the personal growth since then seems to be an important one.

I fully believe that the stories of our lives and the stories we encounter play a fundamental role in shaping us. In Serene Jones’ discussion of endings, she writes, “What God performs in the silence before creation is the subject of the gospel. It is a gesture toward redemption and restoration that renders the Creator vulnerable to the contingencies and chaos of the unfolding human story” (Trauma and Grace, 96). Perhaps these narratives of growth and development are something of a gesture as well. In terms of the nature of stories and memories, perhaps these later understandings of growth can’t be captured in descriptions of past events. In speaking to prospective women on the phone and spending time with the current residents–those who’ve been here two days and those who’ve been here twenty-one months– I sense a shift in how stories are understood and told. That the women who were to be interviewed at Thistle Farms agreed to do so with the knowledge that they could answer without fear of exploitation demonstrates a powerful gesture of ownership. The women move from responsively telling their story as fact to be documented and assessed to sharing narratives of growth and development. These stories gesture to redemption, recovery, and the formation of future narratives upon graduation from the Magdalene program.

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