Whose story is it anyway?

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
November 10th, 2023
American Dirt

Psychologists are story people, especially when we are trying to help people make more satisfying stories of their lives. Because I am a story person, I am still mulling over the story of a book about the immigrant experience that has been the subject of media attention since its publication in January.

The book, “American Dirt” is a fictional account of the journey of an undocumented Mexican mother and daughter fleeing from a drug cartel in Mexico to expected sanctuary in the United States. Pre-publication reviews were stellar as were blurbs by literary superstars like Stephen King and John Grisham, but as the publication date approached, media coverage took on a more critical tone.

The reviews were mixed and the book became one of the focal points of our current debate about cultural appropriation. The problem, according to the novel’s most vocal critics, is that Jeanine Cummins, the novel’s White, non-Mexican author, wrote a story about Mexican migrants. It was, according to these critics, not her story to tell.

Full disclosure – I have not read the book, and I’m not sure I ever will, but my first reaction was surprise. Don’t novelists make up stories about people who are different from them all the time? Of course, writers are always advised to “write what you know,” and readers never tire of looking for clues about the writer’s life in the characters that they create.

Some crime writers are retired cops, some are ex-newspaper reporters who worked the crime beat, and a few may even be ex-cons, but I suspect most are serious storytellers whose novels emerge from an amalgam of their experiences, imagination, and the research necessary to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Social reformers often use their literary talents to call attention to abuses in society, but not all of them have personally experienced those abuses. Upton Sinclair exposed unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry in his novel “The Jungle,” leading to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. In that same book, he also addressed the lives of poor immigrant families. In subsequent novels, Sinclair took on the coal, oil and auto industries, exposing harsh and, especially in the case of the coal industry, hazardous conditions under which their employees worked. Were these his stories to tell?

Sinclair grew up in two worlds – the working class world of his father, a struggling salesman from Baltimore and the affluent world of his wealthy maternal grandparents with whom he often stayed. As a teenager, he wrote pulp fiction to help support his family and put himself through college.

Sinclair did not experience the harsh and dangerous labor conditions that he exposed, but he had enough personal experience with economic struggle to build a bridge of empathy to the workers he described in his novels. And because that bridge was not enough, Sinclair went undercover for seven weeks in a Chicago meatpacking plant where he observed the workers’ appalling conditions and later interviewed them, their families, doctors, lawyers, and social workers.

Were these his stories to tell? Somebody had to, and the improvements in working conditions and public safety that resulted from his publications would seem to justify his efforts. Jeanine Cummins, the author of “American Dirt,” makes similar claims for the legitimacy of her novel about Mexican migrants. While not of Mexican descent, she describes herself a “bridge” to the experience of the migrants and claims to have done the research, including interviews, necessary to provide an accurate description of the conditions she describes. Was it enough? Does that make it her story to tell? And why should we care?

We care because we psychologists are story people. Like the novelist, we immerse ourselves in the lives of others who are different from us and build bridges of empathy to connect with the lived experience of our subjects.

Novelists create stories that they hope will touch their readers. They write to entertain, edify, enlighten or evoke the reader’s sympathy toward their characters. When those characters represent real people in perilous situations, whether they be abused laborers or Mexican migrants, the stakes are higher, and the novelist has to get the story right. Some would question whether it is the novelists’ story to tell if they haven’t lived it in their own personal experience. Does White American Jeanine Cummins have the right to tell the story of Mexican migrants? Did Upton Sinclair have the right to tell the story of abuses in the meat packing, coal, oil, and auto industries?

These questions and the logic behind them can be asked of psychologists as well. Should White, American, male psychologists be doing psychotherapy with Black, Hispanic, female patients? With Chinese immigrants? How about straight therapists with gay clients or any combination of personal qualities or circumstances that result in different identities for therapist and patient?

Some people will prefer a therapist with a similar background and our profession is wise to recruit and train a diverse complement of psychologists and to go beyond that by emphasizing the importance of cultural competence. In its June 2017 update of guidelines on multicultural competence, the APA stresses the complexity of identity and self-definition and the myriad ways these constructs are influenced by culture, language, the social and physical environment, experiences with power, privilege and oppression and the interaction of all this with developmental stages and life transitions.

We are cautioned to be aware of our own cultural biases and those of our profession and instructed to take a strengths-based approach in all of our professional interactions with individuals and the public at large.

Of course, it is easier to keep all of these factors in mind if we are working with people with whom we share race, ethnicity, and cultural experiences, but even here we cannot assume that their story is our story.

Individual differences abound in the closest of social groups and, unlike the novelist, we are not the authors of our patients’ stories. We are the listeners. We listen for the details, check to see if we’re getting it right, try to identify the patterns and plot lines, and ask if we can help make the story better. With the patient’s permission, we become a co-author or a kindly editor. The story that emerges was never ours to tell but, for a time, someone trusted us enough to share their journey with us. That trust is a gift, a privilege, and a sacred responsibility demanding the best we have to offer.

One Response to Whose story is it anyway?

  • January 7th, 2024 at 10:52 am Norma Zimmermann posted:

    This article on story peaked my interest after a Bible study session in which we read the story of St Paul’s travels toward Rome. It made me think about stories in many ways. Stories are ancient, to understand ourselves, our ancestors, our community, our culture, our world. At the end of the article Alan Bodnar tells us that “we are not the authors of our patient’s stories. We are the listeners,”’ and that sharing our stories with another is a gift. Maybe that’s the only way to some rational discourse in our country today is to really listen to one another’s stories, and trusting others to tell our stories to.

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