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Narrative, Power, and the Law

I came into narrative therapy by way of my work as a social justice advocate and lawyer, anthropologist, and writer. I’m going to go a bit bigger here, but I just want you to understand why I find this so fascinating. I was introduced to legal theory and social contract by way of my literature courses. I loved learning about what the framers were thinking when they wrote the constitution, how theories about social contracts informed democracy, and the creation of government. I know I was a total nerd, but I really liked knowing that there was human intention, thought, and purpose behind this. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Democracy as we know it, is the product of human experiences, beliefs, and the stories that drove our founders.

After law school I was working for the ACLU and one of my jobs was to read inmate letters from Minnesota prisons. These were people who had come from really dire childhoods, abuse, addiction, neglect, foster homes. They would include all of these details in their letters because they wanted legal assistance to deal with some alleged legal injustice. Now, I read all of these letters, so fascinated by the details, but inevitably, 90 % of these would go in a pile marked “No Claim.” Because there was no legal basis for their issue. Because the law does not consider cruelties in childhood when determining a constitutional violation. I knew from law school that facts “stories” only matter when we give them weight. We get to assign the meaning to the life of a story.

This is why most cases are decided on very limited facts. Consider that most narrative is left out of the evidence. It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. This realization opened a bigger inquiry for me about the way that narrative influences power. I started a Ph.D. at NYU on narrative and specifically addiction narratives. This was nearly 10 years before I got sober, but I was already interested in the way that how we understand narrative shapes the way that our culture and government faces problems.

You can see now in the way that it works in politics and the media- everything is driven by stories. Our lives, our choices, our political systems. And yes, I’m interested in broader social change, and challenging systemic narrative issues, but I’m actually really interested in helping individuals. As a lawyer, I learned how to sort through facts, and the way that narrative has weight or power in a certain context. I also knew from my work in cultural anthropology and literature, that institutionalized power also drove individual narrative.

When I consider my work as a narrative therapist, I use this experience as a lawyer and advocate, to listen. To understand how individuals can be influenced by systems, and the ways in which power infrastructures can narrow our perspective and point of view. I know that stories are constructed and that they only have the power that we give them. As a therapist my work is to help you reframe your perspective, and purpose in the most empowering way- even in the face of social and political adversity.

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