Gibbons, Gornick, Hardy, Bauby and Living Your Great Story
Great Story Coaching* outlines the 3 ways we tend to narrate our lives to ourselves.
The victim story (similar to Parul Sehgal’s “trauma plot”) is narrated by the part of us that is hurt and conveys the disempowering sense that life is happening to us.
The overcoming story, in which we face and overcome challenges, promotes a real sense of empowerment. This narrative is popular in books, movies, TV shows and marketing — the we-have-a-problem-but-we-can-rise-above-it story arc that uplifts and inspires.
The great story is the one our soul came to tell. It’s the story we find as we engage in what Bill Plotkin calls soulcraft. As an evolutionary astrologer, I would argue that it’s the blueprint laid out by the natal chart.
In Great Story Coaching, the desired end is to move through your Victim Story and through your Overcoming Story to find your Great Story, which centers you in your gifts, your passion, your sense of connection to something more than yourself. But the human love of progress and natural inclination to cast ourselves as the protagonist of a bildungsroman means we can get stuck in the first two phases; if we’re not conquering a challenge or squaring up to an obstacle, we will feel driven to look for a new victim story just so we can overcome it again and again. (Think of sequels — how many loved ones will be Taken from Liam Neeson? And what would he be if he weren’t fighting to get them back?) In the Great Story, hurdles and obstacles still occur, but we respond to them from our deepest sense of self, without getting stuck in a victim/victor loop.
Bound by Doom
Aunt Ada Doom, in Cold Comfort Farm, is in her victim story. Seeing something nasty in the woodshed as a child has darkened her outlook, casting misery on her farm and family.
“When you were very small - so small that the lightest puff of breeze blew your little crinoline skirt over your head - you had seen something nasty in the woodshed. You’d never forgotten it… That was what had made you…different. That - what you had seen in the tool-shed - had made your marriage a prolonged nightmare to you… That was why you had brought your children into the world with loathing… That was why you stayed in this room… You had run away from the huge, terrifying world outside these four walls against which your thoughts rubbed themselves like drowsy yaks. Yes, that was what they were like. Yaks. Exactly like yaks.”
“Seen something nasty in the woodshed” is the mantra the Starkadder family adopts to explain why they remain mired in misery on the dismal family farm.They are bound to this story and dragged down by it. And they’ve invented new mantras to keep themselves stuck: there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, the hired girl Meriam always gets pregnant when the sukebind blooms, Elfine is promised to Urk (“I put a cross in water-vole’s blood on her feedin’-bottle when she was an hour old, to mark her for mine,” Urk tells Flora.). Conversations become so bogged in dogma “they enter one of those vicious circles to which only the death or collapse from exhaustion of one of the participants can put an end.” These stories that ensnare the residents of Cold Comfort Farm are victim stories, the characters see no other possible story and can realize no alternative possibilities.
Hardy’s “Arm Uplifted”
Thomas Hardy’s novels are similarly constricted by victimhood. Reality is a brick wall that characters cannot batter down: Tess is bound by the social rules that condemn an unmarried pregnant woman; Jude can’t get the education he wants because of unyielding class structures. Hardy is possessed of a pessimism that he says he learned from his mother, writing “Mother’s notion, and also mine: That a figure stands in our van with an arm uplifted, to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as probable.” Yet, as his biographer Claire Tomalin points out, in Hardy’s own life these gloomy prognostications did not play out. Hardy’s mother, like her mother before her, was pregnant out of wedlock and went on to live a respectable - and in Hardy’s mother’s case, long - life. Like Jude, Hardy couldn’t attend Cambridge or Oxford, but lucky breaks brought him into contact with mentors who helped guide his education. So he started life as the son of a laborer and ended it as a much-lauded novelist and poet with honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford.
The Primeval Ooze Within Ourselves
In Unfinished Business, Vivian Gornick examines the way re-reading deepens her understanding of herself and of the novels she has loved. In her chapter on Thomas Hardy, she says that in her younger years she felt for Hardy’s characters “doomed to endure long years of suffering that end in the most appalling defeat, only because they’ve been born into the wrong class in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Over time and through re-reading and attending therapy sessions that deepened her own self-awareness, Gornick realized that Hardy’s characters are not doomed by a harsh reality - although reality is hard - but are, like the rest of us, stuck in the “primeval ooze … ever waiting to flood the plain of insufficient self-knowledge.” Refusing the hard work of self-examination, keeping closed the door to emotional imagination, life happens to these characters. As Gornick writes,
“Oh yes, there was being born into the wrong class in the wrong place at the wrong time, but what Hardy had made radiate in Sue [Bridehead in Jude the Obscure] was the ancient fear of taking in one’s own experience. What I was now ‘understanding for the first time’ was how deeply that fear revels in its own unknowingness, how mocking its resistance.”
Like Aunt Ada Doom staying in her bedroom to shut out the terrifying world beyond, Hardy’s characters shut out consciousness. In both cases, the characters are strpped of volition and trapped in a victim story.
Cleaning Up Messes
Flora Poste “cannot endure messes” and she carries that attitude of tidying up - overcoming messes - to Cold Comfort Farm. Unconvinced by all the refrains that keep the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm stuck, Flora begins her work. When Meriam feels fated to further pregnancies (“And who’s to know what will happen to me when the sukebind is out in the hedges again and I feels so strange on the long summer evenings - “), Flora’s response is practical and efficient:
“‘Nothing will happen to you , if only you use your intelligence and see that it doesn’t.’ … And carefully, in detail, in cool phrases, Fora explained exactly to Meriam how to forestall the disastrous effect of too much sukebind and too many long summer evenings upon the female system.”
With similar practicality, Flora lets Big Business, the bellowing bull, out of his cramped stall, buys the hired man Adam a “dish mop” to use instead the thorny twig he’s been washing dishes with. She gets Elfine properly clothed, gives Amos and Seth an effective outlet for their passions and generally gets everyone sorted.
I haven’t yet decided if Flora is in her own overcoming story - does she need new messes to tidy over and over? - or her great story - tidying messes is a natural gift with which to respond to life. Regardless, in Cold Comfort Farm, Flora does what a good therapist might: helps others see alternatives to the self-distorning habits they’re caught in. She’s a catalyst for overcoming.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seems to be Jean Dominique Bauby’s Great Story. Written by blinking one eyelid at his amanuensis, Bauby’s book might seem at first like a victim or overcoming story; however, Bauby’s narrative reveals someone who is vulnerable but not a victim. While he is, indeed, stuck - his perfectly functioning brain trapped in a paralyzed body due to locked-in syndrome - his story is neither a mantra of victimhood nor a hero’s tale of getting the better of his circumstances. He has the self-awareness to see exactly where he is, the Flora-Poste-practicality to do what he can to tidy the situation as much as possible (writing his memoir by blinking an eyelid) and the deep wisdom to use the gifts he has to center himself in meaning and joy.
“Not only was I exiled, paralyzed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures, and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but I was also horrible to behold. There comes a time when the heaping up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter—when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.”
Trapped in his body, at the mercy of nurses and aides and friends, his mind takes him through the pleasures of meals he enjoyed in the past. He finds joy in outings that allow him to relish with simple sensual delight “the smell of french fries” which he will never again be able to eat. He nestles into the quiet of his wing of the hospital where
“I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing.”
Reading Bauby’s lovely book and looking at his natal chart, it occurred to me that a person’s Great Story is written in his or her birth chart. We see Bauby express his Taurus Sun’s sensual pleasure; his fiery me-first Aries planets encounter transcendence in the House of Loss and we witness his courage as a spiritual warrior in the face of that loss. His great work (Saturn) is to develop the skills (6th house) that bring him a sense of serenity, harmony, aesthetic beauty (Libra). He cultivates those skills by learning to dictate his book letter by letter to his secretary, which allows him to live his 5th house Pluto, creatively expressing the darkness through his writing. All of these things he manages to do while immobilized with locked-in syndrome. And all of these are motivated not by ego - which tends to drive the Victim and Overcoming Stories through a constant grasping for validation - but by the soul-need to express the fullness of his being.
* I took only a day-long seminar in Great Story Coaching, so it’s impertinent of me to speak of it as if I have any expertise, yet here I am.