Photo by Mollie Sivaram on Unsplash

Storytelling & Moral Injury

Thaler Pekar

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“How do we start the stories about our own abortions so that we’re telling ‘good abortion stories’”?

This is the question America’s most well-known reproductive health organization asked me about ten years ago. Their board members wanted to share the stories of their own abortions and wanted me to guide them in making it clear they had, you know, one of those “good abortions”. (Such as, I was told, having birth control fail; being a victim of rape; or being in law school.)

“We know the start of the story,” I noted. “A woman got pregnant. Why do we need to qualify her abortion?”

My advice was to heed Kurt Vonnegut and “start the story as late as possible.” My understanding was that they were fighting to keep abortion safe and legal. Not to keep only “good abortion” legal. Retreating to the point of impregnation in their storytelling was ill advised. The woman’s story need not — and should not — be framed at the outset as “good” or “bad”.

They chose not to work with me.

I remembered this experience as four things recently collided:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court considered rescinding access to abortion and mandating childbirth for half of American women.
  • Jonathan Gotschall published an excerpt from his new book, The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down, claiming that “to proliferate narratives is to proliferate villains”.
  • Annette Simmons, on the I want what SHE has podcast, warned, “When you start counting wins and losses down to the micro level, what happens is that that you end up inadvertently defining things like generosity as inefficiency and defining moral goals as irrelevant”.
  • Pat Kane, RN, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, labeled the restrictive conditions under which she and her colleagues are working as causing “moral injury”.

Storytelling that solely propels a narrative of good versus evil, that says there are always winners and losers, that emphasizes conflict, is dangerous. Applying a judgmental framework of “good versus bad” stifles authentic discussion about complex issues. It demands a competitive picking of sides, and a rush to identify both others and oneself as either…

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Thaler Pekar

Pioneer in narrative & communication. Keynoted on 4 continents. Award-winning video producer. Public & oral historian. Renown for finding stories.