“Where would you like a ‘Stranger/Reader’ to meet you, if you had to choose any ‘Imaginary Page One’ window to help her to walk in your shoes?” This is the question that novelist and essayist Erika Duncan asked in March 1996, when she found herself surrounded by a group of women who hadn’t written before, never dreaming that the dare to transform one’s most personal story to reach the heart of a stranger would begin a journey of more than two decades in which thousands of women and girls (and eventually men and boys) in community settings, universities, labor halls and healing centers would find the answers that would open into chapters of their lives, nor that the words “Stranger/Reader” and “Imaginary Page One” one day would echo in Spanish and behind prison bars.
That dare, which eventually led to a network of guided memoir-writing workshops, was the birth of an approach where the study of what creates reader empathy replaced more traditional techniques of teaching writing. What developed was a rather unique set of tools – a vocabulary through which what caused the reader to care became central – allowing those with little formal education to work with complex notions of narrative structure side by side with professors of literature.
Erika had offered a week of memoir-writing workshops free to any woman in the community who wanted to write her story, following a conference in Southampton, Long Island, which she had co-organized, celebrating women breaking silences. After years of teaching fiction and autobiographical writing to a closed group in the safety of her home, she was sure she had opened a terrible can of worms in agreeing to a set-up in which someone’s most intimate revelations would be open to any new stranger walking in, but it was too late to undo the publicity. In asking each new writer to shape a “Page One Moment” safe enough to be met by a stranger, yet vibrant enough to keep that stranger interested, two days into the workshop she realized that she had discovered a new way to teach memoir – one with both healing and community building aspects.
Historical timing, we now believe, had a great deal to do with the rapidity of Herstory’s growth, and the number of people for whom it seemed to answer a hidden, now suddenly realized need. With new interest emerging in memoirs of everyday experience, the reading public began to seek out the life stories and struggles of those who previously would have remained unseen and anonymous. First-person narratives telling stories of traumatic events began to be sought, with unknown names attached to them; no longer were professionals to tell people’s stories for them as cold clinical case histories. But still gaps remained. For many who held stories inside them, educational deficiencies and lack of money made it impossible for them to acquire the complex narrative skills that change one’s own story – as told to a therapist, a diary or very close friend – into something that will be able to resonate more widely and reach strangers.
While narratives of trauma were being taken increasingly seriously by the community-at-large, many of those who had experienced political or family violence did not have access to the kind of psychological support required in the documentation of their experiences, to help them discover ways to evoke the compassion and sense of being heard that they needed so badly. They weren’t able to bridge the gap between the victim’s complaint – implicit in private outpourings of woe – and storytelling as a means of healing, in a way that would help others and themselves.
Soon women were traveling long distances to Herstory’s single Southampton site, so that gradually others in other parts of Long Island offered to host us, first a counseling center in West Babylon where poor people were the main clients, then to a continuing care community in South Setauket – and suddenly survivors of family violence, incest, poverty and war were writing alongside women with stories they wished to pass down to their grandchildren, stories of immigrating to a new country, stories of falling in love and giving birth or losing a loved one. Foundation heads and other supporters became Herstory writers themselves, adding to the diversity that is a hallmark of the program. Erika’s “experiment” had evolved into a project that was cutting across race, religion, ethnicity, age, socio-economic background, class and culture.
As the work became too much for one person alone, those who had been with Herstory from the beginning began to officially train to lead workshops, and one suggested expanding the work to include women in prison. We reached out to find bilingual facilitators whom we could train to work in Spanish, and to the heads of high school and college programs, and to student interns, until eventually Herstory became what it is today.
To read more about our beginnings and the roots of the Herstory pedagogy, we refer you to the introduction of our manual Paper Stranger: Shaping Stories In Community, the conerstone of our work.