What Language Makes Possible

Storytelling Revolutions

by Joann Bromberg ’63

I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s when I became curious about everyday storytelling—the you know what I mean/ that happened to me kind of personal testimony exchanged amid ordinary conversation. It was when the Women’s Movement had garnered considerable public attention as a nationwide effort to revitalize society that I realized it was possible for storytelling to play an integral part in redefining the woman’s role in society and in the family.

I came to the subject of how we use personal experience stories from a different direction than most of the contributors to narrative inquiry. My interest was sparked by questions about how culture members construct social reality together, rather than how individuals build a social identity for themselves. The development of social identity and social reality, are co-occurring and intertwined phenomena, of course, as they are complementary aspects of the same relational field. Since I began studying this subject, the informing question has been: how does a contemporary revitalization movement come about?

In 1971, I audited a remarkable Women in American Literature course. Students were encouraged to talk about our personal experience and to compare it to women represented in the classics. For most of us, this was a new way of learning. The following semester, our class morphed into a consciousness-raising group that disbanded at the end of the school year. Two years later, I joined another group composed of eight neighborhood women. Most of us were working, three were in graduate school and three were young mothers, like myself. We were just learning about feminism and unsure of how the term applied to us.

By 1973, thousands of privately held consciousness-raising groups like mine—small, self-selected, peer-oriented groups—were springing up across the county. Designed to explore gender-based questions, these groups formed a vital underbelly of the Women’s Movement. Part of the power of these groups was the sense of connection we felt when sharing our this happened to me stories. Amid consciousness-raising, the way we talked about ourselves, sharing our stories, empowered us. It changed what we believed about ourselves and the world. Being a powerful woman did not mean having power over others; it meant power within: having a strong sense of self. Conversation generated in these small women’s groups played a huge role in ensuring the larger movement success.

Conversation, especially sharing or not sharing personal stories, plays a crucial role in revitalizing communities. Stories withheld, responses not given, silences, and moves to change topic are tools enabling us to sculpt social identity. These are the basic tools with which we share meaning for experience—how we compare and contrast, agree or disagree, approve or disapprove of what we know to be our experience in everyday life. The exchange of stories is the medium, telling or not telling stories our tool, through which we know what is real and construction is carried out.

Today’s #MeToo movement illustrates how, over time, exchanging stories can bring about cultural shift. A half- century ago, I could not have imagined movie stars revealing sexual abuse stories to the general public. Those stories were “dirty linen,” to be revealed in a therapist’s office. Nor could I imagine the larger society viewing this type of public testimony as fairly unremarkable, widely credited, the “new normal.” We now see century-old shaming rituals being uprooted and transformed. Learning to talk about the power dynamics inherent in social transactions provided a foundation for what is now emerging. Despite the marked difference in content, the generalizing power is the same. Through an exchange of stories we reach shared agreement about how our social world works.

After receiving her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982, Joann Bromberg ’63 moved to Beaux Arts Village, WA, to sell computers for Digital Equipment Corporation. She has volunteered as neighborhood mediator for the City of Bellevue, directed the “Talking About Beaux Arts” book project, and managed the grant funded by King County/Beaux Arts Shoreline Restoration Project to benefit salmon.