Beautiful Terrible Things
a collaborative project of unscripted live storytelling
created by Elsa Asher, MS, CD(DONA) and Mary Bit Smith, MS, MPP
Storytelling allows for the audience to play witness, attending and resonating with the live experience of the performers. Narratives of embodied conditions are compelling not only for their power to move us as an audience but also for their ability to unite us in our common humanity. The theatrical context enables a loosening of fixed boundaries between the domains of self-other, real-imaged, sick-healthy, in service of embracing what we share as mortal beings.
What happens when two women tell the stories they were told to never tell? What happens when you become so present, so powerful, so full of joy and engagement and love and understanding, that it is unbearable? What happens when you tell stories of witches, midwives, magic, and darkness? What happens when we beat a drum loud enough for all to hear? What happens when we sing the songs our mother sang to us? What happens when we tell the story of why we are here?
Beautiful Terrible Things began as a collaborative graduate thesis, under the guidance of Murray Nossel, PhD. The debut performance was May 15, 2014 in New York City. Elsa and Bit's work together grew out of their participation in a course called Co-Constructing Narratives, taught by Murray Nossel, PhD, and Paul Browde, MD, at Columbia University. Murray and Paul co-founded Narativ and have been performing Two Men Talking for over 15 years.
Mary Bit Smith and I met in September 2013, in a course called Co-Constructing Narratives taught by Paul Browde and Murray Nossel in the Master’s of Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University. Bit wore all black, her long straight hair to match. Paul and Murray paired the two of us based on our personal essays submitted at midterm. From the first moments of sitting across from each other, our knees touching, I knew I had found a dear friend and creative comrade. In preparation for our final presentation, a 20 minute co-constructed storytelling performance, we realized we had many more stories to tell together, and we approached our teachers and proposed a capstone project.
From the end of January through the beginning of May, Bit and I met worked with Murray Nossel, PhD, every other week for two hours. In addition, Bit and I met every week for two to four hours, and had regular regular conversations on the phone. As we neared completion, the three of us spent a full day together, in preparation for our performance the following week.
Intentions for the Project
During our first meeting with Murray we discussed our intentions for the project. “So we want to tell the stories that are all the things you’re never supposed to talk about. We want to tell stories about hysteria, stories about madness and birth and death and re birth.” Murray replied: “Yes, I understand. These are women’s stories. You know Freud’s work was based on his therapy with hysterical women. This is the basis of the whole of psychoanalysis.” Bit: “You know if we lived 400 years ago we would’ve be burnt at the stake. 100 years ago we would’ve been locked up as hysterical women.”
I wanted to tell it like it is. I wanted to tell stories of subjugated knowledge, in reference to the term of Michel Foucault, to offer wisdom that was local, that was gained through particular and specific experiences, knowledge that was hidden away, knowledge passed in whispers from woman to woman. I read Eve Ensler’s memoir In the Body of the World and I fell in love with her direct language and visceral description. During one early meeting, Bit and I sat on my living room couch and I read aloud part of the chapter titled “Uterus=Hysteria,” in which Ensler writes, “Hysteria—a word to make women feel insane for knowing what they know” (Ensler, 39). This one sentence contained it all right there, hysteria, insanity, the uterus, knowledge.
Through a literature review, we found we were in good company, in considering the relationships between conceptions of hysteria, women’s bodies, and storytelling. Alice Miller’s book Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and Florence Rush’s The Freudian Cover Up detailed the history of how psychoanalytic theory of hysteria were based on women patients who had been raped, often by family members. Joanna Townsend-Robinson’s article “Expressing the Unspoken: Hysterical Performance as Radical Theatre,” Susan Bordo’s book The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity, in particular the chapter “Reconstructing Feminist Discourse on the Body,” and Megan Rogers’ article “Happily never after: the effect of gender on love as narrative closure,” explored the relationships between storytelling, performance, conceptions of madness, and gender. An article by Cecilia Tasca, et al., “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health,” and Denise Donnel Connors’ article “Women’s ‘sickness’: a case of secondary gains or primary losses,” deepened our understanding of the intersectional nature of conceptions of gender and mental health. And Jonathan Shay’s book “Achilles in Vietnam” deepened our understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it relates to the betrayal or breaking of a perceived moral code or conception of self and world. In addition, we drew on shared and individual experience, education, and training. Our work together was informed by Bit’s Master’s thesis, “The Heart of Faith: An Exploration of Cardiac Vagal Tone and Spirituality,” and Elsa’s training in prenatal and birth psychology and principles of biodynamic craniosacral therapy with Myrna Martin, MN, RCC, RCST.
The first time I learned about witches was when my mother read aloud Monica Furlong’s children’s/young adult book “Wise Child.” It was the story is of an orphaned girl named Wise Child who is taken in by a healer, midwife and herbalist named Juniper, who educates Wise Child as an apprentice. This was me and my brother’s bedtime story when I was seven years old. Bit’s third grade teacher read the same book aloud to her class. When we discovered the mutual connection to this childhood book, and recognized the deep imprint it left of awe and respect for witches, we were astonished. We also referenced Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s important book “Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers.”
Both Bit and I drew deeply on the work of vulnerability researcher Brene Brown. Her books, Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), and her two very popular TED Talks, “The Power of Vulnerability,” and “Listening to Shame” were an ongoing source of strength. Having tools to recognize shame, and language to talk about feeling vulnerable, empowered my process of storytelling. As Brown writes, “Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
Working With Our Bodies in Time and Space
Murray: “Everything exists in time, everything has a chronology. In the performance it is about how you play with it.” Moving individually and together through space became an essential part of our process. Murray guided us through Alexander Technique, we sat at the thick wooden table in his studio and watched Jasmine tea leaves unfurling in our thin porcelain cups, and bowed and inhaled the scent. Bit and I learned Authentic Movement from Kira Smith (no relation to Bit), a modern dancer and dance therapist. Authentic Movement is a form of free association improvisational movement, in which the person who moves is witnessed and the witness reflects back in a dialogic embodied practice. Through this form I felt a steadiness, a commitment to the moment, an intentionality coming into my movements, into my body.
We played. Bit and Murray and I gave tours to each other in the space, making up characters and stories. We moved furniture, swept the floors, and burned sweet smelling wood resin to clear the air. We made tableaus, arranging our bodies with furniture in a silent unmoving scene.
Murray played part of a piano piece for us, a figure by Bach, so that we could hear the contrapuntal sound quality of the interplay between the pianist’s two hands on the keys. We told stories, the three of us, sitting around the thick wooden table, jockeying back and forth, like a badminton volley, stealing the birdie out of mid air, mid sentence. Telling a story with the co-construction method, weaving piece by piece, made it possible for me to enter into the telling and not get lost in the middle. When I told a story on my own, in monologue form, somewhere in the middle of it I go lost, and my telling sounded like a reporter reciting the fact’s she’s written on her small spiral notepad. Telling a story of my own, interwoven with Bit’s telling, meant that the emotional content was titrated, and that our tellings could build on each other, keep the pacing dynamic, exist in juxtaposed tension, and allowed for multiple layers of depth in meaning to emerge for each story, simply by the juxtaposition, without either of us needing to spell it out or say anything more. It was magic!
Working with Fear and Resistance: Getting and Staying Grounded
Did I really just sign myself up for this? Why did I create a project to tell all the things I’m not supposed to talk in a performance in front of an audience? Fear of criticism and shame. In my body this fear and resistance manifests in ways that make me want to yell or pirouette or stomp my feet. But I can’t move. I am frozen. I don’t want to tell stories! This is too hard. I’d much rather talk about myth, poetry, and theory of the power of vulnerability, than feel the pain in this moment. I want to ask for help, and I don’t want anyone to talk to me. This frozen feeling re-emerged many times throughout the four month process.
Murray quickly noticed how easily Bit and I spoke about these topics theoretically. During one of our early meetings, Murray said, “Every time you notice yourself getting conceptual and ephemeral, get grounded. We’re making something real here.” He then instructed, “The next time you come, bring ingredients to make bread. You’re going to tell us a story while you knead dough. You’ve got to stay really earthy here.”
From then on, every time we met, we each brought something to work on with our hands: irish soda bread ingredients, risen yeast dough, embroidery, knitting.
From my field notes:
Sitting at the table in front of a window, lit by the late morning sun off the Hudson river, stirring flour and oats and milk and silver dollars of chocolate together in a bowl, singing the earth, the air, the fire, the water, return return return return, I felt still and active and purposeful and seen, and it is in that space that it is my work to rest, to root into, to be firmly in myself and to move from there.
This is when Murray began to feel like a shamanic guide. He saw right through my exterior and perceived my capacity for disassociation and resistance in the face of fear and vulnerability. I remarked, “The intellectualization is seductive, because it is both meaningful and passionate, but less vulnerable than just telling a story.” But, we were not there to be theoretical, we were there to tell stories, and to tell a good story, you just have to tell what happened.
Storytelling as a Spiritual Practice: Self Acceptance and Working with Internal Criticism
Murray asked each us to tell a story about self consciousness. I stood under the spotlight, the only light on in the sanctuary, and tried to tell a story, but found myself getting lost in experience, without beginning, middle or end. Murray stopped me, “What is this about? You’re smart. You took the class, I don’t believe you when you say you can’t tell a story.” I felt like I was going to start crying. The ball of rising yeast dough is in front of me on a cutting board. I touched it and it stuck to my hands. I said, “I didn’t put enough flour in it.” Murray said, “Don’t judge it. It just is.” I began to knead the dough, it stuck to my hands, the yeast stung the open cuts on my hands. “Imagine someone had told Paul and I to get just get over it. We’ve been telling our stories for 15 years. About being bullied, about being HIV positive, about not being HIV positive.” He leaves us with this, “Notice the judgement, like a Buddhist meditation, just notice it, oh here you are, I hear you.”
This work touched upon my existential questions of why am I here? Do I have the right to be here? And I felt as if somehow this performance was the means by which to prove my worth in being here and justify my existence. The stakes felt very high. And as an artist, I felt the the discrepancy between my taste and skill, knowing that what I can manifest is not yet the same as what I envision, and hoping to shorten the distance between the two.
Ritual was an important aspect of our work. We began each meeting by clearing our listening and stating intention. Murray reminded us, “You may feel exhausted, your brains might feel like lead, and you won’t want to do the work, this is normal, but you still go on, and tell stories, despite your exhaustion, because what you’re doing is bigger than that.” This process brings in everything we’ve ever been through. When we do this work what we have to work with are our bodies, our stories, our relationship to each other in the present moment, space, and silence. The ritual quality of the storytelling process was grounding, and it framed storytelling not as this grand show I was putting on for people, but an offering in service to my own healing and to those who come to listen. Bit said, “This is the story of love. Of bravery.”
The week before our performance, as we cleared our listened even more deeply, discussing our fears and reservations, what we were reckoning with in preparation, Murray nodded and said, “THIS IS THE WORK, this right here, it is a process, on May 15th your friends are coming and you’re telling stories, you are sharing where you are on that day in the process. This kind of storytelling is a spiritual practice. This work is paradoxical, one on hand we reify it, we call it a show, and then we take it all apart, wiping it away like a sand mandala.”
Works Cited and Consulted
Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: Reconstructing Feminist Discourse on the Body.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Tenth Anniversary Edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1993.
Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012.
The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, Minnesota: Hazeldon, 2010.
I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2007.
Chitty, John. Dancing with Yin and Yang. Boulder, CO: Polarity Press, 2013.
Connors, Denise Donnel. “Women’s “sickness”: a case of secondary gains or primary losses.” ANS Adv Nurs Sci. 1985 Apr;7(3):1-17.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. New York, NY: Feminist Press of the City University of New York, 2010.
Ensler, Eve. In the Body of the World. New York, NY: Picador, 2013.
Furlong, Monica. Wise Child. New York, NY: Random House, 1987.
Miller, Alice. Thou Shalt Not Be Aware. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.
Rush, Florence. “The Freudian Cover Up” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Freudian_Coverup
Shay, Jonathan. Achilles in Vietnam. New York, NY: Scriber, 1994.
Smith, Mary Elizabeth. “The Heart of Faith: An Exploration of Cardiac Vagal Tone and Spirituality.” Unpublished thesis, Master’s in Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Tasca, Cecilia, and Mariangela Rapetti, Maura Giovanni Carta, and Bianca Fadda. “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 2012, 8, 110-119
Townsend-Robinson, Joanna (2003). Expressing the Unspoken: Hysterical Performance as Radical Theatre, Women’s Studies: An Inter-disciplinary journal, 32:5, 533-557, DOI: 10.1080/00497870390207103