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Lessons Learned Outside the Classroom
By Thomas J. Cottle, PhD

There is no question in my mind that those of us seeking to collect people’s stories and pass them on to a public we believe must hear them are both enlightened and transformed by our work. I suspect we all learn from the stories told or read to us by a host of storytellers. As others have written, perhaps all we are is contained in the stories we tell or write to others and ourselves; it is the quintessentially creative act of which we are all capable. Much of what we are and the source of much of our meaning can be found in the stories that have been told to us and continue to reside within us.

Over the years, I have written about the lives of people who, quite frankly, just caught my attention. Often I knew precisely the hook that lured me: unemployment, a dangerous secret a child was keeping, illness, poverty and homelessness, the premature death of a family member, or a certain school story—the words of a student, teacher, staff member, or administrator. More often than not, the lure evoked in me an almost childlike sense of unfairness—an unfairness that ought to have been prevented by someone or something.

Sometimes the stories are told, sometimes they are written. What follows is a letter from a daughter to her mother living on the other side of the country. The author, a 42-year-old married woman and mother of four children, was the victim of sexual abuse by her father, abuse that began when she was 4 years old and continued for 15 years. The letter is presented with the author’s approval. Names and places have been changed to preserve confidentiality, although the author did not make this request. In the letter, Fred is her father, and Cissy, Jason, Paul, and Mickey are her children. The other names are those of her siblings.

Dear Mom,

I don't know exactly where to begin. I know this isn't going to be easy to read or to write. The kids are all fine at the moment, knock on wood. We went through some real scares that I know Suze told you about, but everything is okay now.

I needed time by myself without you in order to start any kind of healing.

I got so tired of worrying that you'd call, crying about someone (Kate, Suze, etc.) or, worse yet, Fred. I wanted to hear nothing, know nothing at all about him, and yet you'd call and say, "Did you know the old man got married … had a baby girl … had a baby boy?” Your constant reminders were like rubbing salt into open wounds.

You called to cry about how Kate rejected two (not one, but two) sets of dishes you'd gotten her for her birthday. I never got gifts from you for my birthdays—just cards with $5 or $10 and apologies that it wasn't more, but you couldn't afford it. I'd rather have gotten some little trinket worth $2 or $3 than money. It would've shown more consideration, more caring. And when Kate had her hysterectomy, you babysat for her. You watched Phillip and Candy's and Elaine's kids, too. But when I told you I had to have surgery and would maybe be laid up for a few weeks, you didn't even offer to come out to help me. You didn’t even say, "I'd like to come out to help give you a hand, but I can't afford it."

What hurt the most was when, at thirteen, I told you what was going on. You said, "You're a sick little girl who should be institutionalized!" Those words echo in my mind every day of my life. I can't begin to imagine not believing my own daughter. Then, years later when I was pregnant with Paul, you came to me and said you were ready to listen, to believe me, to stand by me. My sisters and brothers would stand by me, too. What a joke!

Two weeks later you were back with him in Nebraska. Yeah, you really stood by me, right? My sisters and brother blamed me to some extent, too. And after I tried to protect them from him, from the pain I'd endured all my life. I know Elaine and Suze have since forgiven me. I didn't need any more guilt than I already had. The biggest guilt of all was that I didn't have the courage to kill him myself and end everyone's suffering for good.

Listening to your lame excuses of why you went back to him made me sick. You said you wanted to make sure us kids got something from him after he died. I didn't want anything from that evil animal. Saying you had no place to go was a bunch of crap, too. For years, Kate, Phillip, Elaine, and I told you we would do whatever we could to help you. Finally, when you heard about repressed memories I'd had that sent me to the psychiatric hospital, you once again said I was lying, that it never happened, that I'd seen too many movies or read too many books. Your denial was overwhelming.

Why shouldn’t I have gone through a period of hating you? I took a lot of flack from people over that one. But those were my feelings, right or wrong. I really don't care about any negatives anyone might have toward me. Dr. Daniels kept saying he didn't buy that I hated you. Anger, yes. Hate, no. I can't believe it's been four years that he's been working with me, and I still have a ways to go.

In any event, I'm now ready to move on to the next level, whatever the hell that is. I guess it starts with forgiving you. I have been feeling a tremendous need for a mother in my life these past few months. William corrects me by saying, "Not a mother, your mother." Okay, so he's right. There's been such a void in my life, especially with everything that's gone on the last two and a half years. Cissy's problems have been mind boggling, Jason's problems, Mickey's health problems.

Word has it through the grapevine that you miss me too and want things the way they were between us. Well, I don't; I want them better! I don't want surface appearances. I want to feel it comes from the heart. I do need you, Mom, but I need you to work with me too—not just for myself but for you too. I know you need help desperately, whether you realize it or not. Not just for a month or two but for however long it takes to stop the pain and suffering, not to mention the guilt you feel.

I am sorry for hurting your feelings, but I needed to break away in order to start any kind of healing. I am writing this to ask you to come live with us for as long as you want, which I would hope would be a long time—time enough to mend, or rather start, a relationship that will take us to the point of not only mother and daughter but friends as well. The others have had you out there all these years, now I think it's our turn for a while.

I think you'll like Oakville. It's nothing like Fenton. It's more like Canesburg, only smaller. It's more a country-type setting where we live. Our house is big and beautiful, with five bedrooms now, so we have plenty of room. You'd have the use of my car and time, too. Think about what I've said and if you decide you want to come out, just pick up the phone and call or write back if you'd rather. I'll be waiting to hear your decision. I don't really hate you; I was just very angry inside. I do love you and miss you!

Making Meaning
I am reminded of an observation by Robert Kegan, PhD: What makes us human is the act of making meaning. An event occurs, but it is the act of constructing a meaning of the event that causes it to find a home in our memories.

Kegan’s notion dovetails with the writing of philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who suggested that what humans seek to discover through this process of making meaning is the meaning of being human. Oakeshott views this activity as a function of instruction and contends that teachers of all varieties contribute to this discovery of our humanness—and not all of these teachers are found in the classroom.

Looking back, I see quite a few of my own teachers, in and outside the classroom, contributing to my efforts to figure out the meaning of being human. Some of my own calculations about myself are derived from conversations with all sorts of people, all of them offering me bits of their lives and, like me, attempting to discover meanings, transform events into experiences, and feel the provocative idea that quite possibly we are what we have learned.

—Thomas J. Cottle, PhD, is a professor of education at Boston University. His recent books include At Peril: Stories of Injustice; Hardest Times: The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment; Beyond Self-Esteem: Narratives of Self-Knowledge and Devotion to Others; and the forthcoming Drawing Life: Narratives and the Sense of Self.