Unleashing My Inner Storyteller
by Juli Fraga
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”- Maya Angelou
“Speak up, dear, I can’t hear what you’re saying,” said Sister Isabelle, my first-grade teacher. Her words echoed the request of many adults in my life. As an introverted child, my words were often no louder than a whisper.
This drove my mother nuts. As an extrovert who made small talk with strangers at the grocery store, it was challenging for her to understand my more subdued personality. When we went to social gatherings, she coached me beforehand, “Be sure to speak up at the party, you never talk,” she said. She hoped her advice could help puncture my silence.
I wanted to share my voice, but I often felt as if my words were trapped somewhere deep inside of my body. At times I imagined that they were swirling around in my tummy, mixed with feelings of worry, accompanied by thoughts like, “What if they think what I have to say is silly?” “What if they don’t understand me?” As a way to quell my anxiety, silence became my Band-Aid. “People can’t hurt you if you don’t give them any ammunition,” I thought to myself.
And yet even in my shy demeanor, I stood out. I was the only Asian American girl among a Nebraska community of Caucasian women, my mother included. As an adopted child, the racial difference between my mother and I exposed our biological differences, too. Family friends, teachers and relatives asserted how I must feel as an adoptee; often they wove my narrative for me, assuming that their fantasies about my story were fact, not fiction.
“You must feel so lucky to live in America!” family friends often declared with glee.
“You must feel so grateful to have a real mother now,” they often said.
These platitudes left me feeling confused, ashamed and dehumanized. Without any information about my birth mother, my life story began mid-paragraph, and the way that others tried to write the first lines of my birth story felt intrusive as if my identity were being hijacked.
Yet in 1990, I found my savior. Oprah Winfrey. I’d rush home from school every day and turn on the television where I watched as Oprah sat on her peach colored leather sofa. She invited guests like Matt Damon, The Spice Girls, and Ben Affleck to share their stories with her. I was especially transfixed by an episode in which a spiritual medium talked with Oprah about healing your inner child. Even though I was just sixteen at the time, I figured that my inner child could use some healing, too.
By no surprise, when I left for college the following year, I majored in psychology and went on to graduate school to become a psychologist—a receiver of people’s stories. Daily, I witness the scenes of my patient’s lives, tuning into details that they may not have spoken about before. I help them rewrite the meaning of their narratives in a way that brings healing.
But, I didn’t always want to become a psychologist. I actually wanted to be a writer. As an English minor in college, I wrote short stories about my stepdad’s obsessions with ventriloquism, my parent’s painful divorce, and my narcissistic boyfriend.
“You should submit these for the Vreeland Award,” my English professor encouraged me.
But my insecurity thwarted this dream. Sequestering my desires as I often have, I decided to help others tell their stories by becoming a psychologist instead of pursuing an MFA to continue sharing mine. It wasn’t until 2008, eleven years after my college graduation that I rediscovered my need to write again. It was the birth of my daughter and the gift of motherhood that re-awoke this part of myself.
“What do I want to model for her?” I thought to myself.
Even though she was just an infant at the time, I wanted to let her know that you should always follow your aspirations and work hard to find your voice, no matter what. And so I began writing again. I started with her birth story and eventually wrote about my adoption.
As someone who’s always felt most comfortable with the written word instead of the spoken one, I notice that when I put my pen to paper, the shy girl inside of me moves off to the side. I no longer feel a swirl of anxiety in my stomach as I thread together my own words to tell my story.
In the end, my professions of psychologist and writer have taught me that our stories are the experiences that make us who we are. When they live inside of us without being told, we can spin the fiction any which way that we want. But, when we write our narratives, taking command of our words, we rewrite our life events in ways that spark emotions and insights that we never discovered before. At the end of the day, this is why I write. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, our words hold the clues to our being. By following the trail, we never know what we might discover along the way or what story we might tell.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times Motherlode, The Atlantic City Lab and the Washington Post.
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