Why We Tell Stories

I’m working on a memoir. It started as an account of the ten years (1956-1966) my twin brother Dave and I spent at Overbrook, a residential school for the blind in Philadelphia. Although I now have a clearer vision of what drives this book and where it’s going, thanks to years of wrong turns and much soul-searching, all I knew when I started it was that we at Overbrook had great stories to tell, that most people would not have grown up the way we did, and that I didn’t want those stories to be lost. In telling them on paper, I came to wonder why we “inmates” told them to each other back then, even though most of us already knew most of them.

In One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Scheherazade spins tales every night to keep her husband, King Shahyar, from having her executed in the morning. Certainly, none of us, as far as we knew, was in mortal danger, but storytelling kept us alive, at least in the metaphorical or spiritual sense. If that sounds too dramatic, put it like this: those stories, as in The Canterbury Tales, entertained us through the many miles of boredom and hardship, the day-after-day of being separated from home. Of course, we weren’t on a pilgrimage; we hadn’t chosen this. It felt more like exile but, like a pilgrimage, it was an arduous journey which would change our lives forever.

We told stories to make each other laugh. We learned early on that content didn’t necessarily make or break the story; it was the telling of it that mattered most. So, mimicking the voices and mannerisms of all our characters, we told them: on benches in a cold cloister, on belt swings in the sweltering sun, stuck in a holding pattern outside the infirmary, or with our behinds stuffed into the bottoms of our wooden lockers, killing time until commanded to line up for dinner on a rainy afternoon.

Maybe we told stories to our comrades because we knew the others would believe them, having experienced them, too. Or if they hadn’t experienced them, they’d heard them so many times, told by so many different friends, that they almost came to believe they had experienced them. Maybe we told them to each other because we knew that those at home would find it hard to think we hadn’t made them up. Of course, we also had our own incredulity in telling them. Many of the stories made us laugh, giving us a little distance from the incredible. When they didn’t, they gave us a chance to move one small step closer to absorbing the horror. The theme of most stories—the subtext, that is—was “can you believe that?”

“Can you believe they got away with that?”
“Can you believe she did that to them?”
“Can you believe she actually said that to him?”

We told and retold how my brother and Tom Galante, in their pajamas and on hands and knees, went all the way around the cloistered garden, on its roof, narrowly eluding a suspicious night-watchman and barely getting back through the dormitory windows before Mrs. Hottenstein undertook a room to room search.

We never tired of telling how Mrs. King, the school’s matron, made all of Burrett Cottage line up with their backs to the wall to witness her breaking three yardsticks over as many boys.

We repeated, in a cold sweat, that some boys heard Miss McCall say, “I hope, when you have swimming today, you go down three times and come up twice” to Chester Kowalski on the morning he drowned.

I am no scientist, no professional psychologist, but I have a gut feeling that, based on what I observed at Overbrook, those who told stories survived the experience of boarding school with more of their courage and humanity intact.

I understand why veterans love to get together periodically to reminisce. Telling their stories now is living proof that they survived. We didn’t have to survive impending death; we were only waiting for the weekend. At least, that was true for those who lived close enough to get home. At age four, when we were first dropped off at Overbrook, the weekend might as well have been Godot. We didn’t understand time, so we didn’t know when Friday would come. Still, we had some idea that it would come and we knew that the people for whom we waited did in fact exist. Those early years, I am not quite sure how we got from Sunday to Friday, except by living from moment to moment, looking forward to the next time out on the playground, wondering whose 45 would drop down the spindle of the automatic record changer next, deciphering slowly one word after another in a new book. But when we got old enough to have witnessed the art of storytelling, we adopted it as a way to get by. Before we had ever heard of Gogo and Didi, those two absurd characters waiting by a scrawny tree day after day, we had discovered something they already knew about the benefit of telling stories: “It will pass the time.”