Telling Stories Out Of School An Essay On Legal Narratives Of Heroic Deeds


Telling Stories about Rosa Parks

by Michael Schudson | August 18, 2012 | Summer 2012

We tend to picture the civil rights heroine Rosa Parks as an ordinary person who possessed unusual grace, dignity, and Christian piety.

We think of her as someone who, spontaneously and with little thought for her own safety or self-interest, followed her conscience and refused to submit to unjust Jim Crow laws of segregation on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her simple act—refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, even on pain of arrest—invigorated the movement that fundamentally changed American life.

One version of the story, from a 1991 elementary school social studies textbook, goes as follows:

When Rosa Parks rode on a bus, she had to sit all the way in the back. Her city had a law. It said black people could not sit in the front of a bus.

One day Rosa was tired. She sat in the front. The bus driver told her to move. She did not. He called the police. Rosa was put in jail.

Some citizens tried to help. One of them was Martin Luther King, Jr. The citizens decided to stop riding buses until the law was changed.

Their plan worked. The law was changed. Soon, many other unfair laws were changed. Rosa Parks led the way!

Why is this story of Rosa Parks the one that has become popularly known? Why was this the story that began to circulate even while the bus boycott was in progress, becoming part of American culture and historical memory? Was it because the story is true? Or was it because Rosa Parks (or others close to her at the time) told the story this way? Or did this version of events become dominant because it was useful for those who decided to pass it on? Or finally, did it become popular because it fit a cultural template about the power of individuals?

All of these hypotheses may help to explain what I will call the Standard Rosa Parks Story. But the prevalence of the story cannot be reduced to its veracity, to the power of personal witness, to social utility, to cultural “fit,” or even to a combination of all of these factors.

There is also a Revised Standard Rosa Parks Story that is as indignant as the standard story is inspiring. It suggests that the standard account is inaccurate, and profoundly misleading in its omissions. Parks did not sit in the front of the bus. That would have been a provocative act, and asking for trouble. Rather, she sat in the first row of the section for blacks, where whites could sit if other seats in the white section were taken. This detail is important because it makes clear that Parks’s defiance was not premeditated; she did not choose a seat in order to be arrested.

What is also omitted and implicitly denied by the Standard Story is that Rosa Parks was a dedicated civil rights activist. Her husband Raymond had protested the prosecution of the Scottsboro boys in the 1930s, and had been a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rosa herself was a long-time NAACP member, and in 1955, the secretary of the Montgomery chapter. She was an advisor of its youth group. In the summer of 1955, she participated in a civil rights training workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

The Montgomery NAACP had been seeking a test case to challenge the segregated bus system. They considered 15-year-old Claudette Colvin when she was arrested for violating the bus segregation rules on March 2, 1955, but a single, pregnant teenager did not strike NAACP leaders as someone able to withstand the publicity, harassment, and emotional trauma that taking such a case to trial would present. Three other black women were arrested for the same infraction in the following months, but it was only with the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1 that NAACP leaders were convinced they had the case they wanted.

The educator Herbert Kohl, championing the Revised Story, has written, “To call Rosa Parks a poor, tired seamstress and not talk about her role as a community leader as well is to turn an organized struggle for freedom into a personal act of frustration. It is a thorough misrepresentation of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, and an insult to Mrs. Parks as well.” In his 2005 book examining how the story of Rosa Parks has been told in school books, Kohl suggested this revised version for children:

It was 1955. Everyone in the African American community in Montgomery, Alabama, knew Rosa Parks. She was a community leader, and people admired her courage. All throughout her life she had opposed prejudice, even if it got her into trouble.

This is reasonably consistent with the known facts of the case, and of the life of Rosa Parks.

What this suggests is that the Standard Rosa Parks Story has become familiar not because it is true. In important ways it is untrue and misleading. More truthful accounts are readily available. So why did the Standard Rosa Parks Story, rather than the Revised Standard alternative account, become so well known?

The Many Faces of Rosa Parks

Not all books for children omit Mrs. Parks’ political activism. David A. Adler’s 1993 A Picture Book of Rosa Parks, illustrated by Robert Casilla, is straightforwardly biographical, beginning with “Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913.” It follows her life chronologically, noting Rosa’s marriage to Raymond Parks, “a barber and a man active in the struggle for the rights of African Americans.” It notes that she joined the NAACP in the 1940s, and was soon elected secretary of the Montgomery branch.

In contrast, Meet Rosa Parks, by Patricia A. Pingry, and illustrated by Steven Walker, is a 2008 picture book that begins: “Little Rosa Parks was walking home from school one day.” It establishes Rosa’s sense of justice as a child. It notes that “she joined Raymond in helping the black people of Montgomery. They helped them when they were sick. They helped them when they were broke. They helped them when they were arrested.” The book personalizes and depoliticizes her charitable efforts.

A prize-winning version by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier, and simply called Rosa, published in 2005, notes the pivotal role in launching the bus boycott played by Jo Ann Robinson, an African American professor at Alabama State and president of the Women’s Political Council. But it says nothing of Parks’s organized political activities. Describing the day of December 1, 1955, it politicizes her exhaustion: “She realized she was tired. Not tired from work but tired of putting white people first. Tired of stepping off sidewalks to let white people pass, tired of eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools.” Here Rosa Parks has a strong sense of justice, but not a record of political action.

Each of these books is eloquent in its own way. While they are better than most of the school books Kohl cites, it is easy to share Kohl’s indignation that Pingry and Giovanni, like most other accounts, reduce or eliminate the role of organized political action. They thereby foster a sense that history is a matter of individual motivation, and individual fault or achievement, and not of more complicated social processes.

They do not explicitly deny that Rosa Parks was a political activist. Kohl cites a work that does, by the best-selling spiritual writer, Robert Fulghum. In a 1988 essay, Fulghum discusses how Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat when commanded by the bus driver, and notes: “Rosa Parks. Not an activist or a radical. Just a quiet, conservative, churchgoing woman
with a nice family and a decent job as a seamstress.” Fulghum drew from the pool of common lore available in the Standard Rosa Parks Story, and he is not alone. In commemorative addresses
after Parks died in 2005, activists, civil rights leaders, and politicians of every stripe recited versions of that story again and again, as proof that a single individual acting alone can change the world. But as sociologist Aldon Morris observed in his 1984 study of the civil rights movement, “Mrs. Parks was deeply rooted in the black protest tradition.”

The Revised Standard tale restores politics to the story of Rosa Parks. It restores the importance of community. It restores social, as opposed to strictly individual, action. But the belief that the Standard Story dominates because it fits a highly individualistic American culture is too glib. Though mainstream American culture is famously individualistic, this does not explain everything, least of all the rhetoric that treasures and even fetishizes “family,” “church,” and “community,” and that touts teamwork (“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’”) in high school and college sports and in corporate culture.

To understand the triumph of the Standard Rosa Parks Story, we need to go deeper.

Strategic Spontaneity

Sociologist Francesca Polletta’s study of the culture of social movements, including the civil rights movement, shows that social movement participants have often understood their own experience in terms of spontaneous action. She calls attention to the four black students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College whose sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 launched the sit-ins that spread to 54 cities in nine states in only two months.

One of the four students, Franklin McCain, later explained: “Four guys met, planned, and went into action. It was just that simple.” Well, he should know. But why did he fail to mention that all four were members of Greensboro’s NAACP Youth Council? Or that they were in communication with leaders of 1950s sit-ins elsewhere in North Carolina? “Why,” Polletta asks, “do activists so often describe protest as sprung from the head of Zeus, ignoring or downright denying the planning that preceded it? Why do they cast themselves not as strategic actors, but as swept up by forces over which they have no control?”

Rosa Parks’s earliest explanation of her act of defiance, like that of Franklin McCain, emphasized its spontaneity. Here is a radio interview (with Sidney Rogers) on Pacifica Radio in April 1956, a few months after her arrest, and while the bus boycott was still going on:

Rogers: Well, Mrs. Parks, had you planned this?
Parks: No, I hadn’t.
Rogers: It just happened.
Parks: Yes, it did.
Rogers: Well, had there been many times before in your life when you thought that maybe you were going to do just that kind of thing?
Parks: I hadn’t thought that I would be the person to do this. It hadn’t occurred to me.
Rogers: But don’t you suppose you and many others also thought one time or another you were going to do this thing, sooner or later?
Parks: Well, we didn’t know just what to expect. In our area we always tried to avoid trouble and be as careful as possible to stay out of trouble, along this line. I want to make very certain that it is understood that I had not taken a seat in the white section as has been reported in many cases.

Here we see that Franklin McCain and Rosa Parks insisted that their actions were spontaneous. The question of “spontaneity” in social protest, and specifically in the civil rights movement, has long been a topic of interest. The question was forced upon civil rights activists by their adversaries, who railed that the only reason the movement spread was that “outside agitators”—northerners, communists, outsiders, and subversives—had stirred up the South’s contented “Negroes.” Activists therefore emphasized their spontaneity as evidence that their protests were independent of outside forces. It was vital for activists to appear moderate, non-threatening, and un-pre-meditated when their actions exposed them to terrorist rage, violence, and murder.

This helps explain why, in telling their stories, activists edited out their own political involvement. But, there is more. As Polletta suggests, stories are not only strategic devices. They are also efforts to “make sense of the unfamiliar.” They “assimilate confusing events into familiar frameworks.” Sit-in participants told and retold the story of their own actions as “spontaneous,” “exploding,” “welling up,” and “like a fever,” all in an attempt to capture “the indefinable moment when a group of separate individuals became a collective actor.”

The meetings of the NAACP Youth Council help explain Franklin McCain’s heroism just as Rosa Parks’s political activity helps explain hers, but it is not sufficient. The actions they took generated some surplus meaning that is not accounted for by prior social networks and political organizing. There is an element of chemistry or magic here, or, at any rate, something that feels like chemistry or magic to the participants. When they try to put that “magic” into words, activists are drawn to language that goes beyond planning and preparation.

When Parks herself wrote a memoir (with writer Jim Haskins) decades after 1955, she told her story as a response to those that had already grown up around her: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” This is the Rosa Parks that Nikki Giovanni’s book echoes. This is the Rosa Parks Aldon Morris encountered when he interviewed her in 1981.

This is not to say, in her account with Haskins, that she imagined that she would become the test case the NAACP had sought. “I did not think about that at all. In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus. But I chose to remain.”

The Revised Standard Rosa Parks Story offers a political analysis of the shortcomings of the Standard Story. Polletta’s work gives us the basis for a sociological analysis, one that helps us understand why participants in social movements may offer depoliticized accounts of their own actions.

But there’s still more: participants who tell their stories are seeking not only to explain their own behavior to themselves, but they are also trying to present themselves to specific audiences in specific interactional situations.

Political Storytelling

Telling a story is a social interaction, not an abstract or ivory-tower chronicling of history. Social interaction works within a variety of constraints, and there is a norm of linguistic modesty. The telling of a personal story implies egotism and is likely to make most speakers a bit uncomfortable. This discomfort can be deflected if the teller resorts to a kind of “anyone in the same position would have done the same thing” view.

In a related phenomenon, sociologist Nina Eliasoph shows that public-spirited people hide their public-spirited selves. Why? Because abiding by a “political etiquette” shows humility. To emphasize one’s own “public spirit” implies knowing what other people should do, possessing some moral insight that others do not have. This is implicitly undemocratic, “high horse,” and presumptuous. Therefore the political activists Eliasoph interviewed were more likely to explain their political engagement as stemming from self-interest than as arising from principles. It is not that this was instrumentally orchestrated to win support or affection: “political avoidance was a culture, not a strategy,” Eliasoph concluded. That may describe Rosa Parks and Franklin McCain, too. The dynamics of public discourse may be better understood through the microsociology of Erving Goffman than through the power-centered macrosociology of Karl Marx and other theorists.

So, three factors help explain why the Standard Rosa Parks Story became pervasive even among participants in the civil rights movement. First, it was an effort to deflect criticism that the movement was driven by outsider agitators, and not by people resisting injustice they themselves have experienced. Second, it was an attempt to account for behavior participants themselves did not fully understand. Third, it conformed to the norm of political etiquette: linguistic modesty allowed activists to avoid appearing arrogant or morally presumptuous.

For all of these reasons, political activists have cooperated in promoting a tale that captures less actual lead-up to decisive political action than sociologists find credible. The roots of the Standard Rosa Parks Story lie not in an attempt to serve a dominant culture, but to deflect dangerous criticism, to understand activists’ own inspiration, and to manifest modesty.

Over time, the conditions for telling the stories of political heroism change, becoming part of the work of preserving and passing on historical memories. Pre-school children to whom picture books are addressed, and elementary-school students, are encouraged to love Rosa Parks and to believe that anyone can change the world—if only they embody virtue, faith, charity, goodness, and courage. This is a noble and democratic sentiment. And it is no wonder that Rosa Parks has become its embodiment.

But Herbert Kohl and others rightly criticize this narrative. Marian Wright Edelman, a leading figure in a next generation of civil rights leaders, writes in an introduction to Kohl’s book: “Putting Mrs. Parks’s story in its full context allows children to get a much fuller sense of the kinds of planned activism and community action that happened in small towns and larger cities across the South during the civil rights movement.” But then Edelman turns around, emphasizing that children should know that “courageous leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, and that they weren’t superhumans with magical powers. They were ordinary people, just like all of the other parents, neighbors, and ministers in the community, and like all of the familiar adults in our children’s lives today.”

Edelman, then, valiantly seeking to endorse the Revised Story, winds up giving equal weight to the Standard Story. This is just as well. There is much value in the familiar Rosa Parks story. But no one, at least no adult, should fail to know that Rosa Parks was brave, not just in one transformative moment, but in the many years leading up to it. Her lifetime led to that moment, even as the moment transcended her lifetime and endowed it with more meaning than a single story can easily contain.

Recommended Resources

Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks (Penguin, 2000). An excellent brief biography of Rosa Parks.

Kohl, Herbert. She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (New Press, 2005). Provides a critical study of the portrayal of Rosa Parks in school textbooks.

Schwartz, Barry. “Collective Forgetting and the Symbolic Power of Oneness: The Strange Apotheosis of Rosa Parks,” Social Psychology Quarterly (2009), 72:123-142. A fine essay that highlights how “history” and “commemoration” differ.


Michael Schudson is a sociologist who teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. He is the author of The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.

Julia Chaitin

July 2003

Stories, Narratives, and Storytelling

"...I have given several dozens of talks, often to Jewish audiences about the work of the TRT. Invariably there will be at least one person in the audience who angrily wonders why I want to "help THEM?" It has become clear to me that listening to each others' stories in a safe setting is tremendously healing. This healing can only happen when members from both sides come together... It is so easy to remain submerged in the pain and anger, even hatred, and to become attached to the victim role... I simply had to confront these issues, because I have three daughters, and I absolutely did not want them to hate an entire nation based on historical events..." --  A member of TRT (To Reflect and Trust -- an international dialogue group, comprised of descendants of Nazi perpetrators and Holocaust survivors; Palestinians and Israelis; Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland; and blacks and whites from South Africa)

People are storytellers -- they tell narratives about their experiences and the meanings that these experiences have for their lives. All cultures and societies also possess their own stories or narratives about their past and their present, and sometimes about their view of the future. These narratives include stories of greatness and heroism, or stories of periods characterized by victimhood and suffering. In this module, we will explore different aspects of storytelling and narratives and look at their connection to conflicts, reconciliation, and peacebuilding.

According to Webster's dictionary, a narrative is"a discourse, or an example of it, designed to connect a succession of happenings."[1] Adding the definition offered by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,[2] we learn that a narrative is "a story or description of actual or fictional events; or the act, technique or process of narrating." Taken together, then, a story or a narrative combines either real or imagined events that connect in such a way to provide a chain of events that are recounted to others. Over the last 20 years, there has been an upsurge in the study of narratives in the social sciences in general, and in the study of conflicts and peacebuilding in particular. This relatively recent emphasis on the narrative and its focal position in human lives has been termed "the narrative turn."[3]

Features of Stories

The psychologist and narrative scholar Dan McAdams notes that people expect a story to have a number of features.[4] All stories or narratives have a setting, which is usually made clear early on. While not all stories develop their settings, some evoke vivid associations of particular times or places. When the setting is ambiguous, the listener or reader of the story may feel confused or disoriented. The second element is characters -- the players in the action.As the story proceeds, we learn certain basic information about the characters in the story -- what they look like, how old they are, their dreams and wishes, etc. Thirdly, we expect a story to have at least one plot -- actions which have consequences and reactions to these consequences by and for the characters. A story may contain one episode or may have a sequence of episodes that includes the basic elements noted above. In a story, an initiating event leads to an attempt on the part of a character. The consequence gives rise to a reaction. Episodes follow one another, building on one another as the story takes form. Within this basic story structure, there are numerous variations and conventions which can enhance a story's tension. As tension builds across episodes, we desire an eventual resolution of the problem faced by one or more of the characters. This relief occurs in the climax, or turning point in the story, followed by the denouement.[5]


One kind of story is a myth -- a story that gains wide acceptance and is often deemed sacred for its ability to communicate a fundamental truth about life. Such a story may be incorporated into different levels: the individual, group, family, organization, society, and/or culture. Myths contain archetypal symbols that help make us conscious of and curious about our origins and destiny and they capture a society's basic psychological, sociological, cosmological, and metaphysical truths.[6] In short, myths reflect the most important concerns of a people, and they help preserve the culture's integrity.[7]

The use of myths in nationalistic-based conflicts has been explored by the political scientist and analyst van Evera.[8] This scholar has noted that when nationalist movements embrace self-glorifying or other-denigrating myths about its own or others' conduct and character, then their nationalism becomes more dangerous and may more easily lead to violent conflict.


Additional insights into narratives and storytelling are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Narratives/stories are produced in order to be recounted to others. McAdams notes a few basic aspects of storytelling -- the oral or written sharing of our stories with others.[9] A culture's "stories create a shared history, linking people in time and event as actors, tellers, and audience."[10] Stories are not merely chronicles of what happened; they are more about meanings. As people talk about the past in a subjective and embellished way, the past is continually reconstructed.[11] This history is judged to be true or false, not solely with respect to its adherence to empirical fact, but with respect to narrative criteria such as believability and coherence.

Jerome Bruner has argued that one of the ways in which people understand their world is through the "narrative mode" of thought, which is concerned with human wants, needs, and goals.[12] The narrative mode deals with the dynamics of human intentions; when in this mode, we seek to explain events by looking at how human actors (including ourselves) strive to do things over time. As we comprehend these actions, we see what obstacles were encountered and which intentions were realized or frustrated.

People are drawn to stories for a number of reasons: they can entertain us, help us organize our thoughts, fill us with emotion, keep us in suspense, or instruct us in how to live and act. They also often present dilemmas concerning what is moral and immoral behavior. At times, stories can also heal us when we feel "broken" or ill, moving us toward new psychological understandings of self and our social world. This is the case, for example, when mental health professionals employ narrative therapy in their work with their clients in order to help them to reframe their life story in a more holistic and integrative way than it was in the past.[13]

Telling one's story, through oral or written means, has been shown to be a key experience in people's lives, especially those who have undergone severe social trauma. This has been the case for many of the thousands of Holocaust survivors who have given their testimonies in institutions around the world such as Yale University,[14] the Survivors of the Holocaust Visual History Foundation project, and Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum and memorial in Israel. While the storytelling of their traumatic past does not always have a healing effect for the survivors, it opens up channels of thoughts, feelings, and communication that have often been closed for years. Having the opportunity to recount one's traumatic past to an empathic listener, especially when one can integrate the traumas into present-day life, can often lead to the telling of deeply personal stories that may have been previously "forgotten" or "denied."[15]

Storytelling has also been used by Palestinians to recount the suffering that they have incurred since they were dispossessed of their land over the years.[16] These stories often include experiences of deportation/escape, life in the camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and dreams of returning to their former homes.

Storytelling in Conflict Situations

The recounting of personal stories in situations, which aim to reduce inter-group conflicts and to enhance peacebuilding and reconciliation between adversaries, has been used within the last decade in a number of contexts around the world. Perhaps the most famous context is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in South Africa in 1995 in order to start healing some of the deep wounds of the Apartheid years.[17] The main vehicle of the TRC for this purpose was public storytelling: "...The objectives of the Commission shall be to promote national unity and reconciliation in a spirit of understanding which transcends the conflicts...of the past by...establishing as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights which were committed during the period... including... the perspectives of the victims and the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of the violations...the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective...and ...making known the fate or whereabouts of victims and by restoring the human and civil dignity of such victims by granting them an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations of which they are the victims..."[18]

Storytelling and narratives have been used since the 1990s to reduce conflicts and work toward reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, blacks and whites in South Africa, Palestinians and Israelis, and between descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators. Two examples of institutions/groups in which I am involved that use stories and storytelling for these purposes are PRIME -- the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East and the TRT -- To Reflect and Trust.

PRIME is a jointly run Palestinian-Israeli research non-governmental organization (NGO) that undertakes cooperative social research that studies issues that have great importance for both peoples. Research projects are designed to explore crucial psycho-social and educational aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to use the findings for peacebuilding work. Two of PRIME's current projects involve narratives and storytelling, albeit in very different ways.

The objectives of PRIME's Oral History Refugee Project are two-fold -- one short-term and one long-term. A joint Palestinian-Israeli team is currently collecting life history interviews from Jewish-Israelis who once were either refugees from the Holocaust or from their North African and Asian homelands, in which they were persecuted. The Jewish-Israelis who are being interviewed moved from the refugee status to citizen status in Israel, establishing settlements in places that were once Arab villages/land. The Palestinian biographers have been refugees since the events of 1948 (statehood, and the War of Independence for Israel, "the catastrophe" -- Al Naqba for the Palestinians) and currently live in refugee camps in the West Bank, some of which came from areas where the Jewish-Israeli biographers have lived for the past 50 years. All of the interviews are being videotaped and will be readied for entry into computers so that researchers, educators, and students will be able to view the interviews in their entirety.

The long-term objective is to learn from these encounters in order to design and run educational activities for young people and peacebuilding encounters between the refugees and/or their descendants. In these activities, the Palestinians will visit places where their homes once were and the Israelis will visit refugee camps where the Palestinians now live. Perhaps more importantly, the encounters are planned to allow the participants to share their life stories with one another and together look for ways to work toward decreased hatred and violence between the two peoples and increased understanding of the other. We see this project as having the potential to be an important step in peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians. It is our hope that the collection and telling of personal narratives will serve as a regional truth and reconciliation process that will run parallel to the formal peace process. Unfortunately, Israelis and Palestinians tend to be unaware of many aspects of their joint history and of the suffering of the other. The narrated, computerized testimonies will make it possible for children, educators, researchers, and the public at large to use these stories for peacebuilding purposes.

The second project, Writing the Shared History, involves Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli high school teachers who are jointly preparing a textbook, in both Hebrew and Arabic, that will present the narratives of both sides on a number of key social-political-historical events (e.g. the 1948 war, the first Intifada, etc.). Each side's narratives are being translated into the other's language, with blank pages left for the students to write down their thoughts, feelings, and understandings of the texts. The textbooks will be used in conjunction with class discussions and activities that will aim toward a reduction in animosity and hatred of the other.

The idea for the joint textbook of historical narratives grew out of the knowledge that in periods of intractable conflicts, nations tend to teach their children their own narratives (often through the vehicle of textbooks) as the only correct one, while completely ignoring their enemy's narratives. If they do include the enemy narrative, it is always presented as being wrong and unjustifiable. These textbooks, which also include [nation-legitimized knowledge, convince children that there is a necessity to continue to dehumanize the enemy, and this leads to the development of negative attitudes and values toward the other. This state of affairs is very clear in the Palestinian-Israeli situation and has been studied in the joint research of Palestinian and Israeli history textbooks undertaken by Firer (an Israeli) & Adwan (a Palestinian).[19]

As in the Oral History Refugee Project, it is our hope that the experience gained from Writing the Shared History will help in the future when both Palestinians and Israelis are ready to return to dialogue, as opposed to violent means, as the main vehicle of intergroup interaction.

The second framework in which I am involved that uses storytelling as its main mode of work is the TRT -- To Reflect and Trust.[20] The TRT is an international organization that began in 1992 as an encounter group between descendants of Nazi perpetrators and of Jewish Holocaust survivors. These individuals met together in a self-supporting atmosphere to tell one another their life stories in an attempt to better work through (that is, learn to live with) their pasts, in particular their parents' experiences during WWII.[21] In 1998, the TRT invited former/present enemies from Northern Ireland, Palestine/Israel, and South Africa to join their work. Publications, documentary movies,[22] and several year-round projects have resulted from the decade of work of the TRT.

The TRT meets once a year, each time in the country of one of the conflict groups, for a week-long seminar. Group members are comprised of practitioners, educators, researchers, artists, and community workers. In these encounters, the members of the group, who facilitate themselves, sit together in small groups and tell one another their life histories, within the context of their conflict. While telling one's story is a major aspect of the TRT meetings, empathically listening to the story of the "enemy" comprises the main, and extremely difficult, work of the members. The TRT refrains from entering into political dialogues, which have been shown to hinder dialogue, rather than encourage it.[23] Learning to contain the stories of the other, to hear their pain and to legitimize their narrative, while not negating your own pain and story, is the main work and "product" of the TRT process.

The TRT process appears to be a mode of group work that resonates with peoples from many different areas of conflict. It has been shown to be successful in that it has duplicated itself, albeit with modifications relevant for each group, in different contexts and settings. Perhaps the best-known offspring of the TRT is Towards Healing and Understanding, an organization establishedin Northern Ireland that has run a number of residentials (overnight conferences) and seminars.[24]

Summary and Conclusions

Stories, narratives, and storytelling are central aspects of all cultures. They play key roles both in the escalation and potentially the de-escalation of intergroup conflicts. In order for the storytelling to be effective, it must engage the self and other, and provide a narrative that is both cognitively and emotionally compelling. While denigrating myths of the other and self-aggrandizing myths of self can refuel the winds of hate, the open and honest recounting of one's life story, and the willingness to be an empathic listener for the other, even if this other has caused your group suffering and pain in the past, can open the door for peacebuilding and coexistence.

[1] Webster's Third International Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1966), 1503.

[2] American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (1966) 873.

[3] McAdams, D.P., Josselson, R. & Lieblich, A., eds. Turns in the Road: Narrative Studies of Lives in Transition (American Psychological Association, 2001).

[4] McAdams, D.P. The Stories We Live By (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993).

[5] ibid, 25-26.

[6] McAdams, 1993.

[7] Levi-Strauss, C. The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology (Vol. 1) (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

[8] Van Evera, S. "Hypotheses on nationalism and war." International Security 18, no. 4 (1994): 5-39.

[9] McAdams, 1993.

[10] Ibid, 28.

[11] Yehezkel, A. La'arog et Sipor Hachaim (Keter: Jerusalem, 1955), (in Hebrew).

[12] Bruner, J. Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

[13] For example, White, M. Narrative Therapy [on-line]. Available from Accessed November 6, 2002.

[14] Langer, L. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

[15] Bar-On, D. & Chaitin, J. Parenthood and the Holocaust. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2001).

[16] For example, Lynd, S., Bahour, S. & Lynd, A. eds. Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1994).

[17] Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Available at Accessed January 29, 2003.

[18] No. 34 of 1995: promotion of national unity and reconciliation act, 1995. [on-line] Available at Accessed January 29, 2003.

[19] Adwan, S. & Firer, R. The narrative of Palestinian Refugees During the War of 1948 in Israeli and Palestinian History and Civic Education Textbooks (UNESCO, Paris, 1997); Adwan, S and Firer, R. The Narrative of the 1967 war in the Israeli and Palestinian History and Civics Textbooks and Curricula Statement. (Georg eckert Institute: Braunschwieg, Germany, 1999); Adwan, S. and Firer, R. The Narrative of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict In History and Civics Textbooks and Curricula Statement. (Georg Eckert Institute: Braunschwieg, Germany, 2000).

[20] Bar-On, D., ed. Bridging the Gap: Storytelling as a Way to Work Through Political and Collective Hostilities. [on-line] (Hamburg : Korber-Stiftung, 2000). Available at

[21] Bar-On, D. & Kassem, F. Storytelling as a way to work-through intractable conflicts: The German-Jewish experience and its relevance to the Palestinian -- Israeli context (2002).

[22] Time Watch. Children of the Third Reich. (London: BBC production, 1993).

[23] Steinberg, S. & Bar-On, D. "An analysis of the group process in encounters between Jews and Palestinians using a typology for discourse classification." International Journal of Intercultural Relations 26, (2002), 199-214.

[24] Haughey and Leslie address international peace conference. News Releases: The Office of First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. [on-line] Available from Accessed November 8, 2002.

Use the following to cite this article:
Chaitin, Julia. "Narratives and Storytelling." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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