Brand building through storytelling

Intimate strangers

I never knew his name, but I still think about the story he told me over microwaved chicken cacciatore on a flight from Vancouver to Toronto. He called himself a nomad, said he’d camped out in bachelor flats from coast. I could picture those look-alike apartments–a mattress on the floor, the fridge empty except for a six-pack and a dried-out slice of pizza, no one’s lipstick on the bathroom shelf. Pushing 40, he’d never been married, never even lived with a woman, though he cut a sharp figure in his expensive leather jacket and cowboy boots. I figured he was gay until he mentioned his first and only love—his grade 12 English teacher. She bore his child, a son. And when she left town with the baby, she made her young lover promise that he’d never try to see either of them again. His fatherhood was to remain a shameful secret.

Eighteen years passed before the son found a yellowed photo tucked inside a book–his mother with her arm around a smiling youth who could have been his double. “We’ve got to find my father,” he insisted. That’s how my seatmate came face to face with the son he thought he’d lost for good–a son the same age that he himself had been when the English teacher ended their affair. As he confided all this, wonderment softened his Marlboro-man features. “We’ve got the same walk, the same temper,” he said. “I think we’re going to be close. But you know, it’s funny. You’re one of the few people I’ve told about him.”

I used to wonder why people trust strangers with their secrets. Travellers hear confessions all the time; so do cabbies, bartenders, hair stylists, prostitutes and journalists like me. My notebooks brim with painful truths that had been kept from family and friends–from abusive parents and delinquent kids to entire bags of chocolate-chip cookies wolfed down on the sly. People who took pride in their poise would twist their wedding rings, grope for words, sometimes even weep. But more often than not, they would thank me for listening. All seemed to know that we would never meet again, and I once thought that this alone could explain their startling frankness.

Well, not quite. Whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us reach out toward self-revelation like a plant bending toward the sunlight. We want to be known–and accepted–as we really are, not just as we pretend to be. At the same time, we dread recrimination, and no wonder. Just look at the blame heaped on women who’ve been raped, the indignant disbelief that often greets accounts of sexual abuse. So we tend to play it safe. We tell our stories to a journal, or a stranger.

In fact, there’s a place where any story can be shared and where all stories are revealed as variations on the same themes–loss, longing, betrayal, self-hatred–whether they’re told by a teenage mother in faded sweats or briefcase-toting executive in a Donna Karan suit. It’s a support group like the Al-Anon meeting where I haltingly began to talk about my share my own secrets. The first time I spoke, it was to confess a lifelong grudge that I considered childish and petty. Would the group judge me harshly? I needn’t have worried. After a burst of empathetic laughter, several people owned up to similar feelings. I headed home calm and refreshed–like a swimmer emerging from a lake on a blistering August afternoon. Because the bottom line is this: coming clean with others does everyone a power of good. That’s why confession is key to the 12-step movement. It’s not enough to admit hard truths to God. You have to take the scarey plunge and tell another person.

If you’ve ever left a support group feeling 10 pounds lighter and an inch or two taller, you already know the comfort of confiding. But what you probably don’t know is that unburdening yourself may help your body as much as your mind. Simply put, the more freely you express your feelings, the healthier you’re likely to be. That’s the message of psychologist James W. Pennebaker in his inspiring and original book Opening Up (Avon, 1991).

Pennebaker’s not your typical self-help guru. A research scientist funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, he’s spent more than a decade comparing confiders to stiff-upper-lip types. There’s no mistaking the pattern. Surviving spouses of accident victims and suicides have fewer health problems in the year after bereavement if they share their grief with others. (“It didn’t matter how people’s spouses died,” says Pennebaker. “The most important dimension was whether they talked about the death.”) Holocaust survivors are healthier if they share traumatic memories instead of struggling in vain to forget. And these are just two of countless examples.

What makes confession so healing even when there’s no sympathetic listener? The reason is partly psychological: when you verbalize your pain, you’re forced to stop denying just how much it really hurt. This intense concentration often helps you figure out how the experience shaped you and what you can do about it now. But biological factors also come into play. Inhibition is so hard on the body that lie detector tests can pick up the markers: pounding heart, sweaty palms, rising blood pressure. Opening up has the opposite effect–what Pennebaker calls “the letting-go response.” There’s more good news in blood tests that his volunteers have taken before and after baring their souls. The “after” results showed rapid proliferation of white blood cells, the body’s defenders against disease.

My travelling companion on the 747 had surely heard none of this when he told me about his son. Like most North Americans, especially men, he’d been raised to keep the lid on. But he must have sensed that I wouldn’t judge him. After all, I’d been chatting about my own teenage son, and had made a few small confessions along the way–that I’d blown my cool too often over 30-minute showers and dirty dishes left on the couch, that I worried my son might be risking AIDS but wasn’t sure how to ask. My seatmate chuckled ruefully, “Me, too.” And a couple of hours later, he thanked me for listening to his story.

I’ll never know whether he took the father-son fishing trip he dreamed of that day. But I do know this. Whenever I need a reminder that second chances are for real, I think about the two of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should say, Thank you.

First published in Pathways, July/August, 1993. Copyright by Rona Maynard.

Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

March 01, 2010 at 4:04PM

Whenever I sit at an AA table I can feel myself unclenching from the inside out. When I timidly entered my first meeting 27 years ago I remember telling myself, “You don’t need to say anything. And if you do, you don’t need to talk about the worst parts.” I did both. There is no substitute for the purifying honesty and acceptance you find at a support group meeting. I’d always felt like a singular freak until I found AA. You explained it beautifully, Rona. We just want to be known.

Rona Maynard
March 01, 2010 at 4:04 PM

Deb, there are so few places dedicated to the knowing of complicated, fallible human beings. You’re lucky to have found one. The world is full of people who feel “like singular freaks” when in fact they have all kinds of unknown, silent company.

ruth pennebaker
March 04, 2010 at 6:06AM

Lovely story. How funny to read it now that we’ve gotten to know each other.

Rona Maynard
March 04, 2010 at 6:06 AM

Yes, indeed. And isn’t that your husband’s work I was citing?

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