Seven Stories Told Mal

This is the last of four posts using stories from Peary Street to explain the first of twelve ways that storytelling defines creativity in the way we talk to each other, a process that I call symmentropy.

First rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling promotes understanding and meaning (part 4)

“My fondest wish is that if all seven voices register this concern, our mother would respond.”

When seven voices tell idiosyncratic stories, independent action is all that is available. One of my sisters assigned herself the task of being mother's medical companion. She went to all of mother's doctor's appointments taking care to exclude her brothers and sisters. She was our source for information on mother's health. As it became increasingly apparent that mother was showing signs of age related loss of some cognitive abilities, we began to ask our sister for information about her visits with the doctor. At first, the only information that any of us received was that mother was fine and mother did not want it discussed with her children. The story of FiOS prevented the half truths and “polite” reality from satisfying the members of the committee.


One of mother's joys was to go through her mail. When you have lived in the same house for over 50 years, it is amazing the amount of mail you receive from the mail order houses, charities you have donated to or volunteered for, magazines, opportunities to expand the circle of businesses you support and in the new millennium, phone and cable companies. My mother studied each and every one of those competing offers stacking them on the island in the kitchen so that she could make an informed decision. Every morning she turned her television to C-Span and left it there until it was time to switch the channel to NPR news in the evening. The only time her television left one of those two channels was when she had guests. After reading the latest offers, she would pick up the phone and dial numbers until she connected to one of her children so that she could discuss which cable provider could best handle these two channels. These conversations always began with the same question, “What is FiOS?”

A short note about telephone calls with my mother. She called all of us regularly as we moved out of Peary Street and started our own homes. All of the calls began with her saying that she just wanted to check on us and see how we were doing. Some would include getting my father to join in on an extension, but the call was always to gather information. When you asked her or my father about what was going in their lives, all you heard was news of what her children and grand children were doing. With the standard set, when we got the cable provider phone calls and asked about her and how she was doing, it was not surprising to hear that everything was fine. Maybe we would even hear about a milestone one of her grandchildren had reached, even if she got the names confused.

We could all see that our mother's mind was not as sharp as it had been, so we started talking to each other and comparing stories about phone calls and visits. The stories contradicted experience. As a group we started asking for more information about the doctor visits and what we might do to help. It took several requests before we got any information. After more requests for details, we got the mal cognitive impairment email. Several of us started looking for more information on this apparently trivial little ailment. Even Google Scholar had difficulty finding information so as time went on we kept pressing for more information.

One email suggested that maybe our sister had misheard the doctor saying “mild cognitive impairment”. Absolutely not was the curt response. Another email asked for links that anyone found that could describe this condition or a prognosis. Sure, there are lots of them on Google was the glib response. The next email requested that links be forwarded to everyone. This request was repeated for several weeks before everyone assumed that this particular discussion was over. Then a group of emails attempting to set up a mini reunion with six of the seven siblings available to discuss coordinating assistance that was greeted with, “I asked already, what do we need to discuss.” More stories waiting to be told to the slammed door. Email, like all media, has its drawbacks, so over the course of a year, we tried to establish what the story of the evasive emails meant to helping our mother. In this case, the meaning became that one sibling was doing her best to provide disinformation to the other six and that we would need to go around her to get anything done. Our story gained tragic overtones as the committee decayed into individual action.

The emails about these doctor visits mark the end of my family's efforts work together or for a common goal. We had no foundation for solving the problem in front us because we all were working with partial stories about our parents and our family. We had no stories that would explain why our sister would respond to each request for information with hostility. As each of us tried to talk with her on an individual basis, we were rebuffed with additional anger. Just as the lack of stories from my father left me imagining stories to fill in the blanks, the apparently false stories from my sister led us to imagine both the stories of the visit to the doctor and the story causing the unpleasant responses. We had no reference to a story about resolving our growing frustration and distrust and instead turned to the story our parents left us. We worked as fragmented parts to get anything done without ever telling the whole story to the entire group.

In the first of these four posts, I offered the example of managing stories to create harmony and intimacy in a family. The mal cognitive impairment narrative illustrates the opposite, when storytelling is used to create confusion or mark territory, intimacy cannot survive no matter how carefully we manage our stories. Our mother lived her life to avoid intimacy, particularly with her children, so the story line that our sister presented may very well be the one our mother preferred. Removing intimacy from a group is not necessarily a bad policy, unfortunately even that decision is a story that can be told to manage our understanding.

The next post will begin the second principle of symmentropy.

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