When my friend Pam was six months pregnant with her first child, she left her husband over a chicken. Or at least that is how she has been explaining her divorce for the past two decades.
She had worked late one night and came home exhausted and famished. She had put a chicken in the crockpot that morning, and had been craving it all day. But when she lifted the lid of the crock pot, she discovered nothing but bones.
The next day, she filed for divorce.
People in our small southern town were aghast. But as Pam’s friend, I did not join the rabble. I had been watching their relationship develop and I understood what Pam could not articulate: The chicken was a symbol that helped her understand the much bigger problems in their marriage. It was not just the incident, but also how she had constructed the narrative that helped her make the very difficult choice she did not even realize that she had been weighing. She was able to see what many of us already knew, that the man she had married was too immature, selfish and chauvinistic to be a partner in raising their son. He would cause far more work and problems than he would ever solve.
All of that might have been okay if he had been supportive of her in even the most basic way. But he expected her to do all of the work of a housewife and work under those exhausting circumstances. On the night of the infamous chicken debacle, not only had he refused to finish the dinner for them to enjoy. He had eaten what food there was readily available without any consideration for the woman who was carrying his child.
We all tell stories similar to Pam’s chicken. And I am starting to think that there is something pretty profound in those stories Sometimes they are about a moment that was loaded with the symbolism of all that was wrong with a relationship, and sometimes it is a moment when we got clarity.
The stories that we tell ourselves are important, because they make up our biography, what we believe about ourselves in relationship to the world around us.
But the stories that we tell ourselves change over time to accommodate our new understanding of ourselves or of a situation or even changes in what we believe. When I left a relationship with a deeply religious man, I stopped telling myself that God had “shown” him something and started telling myself that somehow the guy had spied on me.
A friend of mine who is a marriage counselor says that he can tell what couples will stay together and which ones will get a divorced by having them tell the story of the time that they met. If the story is filled with love and tenderness, he believes that they have something to build on. But if one or both has already re-written the story to include present grievances, to make what happened then a mistake, it is too late.
An understanding of how our stories change helps a lot for those of us who write memoir. Two years ago, I wrote a story in which I said that I had been sexually assaulted, but I could not bring myself to claim the word “rape.” And then earlier this year, I wrote about the “privileges” I had been given as a rape survivor.
A very nasty critic made hay over the fact that the stories did not match exactly, that the story had changed. What I could not articulate then but can now is that the very act of telling a story changes it because storytelling changes us.
Allowing our stories to change is part of allowing ourselves to evolve and to heal. If all that we have learned does not change how we view our past, then we have not learned anything of importance.