Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Dec 11
Lost Family and Deep Shame

My first two posts discussed how we begin life as the object of stories told by others, stories by our families and later society. If these stories betray us, if they tell us we're defective or unwanted as children, we lack the power to answer.

But the impact of others' stories is even more hurtful than as critical sounds in a hateful world. When we are betrayed early in life, we feel a more fundamental and personal failure, a failure in our love. Others' critical stories become the stories we tell ourselves -- the internal and assaultive voice of our shame.

Once a 13-year-old girl in detention wrote about being abandoned by her father, her only parent. Cheri (a pseudonym) created "The Other Piece of Me, My Father," where she describes that her dad told her not to come home one night when she was 11. She had nowhere to go, and she stayed with a neighbor, a stranger. The next morning when Cheri went home, her father had moved out.

The rejection was torturous. Her dad left behind Cheri's birth certificate, her baby pictures, and little presents she had made for him when she was little. Then Cheri concluded by saying, "That's what I get for being a bad kid, I guess." The rejection, the lost family, was personalized as shame.

When I asked Cheri to say more, she talked about a wider range of feeling -- about how her mother had abandoned her when she was an infant, about how she had hit a teacher in anger management class in elementary school. Then she wrote a new ending to her story and said she felt neglected.

Finally Cheri dedicated her poem to her father, as many teens do even when they have been hurt. The teens' love is enduring, though they feel tainted by rejection.

That's the damage that can be done by other people's stories of who you are, especially in the context of lost family. They become the damning stories you tell yourself.