Stories to heal

A trainee’s reflections on the Paris terror attacks

On 13th November 2015 a series of coordinated attacks took place in Paris killing over 130 people – ‘the deadliest attack on France since the second world war’ (The Guardian). The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks stating that they were retaliation for French airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

Following the Paris attacks I found myself in a lunchtime conversation with two fellow Trainees about what had gone on. We were struck by the apparent helplessness of being faced with people willing to die for a cause they so passionately believe in, and yet also by some of the unexpected responses to the events in Paris.

Despite the bloodshed, in the days following the attacks, images appeared on social media of some Parisians taking to the coffee houses and bistros of their beloved city. The images were taken as an act of defiance against the acts of terrorism and the fear they had attempted to instil. The hashtag “Je suis en terrase” accompanied the images which translates “I am on the cafe terrace”, arguably a brave move considering what had taken place a few days previously. One Parisian spoke of their decision to sit outside saying, “We told each other if we don’t sit at the terrace today, we probably won’t do it again.” I was surprised at how these Parisians were taking a stand against the dominant narrative of fear. They seemed to be choosing a different narrative.

There was also the heart wrenching story of Antoine Leiris, who after losing his wife in the attacks took to social media to issue his response to the terrorists.

He spoke words I was not expecting:

“On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…You would like me to be scared, for me to look at my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, for me to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You have lost.”

When many Westerners may have expected and felt justified in a response of rage, hatred and a cry for vengeance, Antoine seemed to be choosing a different narrative.

Then there was a clip I saw on YouTube where Australian newsreader, Waleed Aly, shared that that he thought ISIL, contrary to what is commonly reported, was actually a weak organisation. He claimed that ISIL wanted to appear “bigger and tougher than they are” and “don’t want to acknowledge that the land they control has been taken from weak enemies, that they’re pinned down by airstrikes or that just last weekend they lost a significant part of their territory”. I am in no position to comment on the accuracy of Mr Aly’s remarks but am again struck by how he too seems to be choosing a different narrative.

I’m reminded of the ideas of Narrative Therapy, which places an emphasis on supporting people to discover/create a narrative that is helpful to them, rather than getting caught up on the futile search for the ‘true’ narrative. Freeman and Combs (1996) put it well when they say:

Speaking isn’t neutral or passive.  Every time we speak, we bring forth a reality.  Each time we share words we give legitimacy to the distinctions that those words bring forth.”

 “Language is an instrument of power, and people have power in a society in direct proportion to their ability to participate in the various discourses that shape that society.”

 “In countering the effects of a problem-saturated story, it is important to develop as rich, detailed, and meaningful a counter-story as possible.”

Indeed the aforementioned accounts seem to point to attempts at developing a counter-story which feels more helpful to the teller.

But I feel an uneasy internal tension as I think about such narratives. On the one hand I feel inspired by what could be seen as heroic attempts to counter the dominant narrative of fear, and yet on the other I can’t help but wonder if they are lacking in their acknowledgment of some of the other narratives that are perhaps getting less attention.

Whilst undoubtedly there are the valid narratives of the French civilians immediately caught up in the attacks, shell shocked by what they saw as barbaric, unprovoked attacks on innocent civilians. And yes of course there are the valid narratives of the world public viewing the events in Paris and the Middle East from afar drawing their own conclusions about what has gone on.

But what about the valid narratives of ISIL members who feel compelled to carry out such atrocities, believing that Western intervention in the Middle East is unwarranted and an act of terrorism in its own right. Don’t their narratives deserve acknowledging too? And what about the narratives of the innocent Syrian and Iraqi civilians caught up in the airstrikes, who themselves see the airstrikes as barbaric, unprovoked attacks on innocent lives. Aren’t these narratives just as deserving of our attention?

In my far-from-complete view of the ISIL/Paris situation, the dominant narratives appear to have been those of the innocent, righteous, civilised, Western world heroically taking on the barbaric, uncivilised, and insane terrorists of ISIL. I can’t help but wonder whether perhaps it’s time for some of the more unheard, unacknowledged, submerged narratives to come into the spotlight?

We have a well established role as psychologists in supporting individuals in therapy to develop/create more helpful narratives to ease their mental distress. However there is a much less established, and yet I believe a much needed, role for us as those who speak up to make sure that the submerged narratives in society are heard and acknowledged. It might not be about the submerged narratives surrounding acts of terrorism, although it could be, but perhaps about speaking up against the dominant narrative of austerity (see for more info), or speaking up against the dominant narrative of societal inequality (see Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009 for more info) or offering a psychological counter-story to the dominant psychiatric narrative on mental health (see Bentall, 2004 for more info).

Freedman and Combs (1996) again put it well when they say:

“We believe it is our responsibility as therapists to cultivate a growing awareness of the dominant (and potentially dominating) stories in our society and to develop ways of collaboratively examining the effects of those stories when we sense them at work in the lives and relationships of the people who consult with us.”

We are all faced with choosing which narratives feel most helpful to us at a particular point in time. In your choosing I urge you to look for and to acknowledge the submerged, less often heard narratives, whatever they might be. Perhaps such narratives will be part of yours, and society’s, healing.

 “As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realize we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”

 Albert (1992)



Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (1996). Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. London: Norton.

Albert, S. W. (1997). Writing from Life. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin.

Bentall, R. (2004). Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature. London: Penguin.

Andy Brackett, Third year trainee




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s