The power of stories

Kay Boyle was an American writer and political activist who visited Germany in 1948. Writing about her journey there, she admits, “I came without eagerness, abhorring this country’s immediate past”. Most of us would have surely felt the same.

But this particular traveller wrote about her experiences in articles that reached hundreds of thousands of American readers back home. Surely such a hostile attitude towards Germany, generated before meeting a single German, could not fail to colour her encounters and her articles about them? And was there nothing to prevent this anti-German hostility from being passed onto her readers?

Stories are powerful things. They can make us cry or laugh, feel empathy or hatred, inspire us to act or haunt our dreams. Uri Hasson is Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. His research involves studying the brain’s responses to everyday events.

In one experiment, he found that when someone heard a story in their own language, their brain reacted in the same way as the storyteller’s. When her frontal cortex was active, so was theirs. When the part of her brain indicating emotion lit up, the listener’s did too. Anything we’ve felt or thought, we can get others to feel or think – simply by telling a story.

Everyone remembers how the laws of gravity were discovered. Not because we understand the laws themselves (or I certainly don’t, at least!), but because we’ve all heard that story about Isaac Newton and the apple. The truth (or not) of the story doesn’t matter – it sticks in our heads far better than an explanation of the laws ever would.

We tell stories to children – to entertain, to feed their imaginations, but also to teach.

Every time she shouted "Fire!" / They only shouted "Little Liar!" Hilaire Belloc

Every time she shouted “Fire!” / They only shouted “Little Liar!”
Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children was published in 1907 as a parody of 19th century popular cautionary tales. There was the story of Jim, ‘who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion’, and Matilda, ‘who told lies and was burned to death’. Any child contemplating a sneaky escape or a lie about a missing cookie would surely think twice after hearing the nasty fates of Jim and Matilda!

Kay Boyle had been exposed to some rather more grim 1940s cautionary tales – about persecution and concentration camps, massacres and civilian brutality. Her ‘abhorrence’ of Germany’s past stemmed, it seems, from stories she had heard. Stories that would rightfully arouse such anger.

But she chose to seek her own experiences of Germany and its people. The stories she wrote are fascinating, harrowing, often heart-warming. I’d recommend them to anyone. Her hostility is never absent, but it is softened by positive encounters with friendly, admirable Germans.

One story is about the wife of an American occupying soldier. A sick, hungry German man comes to her door, clearly in need of some food from her well-stocked larder. She ‘thought of the stories that had been told’ and turns him away. She ignores her own judgement, her own sense of pity for this individual, and acts instead according to rumours she has heard about manipulative Germans. Her husband later helps the man who is revealed to be honest and humble. Her first instinctive impressions of him were right.

Unlike this woman, who allowed a story to dictate her actions, Kay Boyle strove to set aside ideas she had heard in favour of discovering the truth herself. Did her readers follow her example or accept her stories without question? We don’t know.

With open jaws, a lion sprang / And hungrily began to eat / The boy: beginning at his feet Hilaire Belloc

With open jaws, a lion sprang / And hungrily began to eat / The boy: beginning at his feet
Hilaire Belloc

Stories can do good and harm. They can build understanding or cement ignorance. They are wonderful expressions of human life and creativity. But let’s not forget to question those stories. And let’s not underestimate the importance of lived experience. An escape from the nurse, five minutes alone in the world, will teach a child just as much as a thousand cautionary tales.

 

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