Book Review: The Healing Heart books

Reviewed by Caren Neile.

The Healing Heart: Storytelling to Encourage Caring and Healthy Families (New Society Publishers, 2003). Edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert

The Healing Heart: Storytelling to Build Strong and Healthy Communities (New Society Publishers, 2003). Edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert

Can storytelling change the world, one person at a time? The Healing Heart books answer this question with a resounding “yes.” Allison Cox and David Albert have compiled the wisdom, experience and stories of sixty-six storytellers and health care professionals to create a compendium of insights and activities that will appeal to a wide variety of people—from storytellers, mental health counselors and social workers to educators, librarians, religious and community leaders, law enforcement professionals and, of course, parents.

“I could have really used these stories as a young parent,” Ms. Cox said. “There is an entire chapter on using story, rhyme and lullaby with infants and toddlers. I wish I’d had this book when MY daughters were young. I also would have loved to have heard some of these stories as a child.”

The volumes cover a tremendous range of human experience, such as disease prevention, early childhood intervention, adopting families and sexual identities (Families) and violence prevention, poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, environmental protection and racism (Communities). Contributors to the books read like a Who’s Who of Storytelling: they include Liz Weir from Northern Ireland, Dan Yashinsky from Canada and American storytellers Doug Lipman, Margaret Read MacDonald, Susan O’Halloran, Elisa Pearmain, Diane Rooks and Gail Rosen.

Ms. Cox has degrees in Counseling Psychology and Public Health. She has worked as a mental health therapist, social worker, health educator and prevention specialist. A storyteller for twenty years, she is a founding board member of the Healing Story Alliance. David H. Albert is a storyteller, writer, and Senior Planner and Policy Analyst with the Washington State Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, and a contributor to Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope (New Society, 2002).

“My main purpose,” Ms. Cox said, “was to encourage more storytellers to take up this important work and to encourage those already engaged in health promotion and community development work to add story to their repertoire of effective methods.”

Ms. Cox has personal experience with many of the stories in the book so she knows how effective they can be. “I work with one story called The Wolfs Eyelashes,’ retold by Susan Charters,” she said, ‘‘which is in the Communities volume under Homelessness. I use it with the young women at a juvenile detention center in Pierce County [Washington State], where I work.”

In the book, Mr. Albert introduces the story with the words: “This traditional Japanese folktale is in many ways a modern fable. [It is] a warning to us that, living as we do in the comfort of our daily existences and our overstuffed homes, we may be viewed through ‘the wolfs eyelashes,’ and we may not like how we are seen. In short, this story is a reminder that the homeless have eyes too.”

“A lot of the kids I work with have been living on the streets; they’re prostitutes, drug addicts, with nowhere to live’” Ms. Cox said. “As part of the activity for this story, we created sentence stems for them to complete. One of the sentence stems was, ‘ I am hungry for…” In the story, a girl is thrown out of the house by her father and she goes begging for food. She finds help when she tells someone her story.

“These gals I work with have been abused and neglected and abandoned and addicted and beat up and left by the wayside. They have to start from scratch on building an internal reference center of what is safe, to whom to talk, how to act. Some said they didn’t trust anybody, and they have good reasons to say that. Others talked about how they trust just their mother or a best friend, sister, aunt or somebody, thank God, in their lives they’ve got. These kids have so much in them that when I bring the story to them, they give me so much back, even reinforce my suspicions of how it’s being heard”

The books provide everything a storyteller or health care professional needs to get started using them with patients and clients, with detailed descriptions of programs and projects. Story-based activities include encouraging participants to draw images from the stories or to complete the stories with their own endings. For storytellers who may have not used story in therapeutic settings, Cristy West offers guidelines, including “understand your role”, “foster staff involvement”, “determine group needs”, and “practice self-assessment”. For those working with children, Linda Fredericks provides “exercises to encourage resiliency”. And beginning storytellers will benefit from Laura Simms’ “how-to guide for retelling stories”, with advice such as “Read the story aloud to yourself as if you were telling the tale to your own mind. Listen, feel, imagine.” Ms. Simms also provides useful suggestions on helping people tell their own stories.

Through it all are the stories themselves: traditional tales from places like China, Ecuador, India and West Africa,from the Sufi and Hasidic traditions and personal stories from the hearts of the storyteller contributors. Reading the Healing Heart books is like diving into an ocean of stories and floating on one’s back, buoyed by the currents. They aren’t always gentle, these currents of stories, but they always carry us to a place of healing and understanding. For that alone, The Healing Heart is an extraordinary achievement.

To order The Healing Heart books, visit

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