The Healing Power of Storytelling: from the Holocaust to recent American military deployments

By Maya Chiodo

Susan Derwin  in the lobby of the UC Santa Barbara Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.

Susan Derwin  in the lobby of the UC Santa Barbara Interdisciplinary Humanities Center.

Having the ability to tell your story can change your life – at least according to Susan Derwin, a specialist on trauma studies and a professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Comparative Literature and Germanic and Slavic Studies departments. Derwin has created a space for student veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – as well as their loved ones  — to employ storytelling in order to both recover from personal trauma and to share their experiences with the public.

As director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC) on campus, Derwin created the course seven years ago and continues to teach it today. The class is titled “Writing Workshop for Student Veterans and Their Loved Ones,” and during the summer there is an opportunity for student veterans from across the entire UC system to participate in a similar workshop.

In a recent interview, Derwin discussed the power of narrative today, a time when many voices continue to go unheard.

Q. You seem to have a range of research interests, including Holocaust and violence studies, trauma theory, and 19th and 20th century literature. How do these interests intersect?

A. My abiding interest is the relationship between narrative work — storytelling, self-representation, testimony, or bearing witness — and trauma. I’m very interested in how storytelling can help and has helped people integrate challenging experiences into their larger life stories or narratives. I wrote a book about how, by bearing witness, Holocaust survivors were able to integrate their stories into their psyches in a way that made them able to move forward. You don’t overcome trauma, but you learn to live next to it. You can communicate and build bridges to other people through your stories.

When I was writing this book, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going on. And I knew that there were veterans coming back to our campus. I thought that this tool of writing could be useful to veterans, so I became very interested in understanding the kinds of stories that were being written by service members about their experience in the military.

Q. What significance does discussing the Holocaust in the classroom have for contemporary political and social issues?

A. There are so many resonances that are associated with literature of extreme survival. On the one hand, the history of survivors is crucial for Jewish culture and tradition and for the Jewish people to remember. It’s of course a crucial part of German and European history to remember the events and the genocide of the past. It’s intimately bound up with the current political situation in Israel and Palestine.

The stories become exemplary, or paradigmatic in a way, because they tell the story of human experience under extreme conditions. And for people who have been silenced, marginalized, persecuted or tortured, those stories remain relevant. They can also be incentives for people to bear witness to their own traumatic experiences.

Q. Transitioning now to your Writing Workshop for Student Veterans, what made you want to create this course?

A. I really believe that narrative is a tool for living. Telling stories changes your life. It can create shifts in the individual and in the community. It is a social act, a collective enterprise: telling, receiving, and being impacted by stories.

I learned, by studying so closely the deep structures of the narratives of Holocaust survivors, to understand and recognize the formative, reparative role of storytelling. I also was aware that these stories were largely unheard because of the gap between the civilian and military worlds.

My sense is that when veterans become students at the university, they’re already on the path towards a future of success, or at least of opportunity. Most of the veterans on our campus are transfer students here, so they get in and there is real urgency. You can already see the end – there isn’t four years stretching out ahead of you. So, in the writing workshop veterans can come together, as a group, and learn how to write personal narrative, which would give them a space of reflection and self-study that they might not otherwise - or maybe never again - have.

Maya Chiodo is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Environmental Studies and planning to minor in Professional Writing. She works as a student assistant for the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center (IHC).