We are woven out of our own histories. As human beings we need to know our own stories. How do we know our own stories, specially the stories of our early childhood? Usually they are remembered in our families and communities. Yet children who are looked after by others often find their place in family and community disrupted. In the early days at Ons Plek, a dozen or so years ago, I remember a child care worker saying that she was going dizzy trying to understand the family circumstances of a 13 year child. The three of us sat down together at the big dining room table with a large piece of paper. The girl was intrigued at our efforts, and became very captivated by the idea that her memories could make sense. Her story included erratic placements between four different foster families, some related to her and some not, a biological father who never left his address but appeared to drop a gift every few months, no idea about her biological mother, a history of running away from the one foster family to the other when things got tough, eventual trouble with the law, an opportunity to abscond from industrial school to the streets, and now this new journey at Ons Plek. As the three of us were working away, Director Pam Jackson said: “You know, what you need is a whole life story book.” This was my first introduction to the idea, which has become a cornerstone of much of our ongoing counselling work at Ons Plek.
Ons Plek runs a range of projects for girls who have been “street children”, including two small residential facilities where they live for as long as it takes (days, months or years) to help them return to their families and communities.
Life story work has been in use for a long time, especially in work with children in foster care. The Social Care Association (UK) describes a life story book as “A collection of information and memorabilia collected by and for a child or young person whose life has involved multiple placements and/or trauma to enable the child or young person to make sense of their past.”
Like the girl mentioned above, many children who are looked after have experienced complex sets of circumstances including abuse, many moves or separations. They can not always remember things about their early lives clearly, and sometimes the information they have been given is not accurate.
The life story book gives children and their caregivers an opportunity to write about their strengths, including their gifts, survival skills, mastery of new skills and their capacity for growing and changing. The life story book can help with identity formation, assist in resolving separation issues, help build trust in adults, resolve strong emotions linked to past events, help separate fact and fantasy, and identify both positive and negative aspects of family lives. Life story work can be done with very young children, as well as otherwise abled young people. At Ons Plek the book has become a special treasure for the mentally challenged girls, for whom its concrete presence and constant reminders mean a great deal. The work must be done at an appropriate developmental level. Children experience “doing life story” as something positive, of which to be proud. While children and young people (and most of us) may well avoid sharing that we are going for counselling or therapy, they are happy to share far and wide that they are working on their life story.
Life story work can be done in a file or book. Most of the children I work with prefer a nice solid fat hardcover A4 book. Perhaps it is about not wanting anything about their “life story” shifting any more than it already has. If they use the book, they will sometimes need a file or box as well, for memorabilia. In addition, all manner of crayons, paints, brightly coloured paper, glitter and cheerful stickers are useful to have.
Yet one can make do with much less. A box decorated with magazine pictures or a handmade book of salvaged paper is fine, as long as the images and words can recall memories from which to re-member and re-weave ones story. It is important though to use recycled material only if there is absolutely no other option. Children and young people in alternative care may already have a fragile sense of self, and having them record their life story on “rubbish” is not a good idea.
There are as many different ways of making one’s life story book as there are people. Children have the capacity to be very inventive and when a number of children in one place are all doing life story books, new ideas circulate fast. From the children's' side they bring little objects from their childhood or home (even just a little leaf or stone), a ticket from an outing, a lock of hair, magazine pictures of their current heroines and heroes... a list to which we can just keep adding. Family and community members are often happy to share memories and family history. Child care workers who spend time visiting families and interviewing families play a key role.
When working in the book it is best to let the young person prioritise who he or she wants to write about first. For instance, when a relationship with his parents is fraught with pain, he may first want to write about other people until he feels ready and safe to include the tough things. It is wonderful to have photos, and important to write the date, place and names of people in a photo on the photo as soon as it is developed. If family members loan valuable old photos and items, it is very important to keep them safe and make copies for the children.
The book can be attempted in chronological order, but what often happens is that the young person prefers to start with the things that are important here and now, or even his future dreams, before delving into the past. It is very important to write the date on which each entry is made, and to indicate when the actual events happened. Once the overall picture becomes clearer, it is often a great delight to the young person to do a year-by-year time-line in their book, so that they can keep adding to it.
Who can do life story work with young people
Almost any caring adult can make a life story book with a child. Yet where children have been through multiple disruptions and trauma, working on a life story book inevitably raises painful issues. In that context it should be done by a trained professional skilled in counselling children. The counsellor can organise family and community members, colleagues and volunteers to participate Ons Plek child care workers do home visits and family re-unification work, even as far afield as the Eastern Cape, and come back with beautiful narrative and photo epics of their journeys with the children. In addition to being well trained in family interviewing, the additional requirement is knowing how to use the camera well!
Where to keep a life story book
The life story book is often a custodian of many ambivalent feelings and events. It is very important to keep it locked in a safe place. Some of the younger girls like to make additional little albums or show books to carry around with them, and some teenagers may want to keep an entirely private diary. Children often want to share their books with others, such as project staff, school teachers, peers and family members. The child and the counsellor need to arrange the conditions of the book’s outing carefully to make sure it comes back unharmed, having been shared appropriately.
Letter writing is very important. Where the letters are actually given or sent, it is good to keep a copy in the book (depending on resources, it could be a photocopy, computer printout, carbon page or just the rough version). Letters can be to teachers, parents, caregivers. They can be for special occasions, to apologise when there has been a quarrel, to express feelings directly when somebody has let the child down, and even to put on a grave to help process grief and loss.
"Dear Mommy, I am so sad that you did not come on Saturday. I also feel sad that you always drink with your friends. I am your only child now that my baby sister has died. I cry and worry for my little sister. Please do not forget me. I love you. You are a star.”
This child gave it to her mother together with a pretty little bracelet she is keeping to put on her sister’s grave. Her mom was shocked at how deeply her 8 year old child feels and thinks. The letter helped them grieve together, a sad but healing moment for both of them. Although her mother still drinks, the copy of the letter in her life story book helps the child remember that healing moment with her mom. “When I gave my mommy this letter she cried, and I also cried. We miss our little baby.”
There is so much more to say about this work. One girl wrote “The End” in her book, when her counsellor at that time left. Recently she went to show her school teacher her book, and was excited to show that her life story book didn’t end there, it still goes on. It is perhaps the same with learning about our work, and the many creative ways in which we can enrich the lives of children, young people, and ultimately also our own. The story goes on...
This article is based on a developing hands-on practice in a professional residential care environment. There is literature available, largely in the fields of foster care and adoption, for those who want to make a more scholarly study of life story work.
Fahlberg, Vera The Life Story Book on the website of Pact, An Adoption Alliance (California US)
Devon County Council Social Services UK Government Social Care Association, Surrey, UK
SNAPS - Special Needs Adoptive Parent Services Inc. IDAHO, US.
This feature: Rossouw, Renée. (2003). Life story Book Work. Child and Youth Care. Volume 21 No.6. pp 14-16