Thursday, July 26, 2012

Escaping the Troll

Grimm's Fairy Tales,
1812 Edition's cover
Her Story, Your Story, Our Story:
An Afternoon with Women Who Have Escaped the Troll

by Regina Ress 

This article was previously published in the LANES Museletter, 2012.
"What message do you want to send to other women who’ve been captured by a “Troll?"
"Love yourself enough to leave.”
"Anything else?"
"Don’t settle for less.”

Storytelling is not just kid stuff. We, the storytelling community, know this. Indeed, we know that “kid stuff” can be….and should be…meaningful at its core. Life long learning begins with those bedside stories of survival, of  compassion, of what life holds, offers, and teaches.  And for those whose stories takes some bad turns, stories and storytelling can help them find our way out of the woods and home.

I am currently helping to launch a non-profit organization, Healing Voices-Personal Stories, whose mission is to bring awareness to women striving to overcome abuse through the distribution of film and video. Having worked with women in several correctional facilities, I am keenly aware that women who end up in jail generally have a history of abuse. Bad stories; bad endings.

But do all bad stories have to have bad endings? Is there a way to learn and grow a new story?

Last June, I spent time with a group of women in a “resettlement” program. These are formerly incarcerated women who have come through abuse and who are actively in the process of changing and reclaiming their lives. The women are part of a support group that meets once a week at the Community Partners in Action Resettlement Program in Hartford,Connecticut.  I brought fresh strawberries from my friend’s spring garden, an old European fairy tale, and some questions. 

The story I brought to Hartford last spring was one of the Grimm’s Tales. It describes the trials of a Princess who falls through the crack in a glass mountain and is forced to be the house drudge of the long-bearded Old Rink Rank. She loses all sense of herself, even forgetting her own name. This young woman is eventually rescued, not by a prince, but by her own efforts. When she hits rock bottom, something shifts in her psyche and she finds her own way back up to the light.

I told Old Rink Rank, adding my own voice,  asking a question or two within the telling, but not changing the original Grimm version. It is a spare story. It is a very clear story.

The women in our group listened with great attention, nodding at times, often uttering a chorus of “uh-huhs” at recognizable moments in this story of abuse and redemption. After the telling, in response to my questions as well as their own, they fleshed out their understanding…and mine as well…of this classic tale. Our discussion was lively, filled with recognition and gritty wisdom.  The women very much took control of the conversation, finding questions and answers themselves, often engaging in a kind of debate over issues raised in the story.  We looked at how easy it is to fall through the cracks, losing ourselves to the “trolls” ever waiting to use us for their own purposes. The story does not tell us how and why the Princess turns her situation around. But these women knew:

“All that hard work gave her strength.”

 “When you hit rock bottom, when you are fed up, that’s when you make the changes.”

We also discussed two possible endings.  The Princess, having trapped the old man by his long beard, sets him free once she has returned to the world.  In the Grimm version, her father, the King, has him killed. We looked at the justice of this.  Then we looked at a more forgiving model, the possibility of not taking revenge. A different kind of justice.

As our time was quite short, we did not get in to our own personal stories. However,  it was clear that all of us, group members, case workers, and I, recognized aspects of our own lives in this timeless tale. And working with it in this way helped us all clarify and enlarge our understanding   of our lives.

Two of the women commented to me on their way out that they never understood that “those old stories actually meant something.” Ah!   This storyteller quoted a favorite adage in the storytelling world: The stories are not good because they are old; they are old because they are good.

And they do, they most definitely do “mean something.”

Regina Ress is an award winning storyteller, actor, writer and educator who has performed and taught for over forty years from Broadway to Brazil in English and Spanish in a wide variety of settings from grade schools to senior centers, from homeless shelters and prisons to Lincoln Center and the White House. Performances range from delightful folk tales to some of the world’s great mythologies. She also tells original stories about New York City, 9/11, and Love.

Regina is Storytelling Adjunct for New York University’s Programs in Educational Theatre and Multilingual/Multicultural Studies and produces the storytelling series at the historic Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. In 2003 she was awarded the Oracle for Leadership and Service by the National Storytelling Network.

Regina Ress is a guest blogger for Karen Chace and Catch the Storybug blog. All rights to this article belong to Regina. Distribution, either electronically or on paper is prohibited without the expressed written permission of Regina Ress. If you would like to be a Guest Blogger email Karen at with "Guest Blogger" in the subject heading .


Mary Grace Ketner said...

Regina and Karen, Was it Thomas Doty who used to have the signature line, "The right story at the right time can save the world"? I think you found just the right story at just the right moment! Thanks for sharing your experience,

Regina Ress said...

Yes, indeed, the right story at the right time. Laura Simms has a brilliant article, Sudden Story, about moments when she knew not just the right story FOR the situation, but AT the moment it was needed. (you can find it on line). When I was asked to go to work with the women in CT, I had time to think about it...but it was quickly clear to me that Rink Rank was the metaphor I wanted to work with. Being captured by the troll. That was it.

evita said...

Thank you for sharing this! I have even had a storyteller come up to me, after a conference, and tell me, simply "Thanks for your story (one of my originals) You know I was that woman. Thanks!" And then I got a long hug. Story medicine is magic.

Jerry Haigh said...

Some years ago, in Uganda, we met a young woman who was the oldest person in her family and one of the oldest in her village. Her "troll" was the AIDS that had taken all the parents and grandparents in the commubity. Despite this she was supporting 4 younger siblings and had qualified at the Makerere University school of Veterinary Medicine. She was embarking on a master's degree when she joined the group of Canadian vet students I was leading. Some young woman!

Regina said...

What a story! Thanks. Yes, TROLLS do come in many forms.

Priscilla Howe said...

Great metaphor for people who have been caught by a troll--and you're right, they come in different forms.

I'm also fond of Maid Maleen, who was imprisoned in a dark tower for seven years without realizing that she could have gotten out.

regina said...

Yes...not understanding that you can get out. And while maybe not 100% of the time do we have that option/capacity/opportunity....much of the time, when captured by the troll, we just don't understand/see that there is a way out. And often, of course, it is the internalized oppressor to begin with. All rich material for discussion.
Today I led a workshop with teens at the Youth Shelter here in Santa Fe. We had quite the discussion about the trolls in their lives.

mikey said...

Thanks for sharing & thanks for the work you're doing. You may know Nancy Donoval but I think you've got 'like' missions.

mikey said...

Thanks for sharing & thank you for your work! You may know Nancy Donoval (MN)? I think you've got 'like' missions.

Regina said...

The short films we (Healing Voices-Personal Stories) are making are by/about people who finally realized they COULD get out...and who did get out. That is our focus...showing role models for the possibility that there is a way out and a way to re-claim one's life.

Regina said...

I do know Nancy Donoaval..not quite the same mission, but certainly in the same territory. And back to the issue of not understanding that there is a way out...the mission of Healing Voices-Personal Stories is to make and distribute film showing role models..showing people who have gotten out and reclaimed their lives. We are not focusing on the abuse, but on people who have opened that door and walked out.

Linda G. said...

..... This young woman is eventually rescued, not by a prince, but by her own efforts.... This statement is powerful. Sounds like it really hit home with the women. Congratulations on your project.
Linda Gorham

Regina said...

Thanks, Linda. Yes, the women really got the story....they had done a lot of work on themselves while incarcerated and in the support group upon release. They were right there with the story. I've been giving workshops at the Santa Fe Youth Shelters and worked with this story there. What are the trolls in your life? The kids all knew.