Childhood story: Enlightening our genius or feeding our dysfunction

The three children looked at each other warily. It had been such a very long time since they had been in the same room together and yet, here they were meeting to attend to their father’s affairs. He had died a few weeks earlier and they had gathered to sort through his things, to choose which items each of them wanted and to discard the rest. You see they were no longer children; they were each in their 60’s but as they came together on that day there was a distinctly childhood quality about some of their interactions with one another.

So many Stories abounded; items belonging to their father proved to be the stimulus for memories rising to the surface, pain-filled memories that each child had been holding for a very long time. Each memory contained a Story and each Story linked together in different ways. Each child had their own part of the Story, which as they began to be revealed, helped the other children to make sense of what they were remembering.

The memories were painful but affirming;

“Do you remember when you and Mary came back from the shops and hadn’t bought the right food? Do you remember he took off his belt and whipped both of you? I remember begging him to stop. He didn’t stop, he just kept whipping you both.”

“Do you remember when Mum smashed my trinkets and ornaments to smithereens, scattered the broken glass and china all over my bed and then stood over me shouting at me to clean up the mess that she said was of my own making because I wasn’t good at anything I did? Nothing I ever did was good enough for her. I wasn’t good enough for her.”

I remembered the pick-up stick she used to use, I remembered the feel of the claw shaped end on my back and in my ribs. Richard held it aloft and said, “Do you remember this bloody thing?” “I do remember, I remember all the times she hit me with it.” “Well no-one’s ever going to hit you or anyone else with it again!” He snapped the twisted metal stick in two and threw it into the pile of junk.

Then there was the cobweb brush, a homemade instrument of torture and a favourite of Dad’s as I remember it. It was made out of a long wooden cane and it had a stiff round brush strapped to the end of it. “Remember this?” The broom came next and then one of mum’s crutches. The memories of the beatings as we lined up these seemingly innocent domestic implements came brimming to the surface. As they did so, Mary’s tears spilled over the edge. Her pain could not be contained any longer.

Right at the back of the cupboard was the carpet sweeper. This wasn’t used for beatings but Mum would stand over Mary and I and make us clean the carpets with it until our backs broke with pain. “Not good enough, do it again!” “Not clean enough, do it again!”

In the past, Stories like these would have churned everything up and brought me to my knees such was their power and strength. This time however, I noticed myself reacting very differently indeed. I felt strong and steady. I found myself re-framing parts of Richard and Mary’s Stories too. The difference; “She was evil through and through” became “She certainly seemed evil at times but I disagree, I think she was desperate for someone to hear her agony, I think she was depressed, weak and lonely. What she did to us wasn’t right but I don’t think she was evil.” I’ve travelled such a long way since the days when I too hated her and believed her to be evil.

Our work on childhood story and my book ‘Where Did You Learn To Behave Like That?’ describes how to do this kind of reframing in part through the writing of new internal narratives. It explains what doing this kind of deeper work on Self gives and what it takes. It provides a theory and model for how to realise the possibility and benefits of childhood story work and all that that can bring. Our formative experiences contribute to the light side of the Self, the talent, skills and attributes we are known for. However, they also contribute to the darker side of the Self, the shadow behaviour, i.e. the behaviour we are not so proud of or feel some shame about.

I have increasingly been thinking about the notion of a paper-thin line that exists between our genius and our dysfunction. Put differently, I have a sense of how thin a line there is between our childhood stories of imperfect love enlightening our genius or feeding our dysfunction. For example, my own experiences of cruelty resulted in me being as driven as I am to eradicate the harm people experience in the face of other’s brutality and yet, when under pressure or in very high stakes, if I’m not careful, I can be unkind and cruel. Suddenly, the warmth and affection I am known for evades me. A protective mechanism for sure but one that I am dedicated to having greater command of.


Sarah Hill, March 2022