By Natalie Millman (MS'14)
Curiosity. It’s a word that makes most people perk up in their seats, eager to listen. Chances are, just by writing it, I’ve hooked you for this article. (At least I hope so.)
History. It’s a word that sometimes elicits curiosity. However, it often comes with the connotation of being boring and pedantic; for me it evokes memories of studying for the AP Euro test in high school. The Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, World War I ... nothing directly relevant to me or my life!
But now, in my current context, the word history brings to mind my primary task at my field placement: conducting BioPsychoSocial (BPS) assessments of clients.
Some of us social-workers-in-training find BPSes tedious and a pain in the neck. Certainly, I experience fatigue after conducting three or four in a day. After all, these are intensive interviews that require doing several things at one time:
- getting a sense of the client’s housing, family, and spiritual history (among other things)
- asking purposeful questions
- taking detailed notes
- anticipating the client’s needs and goals
- assessing the client’s abilities and readiness to change
- synthesizing information from the client’s chart with any new information
- reading between the lines of what the client has to say.
All of this while striving to provide a safe therapeutic environment and keeping an eye on the clock!
Is it any wonder so many of us find this work exhausting?
My personal experience with personal history
One thing that has helped me in this aspect of social work is my prior training in work in personal history—where history and curiosity intersect.
Actually, I became interested in personal history as far back as high school. I was curious about my grandfather’s experience fighting in Korea, and decided I wanted to honor him by making a film documentary focusing on Korean war veterans. The project I had in mind was too ambitious, but he agreed to do an audio recording talking about his experience fighting in Korea. This was my first step into the world of personal history work—the first time history and curiosity intersected in my own life.
My next major experience occurred when I was assigned by one of my high school teachers to write a short (20-page) autobiography. It was a therapeutic process, increasing my awareness of self while also allowing me to work through experiences I had at that time, and helping me process my childhood.
Now I realize that this writing assignment was a step in overcoming my own neuroses. For all my feelings of insignificance at that age, the message of the assignment was clear: history was not just about the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution, and World War II. History included me. Even though I was just 17, I was valuable enough for my history to be documented. The assignment made me more curious about myself, and therefore I became more self-aware. The assignment furthered my process of individuation.
I became professionally involved in personal history work during my last year of undergraduate education at the University of Southern California (USC). Looking for ways to serve older adults while using my strength in creative writing, I came across the Guided Autobiography (GAB) Instructor course at the Birren Center for Guided Autobiography and Life Review. This gave me a unique opportunity to train in this up-and-coming field. Many of my fellow students in the GAB Instructor course were social workers, from all over the world.
Continuing my personal history work in NYC
Since earning my certificate in GAB Instruction, I have remained curious about personal histories, and now that I am a student at CUSSW, I’ve been adapting the Guided Autobiography system to serve the needs of clients here in New York. Documenting a client's life story can take many forms. I have several methods:
- If the client seems interested, I offer to coach them in writing their own autobiography.
- If a client lacks the time or ability to write their own history, I offer to “ghost-write” their autobiography.
- I might also help the client create an album of photographs from across his or her lifespan.
- Or I might make a slideshow for a memorial or other special event in the client's life.
The personal history field is creative and versatile. There are also instructors who experiment with techniques such as making a video or audio record (oral history), assisting with writing letters to family members to be opened in the future, and researching family genealogy.
At the same time, I continue to engage with other professionals in the field through the Association of Personal Historians. Right now we are conducting a project with the Brooklyn Historical Society, collecting testimonials from survivors of Hurricane Sandy to be archived for scholarly and journalistic work.
And since September 2012, I've been running the weekly Manhattan Guided Autobiography Group, where clients write their own autobiographies in the context of a supportive, structured group setting.
Expanding the personal history field to include new groups
Erik Erikson identifies the importance of reflecting back on one’s life and finding meaning in it—as the final phase of one’s psychosocial development. While personal history work was designed to meet this need of older adults to mediate the struggle between wisdom and integrity versus despair, I advocate for an expansion of personal history work—specifically, specifically Guided Autobiography—to younger populations.
Going back to how I find these experiences relevant to my current field placement: it allows me to remain engaged and interested in my clients, to conceptualize my work on BPSes as a kind of personal history work. Given that I work with a highly marginalized portion of the population—the homeless—it occurs to me that while a BPS is a mandatory process, it can also be a meaningful one.
When else will many of my clients ever have a chance to think about the trajectory of their entire lives, talk about what influenced their choices and circumstances, and come to understand their lives as meaningful? Especially for those kicked around the system, repeating their case histories over and over to dozens of social workers like me, I hope I can inspire a few to step outside the myths they have co-created with the system, and to become curious about their own histories.
I work to do this by mindfully treating their stories with respect, honor, and ultimately curiosity. For most, I anticipate no major effect aside from building rapport, but maybe some of them will take seriously my gentle suggestion:
“Have you ever thought about writing down your life story?”
Natalie Millman is first-year CUSSW student in Advanced Clinical Practice, with a concentration in Health, Mental Health, and Disabilities. She runs her own Web site, Your Story Your Way.
Images: (middle) Natalie Millman; all other photos from Morguefiles except for the one of the woman journaling on a train, which comes from Flickr Creative Commons.