2 Working with memories – life storybooks
Life story books are used more and more by social workers, residential care staff and some foster parents with young people who, for various reasons, need to find ways to remember and talk about earlier parts of their lives. The books may take a variety of forms: photograph albums, scrapbooks, written accounts and audio and video recordings. They may include drawings, poems, family trees, letters, bus and train tickets, photographs, writing and all sorts of ephemera that evoke the past, or provide clues to identity and individual histories. Children who grow up in the families they are born into usually have plenty of opportunities to find out about their parents and wider family members, the places they have lived in and the reasons for any changes they've experienced. Children who experience separation from their birth families often face greater obstacles when it comes to finding out about parents, grandparents, homes and communities they've lived in. There may be gaps and difficult areas in accounts of their identity and they may have to work out ways of dealing with difficult memories and emotions. They need to be able to explain what has happened to them and to move on to develop plans for the future. People working with children find that a life story book can help a child to talk about losses, changes and separations and to remember the good things they've experienced too.
Jamie Knight is 21. He lives with his girlfriend and baby daughter. He hasn't lived with both his parents since he was five. He's experienced many changes in his life. We recorded him talking to Sarah Burrows, who used to be his residential care keyworker, about how they made a life story book when he was 10.
Click for Audio: Jamie and Sarah
Transcript: Jamie and Sarah
In the first of two interviews on this tape, we hear Jamie Knight talking to Sarah Burrows about the life story work he did when he was much younger. Jamie is twenty one now, and begins by talking about how he came to be living in care.
Activity 3: Life story work
Listen to the Audio clip. You may need to listen to Jamie and Sarah twice while you make notes.
While you are listening, note down:
some of the things Jamie mentions collecting for his life story book
some of the feelings and emotions he and Sarah mention while they were making the book.
Some of the things Jamie mentions are: the date his mum and dad were married and his birth date, ‘all written on nice little cards’, some of his own writing, some baby photos, pictures of him taken outside his father's and mother's houses, more dates and several photos taken by his first foster mother, photos of himself and his foster mother when he went back to Southend, a picture taken of the social services building, photos from the time he was in residential care, his birth certificate and photos taken when he was advertised for fostering as a teenager.
Jamie and Sarah mention various feelings and emotions. Jamie says making the book was ‘good’. Sarah says he was ‘an angry little boy, very upset, abandoned…’. She says it was ‘hard’ and ‘quite overwhelming’ going back to see his foster mother while they were researching what to put in the book, because it was ‘somebody from your past’. The picture of the social services building is ‘sad’ to Jamie. Sarah points out that the ‘pictures and things’ don't really show the whole process which was actually ‘difficult for Jamie to do’, particularly remembering his mother whom he hadn't seen since he was five (and still hasn't).
One of our course testers who was abused as a child said that she could ‘totally relate’ to the process that Jamie went through. She had felt almost anonymous, without a childhood, until she was 40. Once she realised that she had been emotionally abused she was able to understand why she had never loved her mother. She says she is certain that knowing about her childhood is important to her as an adult. When she became able to remember what happened her feelings about her mother became acceptable to her.
It's important to note that some of the things that happened to Jamie couldn't happen today. The 1989 Children Act (England and Wales) no longer allows what Sarah describes as ‘the voluntary care route’ through which his father put him into care when he was eight, although it does allow for children to be ‘accommodated’ at the request of those with parental responsibility. And of course we'd hope that in working with a child like Jamie social workers might be more careful to help him keep more of the photographs and personal things which anyone needs to look back through their lives. Making life story books with children who have become separated from their original families is now established as good practice, particularly since the Children Act of 1989 with its emphasis on partnership in working relationships with parents and carers. Tony Ryan and Roger Walker have helped children make life story books for many years – they emphasise that good practice means ‘listening to children and respecting their views’ but also warn that it may not always be appropriate for every child and that it should never be used as a substitute for ‘skilled and long-term therapy’ (Ryan and Walker, 1999, p. 4). Nevertheless they argue that:
Life story work can increase a child's sense of self-esteem, because, sadly, at the back of the minds of nearly all children separated from their families of origin is the thought that they are worthless and unlovable. They blame themselves for the actions of adults.
Ryan and Walker stress the importance of identity and point out that the ‘creation of the idea of “self” is crucial to healthy development’ and that children who have been ‘severed from their roots and [who are] without a clear future’ can be helped if they ‘talk about the past, the present and the future’ (pp. 6–7). Sarah Burrows started the life history with Jamie Knight at a time when he was about to be fostered. She saw it as a way to help him talk about his feelings and perhaps not blame himself or his parents for his past as part of preparation for the future. Jamie had very little left of his early years. Just a few things seem to stand out. At one point when Sarah asks him about his visits to his dad's new family he says ‘I can't really remember, I can only remember things that are written down here.’ The importance to Jamie of piecing together these fragments comes through very strongly, particularly since his own file was destroyed in a fire.
For Jamie, as with other young people who become involved in making life story books, this is a process which has no end. He points out that he can go on adding to it now and it has helped him to remember things about his sister from whom he became separated when he was taken into care and whom he's now thinking of contacting.
Click to view Why do Life Story books work?
Activity 4 Life story work: developing awareness
You should now read the extract above (click on 'view document'). This is the introduction to Ryan and Walker's book, Life Story Work, I quoted from above. Read through the extract and, as you do, note down:
some of the basic principles they advocate as essential for this work
how many of these principles you would say apply only to work with children and young people.
The basic principles I noted down included:
Rights: ‘children are entitled to an accurate knowledge of their past and families’.
Patience and sensitivity: the process may take time and may develop at a varied pace over days; letting the child be the guide to what is to be told and how.
Confidentiality: being trustworthy and being aware that a child might be telling a private story that is not for public consumption.
You may have felt like me that on just about every point these principles might apply at any age or stage of life or situation. However, where an adult is concerned there might be a question raised over how family members might be involved or participate. This might be particularly important in relation to people with learning disabilities whose status as adults may not easily be accepted by parents. Think back to Lynne and her father and ask yourself how easy it would be for her to make her own life story book with her father's involvement and participation.
The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAFF) has produced a life story work book for children to write, draw and stick pictures in as well as guidance for an adult doing life story work with a child. The book also includes pages for children adopted from overseas or with a disability to record information and encourages children to record their thoughts and their feelings.
Children who have had experience of separation and loss in their lives can be helped to deal with this through finding ways to tell their life stories.
Life story work is as much about dealing with the present and preparing for the future as it is sorting out feelings about the past.
Life story work may not be appropriate for every child and the child's wishes should be respected at all stages.
There are basic principles in life story work which could apply at any age or stage of life.