Colm Tobin and the stories we tell ourselves
How we can re-write our script and learn to embrace our past in order to move forward.
Colm Toibin’s House of Names found itself onto my reading list, this past summer and it is a remarkable book. Toibin’s plot is one that was given to him by a Greek myth, but his interpretation of this plot is uniquely his own. It set me on a path of reflection on how the stories we tell ourselves help to shape who we are. And, as we approach the festive season, and the family gatherings this entails, this seems particularly relevant.
House of Names is the vivid re-telling of the story and consequences of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his older daughter to secure victory in battle. It invites the reader to a fresh interpretation of the principal characters’ motives and the impact of these. It also fills in some of the gaps in the original story; Toibin comes up with a plausible explanation of where Agamemnon’s young son Orestes went during his years away from his father’s palace, and how what happened to him there made him into the sort of person who could murder his own mother.
A myth is an ancient story made up by our forebears to explain the world and express the morality and laws that govern it. They tell us how society was structured and also tell us something about the inner lives of the people who came before us. The Greek myths entered the literate era around 500 BC when dramatists such as Euripides captured them in words, which ancient Athenians learnt to repeat by rote and performed in vast open-air theatres. It’s safe to assume that at each re-telling, aspects of the myths were either emphasised or down-played to suit the current reality and the world view of the story-teller.
In the same way as the ancient Greeks invented myths to make sense of the world around them ("Why does the wind blow?" "Why do we feel jealous of our siblings?") we still tell ourselves stories, and in the constant repeating of them, allow these internal narratives to shape our world and our reactions to it. And sometimes these stories cease to serve us well long after the initial experience that gave rise to them.
The alchemy of having the space to tell your own story to a trained listener, without judgement or comment, can unlock a fresh perspective or understanding. A coach may pick up on a verbal clue to a story that has shaped your world-view (“My family don’t accept the person I am now, and always remind me of the child I was”, “In their eyes I am a failure”, “They have let me down”, “I am never going to be good enough for them”) and created a meaning that is not only false but has confined or constricted your thinking in such a way as to limit the possibilities in front of you. Your coach’s task is to gently challenge your ‘reading’ of your own story, so that you can come to a new understanding of past events and move forward.
One of the most astonishing things about Toibin’s book is that the gods are almost totally absent. I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t even notice this until half way through. In common with other ancient societies, the Greeks invented gods in their own image, each exemplifying a particular human characteristic or influence on life on earth. So, although Agamemnon set off the whole awful chain of events by the sacrifice of his daughter to appease the nameless god of the wind, Toibin chooses to focus on the human impact of this reprehensible mis-judgement and its impact on his wife Clytemnestra and surviving children. And, like us coaches, he is just as interested in the psyche and internal dialogue of the characters as he is in the stories that have been told about them, and the stories they have told themselves, about the external events that shaped them.