The ultimate anonymity is to be storyless.

I have always paid attention to silence, those moments in which there are no words or images to articulate experience, those times of unknown knowing. This is true in my personal life, in my work as a therapist, and in my membership in various communities of women and men.

The silences that surround my work as a therapist disturb me. The transformational interchange of a woman and her therapist has too long been hidden from the public view, from the awareness of other women who have a need and a right to know this aspect of other women’s stories, of one another’s lives. Carol Christ has written:


Carol Christ wrote, “Women’s stories have not been told… Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious. She is closed in silence. The expression of women’s spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women’s stories. If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s souls will not beknown.”

Each woman who comes for therapy is stuck in a Catch-22. First, the self that is telling and interpreting her very own story has been inherited from ideas, concepts, and theories borrowed from current cultural narratives. Second, she has been born into a language that transmits values and concepts that have already named her, and thus already started in many instances the process of muting her. Third, she is bombarded with images and iconography in the culture about how to look, speak, act, to “be” a woman. Thus, she is limited in the repertoire of possibilities with which to reinvent or re-vision herself.


Traditionally, psychotherapy is a socially sanctioned institution through which each woman is expected to build and evaluate her life according to certain pre-established norms. As the life stories in this book illustrate, if both women—the therapist and the woman coming for help—do not examine this construction carefully we are stuck in the quicksand of a permanently fragmented human being and an unexamined therapeutic process and record, which become vectors for our continued joint problems.

Where Can A Woman Go?

Where can a woman go when she wants to learn about other women’s experiences in therapy? Surprisingly, there are few places a woman can look. If she has the skills, time, patience, and persistence she can search out a number of professional journals in which therapists talk to each other about their clients. It would be rare, however, for her to hear the actual words of the woman and her therapist working together. What she would be reading would not be the story as told by the woman client herself. She would be hearing a woman’s therapeutic story in the language professionals use to speak to each other.

In the past, I have presented “cases” at teaching conferences. Eventually I realized that I had let down each woman whose case I presented. I had not presented her voice, her story as she saw it. Instead I recited her symptoms and her history as clinicians would see it—organized by recognized psychological theories about mental health or illness. These sterile, formal presentations never allowed me to tell how the woman and I actually worked together, how we learned from each other, how we grew and changed in response to one another and I believe has silenced many other therapists. I find I can no longer participate in keeping the women I work with, and myself, invisible and silent in this way.

Carolyn Heilbrun proposed in her book Writing A Woman’s Life that,


“There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it,in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or renaming the process.”

I suggest that there is a fifth way of writing a woman’s life: both the woman and her therapist together can create an alternative cultural text about her healing process. In writing our own text or life narrative, we become subjects in discourse rather than objects of discourse. The coming together of these two women's life stories—those of the therapist and the woman with whom she works—and the combined psychological, intellectual, and metaphoric lives of both of us interact in a highly significant manner, and have the potential to produce relevant changes in both our lives.

Women’s therapy stories are primary records. They contain the raw data of women’s lives—and the negotiated and constructed dialogues between two women.They are, in a sense, longitudinal studies, occurring over a long and symbolic period of time. These rich, cultural documents of women’s lives are sacred texts, and the therapist’s office is an alternative and supplemental cultural environment for the carrying out of these shared experiences, these labors of love.

Everything that a woman perceives, feels, and does is based on a set of assumptions about her reality, her truth, and her values. Everything that a therapist perceives, feels, and does is similarly based on a set of assumptions about reality, truth, and value. We perceive our world in ways that mirror what we think is real and what we think is true, and we can also imagine a world that is better. At critical moments in our lives we often have to reassess the criteria for our judgments. It is the interplay of these two world views, the old and the new, that creates the foundation for inquiry, creativity, and transformation in and of therapy. In this process, new thoughts are conceived, and new actions are taken that reflect our larger vision.


The ethics of all therapy is first and foremost one of protection—“Do no harm.” No one but a woman and her therapist can decide whether and to whom her story should be told. The greatest harm we can do in terms of women’s therapy is to fail to give women the time and space to get their stories told, to tell their own truths and hear each other’s truths, in whatever forums they may choose. Women’s public speech has been squelched for centuries, and there exist scant public accounts of women’s own work and women’s own words in therapy. For some women, the healing process comes from undoing this constraint.

We are citizens in a democracy. In working with a woman we immediately start from the perspective of honesty, truth, and dialogue. Her therapist continually asks what action will be emancipatory. Historically it has been the role of the therapist to protect what clients tell her, to maintain the secrets of their lives in order to keep them from harm. There are times, however, when taking the woman’s story beyond the therapy office is part of her healing, is part of what frees her. Imagine, for example, the effect if the secrecy in the office is a serious disjunction with more public knowledge of a woman’s story. This was true in the case of Nancy, whose therapy story is told in this book. In every other place her story was known—in the hospital, the newspaper, the court records—but it was not necessarily her story as she would have chosen to tell it. That story, her own construction of the meaning of her life, remained locked in my office and in our two minds until she and I together decided that her therapy story should be shared. We also decided together to what extent, in what form, and with whom her therapy story should be shared.

In Astra's story, for example, we chose to blot out areas of personal relationships that would impinge upon the privacy of others.

Reconstructing Our Life Stories

Women’s stories have not been recorded because frequently and historically, they have not been valued. One look at the words used to describe women speaking together reveals the prejudgment: chatter, gab, gossip. Yet, women coming together to help one another is an ancient ritual. Still, a therapist’s office is one of the few publicly sanctioned places where a woman is free to talk about her life. It is only here that she may unabashedly examine her truths and beliefs, discuss how to make meaning out of her existence, explore her reasons for being alive.

Creating Therapy Texts

This site tells the therapy stories of three women from a variety of backgrounds, who have experienced extraordinary events and undergone long-term therapy with me, and who have agreed to let their stories be made public. They see this not only as a personal act, but as a political act: a way to confront the traditional mystique surrounding healing and the confidential records of therapy. In so doing, they refuse to cooperate with the silencing of their lives. By going public, by placing themselves in the strands of history, they remind themselves and others that they have been there, both in a personal context and in a historical context. It is a way of speaking oneself into the larger existence of shared communities, to say, “Yes, we were here, too.”

The three women in this book are part of a larger group of women who have come to my office over the past twenty-five years feeling dispirited, confused, and often in crisis. That all three women were in their 40’s was a coincidence. That all three women were white reflects the fact that Vermont's population is 98 percent white. Two of the women were at the time involved in heterosexual relationships; one was celibate. All three had worked in institutions that have had a history of oppressing women—the business world, the religious world, and the arts—yet each of these women managed to create a vision and provide a service to the larger community that was pro-everyone. And the practice of psychotherapy itself has a history as well.

In choosing the women, I had to consider where each woman was in her own therapy process. I had no story to tell if a woman was at the beginning of her work, nor did I want to create in her a self-consciousness about her own process early in our work together. I had to reflect on which women might benefit most from the collaboration involved in getting their stories told. How might that process add to a woman's healing?

Each woman’s story can be read separately but each has also been interwoven with each of the others. The three stories also converge with other stories as different women enter the therapy space. Women readers will be able to find their worst fears expressed in the three stories. In these stories each woman reveals what she perceives to be obstacles blocking her life path that have dispirited her and limited her forward movement.

These women’s stories show the pursuit of values, problems that arise in human development, the evolution of human freedom, the centrality of love and caring for others, the concern for the ultimate meaning of life, and the ability to reduce the stresses of everyday living in a harmonious way. Each woman comes to understand that she is a source of knowledge, embedded in a larger culture.

In this work, therapy is presented as two life narratives, that of the woman’s and the therapist’s, converging and unfolding. It is a mapping of our backgrounds, life experiences, goals, beliefs, knowledge, and values. The therapeutic storytelling process is a powerful mode of gathering, remembering, and recording. It illustrates how two women or more can work together in therapy, and how this work can be extended out into the community. As the woman and her therapist negotiate and carefully weave together a larger life story, she moves from ambiguity to openness and new possibilities, extending and widening the therapy dialogue that leads to a woman’s healing.

Telling the therapy story publicly can be a hazardous activity for both the therapist and the client. From the position of two separate women, one who comes for help and one who does the helping, we move to a new position, giving ourselves a new joint identity. Sidonie Smith, a scholar and authority on women’s autobiography and women’s life narrative stories, notes:


“…women pay for public self disclosure …the autobiographer reveals in her speaking posture and narrative structure her understanding of the possible readings she will receive from a public that has the power of her reputation in its hands … struggling with conflicting purposes and postures she slides from one fiction of self representation to another as she attends to two stories, those doubled figures of selfhood in the ideology of gender…[but] there have always been women who cross the line between private and public utterance, unmasking their desire for the empowering of self-interpretation of autobiography as they unmasked in their life the desire for publicity. Such women approach the autobiographical territory from their positions as speakers at the margins of discourse. In so doing, they find themselves implicated in a complex posture toward the engendering of autobiographical narrative.”

Every woman has a life history, but she tells a story. The therapy stories shared in this book capture the essence of the ongoing dialogues between each of the women and me, her therapist. Who am I? What has happened to me? What’s going to happen to me? How is it that life is turning out differently from what I expected? Who is there to witness my life?

Astra, Nancy, Clare have made the decision to share their therapy stories. Astra’s name is a pseudonym. Nancy, Allison and Clare wanted their real names used.

Therapists work in many different ways, resulting in many perspectives and different theoretical groundings. This manuscript is about the way one therapist does therapy, a therapy grounded not only in the multiple theories of psychology, but also in the rich texture of the transdisciplinary perspective that results when psychology is rewoven with philosophy, science, history, literature, and the arts, and particularly with the scholarship from the field of women’s studies which encompasses all of these. I, the therapist, am the scribe of each woman’s story. When I worked with each woman, I kept extensive verbatim notes during our sessions together. I discovered that each of us used particular symbols and metaphors, thus creating a narrative with unique patterns, structures, and timbre.

Finally, this manuscript acknowledges the active presence of you, the reader, and acknowledges intelligence, wisdom, curiosity, and knowledge that emerge from your own lived experience as a woman.


(Manuscript page number. Work cited; page number of quotation, if applicable. See bibliography for full information on works cited.)

Christ, Carol P., Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1980. Page 1.

Smith, Sidonie, A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation, 1987, p.49 and 44