Figures on a Windswept Shore: The Interplay of Aloneness and Communitas in Oral Storytelling

Catherine Heinemeyer



Storytelling is an artistic practice which is often understood as generating a sense of togetherness, or, to use Victor Turner’s (1969) more specific term, ‘communitas’. Yet in my experience as a storyteller with young people in many contexts, including mental health settings, aloneness is an equally important feature of storytelling gatherings. Many stories feature lonely characters, and telling such stories calls on the teller’s own experiences of being alone. Many listeners appreciate being left alone for the duration of the story, and respond to it privately. Observing this has often brought to my mind the image of the story as a rocky shore, on which the listeners are wandering separately while aware of each other’s presence. In this essay I interweave the story of ‘The Stolen Child’, a fairy tale featuring an isolated young woman, with observations from two youth mental health settings in which I led storytelling workshops. In so doing, I seek to illustrate the interdependence of aloneness and togetherness in oral story-sharing, as encapsulated in Jean-Luc Nancy’s observation (1991, p. 35) that ‘singular beings lean together’. There is thus no simple opposition between aloneness and communitas; I offer tentative experiential evidence that moments of surprising connection can be enabled by giving listeners  permission to first be separate.


storytelling, aloneness, communitas, enstasy, young people, storytelling in mental health

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