The Stories We Tell

The Stories We Tell


Family secrets are often discussed in therapy. The secret is rarely a reason that an individual or a couple initiates therapy. But, if a therapist takes a complete family history, certain secrets or unanswered questions from the past often surface. And these secrets often relate to present challenges and can be useful points of exploration to help a client resolve current challenges and move forward.

In my work with therapy clients, I always conduct a “genogram”. A genogram is a comprehensive family history utilizing specific psychological perspectives and strategies to help individuals determine how their childhood and their parents’ childhoods impact their current life experience. Genograms are also a meaningful element of couples therapy. Hearing a partner’s family history in this particular therapeutic context often teaches couples new things about each other. And even when they do not learn something new, they almost always develop new insights and greater levels of empathy for each other that serve the relationship well and help the couple work through current challenges with mutual compassion.

Canadian actor, writer and director Sarah Polley’s 2013 documentary, The Stories We Tell, is basically a series of genograms conducted by Sarah with members of her own family. These interviews are then brilliantly interspersed with home movies – some real and some manufactured. Sarah’s mother, actress Diane Polley, died in 1990 when Sarah was eleven. As the interviews unfold, different versions of the same story add texture and contrast to the director’s attempt to learn more about her mother and herself. Each family member’s narrative simultaneously enhances and challenges the others. As the viewer and the director move closer and closer to the truth behind the family secret, we realize there is no one singular truth. Each family member has a different experience within the same family. But giving voice to various memories and perspectives appears therapeutic and simultaneously celebrates the parallels between art and therapy.

For anyone who has ever wondered about a mysterious time from a family member’s past or a long-ago chapter from the family history that feels unclear, The Stories We Tell will be as relatable as it is inspirational.

The Stories We Tell is available to stream on Netflix and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award in 2013 for Best Non Fiction Film and the 2013 Canadian Screen Award for Best Feature Length Documentary.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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