The Story of Your Life

We can’t go back and change the past. We can’t erase trauma and hardship. But what if there was a way to regain control of our personal narratives? In the second part of our series on storytelling, we look at how interpreting the stories of our lives — and rewriting them — can change us forever. Also, a note that this week’s episode touches on themes of trauma and suicide. If you or someone you know may be having thoughts of suicide, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.   

Additional Resources: 

Research Studies:

“Personal Experience With Narrated Events Modulates Functional Connectivity Within Visual and Motor Systems During Story Comprehensionby Raymond Mar et al., Human Brain Mapping, 2014. 

Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition – Raymond A. Mar, 2018,” by Raymond Mar, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2018.

The neural bases of social cognition and story comprehension” by Raymond A Mar, Annual Review of Psychology, 2011

Grab Bag: 

The Psychoanalyst’s Tale – Why We Need to Tell Stories to Relieve Our Sorrows,” By John Henley Henley, John for The Guardian

More about Gillie Bolton’s work:

More about Krista Sandor’s work:

More about Medea: Medea: Greek Mythology

More about Aristotle’s writings on catharsis: Poetics By Aristotle: Catharsis

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Greek mythology is filled with stories of violence, anger, and hatred. Take the tale of the goddess Medea. To distract her father as she fled with her lover, Medea killed her brother, cut up his body, and scattered the pieces behind her. Then there's the god Cronus who devoured five of his children at birth to ward off a prophecy that one of them would eventually overthrow him. For a land blessed with exceptional sunshine and good wine, Greece is home to a striking number of tales about incest, brutality, and bloodthirsty revenge. Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had a theory of why this was. In Poetics, he suggested that the goal of art was something he called catharsis. Writing, watching, and re-enacting tragedy was good for the soul. It was a form of healing. The idea that stories can be a form of therapy has carried over into modern times. Sigmund Freud explored the idea. Psychoanalysis involves understanding the self as a series of stories. After Freud fell out of favor, researchers and counselors have continued to explore the role that stories play in our mental wellbeing. This week on Hidden Brain, how understanding the stories of our lives and rewriting them can change us forever. A quick heads up. Today's episode touches on trauma and how we cope with it. There are references to suicide and revenge. Rachel first met Greg in California. They were skydiving. They were at what's known at the drop zone where skydivers gather after a jump.

Rachel: He was funny. He was kind. He was intelligent.

Shankar Vedantam: He was also good looking. We're using first names to protect the privacy of people in this story.

Rachel: He has beautiful eyes, a kind face, wonderful sense of humor. Skydivers tend to be a lot of A-type personalities. A lot of ego. But he wasn't like that. He didn't have this need to be the center of attention. I found that appealing.

Shankar Vedantam: Rachel started to see more of Greg and she noticed that he made a point of putting himself on the same jumps she was on. So one day...

Rachel: He was sitting on the grass having lunch. I came over with an extra Mountain Dew or some kind of soda and we sat down and started making small talk.

Shankar Vedantam: Shortly after that first chat, they started dating. Three months in, Rachel was doing a jump during some rough weather.

Rachel: And I came in on some very windy conditions and I had a little accident. Nothing major, but I did break my wrist.

Shankar Vedantam: Greg offered to come over and take care of her while she healed.

Rachel: We'd spent a lot of time together at that point and I was tickled and delighted.

Shankar Vedantam: Greg never moved out and soon they were engaged. About a year later, Rachel and Greg went skydiving in Arizona. She recorded some of the jumps on her GoPro.

Rachel: It was still very early in the morning. It's an amazing experience. You have about a minute of free fall and then you break away and then you deploy your canopies.

Shankar Vedantam: After landing, they quickly went up again. Thousands of feet above the Arizona desert, they jumped.

Rachel: We did another free-fly jump with two other people. We did what's called a four-way. You have to come in in a certain pattern. You have to pick your spot and you do a landing pattern.

Shankar Vedantam: When they broke away for the landing, Greg went first. As he neared the ground, Rachel noticed something that looked like a little tornado below her.

Rachel: The weather, as it warms up, can create dust devils.

Shankar Vedantam: Greg was headed straight into one. Just before she made her own landing, Rachel caught one last glimpse of him.

Rachel: I can see him completely splayed on the ground. I can see his canopy is completely collapsed. It shouldn't have been collapsed at that point. I can see people running toward him.

Shankar Vedantam: Rachel landed safely and rushed to Greg.

Rachel: His face is contorted in pain. They've just pulled off his shoe. He has a bone sticking out of his foot. He has a busted femur. Both feet are broken.

Shankar Vedantam: Greg was medevaced to a trauma center. Rachel followed by car. He was already in surgery when she got there.

Rachel: His first surgery to repair his femur, they put a rod down his leg. It turns out that the initial injury, which was the femur fracture, was the easiest to fix. It turns out that his feet and his leg and his lumbar area would all just have issues.

Shankar Vedantam: Greg was sent home to continue his healing. A primary care physician took over his case. She was new: a replacement for Greg's longtime doctor, who'd recently retired. Greg's biggest issue now was pain. It was almost unbearable. Still, they felt sure that with time and good medical care, it would ease.

Rachel: We felt like we were beating the odds. He kept his feet. And it was hard, but we were going to get through it.

Shankar Vedantam: But Rachel says the new doctor was cautious. Doctors who treat pain have to balance competing goals. They want to minimize pain as much as possible, but as the recent opioid epidemic shows, the strongest drugs can also harm patients and lead to deadly addictions. How far do you go with medications? How fast? These are tough questions that often do not have clear-cut answers.

Rachel: She had a protocol. I remember her showing it to me once. She was going to try each drug... Well, each drug has to be approved. He has to try it for a few weeks. If it doesn't work, we have to come in, we have to look at the next one.

Shankar Vedantam: Nothing eased Greg's pain.

Rachel: He told me on a regular basis it was like someone was stabbing him with a knife and turning the knife. And it was just, it was constant. This is the kind of pain... It's a nightmare.

Shankar Vedantam: Rachel felt powerless. Meanwhile, Greg got worse and worse. He stopped getting out of bed.

Rachel: He was gradually not eating. He was curling up in a ball. He was just shutting down. He would tell me about how much pain he was in and then he wouldn't talk for the rest of the day.

Shankar Vedantam: Rachel says Greg told her he couldn't endure the pain and that he began to talk about killing himself.

Rachel: He says, "I feel like I am scratching my fingernails on rocks trying to pull myself out of a well, and I just keep sinking further and further in. I want to end it."

Shankar Vedantam: Rachel found a pilot who agreed to fly Greg to a hospital in Mexico. He could receive stronger pain medication there. But Rachel says their doctor said it would take a few weeks to transfer his medical records.

Rachel: I said, "We don't have a few weeks. This is an emergency. He's not going to make it. He is in such terrible condition." Again, it was like talking to a brick wall.

Shankar Vedantam: As the doctor turned to leave, Rachel remembers doing something unexpected; she fell to her knees.

Rachel: And I looked at her and I looked at her staff. There were a couple other women in the room. I said, "Please, this is so important. He's not going to make it. He's in so much pain. Please. I'm begging you. Help him." And they just looked at me... The couple of other gals, they looked upset, but they didn't say anything. And she just looked at me and she says, "We have to wait for this to work." And she turned around and she left.

Shankar Vedantam: Five days later, Greg hauled himself into a car. He got himself to the top of a tall building and he flung himself over the edge.

Rachel: He'd called 911 right before he did so that he wouldn't be laying there. He didn't want to upset anybody. He left a note at the house. It was scrawled in this crazy handwriting. It was basically, "I don't want to die. I'm so sorry to go. I love you. But I just can't take it any more."

Shankar Vedantam: The first call Rachel made was to the doctor. I got her on the phone and I told her, "You know, he killed himself. This is your fault." Rachel can't remember how the doctor replied, but she says it wasn't what she needed to hear.

Rachel: I was so upset with her. I kept feeling like this didn't have to go this way. "You could've helped him. We could've maybe lost his feet or something but he could've been here. And he certainly could've been kept comfortable. I mean, nobody treats a person like this. We don't treat animals like this."

Shankar Vedantam: We do not know the name of Greg's doctor and our story is not about whether she did something wrong. Our story is about how Rachel saw things and what happened next in her mind. As the days passed, Rachel's grief turned to rage. She began fantasizing about revenge. Rachel knew she and the doctor lived in the same town. She kept thinking about what would happen if she bumped into her at the store.

Rachel: I imagined that I would see her in an aisle and I would walk up to her and she'd see me and I'd see her and I'd spit in her face. I'd just nail her right in the middle of her face. And I'd look at her in the eye while she would look shocked, and then I would slap her. And maybe I would throw a few more punches and I would tell her, I would tell her, how awful she was and how awful she'd treated this beautiful human being. I wanted her to be afraid. I wanted her to be sorry. In some kind of twisted way, I wanted her to get how she'd taken a beautiful human being from the world: that she'd let a beautiful human being go through incalculable suffering, for what? Why?

Shankar Vedantam: When Rachel did this, when she thought about confronting the doctor in the supermarket, something surprising happened.

Rachel: I would feel a loosening up of all the tension in my body as I would think about it. It was like a fantasy. It was like if you have a fantasy about a vacation and you go off and you imagine how wonderful a beach is going to be, let's say, and you can feel how you relax. It was sort of like that. I would imagine how satisfying it would be for her to suffer some little bit of what Greg suffered.

Shankar Vedantam: The more detailed and vivid her fantasy became, the more it soothed Rachel.

Rachel: I could run this whole movie in my mind. I could see her at the market. I could see the shock on her face. I could feel the satisfaction of hurting her. I mean, emotionally. And somehow that was going to help me. Somehow that was going to make it better.

Shankar Vedantam: As the days passed, Rachel's thoughts wandered even further.

Rachel: I was getting a lot of relief out of running this scenario in my mind. The more involved it got, the more it occurred to me that if I follow through I'll get even more relief.

Shankar Vedantam: Rachel eventually confided her fantasy to a grief counselor.

Rachel: And she jumped on it. She basically said, "You need to stop thinking about that right now. You've got this way too planned out. Do you know what'll happen if you do that? You will get arrested. You could lose your job." I remember being shocked and I remember thinking it was going to be difficult to stop thinking about it.

Shankar Vedantam: And once the therapist asks you to let this go, you said it was difficult in the session, but in the days that followed what happened?

Rachel: I did a lot of journaling and I realized that I had been caught up in some kind of crazy grief response, crazy loop. I realized that if the counselor hadn't talked to me I think I had the potential to act on it. The fantasy kept getting richer and richer as each few days would go by. I ultimately decided that for the rest of my life if I think she's anywhere nearby, I will leave. I will just leave.

Shankar Vedantam: Was Rachel's fantasy of revenge a precursor to her committing a crime? Her grief counselor worried about that. Rachel worried about that, too. Such a response is understandable but it also reflects the larger way many of us think of fantasies, even our own. We react to their content instead of asking about their origins. Rather than seeing them as an imperfect way our minds are responding to trauma, we recoil from them because we fear what they might reveal about our inner demons. When we come back, what would happen if we looked at our fantasies with less judgment and more curiosity.

Gillie Bolton: So I got into this terrible worked-up state writing it, but it was only writing. It's safely contained on that beautiful white frame of the paper.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Once upon a time, there was a boy. One day he was exploring the mountains near his home when he saw a small white bird fly into a cave. He decided to follow it. At first, it was easy. The bird was bright against the dark rock walls. But soon the gloom turned into a suffocating blackness. The boy couldn't see the bird any more. He couldn't see anything. He wasn't sure how to get back out. He turned in a circle trying to get his bearings. And that is when it happened: the sand beneath his feet began to shift and move and open and then...

Shankar Vedantam: Okay, let's stop there. You want to know what happens next. The truth is I don't know. I made up the story to illustrate a point: how narratives can take hold of our attention and draw us in. As a lifelong reader, Raymond Mar knows all about the appeal of a good yarn. But as a psychologist at York University in Toronto, he's also interested in why stories have the power to hold us captive.

Raymond Mar: You're in a dreamlike state and you're so deeply immersed within this world that even if you get jarred out of a piece of fiction that you're highly engaged with it kind of takes a while for you to re-enter the real world.

Shankar Vedantam: Over the years, Raymond has studied why stories work this way. Why are our minds so attuned to narrative and storytelling? Think about the last really great book you read. If someone asked you what you liked about it, chances are your answer will be about how the story made you feel. Raymond says there's a reason for that.

Raymond Mar: This deep immersion in the story, this deep imagination, draws upon the same emotional systems that we use in the real world. The sadness that we feel when a character that we care a lot about dies, for example, it's not the same as a real loved one dying but it's similar enough that it can produce things like tears and the same sort of psychological symptoms of sadness. And we experience this as sadness.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, Raymond analyzed data from studies in which people were asked to read stories while undergoing brain scans. He found that when we are immersed in a story, our brains respond as if we are part of the fictional world that we are seeing on the page.

Raymond Mar: If you have someone read a very simple sentence about a person kicking a soccer ball, not only will you see parts of the language network become involved, but you'll also see activation in the motor cortex: the same part of the brain that we use to actually move our bodies. More importantly, this activation is quite specific. You'll only see a part of the motor cortex activated that's related to the lower half of the body.

Shankar Vedantam: It's worth pausing a moment and underlining this point. When we read about someone kicking a soccer ball, our brain is activated in the same way as if we were actually the ones kicking the soccer ball. Raymond began to wonder if something similar happens as our minds process the social challenges that characters encounter in stories.

Raymond Mar: So, reading... I believe it's possible that it presents to us an imagined social world for us to interact with. It gives to us a representation of human interactions, human psychology, that we can then learn from in very safe circumstances.

Shankar Vedantam: Put another way, stories give us a chance to experience the real world without the risks of the real world. They allow us to run different scenarios and to think about the consequences of those scenarios. If we're evaluating a move to a different city, for example, we might imagine what it would be like to live in that city. What would be great about it? What would be awful? Stories, daydreams, and fantasies, in other words, allow us to imagine different versions of ourselves. They allow us to ask, "What would I do in this situation? How would I react? What kind of a person would I be?" Raymond figured that if all of this was true, reading about other characters should make us more insightful people.

Raymond Mar: I had senior colleagues tell me that, "You're going to find the exact opposite. It's people who read a lot that are going to be more socially awkward. They're going to have more difficulty understanding other people."

Shankar Vedantam: Raymond came up with a study. He tallied the reading habits of volunteers and then had them take a test. It's called the "Reading in the mind in the eyes test." Volunteers were asked to examine the photographs of people's faces. Specifically, the photos showed only people's eyes. Could volunteers tell what emotion the person in the photo was experiencing using only the expression in their eyes?

Raymond Mar: What we found was that people who were exposed to more narrative fiction did better on this test of understanding what other people are thinking and feeling and what their mental states are. There's a positive correlation.

Shankar Vedantam: A correlation is just an association. We don't know that reading books caused people to be better at reading the mental states of other people.

Raymond Mar: It's entirely possible that the reserve could be true: that people that are really good at understanding other people are also interested in fiction because fiction portrays social content, or that some third variable explains the association between these two things.

Shankar Vedantam: What is clear, however, is that you cannot follow books and movies without being able to skillfully tell what's happening in the minds of various characters. Appreciating a story requires you to see the world through the perspectives of other people. It requires empathy.

Raymond Mar: If John gets into a fight or a conflict with a playmate and then he leaves, you might have to make the inference that he left because he was upset.

Shankar Vedantam: Or that he left because he won or that he left because he lost or left because he was humiliated or any number of different mental states.

Raymond Mar: Right. They're all possible. But in order to make sense of the entire story, you would hopefully have to make correct inferences. Your initial inferences, if they don't seem to be consistent with the other events, then you might change your inferences.

Shankar Vedantam: As we run through what's happening in the mind of various characters, good stories call on us to revise our initial assumptions. They invite us to be flexible. Again, there's an overlap here between what happens in the brain when we read and when we experience things in real life.

Raymond Mar: It seems like the brain regions that we employ when we're understanding stories look quite similar to the brain regions that we employ when we're trying to understand other people's mental states, which is a nice piece of evidence, I would say, that's consistent with this idea that when we're reading fiction, when we're immersing ourselves in the world of fiction, we're drawing upon the same brain regions, the same network of brain regions, that we use when we understand the real world.

Shankar Vedantam: This, of course, is the insight that Aristotle had centuries ago. Stories provide us with catharsis: a mechanism to safely explore difficult terrain. You don't actually have to kill your son in real life when you're upset with him. You watch a play and see what happens when a character vents her rage. Instead of getting hauled up in court for murder, you just sit in a theater for a couple of hours and clap when the curtain comes down. If stories can serve as a safe space to explore trauma and repressed feelings, can they also be used to heal those traumas?

Gillie Bolton: All my working life I focused on research into therapeutic writing: the value to the personal self of writing, writing journals, poetry, stories.

Shankar Vedantam: This is educator and therapist Gillie Bolton. She believes therapeutic writing can help people discover and address deeply buried trauma.

Gillie Bolton: That's exactly what happens with memories of severe trauma. They get locked up in the memory and you can't access them. One of the very few ways of accessing those kinds of traumatic memories is through metaphor: i.e., sideways. You can't come straight at them. Your mind is so injured by it that it doesn't want you to find it.

Shankar Vedantam: Gillie tells the story of one student: a doctor we'll call Mark. He took a seminar she was leading for physicians.

Gillie Bolton: The only thing I asked this group of doctors to do was to write about a significant event in their life. This one young man, he shared with us a poem he'd written about how when he was little, how his brother had been run over and killed. The poem is just extraordinarily powerful.

Shankar Vedantam: I asked Gillie if she'd read a bit of it to us.

Gillie Bolton: "The grown ups stand around watching. Grown ups know what to do. The grown ups stand around watching. 'Is that Simon lying on the pavement? He's got blondie hair like Simon's.' The grown ups stand around watching. 'A boy's been run over!' another kid says. Is that Simon lying on the pavement? He was walking in front of me. The grown ups stand around watching. Mrs. Bailey puts a blanket over him, but I can still see his blondie hair."

Gillie Bolton: Later, Mark wrote this about writing the poem. "I'd never talked about what I was feeling when Simon died. Now I've written about it, I can and do talk about it. Simon and I had had an argument about a fortnight before he died. I'd asked Simon not to walk with me to school. You know what's like, an older brother wants to be with his own friends and doesn't want to be seen taking care of his little brother. Until I did this writing, I felt guilty about Simon's death: that it was my fault for not allowing him to walk with me."

Shankar Vedantam: As an adult, that guilt ate away at Mark. It kept him from being the kind of doctor he wanted to be. Then he wrote the poem.

Gillie Bolton: And he said, "It's changed my practice of medicine so much because in the past I could not relate to a child who was very ill at all, especially a child who was dying." And after that, he could.

Shankar Vedantam: "We all have stories in us," Gillie says, "stories that need telling". Sometimes, releasing them is enough to bring comfort and peace. But stories also allow us to do something we cannot do in real life. On the page, we can rewrite the stories from our past. We can reframe them. We can invent new characters. We can change how we behaved. We can turn them into fantasies. Instead of walking ahead of a younger brother on the way to school, we can walk alongside the child.

Gillie Bolton: We can make anything happen in a story if we want to. It's one of the things I suggest people do, especially if what they've been exploring is something harrowing, tragic, something horrible, or something that they've got stuck with. I suggested that they try writing it with a different ending: something totally different happening.

Shankar Vedantam: Asking people to turn their life experiences into fiction comes with another deep psychological benefit. A good story does not have caricatures, like cartoon heroes who always behave like heroes or villains who are always evil. A good story needs real people with complex emotions and conflicting impulses. So when you write about events that happen to you, you might find yourself getting into the minds of people who offended you, people who hurt you. You might find yourself asking, "Why did this person do this? What was their motivation?" Storytelling, in other words, can become a vehicle for empathy. Gillie tells the story of another physician: Gillie Bolton: He started writing a story about his encounter with a child patient and their parents. He got incredibly worked up writing this because the child had nearly died of meningitis and the parents were absolutely furious with him because he hadn't diagnosed the meningitis before it became dangerous and the child had to be hospitalized. I don't know if you know, but meningitis is extremely difficult to diagnose in its first stages. So he wrote the story. He wrote out his fury at the parents, who were so angry with him and were trying to get him struck off as a physician. And then he thought, "I'll try what this person, Gillie Bolton, tell us to do, what she advises us to do. I'll write it from the point of view of the parents. I can't see it's going to work, but I'm going to try it." And, he did. He started writing the story from the point of view, the perspective, of the parents, and he said he had written hardly any words before he sat there in floods of tears and suddenly realized what it was, what was going on here: that here were two people who were absolutely terrified. They were angry with him because they'd been so scared that their lovely daughter was going to die. He said, "I instantly just felt sympathy and empathy for them. My anger just disappeared from these first few sentences I wrote of writing the story from their point of view."

Shankar Vedantam: If you decide to try Gillie's advice, you don't have to share your story with anyone else. Gillie herself has probed some dark memories and allowed herself to say and do things on the page that would never dream of saying or doing in real life.

Gillie Bolton: I wrote all these absolutely awful things and I allowed myself to do it because I knew nobody else need ever read them. So I got into this terrible worked-up state writing it, but it was only writing. It's safely contained on that beautiful white frame of the paper.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, a woman who used fiction to heal deep psychological wounds and turned her fantasies into a lucrative career. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Krista Sandor's early childhood is a blur of different homes in different places.

Krista Sandor: We lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, and then we got to Kansas City when I was 10. That's a lot of moving.

Shankar Vedantam: During that 10th year, her parents divorced. Krista's dad moved to Chicago and Krista stayed in Kansas City with her mom. They bounced from place to place. Along the way, her mom started dating a new guy.

Krista Sandor: It was a very unsafe relationship. He wasn't a nice man.

Shankar Vedantam: Over the next few years, Krista remembers many nights of being woken up by yelling. It scared her.

Krista Sandor: I would crawl out of bed and I would get down and I would put my ear to the vents. And it's really hard to ask a 12 year old to assess a situation: if you're going to need to call 911 or to get your mom help.

Shankar Vedantam: Krista never talked to anyone about what was going on or how it felt to her. Instead, she just buried it all inside. Because her home life felt chaotic, Krista loved school. She still remembers kind teachers who nurtured her and made her feel safe. But she also vividly remembers the unkind ones who seemed to enjoy dispensing little cruelties. She had a particularly hard time interacting with her middle school music teacher.

Krista Sandor: She was just right on me and she had like a snappy voice. It was like snap, snap, snap when she spoke to me. I felt it almost like in my brain. I would leave band and I would just feel that snap-snap of her voice in my head and just not being enough and trying so hard to play the music and keep my posture. It just was overwhelming. It killed any love that I had for music. I quit. I stopped playing. I gave it all up because it only brought me pain, because I felt like I was so terrible: like I couldn't do it right. And here's another person I can't please in my life.

Shankar Vedantam: All of us have experienced moments like this when we have felt lonely and insecure: when shame and humiliation wash over us. But like most everyone else, Krista stuffed these bad memories into the back of her mind. As she got older, other slights, grown up slights, got stashed away too. Once, when she was in college, she fell for a young man she'd met at a fraternity. She was a freshman. He was two years ahead of her.

Krista Sandor: When we talked on the phone a bit... and I'm still just glowing with excitement. He asked if I wanted to go. There was going to be a party, and if I wanted to go with him. I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is great. Yes, I want to go with you."

Shankar Vedantam: Krista spent hours preparing for the date. She picked out her favorite green blouse and put hot rollers in her hair.

Krista Sandor: I wanted my hair all curled and ready to go.

Shankar Vedantam: He picked her up to take her to the party. Everything seemed great until they got there. Then it was as if Krista didn't exist. He walked off to join his friends and never returned.

Krista Sandor: That's when I realized, "This guy doesn't like you. This guy's kind of a jerk."

Shankar Vedantam: Krista even told him so.

Krista Sandor: I went up to him. He was... I can see it now. He's dancing with a bunch of girls. Red Solo cup in his hand. And I said, "I'm going to leave with my friends. This is not for me." And he said, "That's good." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because your friends are permanent and I'm only temporary." I thought... Oh my gosh. That has stuck with me for forever. He never liked me. I was just some chick going to a party with him. And that, right there, it wounded me. I was so mad at myself for seeing that situation so wrong.

Shankar Vedantam: In the years that followed, Krista settled in Denver and got married. Not to a jerk, but to a really nice guy. They had two sons. Life was pretty great. But then one day her left eye began to give her trouble. She went to the doctor, who sent Krista for an MRI. Immediately after the scan, she learned what was wrong. She had MS: multiple sclerosis.

Krista Sandor: I can remember those first few days. We took the kids downtown to get ice cream and I remember sitting there thinking, "Everything is different now. Everything in our life is going to be different now." And I didn't know how different and I didn't know how it was going to impact the kids or if my husband was going to have to take care of me. It was pretty rough. I really retreated inside myself.

Shankar Vedantam: But then a good friend sent Krista a gift: a romance novel.

Krista Sandor: And I thought, "What are you doing? Why would you send this to someone diagnosed with a disease that nobody can cure?" She's like, "Just read it. It's exactly what you need."

Shankar Vedantam: So Krista did as she was told. She read the book.

Krista Sandor: It's got such a naughty title. It's called "Man Whore: by Katie Evans. But it's a wonderful book, a wonderful series. It was the escape that I needed. So for a whole year, that's all I did, was audiobook romance. Between five and seven books a week.

Shankar Vedantam: Krista listened while she was folding laundry. She listened as she drove the kids to play dates. She listened, in the grocery store.

Krista Sandor: Standing in the produce at Whole Foods. It was a very Colorado moment. And I remember there was a steamy scene and I was just standing there. Looking at like a whole row of bell peppers. I must've been there for 10 minutes. You can zone out in the produce department in Colorado. I was waiting for someone to namaste me. I wasn't ready to turn it off and then go order my hamburger meat.

Shankar Vedantam: The books became a lifeline. They held her fear at bay.

Krista Sandor: For the first year after my diagnosis, there was hardly five minutes, 10 minutes, go by where I just didn't think about MS or having MS or I'm with my kids and I'm like, "Now my kids have a mom with MS." It was just this constant loop in my mind when I was alone or even just with the kids doing anything. It just popped right into my brain all the time. I found the only time where it really was gone was when I was immersed in these stories, in these characters' lives.

Shankar Vedantam: After about a year of obsessively listening to romances, Krista made a big decision. She wasn't just going to read romances. She was going to write them.

Krista Sandor: I said, "I think I'm going to dust off that English minor and I think I'm going to do this. I'm going to write a book."

Shankar Vedantam: Krista wasn't interested in the kind of romances her grandmother had devoured: the ones featuring damsels in distress and the swarthy men who carried them off. Krista liked contemporary romances.

Krista Sandor: I was more drawn to these powerful women in charge of their sexuality: kicking ass and solving crimes.

Shankar Vedantam: Krista was an unknown. She had never published before. She didn't have an agent or inside contacts. So she self-published. She called her first book The Road Home. It's about a woman confronting her past and finding danger and love. The book was a huge success.

Krista Sandor: Then it became two books and then it became a five book series and then another three book series. It's bloomed and blossomed into something really wonderful.

Shankar Vedantam: The books did more for Krista than make her a star author. They allowed her to explore and then reimagine the painful memories she had stored away in the back of her head. It started with that first book, The Road Home. In it, Krista created a character that was modeled on her own mother, who passed away some years ago.

Krista Sandor: First I thought, "Maybe I should just write about her." Then I decided I'm going to write this romance. I'm going to make this situation okay for the heroine. She's going to get through what I was going through with my mother at the time.

Shankar Vedantam: In the book, the heroine's mother is Judith Louis. She has a boyfriend named Travis. Here's Krista reading from The Road Home.

Krista Sandor: "Travis and Judith were the Bonnie and Clyde of narcissism and irresponsibility, moving from town to town, living only for themselves. The relationship was always tumultuous, like a rollercoaster about to fly off the rails at any moment. But now, knowing that Judith suffered from bipolar disorder, Jenna could better understand her mother's behavior as well as her attraction to Travis. They both lived for the high and needed a constant stream of drama to survive."

Shankar Vedantam: Krista says in creating the characters, she finally got to voice what it had felt like for her as a small child seeing her caregivers nearly come to blows with one another.

Krista Sandor: I got to show them who they really were, what I really saw, what it was like being a child who kind of had to live with two people so obsessed with their own needs, their own wants. And then throw in that whole drinking and partying. Yeah. This first book really allowed me to delve into it and kind of get my own say... Have a say that I never got to say.

Shankar Vedantam: I think it's fascinating. You're almost trying to master what happened to you. You're almost processing what happened to you. And by putting it into the lives of characters, in some ways you're able to do what people do in therapy, which is to hold their own experiences at some distance and look at themselves and look at their own lives and look at their own experiences with some degree of objectivity. It allows you to get new insight into what actually happened to you. Is that the way it felt for you, Krista?

Krista Sandor: Absolutely. Even though what I wrote was harsh or maybe could be conceived as cruel, it actually helped me understand these characters more.

Shankar Vedantam: She also got to do what Gillie Bolton talked about: reframe stories and rewrite how they ended. The frat boy who dumped her at the party? Krista turned him into a loser.

Krista Sandor: We had to really stick the knife in and then give it a nice little turn. We leave him as just some douchebag in a bar. That's where we leave him.

Shankar Vedantam: The teacher whose constant snapping drove Krista away from music? She became Mindy Lancaster, a dour woman constantly trying to belittle the heroine. In Krista's new version, it was the heroine, Emma, who got the last word.

Krista Sandor: "What if she couldn't do it? What if her fingers had forgotten what was once second nature? She met Mindy's gaze and saw a glimmer of triumph flash in the woman's eyes. Mindy was an accomplished pianist, but she had never risen to even a fraction of what Emma had achieved as a musician. A confidence Em hadn't known in years surged through her veins. 'I'll do fine without the sheet music, Mrs. Lancaster. I guess you don't remember, but I mastered these pieces by my fourth birthday. Maybe it was my fifth, but who's counting?' The anger that kept her away from music, away from the memories that threatened to tear her apart with guilt and grief, was transforming. 'I've performed for the queen of England. I think I can handle this.'"

Shankar Vedantam: Writing Mindy Lancaster, Krista says, was deeply healing.

Krista Sandor: It was surprisingly cathartic. I'd never said anything. As a child, I just stopped playing. I never got the chance to say to this woman, "You took something very important away from me and I'm angry about it."

Shankar Vedantam: After she put all her grief and rage into the fantasy, Krista says something amazing happened.

Krista Sandor: I have exposed every raw feeling that I had about that situation and that brings me sort of a peacefulness that it's out there. It almost cleared the way to remember that there were happier memories. It just gave me the happiness that was taken away.

Shankar Vedantam: There's also the fact that it's brought you success. You've taken this pain and you've transmuted it, almost literally, into gold.

Krista Sandor: Yeah. It's become my career. My husband's like, "How many jerks did you date? Because we need some more books." I tell people I dated every jerk in Denver before I met my husband, so I'm like, "Honey, you don't have to worry. Between college and dating, we're golden." It is just really interesting to take all the heartache and kind of spin it into gold.

Shankar Vedantam: With each new book, Krista Sandor has felt like the burden she has carried has grown lighter and lighter. The themes of anger and sadness have given way to laughter and comedy. Writing for her has been like a cleansing rain, washing away bad memories and hurt. It has put her in touch with all the good things in her life. Many of us never think to put pen to paper, or we sit down and start but then hesitate because we're afraid of what our stories mean, what our fantasies might reveal. But when we do this, we not only miss out on how our stories might transform other people, we miss out on the power of stories to transform us.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, Andrew Chadwick, Kristin Wong, and Laura Kwerel. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Special thanks this week to one of our favorite storytellers, former Hidden Brain producer Jenny Schmidt, who played a vital role in this episode. Thanks as well to our voice actors this week, Rachel Danzig, Scott Silvestro, and Nicholas Otto.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung hero this week is Matt Weiland. Matt is my editor at Norton and Company, the publisher of my new book, "Useful Delusions.: The idea that we explore today, how stories shape the way we see the world, is also a central theme of Useful Delusions. Over several years, Matt helped me and my co-author Bill Mesler refine our ideas. But even more than his skill as an editor, Matt has always been kind and wise, the best kind of friend, and the ideal unsung hero. I can see his influence all over today's story as well. Thanks, Matt.

Shankar Vedantam: This episode is part of a series on how we make sense of the world. If you haven't had a chance to listen already, check out last week's episode about how we use explanations to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world. Next week, we explore how culture shapes the stories we tell ourselves. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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