The art of storytelling

This week is all about the story. I was reading with my girl in bed last night, about some re-worked fairytale classics where the goal was for us to work out the story behind the story. The one she chose focused on a little boy called Hyacinth who had a big nose and everyone around him stretched their nose to compensate for his social anxiety. After a lifetime of being surrounded by pinnochios he met a girl who had a small nose, fell in love with her, and they lived happily ever after. I pointed out to my daughter that I loved her step-dad not because of his big nose but because he was a good person. She pointed out that she loved her bestie even though she was ‘heaps taller than her’.

Its coming up to a year since I started my little blog. There are a couple of thousand visits a month from corners across the globe but the thing that brings them back time and time again are the stories. Not necessarily the ones about me but about the people I come in to contact with and they bravely say yes to be interviewed. Having people share their pieces of the world with me has pushed me out to other areas where I’ve taken the leap to write about them and then pitch those stories to print media. I still get surprised when my perspectives on what spaces we might like to read about are embraced by editors.

Someone from a writers centre asked me a few months back about the art of asking the difficult questions. I explained to her:

From a freelancing perspective the stories of trauma and resilience are always going to be interesting. People have an innate curiosity about how people survive disasters or significant losses.

My biggest tip is to be truthful. One of the biggest challenges clients have shared with me, in a counseling space, is the uncomfortableness people radiate when they try to acknowledge that something awful has happened. They talk around the issue; they talk about ‘a loss’ rather than naming the person who was killed or missing. People have survived the unimaginable, it’s OK to name it.

When I find a person who I think suits the story I’m writing the first thing I think about is how I’ll introduce myself. I point out, to prospective case studies, what other stories I’ve done to demonstrate how I have dealt with the topic sensitively. I explain why I think it will be useful for them to share their story and I invite them to clarify points with me.

I also try not to fall back on well-worn clichés…I don’t say ‘wow’ or ‘that must have been hard’ I let them tell me what it was like. I empathize but I don’t sympathize.

I also provide a chance for people to pull out at the last minute – which can be frustrating for the writer but if its isn’t the right time to talk to someone the story is not going to be as powerful.

I guess the short answer is don’t presume that you understand the experience; everyone has a different take on how they have survived.

Looking back on these words brings me to the point where I am now, where the lovely Kristen from Wanderlust has shared my blog on her storytelling directory, so that people in times of grief and loss can find the stories that have been shared. Its also brought me to people like Seema from This Place is Yours whose whole project is about the art of the storytelling – my story about Lori and Lisa, led her to me.

Storytelling doesnt always need a happy ending like the ones that my daughter reads. I dont persuade her to read things other than ‘and so they lived happily ever after’. She’s 6, its OK to think that at her age. During a twitter chat about Happiness last night people raised their concern that we shouldn’t expect happiness all the time. My contribution was this…the ups and downs are just as much part of the space in between.


Whats your take on storytelling?

Frankie says…Choose Life (a guest post)

Lisa from Giving Back Girl responded to my plea that I was lost for words. Writing for uni and freelancing with tight deadlines can do that to a person. Im word spent.

Here she is talking about her space in between. I love her writing and I love that we have carved a friendship out of a chance meeting and a few online shenanigans. Follow her blog here or her twitter feed here,  or just send a big fat Like out to the universe if social media isn’t your thing.

And as Molly Meldrum would say…do yourself a favour (and have a read and share)


My mum died when I was 28, she was 55.  Hers was an unhappy life, and even though I like to think that she adored my sister and I, and would have walked over hot coals for us, I think she may have even been a little disappointed in us.  And let me just get the record straight, I loved my mum and would have walked over coals for her without flinching.  But this isn’t about that.  Or maybe it is.

I have a crazy-detailed memory.  My life memory is like a whole series of mini movies that I can replay at will, to see what I was wearing or eating or doing.  But there is a period of my life where my memory movies are dark, I don’t replay them often, perhaps when I’m with my sister and too many pinot gris’s have been consumed and we feel we need to talk about our “stuff”.  Because I saw things that frankly a child should never, ever have to see.  And I lived my life in a way that no child should have to live.  There was nothing sinister, just negative and destructive, snipping away at any chance I had of a normal childhood.

There was a period when my mum was in a hospital (I’ll pause while you fill in the blank about the kind of hospital it was) when my powers of memory decided that “no, this is not something we’re going to save”, and my memory thankfully deserted me.  I have no memory of that time, just an occasional bleep.  The power of my consciousness to protect me still intrigues me.

But what amazes me most is my adult reaction to my life, when I think back on it.  You see, I could have chosen to be a victim, to drape myself in a cloak of self pity, to wallow in my memories.  I could have let my childhood experiences shape my future, to manipulate my relationships.  I could have dragged it around all my adult experiences like an unwanted suitcase that you can’t get rid of.  I could have worn a name badge with a “Hi I’m Lisa and I’m damaged”.

But I didn’t.

I chose to not let my childhood experiences have any impact or influence on my life, the life that I’m in control of.   They are part of me and always will be, but I have come out of this as a survivor, someone who has chosen a “happy life” and chosen not to be a victim.

I am not a victim, I am in control of what I choose to do with my childhood experiences.

And I choose to remember the good memories.

I choose to remember how clever mum was, of the shape of her fingernails, of how she loved when I got promoted in a job, of loved the weather, and watching big seas. Now I always pick up shells from the beach, because she taught me to do that.  I love that I share “Grandma” memories with my three young boys even though they never met each other, so I have given her a personality, quirky and a little kooky, which she was, and which my boys love.  I love that my eldest looks like me, and that I look like my mum, and that somehow we’re keeping that part of our gene pool going.  I know that my Mum would have been so proud of me for creating my beautiful boys, and for taking a gamble on a career path that she would have loved to have done herself.

My space in between is a little special, because even though I could choose to take on a role as a “victim”, I unconsciously wanted no part of that.  Maybe I was a little exhausted from it all, and craved normality and happiness, or maybe I knew how destructive that could be on all the things I wanted in my life.  And I think this choice has done something a little magical to my relationship with my mum.  I miss her dreadfully.  I love her dearly.  And I have regrets that we didn’t have a second chance at life together.



Saying no, to being a victim is a powerful thing. Having worked in the ‘victims’ field for eons Ive seen how the move away from promoting resilience, how buying in to labels, letting the world and all its darkness take you away from seeing the light is something that is not helpful.

I also like that through my blog I get to see the little bits of peoples lives.

What did you think of Lisa’s space in between…whats yours?

All those odd socks.

The Morcombe’s released a statement this morning about the frustration of, one year after their son’s remains were discovered, there is still no access for the family to his body and their need to have a funeral – a send off for their boy.

During National Missing Persons Week last month I attempted to explain what it might mean to try to find rituals for people that live with losses that we don’t know how to, or want to, acknowledge. Miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, homicide, missing people…they all sit in spaces that are hard to quantify because they don’t fit with our black and white concept that we are born, we live to an old age and then we die. The funeral industry doesn’t have alternate website where we can find out what to do in these circumstances. I’m sure there needs to be a space in the white pages but I don’t even know what we would call it.I explained it like this:

I began to ask families, in the early days of working with them, what they did to acknowledge their loss. Some found that a ritual, like a memorial service, was not useful as it was an outward sign that the family had given up hope of a return. For others they focused on providing chances to come together, some held picnics and some found that just sharing in an activity that the missing person had enjoyed provided them with the space to reconnect with the person that was not here. One of the ideas we shared was to introduce the concept of a celebration, so far.

By signaling so far the pressure was not placed on the family to concede anything – to concede hopefulness or hopelessness – it just provided the space between loss and remembering and it was a way to come together and share what the person had offered without labeling them just as missing. While death and its finality provides the chance to follow a clearly worn path both in spirituality and practicality the process of missing is far more ambiguous. In allowing people the space to create their own rituals of remembering the concept of an ambiguous or unresolved loss might be far better understood by the wider community and in turn create better opportunities for support for those enduring such losses.

I was supposed to meet a woman this morning who finds a space for rituals where others have failed. She looks at creative ways of honouring the person that isn’t here. I was reading an interview that she did a while back and I was struck by how passionate she was to just listen to what her purpose in life was. She text me the wee hours of the morning to say she had to be with a family who had lost someone. Selfless people end up in spaces like these.

All I keep hearing, all the murmurs that keep finding their way to my inbox or to my phone say that someone needs to create a space where missing, and the other misplaced socks of our life, can be honoured and looked after and embraced.

I’m just not sure how to do it alone. Does anyone have any ideas?

The C word…

A few days ago I took a little excursion to a suburb Id never been to, to collect a book that I needed. On the way home I was mulling over the conversation Id had with the nice man that I’d collected the book from. In the middle of my brain fog I missed the exit off the freeway and then had to drive on, way past where I lived only to finally turn round, drive back and then miss my exit coming in the other direction. Epic fail.

I’d mentioned to the man what I needed the book for, what I was studying. When I mentioned ‘missing’ he mentioned the C word. Closure. Ive had a few families like this one point out their disdain for the word and I think driving home I was wondering what other words we shouldn’t say. And then I got to thinking about who makes the rules about what we can and cant say.

My girl, in the infinite wisdom of a almost 7 year old, likes to point out words that belong on the can/can’t say list. She has a whole heap of them that she adds and takes away from the list depending on her mood and what might have slipped out of my mouth. Chubby is her forbidden C word, its always been on her list despite her strong desire to watch the Biggest Loser while eating Maltesers. She’s cant spell irony just yet.

I was trying to work out how we all make the list of the right and the wrong words, they seem to attach themselves to people as we grow but more so as we encounter new life experiences. Loss and trauma will do that to you, a conversation can be a virtual minefield of word based bombs. Ive dodged a few in my time….like most people have. Sometimes the need to say the right thing makes you say the complete opposite. Working in the mental health field before moving to missing I noticed how many words litter our vocabulary that paint a pretty crap (apparently that’s a good C word) picture of how we view people that are struggling with poor mental health – crazy, loon, psycho. We throw them around without thinking what power they have. When I started working with families who had lost someone I was cautious about how I discussed things, not to use flippant cliches and not to do dumb stuff like calling a dad by the name of his missing son. More than once.

The thing is no words are ever going to be right, we cant all be conscious of how our words can be misinterpreted when our overall message is one of support or love but we can be open to hearing about what words really rub people up the wrong way. To learn more about how they are heard by others. I was waiting for a friend at the movies last night and lurking on twitter thinking about my shakespearian twist on what comes out my mouth when this quote grabbed me, and then I realised it doesn’t matter how we say things, it matters that we reach out in the first place.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

John Maxwell

Do you have words that you cant stand? Do you tell people not to use them?

Ripples of emotion.

Sarah Godwin, Kate McCann and Nicki Durbin

In some strange twist of fate I emailed Sarah earlier in the year for a piece I was writing for a magazine but the email got lost in cyberspace only for her to find my blog, comment on it and for me to realise it was the same Sarah.

Sarah is currently working for Missing People UK, a long distance from the place where ‘missing’ happened to her. This is my last interview for the week – thanks for those who have shared, commented, tweeted and emailed. I have one last post scheduled for tomorrow and then Ill be returning to my usual random ramblings about my little space in the world (I might also have a little snooze in between)

Sit back and have a read…

Sarah, can you tell me about your son Quentin?

Quentin is my second child out of four, my only son. He was born in England but we moved to New Zealand when he was 2 so he grew up there in a large family – 3 sisters, a step-sister and brother who was also his best friend from the age of 3.

As a baby, Q was beautiful, chubby, placid, golden curly hair. As a young school boy he was the one who always got into trouble, even if his friends were doing the same naughty things!

As a teenager he was a mixed bag, with a love of nature, gardening, bee keeping, an ability to meet and talk with people of all ages – he came across as a very loveable boy. But he was also conscious of fitting in with his peer group and anxious to be ‘one of the lads’, often causing conflict with his softer, caring side. West Auckland is not an easy place for a boy to become a young man. The early teens were a testing time as his peer group changed in secondary school, some of the influences not what a parent would choose for their child but you had to let them learn to find their own way and understand the need for self-discipline. Perhaps we gave Q too much freedom, perhaps he would have chosen the harder path anyway, but in his mid-teens he certainly gave us anxious moments and our learning curve both separately and together had some steep rises.

Q was able to talk about his problems and shared a lot of his troubling times with me, but when he was 17 he became ill with manic depression/bi-polar disorder and although he stayed home throughout his manic episode, it shook his confidence very badly and he lost his way in the world. The depression that followed 2 years later was well-hidden but obviously there was a lot of soul-searching going on in his mind and these worries were the main reason we believe he felt he should just take himself away from the family and not ‘burden’ us anymore.

What was your experience of support for families of missing people in NZ?

The NZ police became involved from Day 1 and worked hard to try and find evidence of Q’s whereabouts. Eventually after some weeks we had our own liaison policeman who was absolutely great, he tried everything to get a result; today I still have a very good contact at West Auckland police. Apart from this there was nothing in the way of support – no charity, no organisation specialising in missing people and no counsellors with experience of this particular trauma. It was a very hard, very lonely and isolating experience. With his siblings, there was no advice on how to help them through their loss – we all had to find our own ways together and separately.

You moved back to the UK a few years after Q went missing – did that space give you a chance to reconnect with you, Sarah, rather than being Q’s mother?

Moving back to England after 20 years away was my best shot at survival. Emotionally I was blasted by losing my son and a difficult divorce which split the family and sent us all off in different directions. It took me a very long time – about 10 years – to really come to terms with everything. Yes I could reconnect with Sarah but she was a bit wild and traumatised so not an easy person to live with!

Q was always there, once a mother always a mother. I went through a period of not talking about him – a sort of denial but only because it was too painful to be explaining the whereabouts (known or not known) of my son to new people I was meeting.


Tell me about your work with Missing People UK. What does your involvement give you?

I contacted the charity Missing People in 2009 after reading their excellent report  “Living in Limbo which said so clearly what I had been feeling and experiencing all those years on my own. I soon became involved as a volunteer representative in their new campaign Missing Rights, to encourage improvements in law, policy and practice that will benefit both missing people and those they leave behind. One of my first big assignments was to speak at a Parliamentary Inquiry in June 2011 about the emotional impact of our situation, alongside Kate McCann and another mother Nicki Durbin.

This 3 day Inquiry was successful and has contributed to significant changes in Government and Police policies. This in itself is very satisfying but for me personally, the highlight of that day was meeting two mothers in the same situation as me – my first experience of being with others who knew exactly what I was feeling without words. It was very powerful for me and ample reward for my time and emotional energy.

I have now become involved with fundraising as a member of the Trustee Development Board and I am part of a group piloting new ways to give counselling support to the families of the missing.

Through my contact at Missing People I have gained insight into the wider issues and I really appreciate knowing that there are so many people working in this charity who care deeply about the missing and their families – they are a very dedicated and wonderful bunch of people. But most of all, it has given me opportunities to do something, to be involved, to be with people who care as much as I do, to be in contact with families who are also without a loved one.

I think one of the hardest things to accept in my situation is the absolute loss of control, not being able to do anything to change the situation, wracking my brain to find new ways of searching – after 20 years there  little left but hope. Working with Missing People has changed that, it has strengthened me emotionally, taken away the feelings of isolation and given a purpose to my efforts beyond our own family situation.

What does a week focusing on Missing People mean to you – what do you think the community needs to understand?

A week highlighting the issues of missing people nationally is undoubtedly beneficial; it may bring publicity to particular cases, with the chance of new information. On a wider approach it gives an opportunity for people who might not normally ever confront this particular experience to understand the complexity of issues around ‘missing’. Not just the enormous emotional ripples that extend through families, friends, work places but also the practicalities of varied legal and financial implications which can cause further devastation to those involved. The telling of case stories is also important to make people aware that those who go missing can be from any background, any home situation – there is perhaps a willingness to point the finger and say ‘That would never happen in my family’ but it can and it does!

A further big result from such a focus is getting the information out to a wide audience what support is available for both the missing – they can re-connect via a confidential phone line – and their loved ones. It’s happening too often that people in these troubling emotional situations don’t know where to turn for support and no one signposts them to the appropriate support networks.



Thank you Sarah. Having run the only support service (in NSW) for families of missing people and knowing that there is nothing anywhere else makes these words resonate even deeper. I spent a week at Missing People UK in 2006 and I was so excited to see rooms full of people all working on the same issue – having come from a tiny office with no colleagues it was hard to get on that plane and come home.

Thanks for your inspiring words Sarah. Hopefully we can bridge the gap in Australia some time soon.


Impostors in the world of missing?

Faye and Mark’s sons image has been splashed across the media for the last few years. That’s how I met them, they receive support from an old colleague of mine who has a passionate desire to right wrongs and to force conversations where conversations need to be had.

Mark agreed to have a chat with me about sitting on the outside of the missing persons sector and what it means to be searching when they know they are not expecting their son to come home. Here both Mark and Faye share their story.

*the information contained in this story, and the names used have been previously published by other media outlets.


Matt’s been missing for 5 years….can you tell me about the circumstances of his disappearance?

Our youngest son Jason was home ill from school on Tuesday the 25th of September 2007, Faye rang him to see if he was OK around lunchtime. Jason let her know that Matt’s work had called twice that morning to try to find him as he hadn’t fronted for work. Matt’s working week was Tuesday to Saturday so this essentially was his first day back after the weekend. Matt did not live with us at this stage, he was living with his partner Michael Peter Atkins at Cronulla. Matt was 20 and Atkins 44. We were not happy with this age difference but for the sake of Matt, we accepted him.

After Jason’s phone call we started contacting Matt’s friends and tried to contact Atkins. They started getting back to us that no one had seen Matt and finally Atkins called back to say that when he woke up in the morning Matt was gone (he subsequently changed this from waking up in the morning to lunch , then late afternoon). He said he also had been looking for him. Later in the evening Mark insisted Atkins come to the Police Station with he and Faye to report Matt as a missing person. Atkins reluctantly attended and a report was made to police. On the Thursday Matt’s car was located at Waratah Oval at Sutherland. In the boot was a Bunnings receipts with Atkins fingerprint on it. Police went to Bunnings and obtained CCTV footage of Atkins there around midday on the Sunday purchasing a mattock and cloth tape. Matt was last seen on CCTV footage leaving ARQ nightclub with Atkins around 3am on the Sunday morning . On Friday the local police involved the homicide squad and on Saturday homicide detectives formally informed us that they were convinced Matt had met with foul play and this was now officially a murder investigation. They were looking not for Matt but for a body. A strikeforce had been formed – Strikeforce Bowditch. In August 2008 Atkins was arrested and charged with Matt’s murder. He did not apply for bail and stayed on remand for 13 months until his murder trial from August to October, 2009. After nearly 8 weeks the jury found him not guilty of murder nor manslaughter. I was quoted to the press shortly after the verdict as saying “Not guilty does not mean innocent”.

Does it feel like time has been frozen to that day that you found out he was missing?

Both yes and no. At the time a minute felt like an eternity. Some days you think where have the years gone. But when you begin to go over the events, even though you go through the motions of day to day living, nearly five years on a big  part of you is still in a time warp waiting for that phone call to say they have found his body and you just can’t let go of going over the events and the timeline of those early days, retracing people’s steps and behaviours of that time trying to find a missed clue.

Has your idea of hope changed as time as moved on? What do you hope for now?

There is no change in our hope. Right from the outset we knew Matt wasn’t coming home alive. We still hope his body is found is found for two reasons. Firstly, Matt can be given the send off and place to be laid to rest with dignity that every decent human being deserves and secondly, Matt’s body constitutes “compelling new evidence” which we need to get back into court. There are no double jeopardy rules for murder in this state and Matt’s alleged killer can be re-tried.

People often throw around words like closure and acceptance which the majority of families living with such a traumatic loss rebel against. What do you think people don’t understand about living with the loss of your child?

NOTHING OFFENDS US MORE THAN THIS AWFUL “C” WORD, “CLOSURE”!!!!! We set a high standard and Matt knocking on our front door saying “Sorry I haven’t called IS CLOSURE, NOTHING LESS. So many well meaning friends, colleagues and compassionate members of press often say “Well at least if you can find Matt’s body you’ll have closure.” We just grit our teeth and turn away. Of course we accept Matt’s loss. We accept that he won’t be coming home. What a lot don’t understand is that this kind of a loss is not just an horrific and awful memory it’s also NOW, it never leaves you. NEVER a day goes by where we don’t think of Matt and what he would be doing now if he were alive. Both of us and both of Matt’s brothers are covered in tattoos commemorating Matt so we all never fail to see reminders of him wherever we are.

For most parents, with a child missing, the idea that they grow old and pass away without knowing what happened can be haunting. Is this something that you fixate on?

Yes it certainly is something you do and always will. No parent should ever have to bury a child no matter what age that child is. But what makes it more difficult for us we know Matt is dead, but we can’t even bury our son, so we have a double wammy, missing and dead. Not knowing what happened to him haunts us everyday. We don’t want to go to our graves not knowing, not only for our sake but for the sake of our other two sons. We don’t want them going through their young lives into their twilight years not knowing what happened as well, we don’t want to leave that responsibility on their shoulders, we are the parents it is our responsibility not theirs. Their lives have already been put into turmoil by these advents and by being able to find Matt will in some way let them move forward knowing that their brother has been respectfully laid to rest and we all can say our goodbyes to Matt, even though that will be one of the hardest things to do. At the moment we can’t say our goodbyes and have nowhere to go and visit him.

Finally, what does missing persons week mean for your family?

Sadly, we feel like imposter’s. We feel that we don’t belong. We’ve always thought of missing persons as those who are currently missing with the hope of one day being found or returning. We think of missing persons as living beings out there, somewhere, as yet not found. We’re even a little jealous of those that have strong hope that there loved one will return as we have been denied that hope by Matt’s killer. We have sympathy for and the greatest respect for those that have a cherished one missing and wish those with hope every positive outcome possible. _______________________________________________________


Im always astounded to see that in the midst of sadness and loss people think of good news for others. They see that whilst their own hope is limited, others should still be allowed to hold on to theirs. Thanks Mark and Faye for your honest and insightful words…it was lovely to sit next to you at the launch of the week. For more information about Matt and his family you can follow them here.

Missing, whether it be homicide, suicide, or just not here right now, can cover that range of what a missing person might be defined as. What does ‘missing’ mean to you?