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Essay

Back Stories as a Route to Empathy and Understanding

One of the things I most enjoy about being a community theatre actor is creating “back stories” for the characters I’m portraying.  These stories give depth and substance to the role and help me feel more empathy for my character.  If I’m playing an alcoholic, who drinks ouzo at breakfast when everyone else is drinking coffee, what life experiences drove him to drink like that?  If I’m playing a weepy old guy with dementia who wants nothing more than a friend, how did he get into such a predicament?  Often, the script itself will offer clues, in the type of language a person uses or the way he relates to other characters.  When it doesn’t,  then I’m free to start inventing.  All that matters is that the story be plausible, given what we already know about the character.

          There’s generally quite a good reason for why our characters are the way they are, if only we’re willing to take the time and trouble to find it.  My alcoholic, I decided, had been shunned and bullied in boarding school, and also suffered from his father’s totally unrealistic expectations for his future. My weepy old guy had never really fit in his working-class community (his good grammar tells us that), and had then experienced the death of the only person who really understood him (Mel, the grandmother, whose funeral sets in motion the events of the play).  I’m sure that other actors reading this could provide equally good examples from their stage experience.

          But back stories need not be confined to the stage.  Knowing how to discover or, when necessary, create them can improve our personal relationships and enrich our everyday lives.

          My first foray into the world of back stories began with my parents, whom (like many others) I was inclined to blame for most of my adult shortcomings.

          Truthfully, they weren’t very effective parents.  Though intellectually brilliant, they were emotionally clueless—rather like people who knew calculus but couldn’t add a column of figures.  For years I looked, invariably in vain, for emotional support from them in my struggles.  When that support wasn’t forthcoming, I grew resentful.  What was wrong with them, anyway?  Could they not hear my cries for help?  And why did they never communicate anything of an emotional nature?

          Taking stock of my “emotional inheritance” one day when I was in college, I found that it amounted to absolutely nothing.  I’d entered college totally lacking in emotional development, and with precious little in the way of social and communications skills.  I would, therefore, have to wrestle with emotional issues that were second nature to most other people, who’d known about these issues since early childhood.

          Would I ever achieve the emotional maturity needed to function as a healthy adult?  Bitterly, I cursed my fate, and then sought professional help, having no idea how to proceed on my own.

          Even the best of the professionals I consulted couldn’t tell me why I was the lost soul that I was, let alone what I could do to change things.  And so my resentment increased with each passing year.  I was particularly incensed at my father for literally fleeing the room each time I attempted to raise any emotional issue.

          Then, one day, when I was in my 40’s and the father of three myself, I started to think about what my parents’ childhood and adolescence would have been like.  My examination of their back stories would prove most revealing. 

          My father, who fled the room whenever any emotionally charged subject arose, had never seen his father.  My grandfather, a chemist, had been killed in an industrial plant explosion before my dad was even born, leaving my grandmother, a physician, with three young boys and pregnant with a fourth (my father).  Quite understandably, Granny suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for some time, leaving my father to all intents and purposes an orphan for his first year of life.  Though she eventually recovered sufficiently to be able to resume her medical practice, she was never the same again.  The boys were left not only fatherless, but also to a degree motherless, since Granny now had to function as both father and mother.

          As for my mother, she’d undergone the trauma of seeing her parents divorce when she was 4.  After that, she was shunted back and forth from relative to relative and then from boarding school to boarding school until time for her to go to college.  As if that were not enough, her mother, whom she adored, had been hit by a drunken driver and crippled when my mother was 9. After some years in a wheelchair, she’d died at 43 while my mother was in college; her father had died a year earlier.

          Thinking about my parents’ horrific childhoods filled me with intense pity for both of them.  While it didn’t make up for the social backwardness from which I long suffered because I hadn’t learned basic social and communications skills at home, it did help me realize that my earlier expectations had been completely unrealistic.  How could someone who had never been parented herself be an effective parent?  And how could someone who had never had a father himself communicate effectively to his son as a father?  You can’t teach what you’ve never learned. 

          Freed of those unrealistic expectations, I was able to achieve a passable if still somewhat distant relationship with my father during his last decade, and to again become close with my mother, as I had been in childhood.

          From there, I moved on applying the technique to other relatives, whose behaviour had previously also appeared quite unaccountable.  While it didn’t always lead to a sea change in the relationship, it did at a minimum help me understand them better.

          The pace picked up once I went into community theatre about six years ago, and started thinking up back stories for my characters as a part of my standard operating procedure.  With practice, I got better at thinking up stories for the people I met off the stage.  A look of sorrow on a deeply-wrinkled face was like a key, opening up a vault containing hitherto unknown treasures.  Indeed, even something as simple as a locket or a watch chain might yield significant insight.

          There’s a part of our Anglican service that never fails to move me.  It comes right before the Peace, and it goes, simply: “Forgive others.  Forgive yourself.”

          You needn’t be an Anglican or even a Christian to appreciate the wisdom in those simple words.  By forgiving others, we clear the way to forgiving ourselves—the most difficult, but at the same time most important thing we are called on to do. 

          I’ve found understanding other people’s back stories a critical first step to achieving forgiveness.  And because forgiving others is an integral part of forgiving ourselves, understanding or if necessary creating those back stories is a key element of self-forgiveness, and thus of self-care. The wisdom these stories have to impart to a knowing heart is beyond measure. 

          For me, at least, there’s no better way to acquire that wisdom than by going on stage and literally putting myself in someone else’s shoes for a few months.  That it’s all great fun into the bargain is simply the icing on the cake.

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