Meet a True Story

February 14, 2018
Posted in Blog
February 14, 2018 Editor

Meet a True Story

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by Michael T. McRay

Technology feeds our insatiable hunger for stories, but fails to satisfy our need for human connection. A boom in live storytelling could be changing that.


When I moved to Ireland for graduate school in 2012, Pádraig Ó Tuama, a leader of the Corrymeela Community, was the first person I met. As he drove me into the city from the airport, he invited me to the monthly storytelling event he and Paul Doran ran known as Tenx9 (pronounced “ten by nine”), where nine people had ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives, based on a theme.

In the months I lived in Belfast, I attended every Tenx9, and when I returned to Nashville, I asked Pádraig and Paul if I could start a chapter back home. They agreed, and I ran the first event in September 2013, with another following every month since.

It didn’t take long before people began noticing how popular live storytelling events were becoming. Events like Tenx9 have popped up around town and around the country. People want storytelling, in part because of a longing for human connection. In this technological age, we’ve become increasingly digitally connected and simultaneously locally estranged. We’re losing much of the intimacy of intentional human connection, trading it for constant connectivity, availability, and impersonal comments sent to “someone” “somewhere else.”

At Tenx9, we try to cultivate human connection by being a place where ordinary people tell ordinary stories. Alongside silly and delightful stories, you can hear stories of pain and struggle. At the first Nashville event, the theme was “Journey,” and a friend of mine shared a story about an incredible biking adventure he took with his dad. The audience smiled and laughed and relaxed. The very next story was also about a father, but one quite different. The storyteller told of her turbulent relationship with her dad, of always wanting to feel loved by him. She told how that longing began to mask itself with anger. And then she shared about the day she got a call that her father had been found dead in his garage, car exhaust filling his vehicle, and a goodbye note left behind – for her.

Inhabit Another’s Story

Recently, I’ve begun working with Narrative 4, a nonprofit that runs empathy-building programs all over the world. The core methodology is a story exchange, where paired participants tell their partner a true story from their life. Their partner listens deeply to the story. Then, when the participants regroup, each person tells their partner’s story in first-person pronouns, as if that story happened to them. Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that the world is suffering from an “empathy gap.” Narrative 4 is trying to address this gap.

In early September, I collaborated with a local nonprofit to bring together a group of twelve Christians, Muslims, and Jews to participate in such a story exchange. Gathering in the home of a Palestinian Christian, I watched a white Christian woman inhabit the story of a brown Muslim woman. I watched a Jewish man give his story to a Muslim man to tell. Afterward, each of the twelve expressed surprise at how they had learned to connect and empathize with each other. One woman said she felt freer, as well: hearing someone else tell her story lifted the burden of carrying it alone. At the end of our time together, another participant said, “This was possibly the closest experience of encountering the divine in the world that I’ve ever had.”

Cracks of Hope

While practicing empathetic storytelling and listening can be difficult with a friend, doing so with your enemy is even harder. During recent storytelling projects in Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, I interviewed dozens of people who have done just that. One of the people I met was Bassam Aramin.


Bassam Aramin Photograph by Dubi Roman

Bassam is a middle-aged Palestinian man who, at age seventeen, was sentenced to seven years in Israeli prison after a group of his friends threw grenades at Israeli soldiers. (No one was injured.) While in prison, one of Bassam’s Israeli jailers began conversations with him, challenging him on the story Bassam believed about his history, politics, and people. As the jailer and Bassam each told his understanding of the conflicted story of Israelis and Palestinians, Bassam hoped to convince the man to his way of thinking; I suspect the jailer hoped for the opposite. After a while, the jailer started bringing Bassam coffee; – an attempt to provide some dignity and a sign of growing respect, or at least less disdain.

One October day, around a hundred Israeli soldiers entered the prison as part of a military exercise, bringing each Palestinian out of his cell to be beaten in a gauntlet formation. When they seized Bassam, he resisted and was taken into a side room for a more severe beating. As the soldiers struck him over and over, another person entered and threw his body over Bassam’s to protect him. It was his jailer.

If we can get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear.

Some years later, after Bassam was free, he began meeting with former soldiers to exchange stories and hear different points of view, meetings that eventually led to the creation of Combatants for Peace. “I started to learn the other side,” he told me. “Then I began to see the soldiers in the checkpoints not as targets. For the first time, I started to look at their faces.… The change starts in yourself. Rumi said, ‘Yesterday I was clever, so I started to change the world. Today I am wise, so I start to change myself.’”

In 2007, an Israeli soldier shot and killed Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, as she came home from school. Bassam’s response to his daughter’s killing was remarkable: he went to graduate school to study the Holocaust, hoping to better understand the history of his Jewish neighbors. Today Bassam is a spokesperson for Parents Circle–Families Forum, an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members in the conflict.

These are the kinds of stories that can save us from succumbing to fear of the other. They subvert the narrative of the dangerous difference between “us” and “them.” Rami Elhanan, the Israeli leader of the Parents Circle–Families Forum, whose fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, once said to me, “We bang our heads against this very high wall of hatred and fear that divides these two nations. And we put cracks in it, cracks of hope.”

To learn more about Bassam Aramin’s and Jo Berry’s work, visit and

Contributed By Michael T. McRay is the founder and curator of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling. He lectures at Lipscomb University and is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and Where the River Bends.

Please click on: Meet A True Story

  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.
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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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