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Closing the Gap in Education?

Gendered Violence and Pedagogical ‘Resources for Hope’

Mothers’ and Daughters’ Stories From the Fringe of an Australian City

Jane Kenway, Lindsay Fitzclarence & Johannah Fahey

Monash University

Violence is a major social problem of our times. It occurs on many scales and takes many forms. It is always ugly and always leaves scars. Addressing violence is a big issue for education. Schools can be violent places and many students have experienced some form of violence in their lives within and outside of schools – sometimes in the family. Thus violence should be seen as one of the major issues in current debates about education. Not just in terms of the many gaps that need to be closed in educational achievements and outcomes, but also in terms of educational practices, cultures and school–family relationships and students’ experiences of these. We cannot improve school experiences or outcomes unless we understand the complex problems of violence in students’ lives. Also, of course, such understandings must lead to a range of anti-violence pedagogies, practices and policies.

Violence is expressed in many ways that include rape, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and harassment, homophobia, racial vilification, emotional abuse, self-harm and other forms of verbal and physical harassment and, on a different scale, war and genocide. It thus can be seen as variously configured with regard to scale and time. It is not a phenomenon restricted to particular races or social groupings, as various reports indicate (Sokoloff and Dupont 2005; Sokoloff with Pratt 2006). That said, it may have particular spatial inflections to it (Weldon 2002). Violence also occurs along a continuum of practices that shade into one another; this involves physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuses of power at individual, group and social structural levels (Kelly 1987). As Iris Marion Young argues, it is one of ‘five faces of oppression’; the others are exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness and cultural imperialism (Young 1990; 1992). But of course these are all related to each other. Many forms of violence have a common character. Social, cultural and psychic power relations between and within the genders are central to this common character.1

Our particular focus in this chapter is on girls and women who have been physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally abused. Their stories illustrate the continuum of practices just mentioned. The first part of this chapter arises from a cross-generational study in Australia of the lives of educationally, economically and culturally marginalised girls, young women and their mothers.2 The girls are seen as at risk of leaving high school early. The young women did leave early and, like their mothers, many are now young mothers too.

Experiencing various forms of violence is a recurring theme in a significant number of these girls’ and women’s lives. For example, some of the young women/young mothers who had recently left school reported experiencing sexual abuse, molestation and rape. They also discussed their disrupted family patterns, frequent changes of school and mental and physical illness. The experiences of two of these post-school young women stand out as examples. Kara is 26 and left school when she was 15. She identified a number of key turning points in her life that occurred prior to her leaving school. These include being molested by a babysitter when she was in primary school, losing her virginity at age 11, terminating a pregnancy at age 13 and leaving home at 15. Sandra is 23 and left school at 15. Prior to leaving school she reports taking drugs at age 10, child prostitution, which she quit at age 13, and anorexia. She was diagnosed manic-depressive at age 16. The schoolgirls talked about harassment and verbal abuse at school, fraught family relationships, family breakdown (nearly all of the participants’ parents had separated) and wanting to move out of home.

From a number of possible mother–daughter narratives we have chosen to tell two in detail: the story of Sally and her daughter Kirsty, and that of Louise and her daughter Anna. Then we discuss the implications for anti-violence pedagogies in schools, drawing on an earlier project that examined the relationships between masculinity and violence and explored the potential of narrative pedagogy. In telling these stories, we deploy a process of circling back to consider various ways of understanding them and their implications.

Loss, anger and melancholia

Research on women’s and girls’ experiences of sexual violence often documents a sense of loss, which has many dimensions, including the loss of control, loss of a sense of safety and security; loss of self-worth and self-esteem, of sexual desire and trust; and even a loss of self (eg Fortune 2005; Schwartz 1997). However, the grief that victims experience may also be expressed through feelings of anger and outrage (Brison 2002), which may not necessarily be directed at the victim’s attacker but towards others, including family and friends, and towards themselves, including such things as self-harm and suicide attempts.

We theorise this archive of emotion (ie feelings of loss and anger) in terms of melancholia. We propose that theories about different manifestations of melancholia have the potential to enrich understandings of the complex reproduction and disruption of gender, violence and family turmoil across generations of women. And, as we will show, when coupled with the idea of narrative pedagogy, these theories have the potential to assist us to develop powerful possibilities for anti-violence pedagogies for women and girls.

Most discussions of melancholia start with Freud’s early work, Mourning and Melancholia (1957 [1917]), and the fundamental distinction he makes between mourning and melancholia: ‘Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or the loss of some abstraction… such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on’ (1957, 243). In other words, mourning is about letting go of ‘lost objects’. It involves the eventual detachment of the mourner from the lost object. The mourner acknowledges that the lost object is dead, and is then able to move on and find new objects to invest in psychologically.

Melancholia, in contrast, is the enduring attachment of the ego to the lost object. It is a continuous mourning; a mourning that never ends. The melancholic cannot let go of the lost object and as a result cannot resolve her grief. In other words, the melancholic has a sustained devotion to the lost object. Freud states: ‘in grief the world becomes poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego itself’ that becomes poor and empty (1957, 246). In sum, mourning is viewed as a ‘successful’ resolution of loss, while melancholia is seen as a failure to resolve loss.

Certain feminist critiques of Freudian theory offer understandings of the relationship between gender and melancholia. Although critically engaging Freud’s ideas, like Freud they also theorise melancholia as a fundamentally deficient psychic state. However, unlike Freud they claim that it is not just a deficient abnormal state that is detrimental to the ego, but that for women melancholia has much deeper significance, psychically as well as culturally. As we proceed, we mention the arguments of Irigaray (1985) and Silverman (1988) as they relate to the narratives.3 Despite the differences between Irigaray and Silverman, both see the mother as a central figure representing lack and ambivalence.

Different manifestations of melancholic mothering

Narrative one: Loss, lack, emptiness and insufficiency

Sally and her baby brother were removed from their parents and placed in a home when she was two years old. Her father was working away from home and her mother had suffered a nervous breakdown. Her parents were both 17 at the time. At age four, Sally’s paternal grandparents adopted her and her brother. She describes life with them as very difficult. It was an authoritarian and unloving household. Her grandmother was full of anger. School was as loathsome as home, but Sally was not afraid to rebel there. By 16 she had moved out of home to live with her future husband. By the time she was 20, her daughter Kirsty had been born.

Sally’s life has been frequently touched by violence and tragedy – a close friend of 18 years died from a drug overdose, and her first boyfriend and her grandfather both committed suicide. Sally subsequently had a nervous breakdown. More recently, she has become estranged from her grandmother, brother, and aunts and uncles on her father’s side. Kirsty accused her father of bashing her. Sally did not believe this, but her extended family did and this led to the rift.

Sally feels an intense sense of longing for an idyllic family life. Like her grandmother, she is ‘strict’ about limiting Kirsty’s social life to activities appropriate for a 13-year-old girl. But in addition she yearns to provide Kirsty with an idealised version of girlhood: a ‘girly’ girlhood. Kirsty is unpopular and isolated and cannot/will not be this sort of girl.

Sally’s demeanour is dejected, her speech halting but insistent. It is clear from her story that absence and emotional deprivation were features of her childhood. In her early years, neither her father nor her mother were significant presences and she rejected both her grandparent/parent figures. She believes that in effect they brought about the loss of her childhood. Sally says: ‘Our family was absolutely weird. I’m still shocked. And I keep thinking to myself, I’m not going to bloody bring Kirsty up like I was brought up’.

In Freudian terms, Sally has been unable to resolve her grief and to mourn this loss. Indeed, it seems she cannot turn from the lost object to the ego, and so cannot find her self. She has later compensated for the emptiness invoked by the absences and losses in her life with fantasies of an idealised childhood and family and has not been able to let go of these abstractions. Arguably, this has resulted in her adoption of a form of melancholic motherhood.

She tries to create a present and future in terms of a lost past that she never had – hence the ‘girly’ symbolic economy that she tries to create for her daughter. This symbolic economy certainly links to the representational gender order in the traditional and restrictive terms that Irigaray discusses. But it is her intense investment in this fantasy family that prevents Sally from more realistically and productively representing herself to herself as a mother.

This fantasy idyllic family also seems to screen from view what is really going on in Kirsty’s life. There are mournful echoes here of Sally’s own childhood experiences. Further, it may mean that she has become unwittingly and unwillingly complicit in the loss of her daughter’s childhood:

I said, ‘You effing little c’. Sometimes I will say that to scare her, and I think, ‘What am I doing?’… I can remember when I got married my grandmother turned around and goes ‘Would you shut up! I’ve got better things to think about than your wedding’, and I hated her. I still hate her for that. That’s how she spoke to me.

In spite of Sally’s attempts to provide a happy life for her daughter, Kirsty is deeply unhappy. This is manifest in anger and violence at home and school; aerosol abuse; self-harm, including chronic vomiting at school; and a suicide attempt. She has been hospitalised and medicated for depression. Sally attributes Kirsty’s depression to a 17-year-old boy ‘taking sexual advantage of her’, but other accounts suggest that she suffers from the violence of her father. She finds it hard to tell her mother about the bad things that happen because then Sally yells at her.

Kirsty exhibits melancholic symptoms of self-loathing and expresses her devalued sense of self by cutting herself and attempting suicide – acts that seem to support Silverman’s argument that women consider themselves ‘inferior, insufficient, and unworthy of love’ and ultimately torment themselves.

Further, Kirsty finds it hard to speak, and perhaps this is best interpreted via Irigaray’s discussions of the problems of cultural representation for women. As Irigaray (1985, 68) might suggest: ‘It is really a question for her of a loss that radically escapes representation… hence the impossibility of mourning that loss’. She has no way to represent and engage her loss other than through anger and self-harm.

Narrative two: Melancholic agency

Louise left home when she was 12 and lived for a time in various state institutions and halfway houses. Her stepfather raped her when she was nine. Louise describes her stepfather as a time-waster, a drunk and a gambler who repeatedly kicked her out of home, but told her mother she had run away. She left school permanently at 15 and lived on the streets in Sydney. Louise married her partner at 17 and had a number of miscarriages before Anna was born when Louise was 19.

Two years ago Anna was sexually assaulted by her uncle and has since tried to commit suicide. The same year, two bus drivers raped Louise. There is tension between mother and daughter because Louise insisted that Anna go through a court case but did not report the rape by the bus drivers.

Louise has a history of embodied loss through sexual violence. She has lost her family of origin and, like Sally, her childhood. When speaking of this loss, Louise says, ‘I hit depression, I suppose, not deep depression but lost, you know. It was like there was something missing. It’s just total emptiness and you don’t want to look at yourself. Why bother?’

Louise can be seen as suffering from ‘the complex of melancholia’, which Freud describes as behaving ‘like an open wound emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished’ (Freud 1957, 253). And yet, despite her classically negative melancholic symptoms, Louise has activated and confronted her grief through an adamant refusal of closure. This does not mean that she lives in the past and is overburdened by it in the present. Rather, by speaking of a silenced past, she empowers herself and sets herself apart from her own mother and the weight of an unspoken but not unspeakable history. For Louise, speaking about her loss is an integral part of her process of recovery. She says her mother:

is from the old generation so you just don’t talk about it. If you don’t talk about it, it’s going to go away. But if you don’t talk about it, it eats you away. It eats you and not just you as in part of a person, but you as a whole person. You withdraw from yourself; everything about you changes and eventually you’ll start to go crazy [her emphasis].

Furthermore, as she deliberately engages her mother in a dialogue about her sexual abuse, she not only speaks about the unspeakable, but also succeeds in representing what had hitherto been unrepresentable. She states:

At 22 I cracked up and said [to my mother], ‘Would you like to explain to me how a nine-year-old sleeps with a man that is in his forties? It does not work’. And after that I earned her respect. How I don’t know, but [laughing] probably from throwing realisation at her [her emphasis].

Although Louise suffers from melancholia, it is not, as Silverman might maintain, precipitated by her identification with and punishment of her mother. Louise’s status as a melancholic subject does not place her in an ‘inferior, unworthy’ position; rather, it has become a source of agency for her.

Irigaray claims that women have no way to express or politicise their feelings of loss within a male-signifying economy. But it might be argued that feminism has assisted women to ‘coin the signifiers’ of loss and, more broadly, to develop a signifying economy that challenges phallocentric constructions of women as deficient. Indeed, this is precisely the approach Louise takes when speaking about her experiences of loss through sexual violence. She says:

I won’t put up with crap from males. That part of me has gotten stronger because I know that I’m not beneath them, any more. I never was; I put myself beneath them because I allowed them to control me. It shouldn’t happen. I had to teach myself that: ‘Hey, you’re worth something; you can give back and you can take’.

Significantly, Louise’s ability to articulate her feelings about men and about sexual violence using feminist discourse has also translated into an equally ‘feminist’ awareness in her daughter, Anna. When commenting on men’s ways of thinking about girls, Anna says, ‘Most guys have got really, really bad attitudes’. Neither Louise nor Anna accepts the inferior status imposed upon women within the phallocentric order. Rather, they vocally challenge these norms, revalue themselves as women and in the process politicise their feelings of loss.

In terms of these narratives, it is clear that neither of the mothers has severed her attachment to her history of loss, and thus both can be described in Freud’s terms as melancholic subjects and in our terms as melancholic mothers. While they are both constantly haunted by burning images from the past, each nonetheless engages in a different manifestation of melancholic mothering.

Considering the remains of loss

In their edited book called Loss, Eng and Kazanjian (2003) seek to depathologise melancholia, make visible its social bases, and draw attention to its creative, unpredictable and political aspects. They argue that ‘the politics and ethics of loss lie in the interpretation of what remains’ (ix). They draw on Benjamin’s discussions of the history of Left melancholia to consider how ‘loss has been animated for hopeful and hopeless politics’ (2).

They characterise melancholia’s active and open relationship with the remains of the past as a ‘hopeful politics’. They see a potentially creative quality in examining what remains after loss, as the mourners may see things that they haven’t been able to see before. In contrast, they view the fixing of the remains of the past as a ‘hopeless politics’. To mourn the remains of the past hopelessly is to become buried under the weight of the past, to become overburdened and immobilised by the past, ultimately disempowered by the past in the present.

For Eng and Kazanjian, ‘as soon as the question “What is lost?” is posed, it invariably slips into the question “What remains?” That is, loss is inseparable from what remains, for what is lost is known only by what remains of it, by how these remains are produced, read, and sustained’ (Eng and Kazanjian 2003, 2). These women’s and girls’ stories can be read through Eng and Kazanjian’s understanding of melancholia, particularly in terms of their notion of ‘hopeless’ and ‘hopeful’ politics.

Narrative one again: Hopeless politics?

Sally’s history of loss relates in general to her loss of persons, of relationships, of parents; a loss through violence – through the suicides of people she loved. For Sally, what remains of loss is expressed emotively in the present as a devastating rage that she has inherited from her grandmother. When speaking about her grandmother, Sally (2002) says:

She would be the one yelling and screaming and carrying on… I can see Nana’s traits coming out in me, especially the anger. I scream and yell especially at the kids. But I hate the grandmother side. I absolutely hate it and I can’t snap out of it. It was an angry house, like there was never much laughter, most of the time it was just negative, very negative. Nothing was ever good [her emphasis].

Sadly, as Sally now directs this anger towards her daughter, it has become her daughter’s inheritance. When speaking about her mother, Kirsty (2002) says:

Every time I tell her something she’ll get angry at me. When I get into trouble she’ll yell at me… If people look at me the wrong way I will go off at them. Some people really annoy me and then I will get up and start swearing and yelling at them.

Sally also sees the conflicts of her own school life – the remembered feelings of hate, anger and rebellion – in her daughter. Fourteen-year-old Kirsty is now in Year 8 and, like her mother, she loathes school. Sally advises Kirsty on how to deal with conflict at school: ‘I’ve taught her, if anyone harasses her, don’t you back down. Don’t let anyone walk over you. If someone does something to you, do whatever you have to… Look, let ’em have it and they’ll leave you alone’. Kirsty has been suspended twice for physical and verbal abuse. She describes herself as more likely to bully than to be bullied, by teachers or students.

For Sally (and her daughter) the remains of the past have become a ‘constricting force’. She is burdened by the weight of the past and as a result is left feeling disempowered, discouraged and depressed in the present. Sally’s attachment to loss might lead us to describe it as a ‘hopeless politics’, based on the fact that she cannot move beyond her loss and seems to have little agency with regard to it. Let us leave this as an open statement for the moment.

Narrative two again: Hopeful politics

Louise has taught her kids to walk away and cool down when they are angry, as she does not want them to feel that they can use violence to deal with problems. ‘I’ve always taught my kids, if you’re going to get that upset and that angry that you feel like you’re going to hit someone, well walk. Don’t stay there. It’s the best thing to do’. She also believes strongly in listening to what her children have to say in building trust, so that they feel safe in talking to her about their problems. Louise points out that the ‘messed-up’ relationship she had with her own mother helped her figure out what kind of parent she wanted to be for her children. She feels that her most important role as a mother is to be friends with her children, so they feel safe to talk about anything and everything. Louise has been able to mobilise the remains of loss as an affirmative force in both her own and her daughter’s life.

At the same time, Louise does acknowledge the traces of anger that remain as a result of her daughter’s loss. However, in this context it is possible to characterise the anger as a kind of strength or form of empowerment by which Anna becomes a force to be reckoned with. When talking about her daughter, Louise says, ‘She’s built with anger. And when you’re built with anger, nothing stops you. You don’t look at people as if to think, “Well, he’s a guy, I can’t beat him”. You look at it as if he’s a male that’s it’.

Although Louise’s melancholia is a result of violence and her consequential feelings of loss, by re-articulating and rewriting her past she is able to re-imagine this violence in the present moment. In this moment, she is able to reinvent herself not as an object but as a subject, a melancholic subject, a melancholic agent. Louise and Anna might therefore be seen as having adopted a ‘hopeful politics’ characterised by a sense of empowerment expressed as a capacity to articulate feelings of loss and exercise a form of affirmative rage that challenges male dominance.

Of course as educators we cannot afford to think in terms of hopelessness. To quote Raymond Williams (1989), we have a responsibility to provide ‘resources of hope’. But what and how? This question raises an important pedagogic, theoretical and political issue. The challenge is to establish a bridge between ‘hopeless’ and ‘hopeful’ politics. It is necessary to find ways to avoid a dualism that consolidates and reproduces many current contradictions and distinctions. Without such a strategy, there is a danger that certain individuals and groups will be labelled and stereotyped as ‘hopeless’, while others will be characterised as ‘hopeful’. In other words, existing cultures of violence will be normalised and reproduced. For a counter politics of violent practices, a pedagogy of transformation is necessary. This will require a focus on ‘education’ as a generic category that is applicable in many life situations and is focused on progressive and liberating change. Once this happens, it will be possible to identify the implications for transformative education within the context of schooling. With this caveat in mind, we now move outside the mainstream educational literature in order to examine approaches that have been valuable and useful in other professional practices where ‘education’, used in the generic sense, has occurred.

Anti-violence education

Violence is a psychosocial phenomenon and many social institutions and cultural forms are implicated in its various causes, expressions and prevention. One such institution is the school. However, accounts of gender, schooling and violence, and accounts of programs that address the issues that arise, seldom benefit from the insights of psychoanalytic theory. In this section, we seek to build on the psychoanalytic perspective we have developed in the first section by drawing on the work of Alice Miller. We are aware that she is not critical of Freud’s theorising about mourning and melancholia specifically, but rather his notion of the ‘Oedipus complex’ and ‘infantile sexuality’ (Miller 1984). But this critique is of relevance here as, in her opinion, Freud’s drive theory is a device that blames the child for the abusive sexual behaviour of adults and therefore protects the parents. For Miller, perpetuating this untruth is the basis of illness and depression. In her work she refers to this as ‘poisonous pedagogy’ and discusses the therapeutic work of the narrative therapist Michael White. We draw on this thinking in order to offer a tentative account of the ways in which educators might benefit pedagogically from our earlier accounts of gender, violence and melancholy.

A big question for schools is not just how they can create cultures of respectful relationships, but how they might develop pedagogical interventions in the cycles of voice that these mothers’ and daughters’ stories represent. It is clear from these stories and the broader research on violence that anti-violence pedagogies are likely to touch deep and quite different psychic sensitivities and investments for victims, survivors and perpetrators and for those who are complicit. Schools are deeply embedded in existing practices of violence. The first task is to acknowledge this fact in the process of developing alternative and transformative practices.

Many theories about effective learning and associated ‘sound’ teaching practices are supported by assumptions of relative helplessness, ‘innocence’ and ignorance of human infants and young children. Evidence of such is readily available in many theories of early childhood development. In certain ways these ideas provide the raison d’être for many accepted practices in the early years of parenting, pre-school and primary school. They also produce a warrant for control and ‘hands-on’ management of children, lest these characteristics lead them astray. Miller, formerly a psychoanalyst but now a writer, has come to a different conclusion (1987a; 1987b; 1990). Drawing on her extensive experience over many decades, Miller has challenged these so-called self-evident truths of childhood development. Offering the label of ‘poisonous pedagogy’, Miller has argued that these dominant ideas and practices have opened the way for wide-ranging abuse of young children by older children and adults. In practical terms the label is used to describe the types of teaching and management required to eradicate ‘dangerous’ and ‘wild’ characteristics that children are ‘typically’ born with. It is an idea, and a term, carried over from the very earliest days of mass schooling. As re-interpreted and critiqued by Miller and others, it signifies a process of controlling, manipulative and abusive patterns of teaching/learning and then, at a later time, repeating cycles of abuse (Miller 2010).

Miller has argued that emotions from early childhood normally cannot be consciously acknowledged and understood and are carried forward into the future without conscious recognition. When strong feelings are embedded in abusive experiences that cannot be remembered, they become disassociated from the original cause and often produce reactions of anger, helplessness and despair. If such feelings continue without clear expression or acknowledgment they can result in destructive acts against the self and/or others (Miller 1990, 168). This seems a plausible explanation of what has happened with Sally, as expressed within her problematic relationship with Kirsty and their ongoing struggles with abusive behaviour. On the other hand, Louise’s story of being able to find acknowledgment of her experiences via dialogue with her mother has helped to bring early experiences involving conflict into an active state of consciousness.

Miller’s analysis of poisonous pedagogy has opened the way for counter practices. Sustained trust, security and empathy provide the foundations of a non-violent identity. Given the world we are living in, for such practices to be sustained, a child needs an ‘enlightened’ witness who can help break the more dominant patterns of fear, anxiety and destructive emotions. On this matter, Miller is worth quoting directly when she asserts: ‘Here lies the great opportunity for relatives, social workers, therapists, teachers, doctors, psychiatrists, officials and nurses to support the child and to believe in her or him’ (Miller 1990, 169). The challenge here is to work constructively with these insights and to explore fields of inquiry and practice that may help us to do this. Narrative therapy is one such field with the potential to break the orthodoxy, oppression and violence of poisonous pedagogy.

Narrative therapy, developed by Michael White in conjunction with David Epston (1990; 1992), is conducted at the intersection of the psychic and the social. White uses the ‘story’ metaphor to explore the perpetual process of identity construction through meaning making (2007). According to White (1992, 123), people live and shape their lives by stories. These stories, he argues, ‘have real, not imagined effects’; they ‘provide the structure of life’.

White’s ‘pedagogic’4 strategies provide opportunity for participants to express ideas, seek meaning, share experiences and remake understanding. As a first-order strategy, White is interested in the importance of ‘externalising’ ideas, thoughts, beliefs, feelings and fears. Unlike those who hold onto the ancient belief that some individuals are born ‘bad’ and continue to be so throughout their life, White’s assumption is that knowledge, mores and values exist outside the person and are progressively internalised through daily practices and interactions. In this process there are constant choices to be made and problems to be resolved. This is part of the ongoing process of developing and sustaining an identity and it becomes manifest or visible in such matters as appearance, speech and ways of interacting with others. Significantly, this also suggests that change and transformation are constant possibilities.

The narrative method, as pedagogy, is very much a social process. Identities are formed and sustained in concert with others. Constant negotiation and readjustment occur as the influences of the wider culture percolate into and saturate communal contexts. It is within the process of sharing narratives that important educational and re-learning opportunities occur. To be consciously educative, these moments that might begin as serendipitous events need to be managed strategically and formally. White uses the term ‘definitional ceremonies’ (White 1995, 184) to describe the formalisation of this social activity. Where the sharing process has been open and empathetic, there are important chances to recognise critical or significant opportunities in one’s narration. White has described these moments as ‘unique outcomes’, a term used to depict the disruption in the normal flow of a person’s experiences in which alternative possibilities become apparent and possible.

It is clear that in terms of the hopeful politics of Louise and Anna they have, in a sense, gone through this process. Louise identifies male power over women, poor communication between mother and daughter and generational attitudes as among the dominant story lines that she has been subjected to and confronted. Her ‘unique outcome’ has been to deploy feminist insights to help her to read and rearticulate her own and Anna’s circumstances, and anger management strategies to enable them to avoid physical confrontation. However, there have been no such ‘unique outcomes’ for Sally and Kirsty.

The dominant story lines that have shaped Sally’s and Kirsty’s lives are manifold. While Sally can articulate the effect of her emotionally deprived childhood on her later behaviour, she has not been able to or had the opportunity to externalise this or to identify and articulate alternative story lines. The alternative story lines of the perfect family and the girly symbolic economy are both dependent on stereotypes, which are oppressive for them both. But neither does she seem to have access to alternative sociocultural story lines that are empowering, or an aspect of her own story that resists the dominant narratives. While her situation may thus seem hopeless, narrative therapy would suggest otherwise.

For educators there are a number of important ideas in White’s analysis. Given the social and group nature of mainstream schooling, narrative pedagogy involves a process of two-way understanding of one’s relationships. Using the idea of a definitional ceremony, an educator will take the chance to form a group, allow the sharing of narratives and facilitate feedback in the process of providing alternative accounts. This approach offers a formal collaboration designed to provide new ways of thinking and behaving. In turn, this becomes a process of shaping new and alternative story lines through which to rebuild identity and relationships.

There are several advantages to using narrative therapy ideas to address the problems of violence in schools. Firstly, storying is a key feature of schooling and of students’ and teachers’ ways of making meaning about their place in schools. Secondly, the indeterminate nature of storytelling suggests that collective and individual stories and identities are fluid and can therefore be rewritten or retold – albeit not easily. For both perpetrators and victims of violence, alternative stories point to the possibility of changing direction. A third advantage of the narrative approach is that it enables people’s experiences to be considered within wider frameworks of meaning. It encourages them to consider the impact on their lives and relationships of wider cultural and social power relations. For example, a personal story can be linked to a more general cultural story. This helps to develop an appreciation of the ways in which people are situated within the dominant story lines of a culture or a society.

But, of course, unlike narrative therapy, narrative pedagogy in schools is not one-on-one; it does not have the benefits of time that therapy provides; it must compete with the demands of the school curriculum and contend with the limits of preservice training and professional development programs for teachers. The possibility of adaptations of narrative therapy for use in schools is recognised in the work of David Denborough (1996), a professional counsellor well skilled in the uses of narrative therapy. His practices show that in the hands of a skilled therapist, narrative therapy can become narrative pedagogy. The following example is taken from a program in which Denborough worked with male students in a single-sex class program designed to address problems in junior secondary schools. Specifically, the program addressed issues of sexual harassment or violence and by implication power relations and contested identities. It then assisted students to find some positive counter-narratives, to draw out and upon alternative sources of strength and status and to build new communities of support for alternative ways of being male. The following summary, derived from Denborough’s work, is provided in order to clarify how narrative therapy can become a pedagogic process. Key features of the method involve:

  • establishing basic ground rules of interaction that are characterised by respect and support rather than blaming and shaming
  • sharing personal experiences as a means of mapping the extent of violence in participants’ lives
  • naming the dominant plots of those issues that are clearly embedded in the dynamics of society more generally, including identifying the gendered nature of violence
  • mapping the effects of this dominant plot on different social groupings
  • articulation of the need for change
  • finding exceptions to the dominant plot; identifying critical moments that tell a different story – what White describes as ‘unique outcomes’
  • identifying a counter-plot or an alternative story line, thereby assisting students to find some positive counter-narratives
  • broadening the responsibility by exploring how suggestions could be supported, in their new narrative form, by staff, the school, families and the local community.

The approach outlined is part of a layered pedagogy. This involves discussions at a number of different levels in the school and includes parents and community members.

One obvious question is: Can such a narrative pedagogy approach also be used with girls and women who have been subjected to and indeed meted out various forms of violence?5 We believe so. This would include adapting some of Denborough’s ideas to the situations faced by girls and women in families and in relationships between and within the genders and generations and in connection to their cultures and communities outside of and within schools. Around the world, there is a considerable body of literature on women’s and girls’ experiences of violence in different circumstances, locations and cultures, and numerous policies and practices have been developed to address their experiences. But for teachers to be effective in this regard they would need to study this material and carefully explore its implications for narrative pedagogy. They would also need to become educated and accomplished in adapting narrative therapy to the different demands of narrative pedagogy in the school setting. Clearly, there is a role here for ongoing professional development programs designed to facilitate the development of appropriate knowledge and skills. As the narratives we have shared indicate, violence can have a lasting impact in the form of identity and health problems, family conflict, breakdown and loss, educational failure, withdrawal and much more. ‘Closing the gap’ in education means taking the matter of violence very seriously and developing pedagogical ‘resources for hope’.


This paper draws on Kenway and Fitzclarence (1997) and Kenway and Fahey (2008). Both were published in the journal Gender and Education. We express our appreciation for permission to re-use sections of these papers.


1   As we have argued elsewhere, particular forms of masculinity are a feature. We point out that the males who are most likely to resort to serious physical violence against females subscribe to traditional and patriarchal views of male power and supremacy, traditional gender roles and to the view that violence is an acceptable way of resolving conflict (Kenway and Fitzclarence 1997).

2   This paper arises from the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (2002–2004) ‘Young women negotiating from the margins of education and work: Towards gender justice in educational and youth policies and programs’, awarded to Jane Kenway (Monash University) and Alison Mackinnon (University of South Australia) and Julie McLeod and Andrea Allard (Deakin University). It also draws on a Deakin University faculty grant for the project ‘Violence in schools: A cross disciplinary inquiry’, awarded to Lindsay Fitzclarence and Jane Kenway.

3   In Kenway and Fahey (2008) we have developed these ideas at greater length than we are able to do here.

4   This is our term. We are not aware of White using the concept in the way it is frequently employed in education.

5   Artz (1998) is very useful with regard to schoolgirls and violence.


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Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen