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24 JANUARY 2001
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Into the Dark Forest

Dancing in the Forest: A Guide to Therapeutic Storytelling by M. Burns (1999). ISBN 0-9697302-0-9.
Published by: Burns Johnston, Ontario.

Michael Burns in Into the Dark Forest presented his versions of 20 familiar folk and fairy tales filled with metaphors and symbols to work on the unconscious mind of the traumatized child. Dancing in the Forest, the companion guide, provides a simple and straightforward description of how to use these stories. It will start the reader on a lifetime journey of perfecting the art of storytelling for therapeutic change.

The stories were carefully chosen for their breadth and depth of application. The metaphors in the stories surround the classic paradigms of masculinity/femininity and internal/external realities. Most stories apply in varying degrees to at least three of the five most common problem themes that children struggle with: abandonment, abuse, oppression, addiction, and initiation into adulthood. The author has worked to remove the gender bias in the stories while leaving the classic gender roles intact. He has also varied the tales to represent a variety of cultural backgrounds, or a culturally neutral setting. True to our Canadian context, several of the stories occur within the Aboriginal culture.

"House in the Forest" for example is based on Hansel and Gretel, but the names of the children are replaced by the terms 'boy' and 'girl' to emphasize how the different genders perceive problems and develop solutions. It also removes the cultural bias associated with the names. In the story, the boy uses logic and deduction early on to keep the children safe and later the girl uses wit, instinct, and compassion to bring them safely home. All the stories offer many metaphorical messages to help children change their internal reality and affect their external world.

Dancing in the Forest provides the therapist new to storytelling with a step-by-step guide to setting the climate for the effective use of the story. It also motivates the reader to seek additional learning about the ancient stories and their interpretation by the unconscious. Chapter one introduces the reader to the basic background concepts of the therapeutic use of stories and discusses the responsiveness of various types of children to therapeutic stories. Chapter two describes the assessment process that occurs before the implementation of the storytelling including how to set a comfortable environment or therapeutic milieu. An appendix accompanies it with scripts for relaxation before the story and setting the stage for a guided fantasy with the story. Chapter three describes the subtle nuances involved in communicating the story such as voice tone and non-verbal communication and introduces some advanced techniques for strengthening the metaphoric message. Chapter four provides guidelines for how to choose stories according to the various themes with which children struggle. An appendix lists the stories that apply to each theme. Chapter five presents three detailed case studies with the stories used and the rationale for using them. Chapter six presents a short synopsis of the 20 stories including the author's interpretation of the symbolism of the story and its usefulness with the problems of today's children and youth.

"The old Inuit tale opens with the death, and perhaps murder, of a young woman who was much loved by her group."

"Victims of eating disorders, rape, violence, and other forms of trauma often describe themselves as the living dead, as being mere shells of skin and bone. The skeleton woman abandoned at the bottom of the sea is the personification of this condition."

Throughout the book, the author uses rich case examples to illustrate the steps involved in effective use of therapeutic storytelling and provides some guidelines for the types of child or youth for whom storytelling is ineffective. For example, the hyperactive child with auditory processing difficulties is not likely to be able to listen to the story to completion, meaning that it becomes a frustrating exercise for both therapist and child and thus other therapeutic choices would be more effective.

Burns has provided two volumes of use to both therapists experienced with therapeutic storytelling and those without experience. Experienced therapists will value the 20 stories offered in Into the Dark Forest. They are modern versions that are multicultural and free of some of the former gender bias of these stories. It can be purchased separately from Dancing in the Forest which therapists new to the use of therapeutic stories will value for its clarity and detail on how to make use of stories and metaphor.

Carol Stuart
The International Child and Youth Care Network

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