Dr Marlene Winberg
PhD (UCT) MA FA (UCT) BA (UCT)
Narrative Therapy Practitioner
Healing through the Arts
My name is Dr Marlene Winberg. I am an author and narrative arts therapy practitioner working with women, youth and children.
I welcome people who are new to narrative arts therapy, as well as those who have participated in traditional therapy and healing experiences in the past.
After 21 years as coordinator and trauma counsellor for an international non-profit organisation working with women and girls, I chose to focus my research and practice on the narrative arts. Experience has taught me that art-making and storytelling are often the most direct strategies to help people change their thought patterns and return to a sense of wholeness.
Between 2016 and 2019, my doctoral research in the Faculty of Science at the University of Cape Town focussed on creating a scientific context for the fields of oral narrative, indigenous healing methodologies and narrative psychology. I was awarded a doctorate of philosophy in these trans-disciplinary fields in 2020. I completed my Masters of Arts in Fine Art in 2011 and prior to that, a BA degree in the Dramatic Arts at UCT. I hold several certificates in complementary healing methodologies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Hypnotherapy from the College of Applied Psychology in the United Kingdom and Narrative Therapy from the Dulwich Centre in Australia.
My private narrative arts therapy practice is based at the Corner Health Clinic in Fish Hoek, The Narrative Therapy Lounge in Kalk Bay and online at marlene.winberg.com.
Below this letter are several of my books that focus on the ways in which people’s narratives become therapeutic, self-healing practices. !nanni’s sketchbook; annotations of loss and abundance (2014) and Kapilolo’s Kulimatji; the memoirs of a !xun storyteller (2018), both focus on the life stories of indigenous individuals whose histories are fraught with the losses that result from childhood abuse and post-war trauma.
Now that you know more about my professional background, let’s talk about narrative therapy and the arts.
Imagine this scene from 35 000 years ago, bearing in mind that we, as human beings, have drawn on the power of the arts to re-imagine ourselves since time immemorial.
A human figure stands in a cave, places her hand on the rock wall in front of her, fingers spread out, thumb out, palm flat against the cold rock. She puts her bone pipe to her lips and blows a mouthful of finely ground ochre dust against the back of her hand. The red dust explodes into a small cloud of powder. When she lifts her palm, her hand print remains against the stone wall that took the red of the ochre. She does it again and again, printing her image in the cave and leaving her mark. Deeper into the cave, her extended family has painted visual narratives of their lives with symbols and animals.
Her images will survive for millennia. We, in the 21st century, study her hand prints and wonder who she was. The story behind her hand prompts us to ask an enduring human question about her life:
Who was she?
Since our early hunter-gatherer days, our brains have evolved an incredible capacity for narrative, this being our fundamental way of making sense of ourselves in the world. Our oldest, most valued manuscripts are filled with stories that invite us to ask the same questions of ourselves generation after generation. We dream in narrative, we think in narrative, remember, despair, plan, love, hate and doubt ourselves in narrative. We even make war using narratives to justify attacking our enemies.
We continually explore ourselves by asking two core narrative questions:
Who am I?
How do I relate to the world around me?
This ancient parable about a farmer and his two water pots is a metaphor for how we use narratives to better understand ourselves and our role in society:
A farmer went down to the river each day to collect water in his two pots. One day, one pot said to him: “Farmer, I have a crack. When we reach home there is only half the water left. I think you should get a new pot. I am broken and of no use to you.”
The farmer replied: “Well, that is one way of seeing it. From my viewpoint, I look at the path from my home to the river and I see that your side has green plants growing from the soil you watered. I think I will keep you.
In this story, a different perspective changes the pot’s single storyline into a more complex narrative with another viewpoint, therefore changing the pot’s story and saving its life.
The stories we believe and tell ourselves can make or break us.
Narrative Therapy is a therapeutic technique that draws on the arts to help you gain deeper insight into your life and the challenges you face. The process helps you to map out the stories you tell yourself and reframe these in constructive, beneficial and healing ways that honour your values.
Let’s take a look at Amanda’s experience of Narrative Therapy as an example:
“Narrative Therapy introduced me to grief as a verb, something you can engage with creatively and do. The narrative art exercises helped me to make meaning of my overwhelming loss.” (Amanda van der Hulle 2021.)
Over a period of six sessions, Amanda used a combination of writing, clay modelling, storytelling and letter writing to re-construct her experience of mourning her mother. Narrative Therapy offered her a nurturing structure within which she felt safe enough to reach deep and remember, make peace and re-establish her identity in life without her mom.
Maria is a teenage client whom I saw weekly over a period of twelve months. This is what she had to say:
“I was a sexual abuse survivor at the age of 15. I changed my story of being a victim to becoming a child rights activist who councils other children. I did not know that so many other children have been through a similar experience. I think my story is now stronger than it was before.” (Maria Ndlovu 2020.)
Narrative Therapy, or any other form of psychosocial intervention, cannot wipe a traumatic experience from your mind, but it can teach you creative techniques to recognise and manage your anxiety. You learn how to deal with trauma and fear rather than ignore it, wish it away or allowing it to make you ill. In Maria’s case, the aim was to transform a traumatic experience into a narrative that turned her insider knowledge of abuse into one that had no shame, benefits other young people and makes her feel proud of herself
Angie turned to Narrative Therapy in the hope that she could reprogram a repetitive, stuck story in her mind:
“After my divorce, I developed a habit of venting my anger in a kind of self-talk that became obsessive. Especially when I was driving. My narrative journey helped me to change this habit. It opened up different possibilities for me which I would not have seen otherwise.” (Angie Carelse 2021.)
Angie transformed her problem saturated story into a stronger and healthier narrative that embraced her life, rather than keeping her stuck in the past.
There are a variety of techniques and exercises in Narrative Therapy to help people heal and move past a problematic story. In my practice, I combine narrative elements with visual art-making exercises to help my clients engage their senses and open up their brain’s innate capacity to integrate difficult experiences. (You need no experience of art to engage in art-making exercises.)
Narrative therapists help their clients put together their personal narrative in beneficial, stronger ways that lead to better health. This process allows an individual to find their own voice, explore events in their lives and the meanings they place on these experiences. As they put their story together, the person becomes an observer to their story and looks at it with the therapist, working together to identify the dominant problem story.
Putting together the story of their lives allows people to become witness to themselves.
By externalising their story, people create distance between the themselves and their problems. We call this process externalisation. It allows people to better focus on unwanted behaviours when looking at it from a distance.
As people practice externalisation, they get a chance to see that they are capable of changing their story and learn the skills to do so.
Deconstruction – Reconstruction
In Narrative Therapy people learn deconstruction techniques to help them gain clarity about the story they have constructed, and wish to reconstruct. When a problematic story feels like it has been around for a long time, people might use generalised statements and become confused, or stuck, in their own stories. A narrative therapist would work with the individual to break down their story into smaller parts, or chunks, making it more approachable.
When a story feels concrete, as if it could never change, any idea of an alternative narrative flies out of the window. People can become stuck in their story and allow it to influence several areas of their lives, impacting decision-making, behaviours, experiences, relationships or physical and mental health.
A narrative therapist works to help people challenge, break apart and shift their problem, while considering alternative story lines.
This approach can be useful for anyone who feels overwhelmed by negative experiences, thoughts or emotions. Narrative therapy allows people to not only find their voice and listen to it, but to use their voice to help them become experts of their own lives. To live in a way that reflects their goals and values.
The narrative therapist takes care to hold three principles central to the therapeutic process:
Non-blaming: There is no blame placed on the client as they work through their stories. The therapist encourages her client not to place blame on others, but to focus instead on recognising and changing unwanted and unhelpful stories about themselves and others.
Respect: People participating in narrative therapy are treated with respect and support for their bravery in coming forward and working through personal challenges.
Client as expert: Narrative therapists do not see themselves as advice-giving authorities, but rather as a collaborative partner in helping the client grow and heal. Narrative therapy holds that clients know themselves well and exploring this personal information will allow for a change in their narratives.
This type of therapy encourages people to not label themselves or see themselves as ‘broken’ or as ‘the problem’. Rather, it helps the client find a non-blaming perspective. People learn to separate themselves from the problem and look at it more objectively. This is followed by cognitive behavioural and creative exercises to incorporate these alternative points of view into their daily lives.
Things to consider:
This type of therapy is specialised and can become in-depth. It explores a number of factors that can influence a person’s story. This includes gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, and sexual identity.
It involves talking about your problems as well as your strengths. A therapist will help you explore your dominant narrative in-depth, discover ways it might be contributing to emotional pain, and uncover strengths that can help you approach problems in different ways.
You will re-evaluate your judgements about yourself. Sometimes people carry stories about themselves that have been placed on them by others. Narrative therapy encourages people to re-assess these thoughts and replace them with more realistic, beneficial and positives ones.
It challenges you to separate from your problems. While this can be difficult, the process teaches you techniques to view your story more objectively, while you learn how to acknowledge yourself for making good decisions or behaving in personally beneficial ways.
“The problem is the problem. The person is not the problem” (Michael White 2002).
Showing up for your story
Showing up for your story means focussing on it for long enough to map it out and give expression to it. This process allows you to find your voice, explore important experiences in your life and think about the meaning you make from these experiences.
Shaping your story
Shaping your story helps you to think about re-constructing your story into a stronger narrative, based on your values. This reflective methodology helps you to pay close attention to your inner narratives. This process brings greater self-knowledge.
Stepping into your preferred story
Stepping into your preferred story means figuring out how to make your re-authored storylines an integral part of your daily life. Narrative therapy teaches you specific techniques to change habitual, unhelpful thought patterns. This narrative practice allows us to re-train our brains to adopt different narrative patterns.
What can you expect from Narrative Therapy Sessions?
The Narrative Journey begins with an introductory session of one and a quarter hours. This experience is followed up by a course of five sessions or more, depending on the individual person’s needs. During this time, you can expect to
1. Externalise the multiple layers of your personal narrative through mapping techniques
2. Gain insight and clarity into the problem in your narrative
3. Break the problem up into smaller parts (deconstruct)
4. Identify your habitual thought patterns around the problem.
5. Develop a preferred narrative that reflects your values (reconstruct)
6. Learn alternative coping strategies to change your response to the problem
7. Keep a journal of the process
8. Be encouraged to focus on a non-blaming approach to your problem
9. Become familiar with the power of metaphor
How to get started:
My private practice is based in Kalk Bay, an urban fishing village at the southern tip of Africa. You will also find me at the Corner Health Therapy Clinic, 19 Recreation Road, Fish Hoek, Cape Town. To make an appointment at the clinic, call +27 (21) 782-6958.
To book an appointment for an introductory session, call +27 (0) 83 3925153 or send me an email.
Thank you for dropping in.
!nanni’s Sketchbook – annotations of loss and abundance celebrates a 19th century collection of children’s narratives, drawings and paintings made by the Namibian !kun child, !nanni and his three friends, Tamme, |uma and Da. This book illuminates their history and reconstructs the story of where they came from, how they were abducted, sold to various masters and ended up in the Cape colonial home of linguist Lucy Lloyd – where they made the collection with her. The author explores the children’s visual and verbal trauma narratives and demonstrates how the telling of their stories, their paintings and drawings facilitated their healing.
The !kun children’s archive is part of the larger Bleek and Lloyd Collection – entered in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
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In this remarkable book, Kapilolo’s Kulimatji – a !xun San storyteller’s memoir, Kapilolo Mario Mahongo recounts for the first time from an indigenous perspective, the heart-rending results for his family and San compatriots of their involvement in the independence wars against Portugal and South Africa in Angola and Namibia. Mahongo is one of the unsung heroes amongst indigenous San in southern Africa as they continue the struggle to survive and retain their identity, culture and languages far from the place of their birth.
Kapilolo’s Kulimatji – a !xun San storyteller’s memoir, told to narrative therapy practitioner and editor, Dr Marlene Sullivan Winberg, between 1994 and 2017 and accompanied by her own account of the circumstances that led to her 23-year friendship with Mahongo, is an emotionally charged book and a welcome new genre for southern African indigenous literature (Dr Janette Deacon).
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Text by Marlene Winberg
Photographs by Paul Weinberg
With an introductory essay by Achmat Dangor
In 1994, people began to return to land in rural South Africa they had lost under apartheid. This book chronicles that process and other related aspects of the South African government’s land reform programme between 1994 and 1996. It allows the voices of the marginalised people to be heard beyond their own communities.
The Storyteller is a collection of traditional narratives from the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango River villages in Botswana. It was made when groups of young storytellers gathered in D’Kar and Shakawe to perform and record their family stories. Twenty-three tales were written in Naro, Khwedam, ||Anikhwedam, Ju|’hoansi, Thimbukushu, Otjiherero, ShiYei and English.
This collection is a reflection of a changing oral tradition where cultures meet and integrate; where computer technology exists alongside traditional healing, where people work in their small offices and libraries in the desert, quietly creating their own educational futures. It testifies to a younger generation’s capacity to record, write and translate their elders’ oral traditions.
This little book, enhanced by the work of the San artists at the Kuru Art Project in the Kalahari, honours the Botswana tradition of storytelling and the diversity of its language heritage.
A fertility story narrated by traditional !xun healer Meneputo Manunga Manyeka. Translated by Marlene Winberg. Accompanied by !xun music.
This story narrates the birth of a traditional San healer. Translated by Marlene Winberg. Accompanied by !xun music..