Variations on a Theme – Stories we tell

Stories We Tell film poster

Last night I watched a beautiful and poignantly uplifting documentary/film/life story by Sarah Polley about her family – Stories We Tell.

It began with a quote from Margaret Atwood…

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” ― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

There were many of those moments in the flow of narrative where a sentence, a thought expressed, stood out and stimulated thoughts within me, stirring my own narrative, my own collection of stories about myself and my life, family and relationships.

Somewhere near the end of the film one of the storytellers asks, more of himself than of anyone else, whether we are truly ever able to express who we are to others.

He was reflecting on who he was and how he experienced himself, and how those who knew him did not seem to see him the way he saw himself, and he wondered if perhaps that was his own fault for not being clear in his communication with them.

Had he mislead them somehow, had he kept quiet when others had pressed him to be a certain way for them, had he gone along with their version of him, been reluctant to remove their image of him from their eyes and ask them to see who he was not who they wanted him to be.

Why? Was it because he liked what they saw or because he liked them and did not want to hurt them by making them see anyone other than who they chose to see. But what about him, did it not hurt him that they did not see him, that when they looked at him they saw their own story of him and not his, his story was lost under theirs.

This contemplation came from discussing his late wife, her view of him, and how her view had made her have expectations of him, of who he should be and what he should do, and who he had been and what he had done had disappointed these expectations which had caused an emptiness to appear in the relationship.

An emptiness which the wife had filled with someone else.

An emptiness from which he had distanced himself as he could never be who his wife wanted him to be, he could not live up to the potential which she had decided was his purpose without asking him if this was the purpose he wanted to have. He could not be who she needed him to be for her because this was not who he was, so bit by bit her image of him rejected his true identity. And his true identity rebelled against the image in passive silence.

If you reject my words because they are not the ones which you want to hear emanate from my mouth, because my voice does not play the music you want to listen and dance to… then I shall keep my music to myself.

Or at least that is how I viewed it, because in the stories of others we see our own tales.

Once the film was over, that thought stayed with me, and scenes from the film which echoed it floated in my mind.

Storytellers fighting for their story to be the version which would become the official one, mildly annoyed to vocally belligerent because none of them was in control of which version would become history. Someone else was in charge, someone who wanted all the stories and all the voices to blend together and create a multi-faceted whole which would speak for itself, a chorus of storytellers.

A feeling lingered and rose and fell like waves in an ocean. The feeling was similar to one which I had had after watching two other documentaries a while ago…

The Bridge

The Bridge documentary poster

and Dreams of a Life.


There was a connection between them, that connection was me, my stories finding themselves in the stories of others told by even more others, the themes in my life which seemed to repeat, replay.

Why? Why do these themes do that? What is their purpose… are they just there because we all must have a theme, several themes which sometimes overlap, and these are mine, mine and yet also belonging to others. No other reason, nothing to learn but things are learned anyway for no apparent reason, and then forgotten to be learned again, and remembered that they had been forgotten when they play again and are learned again.

“If I am good enough and quiet enough, perhaps after all they will let me go; but it’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging on to the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over; you don’t seem to be moving, just dangling there, and yet it is taking all your strength.” ― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace


  1. What you have written is very beautiful and it touches my heart, maybe because it tells my story too, “so bit by bit her image of him rejected his true identity”, that’s what happened with the image of me my parents projected onto me, destroying my identity.
    Thank you again for the strawberry tale;today life offered me one,as mid april i might be coming to the UK for an interview, i have been waiting for this since last november. A strawberry in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of tigers. i can tell this good news to you, my friends and my shrink, but not to my father, as he doesn’t like my music so i will keep it to myself, as you have just said. Walking away from one’s family is very hard, especially when there is no other family to welcome you. So to be myself i have to give up to be part of that biological family.
    is your offer concerning the post still open for me?I just have to translate the poem into English. But just in case, can you read it before posting it, maybe you won’t like it. You have been encouraging expressing myself since the very beginning and i am so grateful to you, although j’ai une trouille be myself, people might read me and see me! I am impressed to see how many people like me have the same problem to express anger or they end up being forgiving and empathic towards others but NOT to themselves. reading other people stories is very moving and a delicate affair, sometimes i would like to say a word of support but i am so much afraid to be invasive, as though I pried into somebody’s life without permission, it’s very strange to be in a blog, you know and you don’t know the person at the same time. But for sure, you are in my thoughts even when I am not reading you, and my friends know of the existence of my friend Ursula, real and authentic.


    • Wonderful news, i migliori auguri!

      It is difficult to let go of famiglia, especially an Italian one, but it releases you and you have a different kind of family awaiting you, the family which you create for yourself of those who love you as you are and support your dreams and life, your friends whom you already have and all those who you have yet to meet but who are already looking forward to meeting you 🙂

      Yes, the offer is always open, there is no time limit on it.

      Do you want an image to go with it? Or as it? Let me know. And let me know of any instructions you have to go with it. Post it in a comment when you’re ready and I’ll transfer it into a post of its own.

      Take care of yourself, Bellissima 🙂


      • Mmm…if you have a picture you feel it goes with it, i do trust you. I think i would like to put my real name underneath. Ambitious, hey??
        And thank you again for pushing me!!!!!!
        i have just finished reading somebody else post about being a child of N parents, so well written and rich and heartfelt, this person had the words to give voice to my feelings, you know when I met my Nshrink he made me feel lovable. i felt i was. And then he ripped off all of it. What a dreadful emotion to have, that’s why i think i will always have friends, as i have always had, but i will never trust a man again as I feel perfectly unlovable and I don’t want to go through that ordeal again;that makes me feel miserable and the opposite of bellissima ( you have a dark sense of humor!!).
        But at least i am appreciated by my cat, as men don’t care about me and what i do, but he did want to taste the sushi I have prepared, not salmon as it is, but what his lady cat friend has worked on;isn’t that love? (or rather a sophisticated form of gluttony??). Big hug and tanti baci


        • There are some amazingly beautiful and insightful voices sharing their lives, thoughts and feelings… 🙂

          I do have a dark and very twisted sense of humour, but I wasn’t using it when I said bellissima. I’m allowed to see you as beautiful, because that is how I see you. How I see you and how you see yourself… sometimes views agree and sometimes they take detours 😉

          Let me know which name you want to use. I can use an image from one of your favourite artists, a favourite painting or photo, as long as the copyright is Public Domain, Creative Commons, open to being shared.

          Cats are wonderful!

          Baci 😀


          • My real name, Stefania. As far as the image is concerned I was thinking of a Rothko ‘s painting, an orange on blue, although has got nothing to do with the poem…but i have no idea if it can be shared or not. hey, the one with dark sense of humor is me! You know I have a very hard time with compliments!!! But I accept it and I thank you for it. s xxx


            • That’s a beautiful name 🙂

              Mark Rothko’s work is not public domain, the copyright requires obtaining permission for use from the copyright holders, there is a Fair Use clause but it only applies when the image is used for educational purposes or reviews and the like, such as if I did a post about Mark Rothko.

              An artist has to have been dead for at least 70 years before the laws of copyright become less rigid and their work enters public domain. It varies from country to country. Copyright law is complex. There are grey areas. There is a certain leeway in certain circumstances especially on the internet and if the sharing is non-profit and includes link to source and attribution (naming the artist and linking to the source of the image such as the artist’s website).

              Some artists (such as those who may be on sites like deviantArt) appreciate and encourage their work being shared, as it is a form of promotion and advertising and art appreciation, but it must be credited.

              For famous artists, if you check their Wiki page you will find at the bottom of the page a link to Wikimedia Commons which gives copyright information. Wikimedia Commons – – can be searched for images, photos and art, which is free to use for non-profit (like a blog post) as long as the copyright on that particular image is respected.

              I hope I haven’t confused you. There’s a lovely website which allows perusal of the work of artists and gives copyright info – – I linked to their Mark Rothko page.



              • Mmm..I don’t dislike my name, it means crown but I didn’t like the explanations given by my father who thinks it suits me as for him I am a crown of thorns:) how lovely!!!
                here’s is my poem and my effort as soon as i have posted it i felt like..what are you doing crazy girl?? I have browsed wiki commons girdle books as you kindly suggested and I think i would like the Antonello da Messina painting of St jerome in his study, jpg.012(the first to appear on the left handside). But before posting it where everybody will bump into it, I’d like you to be at ease to tell me if it doesn’t fit your blog or if you don’t like it, it’s your space of the mind and I object to be invasive, we already have live quite a sample of it in our lives, haven’t we?
                Thank you, this is such a big thing for me, you do know why.
                lots of love,
                s xxx

                Dustbin rue de Sèvres
                At the heart of the 7th district
                In a pretty little courtyard
                There is a royal and posh dustbin
                As every morning, an eccentric, someone who has been let down by life
                Delivers a stunning and non recyclable waste
                Which finds its acolytes indeed.
                Second hand or brand new books, even old editions
                Heaps of philosophy, poetry and history
                The quadrivium subjects are not supposed to bring happiness in nowadays society
                Seeing my studies in the waste stirs a weird feeling
                Precious gems abandoned and rejected
                But also a childlike curiosity to find an unexpected morning sweet treat
                As the essence, the absolute is untainted even in the waste
                In this society
                Can be found in this unutterable place.
                I have found
                The Kreuzer sonata
                The life of Stalin, Kupka the visionary
                The myth of Icarus by Sponville
                And this very morning, last but not the least,
                What if love lasted by Finkelkraut
                A grandiose and eternal subject
                Maybe even this dilemma on the nature of love is to be thrown in the waste.


  2. I’ve seen this documentary. I had a different impression. I though the late wife was a narcissists. If I remember correctly, she left her family, husband and children, to go to the city (Toronto or Montreal?) to pursue acting and living an artistic life. There she had an affair and gave birth to her youngest daughter. The youngest daughter is the one who made this documentary. She ended up returning home and raising the child with her husband (not the biological father). It seems that see was self-absorbed and lacked empathy for her immediate family – “I have to go to the city and become an actress, it my time in life to do this.”

    I’m a guy. What would people think if quite my job, I left my young children and wife, and moved to a big city to start a band? And all I say is that I have this need to make music and it my time to do so. I would never do something like that. So, I have a very difficult time relating to the late wife.

    Your comments about the husband how the husband experienced himself versus how others perceive him is interesting. However, if the late wife is a narcissist she was probably a very difficult person to please. In fact, he could never meet her expectations. That could be why he shut himself down and turned off his music. He might not have understood what the problem was in their relationship and didn’t know what to do about it. Maybe he was upset with her. After all, she left him alone with kids and came back pregnant. (I forget if he knew right away or not that the child was not his.) Either way, he stayed in a questionable marriage to raise the children.

    Another thing about this documentary is that the interviews are done several years after the wife passed away. If it is about the stories we tell, our memories, and the way we see one another, than maybe this family is remembering the late wife in the best possible light. Perhaps the older siblings, the husband, and the biological father didn’t want to hurt the memories of the youngest daughter. She was quite young when the wife died, so she didn’t really know her at all. I don’t know I could be wrong about all of it, but the documentary brought questions like this to my mind. It’s good film. I did think about it for several days after I saw it.


    • You remember the story well. I kept details of the story out of my post as I did not want to spoil it for those who might read this and may want to see the film.

      I love watching documentaries like this one because the stories of others so often stir our own stories, and sometimes show us our own story differently, from another perspective. The stories of others give us a way to step back and assess our own life, our values, and sometimes they can inspire us in ways which can surprise us due to our reactions.

      If we feel strongly about someone whom we don’t know, whose life does not affect our own other than through viewing it from a distance… what does that tell us about ourselves?

      I like the way that Sarah Polley structured her film and allowed the viewer to hear the variations of the story from the different storytellers, some of whom were family, some friends, some on the periphery. I particularly appreciated the suspension of judgment.

      It was a deeply personal story for her and there were so many ways she could have edited it, and she kept it simple and graceful. I think the way it was put together tells a very interesting story about the filmmaker.

      Her mother is dead and can’t tell her side of the story, how she perceived herself and her family and the world, she can’t exercise a right to reply to any accusations made against her or judgments made of the way she lived her life. She can’t explain the decisions she made or how the consequences of living her life the way she did affected her and how she felt about how they affected others. Judging her is like judging a memory. And ultimately because she is dead, the story is not really about her, but about those who are still alive.

      I can see it affected you deeply too. Sarah Polley is a very talented storyteller.

      Thank you for sharing.


  3. I’ve not yet seen this film: Stories We Tell, but have wanted to. Its a piece of synchronicity that you explored this as for over a week I was working on a post re the stories we can make up in response to events and especially when someone else tries to impose a certain story line on us, and yet that is just their interpretation as they cant get inside us and know us from within… though some people try to pretend they can, then make up a pretend person who in then disappointing them must be cast aside. I loved that you touched on this in your post.


    • I’ve been contemplating certain things and many things connected to those certain things, themes, patterns, repetitive issues, and I keep an eye out for those things within everything else. If that makes sense.

      We see that which is within in that without, and sometimes find answers outside to questions which are within.

      Almost everything which I have watched recently has tied in with something I have been considering and figuring.

      There is an astrological overlay too. Chiron in the 7th is making a lot more sense now, and how it interacts with other placements.

      I was going to do posts about these contemplations, but they are in abstract form. So bits of them emerge in what I do post.

      Things are shifting 🙂


    • I am also a fan of Sarah Polley. She has a certain graceful strength which appeals to me, and she’s very independently rebellious which I can relate to. I first saw her when she was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is a film I loved very much and her character reminded me of myself 🙂

      I thought this documentary was beautiful.

      Margaret Atwood has a way of expressing that which we often think and feel but don’t say, a talent which I always admire.


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