Growing up in a home with a father and three brothers, Elaine Blanchard recalls feeling “invisible.” But the cold and rigid environment of her childhood led her not only to delve deeply into her own memories to understand her “story,” but encourage other women to do the same.
B lanchard — who is a mother, minister, nurse, hospice counselor, actor, and writer — came to Memphis in 1994. She’d served as a United Methodist pastor but lost that position when she came out as a lesbian. At First Congregational Church, she found a new spiritual home — and a new identity. “I started telling stories to the children every Sunday, and I became ‘The Storyteller,’” she says. “The opportunity to be creative in a supportive community set me free to discover and share the gifts I have.”
In 2010 she got to the root of girlhood experiences that shaped her — stories of racism, abuse, dogmatic views of the Bible — and turned them into a play titled For Goodness Sake. Since then she has taken her storytelling process and theater performances to women in prison, and listens to their tales of being “dismissed, neglected, and forgotten.” These “Prison Stories” contain similar themes — body image, unintended pregnancies, violence. At the end of each series, a theatre piece is created and performed by actors that Blanchard recruits. She recalls one inmate’s response after a performance: “She turned to the audience with a beaming smile and said, ‘I thought I was a bad girl, a fast girl. Then I joined Ms. Elaine’s storytelling class and people listened. I learned something important. I’m a girl [who] had bad things happen to me, and I can get over that. I can heal.’”
Blanchard offers her gift — her vision — to other groups: ex-felons, students, people with HIV and AIDS, victims of domestic violence, just to name a few. “I feel called to give others the chance to tell their stories in a circle of trust,” she says. “Storytelling expands compassion in the hearts of those who listen and increases hope in the lives of those who are heard. It sets us free from our fears and prejudices and makes the world a safer place.”
Bessie Vance Brooks
Martha Ellen Maxwell