Engaging Our Stories with Gwen St. John

Today is the start of a series of episodes we’ve been eagerly waiting to share with you. We’re going to be engaging the stories of some of our dear friends and colleagues in order to help you—our listeners— get a better sense for how to look at and read your own story. In this episode, Dan and Rachael talk with Gwen St. John, a therapist and long-time Allender Center facilitator, about how her experience growing up shaped who she is today as someone with high sensitivity, and how this led her to become a “reader of people and the world.” Listen closely to the ways Dan and Rachael engage her stories of harm with care and kindness.

About Gwen

Gwen St. John is a Seattle-based therapist in private practice since 2009 and a facilitator with The Allender Center since 2016. As a poet, Gwen loves specificity and metaphor, and holds it to be true that everything matters. She loves to journey alongside others as they delve into the particularities of their own stories and bodies. Gwen holds a history of Christian ministry, an undergraduate degree in literature and creative writing, a MA in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School, and a foster license through the State of Washington, all of which swirl in how she sits with others. She has a particular affinity for stories of orphans and adoption, reaching back into the storybooks and Sunday School lessons of her childhood and through her sojourn in a Sri Lankan children’s home, her work in an agency specializing in adoption from foster care, and her work with clients and her own engagement as a foster and adoptive mother.


Episode Transcript

Dan: One of the things we delight in doing is to bring dear friends and colleagues who have labored with us at The Allender Center for what feels like centuries into conversation. What we really want to do is to invite stories to help you get a better sense of how to look at and read your own story. And so, Gwen, St. John, a long term Allender Center leader. Gwen, so good to have you with Rachael and me today. Thank you for coming here. So let’s talk about your wild, lovely, odd, compelling life and to do that I just want you to kind of introduce yourself and tell people a little bit about how you are situated in the world with whom and enough to begin the conversation.

Gwen: Sure. Well I’m situated in the world, I live in Seattle with my husband, Gabriel, and our daughter Marigold,. and I am working, have been working for a number of years as a therapist here, have a private practice and have had the honour, enjoy working with The Allender Center for coming on six years.

Dan: Which we would count to be about 42 years. We do, we do dog years.

Gwen: Yeah, I can feel that in my body for sure.

Dan: Well maybe just to begin, how did you get involved with a sundry group like The Allender Center?

Gwen: Well, I mean it goes back to just being a student at The Seattle School or back when it was called Mars Hill Graduate School and coming to the really crucial understanding that my story was the first way I began to make sense to myself and the first experience I had in a group, especially with Christian teaching, where my story got to be part of what made me me and helped me just give myself a name that I really needed. So when you started The Allender Center I was immediately intrigued and wanted to be a part of it, and so, I just remember getting to experience going through the externship and getting to know more and more about myself and other people through the realm of story and just finding us so poignantly important.

Rachael: Mhm. Well, it’s interesting even as you said, like, your story getting to be a primary way in which you know yourself and linking that to like maybe something that was missing in Christianity, or at least some of the ways were formed to think, which is so fascinating one really, what it means to be Christian is to be wrapped up in a story and a larger story and I experience you it’s just such a like yeah, you you contain a multitude of stories that I think deeply shaped the way in which you live and love in the world. So I’m really grateful that you were part of our team and that you thought it would be fun to play with us.

Dan: So I still want to kind of knock on that door to say you’re an odd woman. You kind of have a sense of maybe being unusual. Is that a fair way of putting it or you can just push back and say you’re the odd one.

Rachael: I was going to say she is in good company.

Dan: Well we certainly know the two of us, but so is that a fair entry? Like how is it that you’re so odd?

Gwen: Yeah, I mean I know myself to be odd and I can now enjoy myself as an odd being um without feeling like that makes me unknowable. So that’s something that I found to be, that’s partly what I mean when I say that knowing my story has helped me make sense to myself. I think, you know, I always felt odd and sort of the beginning places of my story take me back to the fact that my parents were Canadian Plymouth Brethren. And if you don’t know what Plymouth Brethren means, you can know that they are a group of Christians that are deeply committed to sacredly holding the text of scripture and to the point of women for instance, wearing head coverings and that that was my childhood life being the daughter of people who were from a different country. And living in a room that didn’t make sense to most of the people that I knew.

Dan: And how did you fit? I know it’s a huge question. How did you fit in that world?

Gwen: Yeah, I had to make myself fit in that world, that wasn’t too difficult for me because I was a really sensitive and quiet child. I don’t know if I would have been sensitive and quiet, were it not for some of the circumstances of trauma in my childhood, but I do know that I bowed fairly easily to the idea that women and girls should be quiet. For at least the first 10 years of my life until that became really unendurable for me. So yeah, I don’t have an answering that question well.

Dan: Well, I I think it’s an almost impossible question to grapple with. Well, and that is, you know, when you live within a world that in some ways requires women to be silent furthering the unusual, but again, not that unusual head covering. And then to create a context where again, without spending any more time than you would wish naming that there was trauma in your own childhood. Those are so many factors for why having a voice would have consequences. But I love the fact that you’ve also named that you were a reader of people that you’re very sensitive, which is what I mean by you’re a reader of people. You watch people, you feel the presence of people. So in one larger sense, how did you become a reader of the world and people?

Gwen: Yeah, I love that question. And I thought about how I understand myself from a very young age. I think that I think I was born with a really highly sensitive system and was never going to be anything but that. And in addition to that, I think I was born into a world where watching and reading was acceptable and required. So the sense of I was supposed to be quiet and I sat through a lot of listening to people and to stay interested, watch their face. But then I also think about how important it was within my family system to read faces really well in order to stay safe.

Dan: And how did that work? What did it look like for you to read your world, your family around you?

Gwen: Well, I mean, an important thing to say is that in my family world, being a person, being, being a family of faith was deeply important. That was how we were identified in the world and being people who had it, had it well, had it good and it was important so that we could live our lives in order to bring other people into what was good in the faith, in Jesus. And so, there was a lot that was hidden in my family, that was not, well, that was not going well specifically my older, my oldest brother, I’m the youngest of four. My oldest brother began to abuse substances around the age of 12 when I was just about four or five years old, and in that, because my parents were very busy doing ministry often, I was often left with my older siblings and so around the same time that he began of using substances, he also began abusing me. And so I think I just had to live in a lot of secrecy hidden this. I needed to read, well what was going to happen in my family in order to try to stay as safe as I possibly could.

Dan: Again, I’m privileged to know your story. But it’s just agonizing to even hear the words that you’ve spoken and to know that in the context of abuse, secrecy, the demand for silence that is a setup to live in some ways, a constant sense of contradiction. The family, the world is moving one direction with one statement of how we believe and how we function while subterranean, there’s a whole other chock full of heartache but also contradiction. So again, just to step back and say how, how have you lived in the midst of that kind of two worlds, three worlds, multiple worlds, but particularly contradictory worlds?

Gwen: You know, I think what comes to my mind when I ask you say how is like I imagine being back in my childhood through this present time and how definitely important story was in terms of reading. So one thing that was always accessible to me was books and I just devoured the stories of other people to try to help me understand those contradictions that I was holding within my own body which was really the most safe place with a contradiction to land in my body because that didn’t hurt anyone else. It wasn’t well with my body, but I would read stories that would make sense and that could help me understand myself on some level.

Dan: Like anyone come to mind at the moment, anyone author story that your heart often went back to.

Gwen: Yes, the orphan characters of L. M. Montgomery who wrote the story books about and Green Gables for instance. She also wrote a series about a girl named Emily who I would say was probably a very highly sensitive person and saw the world with just so much acuity and always was thinking and observing about all of her family members.

Rachael: Yeah. Gwen, when you mentioned the books by LM Montgomery, I think most people are so familiar with Anne of green Gables and all the stories about her and I think very few people or not as many people have had access to our been exposed to the stories of Emily. And I’m curious for you as you name, that you’re drawn to these stories of orphan and not just orphan, not just an orphan but a highly sensitive, highly sensitive orphan. And I’m curious for you and a full family, how that theme of orphan came to be something that you were learning to make sense of about yourself through someone else’s story.

Gwen: Yeah, I mean, now looking back, I can offer myself some perspective on why I had such a sense of feeling like an orphan when I clearly looked like my older siblings and wasn’t adopted. But there was something in me that was like, was I adopted? I do not feel like I make sense, my body is constantly brimming over with emotion and a census that no one else is talking about. Where did I come from? How did I become this way? I think a lot of that is just that I was born with this trait of high sensitivity and then I think all system of the orphan feeling was just, I was born to a mother who was deeply depleted by the time I came along, I wasn’t a planned pregnancy. Her doctor was actually very frustrated because she was so low with severe anemia when she gave birth to me that she wasn’t super available to me in my infancy. And there was a lot of other people who were so I was passed around a lot and I’m sure that somewhere in my psyche I and my body’s understanding, I felt like I didn’t quite have that secure attachment that I needed.

Dan: I would love for you to think about how the abuse that you put words to created it as well, a sense of of not not fitting.

Gwen: I think that potentially the most deep damage of the abuse, not that it all needs to be qualified, but it made me feel more cut off from my mother in particular. I think the implicit or explicit, I don’t I don’t fully know, but the threat was if mom ever finds out she will die. And so it was kind of a choice of either ask my mom for the help that I need, but then she might die. So there was just the abuse cut me off from my mother and I really needed really needed a mother as does everyone, but it was that sense between she and I of the abuse particularly disconnecting us that made me totally orphaned.

Dan: Mm well orphaned because of a lack of attachment but prospectively orphaned in that if you have the power through your words in asking for help, you might take her life. And so to be not just orphaned but um, is it too strong to say in that sense? If you have a voice, you’re a murderer.

Rachael: Which again is always complex for little bodies, right? Because as adults, we can go, well, that’s not true. And I think a lot of times that’s our inclination, even to ourselves when we feel something that we might be able to critically think our way through. But in a little body that’s highly sensitive, those truths are more true. Those threats and those fears whether they’re being yes, explicitly named or I would say explicitly read whether they’re being vocalized or not they’re there. And just because something is being into it, it doesn’t mean it’s not explicit. Oftentimes, I think the undercurrents that aren’t being named but are being said are way more explicit than the and I think that’s what you’ve named in this contradiction of there’s a presentation, but there’s a lot going on that contradicts that. And so of course in a little body that threat of I will kill my mom. Like I’ll have the power to destroy her by simply asking for help about something that I actually don’t have power over. And I think that can be really confusing and really defining for us in our stories and the trajectory of our stories because it keeps you from, I would imagine that has that kept you from connection to your mom over a longer season than just when that threat.

Dan: Gwen, what what would you say has been the the benefit of the implication of doing this story work?

Gwen: Well, like I was saying earlier that reality of doing story work has helped me make sense to myself. And in many ways I would say I’ve experienced a level of being mothered by story work. Like a sense of my own story handled well with care and attainment therapy through, through doing story work through. The Allender Center has been so remarkably renaming to me of you make sense, your body’s reactions to things are meaningful and not crazy. That’s been huge for me and I think about even when I first came to begin naming particularly the story of abuse in my life, I remember sitting in a group with you Dan when I was in school and in a practical group and beginning to talk about my oldest brother and you pausing the group and saying to everyone like, do you feel that feeling in your body, you are in the presence of the story of abuse. I didn’t even have the language of abuse at that point, but I remember so keenly how you tied my story to how everyone in the room was feeling in their body in response to hearing me talk about my abuser.

Dan: I actually remember that moment well, and the gift of engaging a woman of integrity is that even when new data comes, there’s not an immediate dismissal or defensiveness. So that’s there for all of us to some degree, but an openness to explore. And that’s part of the oddity, a lovely but nonetheless oddity you are in that a very closed system theologically in some ways, a very good but nonetheless closed family and also heartbreakingly closed circuit of silence and secrecy. I know it’s an impossible question. I don’t care. How is it possible that your heart remains so open?

Gwen: You know, I think about just being I mean, I’m going back to that highly sensitive reality of who I am because it’s just something that’s really been helping me even lately, but I think about how I always knew there was so much more because my body my heart was so responsive to beauty to people’s stories and faces and yeah, I just think it has kept me open even though so many times that’s actually also made it more painful to be open, but I love to be alive.

Dan: Yeah. Well it’s not the most subtle shift in the world, but I’m just going to say you and your stunningly good husband have chosen to take in a stunningly beautiful little girl and I’d love for you to talk about everything we’ve been talking about and the presence of I think of her because I’ve heard you say her name Mouse often. So Marigold.

Gwen: She is a girl with a lot of names because that’s how we roll in my family. But yeah, Mouse, Marigold. Yeah, I think you know, even just bringing in that category of orphan into this conversation in my own sense of feeling orphaned, my whole life has been very intrigued by and tenderized to orphans and got to have many experiences of working for those children who don’t have parents including living in Sri Lanka and working in a children’s home there and that being what even made me want to become a therapist and then becoming a social worker and working in the foster care system and always wanting to be a foster parent and so five years ago Gabriel and I got foster licensed and we were able to bring home a very radiant child. We call her Goldie because she is pure cold and she has been with us for 4.5 years and she is 4.5 years old. So it’s a huge part of our story that we’ve been holding for a long time and we’re able to actually adopt her in April and she is now our forever child.

Dan: Well, this certainly isn’t my story, but I’m going to give just one sentence. It’s been agony. I mean there have been so many ups and downs in this process for the fullness of adoption to occur again. You can’t fully describe all that you’ve been through, but I love for you to take us through a few of the significant highs and lows of this process.

Gwen: Well I would say becoming foster licensed in the first place is definitely agonizing for someone who prefers to be fairly private to have every, every corner, every drawer of my home looked through every aspect of my story, looked through through the lens of are you a safe person? Even to have to name some of these things about the abuse in my past and to have them held out by a state social worker is not the same as kind of, so just becoming a foster license was deeply hard. But then I mean when I think about the day that we brought her home and and the weeks following that, people commented on the radiance of my face in a way that no one ever has. I was just so full of the most embodied joy and delight to have my own little person who I got to take so much care of and be so attached to from the very beginning. So and then just to have years in which I did not feel like the state was doing what they should be doing for what she needed, which was permanency. She just sort of only her case malingering in the system for no good reason. And just just to have that feeling of powerlessness over someone’s life that means so much to me. It’’s unspeakable to be honest.

Dan: Yeah. And just to ask, even as you talk, how are you in your body as you talk? Because you’re you’re I’m asking you to step back into both the highs and the terrible lows of a long, almost unendurable process.

Gwen: Yeah. I can feel like sort of the tension tensing in my muscles, of the fight that I felt for such a long time of like this fight of wanting to fight for this child and have a voice. And yet that’s not how the system really works. So using my voice to the best of my ability, but knowing that really, I didn’t have a lot of power, just put me in a really uncomfortable physical place for four years. Yeah, really unendurable and yet we endured it.

Rachael: I was just thinking um how you’ve so generously shared similar experiences of your young heart and body and mind of that kind of powerlessness. And again, I want to say this carefully because I am not someone who thinks God gives us hard things to teach us lessons so that later in life we can do something good. I think God is in the work of redemption and redeeming what has been lost or what has the heavy burdens been and when I think about your unique journey with mothering, both being mothered developing into a mother and II can’t think of any person better suited to mother Marigold and the ways her little body needs attunement and containment and just care in really particular ways that you will feel and know not just because you’re highly sensitive but because you’ve done the hard, courageous, sometimes terrifying but also so restorative work of understanding your own story and not just in a theoretical kind of let me talk about the themes of my story but in those deeply embodied ways where our story we are in storied and it lives in our body and I would imagine there’s already been many moments where you’re kind of in storied, intuitive sensitive way of tending to her has hopefully maybe given something back to you as well. I don’t know if that’s true for you.

Gwen: Yes, yeah, I think it is but if it is certainly true I have never yeah, I feel my own young tenderness so often when I’m in the midst of parenting, you’ve been telling stories at night or or just being more actively a singer of lullabies as one does when they have a little child and how how soothing that is even to me. But as well I just I’m so thankful to have gone through story work, being a foster parent and now adoptive mother in that every child who comes into the system who is adopted, whether having been given up for adoption at birth or through foster system, it’s trauma and I’m so thankful that I got to be an adoptive mother who knows that from the beginning and that doesn’t have to do something that I have to be scared of, that I can mother her and no like there’s trauma, we started as a family in the place of trauma and and that never has to be hidden. Or secretive. Mhm.

Dan: Well again I can’t help it. Say again, what Rachel put words to and that is the government, the system in so many ways paralleled your family and in that powerlessness and the need In one sense to be um violated. I don’t think that’s too strong a word. To be violated yet patient to wait to suffer the process of a dream to be fulfilled. Even if those dreams were early through another story. And now with Goldie to be able to dream not only about yourself as a mother, but her as your daughter. And having been around her but not for oh it just breaks my heart to say, not for a long time since COVID, but she’s one sweet wild child and one that you go, I want to live long enough to see where this child grows to be. So I already have a sense that she’s not only giving you a context to be mothered or to mother, but also to be mothered because she is a force.

Gwen: Yeah, well I was just gonna say it is such that there’s something so incredibly delightful about mothering a girl who is full of voice, her voice is so strong. In fact she really stopped speaking and as someone who did not have that experience as a child to hear everything she thinks and everything she’s experiencing and and she is similar to me, reads my face as I read my mother’s but she comments on everything. Mom, why did your face like that? You know like just it’s intense but it really reveals so much of how much kids are actually taking in and seeing.

Dan: It’s amazing again, if I can just go back to Rachel’s so terribly important point and that is we do not believe God brings suffering so we can somehow mature. But there is suffering and in it the potential for restoration, a kind of replay, but original again, that makes no sense. This is a replay, but it’s so original. It’s so lovely and lively. An orphan who is not an orphan takes on an orphan who becomes a mother that enables that orphan to mother but be mothered. Damn. That’s one fine story. Gwen, thank you, thank you so much for the privilege of being with you. And the invitation again and again is will we all continue to read, to be captured by and to be open to the reality of what the great storyteller wants us to read, but also to write. And you have written one glorious story. Thank you.