What is life story work and why does it matter?
A look at the “trove” project and how adoptees and care experienced children can build a sense of identity by keeping their mementos and memories safe…
Note from How To Be Adopted: I am honoured to feature this guest post from an anonymous adoptee and would love to hear your comments below…
I attended an event entitled “Life story work and object importance for children in care and adopted children: trove project” on 8 October at the Foundling Museum in London. As an adult adoptee I attended to see if the latest research on life story work for children might contain insights I could co-opt into my personal work on my own life story - albeit three decades later than their intended use case.
Over two hours we were told about the latest prototype of “trove” - a digitally enhanced memory box utilising raspberry pi (a small single board computer) and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies so children can record their memories and attach them to their precious objects using an electronic tag: providing a safe ‘container’ for their mementoes and memories. The project is informed by theories of narrative identity and object attachment and draws on Brodinsky’s concept of communicative openness. A researcher from Bristol University, Dr Debbie Watson, led the project and Chloe Meineck from Studio Meineck led design. The work was supported by Mulberry Bush Org and CORAM and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Researchers wanted to create a more coherent story for children and to have these children be involved in creating their own stories having heard so many examples of “gaps in memory” from them.
Capturing a child’s life story
My understanding of trove is that it comprises two key elements:
A treasure trove box
This belongs to the child and is stored in their bedroom even if they move from one home to another. This enables the child to have a physical storage space they have direct control over to keep physical items most precious to them.
Dr Debbie Watson shared stories of children in care only having bin bags to store precious items when moving homes. Trove struck me as a deservedly respectful way to honour the importance of such items. The trove box contains an orange cross and video screen. When a child places their item on the cross a picture of that item is taken and shown on the video screen. The child can then record a time stamped audio file linking the child’s voice directly to that precious item. This is stored on the cloud on a personal password-protected archive owned by the child. The trove has headphones, so the child can listen to old audio recordings when placing a specific precious item back on the orange cross. Children tend to add more audio recordings for specific items over time.
2) A “trove” app
This is installed onto the phone of a carer or parent, but is accessible via a password known only to the child (clearly problematic, but this is still early trials).
This enables the child to capture new memories when they are on the move (not at home with their physical trove box). If they went to the beach and loved flying a kite a child could use the app to take a picture, record an audio file describing what happened and how they felt. This is uploaded onto their digital archive to look at days, weeks, months, years or decades later.
Object attachment - building key chapters of your story
A young adult adoptee spoke on why physical objects were important to her. I was impressed by her bravery and candour sharing such a personal topic with an audience. Adopted at 11 months old and now a young adult, she had no objects with her when she was adopted. Her birth father subsequently gifted her a teddy bear, which had been given a significant family name. When asked why this object was so important she said it was physical evidence that one of her birth parents loved her enough to give her a teddy bear. This broke my heart and I can totally relate. I recently found out my birth mother knitted baby clothes the week after relinquishing me, which social workers passed on to my adoptive parents. I was never told and don’t know where they are. I’ve felt quite angry about this new discovery and hearing her discuss the meaning behind such objects explains why.
She spoke about her life story book – a brief history of her made by her adoptive mother. It contained photos of her birth parents and her foster family before the adoption. The bear was more important to her than the book, because it was ‘real’. The book was ‘just facts’. The bear was there to support her when she cried at night as a child. She says the bear is still important to her, although the role it plays now as an adult is different. She called it her ‘treasured object’. Her advice to counsellors and social workers in the audience was they shouldn’t focus purely on digital items like photos; physical objects matter too.
Another speaker said such objects play a role in the child’s story. They are treasure because they are irreplaceable. They give the child control over their story - so often lacking in their life when placed without giving their consent.
Researchers commented the use of trove sparked new conversations between children and primary caregivers. It prompted them to ask about their siblings, to ask why they were in care, and to ask whether contact was possible.
Your story matters in shaping who you become
Another speaker, herself previously in care, began by asking the audience: “Think of a personal item that holds a memory of high importance. How far would you go to keep it safe?”
She invited the audience to raise their hand once they’d thought of their item. A sea of hands went up. I was struck that my mind was completely a blank. I could think of no such item.
She spoke of how an emergency overnight relocation as a young child left her with no personal items, creating identity confusion. She began hanging around troubled children in parks, unsure how to fit in. To explore her identity she mimicked her foster parents; getting the same haircut as her foster mother. She started her own life story work at 20 and is now a life story champion in Bournemouth. She said if she’d had a trove box she would have recorded theatre experiences shared with her foster mother - not just the sights, but the smells and sounds too. She says she feels incomplete without past memories and thinks trove should be used to record both happy and sad memories.
Ideas for adult adoptees
As adults we are freed from only having a trove. Instead we can make our entire homes a treasure chest of personal items that mean the world to us. I look around my flat today and notice I’ve never hung photos in my homes. Until five years ago I shied away from choosing art to decorate my walls and now it is filled with pieces attached to personal stories. This year I started to fill my flat with plants since I realised having life in my home brings me joy and calms me.
What other personal items could I more openly decorate my home with that I am attached to?
What items celebrate who I am and where I’ve come from?
What sights, sounds, smells, and flavours could be more present here that reflect who I am?
What could I have on display that narrates the full story of my life?
This might be a redundant list of questions for some, but I suspect many adult adoptees don’t fully have their answers.
As I write with my birth mother and discover more of my story I want to integrate this into my home. She recently told me about her favourite music artist and shared she first listened to him when pregnant with me. I quickly Googled the Top 40 music chart from the month I was born and have that single now playing quite regularly on my speakers at home.
Questions to ask to build a sense of identity
I was reading part of Nancy Verrier’s excellent Coming Home to Self last night and the Search For The Authentic Self chapter has an exercise strongly linked to life story and identity. It offers the following open-ended phrases for adoptees to complete:
My favourite flavour of ice cream is -
My favourite colour is -
I like to read books about -
My favourite type of music is -
I like movies about -
My favourite actor is -
My favourite TV show is -
I prefer baths/showers -
My favourite flower is -
My favourite tree is -
My favourite sport is
If I had a choice, I would pick _____ as a career. -
I find that I am most at peace (in the forest/in the desert/at the sea side/in a meadow/______ -
Spirituality means ______ to me. -
I’ll leave you to read Nancy’s wonderful book to see the full list of phrases, but you get the idea. She says many adoptees initially struggle to know the answer to all these questions.
Perhaps adult adoptees could reflect on these phrases and consider how their home could become a trove displaying what they treasure most, who they are and where they come from. How wonderful would it be to make a home that celebrates the answers to all these questions?
To get in touch about the trove project: firstname.lastname@example.org
To get in touch about the research behind trove: email@example.com