Central Consideration for this Article: How can storytelling of health experiences be an important way to promote connectedness, healing, and empowerment?
The guest for this Q&A is Jenn Montooth. She is a public historian, storyteller, and writer based Washington, DC. She received her MA in Public History from UMBC, where she studied the Black Power Movement. She is also the executive producer of Health’s Angels: Personal Stories About Women’s Health.
Description by Jenn Montooth about Health’s Angels:
Health’s Angels: Personal Stories About Women’s Health is a project aimed at highlighting the experiences of people whose voices are all too often ignored or silenced. It is a recurring live show in Washington, DC that allows women to share personal stories about physical, mental, and/or emotional health. We have women who have been storytellers for decades, and some who have never done anything like this before. We’ve created a space in the hopes that women can feel liberated by sharing their stories and reclaim their experiences in a supportive environment. I believe the more we tell our personal health stories, the more other women can connect with one another, feel less alone with their own experiences and feel empowered to share their own. This way, we can make others take our pain more seriously, destigmatize mental health, and normalize birth control and choosing to have an abortion.
Jen Romanello: What kinds of stories and experiences would someone hear when attending Health’s Angels? Also what is your motivation for creating and producing it?
Jenn Montooth: The audience can expect to hear a wide range of health stories! I always like to emphasize that all women’s health stories are important, even if they are not necessarily intense, traumatic stories. We have had women share really vulnerable stories about having cancer, being diagnosed with herpes, living with HIV, gender transitioning, and chronic vaginal pain. And mental health stories including bi-polar disorder, depression, anxiety. We’ve also had more lighthearted stories about getting mono during freshman year of college and loudly snoring.
I have always loved storytelling, particularly how it can help overcome traumatic events by focusing on emotions and processing them with an audience. Last year, I fell in love with storytelling on stage, and I felt ready and empowered to share my abortion story with a live audience. I had felt so alone when I had an abortion four years prior, especially because I had never met anyone else who said they had one. So I thought, if I can reach other women, they can know they are not alone and take away their shame or guilt. But when I submitted my abortion story to a big storytelling organization in DC, they rejected it for being too “dark and edgy.” I couldn’t believe it. I knew my story wasn’t dark, but just the word “abortion” made it so for them. The feelings of shame and isolation initially creeped back up. I wanted to curl into a ball. But I didn’t let those feelings take over. Instead, I wanted to find a way to allow women to tell their health stories on stage without feeling any kind of rejection or shame for their stories. The only way we can stop stories like mine from being automatically deemed as “dark” is if we have more platforms to talk about them and connect with audiences who have mental, physical, and emotional health stories of their own. I wanted women with all kinds of stories to have the rush of sharing a vulnerable story, and have the ability to heal by processing their stories with the other performers and the audience.
Jen Romanello: What do you hope people learn from attending?
Jenn Montooth: I hope people who attend this event really gain a perspective about how much women have to endure. So many of the stories we get are from women who were ignored or mistreated by health care providers, or women whose pain (whether it is mental or physical) wasn’t taken seriously from their family and friends. In the last show I had a man photograph the event, and I’m so glad I did, because it allowed him to hear all of these women’s stories. Afterwards he came to me and said, “Your show truly opened my perspective in ways I didn’t realize and from the moment the show kicked off I got what made this show so important.” I hope we get more of that.
I also hope that audience members who have had these types of experiences of their own can feel less alone and more empowered after connecting with storytellers in the audience. Almost every storyteller we’ve had has had an audience member come up to them and say “I went through something so similar.” It creates a bigger network of women connecting with one another and allowing them to open up. After my abortion, all it took for me was to have one other woman tell me she had two abortions and that she was fine, and I felt healed almost instantly. I thought, “Yes! This is how I’ve wanted to feel about my abortion! I am just fine!” My family had been so convinced that I would experience trauma after my abortion, I kept waiting for that trauma to show up. But my friend helped me realize it wasn’t there, because I didn’t need to feel guilty about making a choice for myself. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 women between the ages of 15 and 44 will have an abortion by the age of 45 in the United States. I just want other women to feel the same relief about their own health experiences.
Jen Romanello: Is there a particular experience someone has shared that especially resonated with you?
Jenn Montooth: I think I am always surprised how much I connect with everyone’s stories, even if it’s about something I’ve never experienced. A lot of our storytellers are initially worried that their story isn’t “good enough,” and I have to remind them that their stories are SO important, because there are so many emotions that we don’t speak of, but everyone relates to. We had a woman talk about being diagnosed with cancer the day before she graduated college. While all of her peers were thinking about their future, she was stuck at home wondering if she’d ever be okay again. I really felt her isolation in that moment, and that envy of everyone else being healthy except her. Although our lives are very different, it made me wish I could sit with every lonely woman in the world. This is just one of the many examples of how emotional I get from our storytellers’ journeys.
Jen Romanello: How can people attend or share their own stories?
Jen Montooth: People can keep in touch with us via our Facebook page! I am always sharing our next events on there and posting updates. We also have a YouTube Channel that we will upload all of the stories for those who cannot attend. If people aren’t on Facebook but are interested in attending shows and/or telling a story they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am hoping to launch a website soon as well! Our next show is Thursday, May 9th at Rock and Roll Hotel. This show will be a fundraiser for the upcoming DC Dyke March, so it should be a lot of fun. Everyone is welcome!