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Loving what may sting: In literature and in therapy

By Johanna Bond March 15, 2021

A good book has been a steadfast companion for me throughout my life. At times, literature has provided me with a reason to step back from a busy life and retreat into much-needed introvert space. Other times, it has given me a safe haven, the company of imperfect yet lovable characters, a deep emotional awakening of empathy or a connection to a part of myself that I hadn’t previously recognized.

When clients step foot in my office (or these days, click onto our telehealth sessions), I’m hoping to provide many of the same things that a good book has provided for me. I’m hoping they will feel heard and emotionally connected — to themselves as well as to me, their counselor. As counselors, I think it is important that we consider the parallels between the offerings of strong literature and the interpersonal healing connection of therapy. I say this because literature can be a solid complement to therapy, a tool for self-exploration, and also because of what literature can offer to us as imperfect humans ourselves. As a writer and editor in addition to being a counselor, I hold the connections between therapy and the written word close.

In the 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees (my favorite novel), Sue Monk Kidd welcomes readers to accept things that could sting through writing that is full of gentle metaphor. She uses elements of the writer’s craft to highlight an “invisible claim” — the statement at the heart of the writing and the takeaway the writer hopes to share with the reader.

The invisible claim in Kidd’s novel echoes the work of therapy in many ways, and especially of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. To further explore the parallels between therapeutic self-exploration and writing, I’ll focus on IFS.

As Richard Schwartz and Martha Sweezy write in their 2020 second edition of Internal Family Systems Therapy, this approach to therapy includes the concepts that everyone has internal parts, that all parts are valuable (although they can become constrained or burdened), and that everyone has at the core a Self with the ability to lead. Acceptance and curiosity are at the heart of IFS as a therapeutic approach. Those same things are at the heart of The Secret Life of Bees. Just as we may use various techniques in therapy to reach curiosity and acceptance, Kidd uses elements of writing to demonstrate loving the things that could sting us.

Diving into the beehive

In Chapter 5, white protagonist Lily and her Black companion Rosaleen find refuge with Black beekeeper August Boatwright and her sisters after running away from a racist-fueled incident and a harsh home. As 14-year-old Lily begins to come to terms with the accident that killed her mother years before and the complicated emotions she feels toward her family and herself, Kidd brings to light (or, perhaps, to dark) the depth of the characters, their interpersonal relationships and the impact of racism. Using the metaphor of beekeeping, Kidd introduces the reader to the invisible claim of loving the things that could sting us. Through this metaphor, in conjunction with Kidd’s use of darkness and place, readers are able to wade into the parallels between the elements of writing and the internal growth of the story’s characters.

In this chapter, Kidd begins to clarify the role of the bees who feature so prominently as a metaphor in the book. At the opening of the novel, and prior to arrival at the beekeeper’s house, Lily experiences bees buzzing in her bedroom. Each chapter opens with a different fact about beehives to set up the events to come. August, the primary beekeeper, shares with Lily the “bee yard etiquette”:

  • She should not be afraid, but “Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants.”
  • She should not swat.
  • She should whistle if feeling angry.
  • Above all, “send the bees love. Every little thing wants be loved.”

This is truly the heart of the novel, although readers might not know it yet because they have not fully encountered all the things that can sting. However, by discussing “bee yard etiquette,” August provides the framework to understand Kidd’s invisible claim that is interwoven through the novel: that we can (and should) love the things that may sting us; that even those dangerous things — outside of us, like the bees, or inside of us, like our emotions or our history — deserve love.

Into the darkness

The bees aren’t the only potential danger Kidd encourages readers to love; the dark, too, features prominently. The chapter opens with a statement of fact that if we were able to follow a bee into its hive, the first thing to which we would have to adjust is the darkness. After establishing that bees do their work in the dark, Kidd facilitates important moments for her characters in the dark too. As is clear when she writes of August letting “out a sigh that floated into the darkness,” and later when August and Lily walk back to the house when “darkness had settled in and fireflies sparked around our shoulders,” darkness provides a scaffold for letting go and experiencing gentleness after work time. In the dark, the characters are able to give freedom to their emotions and acknowledge their secrets.

At the end of the chapter, Lily walks by starlight to the wailing wall where she can acknowledge her feelings toward her mother and hopes to let them go. She says, “I … studied the darkness, trying to see through it to some sliver of light.” Although it’s not yet clear to Lily, Kidd is making it clear to readers that real sight will occur in the dark, not in searching for the light. In creating this awareness and sharing the character’s secrets, Kidd allows readers to feel that they are themselves akin to the darkness. Similarly, in therapy, we sit in our clients’ darkness with them and create the emotional space for them to develop insight.

Along with the literal darkness of night, Kidd uses the darkness of racism as an element of the story and an element of personal growth for Lily. It is noteworthy that Kidd addresses racism directly in the story while simultaneously writing about darkness (as mentioned above) in a way that does not vilify it. So much literature equates darkness with malevolence, grouping in gradients of skin color in the process. Kidd defies this norm by wading into the darkness of night openly and also through the growth of the protagonist’s racial awareness.

In this chapter, Lily overhears August discussing with her sister June the lack of acceptance others might have for Lily and Rosaleen, pointing out, “Who’s gonna take them in if we don’t — a white girl and a Negro woman? Nobody around here.”

Each character, including Lily, is aware of the impact of race. She becomes even more aware of it as she is surrounded by Black women and men in her new surroundings. She becomes aware of the racism around them, between them and within them.

Lily overhears June naming Lily’s whiteness to August and states to the reader, “This was a great revelation — not that I was white but that it seemed like June might not want me here because of my skin color.”

She later states, “Mostly I felt resentment at June’s attitude. … There was no difference between my piss and June’s,” and later still comes to share that “I felt white and self-conscious sitting there, especially with June in the room. Self-conscious and ashamed.”

Lily is aware of the human similarities between herself and June, as well as the differences and her own privilege as a white person. By exploring racism — with all its metaphorical stingers — Lily is able to better understand herself and fully engage in relationship with those around her, including June. In the course of a few pages, Kidd unpacks immense growth and personal exploration of Lily’s understanding of race, leading readers to understand racism as another aspect of the invisible claim.

In the midst of unpacking racism, Kidd uses interpersonal (and intrapersonal) relationships to deepen the invisible claim of loving what might sting. The Boatwright sisters demonstrate their love for one another even if they don’t always like one another, and August shows unwavering love through her welcome of Lily. In return, Lily acknowledges that “I wanted to make her love me so she would keep me forever.”

Initially, Lily does not accept herself in an attempt to be loved by August; however, she later uses August’s acceptance as a model to accept herself. This is first shown through Lily’s acknowledgement of her anger and grief toward her mother at the end of the chapter, when Lily visits May’s wailing wall. She states, “Placing my hands on the stones, all I wanted was not to ache so much.” But instead of pushing off her feelings, she places a paper with her mother’s name into a cranny in the wall. Lily is beginning to accept the difficult emotions and the pain that goes with them, just as August and the other sisters work to accept and love one another despite the potential for pain.

Similarly, in IFS therapy, clients get to know their internal parts, including the parts that have the potential to sting. As counselors, we are able to model acceptance and curiosity, two things that clients may begin to develop themselves toward their internal parts. And as healers, we are constantly doing our own work to accept our internal parts and emotions.

Each detail of Kidd’s writing reflects the invisible claim, including the places featured within the chapter. Two of the main locations of the chapter represent acceptance for an emotion or activity. First, the reader learns of May’s wailing wall, where May (and later Lily) write out their troubles on pieces of paper and tuck them into crevices between the rocks. The wall is created for May to have an outlet for grief and becomes a symbol for grief and sadness; the characters are able to accept these difficult emotions by connecting with the wailing wall. The second place is at the beehives, where Lily and August face the danger of bee stings and the anger that can cause them.

Each of these places has a difficult emotion or activity associated with it, but each also holds the potential for growth by engaging with the place. The wailing wall allows for an acceptance and letting go of grief, whereas the beehives allow for tolerance of anger and room for love at the same time.

Kidd engages with the typically danger-ridden metaphors of bees and darkness (literal darkness, as well as the darkness of racism and internal difficult emotions) and invites readers to explore them in the same gentle manner that August welcomes Lily and Rosaleen to her home. In bringing to life place and metaphor, Kidd clearly states the invisible claim that the difficult things around us and within us — the things that we think may sting or harm us — are actually worthy of love and can facilitate growth. Kidd weaves the invisible claim in seamlessly with the narrative, leading readers through a metaphorical parallel to the action and character growth taking place in the chapter.

These elements of writing — the use of metaphor, darkness, relationships between characters, and place — each enhance the emotional souvenir of the book of loving the things that could sting us. In therapy, we are working to achieve the same outcome with our clients, although in therapy, the things that may sting are often internal parts of one’s self.

What’s on your bookshelf?

Diving into these details of the text further enhanced my own understanding of why I connect to the book’s characters and to the enticing darkness of which Kidd writes. I’ve shared The Secret Life of Bees with clients as an adjunct to the work we are doing, in order to process what they might connect with in the text.

I encourage other therapists to look at their bookshelves and consider which works of fiction (or poetry or any other genre) have had an impact on them as a person. What about those books resonated with you? Considering this can be useful for your own self-exploration and may also provide insight for your work with clients.

My love of reading augments my work as a counselor. Not all literature requires an in-depth explication to understand its impact on the reader. And not all literature coincides as neatly with therapy as The Secret Life of Bees. That being said, I highlight these details of Kidd’s writing to show how we can use the elements of literature to better understand the work we do and the depth of our own humanity.

 

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Johanna Bond is a licensed mental health counselor at Perspectives Mental Health Counseling PLLC (perspectivesroc.com) in Rochester, New York. She also works as a freelance editor at Perspectives’ Pen, offering editing services for creative, academic and therapy-focused writing. Her writing has been featured on The New York Times Well blog and HuffPost, and she currently blogs for Psychology Today. Follow for more updates at johannabond.com or on Twitter: @johannambond.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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