The Guided Autobiography

Diane Rhoades coaches people who want to write their own personal stories. Photo by Rimas Zaislkas.

Diane Rhoades coaches people who want to write their own personal stories. Photo by Rimas Zaislkas.

“Why do writers write?” novelist Tom Bergen once pondered. “Because it isn’t there,” was his own answer.

Diane Rhoades is one of those people for whom storytelling is essential, a part of their genetics, a way of preserving their peace of mind and spiritual equilibrium. Tall and slender with a slightly tousled look and a quick, mischievous grin, Diane is a published author and a clever writer who understands well the therapeutic value of personal writing.

Diane works as a guide and coach for clients who want to write their own personal stories in a therapeutic environment. She teaches a Guided Autobiography Class at Blue Ridge Community College and will also work one-on-one with clients who prefer more guidance. Some of the women in her class have been in the group for as many as five years. And it’s always women, she says. One gentleman showed up for the class, but left when faced when faced with a room full of women.

Ironically, a man got her started in the guided autobiography field. She helped her dad write a 364-page tome titled, The Life and Times of Benjamin Rhoades. During the process, she and her father, a former New York City police officer, were able to learn some heretofore undiscovered facts. “I found out that he had almost drowned at the age of two,” she recalls, “and that he lost his virginity in an Italian brothel. He kept journals all his life, so it was easy to put the book together. He wrote in his journals every day of his life until about a week before he died. When he was in the police department, he worked as a detective tracking down stolen stocks and bonds, so I guess he was already a pretty good archivist.

“It really was a wonderful bond with my dad. He loved that I was interested in his writing.”

Typically, she says, participants approach the class and their projects as if they are putting down facts and impressions for their families, providing insight for future generations. “That’s what they think,” she says, “but when they get into it, it really becomes a very personal, powerful thing that they do for themselves.”

Before getting involved in guided autobiographies, Rhoades worked for 27 years as a massage therapist. “This is another situation,” she explains, “where I get to work with people on that level. It’s very satisfying. It’s a good thing to move things around emotionally and do it with a compassionate form of hindsight.”

Her students seem to appreciate her methods. “I’ve had them come up to me and say they didn’t want the class to end,” she says. “One woman told me she’d shared more in this class than she’d done in the past 20 years at dinner parties with friends and neighbors.” Everyone has something that they need to say, to bring out from their past, she says. “It’s my job to allow it to be said, to let it have air. Then people can take it away free of shame and blame and guilt.”

As you might imagine, this kind of candor does not necessarily come easily to everyone. “We often leave ourselves out of our stories,” Rhoades says, “When people are new to this, they often aren’t comfortable participating.” The sessions can become quite intense for the participants once they settle into the process. “It’s so real sometimes,” Rhoades says, “that there are scents and smells and a feeling of being very present in the places and the things that have transpired.”

If this all sounds a bit like group therapy, it’s probably because Rhoades herself was trained by Dr. James Rirren, Ph.D., the author of Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups. The “group” part of the process is important, Rhoades insists. “It’s important that we have witnesses to our stories. During her half decade as an autobiography guide, Rhoades has made some discoveries of her own. “Stories are important,” she says. “I’ve never been more aware of that.” The stories and the telling are more important than facts and accuracy, she says. “I have decided that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the facts.”

The classes cost $60 at Blue Ridge Community college and the individual sessions are $30/hour. Anyone interested in participating can contact Rhoades through the College.

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