This set of stories on audio cassettes– the height of technology in 1989– were engineered and edited by Karolyn Van Putten, back when cut and paste still meant literally by hand, thank you for all those hours Karolyn! Ms.Van Putten went on to get a PhD in music, sound and healing and became the Academic Senate President at Peralta Colleges.

The mellifluous voice introducing each story and its music is that of Karolyn Van Putten

Using the tiny studio of listener-supported KALW in SF we tried to have at least one guest listener during each recording session, because a story requires a hearer as well as a teller. Choosing verbal imagery that might resonate with individuals facing life-threatening illness or major life changes is nothing new. But applying the age-old knowledge of traditional stories to pediatric facilities proved to be still effective, and then applying the same technique to adults during the decade of the AIDS crisis was something I felt called for. We distributed sets of 8 cassettes to 100 AIDS support organizations, hospitals and hospices. Since cassette technology is no longer supported, this is probably the only place these tellings still exist. (In fact one cassette featuring the story Goodbye and Good Luck read by permission of Grace Paley seems lost as of now). Each is under 30 minutes. Hope you are able to relax and enjoy some of them.


1: Hans the Hedgehurst (Scots Traveller tale)

2: Mrs. Teeter’s Tomato Jar (MFK Fisher)

The delightful MFK Fisher (1908-1992), was living in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, when she gave us her OK in 1989 to read her story about Mrs. Teeters. (credit billmoyers.com)

3: Water Jar Boy (Tewa Pueblo)

4: Waters of Eternal Life (Judeo-Italian)

5: Eros & Psyche (Classic Greek myth)

Jhos Singer and Mantra Plonsey at the very height of New Wave, maybe 1987 as extras in Howard the Duck, “one of the worst movies ever made” according to Jhos, who is now the “magid”, or religious leader of the hip renewal Jewish congregation Chochmat Ha’lev in Berkeley, California.

6: Kalele the Brave (Old Hawai’i)

7: El Fill del Os_The Bear’s Son (Catalan)

Guest for Fill del Os was Jonathan Schwartz (R), seen in a friends’ monthly hiking group in the ’80s– Rabbi Sandy Lowe (L), me in ludicrous shorts and Richard Avis Wilson (C). Sandy, a much-loved professor of historical Old and New Testament in Santa Rosa, we lost to kidney failure in 2005. Jonathan moved to France. Rick is alive in Bernal Heights.

8: Asian Tales Swap (with Lee Mun Wha)

9: Mrs. Fox & Mr. Alligator (Veracruz)

Roberto Rodriguez, dancer with Al Fellahin, the mostly-male bellydance troupe at “Hibernia Beach,” in front of the bank at 18th St. & Castro, SF

10: Stories with Diane Ferlatte

Diane Ferlatte, founder of Black Storytellers Fest credit: storytelling center.net

11: King of the Golden Mountain

Ken White in 1989, while still a student in the Philosophy Department at Cal Berkeley, was guest for the King of the Golden Mountain episode

12: Sacred stories by Laura Simms

13: Robt. Duncan plus Rosalie Sorrels

The unlimiitable (and unreplaceable) Rosalie Sorrels (1933-2017) credit: boisestatepublicradio.org

TALL TALES Mark Freeman San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle magazine Sept. 15, 1985

Kids today want to be transformed into star pilots rather than transported by galleon to Treasure Island. Rescuing princesses is passe since our modern Madonna is living in the material world.

But for the past seven years, I’ve been telling fairy tales to hospitalized kids. And I’m pleased to report that now, in the 200th anniversary year of the Brothers Grimm, the traditional tales successfully hold their own against computers and videos, movies and the tube. I admit that it does my bookworm’s heart good to see children following a story with the spellbound eyes and slightly slack jaw which attest to their ability to visualize and internalize a story, whether it is told or read. I’ve also become convinced that herein lies a strengthening and healing process.

When I tell people that I work with ill children by telling them stories, the response is often, “That’s nice. Something to take their minds off it.” Agreed, children facing the trauma of being in a hospital need some distraction, whether they are there for a tonsillectomy or a tumor. But folk and fairy tales do more than merely divert a child’s mind.

These are not simple, pretty stories. They are about two children abandoned by a father in the forest, or a boy born smaller than a mouse, or a girl whose lost hand is replaced by a silver one. After entering that other land of long ago and far away, a child meets face to face all sorts of fantastic incarnations: fearful ones and soothing ones; voracious witches and wise old women; monsters that menace and beasts that may befriend. The children I meet seem to like the stories best that are truly sad or scary beyond reason, that carry them to dangerous places and back again. All good fairy tales bring us full circle. The “happy ever after” is actually a return to where we are now, but with a new security, a greater sense of self and purpose.

These age-old tales are proven passages to sources of comfort in the child’s unconscious. While I’m not a psychologist, one thing that has become clear to me is that a well-chosen fairy tale is among the few tools available that is as intense as what a child and family are facing in the hospital, yet at the very same moment full of play and delight.

Without any need for a moral or explanation, children find in stories particular details to match their inner logic and to meet their needs.

A pre-adolescent brain tumor patient undergoing chemotherapy was plagued with persistent nausea on the days of her treatments. She and her mother both listened enraptured to a romantic Scottish story about a headstrong but charming girl, “The Laird’s Lass.” In the story a “wee green man” is aided by the lass and in turn provides her with two small berries that, when needed transform her into a dog and back into a girl again Maybe our young patient could relate—she often felt sick as a dog. But her focus was on the little green man; she was later able to visualize him galloping in on his wee horse, finding her tumor, pulling it to bits and devouring it.

One day I told four hospitalized boys the Grimms’ tale “Iron Hans.” During the story a nine-year old, whose radiation treatment had made him temporarily bald, kept asking questions about the hero’s hair, which had been turned to gold in a magic well. A “slow” twelve-year-old followed the entire tale and seemed to be glad merely to be included. Onw of the “kidney kids” (renal transplant) continually contested for control with his folks; he paid most attention when the boy is taken from his parents and into the forest by Iron Hans.

The oldest teenager in the circle had been skeptical about listening to a fairy tale until I pointed out that these were ancient stories, the original sources of “Dungeons and Dragons,” Jason and the Argonauts and all the sorcery films he knew. After listening to two tales, I fheard he had asked parents for an anthology of Grimms.

Originally, of course, what we now call fairy tales were not only for children. During the hundred thousand years when people lived in tribes and extended families, story played a central role in the lives of all community members, providing not only the clan’s primary entertainment, but also their collective treasury, a cache of wisdom. While the tales ranged widely in subject matter, the purpose was usually the same: to help people deal with everything in the world that was bigger than they were—from flooding rivers to marauding animals to the impenetrable terror of night. 

Our own time is replete with similarly frightening phantoms, from catastrophic illness to collective annihilation to separation anxiety and destruction of identity. But the lessons taught in the old stories are still the basic ones: that we belong and matter; and that the resources required to confront the forces of fear, mystery or isolation met in the world are to be found within ourselves.

Our need for story is not a bit diminished today, and in our desire to meet that need we take what we can get. Young children devour cartoons and movies about little creatures even smaller than themselves. However, unlike a fairy tale told by a parent, whose warmth and physical presence are proof that the story is worth telling (and the child worth telling it to), the plots of endless parades of Saturday morning cartoons are forgotten as soon as “That’s All Folks” flashes on the little screen. Video games appeal to the same need of a child to feel heroic, but they never really come to a meaningful conclusion. Of course, some films hold their appeal. After 45 years the original Wizard of Oz still works wonders, as do the Star Wars trilogy, this year’s The Company of Wolves and Disney’s Black Cauldron. [Newer examples are The Iron Giant, How To Train a Dragon and BFD, films that parents and kids can watch together.] They hold up precisely because they issue from the same mainspring as “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Ugly Duckling,” from root stock that remains alive, grown into cinematic equivalents of fairy tales.

But children have been proving to me how much they still want, and need, the old fashioned told-out-loud stories, as well. Movies and cartoons develop all the images for us. Told tales allow us to create our own. As James Hillman writes in his book, Healing Fiction, in oral stories “one maintains a sense of the imaginal world…that it is always there with its fields and palaces, its dungeons and long ships waiting. One learns that worlds are made by words and not only by hammers and wires.”

I am constantly amazed to see the very real changes in children’s motivation and the family’s capacity to face adversity that folk and fairy tales can help effect. The children keep reminding me that, for them, the problem is not serum creatinine levels or white blood cell counts—it’s finding their way clear to meet the next challenge, the immediate obstacle to their own sense of growth and development. Would that there were how-to books for dealing with every loss, sickness, separation or death. Well, once upon a time…

  • First person contributor Mark Freeman writes about how pre-Gutenberg storytelling can achieve wonderful results in conjunction with modern pediatric medicine. Freeman is a storyteller-in-residence at the Koret Family House, a facility for families of children being treated for cancer at UCSF Medical Center. The program was recently funded by the California Arts Council.