Mailbag Q & A: I want to interview my parents. Does that mean I think they’re at death’s door?
“Mom? Dad? I’d like to visit you and record stories of our family history. I want to ask you questions about your experiences. I want to hear your memories.”
Does that statement sound like the person is saying “I know you’re getting older and I’m afraid you’re going to die really soon” or does it sound like “I want to know what you know.”?
Reader John Beatty wrote me and asked this question:
I bought an Edirol R09 audio recorder 2 years ago with the intent of recording some family history when I visit my parents back in Michigan. You wouldn’t believe the grief one of my friends gave me about the project! I’ve been advised that recording your parents is tantamount to telling your aging parents that you fear they’re about to die so you want to get everything on tape before they kick the bucket. Do you have any advice for folks like me who want to learn more family history but don’t want to seem like a circling vulture?
To me, it sounds like “I want to know.” John, your instinct—to interview your parents about your family history is a good one. At its heart, you want to know. That is reason enough. It is not morbid curiosity. It is not coffin-chasing.
You just want to know what their lives have been like. It’s a compliment. It’s affirming. It’s the ultimate statement of “I want to know about you.” I want you to tell me stories of what you’ve done and what you’ve witnessed. So if you were looking for permission, I hereby grant it to you—in abundance!
But wait, there’s more. What kind of benefits are there for you to make these recordings?
It helps you—The act of recording family stories will make you a better listener. Like any activity, you will get better at it with practice.
You will learn things. You will be surprised (I once coined a surprise rate of 1 surprise per 15 minutes of interview. Is the rate accurate? No idea. Does it cover everyone’s experience? Doubt it. But it’s a rough rule of thumb for my experience.)
It helps your parents—
The act of recalling stories from the past unleashes additional memories. Remembering begets remembering. An interviewee goes from “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember…” to “oh yeah, something else occurred to me.”
Asking your parents to share their stories will aid them in their own later-in-life process of reflecting on their lives. Developmental psychologist Erick Erikson defined the various life challenges each person undergoes throughout life. For late adulthood, the singular issue is integrity vs. despair, where the fundamental question is “what kind of life have I lived?” By Erikson’s accounting, your parents are going through this whether you like it or not. Why not join them in the process and participate with them and record their stories and recollections while you’re at it?
It helps your relationship with your parents—
You will start a tradition and build a bond in the process. The recording of stories will become this thing that you do—a shared experience between you and your parents.
By starting the interview process when your parents still have decades in them (vs. years or months), you have enough time to delve and explore. Starting now gives you the time for additional interview sessions and additional follow-up topics. After an interview, I listen to the recording. From the contents of the interview, other questions arise. Those get asked the next interview.
If you have “issues” or conflicts with your parents, the process of interviewing may help bring resolution. Listening to stories, especially about events that you participated in (and may have strong feelings about), can move you from “How could you” to “ah… so that’s why you did what you did.” You get an opportunity to revisit events and to hear it from their perspective. The formality of the inretview setting adds a bit of rigor to it. (listen, listen; don’t interrupt).
For example, one thing my mother has spoken of during the course of the interviews was her wish that she could have had closer contact with her family, especially during those early years. My parents married and started a family quite young, and her family lived across the country, at a time when both long distance telephone calls and cross-country transportation were expensive. Mom says she felt as though she was figuring it all out on her own. That brought perspective for the I wish she/they would’ves, and I was able to let some of those go.
We have the technology
Let’s put this in perspective. Not today perspective, or this year perspective, but the perspective of epochs.
Our generation—and here “generation” is expanded to include all the lives of those we’ve personally known in our lifetimes— is the first generation in the history of entire the human race who have the means to capture, preserve, and play back the sound of our voices.
Think of it. For millenia, the human species has used the written word for recording first-person thoughts. The ability to record visual likeness has changed from cave-painting to drawing and portraiture to, in the eighteenth century, photography. The Brownie camera—which gave anyone access to photography—was launched in 1900. The late 1800s also saw the advent of sound recordings, with Thomas Edison’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s first audio recording devices during the 1800s. Those inventions led to a host of audio recording formats, with magnetic tape (reel-to-reel in 1920s and the cassette in 1960s) opening the anyone can do it door for recording the human voice. The past decade has seen an explosion on availability of personal portable digital audio recorders.
From the dawn of man, the hours between the coming of dark and going to sleep have been devoted to singing songs and telling stories.
That’s a rough quote from a tee shirt I bought at a folk music festival. In our lifetimes it’s still true, though television has taken over much of the storytelling. If you agree with this tee-shirt assertion, get subversive. Turn off the tube. Collect stories from your parents—and anyone else you care to interview. (A fascinating sidebar regarding TV: Clay Shirky cites the the Sitcom as the one thing that’s taken up our society’s collective “cognitive surplus”—that is, the leftover time to think about whatever—that has been given to us as a result of the industrial revolution and all those “labor saving devices.”)
Dude, it’s like so hip right now.
Heavens to Mergatroyd! Now I’m going from subversive to vogue. Still. The act of recording an oral history—and closely related pursuits—is a popular thing to do.
One national-level oral history project —Veterans History Project—started as a family oral history. Ron Kind—that’s Congressman Ron Kind (D-WI), was at a family picnic, and his father and uncle began talking about their experiences during WW2 and the Korean Conflict. Ron Kind had never heard these stories before. He was amazed, but was also mindful of his young sons, who were too young to understand what their elders were talking about. Wait! Wait! Let me get my video camera! Ron Kind listened and watched, and videotaped. He did the mental arithmetic to calculate the total number of veterans of World War I, World War II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. His thought was, Let’s collect as many of these stories of our national history as we can. In congress, he spearheaded the effort to create the Veterans History Project, which was signed into law in the fall of 2000.
Other large oral history efforts: History Makers is a project to record—in video—recording the contributions of African Americans to American life, society and culture.
In the UK, there’s the National Life Stories project run out of the British Library. Since 1987, the project has been recording ‘first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of present-day society as possible.’
The USC Shoah Foundation Institute—A collection of “nearly 52,000 videotaped testimonies from Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.” Originally a foundation created by Steven Spielberg, the project and collection is now part of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at the University of Southern California.
Voices of Civil Rights (interviews recorded during a 70-day coast-to-coast bus trip in 2004)—a collection of personal stories about America’s quest for equality. It’s a joint project of the AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and the Library of Congress.
If you listen to National Public Radio—especially during Friday morning drive time, you’ve heard of StoryCorps, a project to collect stories from everyday Americans. Those recordings—each one 40-45 minutes in length—are also bound for the Library of Congress. StoryCorps founder David Isay, whose background is radio documentary, was impressed by how a microphone and tape recorder gave an interviewer freedom to ask questions he otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t ask. That insight was the spark of StoryCorps.
Myriad local historical societies create oral history projects to preserve the history of the locality, collecting spoken memories of those who observed and participated in the life of the place. Often local academic institutions aid or even spearhead these efforts. (If I offer any more detail than that, I’ll be totally railroaded and never finish writing this article. Gentlemen and Ladies, get out your search engines to learn more!)
Around the world, there are professional organizations devoted to oral history. In the U.S., there’s Oral History Association, plus a good number of regional organizations. Outside of the US borders: the International Oral History Association, which has an extensive list of oral history organizations worldwide. There’s a related professional trade organization focused on individual practioners; it’s called the Association of Personal Historians. The APH is devoted to networking and professional development for its members who are engaged in the work of helping individuals, organizations, and communities preserve their histories, memories, and life stories.
Here are some of the web sites focused on personal history and storytelling and the capturing and preserving of life memories: OurStory.com, Storyofmylife.com, TheRememberingSite.org. (This is not a complete list.)
So, John, if you record your parents recollections and history, you will not be alone. Many have gone before you, many are beside you, and many will come after you.
Speaking of those who have gone before, we stand on the shoulders of giants. One giant, Studs Terkel, died last year on October 31st. Terkel was a radio announcer on WFMT-FM in Chicago, where fell into a series of projects that led to the work he’s best known for—interviewing and documenting the life of the ordinary person. The results is several books, including Hard Times, an oral histroy of the Depression. In an interview just before his death—and just before the 2008 presidential election—Terkel spoke of an upcoming re-release Hard Times—“That one too could be written tomorrow.” The Chicago History Museum has received his tape recordings and unedited transcripts. Some of them are available online. Here’s the Hard Times recording page.
The death of a great oral historian brings us to the original point of your question, John, about mortality…
There is something about finality and mortality that does underlie the task of recording a conversation. We desire to capture a person’s memories, before… well, before it’s too late. That very wish acknowledges that the person whom we interview will someday die. We (and they) want the memories to last longer than his or her lifetime.
Dear Readers, let me tell you a secret. Before John wrote me, we met up at a recent event. So in addition to his words at the beginning of this article, I also have a visual impression about John’s age. I’d say he’s at least 10-12 years younger than I am (Context: The first Star Wars movie was released just before I graduated from high school). I’ll hazard a guess that John’s parents are younger (60s?) than my parents are (late 70s). So my answer here is informed by that visual cue that you, dear reader, do not have.
There’s overall life expectancy (Oh, they should live another 20 years yet at least), and then there’s the untimely surprise of accident or sudden illness. We’re all terminal, and after writing this sentence, I might go outside and get hit by a speeding vehicle.
Three of the people I’ve interviewed have since died.
I began this from talking to my 99 year old grandpa. The time I spent with him was utterly wonderful. When he did die, in the hours immediately following word of his death, I found myself thinking, “I’m glad I got to” rather than “I wish I woulda”—There’ve been others in my life whose death I greeted with “I wish I woulda” so I recognized that completely new sensation for the gift it was.
The two other people both experienced dementia. I interviewed each before the dimentias stole their ability to speak and listen in a “normal” conversation. I’ve wrote about one instance—interviewing my boyfriend’s mother—and his and my reaction to listening to the recording after she died.
I’d like to offer one other (recent) perspective about interviewing and serious illness. This last May and June, my father was hospitalized. His health situation, at one point, grew quite severe, involving discussion of “do not resucitate” orders, and “you’re leaving for the night? We’ll call you if anything happens” (“anything” = dire). Happily, the treatement went well, and he’s doing much better. From my experience of that moment, I can tell you that the last thing I wanted to do during that phase was to sit down and conduct an interview. In other words, you want to record interviews while your parent is alert and in relatively good health. When your parent reaches the point where he or she is critically ill, you want to look at interviewing as a past-tense event that you’re grateful you did, rather than something you want to do right now, or that you wish you did last month.
By the way, I needed to interrupt the composition of this post to call my parents. I read each one your note and asked for their perspective—How do you think this fellow’s parents might feel about being asked to record an interview? How would you feel if you were in John’s parents’ shoes?
[I think his] parents would be delighted. When you get to be my age, and you have [only] one elder person [Mom’s aunt] who by now is seriously impaired—I don’t have anyone in the next (older) generation, and I realize that I’m the guardian of the family history and I want to get it out there.
One purpose for the call was to say, Dad, it’s interview time! when I visit this week.
Speaking for me, I’m looking forward to it. [i.e., the interview. There’s] nothing like that [mortality] in the picture, or anything like it. I’m looking forward to it and to see my daughter again and anything I can add to the knowledge, I’d like to do that.
So, John, take it from my parents. Go for it!
Finally, getting back to mortality, you never know when, and choosing to tell stories as well as to ask for stories, there’s the object lesson in Randy Pausch and The Last Lecture. A Carnegie Mellon University professor diagnosed with pancreatic cancer delivers a last lecture—The YouTube video gets out into the wild, and goes viral (in a very good way). He got famous overnight. His lecture becomes a phenomenon.
Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture: Direct YouTube link
He writes a book based on that lecture. He is interviewed by Diane Sawyer, and an hour-long TV special is devoted to him, his cancer, and his outlook on life. With three young children, Randy Pausch had to consider what of himself he wanted to pass on to his children—and how.
In this segment (start at the 3-minute mark), he talks about passing on the essential parts of himself to his children. “If you had six months to live, where would you begin with your children?”
Pausch: “Don’t tell people how to live their lives. Just tell them stories. They’ll figure out how the stories apply to them.”
My corollary: Ask. Go ahead and ask for the stories.
yes may be!
you want to keep a tab on the family history…
thats a bitter truth
Hey thanks for the mention of StoryofMyLife!
Hope you keep writing and preserving your family history!
What a wonderful blog Susan. You really said it all. I was captivated. It was like someone had got into my head and was saying all the things I say to other people - or think myself. Wow! You write so well. I could be sitting reading all your blogs for quite a while - or maybe I’ll read a couple a day to catch up.
I’ll definitely be putting this link on my facebook fanpage and twitter. More people need to read it!!
Very nice and informative article. Keep up the good work. I really enjoyed reading it.
Dang, you sure put great stuff up here! Thanks so much.
Just wanted to share a technique that I use and encourage when it comes to interviewing loved ones.
Don’t do it!
Don’t jump to conclusions. I didn’t say to abandon the project—I mean that you might want to have someone else do the interview. There are tons of reasons why it makes for a better oral history:
1. They’re going to provide details to a stranger that they wouldn’t think they need to provide if they’re talking to a family member who “already knows” the stories or information.
2. They’re likely to reveal some family secrets (secrets you didn’t know about) to an outsider. There’s no chilling effect of confessing to a family member.
3. The interviewer who doesn’t know them will come up with questions that you might not have asked, because you think you know the answer.
4. You’ll have captured your loved one talking in a voice that’s different than the voice they use with family members. For example, my mother would always talk baby talk with me if I were interviewing her. You know how mothers are.
By the way, I invite you to watch a short portion of the interview one of my former students did of my mother about a years before she died. I shot the video, but I wore headphone that were playing Latin Music so loud in my ears that I couldn’t hear what she was saying. When she was convinced I couldn’t hear her, she told stories that we had never heard before. The piece at this website tells how the dream of getting a bicycle may have saved her life when she was small. You’ll find it at http://www.OralHistoryInstitute.wordpress.com There. are some other interesting links and stories there.
Thanks for articulating the reasons NOT to do it yourself. I will include those in a post on the site as I get further into my “interviewing family” series.