Interviewing Family: Kim von Aspern-Parker of Le Maison Duchamps, Part 2
In this second half of my interview with Kim von Aspern-Parker (Kim von Aspern-Parker, Part 1) about interviewing family, Kim talks about her approaches to get permission from people for her interviews, describes her hardest interview (and why it’s hard), and she gives her final morsels of advice (plus, I put all her advice in one handy list).
Kim is one of the four people I interviewed about interviewing family at the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree this past June. (Series introduction)
Kim von Aspern-Parker blogs at Le Maison Duchamp. Highlights of Part 1: For Dad to start talking, he had to be in an altered state. Using a genealogy chart to interview? Surprise! Advice for interviewing: remember to listen for the stories, don’t interrupt people, and work from photo albums.
Disclosure and Permissions
In the first half, while Kim talked about her visit with her 90-year old aunt and the misunderstanding over the genealogy chart, she described putting her recorder out on the table with a bunch of other items (keys, phone, etc.), and interviewing her aunt, and letting her know after the fact. We revisit a bit of that conversation for this later section on disclosure and permissions.
Kim von Aspern-Parker: I said, “You know, all these stories you’re telling me. They’re all about our family, It’s not so much that they’re dead people but they’re our family.” And I said, “And I didn’t grow up in this family, so I don’t know these stories. So I’ve been taping them so I can have them.”
She said, “Oh, okay.”
She was okay with that.
A little later on, I mentioned a video I created. Which brought up the topic again:
Kim von Aspern-Parker: If you’re going to videotape [the interview], I think, too—or even tape record it it’s okay if they know it [beforehand], usually it’s better if you tell them afterwards. Because they tend to get uptight that they’re on camera or that they’re being taped.
If they say, “Oh, no no no I don’t want that taped,”
you can say, “Okay, nobody’s going to hear it but me, Mom.”
Or “It’s not okay for ME to have it? Really? You know how my memory is, Mom. Really? You want me not to have that?”
You can always erase it if they really are uncomfortable. Assure them of that.
FOHUDT: Have you—?
KvAP: I’ve never had anybody ask me to erase it.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: In your case, you’ve told them after the fact, and my family’s “I’m cool with doing this” when I ask beforehand. But I’m interested in the varieties of experience. Because I’m a member of the Oral History Association, where the whole idea of taping surreptitiously is a total “No no” …for me…
[Here, Kim went in another direction, but I wish to finish my thought. I think that if you’re going to record an interview, you get permission ahead of time. This series is about finding out what it’s really like for people to interview family members. I’m collecting real-world information on what people tell their family members about the recording. I’ll revisit this issue at the conclusion of the series.]
Kim von Aspern-Parker: If it’s your family members and I fully say don’t record it and not let them know. They absolutely deserve to know that you’ve taped it.
I’ve only done that to my family members who, if I pull the recorder out, will say, “What are you doing? Put that away.”
I’ll record it. [Afterwards,] I’ll say, “Now, I recorded that. Is it okay? Cause you know, I just wanted the stories. I forget the stories.”
And they say, “yeah, okay, that’s fine.”
I found, too, that if you set up the video camera, if you’re interviewing somebody who’s not your family member, let’s say, because when I was interviewing for school, I used to have to interview people that were not family members, and of course you have to disclose right off the front: “I’m going to record this.”
If you set up the video camera and get it ready and then you just chit chat and talk and get things rolling, they forget that the camera’s there. You have to get them comfortable, first. Otherwise they tighten up and it’s like, “Did I say that right?” They’re worried about correctness and not stuttering and not saying “um” and not saying “you know” and all those things that you see in yourself when you’re practicing a speech or something.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: I don’t have experience videotaping people during an interview. I do all mine audio. And something like this (Livescribe pen, what I used to record this interview) is pretty unobtrusive.
Do you have any family interview disaster stories? Like Omigod it was a fiasco, or something close to a fiasco?
The Hardest Interview
Kim von Aspern-Parker: The hardest interviews I’m still working on right now. I haven’t done very much of them. I started breaking ice.
It’s my aunt Filo, and she’s deaf and she’s 92. Her memory’s not all it used to be. And most of her life people have done things around her thinking she didn’t get it, because she’s deaf. So she’s always been a kind of the fly on the wall; people thought she didn’t know what was going on, brcause she’s deaf. But of course she reads lips perfectly. She’s not stupid. And a long time ago, people equated deafness with a mental illness, you know, they thought you were “touched.”
She’s got great stories. But I’m still getting her warmed up to the fact. I speak some sign language, and so I’m practicing my sign language so I can get it better so I can get it better and she’ll be more comfortable with me. I try to go see her at least a couple of times a year.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: How far of a distance is that?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: She’s in Louisiana, and I’m in California. So it’s not like I can talk to her on the phone. I can’t Skype her. So it’s a hard interview.
As far as a fiasco, it hasn’t crashed and burned yet. But it’s a hard interview because she’s deaf so everything’s in sign language. And she’ll talk, I had the photo album thing out and we were doing the photo album thing, and I said, “who are these people?” And she says, “That’s Dickie. That’s my brother. He’s dead.” I said, who’s this? “Oh, that’s my sister Audrey, that’s your Mama. She dead, too.” Because she’s 92, she’s outlived all of them. And so she can speak, for the most part, she signs some of it, but she speaks for the most part.
Because of her stilted speech, because she can’t hear—she lost her hearing when she was nine. So you’ve got this kind of stilted speech. She’s got great stories.
She was telling me stories about when she lost her hearing—she was really really sick—and supposedly it was an influenza epidemic. But my aunt- a different aunt—thinks it might’ve been a spinal meningitis thing that went around. My great grandmother died, And several people in the neighborhood died, and my aunt Filo lost her hearing. So when Aunt Filo woke up she wasn’t dead, but a lot of other people were. So she had been unconscious for a week, and when she woke up all these people were dead that she knew. And she was 9. And then because she was deaf, they basically sent her away to go to a school for the deaf. And so then she was ostracized from her family. So it was a very hard experience growing. And then her family started treating her like she was “touched”—she wasn’t all there. Mommy coddled her and Daddy felt she was defective, somehow. She’s going to have great stories to tell.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: yeah. But how to do that. Now is that one where because of sign language or whatever, you’ll say, videotape it because you may have more fluent sign and I’d like to get help with interpreting it, or looking it.
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Yeah, I probably will videotape it. I’m still in the ice-breaking stage. I’m doing just a recording of her. Because she does speak. Plus, I wanted to have her voice. She is 92, and should she pass away, I want to have that. This next trip is going to be videotaped. Because they’re getting up there in age.
More advice: Don’t put it off, Take a class
And that’s probably my next bit of advice: Don’t put it off. If you have relatives that are anywhere over the age of 50, start interviewing them, because that’s when heart attacks happen. That’s when their dementia sets in, and things like that. Anytime after 50 and it starts going downhill. [laughter] I know.
KvAP: I’m 53
FOHUDT: I just had my 52nd birthday. Right.
KvAP: It’s starting to go down. Get my stories now.
FOHUDT: cool. Cool. Well [pause] is there any other thing you’d like to say about the experience?
KvAP: Of interviewing?
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Well, it doesn’t hurt to go and take some classes on interviewing techniques which I know you can get through journalism schools and in junior colleges/community colleges; oral history programs.
I think that my state archives in California has an oral history program where they’ll teach you how to interview. Because it is a technique. You have to know how to lead the person into telling you their stories. And helping them when they stutter and they kinda go, “well, I don’t know what you’re looking for? What kind of story are you looking for, what do you want me to tell you?”
Once you get them talking, then it’s great. But a lot of people aren’t—I’m a chatterbox; I’ll talk to fence posts (laughs). The cows in the pasture, we have great conversations—
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Yeah (laughs) But as far as some people, they’ll sit there and they’re like, “What do you want me to tell you?” My mother was kind of like that. she was never really a storyteller.
It’s like, “I don’t know what you want me to say? I don’t know what you want me to tell you.”
“Just tell me about when you were a kid. I mean, did you ever remember being sick? Were you ever sick when you were in school?” “not that I can remember.” She makes story dragging it out of her. And those are hard. And again, I think the photo albums help with that. I found that if you find yourself trying to draaaag a story out of somebody:
“Well, did you ever play a practical joke on anybody?”
“Oh, no, I was much too serious for that.”
“Okay. Did you have younger siblings?”
“How many younger siblings do you have?”
When you have a drag it out story like that, when you’re dragging the information out of a person, I think that a photo album is the best technique that I’ve found.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: In your experience as an interviewer, where you are dragging something out, is there a shift in mental attitude , where you think, “how do I approach this?” ?
KvAP: You start kind of panicking as the interviewer. It’s kind of like, “Oh, this is going to be hard.”
Everybody has a button.
FOHUDT: So you recognize panic?
KvAP: Yeah. oh yeah.
FOHUDT: Do you stay in panic mode, or do you find—what happened with you after panic?
KvAP: Well, my usual first reaction is like, “Oh god, this is going to be hard; she’s not a chatterbox. What’ll I do?” Then I say to myself, “Okay, you have to find their button.” Everybody has a button—something they love to talk about.
With my mother, it was her children. It wasn’t her parents, or her life when she was growing up. She didn’t consider her self important, but her children were everything. My mother was talking about me and my sister. Like, “Why did you put me and Debbie into dancing lessons?” And then she’d talk about that. And that leads into talking about how she’d always wanted to do that as a child, but they lived during the Depression, they didn’t have that kind of money.
“You lived in the depression? Really? What was that like?” and “Where did you live during the depression?”
“I was in Texas.”
“Well, what was that like in Texas?” … You see pictures of the dust bowl. So then if you can relate it to history, and say, “I’ve seen pictures of the dust bowl, was it like that in Texas?” And then she might start talking about that. “No.”
“Did you have a car?”
“Yeah, we had a car.“And then she might start talking about that.
And so you find the button—which was, for my mother, talking about her children—and then you turn it, you twist it to where you want the interview to go. Obviously, I didn’t want her to talk about me. I know about me. But I wanted it to twist around to her childhood.
“Okay, so you never got to take dance lessons, did you take baton lessons? Did you take ice skating lessons? Did you do anything fun like that? Did you belong to any groups?” …and then you can get her talking.
“You had me in Girl Scouts, Did you do Girl Scouts, is that why you had me in Girl Scouts?”
“No, we had this other group, we did this church group thing…” and then she might start talking about that.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: So tell me about your church, what else about it? Right. It’s finding the way in—
Kim von Aspern-Parker: Yeah, finding the door in.
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools: Finding the way in.
All of Kim von Apsern-Parker’s advice
Here, in one place, is Kim’s advice for people doing interviews.
- Don’t ask yes or no questions. Ask questions that will bring out a story.
- Listen. Stories happen in the weirdest times. Pay attention. Take advantage of a story opening and ask a follow-up quesiton if it sounds like the person has mentioned something that might lead to a story.
- Don’t interrupt them. Don’t be so focused on the one data point you’re after that you miss the story they are telling you.
- Use photo albums to get people talking.
- Don’t put it off. Start interviewing any family member over the age of 50.
- Take a class on interview technique to draw stories out of someone. Journalism classes or oral history workshops are two good places to learn interview techniques.
- Find the topic that the person loves to talk about—and use that to drive the interview in the direction you want to go. (Mom loves to talk about her children, so jump from what you did as a mother to your kids to what you experienced as a child growing up).
I definitely agree on don’t put it off. I never interviewed two of my dad’s cousins who knew lots of family stories; I was shy, and procrastinated. And they went and died too soon.
I’ve since found that elderly relatives, especially, really appreciate that anyone younger is interested in them. So go ahead and contact them. Use a family go-between to get in touch the first time if you haven’t met.
I have spoken to a few cousins via phone only (but didn’t tape) and they were sweet people happy to talk about family. I need to follow up with them, and I’d like to tape them if they are OK w/it.
I do ask before taping; I don’t want to lose someone’s trust. But I get that Kim’s family may be a different situation, and that’s her call.