By Janée A. Moses
My curriculum vitae has become as significant to my success as the actual
professional and academic experiences that fill the two page long document. Many
of these experiences I cherished; however, there were quite a few that I simply
endured. Right after college I agreed to be a researcher for a start-up company that
never quite started and never actually paid me for the days I spent in the office
alone while my boss made up and broke up with her boyfriend. So, in preparation
for OHMA workshop with Abbie Reese, author of Dedicated to God: An Oral History of
Cloistered Nuns, I read her curriculum vitae first. Reese’s accomplishments include
oral historian, writer, lecturer, and photographer. Her curriculum vitae certainly
reveals the extent of her dedication to her work; in addition, the document explains
that Reese employs a hybrid of oral history in her relationship- and research-
based artistic practice.1
Reese acknowledges that the intersections between history, journalism, and
oral history have allowed her to create a hybrid model of oral history that does not
depend upon a removal of any of the three disciplines listed above. Instead, through
a deliberate utilization of the most relevant aspects of each field Reese is able to
craft a model that allows her to benefit from the best characteristics of each.
Our conversation focused primarily on the way in which Reese was able to
form an intimate and longstanding relationship with the Poor Clare Colletine
cloistered nuns who have very little contact each year with individuals outside of
the monastery. It became clear early on that Reese was invested in meeting the
cloistered nuns where they were comfortable and adapted to the unhurried and
unstrained livelihood to which the nuns committed. As an oral historian in
Columbia’s Oral History Master’s Program I have spent too many hours trying to
create a model for how to engage with narrators before even meeting them. Reese,
on the other hand, reveals the importance of allowing breathing room in the
process. After all, oral history relies on interactions with human beings who are fully
capable of pushing back against an imposed method. Reese notes that she was
initially met with hesitation and gentle resistance from the nuns. In order to
complete her interviews Reese recognized that this was a process.
One of the reasons many of us have become dissatisfied with history is
because it denies the flexibility that oral historians are allowed to embrace. Patrick
Hurley stated, “Whereas history can collapse identity, oral history features a
multiplicity of identities.”2 Not only does Reese’s work highlight the multiplicity of
identities amongst the cloistered nuns, it also acknowledges her own plurality as a
researcher. While working on this project, Reese was in an unfortunate car accident
that left her in the hospital for months.
The impassioned tone evoked by Reese when discussing the nuns and the
closeness she feels with them is just one of the many unique possibilities of oral
history. Not only did Reese embrace a fluid methodology that relied heavily on the
comfort of the cloistered nuns and an attempt to carry out their wishes to create a
record of their existence, she also embraced a divine process. Her ability to gain the
trust of the nuns and to successfully complete this project after a car accident that
could have left her paralyzed forces one to acknowledge the possibility of a greater
purpose in the relationship between Reese and the nuns that were willing to share
themselves and their God.
1 Reese, Abbie. Curriculum Vitae.
2 Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. pp. xiv.