[Workshop Reflection] Jeff Friedman: The Eros of Oral History

By Maggies Argiro, Will Chapman, Janée Moses, and Cameron Vanderscoff


Jeff Friedman ran to Knox Hall on Thursday, November 21st, 2013 after a delay from New Jersey Transit almost made him late for our OHMA workshop. It was clear from this determined start that Jeff is an ardent supporter of the Oral History Master of Arts students, faculty, and larger community.

As an oral historian and choreographer, Jeff has devoted his talents to creating a space in oral history that engages with performance and movement. The opportunity to learn from Jeff's personal experience as a narrative of individual liberation and growth was truly educational, and illustrated the subjectivity that makes oral history so fascinating. We have explored several elements of Dr. Friedman's discussion, beginning with his personal path to oral history, leading to his thoughts on physicality in interviews, and ending with what we believe are important considerations for oral historians today that Jeff raised.

Jeff’s Personal Narrative: Dance, and his use of Oral History

Jeff Friedman's subjectivity immediately became apparent in the discussion, led by OHMA students Maggie Argiro, Janée Moses, and Cameron Vanderscoff. This discussion, which preceded the general lecture, featured the four students interviewing Jeff. He candidly shared about his early life, including an explanation about his birth parents. By beginning his narrative in such a forthright and direct manner, Jeff demonstrated his open departure from the norm—as Amy Starecheski highlights, it was a truly fascinating response to an opening question that we routinely ask of all our narrators.

These intimate revelations were presented almost casually, so as to distort the notion of separate public and private spaces; during the interview these spaces were not distinct.

Connecting this sincerity to the motivating force in his life, Jeff went on to explore his introduction to dance. This interest began when his mom took him to dance classes after seeing him do "like thirty cartwheels down the street," knowing that dance would be an outlet for his creative energy. Jeff took to it immediately, and cultivated a love for dance at a young age, despite the social consequences.

Jeff's interest in oral history was fully developed later in his life when he had already spent years as a professional dancer. However, his interest was also personally based in family trauma at a young age, with his mother's diagnosis with cancer when he was fifteen years old. Understanding that his mother was going to die, Jeff began to live toward his own finitude, and he cultivated a sense of temporality. Jeff came to oral history in these years of trying to save his mother’s life, thinking that to save a life is to save a world.

 After Jeff stopped dancing temporarily, he eventually went to college at Cornell where, at his father’s insistence, he majored in architecture. During his first semester at Cornell, he was reintroduced to dance.

 He eventually left school to dance professionally, and in doing so was forced to think about his “queer body” within the space afforded to him by dance. Dance allowed him to express himself and to be around other queer bodies; he was able to connect his expressivity to his sexuality. This personal revelation was important in Jeff's future involvement in oral history, working to queer the canon of oral history by observing how movement and dance can be utilized to tell subjective and individual stories.

Jeff later returned to continue his education, graduated with a degree in architecture, and continued dancing professionally for 10 years through the 1980s in San Francisco, which was a “ground zero” for the AIDS epidemic. The first person Jeff interviewed was his friend Frank after he noticed many of the people he knew were becoming ill. Being aware of his own finitude, Jeff asked, “How can I save those lives?”

He was introduced to the more formal oral history method, and began interviewing dancers with AIDS. From there he began the Legacy Oral History Project.

This exploration of Jeff's past was not only a frank and intimate foundation to develop an understanding of his personality, but it paved the way for more theoretical discussions of oral history. By having such an engaging narrator build a substantial level of rapport so quickly, the dialogue smoothly led into the deeper recesses of Jeff's understanding of how oral history is constructed, and how the body can be expressed in an interview. The next section attempts to relay these ideas, and interpret them from the perspective of an oral history interviewer.

Conversational Silences

One of the thought provoking ideas that Jeff shared in his presentation centered around conversation in silence and the physicality of the interview process. Jeff, similar to the OHMA program professors, believes that silence is not only a tool for an interviewer, as “breathing room,” or a time to interject questions, but is actually a continuous part of any narrative, and that the body’s constant role in this silent communication must be considered in any interview setting. This idea is exciting in particular because of the questions on interviewing it raises, but also because it exposes one of the persistent challenges and deficiencies of transcripts as a primary format for archiving in oral history. We asked Jeff if he could discuss this idea further, and he did so gladly.

As a former professional dancer, movement is at the center of Jeff’s life. This naturally led to our asking Jeff about physicality, and how he views it in the context of oral history. Jeff emphasized early on that there are multiple forms of physicality even while seated and motionless, and that this is truly a fascinating element of the interview process that deserves more thought than it is given now. Jeff later asserted that the body and perception of the body play key roles because of how conscious and subconscious judgments are constantly made about body language (kinesics) and its interaction with speech, and that these judgments can lead to a wide range of positive and negative influences on the resulting interview. These judgments in turn are impossible to totally control for, but Jeff argued that by keeping paralinguistics (communicating through speech without words) and parakinesics (dialogue in gestures and body language) in mind while in an interview, the resulting narrative will inevitably be more complete and engaged. Jeff described this process later in his talk as “contingency,” stating that a dialogue is constructed in a holistic fashion that cannot rely on speech alone.

This study and attention towards non-verbal communication in an interview has many implications. Jeff himself was observant of the effect that non-verbal dialogue can have on those suffering from serious illness or trauma, recounting his own experiences interviewing individuals who because of infirmity were unable to mirror his body posture, thus altering their dialogue. As Jeff stated, there are many variables when considering this sort of non-verbal communication, and therefore it is difficult to openly consider all of them in this context. What is possibly more accessible as a discussion is how silences and kinesics are lost in a written transcript. Jeff himself drew attention to this when commenting in the clip above "unless you have video somewhere." This examination of the non-verbal and silent has definitely stimulated a revitalized interest in how the oral history transcript is in many ways ineffective at representing a narrative. Keeping in mind the aspect of contingency that Jeff mentioned, it follows easily that the written transcript cannot contain the combination of silence, body, and speech in one feasible written document. This opens a discussion that we believe oral history as a discipline needs to pursue further, and reexamine the transcript as a truly viable option weighed against the possible benefits and drawbacks of using video as a primary record.

 Textual Limitations

Another important point Jeff addressed was around how to approach, understand and repurpose oral histories. Jeff, given his interest in embodied knowledge and the physicality of an interview interaction, cited examples of using oral histories as a basis for performance and artistic endeavors. His citation of dance work in particular involved explicitly engaging with the embodied aspect of oral history. In other words, his broadened conception of the oral history interaction has a corresponding expansion in methods of interpretation. Just as textual interpretation in the classic expository mode is particularly well suited for engaging with the spoken aspects of oral history, Jeff’s interest in the unspoken, bodily aspects of interpersonal communication seems to suggest a corresponding call for an expanded interpretative methodology. His work with dance points towards a model where textual interpretation is a part of an interpretative palette where words can be explored through words, and motion through motion. It points out some of the limits of the textual method which is so central to scholarly interpretation, and that there are areas where written forms increasingly become an act of significant—and far from lossless—translation. In Jeff’s rendering, textual interpretation is enriched through physical interpretation; a body can speak to, and of, another body in a way that words cannot.

This approach also opens up a new way of considering, and acknowledging, interpretation as a creative act. Jeff’s discussion of dance works informed by oral history illuminated the imaginative, or artistic, aspects of interpretation as a whole—a certain choreography of interpretation. Throughout his talk was freeing when it came to considering the relationship of art and scholarship, and the process of approaching oral histories as sources.


In summation, Jeff’s talk pointed towards a richly expanded conception of what it means to participate in and interpret the oral history interaction. By reminding us that the interview dynamic is dialogic in not just verbal but physical ways, he underscored the idea that thinking about narrative, without thinking of how it is shaped, nuanced, and transformed by the body in illness and health, is to constrict its capacity for meaning. His talk raised important points about the limitations of different ways of capturing and considering oral history, from audio/video to dancing/writing. Altogether, it was a thought-provoking presentation from one of the most significant thinkers in the field today.