Intro: During the OHMA Workshop , “Say It Forward: Art and Social Justice,” Lauren Taylor LCSW discussed her chapter, “Resilience: Elders in East Harlem,” reflecting on how her experience as a psychiatric social worker has both helped and hindered her practice as an oral historian. In this post, Caroline Offit explores the ways these roles interact: How do we think carefully about our narrator’s needs while being conscious of our own position and influence on an interview, as well as potentially evaluative or diagnostic language? How do we remain sensitive to the possible meanings that a narrator attaches to their words and how we personally interpret their words?
“Stories do not simply describe the self; they are the self’s medium of being.” - Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics, (p. 53).
As a video producer in the marketing and communications world, I’ve become all too familiar with interview techniques used to elicit desired sound bites or story arcs, for example, leading questions, providing words or language for interviewees to use in their answers. Most frequently, interviewers will attempt to impose a narrative structure that can be easily consumed by a given audience. “Storytelling” has become a tool used by marketers to engage audiences with their brand, and this storytelling concept continues to be a focus at conferences, TED talks, countless articles, market research, and in most campaign brainstorming meetings I’ve been in.
These days, I’ve been focusing more on producing videos about family histories. As I spend time researching and preparing open-ended questions for these projects, I think about ways to also minimize the impact I will have on what a narrator selects to share with me. I’m aware that I have preconceived notions of the shape their story will take, based on my own cultural experiences, and I have a hard time leaving this personal connection behind. Ideally, I would like to come across in a way that is deferential to a narrator’s experience, while also being able to prioritize the task of probing specific topics and relationships.
Lauren Taylor’s approach is refreshing to me. She emphasizes the importance of embracing this feeling of unease and self-awareness – Rather than trying to erase oneself from an interview, Lauren encourages us to reflect on and use our own experiences to inform an interview.
Lauren noted that her role as a psychiatric clinical worker is often to “help people rewrite stories they are stuck in,” and those same professional skills are invaluable to her role as an oral historian. Lauren describes how these skills allow her to intuit when to pause or wrap up a session, or “how to shape an interview without leaving open wounds” – the same way she treats a client in a clinical encounter. In the 2018 Oral History Workshop, “What We Bring to the Table,” Lauren discussed the impact of the relational-cultural model of therapy on her work, valuing dialogue and storytelling over analysis and diagnosis. Similar to oral history, she reflected that “the meeting space between the interviewee and the interviewer, or between the client and worker, is where the work takes place.”
I was relieved when Lauren acknowledged her role in “shaping” oral histories. I remembered an interview I recorded last year, which unexpectedly took place in a bedroom, (since it was the only room where we could close their two large, over friendly dogs outside of). I had a sense of discomfort at the unexpected intimate setting – thinking, “Well, this is not ideal.” In another interview, I recall a narrator bringing up a traumatic experience as a side note in their story. From past experiences, I knew that treating their trauma as a driving force of a narrative and giving this thread of conversation too much authority over their experience may be off-putting or even irritating to the narrator, so I decided to remain silent.
The choices we make as interviewers and the way we receive accounts, for example, choosing a public or private setting for the interview, intuiting whether or not to remain silent or probe more deeply, will invariably affect and shape the way a story is told.
As Lauren noted with a slight grin, oral history is a “human endeavor.”
An oral history interview, similar to a clinical encounter, is inherently creative in nature. In Voice of Witness, Lauren reflects on her sense of joy and satiation when witnessing her narrators’ sense of recognition and empowerment in hearing their own voices at the end of interview:
A wonderful moment for me is when, at the end of an interview, I put my headphones on the person I interviewed to allow the narrator to hear what has transpired. At first there is the silence of intense listening, and then, inevitably, a broad smile appears. Many of the people I interviewed have never heard their own voices on a recording, and there is the recognition that yes, perhaps that individual’s story is worth telling and preserving after all. (Say it Forward: A Guide to Social Justice Storytelling (Voice of Witness), p. 184)
Together with the narrator, Lauren embraces that the result of their interview was not only the raw/recorded material which may inform future historians, but also the nourishing feeling of having presently created something together. The act of giving a recorded account of oneself has an expansive impact that perhaps goes beyond what can be realized in a clinical encounter alone.
As Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D. and her colleagues write in The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, “The narrative acts of giving accounts of the self, skilled listening to such account, and co-creating narratives of illness not only propel toward care but bring about healing. They are not adjunct to the care; they are the care itself.” (The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine, p. 129).
Caroline Offit is a student in the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University. She works as a video producer and editor, and is interested in finding ways to employ patient experiences to reconceptualize compassionate healthcare, and reconstruct a bridge of communication between the public and professionals.