In this post, Robin Weinberg, member of the 2016 cohort, talks about how we, as story collectors, oral historians and engaged listeners, need to make sure we have an toolbox of techniques to take care of ourselves.
In our first Workshop of the fall semester, Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, Story Hustler and Lady Explorer, spoke to us about her varied career in and around the field of oral history. She started her career in public health, working with people with HIV/AIDS, led a poetry program with incarcerated youth, managed a health clinic for low-income and homeless women and worked with indigenous people as a documentarian. The work was hard, the stories painful and traumatic. Mi’Jan found herself severely impacted by her practice. She was exhausted and depleted. It affected her well-being, her health, her life, her relationship with her partner and her relationship with her children.
At that point, she decided to make a change. It was crucial, she realized, to consider herself and her well-being alongside the well-being of her project participants, to make herself part of the equation. So, she began to ask herself, “How can I design programs and do work that strives for everyone’s wellness?”
How can we?
As we all know, having a deep dialogic encounter with another person can have a profound effect on both the interviewer and the narrator: sometimes it can deplete and sometimes it can energize.
Consider the narrator. Dredging up painful stories, sharing memories of trauma can be profoundly upsetting. How can we tell if continuing to guide a narrator down a painful path will be cathartic and uplifting or will add to a trauma already experienced? Luisa Passerini spoke about this a bit in her talk to our class. She said that if her narrators seemed upset, she would simply offer to stop that line of questioning, and tell her narrators they didn’t have to continue if they didn’t want to. I believe that it’s our responsibility to our narrators to give them this power: to permit them to stop, to allow them to continue, and of course, to refer them to a professional therapist, if need be.
On the other hand, oral history interviews can be wonderfully cathartic experiences, too. Many of my narrators have said that they felt as if the interview was better than therapy. Makes sense. We ask narrators to remember, describe and interpret the stories and events of their lives. Sometimes, people have insights or epiphanies as they put the puzzle pieces of their lives together. As one narrator told me while she was thanking me profusely, “I had no idea how much I had to say, and how badly I needed to say it.”
Now, consider us, the interviewers. Being present and listening deeply and intently to another person’s stories can leave a psychic mark – like it did to Mi’Jan. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of leaving an interview session, and even if the narrator feels lighter and freer, we feel heavier, as if they handed over their burden to our shoulders.
Part of this is from us trying to walk the line between being completely present and empathetic in our interviews, while also maintaining some sort of professional demeanor and distance. I know I work hard to not burden my narrators with my own emotional reactions to their stories and their pain. When I’ve talked to cancer patients, crying when I hear their stories is simply not an option. I’d never want to add to someone’s trauma by making that person responsible for my emotions.
I’m sure this is what Mi’Jan felt in her work, too. There is an answer to this problem – and it’s for us to acknowledge that we also have to take care of ourselves. So, how do we go about that?
For Mi’Jan, it was to switch up the tenor and tone of her work. She immediately started designing more nourishing programs. Literally. For one project at Burnside Farms in Detroit, she planned conversations between strangers at a large festive dinner table at which each new course was the start of a new topic of conversation. During dessert, for instance, guests were invited to tell each other their stories of pleasure. As Mi’Jan says, this sort of work - storytelling that brings joy and pleasure to her participants and herself - is her new focus.
For other oral historians, it might not be changing the work, but changing how they acknowledge and approach it, before, during and after an interview. I’ve read of people meditating beforehand, learning to acknowledge how their minds and bodies react to and absorb difficult stories, incorporating breathing exercises during interviews, unloading to friends after interviews, writing in journals, seeing acupuncturists, doing yoga or other exercise, sitting in silence, and of course, bingeing on Netflix. For me, it’s (1) being outside, (2) Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food, (3) curling up with my dogs, (4) putting on headphones and listening to intense music or (5) all of the above.
I’m curious, what do you do to take care of yourself? Do you have a good technique to deal with difficult work? Or have you chosen to instead do work that brings you happiness? Let’s discuss! Please comment below and tell your stories of when you needed to do something, and what you did, to take care of yourself.
To learn more about Mi’Jan’s story hustling work, visit her website and subscribe to her “Tiny Letter” here: mijancelie.com.