How many personal historians have found themselves in this situation? You have an enthusiastic client, an adult child who really wants her mom or dad’s life story told, but the parent is reluctant.
Behind the reluctance are usually a host of fears. But the fears expressed are not always the ones that are causing the hesitancy. I found myself in such a situation. I made several visits and telephone calls to a daughter and mother over the course of a month. The daughter was anxious to have her mother begin a life story project but her mother wasn’t. The daughter explained that her mother was insistent on first going through her collection of photos and letters. What eventually became apparent was that the mother was in the early stages of dementia and was fearful of not being able to recall past events. Unfortunately, we never got started.
In two previous articles, I wrote about such reluctance and some possible solutions:
more fears, more solutions
Since writing those articles, I’ve expanded the list of fears that dissuade some people from being interviewed. And I’ve suggested some possible solutions to these fears.
I’d like to add that none of these solutions are possible without a face-to-face meeting with the subject of the personal history. People need to see and hear you before they can decide if they’re comfortable enough to let you into their life.
Unpleasant and best forgotten stories will arise and cause me distress.
Explain to the interviewee that before starting you always ask if there are any parts of the person’s life story you should avoid. Make it clear that it’s perfectly acceptable for the interviewee not to answer questions that are about too sensitive a subject.
An inability to remember events, names, and dates will make me look foolish.
At the outset, explain that what is important are the stories not the names and dates. You might add, “For example, I could ask you if you have a childhood event that’s particularly memorable? Would you have something to tell me?” I find everyone has a favorite childhood story.
Also mention that the interviews will be done chronologically. There’ll be time for reflection by the interviewee and an opportunity to jot down some notes in preparation for each interview session.
I’ve never been interviewed before and don’t know what to expect or how to act.
Most people’s knowledge of interviewing comes from watching TV news and public affairs shows. These can be provocative, hard hitting, and sometimes sensational. No wonder people have some apprehension about being interviewed!
It’s important to address that fear by pointing out that a personal history interview is more like a conversation between friends. It isn’t an interrogation. Also explain that the interview is in their control. You won’t ask questions they don’t want asked and they are free to stop at any point if they’re unhappy with the interview.
I don’t have anything worthwhile to say.
This is a common fear. Explain that every life has stories that’ll be of interest to families and future generations. We bring to the interview the wisdom of our experience. We’ve lived through interesting times and can talk about it from a personal perspective. We’ve had heartaches and successes and have lessons to share. All of this is compelling stuff.
I might say something that will unintentionally cause heartache for a family member.
Assure the interviewee that anything said can be edited from the interview. The person will also have an opportunity to read the final draft of the book or view a fine cut of the video. If there is still something that the interviewee doesn’t feel comfortable with, it can be removed.
If I have my life story told, people will think I’m putting on airs.
Explain that outside of the immediate family no one need know the interviewee has published a personal history. Family members are the ones who’ll be most interested in the stories and want to see the project proceed.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass
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