Unit Six – Life Histories/Stories

 

Truth or Story or True Story? The Self in the Interview Situation – Gheorghiu

http://compaso.eu/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Compaso2011-22-Gheorghiu.pdf

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Life Stories And Shared Experience – Steffen 

http://www.insightsonaging.com/resources/Life%20stories%20and%20shared%20experiences.pdf

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‘Inventing the Self’: Oral History as Autobiography
Hamilton, PaulaHecate. St. Lucia: Nov 30, 1990. Vol. 16, Iss. 1/2;  pg. 128

Abstract (Summary)

Perhaps I should explain briefly how this came to be my preoccupation: I was originally involved in this project, as many feminists of the 1970s and early 1980s were, as an act of rescue, of trying to restore a history of our foremothers to its rightful place. Like many others, I saw oral history as a method which could give voice to those previously silenced histories. It was, I thought, a means of resisting the dominant versions of the past. (2) Implicit in the idea of `giving a voice to those previously silenced’ is the assumption that the nature and experience of oppression is structurally determined and has priority over the expression given to it by subjects. To a large extent, the `minority’ category of interviewees — `women, Blacks, working class and Migrants’ — is classified as speaking victims of structural oppression in our society. But I had to learn first of all that there isn’t a transparent window between the position people occupy in society, their experience of it, and their articulation of that experience, as the process of my interviewing revealed.

Apart from rethinking the process of the interview, the idea of autobiography has also enabled me to interpret the narratives emerging from interviews in very different ways to the traditional forms of historical analysis. And it is here that the sense of a created coherent fictional self was most useful, though my reflections are still very tentative. I began to think about different people’s use of relationship to the past about which they speak, which helped me to account for the very different tone of the evocations. Central to some people’s identity, for example, may be that they are of the past — constructing themselves as historical monuments or even `exotics’ on the basis of a personal and collective social experience which is no longer available. This past is sealed up, but gives status and authority to those who have very little means of otherwise gaining it in the present. Another way of examining these narratives might be in terms of literary genre — are they romances or tragedies? — and I could see that the narrative structure itself contributed to the meaning created, that it must be part of a community of life stories from conventions available in varying degrees to all of us in the culture. In this sense, both repetition and cliché become important elements in examining the form of the narrative. I would not again feel impatient with the person whom I used to think was `rambling’ or speaking irrelevantly to my purpose!

Most important to these issues, however, was my rethinking of specific questions related to the subjectivity of these women. Clearly there is no life lived without contradiction, but it is often a problem for the historian to resolve the disparity between how people want to interpret their past experience as `truth’, and your own assessment of the nature of that experience. The historian’s patent arrogance notwithstanding, my own difficulties can best be exemplified by a repetitive image which ran through many of the stories told to me and has become a potent symbol culturally: Many women said of their experience “I was not exploited when working for employers. I was just one of the family. She treated me like a daughter.” At first I responded to this with disbelief, since many of those same women told me of experiences which from my perspective were clearly instances of mistreatment or exploitation. They often described, for example, eating all their meals in the kitchen alone while the rest of the family ate in the dining room; or being summoned to serve meals by a system of bells; or long hours of hard physical work while their employer held bridge parties. Here was my naiveté again: I wanted to give these women a `voice’ — but they don’t say what I think really happened. Then what of the validity of their own stories? What was the point of oral history if it denied legitimate authority to the speaker? Nevertheless, I found by examining the form as well as the content of the narrative that I had made assumptions about what they meant by family: it was not that these women were unaware of inequality in relationships, of power differences because, after all, a relationship between a mother and daughter is not equal, but that they used a particular language to speak about it which could make sense of both their location in a socially classified `private’ space within the home as workers, and the very different relationships which they formed there outside of the labour market.

Full Text
The title of this paper(1) indicates that I wanted to use as my starting point some reflections on the subject of the interview and how people represent themselves in an exchange with the researcher. In doing so I have chosen to confront categories such as `biography’ and `autobiography’ quite directly in order to explore some of the limits of them. My case for oral history as a form of autobiography is a political one: I aim to reclaim authority for the storyteller. In this way the paper raises some methodological concerns that have developed out of my research.
The project I have been involved in now for several years is a history of domestic service in Australia before 1945. Researching the `private’ sphere has meant collecting an enormous range of material: I have assembled all kinds of written documents, but have been just as extensively involved in carrying out oral histories; the latter material is what I want to discuss here because it throws many issues relating to forms of historical writing into sharp relief. It also emphasises the interview itself and what happens there as a “frozen moment”, what Anaïs Nin calls “the still life of the autobiography” where coherent narrative, a history, is created. There have been significant debates about autobiography as a literary form that I think offer insights to oral historians who may be trying to grapple with these problems.Late in 1986, I placed a letter seeking interviews in every major newspaper and women’s magazine in Australia, including the Country Women’s Association circular. The response was overwhelming, but not exactly what I had anticipated. I expected a predominance of employers to come forward but few of them did, though large numbers of women who had worked in domestic service contacted me. I have subsequently carried out close to a hundred interviews, and am writing to another group whose distance meant less accessibility to the convenience of modern technological recording equipment. This paper reflects only on the stories of those working class women whom I visited, predominantly in outer Sydney suburbs and country homes.Perhaps I should explain briefly how this came to be my preoccupation: I was originally involved in this project, as many feminists of the 1970s and early 1980s were, as an act of rescue, of trying to restore a history of our foremothers to its rightful place. Like many others, I saw oral history as a method which could give voice to those previously silenced histories. It was, I thought, a means of resisting the dominant versions of the past. (2) Implicit in the idea of `giving a voice to those previously silenced’ is the assumption that the nature and experience of oppression is structurally determined and has priority over the expression given to it by subjects. To a large extent, the `minority’ category of interviewees — `women, Blacks, working class and Migrants’ — is classified as speaking victims of structural oppression in our society. But I had to learn first of all that there isn’t a transparent window between the position people occupy in society, their experience of it, and their articulation of that experience, as the process of my interviewing revealed.Many of you will now be familiar with the increasing number of voices raised against this limiting interpretation of both the interviewing process and the document which results from it — that it reinforces categories which classify and marginalise them as `the other’; that it assumes a rational and coherent, fixed identity in which being a woman, Black, working class or Migrant is always the central element; that the separation and slippage involved in these categories necessitates creating `hierarchies of oppression’. To paraphrase Elizabeth Fox-Genovese: it is not enough to say simply that Black women, for example, experience double oppression of race and gender “and to regard autobiography as the mathematically predictable result of the dual oppression”. Their identity, argues Fox-Genovese, is “grounded in the historical experience of being Black and female in a specific society at a specific moment and over succeeding generations”.(3)Feminist historians have turned their attention to autobiography as a means of avoiding the determinism which assumes that experience is implicit in structure, and they draw on recent theories of autobiography and subjectivity which stress the decentred self. As part of their analysis of the male-centred assumptions which are central to the history of the genre, feminists argue that other autobiographical constructions of experience have been largely overlooked, particularly diaries and also letters (again a mode involving two people).(4) Although the critique focuses on written forms, oral history has much in common with these autobiographical accounts, particularly since, like letters and diaries, it often involves concentration on only a few years, a particular experience or fragments of a life rather than a deliberate search for historical origins that explains the speaking adult in the present.

Of course, I don’t want to leave the question of what is autobiography as unproblematic, particularly since it is conventionally regarded as the coherent shaping of the past from the perspective of the unified self in the present and is, therefore, the classic expression of bourgeois individualism. I prefer Sidonie Smith’s version, articulated in The Poetics of Women’s Autobiography, which clearly incorporates some of the contemporary debates around this genre:

I understand the `self’ of autobiography not be an a priori essence, a spontaneous and therefore “true” presence, but rather a cultural and linguistic `fiction’ constituted through historical ideologies of selfhood and the processes of our storytelling.(5)

There are, of course, important differences between the life as it is told and that which is written. The self which is constructed through these different means of communication is affected by the form in which it is expressed, both of which have very different histories of use. Because oral history (and even this term may be problematic) has largely been treated by historians as `evidence’, there has been little attention paid to it as a verbal construct which calls for attention to linguistic and generic conventions. Nor have historians raised issues relating to self-dramatisation and performance which may be central to the invention of the particular self in the oral form and which remind us that it is not written text but a form of acting; a fictional performance of self.

But there is another significant difference between written autobiography and the interview: the presence of the historian who is both audience, recorder and active participant in the event. To call oral history a form of autobiography is therefore to feel immediately uncomfortable: many would argue instead for the category biography because two people are, to a greater or lesser degree, implicated. Two people are involved in what we historians call constructing the evidence, the source, so that it is not strictly an autonomous act. However, I think it appropriate still to conceptualise it as autobiography for several reasons.

The most compelling is my belief that we need to give authority in the process to the storyteller. The very terms we traditionally use to describe the participants in this exchange, (interviewer and interviewee, `informant’), and some of the language (to `get information from’), reflect both assumptions about what happens during the interview and the purpose of the exercise, as well as different roles and status. These terms might permit a focus on the subject — but this is primarily a source and, in this sense, objectified. Or, to put it crudely, as the oracle whose function is to give to the interviewers the information they require. But I would argue, on the contrary, that the interview is an act of collaboration between two people. The concept of it as an autobiography retains or even underlines the sense in which the subject makes her own decision to tell the story of her life for her own purposes. This is not to deny that the interviewer and her sense of identity is a vital element in the outcome. Clearly knowledge is created and given meaning between the two people involved. The role of someone doing an interview remains central, even if they do not speak a word: a life as led, they say, is inseparable from a life that is told. But a life is not `how it was’ but how it is retold, and reinterpreted and so on: a self-conscious act of expression.

What, then, are the implications for historians and their methodologies if the interview is conceptualised simultaneously as a form of autobiography and a collaborative exercise? One implication is that the view of power relations implicit in the `victim’s voice’ perspective is challenged. It seemed to me that much of the work by feminist sociologists of the 1970s and 1980s on the ethics and politics of interviewing women was based on the Marxist model. While I would still support the force of their arguments in relation to the question of control over the text once it is created, the general assumption of the powerful interviewer and powerless subject has ironically served to reinforce an interviewer-centred interpretation by assuming that the purpose of the exchange was the same that the interviewee gave and the interviewer took. So key questions were left unasked: Why did you agree to be interviewed? What is it that you hope to gain from this? In the case of domestic servants, or working class women who are now in their seventies and eighties, their motivations were quite varied (and many of them were to be expected when talking with the aged in our society) relating to loneliness and isolation, and a need to talk about themselves at an uninterrupted hearing. More specifically, I began to see a relationship between their present circumstances and a desire to communicate an experience of the past: some women were in the process of coming to terms with their lives before death, some were threatened with expulsion from old and familiar surroundings so their identities were threatened; some wanted to resolve painful or traumatic parts of their past, particularly in relation to sexual harrassment or illegitimate children while working as servants in private homes; others were still very angry about their experience which they saw as exploitative and needed to speak about it, as if by doing so it could be exorcised. For others still it was more simply a desire for personal recognition, for authority. Many said to me “I could write a book about my experiences “, indicating a strong sense of a story worth telling, though the notion of writing and publishing might be uncomfortable for them. It was equally clear, by examining the forms of the stories they told, that some were mechanically repeating what they had been telling their families and friends for years, in which case a particular version of their life history may have become an essential component of their identity, how they saw themselves; others again were speaking about their experiences for the first time.

I came to understand that the central part of their narrative might have very little to do with my own project on domestic service, and that we had to negotiate our terms: what gets said and how in the interview. Indeed my lack of insight led to some insensitivity to the idea of negotiation early on. It was not until afterwards that I realised in interviewing Doris, for example, that her primary concern was to tell me the story of her father’s ill-treatment of the family. It was so important to Doris to tell that story from beginning to end that she rang me up the day after the interview to relate how her father died. Of course I should have recognised her needs during the interview at the time and accomodated our different purposes.

Apart from rethinking the process of the interview, the idea of autobiography has also enabled me to interpret the narratives emerging from interviews in very different ways to the traditional forms of historical analysis. And it is here that the sense of a created coherent fictional self was most useful, though my reflections are still very tentative. I began to think about different people’s use of relationship to the past about which they speak, which helped me to account for the very different tone of the evocations. Central to some people’s identity, for example, may be that they are of the past — constructing themselves as historical monuments or even `exotics’ on the basis of a personal and collective social experience which is no longer available. This past is sealed up, but gives status and authority to those who have very little means of otherwise gaining it in the present. Another way of examining these narratives might be in terms of literary genre — are they romances or tragedies? — and I could see that the narrative structure itself contributed to the meaning created, that it must be part of a community of life stories from conventions available in varying degrees to all of us in the culture. In this sense, both repetition and cliché become important elements in examining the form of the narrative. I would not again feel impatient with the person whom I used to think was `rambling’ or speaking irrelevantly to my purpose!

Most important to these issues, however, was my rethinking of specific questions related to the subjectivity of these women. Clearly there is no life lived without contradiction, but it is often a problem for the historian to resolve the disparity between how people want to interpret their past experience as `truth’, and your own assessment of the nature of that experience. The historian’s patent arrogance notwithstanding, my own difficulties can best be exemplified by a repetitive image which ran through many of the stories told to me and has become a potent symbol culturally: Many women said of their experience “I was not exploited when working for employers. I was just one of the family. She treated me like a daughter.” At first I responded to this with disbelief, since many of those same women told me of experiences which from my perspective were clearly instances of mistreatment or exploitation. They often described, for example, eating all their meals in the kitchen alone while the rest of the family ate in the dining room; or being summoned to serve meals by a system of bells; or long hours of hard physical work while their employer held bridge parties. Here was my naiveté again: I wanted to give these women a `voice’ — but they don’t say what I think really happened. Then what of the validity of their own stories? What was the point of oral history if it denied legitimate authority to the speaker? Nevertheless, I found by examining the form as well as the content of the narrative that I had made assumptions about what they meant by family: it was not that these women were unaware of inequality in relationships, of power differences because, after all, a relationship between a mother and daughter is not equal, but that they used a particular language to speak about it which could make sense of both their location in a socially classified `private’ space within the home as workers, and the very different relationships which they formed there outside of the labour market.

By way of conclusion, I would like to raise what was for me the most difficult issue of all in relation to these reflections — that is, the question of my own involvement. If the interview is, as I have said, an intersection of two subjectivities, then one has to come to terms with being inscribed in the project as well, instead of resorting to the historian’s usual and rather more comfortable invisible authority. Like many of the baby boomers born in the early 1950s, I had rejected my working class background and used education to create a very different life for myself than had been my parents’ experience. I had quite deliberately cut myself off from those roots: for me, being working class had meant only violence and destructiveness. These interviews gave me back a sense of a past through a much greater understanding of how class identities are lived and spoken.

NOTES:

(1). This paper was delivered to the `Shaping Lives’ Conference, Humanities Research Centre, ANU, July 1990. My thanks to Sue Rowley for assistance with ideas and drafting.

(2). J. Murphy, “The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory”, Historical Studies, 22, no. 87 (October 1986), pp. 167-8.

(3). Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “To Write Myself: The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women”, in Shari Benstock, ed. Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987), p. 161; Nellie McKay, “Race, Gender and Cultural Context in Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road”, in B. Brodzki and Celeste Schenck eds. Life/Lines: Theorising Women’s Autobiography (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988), also discusses Fox-Genovese’s argument.

(4). See especially the section “De-limiting Genre: Other Autobiographical Acts”, in Brodzki and Schenck, ibid., pp. 280-350.

(5). S. Smith, A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self — Representation (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987) p. 45.

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