Friday, 7 July 2017

A Lesson in Oral History

This week I almost didn't attend the regular monthly session at the GSV Writers' Circle in Melbourne. This month’s convenor, Jenny Scammell, planned to pass on the lessons she’d learned from the Oral History unit forming part of the course work for a Diploma of Family History. Since I generally write about people who lived more than 100 years ago, I wondered if the information would be relevant to my work. 'I don't do oral history', I thought. 

How wrong I was. I'd forgotten my book Brainboxes, published in 1994. In effect but without recognising it at the time, I’d used most of Jenny’s recommended techniques for that book. Since my school cohort and experience had been fairly atypical, and already historic in the early 1990s, I’d jumped in at the deep end and contacted 25 former classmates to explore their ideas on the impact of our school on our adult life. We were all in our mid-forties by then and we’d not met as a group since leaving Narrabeen Girls' High School in 1962. It wasn’t easy to track individuals in the days before the internet and Facebook but somehow the grapevine worked and married names, addresses and phone numbers gradually emerged. 

The stated aim of my project, put to my old classmates in writing, was to ascertain the effect of our specific high school experience on our personal and professional development. I invited participants to draft their own story based around some guideline questions put to them. I also told them that I would arrange to discuss each story at a face-to-face meeting, where I would also ask them to answer the questions in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, MBTI, which I was qualified to administer. That these women even agreed to participate in this project indicates that there must have been an element of trust in me, someone they’d once known for up to five years. 

Since I live in Melbourne and I attended school in Sydney, almost every ‘interview’ (more like a chat, with direction) required me to travel quite a long distance. I did not use a recording device but took extensive notes and wrote up a draft of the session immediately afterwards. This was posted to each interviewee, who was given ample time and opportunity to review the draft and make whatever changes were desired. Real names were never intended to be used. 

Looking back, I see that some interesting statistics emerged from this fairly-standardised interview process and these had as much to do with the nature of the interviewee as the interviewer: 
  • 3 women were willing to tell me their stories in a candid private interview but stipulated from the start they were not for publication. Dianne had ‘a horror of public self-disclosure’, Elizabeth ‘did not want her life to be public knowledge’ and Patricia was ‘reluctant to commit herself publicly’. 
  • 1 woman, Barbara, was a reluctant participant from start to finish. We met cordially, but she was guarded and prickly and unwilling to provide a story or answer the MBTI. 
  • 4 women prepared their own stories without needing my input although, for Anne, the process of preparing her story ‘had been quite painful’. Carole sent hers from overseas. Nora turned up to our meeting with a delightful and unconventional version of her life and Sandra sent me her thoughts in instalments before subsequently editing these into her completed account. 
  • 4 women accepted my version of their stories virtually intact. Catherine said ‘Thanks – I really appreciate your accuracy & insight’. Olivia said ‘Thanks for my chapter. I really laughed when I read it. It was certainly me talking. You got it word for word.’ Penelope had no issues with her story and Rose was indifferent to hers, saying ‘it will do’. 
  • 4 women made slight amendments to my draft of interview. Eleanor said ‘You have represented what I said very well – my changes are mainly matters of detail and of emphasis’. Irene said that she and her children decided it did not really sound like her talking but her husband, who had overheard our interview, pointed out to her that it was not meant to be ‘that kind of story’ and she was eventually satisfied with a few refinements. Mary responded that the draft ‘contents are very close to what was said, with a few amendments please, as outlined below’. Sarah said ‘It was interesting seeing myself and I haven’t taken fright’. She marked some changes on her draft and elaborated on a point where I’d asked her for more details. 
  • 6 women rewrote their own stories after seeing my draft of the interview. For Frances it was ‘a much more time-consuming task than I had at first envisaged’. Kerry rewrote hers because ‘the facts are right but the emotions are lacking’. Lynette was shocked into taking the exercise seriously when ‘my life experiences suddenly leapt out in black and white from the page’. Margaret said ‘the copy of your story did what earlier requests failed to do – it sent me straight off to write my own version’. Robyn was prompted by my version to overcome her own procrastination, saying ‘I started writing ‘my story’ last year and have had a couple more goes at it recently and think that this is what I’d like printed’. Susan was ‘rather startled’ seeing her life through my eyes and decided to write her own version. 
  • 2 women refused to have their stories used after seeing my draft. Jennifer & Helen wrote me a letter which I printed in full in my book. Some of their comments were ‘your lack of literary style distresses us’ and ‘we feel your personal prejudices show through clearly in our stories, lending your writing a patronising tone’. Helen later apologised in writing, saying that when she re-read her own story it was just ‘too full of painful memories’. 
  • 1 woman, Gail, shouted at me over the phone that my draft of the interview with her contained ‘total inaccuracies and inventions’ which she was not interested in correcting, preferring to criticise my writing style. She also took great exception to my original idea for pseudonyms: ‘everyone in Australia, except you, knows that in the Greek myths women were just waiting to be seduced by men’. I was not seeking conflict and regretfully decided not to use her story in the book. I’d already decided, too, to go with Anglo-Celtic pseudonyms, reflecting the ‘ethnic’ composition of our group. 
Having revisited that era of my life for this article and having reviewed the statistics above, what strikes me is how personally-inhibited we were in the 1990s. We were intent on not letting people know who we were. Even the more extraverted ones tended to be introverts. Was it me, as the interviewer, creating these reactions? Why didn’t we Luceat lux vestra? (Let your light shine.) Did we take our old school motto Facta non verba (Deeds, not words) too much to heart? If I asked those of us still alive to participate again, would we remain such shrinking violets today? The GSV session on Oral History has got me thinking. Thanks, Jenny. 

Note: A few copies of Brainboxes are still available via my website. OR, you can check on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website to find the various public libraries which hold copies of this book.