In the heart of a historic pandemic, confined to our homes in cities from coast to coast, my family gathered over Zoom to learn about a history of another sort: the stories of my 91-year-old in-laws, Alan and Irene, beloved parents of six children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. As the rest of us watched virtually, their daughter Nancy channeled her inner Oprah to interview them individually, steering them through a recounting of their lives. From the two interviews, we learned about Irene’s grandparents from Bessarabia (modern-day Moldova) and Austria-Hungary, and their immigration to the U.S. with Irene’s mother through Ellis Island. We also learned about Alan’s pre–law school jobs as a lifeguard and truck driver. And both shared details of the fateful occasion, 72 years ago, when their paths crossed as UC Berkeley undergrads, as well as favorite memories of their children — and so much more.
The pandemic-induced pause in the noise of everyday life allowed room for personal reflection. With more time to ponder our family’s story and a greater awareness of life’s fragility, my wife’s family felt compelled to interview older relatives in order to create an oral history.
Teresa Barnett, head of the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research, has noted an increased interest in family oral histories. The center, a unit within UCLA Library’s Special Collections, documents the history of Los Angeles through recorded interviews with people who have lived through and/or contributed to the city’s history. Although family oral histories are not a fundamental part of its mission, the Center for Oral History Research does offer resources for those who want to pursue them.
“The process of talking to someone who is an attentive listener can bring out the intimate moments of daily life with candor and feeling, helping to capture that person’s experience in a really layered, deep way,” Barnett says. However, it’s not as easy as hitting “record” and letting your family member speak. Barnett offers the following tips:
Consider the Source
Even if you have little to no experience conducting interviews, when sitting down for an oral history with a loved one, you do have one advantage over even the most skilled professional. “Everything in an interview depends on trust,” Barnett says. “The interviewee is going to give a very different version of their life to a family member.” But be aware that this can be a double-edged sword: Depending on the dynamics of the relationship, interviewing a parent might reopen old wounds or even create new ones. In that case, Barnett says, consider whether a grandchild might be better suited for the task.
Do Your Homework
Investing time in getting to know more about your family member’s life before the interview will allow you to go deeper. “The point of an interview is to learn things you don’t know,” Barnett says. “But paradoxically, the more you already know, the more you will get.” That preparation can involve looking up genealogy charts for dates and names, perusing old letters and photos, and gaining a better understanding of any historical events that figured prominently in your subject’s life. Ask other family members or friends of the interviewee to fill you in on what they know. Ultimately, it helps to draw up a detailed outline of what you’d like to cover, then share some version of it with your loved one ahead of time so they can begin pondering old memories.
Give It the Silent Treatment
Since this is for posterity, you’ll want to record the interview, ideally on video. Barnett recommends that the video feature just you and the subject, which will ensure intimacy and avoid the self-consciousness often felt when there are others in the room. To obtain the best-quality recording: Find a quiet place that’s devoid of distractions and where you won’t be interrupted. Indoors is best; although sitting outside might look lovely, you’ll get more background noise. If you’re interviewing two parents, do the interviews separately, preferably without the other parent in the room.
Don’t Make a Long Story Short
Eliciting the vivid and detailed account you’re hoping for requires an artful approach. Ask open-ended questions, using words and phrases such as, “Tell me about …,” “Describe …,” and “How did it feel when …?”
“You want the person to generate their story, and you won’t necessarily get that with a yes-no question or a question about a fact,” Barnett says. Gently step in if you feel the conversation is going off track, but in general, let the interviewee do the talking. Your list of topics can serve as a guide, but the best interviewers ask well-timed follow-ups based on what they hear, such as, “What do you mean by that?” or “How so?” A combination of empathy and good listening skills will help draw out your family member. “If the interview is going well,” Barnett says, “the person is going to forget that it’s being recorded.”
For oral history interviews, it’s best to proceed chronologically for the sake of continuity and completeness. In addition, because relationships and events evolve over time, understanding the subject’s early experiences helps to place later-life developments in proper context.
Barnett also suggests providing a backdrop of national and world events during your family member’s life. How was life different then? What was it like to be a teenager in that era? What were the societal issues they were concerned with and the cultural touchstones that may have consumed them?
Most everyone’s life story includes touchy subjects, and deciding whether or how to explore these potential landmines can require a diplomat’s skill. Look for invitations. “Sometimes we’re so nervous about certain topics that we don’t even realize when we’ve gotten an opening,” Barnett says. If your loved one says something like, “That was such a difficult period of my life,” don’t just move on. Be empathetic, and ask if they’d be willing to talk more about it. You can make your case for exploring a sensitive topic before the interview, or else gauge the subject’s willingness to discuss it during the interview. “You don’t want to spring a difficult topic all of a sudden,” Barnett says. “Defuse the tension by getting the context and building trust. As the interview goes on, people tend to become more comfortable with talking about things.” In the end, Barnett says, an honest retelling of one’s life ultimately serves the subject by showcasing the fullness of their experience. But be sensitive if something is too painful. Also, consider who will be seeing the video, and remember that the edit button can be your friend.
Cherish the Moment
“When people reach a certain age, they look back on their lives,” Barnett says. “The process of reflecting on it and passing it on to their family is very meaningful. It’s comforting to know that your story is going to be preserved, and it’s enriching for younger generations to learn about their family history. It tends to bring everyone closer.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s July 2021 issue.