Oral history shows how history connects—and heals—us.
Truska Bast | July/August Issue 2012
Almost 50 years had passed before Betty Bausch-Polak, who is Jewish, spoke of her experiences during World War II. The first time was in the early 1990s, during a radio interview. “It was a difficult conversation,” says Bausch-Polak, now 92. “But it opened up a new world for me. My story really touched a nerve. People pulled over to the side of the road so they could listen more closely.”
The interview made Bausch-Polak, who splits her time between the Netherlands and Israel, realize the day had come to tell younger generations about the past. She spoke—and still speaks—often, preferably to young people “because they don’t pussyfoot around the truth. They say everything that comes to them, and they dare to ask hard questions.”
In 2004, Bausch-Polak and her younger sister Lies published a book about their memories of the war, whose title translates to A Turbulent Silence. (There is as yet no English version.) The sisters mined diary entries and letters they had written to each other. “I had to dig deep into my memory,” Bausch-Polak says, “and it was very emotional. After some parts, I had to put it aside for a month.”
By speaking and writing about the war, Bausch-Polak has succeeded in “getting over it,” she says. “You have to speak with a certain distance. That’s not easy. There are also people who burst into tears when they talk about the Shoah, but that’s counterproductive.” She says she can even let herself make a joke now and then when speaking to large groups “to make room for laughter, too.”
It’s called oral history: stories based on the recollected experiences of people who were eyewitnesses to major events. These stories are becoming more and more important as magazines and TV chronicle the experiences of “ordinary” people, from the eyewitness accounts of the 9/11 attacks to American Idol. The rise of social media—blogs, Facebook, YouTube—now makes it possible for anyone to record his own story and share his experiences.
At a time when the influence of traditional narratives—religion, ideology, philosophy—on our lives is waning, our own narratives are becoming increasingly important sources of meaning and identity. That’s precisely the value of oral history. By collecting people’s stories and making them available, we shape our collective memory. Oral history shows us where we come from, what connects us, how events from the past influence the present. It can even have a healing effect at the individual level for people who, like Betty Bausch-Polak, were a part of those events.
Since human culture began, we have been telling stories about the past and passing them down to the next generation. Biblical history, too, was transmitted orally for centuries, with stained-glass windows serving as illustrations and mnemonic devices for congregations. Yet history gradually became the exclusive domain of scholars, who long relied on written sources—and that was a problem, because those dealt almost exclusively with the political and economic elite.
A turning point came in the 1960s, when historians developed a taste for the narratives of ordinary people. One of the founders of what we now call oral history was Studs Terkel, who in 1958 started doing radio interviews with unknown people instead of celebrities. His 1970 book, Hard Times, brought him into the public eye. In his book, Terkel let people describe their experiences during the Depression. In so doing, he gave a voice to those not heard in official history books—exactly what oral historians aspire to do.
Narratives of ordinary people fascinate us. In Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain tell the story of the chaotic ’70s and ’80s pop movement through the people who really lived it. They interviewed hundreds of band members, from well-known to long-forgotten ones. The book dominated bestseller lists in 1997 and is still widely read. Also fictional oral histories are popular. Recently, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, about African-American maids working in a white household, was a big hit.
I encounter that fascination when I read from my Dutch book, And Those who Come After Us, in which I portray three very different families over four generations, from 1919 to 2010, to show how life has changed through the past century. Readers strongly identify with the story. It evokes memories, such as those of an audience member who afterward sighed, “Yes, that’s what it was like back then. When I got pregnant, we had to get married. You had no say in it whatsoever.”
Selma Leydesdorff, a professor of oral history at the University of Amsterdam, says books of oral history, “in which the boundary between journalism and scholarship is often razor-thin, make history come alive.” Leydesdorff also attributes the huge interest in oral history to a search for something common, something that binds us. An entire industry has arisen to satisfy that yearning, she says—the small companies you can hire to capture your family history on paper. Websites with titles like “Create Your Life Story” and “Write Your Autobiography” are wildly popular. They hope to encourage people to capture their past for posterity and, for a price, turn it into a book, perhaps even bound in leather. Many towns and cities provide online platforms where residents can record their memories.
Though oral history often concerns stories that were unknown before, it can also help to change our view of history. In 1980, Howard Zinn presented a radically different view of the growth of America in his book A People’s History of the United States. Still used in many schools, it describes crucial moments in American history through the eyes of people who had never before occupied center stage, such as Native Americans, slaves, women and laborers. Zinn did not speak with these people, so his book cannot, strictly speaking, be called an oral history, but the documents on which he based his writings—speeches, articles, essays, poems and songs—were created by the people whose viewpoint he championed in the book.
There is a school of thought in psychology that takes one’s own oral history, one’s life story, as the starting point for mental health: narrative psychology. Ernst Bohlmeijer, a professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, argues that personal narrative is the most intimate form of identity. You can pin your identity to your career or to things you’ve done, but it all comes together in the story of your life. Your life story tells you how you’ve become who you are, what choices you’ve made, where you’re going, what your dreams and sources of inspiration are.
When life is humming along as usual, we’re generally barely aware of our stories. But that can change if something happens that violates the subconscious script we have for our lives. If you suddenly become seriously ill, for example, or lose a child, your expectations are no longer valid. You have to find new goals, and to do that you have to engage in introspection.
But even without this kind of crisis, it can be valuable to take a closer look at your life story, says Bohlmeijer. That’s a tragicomic process, for in every life, joy and regret are mixed. But by considering your life honestly, you become wiser, and it helps you to live more intensely and consciously. It doesn’t particularly matter whether others think your story is “real” or “true”—the truth of memories is a hard thing to measure. The important thing is that it’s your truth. Psychologists call this “narrative truth,” a telling that fits all the pieces of your puzzle together to make a consistent, coherent whole.
So are these personal histories really true? “The truth doesn’t exist, of course,” says Bohlmeijer. “Memories are always largely reconstructions. You experience so much, and you can’t remember everything. Objectively speaking, there are always things that don’t make sense in your story, but you can’t make up everything, either. The narrative truth is the story you know is right. And you can feel it in your body.”
In a recent study by Bohlmeijer, 60 participants in an autobiographical writing course worried much less and were less somber afterward than before the course. They also experienced greater “ego integrity,” a deep reconciliation with one’s life and a deep sense of acceptance and satisfaction. That is exactly where the course members differed from people in the control group, who had not performed a life review but rather had written about events in the here and now. The study also showed that participants’ reduction in despair was the product of increased ego integrity. It’s a striking result, and so far few studies have been conducted that show this is how it works, Bohlmeijer says.
People who view their life stories as “contaminated” because something awful has happened to them are at greater risk of psychological problems and depression. They have a negative narrative; for example, they think they can’t do anything and they are worthless. Through therapy, you can actively search for another narrative, starting with a small memory of something positive. Remember, for example, that one wonderful present your father gave you when you were a child and describe that situation and everything you felt in great detail. That turns out to be very effective in combating psychological distress, says Bohlmeijer. “It allows a new story to very gradually develop, one that does give you hope.”
That doesn’t mean you have to keep rewriting your life until it’s a fairy tale. On the contrary, the trick is to acknowledge what happened and know what’s made you the way you are. That calls up emotions of anger, sadness and mourning. But at some point, you have to move on. Personal narrative can help that process along.
It isn’t easy. Fifty-six-year-old Jacob found that out when he signed up for a course in autobiographical writing. As a child he was very close to his sister Ineke, but when she married a Turkish man, she severed all contact: Her husband would not accept Jacob’s homosexuality.
After Ineke divorced her husband 11 years later, brother and sister resumed contact, but they never talked things out. “We kept putting it off,” Jacob says. The news, a year and a half later, that Ineke had taken her life hit him hard. Not only was it too late to get answers from his sister, but also problems he’d had before then, from earlier phases of his life, weighed more heavily on Jacob than ever—his difficult coming-out, his relationship with his father and his rage at a former lover, also dead, who long ago had cheated on and stolen from him.
Jacob felt increasingly somber and listless. Support groups and individual therapy were not his thing, but writing appealed to him. He wrote at home and sent his pages to the psychologists assisting the course members.
It was an intense process, Jacob says, because he relived the experiences in all their emotional intensity. Looking back, however, he feels it was worth the effort. “It did a lot for me,” Jacob says. “It gave me greater insight into the character and behavior of others, such as my father. And I’ve also seen the positive side of him. Although he had difficulty with my homosexuality, he was always there for me.”
Jacob has only recently been able to accept what has happened. “I was looking for answers, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that some things will always remain a question.” Writing helped Jacob to order the events of his life and mold them into a story. He has been able to inspect, process and accept painful events. He’s also recognized what’s gone well in his life and incorporated those aspects into his personal narrative. The effect has been freeing, so freeing that he is once again able to enjoy life—even more than he did before. “Actually, I’m enjoying things twice as much,” Jacob says, “even very tiny things.”
According to psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, the life task for each of us is to find ego integrity during our final phase of life. If a person fails in this task, Erikson believed, despair ensues.
Narrative psychology arose from the idea of the life story as resolution and preparation for death, Bohlmeijer explains. Parents can find value in recording their histories as legacies for their children and grandchildren. Sometimes children interview their parents, and that appears to have a positive effect on the emotional bond between them. Parents feel more fully understood and respected by their children. The children, in turn, often feel a sense of clarity. They frequently understand their parents, and therefore themselves, better.
Yet not everyone benefits from the life-review method. You have to be open to it, to enjoy recalling memories, even if they’re not all pleasant ones. I experienced this fact when I went to interview a 76-year-old woman about her tumultuous life. Our first meeting was simply to get acquainted; I kept things on the surface. When I called her a week later to ask what her experience of the conversation had been, it turned out that she had been upset all week by what she had remembered. We never had a second meeting, and sometimes, Bohlmeijer says, that’s for the best. “There are people who would rather leave the past in peace, who get too upset by it and think too much about it. Those people should avoid doing it and pursue other activities instead. Go for a nice walk or sing in a choir.”
For Betty Bausch-Polak, talking about the war and her experiences has had only positive effects. “I’m much more open to others. I had closed down to other people’s stories. Now I pay attention to other people; I know what they’ve been through.”
Like the Hungarian woman who lives in Bausch-Polak’s neighborhood. She was deported to Auschwitz as a young girl, then transferred to Frankfurt with 2,000 other young women. They were forced to build the airport there. Only 200 survived. The woman had never spoken of that time. At her request, Bausch-Polak traveled to Germany to speak, on her behalf, to a packed hall. “It makes me feel I can really do something for others,” Bausch-Polak says, “because I’ve gotten over it, and I’m not joining the ones weeping in the corner.”
“I sometimes think of my former professor, Dr. Stuiveling, in Amsterdam,” Bausch-Polak says. “He taught me, ‘No one misses what isn’t said.’”
Truska Bast is the author of And Those who Come After Us, for which she spent hours listening to personal stories.
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Oral history shows how history connects—and heals—us.