Oral history in disaster zones
By Caitlin Tyler-Richards
When Superstorm Sandy hit the United States’ east coast in late October, I was struck by the way in which oral historians and other like-minded academics responded to the ensuing chaos. This was not the first time I had seen oral history interact with natural disaster; one of the first articles I prepped for our Twitter feed was KUT News’ “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires,” a multi-media documentation of the wildfires that overtook Texas in September 2011. However, to see the response in real time was a completely different experience.
Almost immediately, social media like brooklynhistory) and hundreds of unbelieveable — and just plain untrue — instagram photos coalesced into a haphazard digital archive. More cohesive and comprehensive accounts, like Mike Chaban’s “The Committee to Save New York: An Oral History of Hurricane Sandy” and Carol Hill Albert’s “Coney Island Stories: Category One” appeared soon after. This rapid fire, occasionally heart-rending coverage led me to think more deeply on how oral historians in particular address major, traumatic events like Superstorm Sandy. Does one go to the damaged areas with the intention of conducting official, project-motivated Oral History Research (TM); or are the goals more personal and therapeutic? How, if at all, do one’s tactics change when conducting interviews with recent trauma survivors?
I didn’t have to go far for further insight. In addition to serving as our media review editor, Jennifer Abraham Cramer is the director of Louisiana State University’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History. She has worked on a number of oral history projects, including one on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. We started off with what I thought was an easy question, “How did you become involved in post-Katrina research?”:
I was very reluctant to become involved with post-Katrina research, initially. Starting an oral history project in 2005 didn’t feel right to me—my husband’s family is from New Orleans, and we were still very much going through Katrina and Rita. Doing oral histories of a current event didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. Plus, I wondered, “Why spend time interviewing people about recent events when people who witnessed more distant events that are equally significant to our nation’s history are passing away, and taking their stories and memories with them?” I was also concerned about legal ramifications (ongoing court cases, criminal investigations, insurance claims, etc.) where respondents were discussing very recent events. Then, of course, the big issue with doing oral history projects around crisis events is that you don’t want to further traumatize your interviewee, exploit them, or paint them as helpless victims.
Despite her reservations, Cramer and the Williams Center decided to get involved with post-Katrina and Rita research, largely to ensure that the numerous oral history projects already in the works would follow the Oral History Association’sprinciples and best practices. If people were going into the field anyway, the Williams Center could ensure that the interviews they conducted “would be well-done, archived, and available to researchers.”
Given the concerns she expressed, I was curious to know what, if any obstacles Cramer faced during interviews, and if these challenges forced her to change her interview strategy. Here, especially as a historian-in-training, I was intrigued by the unique challenges post-Katrina research posed, and the manner in which Cramer thought through them:
The two big challenges were documenting recent events and conducting interviews with people who had recently experienced trauma. So firstly, using oral history methodology to document recent events is a bit challenging because of the different ways that people recall recent and past events. The brain has integrated causal relationships for distant happenings, but is more focused on the rich details of the “how” and “what” when it comes to more recent memories, thus affecting the way that respondents answer questions. Stories of recent events are a bit more scattered and thick with details, so you have to adjust your interviewing methodology.
Secondly, you have the challenge of interviewing people who have recently experienced crises. Trauma in oral histories is nothing new. For example, in the recording of a life narrative from a person who grew up in the 1930s and 40s in South Louisiana, it is likely that their story would include experiences with the 1927 Flood and the Great Depression. If they went to war, then you may have wartime violence and PTSD in a post-war America gearing up for a possible nuclear attack. Any oral historian conducting a life narrative interview will most definitely re-live a trauma with their interviewee. Most of these stories come naturally in the flow of the interview and are not necessarily the focus of the interview itself, and the narrator has integrated the trauma into their overall life story.
What was different about the Katrina and Rita interviews was that interviewees and even some interviewers were still living through the crises they were trying to document, and had not yet integrated those new hardships into their life story. This a major part of healing from PTSD and takes time. Thus, it became imperative to learn about the best way to conduct oral histories in the aftermath of crisis. I consulted my fellow oral historians located in the Gulf Coast region, and also sought advice from Mary Marshall Clark who had extensive experience documenting recent trauma with her project out of Columbia University, “September 11, Oral History, Memory and Narrative Project.” I also consulted professionals in the field of psychology about PTSD and interviewing. From all of this, I was able to outline some ethical considerations for interviewers here on the ground.
While recognizing that new memories, especially those of recent trauma survivors, carry a raw, emotional and largely unprocessed weight to them, Cramer did not have any illusions regarding the healing power her interviews might provide:
There is no doubt that story-telling can be therapeutic. But, we as oral historians are trained to document while therapists are trained in their field with entirely different goals. Oral historians record stories that offer experiential information in order to create primary sources that are preserved and made available to the public. It is wonderful when, through the course of an oral history interview, we can help the interviewee heal as perhaps part of their therapy, but I believe that it’s best for oral historians to stick to the overall goal of documenting — while being especially careful with respondents who have recently experienced trauma.
I closed our e-exchange with the most pragmatic question, “Any advice for those conducting oral history projects following natural disasters?” — the answer to which I hope everyone will print out and tape to their walls:
Basically the guidelines I mentioned earlier: It may be helpful to seek training from professionals in the field of psychology, if possible. For the purposes of our projects at the Center in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Red Cross provided lists of what not to say to survivors of disasters, which I in turn provided to interviewers. I encouraged interviewers to conduct life narratives so that the hurricane story was situated within a larger context—this included previous storm stories like Hurricane Betsy. I also encouraged them to stay away from asking about emotions and feelings, and to focus more on what the interviewee experienced and witnessed, yet to be compassionate when emotions arose. Interviewers were encouraged to honor the interviewees in some way—whether at a community event or in a final product given to the interviewees, and to include them in every step of the project.
Most importantly, the interviewers were encouraged to follow up on their interviews five years or ten years later to create a longitudinal documentation and commemoration. In addition, I incorporated Clark’s suggestions to ensure that interviewers have certain training and skills: the ability to connect emotionally to the narrator and to create a supportive listening environment; to be concerned, but not intrusive; to connect interviewees with each other; and to ask questions that may help the interviewee with explanatory stories.
As always, we’ll close here by turning it over to our readers. Have any of you conducted research following natural disasters and have insights you’d like to share? Or do you have a project in mind and need more advice on how to tackle some of the obstacles Cramer mentioned? To the comments, everyone!
Jennifer Abraham Cramer is the Director of Louisiana State University’s T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, where she manages multiple ongoing staff and partner projects and oversees the processing, preservation, digitization, and public access of the Center’s 5,000 hours of audio recordings. She is the creator and producer of the Center’s podcast, “What Endures,” and currently serves as the media review editor for The Oral History Review.
Caitlin Tyler-Richards is the editorial/ media assistant at the Oral History Review. When not sharing profound witticisms at @OralHistReview, Caitlin pursues a PhD in African History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research revolves around the intersection of West African history, literature and identity construction, as well as a fledgling interest in digital humanities. Before coming to Madison, Caitlin worked for the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.