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Narrating nostalgia

The most recent issue of the Oral History Review will be zipping across the world soon. To hold you over until it arrives, we interviewed one of the authors featured in this edition, Jennifer Helgren, about her article, “A ‘Very Innocent Time’: Oral History Narratives, Nostalgia and Girls’ Safety in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Can you talk a bit about how this project began? Did you set out to write about safety and nostalgia, or did it arise on its own?

The article arose from an entirely different project. I was actually at the Roganunda Council of Camp Fire Girls in Yakima, Washington researching Native American girls in the Camp Fire Girls, a popular national girls’ organization, for an article I was writing for the American Quarterly. I came across a scrapbook that included newspaper clippings about the disappearance, rape, and murder of a nine-year-old girl named Candy Rogers who had been selling Camp Fire candy. I could not get this story out of my mind and began researching how Camp Fire dealt with the incident. I found no direct public comment on Candy Roger’s case in Camp Fire’s national publications, but the organization distributed more robust recommendations designed to keep girls safe, especially for door-to-door sales. Although some critics called for girls’ organizations to end public sales, implying that girls had no right to public spaces, the Camp Fire Girls never considered renouncing candy sales. (This was from the necessity of fundraising but also from a commitment to girls’ opportunity to learn about fundraising and publicity through interaction with the public.)

Still, I wondered over girls’ perceptions of their safety. In an interview from the 1980s, a Spokane Girl Scout leader spoke of the effect that Candy’s murder had had on her as a child. Hearing footsteps behind her one day, she felt filled with fear that it was “the man who had killed Candy…. You expected strangers to be lurking behind trees waiting to jump” (Spokane Chronicle, 1985)Such comments, however, are difficult to find in the archives, so I conducted fifteen oral history interviews to find out how women remembered safety and vulnerability in their girlhoods.

In the article, you demonstrate the inconsistencies in the interviews and show how your narrators use them to negotiate gender and class identities. Were you able to discuss these inconsistencies with any of your narrators?

I only recently sent the published article to the narrators. Another contemporary who I shared the article with provided another related explanation for the sense of security women remember in their girlhoods that concurs with my idea that the representation of safety is a middle-class strategy of representation. She commented that her own sense of safety came from the silence around sex crimes, which is consistent with middle-class investments in respectability and purity. Without a 24-hour news cycle—and in a culture that regarded victimization as a sign of weakness—parents protected children by not openly discussing crimes. Rape victims, for example, rarely spoke out but often internalized shame instead. Therefore, children might be warned not to take candy from strangers, but their minds did not construct that as fear of sex crimes, but rather as fear of poison.

Nostalgia and the sense of the past are inextricably intertwined with our identities.

The article suggests that the nostalgic past created by narrators serves as a critique of the present, by showcasing the loss of innocence and safety. Would it make sense to think of nostalgic oral history as a history of the present?

I really like that phrase: “oral history as a history of the present.” Indeed, the narrators told me very little about rising crime rates in the 1950s, nor did they seem to be aware that crime rates had been falling in the U.S. since the 1990s. Although I reject the idea that nostalgia represents false consciousness as disingenuous to narrators whose memories are real, nostalgia’s purposes are important for the narrator in her current circumstance. It does reveal more about the present than the past. It may, as Michelle Boyd argues in Jim Crow Nostalgia, provide “a haven from uncertainty, disappointment, and the inadequacy of the contemporary period.” Or it may simply reveal the longings of the narrator. Nostalgia and the sense of the past are inextricably intertwined with our identities.

Moreover, narrators construct narratives about their past based on their current roles and conditions. In one interview, which I did not have space to include in the article, a business woman and mother who had recently sent her only daughter to college reflected on her own childhood and adolescence through comparisons to her daughter’s experiences. She marveled at her memory of her own freedom to roam in 1970s Santa Cruz, in contrast to the tight leash with which she had supervised her child at the turn of the 21st century. For this narrator, the interview became a space for her to explore her parenting rationale, and to question and ultimately justify its outcomes. She commented on her closeness with her daughter while contrasting it to the estrangement she had felt as a girl from her own mother. The timing of the interview as the narrator came to terms with the next stage of her life—as the mother of an adult daughter—marked the narrator’s reflections throughout. At different points in the lifecycle, autobiographical narration certainly performs different functions.

Oral histories are often used to fill in the gaps of ‘official’ archives, but your piece seems to do the opposite. What does it mean to use state archives, like crime statistics, to fill the silences of your interviews?

As I noted above, I viewed the oral history interviews as an opportunity to add girls’ voices to the historical record. Girls’ studies, with the exception of the work of Vicki Ruiz and of Rebecca C. Haines, Shayla Thiel-Stern, and Sharon R. Mazzarella, while centering girls in the research in other ways, have not engaged oral history to the degree that I would wish. Thus, my project was born out of traditional oral history efforts to fill gaps. When I listened back to the interviews, however, I just saw this other dimension. Not only were the women’s memories of their girlhoods multifaceted—remembering safety and the freedom to roam alongside memories of caution and self-monitoring—but also their memories of safety run counter to the discourse of their era. Newspapers and the FBI thought girls were vulnerable, even though the women I interviewed do not necessarily describe any particular vulnerability. They felt safe despite the state statistics and media reports that emphasized their vulnerability.

My analysis, then, focused on why they felt secure. In part, as middle-class girls, they experienced protective structures in family, community, and girls’ organizations. In addition, the narrative of safety serves to construct a respectable middle-class girlhood and to highlight the problems the narrators see in the world today. We live in a climate of fear even if crime statistics show a drop in crime rates.

Was there anything you left out of the article that you’d like to include here?

In addition to questions about gender and memory that continue to interest me, a theme that appears in the article but did not receive the full attention that it deserves is girls’ senses of safe spaces. My broader research on American girlhood uses girls’ organization records as key sources. Girls’ organizations were, after all, central institutions for the dissemination of ideas about gender and childhood. My interviews indicate that girls’ organizations and other all-girl spaces are remembered as safe spaces and that women perceive the equal partnership of coeducational spaces with some ambivalence. Even as they recognize the feminist achievements of desegregating educational institutions, they yearn for spaces like Camp Fire where they got to be girls. I am working now on a project on the Camp Fire Girls and have found that the longing for the pre-1970s all-girl organization is especially strong among older alumni. By contrast, younger alumni and the women who worked on the transition to coeducation champion the progressive character of the organization.

Image Credit:  “NYC MTA Bus Peering Child 1977 70s – 50 Cent Fare” by Anthony Catalano. CC BY NC-SA via Flickr.

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  1. […] This very interesting article is an interview with author Jennifer Helgren who wrote  'A “Very Innocent Time”: Oral History Narratives, Nostalgia and Girls’ Safety in the 1950s and 1960s'.  She has interviewed women who tell stories about the safety message learned from their parents.  Read the full article, including a link to Helgren's paper, click here. […]

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