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Learning to read emotions in oral history

The most recent issue of the OHR featured two stories on understanding emotion in oral history interviews. In one piece, Julian Simpson and Stephanie Snow asked what role humor plays in healthcare, and how to locate it in oral history. In another piece, Katie Holmes asks how to locate historical emotion during an interview and how to interpret these feelings. Today on the blog we bring you a short interview with Holmes where we ask about her interest in studying emotions, explore the experience of listening for emotion, and hear more about how she uses this investigation in her historical analysis. Enjoy the interview below, and check out the full piece in the OHR 44.1.

What prompted your interest in reading emotion in oral histories?

Many of us have had the experience of interviewing someone who can become quite unexpectedly distressed or “emotional” during an interview and it’s not always clear what is going on for them. I’d conducted a number of interviews for the Australian Generations project where this had happened, or where the interview had dealt with some highly emotional memories, including one where the participant seemed to spend much of the time in tears but seemed quite happy to keep recording. I was struck in my interviews by the different ways in which different generations responded to their emotional distress. Older interviewees usually wanted to turn the recorder off whereas younger ones seemed happy to emote all over the place! This in itself suggested different ways in which emotions had been “managed” historically. So I started to read more of the history of emotions literature, very little of which dealt with oral history or memory and emotions. That which did seemed very inadequate, and dismissive of the idea that the expression of emotion in an interview–and I guess I’m talking here about painful emotions rather than joyful ones–could really tell us anything about past emotion. This seemed quite contrary to the albeit limited psychoanalytic understanding that I had, and so I wanted to explore it further.

You invite oral historians to try to locate “historical emotion” by paying attention both to the content and the context of the interview–the bodily movements, setting, and even your own emotional state. Can you talk more about what this looks like in practice?

It means being very attentive to the non-verbal clues that your interviewee gives. So you need to listen beyond the words and pick up on what else is happening. It’s like operating on a number of different channels. There’s the information that the interviewee is sharing with you, then there’s the non-verbal communication that is going on–how they are sitting, how does that change, the pace and volume of their voice, what they are not talking about–and then there’s what you as an interviewer are feeling. This last one can be tricky but sometimes we can have quite strong reactions to our interviewees, or to the information they are sharing. What I suggest in the article is that we need to be attentive to our own responses because they can give us clues about what is happening for the interviewee. Maybe you are reminded of something or someone in your own life. Maybe you suddenly start to feel very uncomfortable or sad or want to move the narrator along when they want to linger on a topic–all these responses can be helpful in trying to work out what is going on for the interviewee and then gently asking further questions about it. So one of the channels we have to tune into is our own, and while not letting our own responses get in the way of the narrator’s recollection, use them as a possible insight into what might be happening for our interviewee. Our role is not to play therapist, but to learn as much as our interviewees are willing to share about their past life in all its complexities.

Our role is not to play therapist, but to learn as much as our interviewees are willing to share about their past life in all its complexities.

You note that you “re-experienced” some of your narrator’s trauma alongside her, as she shared her personal history. What is that experience like as an interviewer?

It can be pretty intense! And the challenge is to maintain the professional boundaries at the same time as attending to what is going on for the narrator. In the interview I discuss, I really could sense her fear and distress as she recalled a very difficult and confusing time in her childhood. Her projection of those emotions was palpable. And that’s when the listening on all channels comes in because I was suddenly struck by how young she would have been–the same age as my daughter during a very difficult time in my family–and I could see the way my daughter watched me so closely during that time. I write in the article about being pulled out of being an interviewer into being a person and a mother and, drawing on that experience, I asked a question about watching her mother. It seems like a really odd question to ask, and I asked it a bit too quickly, but at that moment I was responding from my own subjectivity.

When our interviewees are disclosing difficult or painful emotions that affect us, it’s really important that we can sit with that discomfort and not try and steer the interview away because of our need. That does mean being both aware of how we are responding and being able to manage our own emotional response. It requires a level of self-awareness and good intuition. As I said, it can be both intense and exhausting, but it can also be very satisfying and rewarding as an interviewer to feel that you’ve facilitated a rich and complex life narration.

Part of your ability to read the emotions your narrator is expressing comes from being physically in the room during the interview. How can you do similar work when listening to an interview recorded by someone else, or when there is only a transcript available?

This can be very difficult. I have listened to a number of the Australian Generations interviews where the interviewer has noted that the narrator became distressed or emotional at times, and have found it really hard to hear it. Sometimes the recorder has just suddenly been switched off, at other times you have to assume that the narrator is still talking while tears are falling, but you can’t hear those silent drops. At other times the distress is really evident–it can depend on how much the narrator is trying to control their emotional responses. Joyful emotions can be easier to hear in the tone of voice and pace of narration. For more painful emotions, you can listen for the faltering voice, the long pauses, the sniffles, but even then they can be hard to pick up and you have to listen really carefully. Visual clues tell us so much! A transcript can be even harder, unless someone has usefully annotated it to indicate changes in volume and pace, or long pauses etc. A transcript has other benefits of course and they are much easier to work with, and help you pick up the silences and the repetitions more readily. With the Australian Generations project we decided that listening to an interview and having a transcript was the best way to work with an interview. Of course you still don’t get the visual clues but if you are working with oral rather than video interview, that is the trade off.

What role does emotion play in your current projects?

Once you start getting interested in the history of emotions, you start to see them everywhere! I’m currently working on an environmental history of an area known in Victoria and South Australia as the “Mallee.” It’s pretty marginal farming country which has been a wheat and sheep growing area since Europeans first began settling it in the late 19th century. I’ve been really struck by the emotional cycles that have driven first the settlement of the area, and then the periods of drought and extreme hardship that periodically afflict it. These emotional cycles can be affected by national developments or by the invention of a new strain of wheat or a new method of sowing and harvesting, and climate plays an important role as well – periods of extended drought are remembered as times of great strain and hardship. So there are historical periods that are marked by particular emotions. Then depending on the season when you might be visiting and interviewing a farmer from the area, the emotional tone of the interview will be very different. If you are visiting in autumn and the start to the sowing season has been good, the mood will be positive and hopes high. Return in spring after the rains have failed to deliver, and it’s a completely different scenario. And then there are the emotional connections that people have for their land or the area itself, or maybe a particular paddock or place on their property. For me what is fascinating about all this is not so much that these emotional responses are there, but that they drive the decisions people make. With farmers who are farming land that has been in their family for generations, the emotional legacy of that land and history is huge and it can often shape the ways people farm, sometimes preventing them from making decisions that might be in the best economic interests of the farm. And it’s really interesting to explore the connections between personal and community emotional fluctuations. In times of optimism people behave differently and make different decisions–maybe they will buy that land next door after all because the future is looking brighter. Climate change is now influencing emotional responses as well–uncertainty about the future is now apparent in conversations, and fear about what that will mean for the Mallee area. In my next project I am planning to bring together my interests in oral history and environmental history even more directly, interviewing people about living with environmental change. I am looking forward to exploring the issues around emotion and memory more fully in that work.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

I think if anything I could have made my argument about the possibility of accessing historical emotions through oral history even more strongly, but I was being cautious. I chose not to include links to the audio of the interview in order to protect the anonymity of my narrator, but some of what I try to describe in the article in terms of the sound of her voice, its cadences and pauses etc, is even more evident when you can hear it.

I’d also reinforce my point that this kind of interviewing is hard work! It’s emotionally demanding, it requires self-reflection and knowledge, and honesty. And not every interview, or even every interview where there is a lot of emotion expressed, is going to generate the kind of transference and counter-transference that I think happened between myself and Jana. But being quietly alert to the possibility is important.

How did you feel reading this interview, or the article in the OHR? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Headphones” by Nickolai Kashirin, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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