Why People Are Turning to Professionals To Preserve their Life Stories
By David Maloof
Excerpts from Hampshire Life, Daily Hampshire Gazette
August 27, 1999
Looking into our personal lives is business as usual for some people.
And so we visit a doctor with (we intend) some regularity, a lawyer with
(we hope) much less. We might let a therapist consider our psychological
beings, an accountant our financial selves. We let these professionals
in to diagnose, litigate, analyze or calculate what and how we live. We
pay them. Then we go on with our lives.
But other businesspeople help their clients shape the past into a
meaningful story, turning the fleeting into the lasting, a legacy even
for those unborn.
"Fleeting." "Lasting." "Legacy." Past, present and future. History.
Age. Memory. For while the product in the business of lives can be a
book, a videotape, a genealogy, the primary commodity is not money or
words or photographs. It's time, and all its variations.
AT CLIO ASSOCIATES in Florence, where people speak their stories onto
videotape, one aspect of time becomes apparent when viewing a
compilation of moments from past clients' tapes.
A white-haired woman, working a rocking chair at about 120
rocks-per-minute, reminisces about her courtship in 1944.
A white-haired man sits and talks of his family, the slightly moving
color image of him interspersed with black-and-white photographs after
which the man comments, "These things stick with you if your innards are
oriented that way."
A gray-haired woman appears, rocking in her chair at a slower pace,
talking of her French-speaking childhood while, off camera, Clio
Associates' founder Donna Kenny prompts the woman with questions.
The next speaker's mostly white hair is backgrounded by framed
photographs as he recalls his time during the Korean conflict: "I got a
lot older in a very short period of time."
Donna Kenny constructs a timeline of her subject's life, and has found
that people tend to remember their lives in terms of decades - either
the 1920s, for example, or their own 20s - and in pivotal points both
personal (jobs, military service, weddings and births) and societal. "In
our parents' generation," Kenny says, "there are historical moments that
are common: the influenza epidemic of the late teens, the Crash of '29
and the Depression, Lindbergh's flight and his baby's kidnapping,
Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR's fireside chats, and Pearl Harbor."
At times, the personal and the societal intersect, such as in memories
of war. That intersection can yield an unexpected revelation for the
child of the speaker. "Several times I've been told by a client that 'My
father won't talk about the war. Don't even ask him.'" But then he will
bring it up, or Kenny will sense an "unspoken invitation" to speak - a
gesture, a word or silence in a conversation - and, as a result, "The
family realizes in a new way just how deeply felt and experienced that
war event was in the father's life. It's one thing to say, 'Dad won't
talk about it' and another to see and hear his expressions and body
languages as he recounts an important experience in his life."
"This is about what you remember of your life on this particular morning
in this time we had together," says Donna Kenny of the process that
typically turns two hours of interviews into a 20-minute finished tape.
She has noticed that in follow-up interviews, versions of an event will
change. "The truth is an amalgam of all those versions," she maintains.
"What if Degas and Picasso all painted those same villages in Europe the
same way?" As Tristine Rainer writes in "Your Life As Story: Writing the
New Autobiography," reminiscence "is richer, more complex, poignant, and
resonant than memory. Reminiscence is the truth of now and then, not
strictly the truth of then."
AGAIN AND AGAIN Kenny uses the word "legacy" to describe what lies
between the spoken lines and serial images. The word carries
connotations of past and future, and is created in the present -
abstractions made tangible in 20 minutes of edited videotape
representing a lifetime nearing its end.
The lives business relies on technology through Internet research for
genealogy, computerized book formatting, and video recording and
editing. But "memory, tradition and myth" always hover around the
monitors, recorders and wires.
The greatest myths transcend time. The greatest lives do, as well. In
the business of lives, we all have the chance to revolutionize our lives
by - of all things - making sense of them to ourselves and others. All
we have to do is turn them into that form that has captivated us since
we first could sit still and listen: the story.
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