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the business of lives

Why People Are Turning to Professionals To Preserve their Life Stories

By David Maloof
Excerpts from Hampshire Life, Daily Hampshire Gazette
August 27, 1999

personal historian, photo transfer, film transfer 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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