As people gather together for the holidays they will be sharing new and old stories, making this an ideal time to record these stories or make already recorded stories into gifts for the whole family.
“It’s important to think about the value to both the storyteller and the receiver,” said Anita Hecht, LCSW, Director of Life History Services, LLC. Ms. Hecht records people’s stories and then creates multimedia packages from the interview transcripts.
Of course, anyone can write or record a loved one’s stories, but when that doesn’t work, businesses like Ms. Hecht’s provide a valuable service that allows those stories to be told and shared for generations.
“One reason that people hire an outsider is because we’re neutral,” she explained. “It can be hard for family members to do an interview. When I interviewed my own mother she was not going to tell me her more difficult stories—maybe because she thought I might have judgment or she needs to protect me. An outsider may not have that same obstacle.”
This neutral ground also allows the storyteller to add details and background that otherwise might be assumed between family members. “It really does help for someone to tell me a more comprehensive story,” Ms. Hecht said. “They might say, ‘Oh you know Uncle Joe!’ but I don’t know him! Think of the person reading it 100 years from now. It’s not just a regular conversation and it’s not a dialogue.”
Each one of Ms. Hecht’s projects is different: there may already be a recording that she turns into a DVD or a book; she might spend up to 12 hours doing interviews with one person or interview multiple people before editing all of the material into a DVD, book or putting it on a secure website.
“I get letters and phone calls from people saying, ‘I just watched it again and it means so much to me to have this’,” said Ms. Hecht. “Even if it’s a family member where there was not a great relationship. One guy whose father was a World War II vet and a POW, and a very authoritarian, very militaristic father, where family life was like a boot camp and the son did not enjoy his father, he respected his father. The son listened to it and afterwards got in touch with me to say, “It doesn’t excuse a lot, but it explains everything.’ There was a kind of understanding and forgiveness and that’s worth it right there to have a better understanding across generations.”
The benefit to the storyteller is to have fun, be creative and reflect on their life. “So many times I hear, ‘I don’t know why my kids want me to do this.’,” said Ms. Hecht. “But when you get into the process it’s a chance to reflect and be engaged and learn and make a contribution. It is positive for people.”
Neil Cowling of Fresh Air Production in the United Kingdom created the Record Their Stories app for iPhones, iPods, and iPads because he missed the opportunity to get his beloved grandfather’s story recorded. “My grandfather died in 2009 at the age of 97,” said Mr. Cowling. “He was a retired teacher, having worked in Birmingham through some of the most fascinating times of the twentieth century. He was also a soldier in World War II and had participated in the D-Day landings. I am a radio producer, and I had thought on many occasions about recording him telling his stories but I never did it. When he had gone, I was very sad that I would never hear his voice again and very frustrated that I had never recorded his stories.”
Mr. Cowling realized he may have been inhibited by the bulk of his professional recording equipment and was inspired to develop the app that allows users to record stories right on the phone following a scripted guide of questions. Once the interview is complete it can be turned into an edited CD gift for an additional fee (see our blog post about apps here). He also recommends Life Book, which creates hardback books from recorded stories that are polished by ghostwriters.
While the holidays may bring people together and naturally create the opportunity to document stories, any time is the perfect time to get started on these gifts of personal history. “Unfortunately, some people are motivated by life threatening illness,” said Ms. Hecht. “Baby boomers who have aging parents and are busy raising young children want to make sure family history is not lost when they lose their parents. Maybe they can do it for a life cycle event like an 80th birthday or a new birth that makes people aware of their family connections.”
Ms. Hecht, who got her start in professionally recording stories while working on film director Steven Spielberg’s Visual History Foundation of the Shoah and interviewing Holocaust survivors, stresses the mutual benefit of shared stories in families. “It is pretty powerful and you just can’t know what it might mean,” she said. “Those stories might be the first time I got on the Internet, or I used to use an outhouse. Those stories are historically very valuable and give a sense of roots that we don’t have in this country. We don’t have a great sense of how fast our culture changes, that there were people before us who did shape who we are. An understanding of that enriches us to just hear it.”