I used to have a business called "Lifesounds." Using my journalist's interviewing and radio production skills, I captured family stories at the request of the families, for a fee. I turned over the raw interviews, or edited them down onto CD's to be presented as gifts at special occasions, or as legacy keepsakes. Often a family had the expectation that a trained reporter could pierce silence, or correct an apocryphal story that had become embedded in family lore over many decades, the fabrications embroidered with every telling. Not that this is a bad thing, from a writer's point of view, so long as we accept that we are listening to tall tales at times. Sometimes a family does not realize that this has happened. They've heard stories they find fascinating and they innocently pass them along without asking too many questions.
So my job was difficult-- not logistically, or technically—but for all the other reasons, as mentioned above. I wasn't always a welcome interlocutor, a stranger digging into the past and to what end? To correct the historical record? Or to satisfy a family's frustration at not knowing "the truth?"
Once I was commissioned to interview an Irish-American woman turning 80 who had been a nanny to the family's children. They were planning a birthday party and the interview would be a gift, they explained. Everyone had adored her, but knew very little about her. They suspected she had been hiding something, but what? They wanted her story badly; they were so curious it hurt. Though I suspected there might be a problem, I made the call to set up the first interview and was invited over immediately. Tea was offered. We made ourselves comfortable. The nanny was affable and she was Irish; oral storytelling is in Ireland's DNA. She talked and she talked. It was a good story. But as I started to store my equipment she told me that I couldn't release the interview until she was dead. This was a conundrum. Her former employer had hired me and she had consented. The interview was done. But she was so adamant that I turned back the advance. I still have that CD stored in a box somewhere.
I would wager that within every family there are so many buried stories and secrets that, once unearthed, they could fill libraries. They often remain untold and unexplored. In their place are false stories, evasions, the lacuna of unanswered questions, ellipsis. These gaps create tension in a family, and also curiosity, which is why I started "Lifesounds," as a tool to fill in gaps and find answers to troubling questions. Of course, not all the gaps are sad or troubling; they can be happy gaps, or humorous gaps, or just unintended gaps. That is why Henry Louis Gates' program, "Finding Your Roots," is so successful. The past is a treasure trove, the revelations both illuminating and life-affirming for his guests and his audience.
Everyone has a right to with-hold their stories though I always try to convince people I interview, and my family as well, that it is unwise, even unkind to do so. We are living in an era of obfuscation, lies, and brazen hatreds, openly expressed. More than ever before, I consider it my responsibility, as a reporter and a writer, to assert authenticity as a moral value.