Memory on Mute: Tips for Handling Lapses in Oral History Interviews

Memory on Mute Tips on Handling Lapses in Oral History Interviews

Oral histories paint vivid portraits of the past, capturing the unique perspectives and experiences of individuals who lived it. But even the most vibrant memories can sometimes flicker and fade. What happens when, amidst the flow of an interview, your narrator forgets a key detail or even contradicts themselves? Don’t panic! Memory lapses are a natural part of the storytelling process, and with the right approach, you can navigate these moments gracefully and ethically.

Understanding Memory:

Before diving into tips, let’s acknowledge the complexity of human memory. Unlike a static archive, memory functions as a dynamic system that continuously reconstructs and reinterprets past experiences. Over time, the salience of specific details can fluctuate, influenced by a multitude of factors including emotions, age, stress, personal experiences, cultural context, and emotional associations. These factors collectively exert a significant influence on what we remember and how we recall it. Oral historians act as detectives, piecing together narratives while acknowledging the nuances of memory. They consider factors like:

Selective Memory: We naturally focus on emotionally charged events, potentially overshadowing others.

Reconstruction: Memories are often reconstructed as we retell them, incorporating new information or perspectives.

Cultural Lens: Cultural norms and societal expectations can shape how we remember and interpret the past.

So, the next time you delve into an oral history, remember, it’s not just about memorizing dates. It’s about understanding the human experience and the stories we carry within us.

With this understanding of memory in mind, let us now explore some strategies for addressing lapses that may occur during oral history interviews.

Approaching Lapses Empathetically:

Show understanding: Acknowledge the narrator’s forgetfulness without judgment. Phrases like “That’s perfectly alright” or “Sometimes memories can be tricky” can help ease any tension.

Offer gentle prompts: If a detail seems on the tip of their tongue, try a gentle prompt like “Can you tell me more about the surrounding context?” or “Do any specific sights or smells come to mind?”

Respect their boundaries: Don’t pressure the narrator to remember something they can’t. If they seem frustrated, move on to a different topic and revisit the forgotten detail later, if appropriate.

Reconciling Contradictions:

Explore the context: Sometimes, contradictions arise from different perspectives or interpretations of the same event. Ask clarifying questions to understand the narrator’s thought process behind each statement.

Acknowledge the discrepancies: Don’t shy away from addressing inconsistencies. You can say something like “It seems like you mentioned two different things about that event. Can you tell me more about why you think they might differ?”

Maintain a neutral stance: Avoid framing the contradictions as factual errors. Instead, focus on understanding the narrator’s subjective experience and how their memories might have evolved over time.

In addition to the aforementioned strategies for addressing lapses that may occur during oral history interviews, it is important to bear in mind the following points as well.

Focus on the bigger picture: While specific details are valuable, don’t get bogged down in every inconsistency. The overall narrative and the narrator’s emotional truth are often more important than pinpoint accuracy.

Respect the narrator’s autonomy: Ultimately, it’s the narrator’s story to tell. Don’t try to force them into a specific recollection or interpretation.

Document the process: Take notes about the memory lapses and contradictions, along with your attempts to clarify them. This will be helpful for later analysis and interpretation of the interview.

By approaching memory lapses with empathy and understanding, you can ensure your oral history interviews capture the essence of the narrator’s experience, even when some details remain elusive. Remember, the human journey is rarely linear or perfectly clear, and embracing the complexities of memory can lead to even richer and more nuanced historical narratives.

Check out our blog on Whispered Tales and Wobbly Memories: The Quirks of Oral History where we’ll unpack some of the key challenges and nuances associated with using oral histories.

That’s it for this blog, I do hope it was helpful. Remember to always be kind, stay positive and learn to unwind.

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