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“Everybody should tell their own story.”

July 7, 2014
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Today and tomorrow we’re going through selections of oral histories collected under the Claremont Women’s Oral History Project, a major undertaking that Claudia spearheaded a few years ago while teaching at Claremont University. Reading someone’s own words about her life ends up being a really compelling experience, and then reading several together, I was struck by how vividly these women’s language-portraits emerged. Their personalities, temperaments, eccentricities, etc. took shape right before our eyes; it really stopped me up short. As we began today Richard made a comment about thinking in general that applies to this effect as well. He said, “Thinking is like walking in a London fog. In the distance you see something, but you don’t know what it is. It could be a bear. It could be a crocodile. You don’t know what it is, but it keeps coming. And in time, you start to get the silhouette, then the details and trappings, and then the features, and then you recognize it as an acquaintance.” I loved that. I loved the idea that by the time you get to where you can recognize your own thought, it’s no longer so unfamiliar, even though you may be articulating it in a particular way for the first time. And similarly, these women became people that we cared about after we heard them tell their stories.

I’m not sure how much I am at liberty to share the histories, so I’ll just give a few details and recommend some other resources. One told of a woman who became a dermatologist at a time when it was very unusual for women to become doctors. She also was eventually divorced as her husband was gay. When she remarried, she went through a very long process to find a long-lost son of her second husband and reunite them. And here I find myself wondering why I even bothered with this synopsis. It’s nowhere near as moving as reading it in her words. That was something else Claudia said: “You can’t tell your grandfather’s story as well as you can tell your own. Everybody should tell their own story.” One woman told a story of when she and her sister physically beat up their despised stepdad. Another told of everything she tried to carry her pregnancies full-term while facing Rh-factor incompatibility several decades ago before some of the more advanced treatments available now. Those stories were the only ones she recounted that she called “miracles.”

Equally intriguing were the things that weren’t said. The woman didn’t specify exactly why she and her sister wanted to beat up their stepfather. Another told the tragedy of losing her youngest child to cancer when he was only 3 1/2 years old and how completely that strengthened her family, but it didn’t mention that she was awarded Young Mother of the Year just after that and toured the nation speaking at events and telling of her family’s experience. I learned that from a personal source. As we read through these histories, one of my colleagues said they raised the question, “What makes a successful Mormon woman?” I think the question is a great one.

If you want to whet your whistle on some oral histories, this post from By Common Consent talks about various current projects that aim to reclaim Mormon women’s voices. One of my favorite collections is the Mormon Women Project which adds a new interview every few weeks. These women will astound you. Really. Please read, and I’m warning you–reading these stories is addicting.

Are you convinced yet? Claudia gets evangelical about recording oral personal histories. She said, “One day everything is available. The next day nothing is. Act! Act!” Other tips include, “My experience is that if you’re going to do this, it’s really beneficial to do a whole life instead of just one portion. It gives you a place to hook into.” The transcription is the most work in the process, but certainly well worth it. Claudia has talked about how stories are perhaps the most important thing we have. I’ve heard her say this before, but she repeated it again today: “If you haven’t heard me say how important it is to record your life and get those things down, now you’ve heard me say it. You’ll be glad you did it.”

Preach nothing but personal history to this generation.

Preach nothing but personal history to this generation.

 

Today’s reading

Six oral histories from the Claremont Women’s Oral Histories project.

 

Quotables

Speaking of her experience collecting oral histories for her research, my colleague recounted what one of the interviewees said: “She said it was almost therapeutic.”
“Not almost,” Claudia replied.

“When you have to put [your story] together for someone else to hear, you have to think about it a different way, and that’s always a blessing.” -another colleague

“I found these to be both gripping reading and also difficult reading.” -Richard

 

Tidbit

We talked about how it took a while for the Word of Wisdom to be adopted church-wide. Richard said that for a while you could still go to the ZCMI tea room across from the church office building, order Postum, and they would give you coffee.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    July 8, 2014 7:32 pm

    I’m completely jealous – I’ve been wanting to visit Claremont and poke through these for months now, but can’t justify it given how few could be cited. I’m loving your updates!

    • July 10, 2014 5:38 pm

      Thanks! Claudia mentioned that they’ve been digitized. If you want me to poke around and see if they’re available from a distance, I’d be happy to. I didn’t see it on their website, but a few of the people in the seminar attend Claremont, and I’m guessing they’d know.

      • Beth permalink
        July 15, 2014 1:39 am

        Oh my goodness, that would be amazing! I’ve been told they’re all restricted so long as their subjects are still living (and maybe for a set period after), but if that’s not true it would absolutely make my day.

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