published in More Magazine, October, 2007
Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life From The Storycorps Project
edited by Dave Isay
reviewed by Patricia J. Williams
There is almost nothing a reviewer can say to capture the poignant eloquence of the oral histories in this collection, culled from the first ten thousand recordings of the Storycorps Project. The Project, in the grand tradition of Studs Terkels’ or the WPA’s oral histories, invites people from every walk of life to come to a recording booth (there are permanent facilities at Grand Central Station and Ground Zero, and mobile booths travelling around the country) and talk about anything at all, in any language. Their thoughts are then archived with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The one-on-one interviews are sometimes told to trained facilitators, but are more often conducted by pairs of friends or spouses or extended family members. The sum is a veritable Noah’s Ark of national character, revealing the astonishing multifacetedness that makes us American. As an Indian woman whose own wedding was arranged says–quite anxiously–of her son’s love-marriage to an American daughter-in-law, “There is no commonality other than the humanity.”
I’ve been a committed fan of the Storycorps Project from its earliest days, when a friend of mine named Jackie Goodrich became a facilitator, first at the Times Square booth, then as coordinator for the booth at Ground Zero. Jackie raved about the privilege of recording hundreds of hours of stories: “It was a fast-forwarded version of being introduced to lots and lots of people, like a socializing process÷ at high speed. I’m shy, but the experience of listening to so many different lives propelled me to a different place. When I see someone now, I don’t see age or shape or just the present. I see the presence behind them–when they were younger, and when they will grow into the future. It sharpened my depth of vision, as potential. I don’t know very specific things about any given person, but it’s there whether I know it or not. And that enlarged perspective is liberating for me personally. After a while you get this sense of a vast invisible network of common experience that we don’t see, or we choose not to see, or that the culture deflects us from seeing. But when you tap into it, it appears, magically, the vast organic web of connection.”
If the Storycorps Project’s compendium constitutes a paean to America, it is not per the usual caricature of apple pie and glory and easy mountains-of-gold. Rather, the collected stories in this volume are marked by the straightforward, lived poetry of a factory worker describing the “unimaginable beauty” of molten steel. Of the frightened child of a Pentecostal minister: “They would cast out demons in them tents, and then that night we had to sleep in there.” Of sisters who didn’t fully appreciate their loquacious parents till after their deaths: “Thanks for staying inside of us.” Of an African American soldier reclassified as “Caucasian” when he scored well on an IQ test. Of an 87 year old father imparting to his 65 year old daughter the secret of success when confronted with five tons of coal to be shovelled: “The trick is not to look up to see how much more you have to do, but to just keep doing it.”
“Listening” is a powerfully sensual book. One learns about the physical yearning of a young woman who is addicted to cutting herself. About the hallucinatory nightmare of working at the pumping stations in New Orleans as the levees broke: “….I thought I was dreaming for a while. I thought I saw bodies, dead bodies, lying in the water and floating.” About the warm safety of love after a hard-scrabble life: “I knew you were good for me when you said one day that we were just two tortured mutts. That was the day I wanted to marry you.” About a prisoner so bored that when the garbage trucks come, “I try to get a noseful [of the exhaust] because it brings back memories of being on the streets…That’s the highlight of your day.” About the smell of sixth grade in North Dakota (wet mittens, lard, Blue Waltz perfume and skunk). About the silence of the sanitation workers’ march in Memphis just after Dr. King died: “You couldn’t hear nothing but leather against pavement.”. About the instant the second plane hit the World Trade Center: “…the sound of millions of people on the streets of New York, all screaming a bloodcurdling scream at the same time.”
“I can’t help contrasting what we call ‘reality’ TV with the honest and deeply affecting testimonies I witnessed,” muses my friend Jackie. Indeed. Editor and Storycorps founder David Isay hopes the project can change the culture by “redirecting our energy toward careful listening, honoring our elders, and embracing our neighbors.” At a moment when headline news gives us much to worry about, the intimate thoughts of these diverse strangers gives us strength., “Listening” speaks to a future, shares a ladder of visions, forms a comforting tissue of intergenerational and collective generosity.
I flip through the book in searcıh of the perfect quote with which to summarize. It falls open to the story of a woman who survived a plane crash in which many others died. “There is chance in our world,” she says simply. “Just be grateful for that.”
Story Corps Contributors’ Page
Patricia J. Williams
My experience of going to the Storycorps booth was not the most common configuration, in that I went by myself. Most visits are conducted as interviews between two spouses or friends or relatives. But I wanted to talk about missing my parents after they moved to an assisted living facility closer to where my sister lives. It became harder to just pick up the phone and talk to them any time I wanted to. And it was a much longer trip to go see them. I’m really lucky to have both parents, and both nonagenarians. But that was a difficult transition for them and for me.
The Storycorps Project has all sorts of antecedants–the entire field of ethnography for one. The WPA oral histories. Any group with an oral religious tradition. Griots in West Africa. It’s human to tell stories, I think. We compose ourselves by handing down our perceptions of the world to those around us. When we don’t have a history to convey it’s the mark of trauma or erasure.
I think we’ve become more isolated of late, but it’s not entirely the fault of technology. When history is written exclusively by media or social elites or any narrow caste of society, you miss the larger story. Our society has become more corporatized in recent years, meaning that the means of cultural production–the media in particular–are concentrated in very few hands. That’s rendered whole swathes of our gloriously diverse American communities invisible to each other.
When my friend Jackie compares Storycorps to reality TV, it’s a telling comparison. By and large, reality TV does not tell stories, except in the oblique sense of revealing some unfortunately pervasive equation between being seen and being famous–where fame equals enough moneôy to pay off the credit cards. It’s a kind of poor person’s minstrelsy. By contrast, Storycorps captures the struggle and loss and love of non-celebrities–I suppose the vernacular would call them ordinary people. But that’s the wrong word–these stories are extraordinary. I guess I mean that reality TV seems to operate from the premise of competitive self-celebration: that you need to be on stage all the time, squeezed into some mold of perfection and sparkling like a firecracker in order to be regarded with anything like respect, or value. Storycorps is far more low-key, and honest in the way that true democracy is: it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you’re wearing or what language you speak. In the booth, the only thing that’s important is honoring thoughts, dreams, and ideas–both as inner experience and as part of a collective web of civic reportage. Storycorps opens the window on a na˘rrative artistry that deep human engagement lends to each and every one of us.