Remembering pp 19-43 | Cite as

Trying To Be Good: Lessons in Oral History and Performance

  • Alicia J. Rouverol
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Oral History book series (PSOH)

Abstract

Since 1998, I have been at work on the Brown Creek Life Review Project at Brown Creek Correctional Institution, an all-male, medium-security facility that houses more than 800 inmates in Anson County, North Carolina. The project involved groups of inmates in “life review” storytelling sessions; formal interviews with me; and a performance project based on the stories of their lives for audiences of at-risk youth. More than twenty men participated in the project—Anglo, African American, and Hispanic—ranging in age from mid-20s to early-70s. I recorded their stories and collaborated with them on a script, titled “Leaves of Magnolia,” that eight men performed at the prison in the spring of 1999 and again in 2001. The results were electrifying. The inmates had struggled to understand the events that had shaped their lives and led them to Brown Creek. They wrote letters home to address issues of abuse, which we later incorporated into the performance; some came forward wanting to make restitution for their crimes. At-risk youth from rural and urban settings in North Carolina who witnessed the performances were similarly affected. The youth wrote letters to the inmates, and spoke out to judges and program coordinators in the juvenile system about the lessons they had learned at the prison. In a taped session held a few weeks after the performance, these young people acknowledged their own life circumstances and challenged themselves and one another to steer clear of a place like Brown Creek.

Keywords

Europe Coherence Cocaine Posit Bark 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The performance project, In a House of Open Passage, was developed by Della Pollock and her students in the spring of 1997. It was based on the SOHP’s Women’s Leadership and Grassroots Activism Project, an oral history initiative codirected by SOHP Director Jacquelyn Hall and myself. Della and I coordinated the series of public performances that took place in four different locations in the greater Triangle area. Participating in Della’s project and witnessing audience response to students telling the lives of regional activists and leaders in a montage style designed to provoke conversation with audience members inspired my work on the Brown Creek Life Review Project. Della went on to serve as a consultant on my project, reviewing early drafts of the script and urging me to take ownership of performance as a vehicle for the inmates’ stories. I am indebted to her for her support and encouragement throughout the project. My work at Brown Creek was also inspired by folklorist Bruce Jackson and theatre activist Augusto Boal. See Bruce Jackson, In the Life: Versions of the Criminal Experience (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1972);Google Scholar
  3. Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, Death Row (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980);Google Scholar
  4. and Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985).Google Scholar
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    While Butler and others acknowledge that life review occurs among people of all ages, sometimes triggered by crisis events, a review of the literature points to few studies of the use of life review with younger individuals. See Barbara K. Haight and Shirley Hendrix, “An Integrated Review of Reminiscence,” The Art and Science of Reminiscing: Theory, Research, Methods, and Applications, eds. Barbara K. Haight and Jeffrey D. Webster (London: Taylor & Francis, 1995), pp. 3–21.Google Scholar
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    George C. Rosenwald and Richard L. Ochberg, “Introduction: Life Stories, Cultural Politics, and Self-Understanding,” Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding, ed. Rosenwald and Ochberg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 1–18. Rosenwald and Ochberg explore the use of narrative in various fields, drawing on articles in sociology, anthropology, oral history, and psychology, and its effects on the “teller” especially. The publication points to a parallel development in narrative studies, in which individuals narrate their lives in counseling settings.Google Scholar
  8. See also Gary M. Kenyon and William L. Randall, in Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth Through Autobiographical Reflection (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).Google Scholar
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    In the case of the elderly especially, life review among less well-adjusted people can sometimes result in obsessive reminiscence, in which the interviewee fixates on events from the past without gaining understanding or closure from the process of recollection. See Peter Coleman, “Reminiscence Within the Study of Ageing: The Social Significance of Story,” Reminiscence Reviewed: Evaluations, Achievements, Perspectives, ed. Joanna Bornat (Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1994), p. 16;Google Scholar
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  11. One presumes that younger interviewees likewise can cycle back through reminiscences without successfully breaking through to a greater level of understanding or self-awareness. For a definition of reminiscence and how it differs from life review, see Ursula M. Staudinger, The Study of Life Review: An Approach to the Investigation of Intellectual Development Across the Life Span (Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut fur Bildungsforschung, 1989), pp. 70–72.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    At the 1996 Oral History Association annual meeting held in Philadelphia, during the heated discussion that followed a presentation on life review, one audience member— a veteran to the field of oral history—made this very point. Although life review as a subset of oral history has not been explored extensively here in the United States, for the past few decades it has been a significant field of study among oral historians in the United Kingdom. See Joanna Bornat, “Oral History as a Social Movement: Reminiscence and Older People,” The Oral History Reader, ed. Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 189–205. For a compilation of work in life review by British researchers, see Reminscence Reviewed, ed. Joanna Bornat. For a discussion of the differences between life review and therapy, see Mike Bender, “An Interesting Confusion: What Can We Do with Reminiscence Groupwork,” Reminiscence Reviewed pp. 32–45.Google Scholar
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    Alice Hoffman, “Reliability and Validity in Oral History,” Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1984), p. 68.Google Scholar
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    See Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991)Google Scholar
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  17. In her study, Lawless engaged the women she interviewed in her process of analysis and called this technique “reciprocal ethnography.” For a discussion of what I call collaborative oral history, see Cedric N. Chatterley and Alicia J. Rouverol, with Stephen A. Cole, “I Was Content and Not Content”: The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
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    See Michael Frisch, “Sharing Authority: Oral History and the Collaborative Process,” Oral History Review 30.1 (2003): 111–113. This issue features a special section on “shared authority,” a series of articles that grew out of a panel on the problems of collaborative oral history research that I organized for the XIth International Oral History Conference in Istanbul in 2000. In my article, I explore the challenge of collaboration in a prison setting, as well as the particular dynamics of power and authority within the corrections system, and how that played out in our classroom.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  22. 20.
    Barbara Myerhoff, “Telling One’s Story,” Center Magazine 8.2 (1980): 22.Google Scholar
  23. 28.
    See Della Pollock, “Telling the Told: Performing Like a Family,” Oral History Review 18.2 (1990): 18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Della Pollock 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alicia J. Rouverol

There are no affiliations available

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