So, can you tell me a little more about the genocide?
June 28, 2014 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Please give me tips for conducting an in-depth interview with a genocide survivor I've never met, over the phone.

Through a series of coincidences, I have the opportunity to interview an aging genocide survivor, whom I've never met, on Monday. It has to be me, it has to be on Monday, and it has to be over the phone. I found out yesterday. This person is in failing health, has a fully intact memory, and has never told his story before. Much of it is potentially of historical note, and these transcripts will likely end up in a major archive. He has expressed a desire to share about his experiences.

Things that I'm still mulling over:
-What's the best way to record an interview over the phone? I have an iPhone.
-Interview technique over the phone? I am far away from this person, and cannot be closer until the fall. If he is still alive in the fall, I will go there.
-I've read up on basic interview technique and practices. However, I'd be thrilled to hear tips from people who have personally conducted these sorts of interviews.

and most of all:
-What's the best way to approach sensitive topics related to violence and trauma? Let him bring them up? What if he doesn't? It's my understanding that he's interested in discussing these experiences, but doesn't have any experience doing so.
posted by femmegrrr to Human Relations (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is all pretty vague; we might be able to give more helpful answers if you'd give us some more details. What's this person's country and culture? Are you concerned about any cultural or linguistic barriers?
posted by John Cohen at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2014

I think some of the verbiage you just used might be really good to use.

"Hi, I am femmegrrr, and so and so has indicated to me that you are interested in sharing some memories about your life and your experiences with such and such event. How are you today? I am looking forward to getting to know you, and I want to make sure that you're comfortable. Is there anything you would like me to know before we get started?"
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:40 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Most important thing is reassure boundaries. .. If you can't say now that's ok, take you're time, tell your story how you want to. If there is a question you don't want to answer please just let me know.

Give lots of verbal feedback as he can't see your body language. Allow him to critique your interview skills during the interview. So you can modify style if he finds something cumbersome. You aren't going to get the body language cues so checking in often with questions about how he feels in the moment is good.

I'd be uncomfortable as someone who had an MSW and some training on complex trauma topics. The important thing is that you give him space and validate.

Is generally technique in the social work world and therapist work not to ask leading questions for a variety of reasons. I think you can do it is probobly not as a big deal, but if he corrects you on an assumption or a leading question just apologize and ask him to explain that you want to understand better. In addition summarizing his experience back in chunks will help you understand if he is getting his point across and can clarify assumptions for future readers.

It will be intense. Good luck.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:40 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Do you have to do the interview in one go? Could it be a series of short calls if he prefers that to give him time to regroup? Also, who is going to be with him for the phone calls or is he doing them alone? The few times I've interviewed people with traumatic stuff, it has always seemed to go better in a small group of interviewees who provide listening support to each other, or to be in-person in a comfortable setting with lots of pauses, sitting side by side (no table between) or while walking.

It's strange to do it over the phone IMO - can you arrange a Skype call? You can video-capture a Skype call. If he has a laptop or ipad that someone else can arrange for him to see you at the very least - I just think you really need body language for anything as intense as this.

How much time do you have to do this? I've been interviewed for a specific traumatic incident by a journalist and it was about 2 hours back and forth with emails following up. You either need to narrow things down to something specific, or you need a fair amount of time to cover more events.

I would open by confirming non-sensitive information - his age, names of family members and places, and important dates at the start of the story. Then open-ended questions towards the events you want to ask about.

Don't interrupt him or question what he says during the interview, save that for follow-up later on.

Oh and get double recording if you can. There are plenty of iphone apps or services (you call a number then enter the actual number you're calling, and they email you the MP3 afterwards) that let you tape, and you need to test them before putting a call on. I would also consider putting him on speaker and having a digital tape recorder next to you to make a back-up. I have lost a 40-minute interview that was being recorded by both sides, except the app turned off without notifying me and they forgot to press the record button on their side properly so just hold music!

But really: Skype makes much more sense for this.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:54 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've interviewed people for Shoah. The phone is much harder than in person. If you could do Skype, and the interviewee is willing, it might be useful to at least see ech other, even if the real interview is phone only. I am willing to bet that this person has told parts of the story before.
Ask some general sort of warm-up questions first, so that the person gets used to you and your style, and then, once they get going--let them talk. Don't try to lead the interview or direct the conversation--just let them go. Make encouraging noises/facial expressions, and try not to react in anything but an authentic way to anything you might hear--you don't want the person to feel judged, but they don't always want sympathy/head pats.
I talked to a man who told me a joke about cannibalism in Auschwitz, which opened the door to his story. He told me that if I hadn't laughed at the joke, he wouldn't have trusted me to hear his real story.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Start by downloading the kit provided to oral historians participating in the Veterans History Project, run by the Library of Congress. The pdf here gives you a sense of what data should be collected as part of the discussion, sample questions and what not to ask. For example, veterans are unfortunately asked what its like to shoot someone, or if they've killed anyone - LOC asks that you not do that. Obviously you'll need to adapt for your purposes; check to see about the Shoah interviews spearheaded by Spielberg, and the project collecting Khmer surviviors' stories,
You need to clarify what they are willing to have done with this interview: can it be released widely or given to an archive? Eg the release issue.
I have interviewed both veterans and civilian survivors of war. Listening is more important than trying to find commonality with them: they will talk about very private, difficult things and it may be really hard not to want to offer something of yourself, not to be self aggrandizing, but because when a person bares their soul to us the human thing is to reciprocate. That is challenging if you go into an interview with compassion, rather than to do a Barbara Walters scoop o'century. Be comfortable with the quiet and let them talk at their pace. Give them extra time to reply if they need it. Have a list of questions but let them go in whatever direction they need. Dont correct them if they make a incorrect historical comment, oral history is about memory and memory isnt always perfect.
I can't speak to an iPhone, but I would attempt to make this type of interview recorded in a redundant way. Can someone local to that person record them on that end, as people often do on podcasts? Can you have another person recording on your line; do a conference call so that you record on your device and your second party also records it on their device or by propping a recorder next to a speaker phone. Take notes also with a rough estimate of when certain topics come up (eg 8:30, 17:00); if this goes into an archive or media, future historians and writers will thank you.
Last but not least, don't just thank him, but yourself. Prearrange decompression time for afterwards, and then a treat like a back rub from a partner or maybe a really good cup of cocoa. You may be surprised how you feel doing might need to be alone or throw yourself into a dumb movie like Zoolander afterwards. Prepare for this. Have tissues, distractions available if it will help after you're done.
posted by mitschlag at 8:05 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is all so so helpful. Thank you!

A couple things:
-The person has significant (potentially unfounded) privacy concerns/paranoia. I'm trying to respect his sensitivities, while preparing adequately. The man is a Holocaust survivor, living in the US. He has extremely unique memories. We share multiple languages, and I'm not anticipating significant cultural or linguistic barriers.

-Although I'm not comfortable publishing it here, I do have information about the details of this person's biography, and am researching ahead of time.

-The man is no longer able to use a computer due to poor eyesight, and he lives alone. I'm pretty sure that a phone call is the only option right now. If the first conversation goes well, I will set up followups and explore the possibility of Skype.

-This person is not relating to me as a professional interviewer (which I'm not), but rather a friend of a friend of a friend who is studying a cultural institution that he has memories about, and he would like to help me. While setting up the conversation, he acknowledged that his other memories are potentially notable, and gave blanket permission for me to ask about his life. His friends sensed an opening, and indicated that I should try and broaden the scope for archival purposes.
posted by femmegrrr at 8:22 PM on June 28, 2014

If you are going to record, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE ask the survivor for permission in a way that shows you want to record the story for posterity and not exploitation.

Also, I would love it if I could listen to it as well...perhaps get permission to post interview on youtube.

Good luck. I'm rooting for this to be an awesome interview and it really is a part of history that should not be lost or forgotten. You're doing good work.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:58 PM on June 28, 2014

This is hyper-specific but ... when I was in college I was involved in the Holocaust Project which (sponsored by Steven Spielberg) attempted to record for posterity the recollections of many survivors. While my involvement was limited I worked closely with all the professors and students who were extensively involved. One huge, huge thing has stuck with me:

An Eastern European survivor of the Holocaust told the rabbi who ran the program, after being interviewed by students, that he found it enormously uncomfortable how the (upper-middle-class, mostly midwestern, American) students smiled incessantly. They smiled encouragingly and sympathetically, in the way that Americans do to show that they're listening. This survivor said that it was very strange to speak to these smiling, "flower-faced children" (that phrase has stuck in my mind for years) about the worst horrors in the history of the world, and feel the whole time like he was ruining their innocence ... and like maybe they didn't understand what he was saying because they kept smiling -- and the worse things he said, the more they smiled, to show that they weren't distancing themselves from the badness. This survivor became very involved in the project over time, but he never ceased to find smiling teenagers talking about the Holocaust disconcerting, even though he told us, "I know that is just the way you are, you are a culture who smiles to show you are listening and want the other to continue, but it is not what we did where I am from."

In general the openness and friendliness of American students was an asset to the project, as they were eager to make connections, eager to put others at ease, eager to listen to stories, and treated everyone as a potential new friend rather than an adversarial interviewee. But the rabbi did have the students all work on maybe not smiling ALL the time but working on a serious sympathy face to compliment their smiling sympathy face.

So perhaps practice a little bit in advance using a sympathetic tone that does NOT involve smiling (people can hear smiles on the phone!) but is a more serious-business sympathetic face. Don't be afraid to be your bright, perky self because it does put people at ease ... just try to be conscious of a slightly more somber tone during the heavy parts.

Also the rabbi tried to coach us not to say "oh my God!" when we heard shocking things, because that's a bit offensive to some devout survivors. People said "Oh man" or "Oh my ..." or "*gasp*" or "That's awful!" Plan one out in advance if "OMG" is part of your unthinking vocabulary.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:19 PM on June 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

I interviewed Holocaust survivors for a newspaper story once, many years ago. It was painful to listen to the stories, but it was clear that the survivors understood that they were contributing to cultural memory.

I think that you're getting good advice about being empathic and not pushy, but you can take that stance too far -- in other words I'd be careful not to sound like a therapist. Ask him what happened, ask him what his story is. Ask him where he was born, his life pre war and so on, too. The man wants his story recorded for posterity. He has something to contribute, something of value to give the world -- his story. So be careful not to treat him like a traumatized patient, or to act as if you are a helping professional of any sort. Instead be incredibly respectful of his experience, professional as a journalist/recorder, and just human.
posted by third rail at 9:28 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ohhh, okay, for some reason I was not envisioning a Holocaust survivor when you mentioned genocide (Rwanda immediately came to mind for me).

Since you say that this individual has some paranoia (which may actually be PTSD), be prepared to stay as calm as possible should they get upset with you at some point during the interview. When I was in school I was part of a group that interviewed Vietnam war vets and two Holocaust survivors, and my classmates and I were not prepared for the unfiltered anger that bubbled over at one point when a) one of us expressed sympathy and b) one of us disagreed with something they were asserting about the value of human life. It was really upsetting for everyone involved and it made me realize that the point of these kinds of experiences is just to LISTEN, and maybe ask a few questions, but it's not an opportunity for dialogue at ALL. I think one of the keys will be to treat this person with respect and dignity but don't get into the weird coddling that we can sometimes get into when we're working with traumatized individuals.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:35 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

It might not be practical if he's going to be talking about a long period of time, but I've often found it useful to take a chronological approach towards interviews about traumatic incidents.

It gives you the chance to get used to each other with gentle questions that set the scene and context, before gradually moving towards the more difficult subjects, and they'll unfold to you in the same order they happened to the interviewee. It gives you both an easy way to structure your thoughts, and if at any time you feel overwhelmed and don't know what to ask, you can simply ask "And what happened next?"

As I say, this might not be ideal for such a complex interview - you might find that once you get into the main body of the interview you're wanting to structure things more thematically ("Can I ask you about your living conditions? Could you tell me about the other people who were there with you? What do you remember of the guards?" etc).

But chronology can provide a useful fallback structure. If you've got that as a given, it frees a little of your mind up for the rest of the interview juggling act of simultaneously asking, listening, making encouraging noises, planning your next questions, checking the recording's working, etc.
posted by penguin pie at 3:28 AM on June 29, 2014

Please post a follow up comment later, if possible.
posted by growabrain at 8:14 AM on June 29, 2014

In my experience, a good final question to ask in any sort of informational interview is "Are there any questions you think I should have asked you that I didn't?' (and then ask for answers to those as well)
posted by Jacqueline at 10:00 PM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

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