Human memory

«People forget much more than they remember,» writes Inta Gāle-Carpenter1.

It should be noted that a biographical interview can only reveal what a person remembers, and that the memory is selective and possibly inaccurate. Likewise, what and how people remember can be influenced and changed by later life events, other people’s stories or norms accepted in society and (changing) interpretations of events.

To set the mood for an interview, remember that memories work according to their own rules. According to Italian oral history researcher Alessandro Portelli, human memory is like a stuffed attic in an old house that is full of worn-out clothes, beehive frames, cradles, etc. Whatever you touch, everything comes with a thread of the story, its own connections and commitments.

Memories can be very diverse, and as you enter another person’s world, you can never predict what feelings and experiences will follow. The interviewer must be internally prepared for both compassion and the ability to distance him- or herself and, if necessary, to help the narrator return to the present at the close of the interview.

The conversation should be started in such a way that the narrator clearly understands what is expected of him or her and nothing interferes with the flow of memories.

Tact and the ability to slip into the role of the narrator will help create a spirit of cooperation and gain trust and openness.

The value of the interview is not determined by the list of answered questions but by the right choice of narrator and the interviewer’s ability to reveal the author’s experience and achieve a high level of openness.

Only a relaxed conversation opens the door to the narrator’s approach to the truth of life and acquires the value of a cultural text.

  1. (Gāle-Kārpentere 2001, 163). ↩︎