Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Power of Storytelling

If my grandmother Blanche were around to read the headlines today, I know just what story she would tell: in the mid-1920s, at the height of the Florida land rush, she was working in a real-estate office in Palm Beach. Times were flush and sales were booming. This exuberance was on display in a showy mosaic map of Florida embedded in the office floor.

To highlight Palm Beach, the artist had cemented in a shiny silver dollar. Before long, the speculative bubble burst, helped along by a hurricane. One morning my grandmother and her colleagues arrived at the office to discover that someone had chiseled the silver dollar right out of the floor. Times were that hard.

Blanche ended up losing her house, her car and all the money she had saved for my father's education. Those things, though, she seldom mentioned. Instead, she told me about the stolen silver dollar. It comforted my grandmother, I believe, by reminding her that in her misfortune she was far from alone.

I was raised on Depression stories; this was only one of many told around our dinner table. Hearing them again and again, I became fascinated by the role that stories play during hard times—the way they seem to strengthen people, offering a bulwark against loneliness and feelings of personal failure. That is how I came to find myself spending a year in a dimly lit storage room in the Library of Congress, sorting through thousands of interviews with ordinary Americans telling of how they survived the Great Depression.

The stories were collected in the late 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a unit of the Works Progress Administration that employed out-of-work writers. But before the intended series of anthologies could be published, the Writers' Project was Red-baited out of existence. The oral histories—of tobacco farmers, smugglers, midwives, jazz musicians, oil roustabouts and others—ended up crammed in rickety filing cabinets in a remote storage room in the library stacks.

When I learned of these forgotten stories, I decided to try to finish what the project had started by editing an anthology of the material. Sifting through the 150,000 pages in the dusty storage room, I was looking to fall in love. And I did—with a collection of people who were by turns scared, determined, funny and brave, and whose clamorous vitality seemed to burst from the pages. I fell in love with Marie Haggerty, a Massachusetts housemaid who talked about how, when her employer left a $5 bill on the floor, "my face burnt like fire, for I knowed I was gettin' tested." With Irving Fajins, who while trying to organize his fellow workers at Macy's hit upon the idea of secretly distributing the union literature via the toilet-paper dispensers. With Lloyd Green, a Pullman porter who lamented his move north to the big city: "I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me."

The inhabitants of those file drawers told stories about how they got by using a mixture of ingenuity and guile. They hawked lucky charms and patent medicine made from "roots and barks and good raw whiskey." They peddled cake flavoring and cased sausages, they auctioned tobacco, they fished and smuggled rum—and sometimes aliens—from Cuba to Key West. They worked in coal and granite and cotton and iron. ("You ain't an ironworker unless you get killed.")

The women quilted and pressed laundry, stitched shoes and danced in burlesque shows. They took in boarders and delivered babies, and when their men ran out on them, they swallowed their pride and threw rent parties, as Bernice Porter described doing in 1920s Harlem.

These days, we may not be passing the hat at parties to come up with rent money, but we are in the midst of an economic meltdown. Now that hard times have returned, I believe storytelling is due for a revival. While the Federal Writers' Project is no longer around, it has inspired a modern version in StoryCorps, a five-year-old oral-history organization that encourages people to "celebrate one another's lives through listening." And we have just elected a president who invited us on his transition Web site to "Start right now. Tell us your story."

We need again to imagine a future that is meaningful in the face of difficult circumstances. Listening to each other's stories may grant us a sense of common purpose that money can't buy.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Talking to Studs

Telling Studs Terkel a story was not a relaxing experience. He listened really hard. And what he heard was what you would have said, had you been a more expressive and insightful version of yourself. Your job was to rise to his estimation of you. If this was an unnerving prospect, Studs was ready to pitch in and help. His magpie imagination was ever on the alert for stray bits of meaning and chance strands of connection.

You might find yourself absently mentioning a random detail that seemed to have no particular point or place in the narrative. Studs would seize on it, hold it up to the light, and marvel at how brilliantly it illuminated the theme you were developing. “There was something you said earlier,” he’d say, and rewind the tape and show you what he meant. “Listen to this,” he’d say. “You see? You see?”

Studs liked to call himself a guerrilla journalist, but I think that is exactly wrong. Journalism demands a consecutive habit of mind; Studs was much too non-linear for that. He always took the scenic route. And guerrilla implies stealthy tactics, which was never Studs’ way.

It suits most interviewers to distract their subjects from the tape recorder. Just ignore it, they will say, secretly hoping that they can steal off with some juicy morsel the interviewee never meant to reveal. Studs, on the other hand, deliberately drew attention to his mechanical beast, using it to create a sense of theater, the auditory equivalent of a proscenium arch.

The self-consciousness that lesser interviewers try to finesse with their tiny, unobtrusive recording devices, Studs used to raise the bar on his subjects. There was no way, talking into his lapdog-sized reel-to-reel machine,* that you were likely to forget it was there. Instead, he made it feel as though that you and he were going to use the bulky instrument to create something, and that together you would settle on its meaning.

Of course that was only part of the story. The several thousand words of mine that begin on page 43 of American Dreams: Lost and Found were culled from a 50-page interview transcript. As Studs described his method, this “rough, unexpurgated material” was panned for gold, molded into a narrative and given a title. I was “The Wanderin’ Kid,” in his book, and my interview appeared sandwiched between “The Travelin’ Lady” and “The Indian.”

To be honest, it’s embarrassing to read “The Wanderin’ Kid” today. I sound young, which I was, and eager to expound on my every thought. I’m touched that he captured my struggles to reconcile my happy childhood memories of Army post life with the larger meaning of the world I grew up in. The distant boom of guns, artillery practice, sounded like a lullaby to me. But I’m slightly mortified by the undercurrent of resentment Studs detected. My political awakening seems to have been fueled as much by pique that on Army posts men got all the attention as by any misgivings about American imperialism. I told Studs, “The feeling I had was that these men who got to lord it over others, just because they jumped out of airplanes, were macho. My only weapon was to make fun of it.”

Was this my truth, highlighted, as Studs once called the edited oral histories? I might not be eager to admit it, but I imagine that’s what I was thinking in those days. Studs just listened so hard that he got me to say it.

*Later, Studs switched to a smaller, but still dictionary-sized Sony.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Black Like Him

Remember Susan Smith, the young South Carolina mother carjacked by a black man who drove off with her two sons still in the car? Remember Charles Stuart, the Boston man robbed by a black man with a “raspy voice,” who also killed his pregnant wife? Now Ashley Todd has joined their ranks as creator of yet another lurid tale involving a fictitious black male criminal. Todd doesn’t need remembering, since she has starred in several recent news cycles.

The young, white McCain volunteer decided to stage her very own dirty trick. She would fake an attack on herself by a black man, purportedly enraged that she was working for the Republican campaign. She turned up at a police station in North Carolina with a black eye and the letter “B” scratched in her cheek -- which, a McCain flack helpfully pointed out to a reporter, stood for “Barack.”

You might think that this story would have excited suspicion right from the start, especially since the “B” was scratched backwards, Todd apparently not having figured out to reverse the image in the mirror. In the photographs her stage-makeup black eye looked like it would have yielded to a damp handkerchief, and apparently did, since it had disappeared by the time of her perp walk.

Todd’s story finally unraveled when no record of her was found on the security camera at the ATM where she claimed to have been withdrawing money at the time of the attack. Before she confessed, however, Todd reportedly received sympathetic phone calls from both McCain and Palin, and a concerned note from the Obama campaign expressing the hope that the perpetrator would soon be brought to justice.

Ashley Todd is a disturbed young woman and obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Certainly her failed hoax wasn’t orchestrated by the campaign. Republicans are the party of Karl Rove, after all; they can do better. But it’s horribly depressing to witness the return appearance of this pernicious fabrication. The predatory Black Man. Him, again. He’s 6’4” and is wearing a track suit. Maybe a knit hat. He has a raspy voice. And a gun or possibly a knife. The details vary, but not by much, since the perpetrators of this particular falsehood tend to be imaginatively challenged. So it’s pretty much the same old story.

Our best hope is that the audience for it is dwindling. That would be a change I could believe in.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

John McCain's Imaginary Friend

So John McCain is taking his imaginary friend campaigning with him in Florida. Candidate McCain has just kicked off a bus tour called the “’Joe the Plumber’ Keep Your Wealth Bus Tour.” Joe, being imaginary, will not actually be on the bus. The real Joe, as everyone knows by now, is not named Joe, does not have a plumbing license, and is a tax delinquent. Or he was until a sympathetic Oregon radio host raised $1,200 to pay his tax bill, Queen-for-a-Day-style.

In his famous exchange with Barack Obama, Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher fretted that his ability to buy a business would be undermined by the Obama tax plan – although in fact, an Obama administration would improve Wurzelbacher’s bottom line. Since he earns around $40,000 a year, he actually would get a bigger tax cut under Obama’s plan than under McCain’s, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center. [http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/]

You’d think that these revelations would enough to make the Republican to tiptoe quietly away from their new Everyman. But wait, there’s more! As one blogger put it in a headline, “Joe ‘the Plumber’ Wurzelbacher related to Charles ‘the Crook’ Keating.” Oops.

It turns out that Joe is a close relative of Robert Wurzelbacher, son-in-law of Charles Keating of the infamous savings and loan scandal that tainted McCain’s early political career. You might think that the campaign would have done a better job vetting the man they planned to reference 22 times in the final debate. You might also think that Joe the Plumber was a Republican plant.

Either way, it makes no difference. A week later, the real Joe’s story is out there, his tax arrears, his unlicensed status, his disreputable relations. Yet Joe the Plumber has transcended these inconvenient facts and become Joe the Political Metaphor. A story in yesterday’s Miami Herald reports on a Florida polling phenomenon they call the “Joe the Plumber Effect,” which apparently has improved McCain’s standing in Florida.

For an imaginary friend, Joe seems to be working out pretty well for John McCain. Better than his imaginary enemies anyway.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

McCain Hearts ACORN

The time: 2006. The place: Miami. The occasion: a rally co-sponsored by ACORN, the community advocacy organization that a Republican spokesman recently called a “quasi-criminal group.” The keynote speaker: a man who is now running for President of the United States.

He addresses the enthusiastic crowd with these words: “What makes American special is in this room tonight.” The room erupts in cheers . . . for John McCain. Yes, the same man who is now “worried” about Barack Obama’s ties to ACORN, says he needs to “explain” them. Here’s the tape: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV9HX1Tjhyw

So I am worried, Sen. McCain – as recently as two years ago, you were praising the very same quasi-criminals you now deem a threat to our democracy. Can you explain?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sarah "Pro-Choice" Palin

Governor Sarah Palin is famously opposed to abortion - even in cases of rape, and even, as she said in 2006, if the victim were her own daughter. Since then, the governor has walked the walk - unlike the hypocritical Rhode Island legislator I once interviewed who voted to bar abortion counseling in that state, and then arranged for his teenaged daughter to get an abortion in New York.

Two years after Palin delivered that speech, her teenage daughter Bristol is pregnant -- though not as a result of rape -- and she will be having the baby. Palin herself has also faced a situation where many have chosen abortion. Pregnant at age 44, she learned as a result of a blood test that the child she was carrying had Down syndrome. Baby Trig now accompanies her on the campaign trail

Yet according to her standard stump speech, the adamantly pro-life Palin apparently did make a choice when told that the baby would have special needs. She and her husband “talked, prayed, reflected and ultimately decided to have the child,” the New York Times reports. According to my thesaurus, “decide” is a synonym for “choose.” A decision is a choice.

Sarah Palin was still a child when many women in this country fought for the right she would later avail herself of, the right to reflect and then to choose. I wonder whether her daughter was allowed the same control over her own reproductive fate -- since Palin also believes that minors should be required to have parental consent to get an abortion.

In her own life, it seems that Sarah “pro-life” Palin is also Sarah “pro-choice” Palin. I'm all for that. You chose, Sarah, as was your right. Think hard about the justice of denying that right to others.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I've just had my first experience of registering voters and I believe I may have missed my calling. Not only did I love it, but to my surprise, I was good at it. Normally I hate accosting strangers. I may be one of the few women around who would rather get hopelessly lost than stop and ask directions. There's always a tape playing in my head of the reasons someone probably doesn't want to talk to me: they're late for an appointment; it's time for their son's nap; they just had a fight with their husband. Even if they're not in a hurry, maybe they're in a bad mood.

But armed with a clipboard and a fresh batch of crisp white voter registration forms, I turned out to be unstoppable. No excuses. Kids fussy? I'm happy to amuse them while you fill out your form. Need to check in for a doctor's appointment? I'll sit with you in the waiting room while you get this done. Aren't eligible to vote because you are an ex-felon? Wait! The law has changed! Sit right here and we'll get you registered. It will only take a minute.

Not everyone needed persuading. Many people I met had already registered to vote, and some expressed great enthusiasm about our efforts. There were hugs and offers of help. Thus I enlisted several deputies, including Kenneth Eady, a young man who told me that he was planning to attend a vice-presidential-debate-watching party that night at a skating rink. The voter registration deadline was looming and he was sure that some of the guests still needed signing up. I gave him all the forms I had left. “When everyone gets there,” I joked, “just lock the door and don't let them out until they've filled out the forms.”

I phoned the next day to see how things had gone, and discovered that Kenneth also had succumbed to registration fever. After signing up a dozen or so new voters at the roller rink, he'd acquired a second batch of forms from the Vote from Home headquarters. I caught him just as he was about to head out and start canvassing campus restaurants. “There are only two more days!” he reminded me, and I knew someone else had found a calling.