Oral History During a Moment of National Crisis

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Oral History During a Moment of National Crisis


Oral history is a great tool for extracting raw, emotional first-hand accounts of historical events. However, there are other advantages for collecting oral histories beyond the scope of the actual history. Oral history interviews can also be a source of emotional healing for the narrator and/or the interviewer. This is especially true in times of national tragedy, such as a global pandemic like the current COVID-19 outbreak. Doing oral history during a national or global pandemic presents critical challenges to the interviewers, which this article will explain.

National pandemics present offer an altered narrative to be formed when doing oral history because they create a unique environment where a narrator may have the memory altered by their surroundings. Kathleen Blee, award winning professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh explains, “meanings are created in social and political contexts; memory is not a solitary act.”[1] For example 9/11 created an overwhelming sense of patriotism in the days, weeks, and months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. An interview during this period may reflect the mood of the nation and uniquely shape the interview in a unique way. In other words, the national atmosphere can change the way someone recalls a memor or how an interviewer interprets an account. Blee outlines how interviewers can identify how such external factors affect oral history, “historical interpretation always requires attention to the partiality, bias, and distortions of any individual's particular historical account when garnering evidence from narratives of direct evidence.”[2] While these alternative atmospheres do not dismiss or invalidate a someone’s memory, they do require us to analyze ‘how do such external factors and current events change the story?’ As psychologist and psychoanalyst Ghislaine Boulanger explains, “When the world becomes a direct reflection of our most terrifying thoughts fantasies and nightmares, fear collapses the distinction between the outside world and internal experience, between fantasy and reality, and the survivor finds himself in a state of psychic equivalence.”[3]

During my experience this semester interviewing Navy Corpsman and Vietnam Veteran Gary Bell, I was aware of how Bell’s medical experience may impact the interview. I understood how he could talk about the diseases, illnesses and combat injuries he saw in Vietnam in addition to his actual combat experiences. I saw it as my job to make sure that I heard not the only the medical stories however because that would limit the potential scope of his true Vietnam experience. Fortunately, this was not an issue in the interview, but I was aware of the possibility and had a plan to correct in the form of leading questions. This same kind of awareness about the national mode is equally important.

Alessandro Portelli,

Alessandro Portelli, Italian scholar and author of several books including The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories, recognizes how worldly events and atmospheres, such as Covid-19, work to alter the cognitive functions and memories of narrators. Portelli writes, “for an experienced event ... is finite – at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before and after it.”[4] Portelli makes the connection between the numerous potential outside factors and their influence on how one remembers an event or moment.

Oral Historians must always be conscious of how current global events and atmospheres can influence memory and shape narrative accounts. The current COVID-19 outbreak is a prime example, it is a serious global pandemic that has people across the globe in an altered mind set, an interviewer must be asking the question, “Is my narrator and exception?” Probably not.


Corbin Landrum


Wabash College


[1] Kathleen M. Blee, “Evidence, Empathy, and Ethics: Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan,” The Journal of American History 80, no. 2 (1993), p. 599.

[2] Ibid., 598.

[3] Mark Cave and Stephen M. Sloan, Listening on the Edge: Oral History in the Aftermath of Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 115.

[4] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001)), 1



Corbin Landrum, Oral History During a Moment of National Crisis, Wabash College

Cite As

Corbin Landrum, “Oral History During a Moment of National Crisis,” Vietnam Veterans, accessed August 16, 2022, https://his240sp20.omeka.net/items/show/34.