Your Words, Your Voice: Bringing the Clarification into Sharp Focus through Oral History

“The importance of oral testimony may often lie not in its adherence to facts but rather in his divergence from them, were imagination, symbolism, desire break in.” —Alessandro Portelli1


We at The Clarification Oral history Project strongly believe in the democratization of means of representation. Considering the Clarification afflicted millions of people, consigning its reporting and analysis to a few “authorized” voices qualifies as a disservice to our stated goal of understanding the unexplained event that changed the world forever. Truth — at least as it pertains upheavals in the social and cultural realms — is less an objective, discrete, discoverable explanation, and more an averaging of points in a graph, a smoothing of curves, a bell-shaped normal distribution. Each unique story in our archives represents a pixel that may or may not be true to the emerging picture, but that still contributes to it as it blends with countless others to form coherent shapes. A reliable image of the Clarification, rich in detail, color-balanced, textured, and deeply contrasted, crops up as we zoom out and contemplate the collective effect. The more pixels we have, the higher the definition.

What Is Oral History?

Oral history is an aggregation of techniques and genres. Experts don’t agree on a clear-cut definition, but seem fairly well disposed to accept that oral history is namely three things: a taped or recorded memoir, the typewritten transcript of that recording, and the research method that involves in-depth interviewing.2

Although many terms are used interchangeably with “oral history” — among them, life history, self-report, personal narrative, life story, autobiography, memoir, testament, testimony  — the COHP sticks to the classical nomenclature and adds interview and testimony to signal that “there is someone else involved who inspires the narrator to begin the act of remembering, jogs memory, and records and presents the narrator’s words.”3

In choosing oral history is the ideal medium to scrutinize the real-life effects of the Clarification, we are guided by Raphael Samuel’s dictum when discussing the artifacts of history: “Sources like this may only come to life when there are people to explain, to comment and to elaborate on them, when there are other kinds of information to set against them, and the context of custom and practice in which they can be set.”4

A Collaborative Effort

Indeed, oral history is the work of at least two individuals: an interviewer and an interviewee. The content acquired, the information obtained, and the knowledge arrived at arise almost exclusively from a conversation. This collaborative nature of oral history presents us with a series of quirks that can throw off the inexperienced volunteer and even the seasoned academic.

First of all, oral histories possess dual authorship. Legally, all recorded testimonies obtained and preserved by the COHP are the intellectual property of the person providing the story and the person conducting the interview. Both sign a release form ceding only distribution rights. The COHP is a nonprofit organization, so payment of royalties is beside the point.

One of our recording booths.

Another interesting challenge — as regards collaboration — is the dilemma of sampling. The very essence of oralcy acts as a natural selector of the most eloquent narrators, acting as a filter against “the shy or inarticulate individual — or the person valuing privacy”5 This is partly the reason why the COHP sends out scouts to identify and persuade potential storytellers who, for one reason or another, eschew participation in our project. Whenever possible, program coordinators will pair the more experienced interviewers with the more reluctant or incompetent narrators.

Diminishing rapport (a growing antipathy between the interviewer and interviewee) and saturation (the repetition of ideas that begins to plague a testimony when the narrator has said everything that she can possibly say about a certain topic) are also troublesome setbacks that interviewers should watch out for.

Conceptual Pros and Cons

Oral history is also rife with challenges that go beyond the snags inherent in any collaboration. However, we at the COHP believe that all seeming challenges are really disguised opportunities.

A genre in and of itself, oral history is specially suited to tackle the complex weave of meaning shattered by the Clarification and resewn after it. The COHP is less interested in reconstructing the past through linear reporting, than to dig up and understand the mass transformation as it reconfigured people’s psyche and outlook. Personal testimonies provide the ideal tool, in so far as “speakers may be more interested in pursuing and gathering together bundles of meaning, relationships and themes, across the linear span of their lifetimes.”6

In the same vein, inaccuracies, misconceptions, prejudice, and outright lies are also carriers of useful information in the context of oral history, namely because “discrepancies within testimony and differences in comparison to other sources point to truths not factually accurate but psychologically true.”7 It is safe to say that the COHP is intensely interested in this psychological truth. After all “history is what the people who lived it make of it what the others who observed the participants or listen to them or study the records make of it.”8

With this in mind, volunteers playing the role of interviewers must be cognizant of the fact that their subjects see themselves as lead characters in the stories they share, and as such “motivation for describing oneself in the best light is always there.”9 Interviewers must take care not to antagonize, chide, embarrass, or pass judgment when they inevitably hear their subjects express ideas at odds with their own sentiments or with generally accepted facts. Some of the time common sense is a cultural construction, and we must be careful not to try to impose it on those who beg to differ.


The COHP’s aim is not to elucidate the secret workings of the Clarification, but to understand the effect of the Clarification on the people directly and indirectly affected by it, and what new social configurations arose, and are stil arising, from that change.

We favor protrayal, imagination, symbolism, and desire, over accuracy, linearity, and chronology. We believe that the limitations posed by the (mostly) self-serving accounts of our many contributors are really stepping stones to deeper truths, as they provide us with the opportunity to ask crucial questions: “How does he construct this view? Where do these concepts come from? Why does he build this persona and not another? What are the consequences for this individual?”9 Finally, we stand with Doctor Raleigh Yow when she avers that “in the recounting of events, the deeper layers of our thinking may be revealed, indicating the centuries long development of the culture in which we have our being. For this, oral history testimony is a research method par excellence because the researcher can question the narrator.”11



  1. “Peculiarities of Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 96, no. 12 (Autumn 1981): 96–107.
  2. Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994.)
  3. Ibid.
  4.  “Local History and Oral History,” History Workshop Journal 1 (1976): 191 – 208.
  5. Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994.).
  6. Alessandro Portelli, “The Time Of My Life,” in Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: State University of New York press, 1991).
  7. Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994.)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.