Author interview: Emma Vickers on Unexpected Trauma in Oral History Interviews

In her recent OHR article, “Unexpected Trauma in Oral Interviewing,” Emma Vickers argues that oral historians can draw on psychoanalytic theories to better equip for unexpected trauma in interviews. Here, she answers a few of our questions about ways to navigate trauma when interviewing.

Can you explain what you mean by “unexpected trauma” in the interview process?

I define unexpected trauma as traumatic recall that has a tangential relationship to the content of the interview. An interview could be set up with an interviewee that was framed around a discussion of their work history, for example. Unexpected trauma might occur if the narrator explored a traumatic event that was unforeseen in the context of that interview.

Briefly give our readers an overview of how you draw on the psychoanalytic theory of transactional analysis and how it can be useful to understand for oral history interviewing.

Transactional analysis (TA) can have real utility in situations where unexpected trauma is recalled. TA is built upon the idea of three ego states: parent, adult, and child. When interviewees recall unexpected trauma, they can sometimes experience a collapse into feeling in the child ego state. One way to strengthen the adult ego state and bring an interviewee out of the traumatic memory is to ground them in the here and now reality of the moment using a grounding technique called refocusing. It’s a practice that has been really helpful for me when I have encountered unexpected trauma.

I also think that oral historians could adopt the system of supervision that qualified therapists and those in training work within. This would provide oral practitioners with a means of exploring their practice and offer a forum in which instances of traumatic recall could be discussed and understood.

How do you think oral historians can approach setting boundaries between being a researcher and becoming an unexpected therapist?

Knowing our limits as practitioners of oral history is really important. I am not suggesting that we should all train in TA but that we could mobilize some of its functionality in our practice. Unexpected trauma occurs frequently in the context of the interview scenario and yet we are not taught how we might help interviewees to process it. We need to know our limits, and that means equipping ourselves to assist interviewees who recall traumatic memories, specifically using the technique of refocusing, and knowing when we might gently signpost an interviewee to an external organization or end the interview, for example. Anything more than this goes beyond our practice.

How can interviewers choose whether to engage refocusing techniques or end an interview all together when trying to avoid narrator retraumatization?

Sometimes a collapse into feeling is sustained and refocusing only works temporarily. If an interviewee continues to display signs of trauma following a refocusing technique or is unable to achieve composure, then the interviewer should consider ending the interview.

Can you explain in greater detail how the “operational model of supervision” used by supervisors of therapists can help facilitate a more effective interviewer and interviewee relationship?

Oral interviewing is a solitary process and although many practitioners might debrief with a colleague following a difficult interview, there is no formal system in place that compels us to engage in that process. In TA, supervision allows practitioners to discuss their practice and identify any concerns. If oral historians were able to access a similar supervisory system I have no doubt that it would improve their practice and therefore improve the interviewer and interviewee relationship.

Emma L. Vickers is a senior lecturer in history at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. She is a member of the Oral History Society’s LGBTQ special interest group. She has published widely on the relationship between gender, sexuality, and war in the context of Britain in the twentieth century.

Featured photograph courtesy of Philadelphia Immigration.