After 9/11: Reflections on Post Trauma Oral Histories

Last March, I presented at the 2018 OHMAR conference with retired New York City firefighter Keith Murphy. We wanted to share our experiences and discuss the risks and rewards in documenting post-traumatic oral histories as it related to the conference theme Vulnerable Voices: Power and Privilege in Oral History.

Keith and I first met in 2002 when I was a Columbia University graduate student participating in the September 11, 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project. I interviewed Keith and other firefighters at Engine 47 on W. 113th Street about their experiences responding to the World Trade Center attacks and surviving the collapse of both towers. Since then, I also worked as an oral historian for Northeastern University’s Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive.

I have always been drawn to this work, but my understanding evolves with each narrator I meet. Every interview has taught me something, and unearthed more questions about risks, reciprocity and responsibilities. One day last year on the playground at my son’s school, I shared these thoughts with a fellow mom who is a social worker. She nodded and told me that a core tenet of trauma therapy is to do no harm: “Don’t unzip anyone without zipping them back up.”

Keith and I attended an oral history panel discussing the November 13, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, which included a powerful oral history via video of one of the survivors. The narrator described how he lived through the horrific attacks with his wife while consciously disassociating himself from certain aspects of the violence as it unfolded. Reflecting on the testimony we had just heard, Keith shared with me that when I had interviewed him, he had not yet been diagnosed with PTSD and that he had blocked some of the traumatic memories he had shared in our oral history interview fifteen years prior. Keith had only recently been able to re-integrate those parts of his experience and attend 9/11 memorials with his fellow firefighters. We decided we would try to work together again on this topic.

And so, Keith and I met with American University PhD candidate Rebecca Brenner for a roundtable discussion at the annual OHMAR meeting. We were in a room of like-minded listeners and practitioners, dedicated to the primacy of the narrator. Though Keith submitted the proposal with me, wrote his own presentation and booked the trip, I still worried. I remembered when I interviewed Keith in 2003, and he said, “Let’s just make sure we do the interview before 4 p.m., because if I talk about this any later, I won’t be able to sleep.” I hoped that this presentation was meaningful for all; but for Keith, I hoped that the time and effort was worth it.

I was overwhelmed with relief when members of audience began the Q&A session by earnestly thanking Keith for his participation, his willingness to share his unique perspective of survival and oral history narratives. I was especially grateful that Duquesne University Professor Jennifer Whitmer Taylor had brought a group of her graduate students to the conference and to our roundtable discussion. It was meaningful to hear their perspectives and questions, as individuals at the beginning of their oral history careers. I hadn’t realized until that moment the importance of letting oral history practitioners experience firsthand what it is like for a survivor to talk about their participation in an oral history archive: both the stakes of post-traumatic oral histories and the complexities inherent in documenting those oral histories. I still have my own unanswered questions in this field, but I am so grateful that a project I worked on seventeen years ago is still teaching me today. I am grateful that Keith and I were able to talk about a topic that means different but important things to both of us at OHMAR last year.

Joanna Shea O’Brien is an oral historian working in the Boston, MA area. Follow her on twitter @jsheaobrien or view her website.