This address is a response to the review of our book, Insistent Voices, by Liz Tilley, which appeared in the magazine Oral History2.
The four points in the articles critique are:
I would like to deal with each of these points in turn as they apply to each subject, but mainly on the question of ownership, as this is undoubtedly the most important issue for the subjects, and for us here today.
The book was assembled in chronological order and the first three chapters/subjects can be dealt with as a group (Pamela, whose autobiography appears in the book, will contribute to this), because they are all 'documents that are significantly authored by the person who is their subject. In these documents the subject plays a central role in contributing to the specification of her own self ... These documents have the potential of incorporating a wide readership and of recruiting an audience to the performance of new stories ...'
William, Rueben and Pamela set about constructing their 'new' stories, always thinking of a new audience - the friends they now had in the community and the family they were to meet or hoped to meet. Also, as Paul Williams noted in his review, they worked to become 'equal citizens' sharing their new narrative; and they all did - I will give examples.
The fourth chapter/subject, Jenny, is an affectionate memoir by her best friend Margaret, as reported to me. I added background information from my own experience. The ethics of this inclusion is a matter for discussion, as to ownership.
Jill already had her story, and a good memory, in the form of actual official letters pertaining to her care, and a mass of photographs, many of which she took herself. My proposal to her (contrary to the advice of her carer/confidante) was that we feature the book in the local newspaper, as Pamela had already done. The concern was to be even-handed and, of course, publicise the book.
Jill, unlike the others, was concerned to be an ordinary member of her community - there was to be nothing remarkable other than a single woman with some physical disability who had moved in to take care of her elderly father, now deceased. The concern (and her carer's) was to 'pass' to use Goffman's3 concept – she sought anonymity. The article appeared, and Jill complained to me about its content. Her 'cover had been blown' and she was revealed to be a former inmate of a 'hostel for the mentally handicapped'. Worse, the article made mention of her adoption, a fact she did not want known. As Dorothy Atkinson4 has said, 'It is easy for people with learning difficulties to lose their stories.' Jill complained to me, and I agreed the exercise had been a mistake.
What are the lessons learned?
For the purposes of discussion we might wish to start with a quote from writer Richard Hoggart5 ... "[in future] I will take more care before writing something that rather casually runs up the flag of authors' freedom. That can be an indulgence on our part, one which rides easily over some others' rights."
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School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
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