How to preserve your family history, no awkward interviews required

RYAN JOBSON, 32, feeling frantic. His father, 62, had just started recovering from a heart attack at his home in Woodstock, New York. The couple had always planned to spend time penning the older Mr Jobson’s story – with a particular focus on his years as a student protester in 1970s Jamaica. But now Ryan, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, worried that the time to put pen to paper would never come.

A former student introduced him to Storyworth. For $99, the company sends weekly prompts to an email address of your choice. Each email contains either a question that you have written or selected from the Storyworth library. (Example queries: “Who are your favorite artists?”; “Do you have any regrets in life?”) The recipient enters their answers and has the option to attach related photos. After the year, everything is bound in a hardcover book.

Mr Jobson tried. He had expected to hear certain stories he already knew, but was surprised to discover that his father was opening up more than ever.

Eviatar Zerubavel, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers, says that debriefing relatives for genealogy research has taken a back seat as archival and genetic-based attempts have become more accessible and common. The results of this research, says Prof Zerubavel, often feel “more real” than anything you would learn from a phone call with your grandmother. “But I think there’s something sociologically beautiful about being able to experience history through proxies who were actually there, or maybe a generation or two away.”

For example, Prof. Serubavel’s great-grandmother was born in 1876 in what is now Minsk. “Your own grandparents and great-grandparents were around when Napoleon invaded Russia. Beethoven lived. Haydn lived. Suddenly the history of classical music is personal.”

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There are free tools from organizations like StoryCorps to help you facilitate these conversations, and of course you could always record and transcribe your conversation partner’s memories. And with these, you won’t run into a problem some Storyworth subscribers have: The company can only print your finished book in English, Spanish, French, and “most other western languages.” If your respondent writes in Arabic, you may have translated it.

Some online reviewers wish the company offered alternatives to typing answers, which can be difficult for writers with mobility issues or who never learned to type.

Looking back, Bernard Slack, 66, says he might have appreciated being able to record his answers, but says he had no trouble typing them up. The retired financial services provider, based in Littleton, Colo., was happy to provide cheeky short answers to a few questions to “give a boost” to the daughters who bought the subscription as a gift. For “How is your life different than before? a kid?” He wrote, “I have more money.”

Dave Coustan, a 47-year-old podcast producer from Atlanta, struggled to get his 79-year-old father to agree to the prompts the service initially suggested. But the answers improved dramatically when Mr. Coustan began tailoring the questions with a focus on details he knew of his father’s life. Eventually, he uncovered a story about his grandmother being sold counterfeit cancer drugs in the 1950s and discovered how her death inspired his father to become a doctor. “The story really helped me understand his commitment to the field,” said Mr. Coustan.

Jalisa Whitley, a 32-year-old nonprofit director who lives in Brentwood, Maryland, said her 67-year-old mother was immediately interested in Storyworth. Ms Whitley felt the urgency to get a subscription after losing several family members during the pandemic. “I’ve thought a lot about the stories that haven’t been told about her life,” she said.

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Her mother’s detailed responses changed how Ms. Whitley viewed her childhood. “It helped give her more grace,” she said. “It’s allowed me to have greater context for how she’s shown herself as a parent.” And it gave her clarity about her ancestral history, which she believes she can understand by using a service that focuses on based on official records, could not have gotten. For black families in the US, she notes, those records don’t always exist.

Storyworth listings can be accessed at any time from your account page, but those who have received their book say it can be a powerful tangible object. Mr. Jobson recalls that when his father saw the bound volume, he said, “I don’t know how I did that.”

Afterwards, Mr. Jobson was surprised by the number of people outside his family who asked to read it, mostly friends who were members of the Jamaican diaspora. He sees this as a way to document history through the eyes of families who witnessed significant historical events and to democratize recorded history. “I think it’s an invaluable resource to have the stories of ordinary people from that time,” he said.

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