All too soon, observed Joan Didion, the things we thought we could never forget are forgotten. Or, as humorist MichaelO’Donoghue more succinctly put it: One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were dead.
Such is the state of modern life that so many family histories only stretch back to the grandparents’ generation, if that far. You always meant to climb the family tree with Grandpa, but, inevitably, it’s not until after he’s planted that you find the photograph tucked away in a drawer—young Gramps arm-in-arm with Kaiser Wilhelm. You’re left to forever wonder: What was that all about?
To remedy the familial tragedy of forgotten relatives comes sociologist Dr. Joyce Starr; she has created a company called Family Heritage, a customized oral-history service for those in need of making a deposit in the memory bank.
For a fee (starting at $550), Starr will draw upon her 20 years of journalistic and academic experience, and sit you down for a professional interview on the topic of you. Your life story will then be edited into a (hopefully) coherent form and returned to you as a bound volume, or, if you prefer, on cassette or videotape. Yes, you can be the star of your very own BarbaraWalters special.
The idea came to Starr because “at a certain point in your life, you look around and you realize that your parents might not be with you too much longer. And people you considered your friends and your peers are getting older.” These grim thoughts were offset by her “joy of interviewing,” and so she decided to “help people bring forth from their own experiences and their own family history a family record.” After all, oral histories are a Starr family tradition. Her grandfather was constantly being interviewed by his own daughters, and now it’s Starr’s mother’s turn: She recently sent Joyce five tapes’ worth of reminiscences.
“We’re such a garbage dump for information in this society,” Starr declares, “but the one thing we really don’t have arerepositories for the human side.” Since nobody writes letters anymore, she sees her product as “a letter to history.”
“I’m not going to build the family genealogy, I’m going to build the memory base of the people themselves,” explains Starr. And she hopes to involve younger people in the oralizing process, as opposed to the usual practice of racing the clock for deathbed confessions. “That’s exactly the wrong time to do it,” she insists. “The time to do it is when they’re robust and thoughtful and have stories that have been handed down to them.”
But why let an outsider in on dishing the family dirt? Why not just pop a Maxell into the Sony, uncork the zinfandel, and let the memories flow? Because unless you’re paying for it, you probably won’t get around to it. And Starr stresses the importance of the professional touch. “I have followed both the Studs Terkel and Oriana Fallaci school of interviewing for a long time,” she maintains.
Thus, it’s easy for her to loosen tongues and shake the anecdotes free. “When people believe that you are openly and warmly interested in their experiences and in helping them in presenting those experiences in a way that would be meaningful to the continuing link in the chain—they have so much to tell.”
And, she announces, “They know with me they have a proven quantity. I am a writer. I have three books under contract. I’m known in the publishing community and therefore have a reputation to protect.” To this, Starr adds 10 years as director of the Near East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Those still not sold can receive a flier, “What Others Have Said About Joyce Starr”—others being the president of Turkey and politicos like Max Kampelman (“I’m sure you’ve heard of him,” says Starr). Indeed, Starr feels close enough to the Secretary General of the United Nations to lose a Boutros when dropping Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s name as a reference.
But Starr is not leaving the world of think tanks and strategic analysis for mushy Sally Jessy-style encounters. “I’m an international specialist who believes that this side of what I’m doing is at the heart level.”
The thought prompts a chuckle. “Maybe I’m coming full circle,” she laughs. “Don’t we do that in life? Maybe after 20 years of understanding the political process, isn’t it sweet to go back to the individual?”
“In offering this service,” she muses, “I think I’ve come back to myself.”