“Have you had anyone cry on you?” Difficult lives and difficult stories (Miranda Francis)

Earlier this year, Melbourne novelist Steven Carroll spoke at a La Trobe University seminar on how to creatively write about the past.

He suggested writers are always present in their writing and that the best writing involves passion.

Perhaps the same is true of interviewing?

I have spent the first few months of my research carefully not doing this.

I have struggled to keep myself out of interviews, to keep an emotional distance and, most importantly, to not talk about my children. This is relevant as I am researching parenting. 

A recent emotionally difficult experience has prompted me to question this approach.

This post is an attempt to understand where I fit as an interviewer and as a researcher within my research project.
My oral history project examines memories of parenting in suburban Melbourne. It is based on life review interviews with women between the ages of sixty to eighty-five, focussing on their stories of parenting. There have been significant social changes since the end of the Second World War. I am hoping that these women’s memories of parenting will act as a lens to help understand how these changes have affected some women’s lives.

I have interviewed twelve women. Interviewing is tiring for the interviewee and interviewer– both physically and emotionally.

As a novice oral historian, I am learning to manage this. I allow plenty of time to get to interviews, for the interviews themselves, plan for breaks and allocate time immediately after the interview to write up my notes – before returning to the chaos of my own family life.

However, like parenting, interviews sometimes resist planning.

My most recent interview was in an area of Melbourne I have never visited. After the GPS instructed me to drive the wrong way down a one way street, I resorted to my handwritten map and unreliable sense of direction.  As a result, I arrived late and more nervous than usual. There is always a moment before knocking on a stranger’s door when you question whether you are in the right place and who will open the door. I am becoming familiar with this moment and I try to consciously catch my breath and pause. Running late, this time I forgot.

The subsequent interview ran reasonably smoothly but was somewhat flat. I wondered whether my own rushed emotional state had some bearing on this but decided some interviews simply work better than others. I began packing up my recording equipment and made polite conversation. My thoughts were already focussed on my own children, waiting for me at home. Part of me felt frustrated that I had given up a day of the school holidays for what had turned out to be a fairly humdrum interview.

Then my interviewee asked me “have you had anyone cry on you?”

I gave a non-committal reply about personal topics like parenting evoking complex emotions.

She then began a tragic story involving her daughter – a story tied up with a sense of mother’s guilt for not being there to protect her daughter. This five-minute story explained the silences in her earlier interview, and completely changed my understanding of her three hour interview.

However, this story was not recorded. My interviewee clearly wanted it to be this way but, I also have to assume, she wanted to tell me this story. Why? Did she want to fill in the spaces in her “official” story? Did my questions provoke these memories? My dilemma now is what to do with this “off the record” information.

Clearly, this part of the story cannot be told but I cannot “un-know” it. It necessarily colours the way I understand this woman’s life and influences the way I think about the larger historical picture I am developing of parenting. It has also changed how I feel about my own mothering.

After this conversation I drove to a café to write up my notes. A family came and sat at a table near me. The little girl looked to be around the same age as my daughter – about ten. Severely disabled, she could slightly move her head. Her mother ordered her a babycino and proceeded to struggle to spoon feed her daughter the frothy milk. The whole process of drinking an expresso cup of froth took about twenty minutes. That girl’s mother was there for her.  I found myself overcome with tears. So much so, I had to leave the café.

I am not sure what provoked my tears. “Being there” seems to be intimately connected with the idea of the “good mother”. Perhaps I was reminded of my own feelings of guilt for not always being there for my children, that my study necessarily means I am often absent from my children.

Oral historians capture moments of other people’s lives. We gather traces of stories like blotting paper. However, sometimes we absorb our interviewee’s emotions and the mark remains part our own story.

So, yes, I have had people cry on me. And I have cried myself.


Miranda Francis is a history PhD candidate at La Trobe University's School of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

She is a recipient of a scholarship funded by the Transition to Contemporary Parenthood research program at La Trobe University's Judith Lumley Centre.

Her research is an oral history of parenting in suburban Melbourne over the second part of the twentieth century. 

It involves life history style interviews with women over sixty focusing on their memories of parenting.


Unknown said…
Thank you for you article Miranda. As I am using film both still and documentary, I am also struck by the impact of bringing oneself into an interview and the influence of making the room in both myself and the participants' lives to be present to the story I am inviting them to share. It's a privilege to witness such a process. I've found that using a methodology that can include my experience and influence on the process has helped. All the very best. Lara