Lawmakers find deeper meaning in personal stories

The true meaning of a story is often realized years after a narrative is told.

As a case in point, StoryCorps has been sending mobile recording studios across the country for two years, gathering tales of tragedy and joy that make up the collective narrative of the American experience. One of these traveling booths made a stop in Washington last week, where it spent the week parked outside the Madison Building of the Library of Congress.

“People say these are just plain everyday people, so what’s the big deal, but in 10 years it will be a huge deal” to have an audio record of their personal stories, said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps, a project of the nonprofit Sound Portraits Productions, has teamed up with the American Folklife Center to archive interviews and make them available for public use.

More than 9,000 interviews have been collected so far.

Approximately 30 people took part in the project in D.C., including Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). Both told their personal stories.

Most Americans are living life at a pace that is “like playing solitaire in a wind tunnel,” said Blumenauer, which means there’s little time to reflect on daily life. “E-mail, IM, cryptic cell-phone messaging. Even the news morphs into shouting heads … [StoryCorps] struck me as a nice reversal of this trend,” he said. Blumenauer used his time in the StoryCorps booth to talk about the importance of the Library of Congress and the personal meaning it has for him.

Many are attracted to StoryCorps because it allows people to take a step back and evaluate the significance of their own life experiences. This is the only chance many people get to “have a 40-minute-long conversation with a loved one without distraction,” said Sarah Geis, a StoryCorps facilitator. StoryCorps participants are typically interviewed by a relative or close friend.

The stories people tell are often intensely personal. People talk about “relationships, their childhood, the questions you always have but never get the chance to ask over the dinner table,” Geis said.

Farr, a lawmaker since 1993, told the story of his experiences in the Peace Corps, which was a time when “tragedy struck in my family,” he said. During his two years of service, which started in 1963, his mother suddenly died of cancer. Although Farr was able to return home upon hearing of her illness, he was forced to return to rural Colombia and could not be with her when she died.

This was a traumatic experience for Farr, but the pain he felt was eclipsed by what happened next. His father and two sisters were visiting him in Colombia when his 17-year-old sister Nancy was thrown from a horse at full gallop. Upon falling, she suffered a brain hemorrhage that doctors in the rural hospital were unable to treat.

“I remember having this depression, anger, and thinking, ‘Damn these Third World countries. Why did my sister have to die here?’” Farr recalled in his StoryCorps interview. But then he realized, “Well, why did you join the Peace Corps? Wasn’t it to make sure things like this didn’t happen?

“It didn’t matter that she was an American citizen and she had an American passport,” said Farr, who was close to tears at one point in his interview. “When she had an accident in a poor rural area, and they couldn’t provide any help for her, they couldn’t provide any help for anybody.

“My sister’s death is the most profound thing that’s ever happened in my life, and it led me into politics,” the lawmaker said.
For Farr, recording his story was a way of paying tribute to lost family members. “One of the ways I’ve found to keep the love I have for my mother and my sister alive is to talk about it,” he said.

And thanks to StoryCorps’s partnership with the Library of Congress, his story will now be on record for others to listen to for years to come.