On January 11, 2019, Trisha Thompson Pritikin sat for an oral history interview with Oregon State University’s Dr. Jacob Darwin Hamblin, as part of the NSF-funded project, “Reconstructing Nuclear Environments and the Downwinders’ Case.” Pritikin—a Downwinder who grew up in the 1950s downstream from the Hanford nuclear site in Richland, Washington—offered her story in front of a live audience of roughly fifteen people. The interview session was an intimate opportunity for everyone involved to experience an oral history in a unique and communal way.
The live nature of the interview humanized Pritikin, perhaps more so than simply reading a transcript or listening to an audio recording. Sitting in the audience elicited the feeling that you were part of a conversation rather than a passive observer. While her attention was predominately directed towards Dr. Hamblin, who prompted her with occasional questions, at times Pritikin turned and addressed the audience directly. This was often to more thoroughly elaborate on a topic like her health effects or organizational structure, and further strengthened the sense of audience-interviewee engagement.
This leads me to wonder if such elaborations would have been as prevalent or effective in a traditional interview without an audience. Did the presence of this audience—consisting of students, faculty, and others—lead Pritikin to explain specific aspects of her story in more detail, or in a different way? It is impossible to say, although the potential seems likely.
The inclusion of a question-answer session after the main portion of the interview was also a valuable part of the experience. Pritikin answered several inquiries from the audience, ranging from lingering uncertainties to more empathetic questions about her feelings and reactions to developments in her past. This real-time feedback was a personal and effective way for audience members to better know Trisha Pritikin and her story.
Additionally, attending the oral history interview live emphasized the value of the visual components in an oral history interview. Sitting only a few feet from the interviewee, the audience was able to observe her body language and subtle emotes very closely. In this context, hand gestures, eye contact, or a pause with a deep breath each communicate significantly more emotional weight than if an audience member perceived the interview through nonvisual or disconnected means. The experience made me hopeful that video accompaniments to oral history interviews will continue to expand in prevalence.
Overall, Trisha Thompson Pritikin’s live oral history was a distinct, emotional experience made better by being in attendance. We thank her for sharing her story.