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The examined life

Personal historians preserve 'ordinary' lives through published memoirs

The examined life

(Krieg Barrie)

Casey McNellen

COMPELLING STORIES: McNellen meets with Rose Tchang at a retirement community in La Jolla.

When Beth McNellen wrote a memoir about growing up with a mother who was emotionally unstable, a literary agent told her the book was extremely well written. It might even have been picked up by a major publisher, he said, if only her mother had been a little more crazy. Or if McNellen herself had been a celebrity whose mother was merely garden-variety nuts.

That was in 2006. Extreme fame or misery, it seemed to McNellen, 62, of Lakeside, Calif., were the hot tickets in memoir. But years later she wondered, “What about stories of ‘small’ lives with big, heroic deeds?”

… such as the Portuguese woman who in 1907 told her family she was going out for a loaf of bread, but instead sailed alone 173 miles between two Hawaiian islands to rescue an infant nephew she heard was being neglected and abused.

… or five siblings who suffered orphanage atrocities after losing their elders to typhoid and insanity following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, only to pull together to create a close, loving family and sufficient wealth to care for generations to come.

All these people feature in books McNellen began writing last year after launching The Sound of Your Voice Memoir, a business she uses to help Greatest Generation clients preserve their life stories—not in hopes of a movie deal or a hand-wringing session on Dr. Phil, but for their descendants’ edification.

McNellen’s work echoes the biblical emphasis on honoring and recording family lineage, passing on the wisdom and folly of ancestors, and learning from both.

It is also part of a growing career field: the personal historian. Formerly an “encore career” populated mainly with professionals from related fields like social work or journalism, more people are choosing personal historian as a first career, said Sarah White, president of the 650-member Association of Personal Historians, an international trade group. White pegs the trend to the convergence of high-end home video and self-publishing options, as well as web-enabled genealogical research. The rise of the blog may also be a contributing factor, leading more professional writers to conclude that the lives of “ordinary” people are, well, interesting.

Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner said of memoir that God is always at work in history—even history not deemed worthy of The New York Times. “The Exodus, the Covenant, the entry into the Promised Land—such mighty acts of God as these appear in Scripture,” Buechner wrote, “but no less mighty are the acts of God as they appear in our own lives.”

Lots of nonwriters set out to put their lives to paper. But these projects often wither due to a lack of skill, White said: “How do you find the compelling stories in the messy stuff of a life?” Busyness also intrudes: Many people plan to interview aging family members but put it off until it’s too late, then grieve history and wisdom forever lost. 

By contrast, personal historians come alongside clients, get the main events down on paper (or film or audiotape), and make sense of it all. Beth McNellen spends anywhere from six to dozens of hours with each client, recording their lives on tape. Then she uses transcripts to sculpt a chronological narrative emphasizing high, low, and turning points. McNellen sends the completed manuscript to book packagers that produce retail-quality volumes in hard- or softcover.

Betty Slaughter Harriman, 88, of La Jolla, Calif., received 50 copies of Three Lives, the memoir she wrote with McNellen—just enough for family and friends. I interviewed Harriman and her husband, Hank, at the upscale retirement community where they live, a few miles east of the Pacific. We sat in their spacious living room, Southern California sun streaming in through open balcony doors, Betty in a coral blouse, slacks, and sandals; Hank lanky in loafers and pressed khakis. Betty was elegant and articulate; Hank kindly and smiling. Hank suffers from Alzheimer’s. Its inexorable advance was one reason Betty wanted to get their story down, so that he could enjoy it while he still remembered.

Three Lives chronicles Betty’s childhood as the only daughter of a divorced mother—a rarity during the Great Depression—and her two marriages. Her first husband, Jim Slaughter, contracted polio at age 29, but built and ran a boatyard on the San Diego waterfront, directing the entire operation from his wheelchair.

Slaughter died in January 1975. Later that year, Betty married widower Hank Harriman, an insurance executive. The two had been neighbors for years, but got to know each other better through a grief therapy program at their church and decided to join forces.

Memoir forces people to look inward. ... What soul have you forged as you overcame the obstacles of your struggle? — McNellen

“Today’s generation could learn a lot from mine,” Betty said, referring to the way Depression-era Americans coped with poverty, struggle, and loss. “I do not minimize the economic hardships people faced during the country’s recent recession. It’s more about what people today expect. The last thing people wanted to do in my day was go on [government] relief.”

When the couple’s adult children (his two and her four) first read Three Lives, they ribbed Betty about the details and pointed out stories she left out.

Betty laughs and waves a brush-away hand: “I told them, ‘Write your own book!’”

McNellen admits she is “madly in love” with Betty’s resilience and grace. In fact, she’s been inspired by her Greatest Generation clients’ near-universal ethos of through-the-fire sacrifice and extended-family cohesion, both of which seem rare in today’s world of entitlement programs and quickie divorce.

Take Paul Tchang, for example. The Chinese émigré was able to squeeze onto the last ship out of Hong Kong before the Japanese bombed the city on Dec. 8, 1941. His wife, Rose, later survived a harrowing escape. Once in America, Tchang found work as a draftsman. Then, with Rose’s consent, the couple lived on a fraction of their income so that he could finance his siblings’ college educations.

McNellen notes the generational and cultural differences between such families and herself and Baby Boomer peers: “I felt no responsibility to pay for my siblings’ college educations,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I might not even give them a loan!”

Some of McNellen’s clients are wealthy, but they have little to say about money. Working with the elderly, she has noticed that the approach of death is “the great leveler.” They don’t seem interested in cars, boats, jewels, or cash, no matter how much they’ve accumulated.

“Memoir forces people to look inward,” McNellen said. “What soul have you forged as you overcame the obstacles of your struggle? It’s all you have hope in now.”

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.