Blogger's note: On September 3, Christopher Leo posted a query to the H-Urban list, asking about the effect of ethics review on urban research . Roberta Gold's response hinted that she had thought hard about the issue, so I asked her to share her thoughts on this blog. She has graciously agreed.
Roberta S. Gold, "'None of Anybody's Goddamned Business'?: Oral History and the Communist Past"
When I began my doctoral research on tenant activism in New York City, the powers-that-were at my university waived the extensive human subjects rigmarole after I filled out a short form attesting that my oral history interviews would pose minimal psychological risk. Not until years later, when I saw articles on the debate over Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), did I learn that this bit of common sense was so rare. I agree with the many oral historians who have criticized the application of medically-modeled human subjects review to oral history. Oral history can raise ethical quandaries. But these vary significantly from project to project, and generally call for more sensitive responses, grounded in the historical discipline, than those provided by the all-purpose IRB model.
Looking back at much of my research, I find the notion of a review board's responsibility to protect vulnerable subjects from my probing questions almost laughable. The subjects were veteran grassroots activists, many with decades of experience talking to the press. I was a rookie with a new tape recorder from Radio Shack. I was putty in their hands. When I posed questions they didn't like, they smiled and steered onto a different topic so deftly that I didn't realize what had happened until twenty minutes later. Or they told me why I was asking the wrong question. I recall a civil rights historian's remark that one does not so much interview SNCC veterans as get schooled by them; something like that could be said of talking to seasoned housing activists, too.
But once in awhile we did enter painful territory. The best preparation I had for these moments was a conversation with one of my faculty advisors, who warned, "Be very, very careful in asking anything about the Communist Party. You don't know how deep the scars from the McCarthy period run." This told me more than any IRB dictate could have done.
The second best preparation was not preparation at all, but experience. After I did some interviews, I got a better sense of the delicate organism of oral history, of the way one has to develop questions out of what's just been said, and of the need to build trust and rapport before broaching the harder topics. In a few cases, the process forged a connection that I know I cherished, and I think meant something to the "subjects" too. In the remaining space I'd like to recount the ways that Communist Party history, variation among individuals and my own learning process played out in my interviews with several people.
The first was Jane Benedict, a central figure in New York's tenant movement from the 1950s through the 1990s, whom I met in the summer of 2000. I was just starting my project then, and had barely begun the background reading, which meant that it was not an ideal time to conduct an interview. But, just as Marx predicted, economic determinism won out: Benedict and I were both on the West Coast – I at school and she having retired to Oakland – and I was about to head to New York for the year. I decided I'd better talk to her immediately so I would not have to cough up cross-country plane fare in a few months. As well, she was then 88 years old; one teacher told me, "Quick! Get her before she drops." We set a date for June.
I arrived in Oakland carrying a borrowed recorder (didn't invest in the Radio Shack model until I reached New York), a few pointers from teachers, and some guidelines from an oral history how-to book I'd found in the library. Ms. Benedict (as I then thought of her, although she soon snapped, "Call me Jane!") met me in front of her house. Her warmth and magnetism calmed my nerves a little. At something like four feet, nine inches, she also made me fell tall (a rare experience for me at 5'2"). But my illusion of stature was fleeting.
It didn't take long before she led me to discard the few rules I'd learned. She announced that we would talk out back in the garden (Rule #1: conduct the interview indoors, where there's less background noise). She started telling me about her life before I'd even taken a seat (Rule #2: have tape recorder running before subject begins to talk). Within five minutes, and without any prompting, she disclosed that despite the Americanized "Benedict," she and her late husband were both Jewish; that they had both been trade union organizers (sometimes an indicator of leftism); that their daughter was gay; and that she (Jane) was looking forward to the birth of her first great-grandchild, who would be half black. I concluded that she had nothing to hide and oral history was a cinch (Rule #3: be careful asking about sensitive subjects). And she kept talking, with boundless verve, for about four hours (Rule #4: remember that old folks tire easily and keep the session short). Then she asked if I'd like to join her for dinner at the Thai place around the corner. This became the kernel of my yet-to-be-published theory that tenant activism leads to remarkable longevity and vitality in old age.
Breaking Rule #3 was the real blunder. Inspired by the "new" historiography of American Communism – studies from the 1980s and 1990s which looked at the grassroots experience of Party membership, challenged the top-down, Comintern-driven model, and sought to recover the creative, diverse, homegrown ways in which the U.S. Party had contributed to American justice movements – I was eager to explore the relations between New York's CP and its tenant groups (relations that my limited reading told me had probably existed). Of course, I also wanted to record the general biographies and reflections of tenant leaders, so I listened with interest for the first couple of hours as Jane reminisced fondly about her childhood, her husband Peter, her political awakening in the labor movement, her introduction to tenant issues in Yorkville in the 1950s – and less fondly about an array of officials (re Robert Moses: "Now he's a saint; I assure you he was a son of a bitch when I knew him"). Then I realized that we had not yet touched on an important topic. So, with a confidence born of breezy Jewish/union/lesbian/interracial disclosures, I asked how the Communist Party had fed New York's tenant movement. And suddenly the breezy talk stopped. She clammed up. Scars run deep indeed.
She did recover her poise pretty quickly, and managed to address the question in an oblique manner that took us rapidly in another direction. At least I had the sense to keep my mouth shut. And I think we stayed on a friendly footing (else why the invitation to Thai food?). But I felt I'd screwed up.
Sobered, I headed to New York, where one of my early interviews was with an even more experienced tenant leader named Frances Goldin. A head taller than I, clad in a bold "Free Mumia" t-shirt (she chairs his defense committee), possessed of a no-nonsense manner, she gave the distinct impression that she could knock me flat despite her seventy-odd years. I sat up straight and made a mental note to avoid impertinent questions. But it turned out I didn't have to. Ms. Goldin voluntarily told me all about the experiences that had led her into the Communist Party, what she had learned as a member, and how the organization had shaped her outlook and life. (All this came before the lesbian daughter discussion, although Goldin has two to Benedict's one, so you could say she comes out ahead on that score, too). Like Benedict, she spoke with great warmth about her father, and about the tenant community in which she'd settled (in this case, the Lower East Side). Unlike Benedict, she had once picked up a butcher knife to fight off a violent landlord and had nearly killed him.
Thoroughly mixed up, I proceeded through some more sessions with diverse veteran organizers. Each gave the interview its own flavor. All told moving stories of nefarious landlords, besieged tenants, solidarity and division, hard-won victories and painful defeats. One subject was Marie Runyon, a Morningside Heights resident since the 1940s, whom New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote "still sounds as if she left her native North Carolina an hour and a half ago." She poured forth a stream of lively stories about her political adventures with the likes of Bayard Rustin, Moe Foner and Benjamin Spock. As a coda she noted a little sadly that she had never actually joined the Communist Party, then drawled, "But don't say that, because it's none of anybody's goddamned business."
By and by I came to interview Chelsea organizer Jane Wood, known as the other great Jane in New York tenant circles. At 93, she was the eldest of the bunch, and the most guarded. She said no to the tape recorder. She did tell me about her life in the tenant movement, in a terse, reserved manner. My hand notes make no mention of the CP, and frankly, I'm not sure now whether I asked and she stonewalled, or whether a grain of sense told me not to ask. But I have a strong memory of her being hermetically sealed on that subject. (She did, however, offer clues when she spoke of her work with the American Labor Party and the CIO, both leftist groups. And when I asked how she met her husband, she said, "I don't remember." Right.)
Through all these sessions, I felt the tug of two ethical impulses. One was not to cause pain. I suppose that impulse, actually, had both ethical and self-serving dimensions. On the ethical side, I genuinely liked and admired these women. I appreciated their generosity (several had me into their homes and treated me with something of a grandmotherly air); who but a schmuck would pay them back by opening old wounds? On the self-serving side, I also didn't want to alienate them and thus make them unwilling to talk further.
The second impulse was a sense of responsibility to the historical record, and to the way future generations would understand the past. To me, revealing the richness of the American left's history was not just an interesting intellectual endeavor; it was an effort to do a little justice to people who had, for decades, been branded subverters of freedom, dupes of Moscow, unwavering Stalinists, and so forth. By now, others had documented the Party's contributions to the American labor and civil rights movements. I believed I was onto a story about the Party's – or Party veterans' – equally important contributions to struggles for tenants' rights and women's equality. I wanted to give the Party, and the activists, credit for those contributions. But I couldn't do that without asking some questions that made me sound like Joe McCarthy.
Let me stress, however, that these impulses, and the tension between them, did not neatly line up with the biomedical model of research that may harm human subjects but yield useful knowledge for "humanity." That is, I was not facing a simple conflict between the subjects' well-being and other people's historical knowledge. I believed that my project could do something positive for the subjects themselves, by treating with respect a chapter of their lives that many of them had felt compelled to keep hidden. And I believed that once-compelling reasons for secrecy – the blacklist, the legal prosecutions – were finally things of the past.
Amid all this I was also making my way through secondary and archival sources, which, especially when read alongside the oral histories, brought up new questions. So I contacted several subjects to request further interviews.
Marie Runyon had hardly been reserved on our first meeting, but she was even more voluble the second time around. Perhaps this was because we'd already established some rapport, perhaps because on the second visit I was more knowledgeable about the tenant movement and less green at oral history. Strangely, this second interview also benefited from a personal trait that I'd never considered especially scholarly (aspiring historians, take note! IRBs, try regulating this!): I have a way with cats. Ms. Runyon was by that time caring for an enormous, beautiful Maine Coon, which apparently shunned other visitors, but quickly befriended me. When the cat let me pet him, Ms. Runyon exclaimed; when he jumped up on my lap and settled there, kneading and purring, her jaw dropped. I got the sense that the cat's trust assuaged any remaining doubts the human might have harbored. Among the things she told me (unasked) was that Jane Benedict had been a Communist.
I did not seek a second interview with Jane Wood. This was partly because my ongoing research didn't raise anything I particularly needed to ask her. It was probably also because our first meeting, while friendly enough, didn't seem to offer many avenues for further discussion. She simply didn't want to talk much (unlike most of her peers, who were avid storytellers). I later learned more about her from her protégés, a generation younger and less fearful of political repercussions. Their reflections on Wood's ability to inspire and embolden immigrants, women and young organizers helped me, in my writing, to give her her rightful place in the tenant story.
The more I read and spoke to people in New York, the more I wanted to talk again with Jane Benedict, who for decades had directed the citywide tenant group, Metropolitan Council on Housing. Her failing hearing meant this could not happen over the phone. In the late fall of 2001 I flew back to California. Jane, now 90, seemed about the same as before, although her memory of details was starting to go. But I'd changed: I was less nervous and more informed than I'd been the first time we'd met, and I was on good terms with several of Jane's comrades back east. While I was not consciously trying to drop names, it probably helped that I introduced some questions with statements like, "Fran Goldin raised an interesting point . . . ."
We sat for a pleasant hour or so as I went through a list of questions that had emerged from my research over the last year and a half. Some were thematic (e.g., the connections between the civil rights and the tenant movements); others were aimed at filling in the blanks on specific people and events. She answered as well as her memory allowed.
Finally we reached the last questions, which of course had to do with that most fraught of subjects. By now I did not need to hear Jane confess her Party membership; Marie Runyon and another person had already "outed" her (not maliciously; I think they didn't know she was still so secretive at this late date). But I did desperately want to ask questions that weren't far removed. There was a whole literature on the roots of the New Left in the Old Left, and I was very interested in Jane's thoughts on the ways in which the Party of the 1930s and 1940s had schooled people like her, who became legendary tenant organizers in subsequent years . Further, in background reading on the 1960s, I'd been struck by the sociological concept of "co-optable communications networks" among activists – that is, networks that develop in one social movement but can lay the groundwork for another. (Among the examples elaborated by political scientist Jo Freeman are the networks of civil rights, anti-war and radical youth groups, which she argues facilitated the explosive birth of second-wave feminism.) I wondered if such a phenomenon had tied the Party of the Popular Front and World War II periods to New York's resurgent tenant movement of the late 1950s. Several founders of Metropolitan Council on Housing, formed in 1958, had been Communists or fellow travelers who led anti-urban renewal tenant struggles in their neighborhoods. How exactly had they come together to form a citywide tenant alliance? Had they known one another through a "co-optable network"?
This time I did not just pop the question. I broached it, acknowledging its sensitive nature, stressing that I was coming to it in a sympathetic, not a prosecutorial, spirit (Jane said she could tell that). And I sketched out historians' sense of the ways that Party veterans had nurtured later social movements such as civil rights. Did something similar, I asked, happen in the tenant movement?
Jane's first answer was, "I don't know. My own history you know, was trade union. In Yorkville, where we lived, and where the kids were small, growing up . . . ." She started back on some Yorkville tenant stories I'd already heard.
With a knot in my stomach and as much gentleness as I could convey, I said, "Uh huh. And in your own history, may I ask, had you become part of the Party, ever?" Jane paused and said, "Well, if you don't mind, I'd rather not answer that." "That's fine," I said. She paused again. Maybe thinking that she was 90 and starting to decline? In any case, her next words were, "That's its own answer." She paused a third time; I nodded and we exchanged looks.
Now, not only did I know; she knew that I knew, and I knew that she knew I knew. Her "non-answer" possessed a gravity I could feel in my gut; I believe Jane felt it strongly too. And that silent exchange was the watershed.
Now she started to address my earlier question for real. "I suppose, I mean, I would say, that not only Met Council, but many organizations, benefited from the fact that people were rooted in the Party. And [pause] well, there was a need for A,B,C,D, whatever kind of organization …." I recounted part of my interview with Goldin, who had said that what she'd gained from the Party was a general education about economics and politics. Jane responded, "Well, I think that's true. I think it's also true that it puts people in a spirit, campaigns are fought better. What governs a person's life? I've known people who've been in various organizations and come and gone. Others plant their feet and say, 'This is what I want to do.' Or they don't say, 'This is what I want to do,' they just do.… [And] – it broadens one's point of view. I think if you say, 'Look, we only live once, I might as well do with my life what I want to do' and it broadens the point of view. It not only broadens the point of view, theoretically, but the more you have contact with people, the more you feel that you're down to earth. At least that's what it meant to me. And that's what it meant to Peter. And I think that's what it's meant to our children. In that that they are, that we all don't always agree, it's all right, people have a right to disagree, and certainly different generations. But there is something there, an integrity, that holds up."
She was leading the conversation again. She told me about her trips with Peter to the Soviet Union. She told me about the harrowing McCarthy years, when they'd had to instruct their children what to do if men in suits ever showed up at the door and took their parents away. She told it all without uttering the C-word.
That she poured all this out on her own, with just a word of response or sympathy from me here and there, makes me believe that she wanted to tell it, once she'd taken that fearful leap into this area of memory – a leap I'd undoubtedly pushed her to take. Had I induced her to do something frightening? Clearly. Had I harmed her? I don't think so.
But that just raises the question how we define and measure harm? And risk?
When I'd filled out my school's human subjects waiver form, I had checked the "minimal psychological risk" line in good faith (the human subjects worker who walked me through the form offered the example of questions about a subject's sexual history and health to illustrate psychologically risky ones, and I was pretty sure I would not be asking tenant organizers if they'd ever had gonorrhea). I did not understand until I actually got into the project, and the interviews themselves, how emotionally difficult topics might come up even in a study of people's activity in the public sphere. This was no doubt in part because I was a rookie at oral and CP history. But it also reflected a certain unforseeability that is inherent in open-ended human conversation. Oral history is a venture into uncharted territory, not a controlled laboratory experiment.
Such unforseeability is equally inherent in the varied pasts and emotional structures that subjects bring to an interview. I recall that in the week before my college graduation, a classmate who'd been orphaned at a young age told me it pained her that acquaintances kept blithely asking, "When are your parents coming up for commencement?" Such a question would generally be considered polite small talk, but it hurt this woman because of her circumstances. Likewise, the same questions about party background went over very differently with Goldin and Benedict, both CP veterans of similar vintage, because they had coped differently with the Cold War witch-hunt. In short, there are limits to how well even an informed researcher can foresee "psychological risk" in a project that involves open-ended discussions with different people.
As for "harm," I am not persuaded that grappling with a discomfiting topic is always harmful. Sometimes it's satisfying. Sometimes it offers an opportunity to clarify one's thoughts, or to set the record "straight" (as one sees it). Which of these possibilities unfolds will depend not just on the subject's attributes, as indicated above, but on the researcher's. Although we don't often think of demeanor as a matter of ethics, it seems to me that in practice, the interviewer's manner – her tone, pace, responsiveness, courtesy and so forth – have at least as much effect as do her questions on how the interview "feels" to the subject.
Such subtleties aside, there's a difference between asking and badgering. One thing I believe I did right in my second meeting with Jane was to respect her initial decision not to answer the question about Party affiliation. And if she hadn't reconsidered that decision, I'd have had to live with the limits it would have set on the interview.
In short, I do believe there are ethical limits an oral history researcher should observe, and some of them ("Respect the subject's right to decline a question") can be spelled out. But the devils of the interview experience are in the details, details that often can't be foreseen or controlled by IRB-style rules.
Indeed, sometimes an ethical mode develops that could never have been planned ahead of time. The last question I raised with Jane pertained to the possibility of a "co-optable communications network" (I didn't use that phrase, but I introduced the concept) from the CP that might have accelerated the development of connections among later tenant organizers. She struggled with her memory. She confessed that she couldn't recall clearly how she'd met some of her fellow tenant leaders. But some, like Fran Goldin, she had known earlier, through – she paused again uncomfortably. "Prior activism?" I suggested. She relaxed and said yes. That code served as a meeting ground between her impulses and mine – in fact, between her own conflicting impulses (to keep a secret, on the one hand, and to contribute what she knew to the historical record, on the other).
Jane Benedict died in the summer of 2005. Her memorial service in New York was an uplifting event featuring many prominent activists and politicians who testified with great feeling to the ways Jane had inspired them, taught them and transformed their lives. (One, longtime CORE leader and Congressman Major Owens, an African American who is twice Jane's size, beamed from the podium as he declared, "I am a proud bearer of the philosophical DNA of Jane Benedict.") Her children spoke proudly of their parents' lives in the struggle, including their membership in the Communist Party – something they felt there was no longer any reason to hide. I noted very briefly that my dissertation, now completed, was starting to get some notice and thus publicize the story of Jane's life and work; this drew great applause. During the reception afterward I spoke with the family about that last interview in Oakland. As they thought back on the series of strokes Jane had suffered in her final years, they said I'd "caught" her at the last good moment. To this day I'm glad I did. I think Jane would be, too.
Frances Goldin and I have continued our interview over several sit-down sessions and phone conversations. Each time we've talked, the granite has worn down a little and the warmth has come through. A few months ago, Frances, now 83, had me down to her place for a soirée she threw to tell her comrades about her recent trip to Cuba (where she'd been promoting the newly-released Spanish translation of one of Mumia's books). As an uptown resident I was something of a foreigner among these Lower East Side nationalists. But Frances kissed me hello and had me introduce myself and my research project to the crowd; she told me afterwards how happy she was that they'd heard about the history I was writing.
Frances is not one for euphemisms or code-words, but she has directed that a very few of her frank statements (about episodes of discord within the movement) be kept off the record. I have not published those remarks. I hope she changes her mind someday, as I think that future generations can learn something useful from the dirty laundry of the past. But it will be her call.