Truth or Consequences? The Problem of Authority

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Women Against Violence Against Women button, @ 1976

In When Radical Feminism Talks Back, a chapter of a collection I edited with Renee Romano, I discuss what is, to my mind, a critical issue in writing recent history: many of the people I am writing about are still alive. This is also a legal issue, at least for me. Many of the activists in my book were also writers who have retained copyright to their archival material. At least one who is not alive has a literary executor. Another organization whose archives I have used requires that the historian seek written permission to use their collection; and a second asks you to sign, as a condition of using the collection, an agreement not to publish the names of any of the women who wrote to the organization detailing how pornography was involved in the domestic abuse, incest and rapes they had experienced.

This has raised any number of questions about the process of turning my research into a published book that are, and are not, new. I ran into an example of the harm historians can do inadvertently several years after publishing my first book, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. In the course of my research, I found solid evidence that the Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) put pressure on bandits’ families to become informants and that, in a few cases, family members agreed to do so in exchange for guarantees that elderly parents and siblings would not be tried and jailed. If I had it to do over again now, I would make an even bigger deal of this than I did at the time, since threatening to prosecute innocent people has become a common prosecutorial technique, particularly since The Patriot Act has made it possible to do this without even a “ham sandwich” indictment from grand jury. And yet, I ended up on the telephone with an angry descendant of such an informant, who had grown up with an entirely different story.

Nearly everyone in the book about second wave feminism I am now writing is alive, and a number of them have agreed to be interviewed for the book. I am  hoping others will agree to this too. However, in addition to the legal question of archival permissions, I have run into several other issues since:

  • The Susan Brownmiller Papers, which Brownmiller gave to The Schlesinger Library without restriction, contain a set of interviews she did for her memoir, In Our Time (Dial Press, 2000). The practice of the Schlesinger is to close such files if the subject is living, and to require permission to use it. In one case, I needed permission from a literary executor: just for good measure, I asked for Brownmiller’s too, even though she had never closed them.
  • Personal emails. One of the pleasures of having cordial relations with the living people I am writing about is that I can ask them for help, or for information about something I don’t understand. Sometimes in the course of an email exchange I learn something I never would have thought to ask, such as word usage. Sometimes they reveal strong feelings. A couple of these folks are lawyers, and have explicit warnings posted on emails about not reproducing them, but most people do not write email thinking that it is going to go into the public realm.
  • When writing about late twentieth century radical feminism, don’t be surprised if your work is sent to a referee who participated in the events you are describing, who will have his or her own strong feelings about what you have written. It has happened to me repeatedly.

I am quite open about the fact that before anything I wrote goes public (either here, in a presentation of any kind, or in a book/article) it will first be vetted by the people who have been kind enough to work with me. I also have the people I interview read a corrected transcript so that we can agree on a version that is quotable. Between them and the academic referees, I would say that I have received three great gifts from these practices. The first is that it has raised my capacity to receive difficult criticism. The second is, whether the criticism changes my mind or not, it always produces a better piece of writing when I am forced to think my argument or choice of language through carefully. The third is that I have learned to collaborate with and cultivate respect for intelligent people, many of whom are not scholars, but who can convey a nuanced sense of their own past that ties together an inevitably fragmented paper archive.

Since I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in the chapter I have linked to in the first paragraph, let me just summarize some other conversations I have had with history colleagues on this subject. They raise important questions about ideas long cherished by historians that privilege objectivity and the authority of the sole author.

  • My friend David Greenberg, a journalist and political historian who contributed a chapter to our book, disagrees that you should let people alter or redact what they have said. Since we had this conversation, I have noticed that journalists do tend to see much of what comes their way as fair game, so I get his point: when asked to reconsider a strong statement or revelation, a subject might back off a statement that is more, rather than less, truthful. My view on this may seem cowardly, but I would say that one difference between history and journalism is that history requires sustained effort, over a period of years, one in which we are systematically checking evidence against other evidence to establish fact, a sense of milieu, and a deep knowledge of social relationships. Having someone reflect twice on what they have said seems like an important piece of this puzzle, and one check against publishing something that is ultimately destructive to another person.
  • Several colleagues (most recently feminist historian Joyce Antler of Brandeis in a wonderful round table at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Biography Seminar) have been skeptical about whether my process gives away too much interpretive authority  to my subjects. This is an evolving question for me, but I don’t think so. I do think that historians think to little about the  boundaries between narrative, interpretation and facticity; this becomes a particularly urgent issue when living people see their own words quoted correctly, but in a context that alters their meaning. This can occur when we quote part of a letter and summarize the rest (which we must nearly always do); when we do not understand to what the subject was responding; when we create narrative bridged that presume a thought, motivation or feeling of which we cannot be sure; or when we juxtapose two pieces of written  evidence in such a way that we create a false relationship between them. What I am immersed in, then, is a process of shared authority that I believe will, in the end, make the book a more authoritative (rather than objective) account of the events in question.

One theme runs through everything I have said here: the importance of disagreement to scholarship. For obvious reasons, we try to create communities of support and affinity to push our work forward. Academia can be a punishing environment, and writing a lonely endeavor. Too often, I think, that can permit us to unconsciously ignore or avoid scholars who disagree with basic assumptions that deserve to be re-examined over and over.

4 thoughts on “Truth or Consequences? The Problem of Authority

  1. Wouldn’t doing interviews (whether in person or online) require your research to be under the purview of The New School’s IRB?


  2. That is somewhat ambiguous in relation to history: it is only quite recently that historians have been required by some institutions to submit applications to IRB’s (see Martin Meeker’s essay in Romano and Potter, Doing Recent HIstory for a fuller explanation.) This project was initiated at Wesleyan University, which is where the bulk of the interviews were done, and where IRB oversight did not seem to extend to history (or at least, we were never approached.) Because of your comment, however, I did look up the IRB at The New School, and discovered that we are all under obligation to secure informed consent (check!) However, the links to the IRB application are broken; and the page seems mainly to be geared towards grants where IRB approval has to be proven in order to secure funding. Which is all to say: IRB’s should care about historians for than they do, but they tend not to, and I am inclined not to court trouble for me or other historians working at the university.


  3. Perhaps, if it were a new project begun here. Historians are covered by the IRB in some universities and not in others. All of those interviews were done when I worked somewhere else, where IRB was not interested in historians. But IRB does not necessarily dictate the responsible use of materials beyond the design of the research, fully informing the subjects, and not harming or exploiting them in the process of the research. Many people who have IRB approval do not return the research to communities in any meaningful way before they publish.


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