Taking Silence Seriously: A Musing on Method and Oral Histories

By Sharon Myers

“How are you related to all these people down there?”  This seemingly innocuous question went unanswered in an oral history interview with then 82-years-old Rosella McCarron-Gallant. Twenty years ago, Island historian and broadcaster Dutch Thompson approached McCarron-Gallant to record her memories of the tale of Minnie McGee.

McGee and her family lived in poverty in the rural, eastern-most county of Prince Edward Island.  In April of 1912, all six of the McGee children died in very close sequence while exhibiting the same symptomology.  Attention turned to McGee who was found guilty of the only charge brought against her: the murder of her oldest son Johnnie.  Sentenced to hang, McGee confessed to brewing matches in the children’s tea and in sweetened water, thereby causing their deaths by phosphorous poisoning.  Her death sentence was eventually commuted but penitentiary officials soon thought her insane and she was returned from Dorchester to Falconwood Hospital, Prince Edward Island’s mental asylum.  Except for a brief sojourn to Kingston Penitentiary, McGee spent the rest of her life under the mantle of Falconwood Hospital.

dutchthompson

Dutch Thompson

McCarron-Gallant’s interview is one in a collection of over 1000 hours of oral histories collected by Dutch Thompson, now available through the University of Prince Edward Island’s digital archive, “Island Voices.”[1] Island Voices offers rich material to scholars who study rural life in the early 20th century.  Yet as rich and as instructive as that material often is, it is equally enigmatic and challenging on occasion.  The primary enigma I consider here is silence.

Gallant’s reconstruction of the story of McGee is intriguing in part because she was embedded in McGee’s community and time and would have been versed in the folk tradition that arose around McGee.  But more interestingly, Gallant knew McGee who sometimes stayed with her family while a patient at Falconwood. “Did you ever see Minnie yourself?” Thompson asked.  “Well, yeah, I remembered her,” responded Gallant.  “They put her in Falconwood Hospital. I remember my father was working there.  He took her out a few times for a visit to stay two or three days with us.  She was ok with us; she used to help out, to help mom get the supper you know. She was alright.” And Gallant went on to describe the demeanor and personality of McGee at some length, later recounting that when McCarron-Gallant’s younger sister died, McGee was collected from the asylum to care for the sister’s children.[2]

One could say much about the particular cultural dynamics of narration associated with Gallant’s storytelling, the nature and nurture of self-creation in the act of storytelling and the gendered implications of that, the role of space and lore in community formation, the archival value and methodological conundrums of this particular oral history recording, and, indeed, many more things. But I found myself drawn into a series of reflections – not about Gallant’s “telling” of this story – but about a rather loud, buzzing silence in her story.  Questioned a number of times by Thompson about her familial relationship to the historical characters in the McGee story, Gallant redirected or fell silent at each turn.  What was this silence, and what should historians make of silences?

If we are to take aboard Alan Atkinson’s claim that “hunting for voices is the historian’s essential task,”[3] or Keith Jenkins’ suggestion that it has now almost become an article of faith that it is one of the main tasks of the ethically responsible historian “to give voice to all those who have been relatively or absolutely silenced both in the actual past and/or in the historiography,”[4] then where do we land in our historical methodology when we encounter silence? It seems the relationship of the historian to silence is doubly directed: first, the historian is tasked to recover and reconstruct the voices of those muted in the historical record; and secondly, presumably, to seek some understanding of the ways in which silencing operated as a historical category of power.  Or, as Jenkins put it, to launch “an investigation of the dimensions and means by which those silences have been achieved.”[5]

But might we ask: is silence even more deeply implicated in the project of historical recovery? Is it necessarily something that needs to be fixed or remedied, or something to be read as evidence of disempowerment? By such reasoning, silence might seem to be the stuff that lessens the value of an oral history interview, Gallant’s included.  But I want to suggest that such a conclusion is problematic. Attending to the puzzle of silence, it seems to me, must be deeply embedded in the project of historical recovery and reconstruction. We might profitably consider the notion that silence is as present as story in many instances, and because of this, deserves the same problematization, contest and intellectual engagement as story. Greg Denning reminds us, “imagination is seeing what’s absent, hearing the silence as well as the noise.”[6]  Consequently, historians can, and admittedly some do, chase the silence attentively, can consider it and acknowledge its presence in storytelling as actively as we chase the articulated language, symbol and cultural play of storytelling.  If stories serve as maps into the past, one need not treat silence as a roadblock, but rather as an illuminated signpost along the way.  By this logic, silence is substance, not absence.

So silence begs a historian’s careful questioning: why this part of the story, but not that? Why a confession that McGee tended one as a child, but the disinclination to acknowledge family ties to her?  A good day’s scratching through the archives shows Gallant was, in fact, a third cousin of McGee’s.  It might seem the familial relationship was distant enough to have buffered Gallant from any shame or stigmatization she might have feared would result from McGee’s crime and illness – but still, the decision not to speak to this issue is there.  We may never know why and can simply accept this as one of the “incomplete sentences”[7] of history.  But anchored by our weighty study of context, maybe historians can exercise carefully our imaginations; maybe we can tease-out the fuller capaciousness of meanings that such silences illuminate. Perhaps there was something in Gallant’s silence, for instance, that simply masked a subject “respectable families” didn’t talk about.  Or more intriguingly, sometimes those silences, such as Gallant’s, might have been deeply political, properly read as resistance to intrusion.  Perhaps what one hears in Gallant’s silence is simply this: I agreed to give you Minnie McGee’s story, not mine, you pesky, interviewing historian. By problematizing silences of this sort, by attending equally to what is revealed and what is concealed, we open ourselves to the possibility described by Yoonmee Chang where silence “as much as speech enacts political […] resistance, specifically as a means of retelling history.”[8]  Here, grounded in any multitude of rationalizations, silence has the potential to speak louder than words and the potential of allowing women like Gallant, and others, to more fully craft their own histories.  In consciously exercising silence, these narrators or storytellers effectively shift authority from the historian and claim it for themselves.  In so doing, they remind us that silence need not signal disempowerment; rather, the act of silence is power itself.


Sharon Myers is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island.


Notes

[1] http://www.islandvoices.ca

[2] http://www.islandvoices.ca/interviews/detailview/ivoices:ivoices20100625acass001

[3] Alan Atkinson, “Writing about Convicts: Our Escape from the One Big Jail,” Tasmanian Historical Studies, 6, 2 (1999): 25.

[4] Keith Jenkins, “Ethical Responsibility and the Historian:  On the Possible End of History ‘Of a Certain Kind’,” History and Theory, 43, 4 (2004), 55.

[5] Jenkins, 55.

[6] Greg Dening, “Writing: Praxis and Performance,” Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, eds., Writing Histories:  Imagination and Narration (Victoria: Monash University ePress, 2009), chpt. 6.

[7] On the presence of “incomplete sentences” in historical narration see, Andie Tucher, “Communication, Community, Reality, Ritual, and the ‘Potato Hole’ Woodson,” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 31,4 (2007), 301.

[8] Yoonmee Chang, “Review,” American Literature, 77, 4 (2005), 858.  Chang is summarizing the key point of Patti Duncan’s Tell This Silence:  Asian American Women Writers and the Politics of Speech (Iowa:  University of Iowa Press, 2004).

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About Corey Slumkoski

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University and the Digital Communications Editor for Acadiensis.
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One Response to Taking Silence Seriously: A Musing on Method and Oral Histories

  1. Pingback: 2016: A Year (ish) of Canadian History in Review | Unwritten Histories

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