The recent release of the documentary film Must Read After My Death has sparked a lively conversation among personal historians.
The film was created wholly from materials left by filmmaker Morgan Dews’ grandmother. Much of the conversation is about privacy concerns. It was quite clear that Dews’ grandmother intended others to read the manuscripts, listen to the audiotapes and view the home movies she left behind. But, given the raw emotions of a marriage gone awry that the materials unveiled, just who these “others” might be is an open question.
One personal historian could not watch the entire film. “It felt too voyeuristic,” she wrote, adding that it was clear the woman didn’t want her story widely known. Another pointed out that she had been reading other peoples’ mail and diaries for decades. “That’s what we do,” she said, speaking of her profession.
A suggestion was made that the filmmaker would have been able to give it the context it was missing had he been able to interview his grandmother later in her life and ask her to reflect on that earlier, stressful period of her life.
But most of the conversation was about privacy. Some wondered what Dews’ grandmother would think of the way he handled her materials. Others questioned whether privacy even existed in this hyper-wired age.
Most personal historians deal with this issue early on, usually before a project is begun. Many of us assume our clients want confidentiality. That may be a mistake. The fact that they’re sharing their stories with us could be interpreted as evidence to the contrary. The only way to know for sure is to ask.
Do you know where your family members stand on the privacy issue? How do you deal with it?