Disrupted childhoods – report of the Oral History Society conference

Posted on 16/07/2012 by


More than 70 delegates from around the world met at the Oral History Society’s annual conference in Southampton on 13th and 14th July.

The theme of this year’s conference was Displaced childhoods: Oral History and traumatic experiences and papers focused on a range of subjects: from the effects of growing up in care; to the experiences of refugee children; to stories of children evacuated during the war. Speakers and delegates came from the fields of oral history as well as education, social care, psychiatry and psychotherapy and papers covered a huge range of themes and topics.

There were two keynote speakers. The first was Dr Joanna Sassoon, project manager of the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants oral history project at the National Library of Australia. And the second speaker was Professor Lynn Abrams, author of the books The Orphan Country: Children of Scotland’s Broken Homes and Oral History Theory.

As well as featuring papers from practitioners the conference had a discussion session, led by a psychotherapist and psychiatrist, where delegates talked about the practice of interviewing children and young people.

Joanna Sassoon introduced one of the emerging themes of the conference – that of resilience. She told the conference that her project, which features the stories of 170 former child migrants, was built around a “framework of resilience, rather than of trauma”.

The theme of resilience came up in Carolyn Mears’ paper. Carolyn’s son was at Columbine School in the US when two children opened fire on their classmates. Carolyn conducted oral history interviews with other parents and discussed the pros and cons of oral history interviewing as an ‘insider’. For more information about Carolyn click here.

Sarah Lowry and Alison Duke talked about their project, Foundling Voices. This was commissioned by the Foundling Museum in London and features interviews with adults who grew up in the care of the Foundling Hospital between 1912 and 1954. Again, Sarah talked about the resilience of the interviewees. However, Zachari Duncalf, who presented a paper on adult care leavers, spoke about the importance of not labelling interviewees as ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’. “It’s important to give people the option to be both,” she said. “It’s not an either or.” You can read more about Zachari here.

Debunking myths was another important theme of the conference and Joanna Sassoon spoke about how she sought interviewees whose stories did not match the dominant theme of former child migrants – that is, a story of trauma.

Lynn Abrams talked about how adults who grew up in care had problems creating an autobiographical narrative. Most of her interviewees were taken into care before the Second World War and were subject to the “child rescue” model and had virtually no information about their families or background. Often their names were changed so finding out information later in life was difficult.

Lynn summed up the themes of the conference. “Life story work is seen as an essential tool to help children who have had traumatic childhoods develop a coherent narrative and identity… Knowing who I am is fundamental,” she said.

This is just a brief flavour of some of the papers presented throughout the conference. For those of you on Twitter you can see our tweets if you search for #displacedchildhoods

Next year’s conference theme is Corporate Voices: Institutional and organisational oral histories. If you would like to submit a paper go to the conference page on the OHS website for more information.