STUDS TERKEL – Will the circle be unbroken ?
Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for Faith.
Publisher – The New Press – 2001
Studs Terkel isn’t a well known name in this country, but really he should be. He’s ninety four these days, but was in his late eighties when he compiled this book. Originally an actor, his political activism post war caused him trouble in the McCarthy era. In America, particularly in Chicago, he’s famous for his radio interviews. What marks these interviews out is Terkel’s powers as a listener and an ability to ask just the right question to bring out more from his interviewee. He has a great capacity and interest in people, regardless of what political perspective they come from. He just wants to discover why they think what they think, and do what they do. So he lets them speak for themselves, editing out his interventions and questions as much as possible. Often what is left are well crafted monologues of unaffected directness and humanity. You cannot fail to be moved with recognition, and to deep admiration for his skill.
Only in how he compiles his books do you get any sense of Studs Terkel, his integrity and meticulousness. I’ve read ‘Hope Dies Last’ – about political activism in 20th century America, ‘Working’ – interviews with working people in Seventies USA & ‘Coming of Age’ – about people in their Nineties still actively engaged in life. He interviews and records people on tape, then transcribes, edits, groups and programmes the sequence for the book. Each book, though it has it’s own theme, is put together each time in the same thoughtful way.
This book ‘Will the circle be unbroken’ explores different attitudes and approaches to death. He does so in typical Terkel fashion, giving you different perspectives on the same subject. He interviews two brothers, one a fireman the other a policeman, a homicide detective and then a former death-row inmate, a gay man with HIV, then people working in an AIDS Hospice. Also; a Hiroshima survivor, various religious ministers, Doctors, Nurses, Artists and plain ordinary folk. Often the interviews show how within two generations of one family, perspectives on Life and Death have changed. Teasing out and revealing how life experiences have come to shape their beliefs.
There are many people whose testaments in this book affected me. The most memorable was that of a Nurse, Claire Hellstern. The interview before hers was with a former gang member in one of Chicago’s roughest districts. Claire Hellstern has deliberately chosen to work as a nurse in this district. Daily she faces death, in just walking to her car she takes her life in her hands. However, she is one brave, tough and very cool cookie. Here is how she handled being mugged :-
“ One time, I’m walking down the street and a young man about nineteen pulled a switchblade out of his sleeve. I had only seen these in movies, switchblades. It flipped open. I was kind of fascinated. He said, ‘I want your wallet.’ I handed him my wallet and he says, ‘Only ninety cents?’ I said, ‘Buddy, I’ve had my purse stolen six times. Do I look stupid? I don't’ carry much money on me - I don’t make much money. And I’ve got to go open the clinic.’ He returned the wallet and said, ‘Give me your whole purse!’ I said, ‘Young man, I know you don’t use my type of comb, and you don’t wear lipstick. I’d hate to have gossipers talking about you walking around with a lady’s purse’ – impromptu reasoning. I talked calmly and directly into his eyes, and I talked softly. He did not have the switchblade up to my neck, he had it at the side of his body. So I knew from at least some street smarts that he was a novice. If he’d had it at my neck, I would have said, ‘Take anything. Come. I’ll do your cooking,’ whatever, just to survive.’’
I’m left breathless in admiration that when faced with the switchblade she says ‘I was kind if fascinated.’ By such honest and frank recollections Terkel’s book does repeatedly astonish. Without resorting to transposing dialect directly on to the page. He gives just enough colour to convey the style of delivery, but not so much as to makes it incomprehensible or stereotypical. One gets a sense of the character and physical presence of these people. He respects where each person is coming from and lets them say what they want to say. Terkel may have his own opinion, but he never exposes it in the course of an interview. His opinions don’t matter here, he’s more a person who documents and records. So where is the skill here? The skill is in his openness and receptivity, he’s not into banging his own drum at all. I’ll finish with an extract from Tony Parker’s interview with Studs Terkel, he’s talking about interviewing technique.
‘‘The first thing I’d say to an interviewer is… ‘Listen’ It’s the second thing too, and the third, and the fourth. ‘Listen…Listen…Listen…Listen.’ And if you do, people will talk. They’ll always talk. Why? Because no one has ever listened to them before in all their lives, Perhaps they’ve not ever listened to themselves. You don’t have to agree with them or disagree with them, all of that’s irrelevant. Don’t push them, don’t rush them, don’t chase them or harass them with getting on to the next question. Take your time. Or no, let’s put it the right way, let them take their time.
And I’ll tell you something else you should always have in your mind, and remind yourself constantly about it – they’re doing you a favour. This person you’re talking to is entrusting you with their memories and their hopes, their realities and their dreams. So remember that, handle them carefully, they’re holding out to you fragile things.’’