Recording the Family History: A Legacy Project Interview

By Ernest Rosenbaum, MD
100% helpful

One of the most powerful tools in the Legacy Project is the interviewing of family and friends of a person who is nearing the end of their life or facing a life-threatening illness. When a person is being forced to confront death, an interview can be one of the ways to crystallize an individual's understanding of what their personal vision of symbolic immortality is. It can also bring family members closer together by having everyone explain their perceptions and experiences.

In doing the Legacy Project Interview, we encourage conducting interviews with various family members in order to record thoughts of their growing up, stories about various events in their lives, as well as, events with the available family and with each specific parent, grandparent, brother, sister and cousin whom the person at the center of the Legacy Project wishes to include. Thus, as the family dialogue unfolds it can include and emphasize social, emotional, cultural and significant events in one's life and the importance of his or her family's experiences together. This beginning can evolve into the continuing collection of memories, which can be shared and expanded upon with additions at various future get-togethers, and even become a tradition for succeeding generations.

Getting Started: Materials & Arrangements

You will need the following equipment: a video camera with a tripod and adequate lighting. The decreasing cost of digital video recording equipment makes it an ever more attractive option, particularly for its ease of editing and reproduction.

Seating should be arranged in a semi-circle so that participants can see each other and can be readily filmed by the interviewer. Make sure that room lighting is in front of the participants—avoid strong back lighting. Family members should sit fairly close together. Young children may be comfortable and less fidgety when held on their parents' laps.

The Interview

Being interviewed will come naturally to some people; however, we recommend doing some preparation beforehand. Give your interview subjects the time to think about significant life events—and how much they want to disclose—by providing a list of possible questions or topics several days prior to the scheduled interview. Review these topics with the primary subject on the day of the interview. Find out the names of relatives (e.g., grandparents) that the participant would like to talk about and create a brief family tree genealogy. Immediately prior to beginning, describe the process to all participants and encourage family members to volunteer their memories of and feelings about the family members—particularly the ways in which the family members have influenced them, and what they have learned or observed.

Begin the interview by having everyone introduce themselves and state their relationship to the participant. Often filming memorabilia (e.g., photographs of forebears) with the participant narrating their stories helps establish their role in the family. Alternatively, this may be done at the end of the interview. Proceed by asking questions of key family members. Solicit family members' feelings, memories, and reactions that are stimulated by the stories being told. Camera time will be devoted to family members, particularly as they begin speaking. The camera should focus mostly on the key family members as they speak or react to the words of others. Continue to the end of the interview, pausing the recording when necessary for participants to get comfortable or for interruptions. Plan to spend about 90 minutes interviewing.

A “five-minutes-to-go” signal should be pre-arranged for the end of the interview in order to avoid an awkward or abrupt ending, and to give participants a last chance to voice their feelings.

Structure of a Legacy Project Interview

The person who is at the center of the Legacy Project Interview can have their camera time shaped into three distinct phases although editing can mean manipulating these scenes as you see fit with discussions by family members and friends.

Phase 1

Begin the interview. Have the main participant discuss birth to young adulthood. Begin with somewhat more factual and safe questions about the participant's ancestry, upbringing, and early life. Move on to questions about high school, college or young adult years.

Typical questions might include:

  • What is your earliest memory?
  • Describe your relationship with your parents and grandparents.
  • What do you remember them teaching you?
  • What was it like being a teenager?
  • What were you learning at this time in your life?
  • What was college like for you? Did you have a favorite area of study?
  • What did you do in your twenties/thirties?
  • What were your jobs during this time? What were they like to work at?
  • Were there any significant others that came into your life at this time?
  • How did they influence you?

Phase 2

This phase occurs naturally as the patient begins to reveal himself or herself in detail. Explore major turning points in life and career and important lessons learned. Bring out the significance of events and people for who the person is today. Family participation is common during this phase, particularly when the interview turns to rearing children and important events that the family shared.

Typical questions and talking points might include:

  • How/when did you meet your future husband/wife?
  • What discoveries did you make during this time?
  • How did that experience influence who you are today.
  • How did having children affect you?
  • What are you most proud of?

Phase 3

End of interview. Questions, at this point, deepen. The person will often discuss coping with life, personal legacy, feelings about spirituality and the afterlife, personal regrets, and other significant matters.

Typical questions and talking points might include:

  • What has affected you and your family most?
  • What has been the most significant change you see in yourself?
  • What is a typical day like for you now?
  • During this time, what is of most importance to you?
  • Talk about your life philosophy. What values do you hold most dear?

NOTE: If you have agreed beforehand that a discussion of dying and/or the afterlife would be appropriate, guide the interview there. However, be aware that not all participants are prepared to talk about such matters directly.

Typical questions and talking points might include:

  • What do you think happens when a person dies? What do you believe?
  • Do you consider yourself religious?—or spiritual?
  • Have you become more spiritual or religious lately?
  • What is your legacy and lessons you hope to have passed to your children?
  • Ask children to comment.
  • How do you hope you will be remembered? What kind of legacy would you like to leave with your family?

End the interview with a couple of final summary-type questions, such as:

  • If you were to live your life over again, what would you do differently or change?
  • What would you keep the same?
  • What are you most grateful for?
  • What were your major achievements?
  • What are your future plans?
  • What is your family legacy?

These questions were modified for the Legacy Project from the Life Tape Project interviews developed by Alison Siegel, MFT.

Creating a Legacy Project Interview is just one of many parts of a legacy project, where a person can bring in friends and family to share their life history. Find out more about the Legacy Project.