WHY I WORK WITH ORAL SOURCES

Indonesia

In Indonesia, after the assassination of six army generals in 1965, mass arrests and massacres were counted in thousands, but only a few of these facts have been studied in detail. The limited reference on these massive events tends to focus on the historical context rather than on the events themselves. To study them, one has to explore decades of sedimented propaganda, falsified history, and silences. On this page, I try to review the contribution of oral narratives to our understanding of these events. In terms of oral memory, obtaining reliable information about a given event requires an extraordinary level of cross-checking information with various people.

I question what could be called a “biased collective memory”. I have discovered that it is based practically on written documents that establish an official but false version of events: General Suharto’s new regime claimed that the communists had attempted a coup d’état that threatened national security. In reaction, he seized power and arrested all those involved in left-wing groups. In my work, I use written documents to establish a problematic but credible framework of events in relation to the creative work of memory and narrative that can be measured and verified. I rely on interviews to clarify details of events and enrich the historical context; I am particularly interested in the “creative work” of false memory.

For example, Gunawan repeatedly said that he had obtained several pieces of information from other people’s accounts. Gunawan was exiled to Buru Island for forced labor, so he did not witness the violence in some places. However, he heard these stories many times, which made him believe that he had experienced them, or at least that they were real. Gunawan is not alone. Many political prisoners have had the same experience, hearing stories that have become a kind of reality in imagining the victims of the regime. This kind of information is what we call “prison news”.

I am confronted with the incredibly demanding task of determining the most basic facts about these events and even the validity of mass arrests’ categorization. There is a great deal of confusion about who the political prisoners were, their backgrounds, how they were categorized, and the total number of political prisoners. It is also necessary to keep in mind that children, even under three, were among these prisoners, whom we might refer to as invisible victims. Oral history, in this case, can be seen as an exploration of the discrepancies between collective memory and individual narrative, even though most of the time it is difficult to distinguish between what is right and what is false.

In the Indonesian case, oral testimony takes on its full importance, as it is sometimes the sole source of information. More broadly, the direct witness is, in essence, the bearer of some truth. Beyond any speculation or historian’s analysis, she or he can affirm: “I was there, I saw, I heard”. Nevertheless, this unique, subjective point of view, subject to the uncertainties of context and individual psychology, means that oral testimony remains a fragile source, which the historian must handle prudently.

The direct witness can provide a precise, detailed account, which makes it possible to describe facts in temporal linearity. She or he can also provide a great deal of information on the context in which these facts took place, on different scales: personal and familial, sociological, etc.

Another interest of these narratives is that they provide insight into the psychological impact of living through the facts, unlike administrative records. The witness, therefore, complements other sources.

The individual narrative also makes it possible to draw the witness’s trajectory throughout his or her life. The individual trajectories, taken as a whole, reveal the power of history, which guide individuals in their choices, decisions, and even in their ways of acting and thinking.

Finally, from a practical point of view and personal enrichment, the collection of oral testimony requires a personal, human commitment on the part of the historian. It requires a relationship based on trust with the witness, a trust earned in the sincerity of his or her approach, devoid of any judgment or presupposition.

However, I am also facing difficulties during the process. Eyewitness stories are sometimes imprecise, biased, incomplete, exaggerated, imaginary, or completely false. The reasons for this are diverse, and the historian’s challenge is then to try to read the biases in the account, biases that also prove to be revealing: why does this person insist on a precise point, why is the story full of inaccuracies, unsaid things… What is the contribution of the role-playing of the witness, who puts himself back on the scene of history, which becomes his story?

Thus, individual psychology influences the narrative. The weight of the events recounted, as well as their legacy, positive or traumatic, is part of the process of the oral construction of the narrative. Therefore, it is necessary not only to listen to the story but also to decrypt its existence process.

In the case of trauma, the narrative is often impacted. Denial, forgetfulness, the impossibility of oral formulation, the construction of an imaginary fiction, self-censorship, guilt, victimization, or, on the contrary, self-valuation, is part of the psychological defense processes that human beings put in place to avoid mentally reliving traumatic events. The historian will then have to unravel the historical account of the trauma and its effects, which is not always possible when the witness is unique.

Finally, the witness can be subjected to all kinds of pressure: political and family pressure, collective guilt provoking memory, state propaganda, can silence individual words for years or even generations.

Faced with this fragility of oral testimony, I have to cross-reference individual accounts with other sources. The accumulation of testimonies makes it possible to cross-reference stories and validate or invalidate certain information or even entire testimonies. The reinterpretation of oral narratives through the prism of written sources, archives, audiovisual and photographic corpus is also necessary and informative work. In all cases, the long and patient collection of testimonies proves most of the time to be a unique and robust experience, which allows us to build bonds of trust, sometimes friendship, with people who open the curtain of the past through their own eyes.