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[TIPS OF THE TRADE]: Writing the Intimate
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
June 2015
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
June 2015

“I can’t remember.”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s personal.”

When she interviewed her mother about her experiences during the Holocaust, my friend Barbara Rylko-Bauer heard those words more times than she can say. 

As a daughter and as an anthropologist, Barbara believed beyond doubt that her mother had an important story to tell – one that would shed light on an era through the lens of one woman’s experience.

But her mother wasn’t eager to talk.  She wasn’t sure her story was worth telling.

To get around this obstacle, Barbara decided to take it slow.  She and her mother sat at the kitchen table and looked through a box of old photos.  Meanwhile, the tape recorder was rolling.  “When I listen to the tapes,” she said, “it sounds just like a mother and daughter having a conversation.”  It was that and more.

Barbara proceeded with sensitivity and patience.  Over many, many hours, she guided her mother into a more focused account.  The two of them circled back over the same topics multiple times. 

As the searing story spooled out, old wounds opened.  Her mother began to have trouble sleeping.  For a time, Barbara suspended the interviews.

But she kept coming back.  After years of persistence, she published her extraordinary book, A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps: My Mother’s Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade.

I adore Barbara’s book.  The best memoirs, in my opinion, are the ones I call “up-close and universal.”  They engage with the vibration between the individual and the larger sweep of history. They give us an intimate perch from which to learn about a wider world. 

As James Baldwin, the American novelist and social critic, said: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

Barbara and her colleague Alisse Waterston (author of another book I love, My Father’s Wars) have coined the term “intimate ethnography” to describe writing and research projects that “embed deeply personal family narratives in broader frames.” 

When a writing project depends on getting information out of family members, the going can be tough.  Yet “intimate ethnography” can also be uniquely rewarding.  For all the difficulties, the personal ties between the writer and her subject can enrich a writing project like nothing else.   

My own book, We Are Here, began to take shape when my elderly uncle Will took me aside one day and revealed a shocking secret from his own experience during the Holocaust. 

After some 60 years of silence, my uncle and I tiptoed into a new terrain.  But we didn’t get very far.  My uncle’s discomfort and his fear were written all over his face.   It was a face I knew well, a face dear to me.  I didn’t want to hurt him.  I felt constrained by rules of politeness, by issues of privacy, by wanting to be deferential to a family elder, by fear of what I might discover about my own kin. 

So when my uncle began to say those words – “I don’t know, I don’t remember” – I didn’t push.  Unlike Barbara, who hung in patiently until her mother was ready to share more, I stepped back.  But my route, too, was marked by the special characteristics of “intimate ethnography” – writing about people you know, people you love.

In my case, instead of pursuing my uncle’s story directly, with him, I went elsewhere.  I searched for other people who did want to talk.  There turned out to be were many.  I visited archives on both sides of the Atlantic.  Bit by bit, I pieced together a story that used my uncle’s revelation as a starting point, but then took off into other realms entirely.

As I pursued the story, I probed my own feelings of resistance, shame, fear, loyalty, love.  As I did so, the core of my writing project emerged into the light of day.  I began to understand – from the inside – the process of reflection, discovery, and, possibly, healing that the nation of my uncle’s birth was undertaking – the painful process of facing the history of the Holocaust.  

That wider story – the story of a nation scarred by genocide seeking to move forward into the future –became the true subject of my book. 

It was my bond with my uncle that unlocked my mind and my heart, enabling me to step across cultural boundaries, to widen the lens, to reach out, and to listen.  

Intimate ethnography showed me the way.




Join the conversation.  Share your experiences with intimate ethnography.



Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.  It’s now available in audiobook format as well as paperback and e-book.  Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks, Kelly Haye-Raitt, for your insightful comments on interviewing people who have experienced trauma.  My uncle, who lived through the Holocaust, did not live to read my book, "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust."  His family's reactions ranged from "Thank you for telling this story" to more painful responses. 

  • Ellen, very insightful post, and I love your phrase "up close and universal"!

    I'm working on a book where I interview refugees -- strangers to me, but who share universal pains and needs through their personal stories.  I'm always humbled by how willing some people are to share their most painful experiences with me.  Some do it for catharsis, I believe, others because they are empowered by someone willing to truly listen to them.  Often, these are people who have lost everything -- family members, body parts, homes, neighborhoods, trust, hope.

    Writing about your own family, though, is a whole deeper level!  I write about my brother's suicide in my book.  Most painful part was watching each of my parents read that section.  How did your uncle react to your book, Ellen?

    Thank you again for this post!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!


  • Ellen Cassedy

    Barbara Stark-Nemon, thanks for your thoughts on how "intimate ethnography" is at the heart of the writing projects of many of us.  "Threading the delicate needle" is a great way to describe how we collect stories about traumatic events.

  • Love this piece, Ellen, as others you've written on this topic which is close to my heart and to the writing of Even in Darkness. Intimate ethnography is a great phrase and lies at the center of the travel, research, translation and interviews that led to my book, and once again, you've masterfully described the threading of the delicate needle in collecting stories about traumatic events! Thanks so much for sharing all this..

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Jenna Sauber, I'd be interested to know about your conversations with older people who have lived through momentous times.  Does that work make its way into your writing?

  • Jenna Sauber

    I'll have to look for your book at the library. I'm now very intrigued! I talk to a lot of seniors about their war stories and life stories, and this is good to keep in mind.