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Candid cameras

Average folks pay to put life's memories on videotape

By Ellen Barry, Globe Staff, 6/13/2001

   

$55
an hour hires a writing coach for your memoir.
(Source: Denis Ledoux, memoir writer and coach)

$425
buys a two-hour video history of your life. Optional edited highlights and other features can drive the price up to $975.
(Source: Donna Kenny, Center for Recording Life Histories)

$30,000
or more pays a professional to write your memoir.
(Source: Kitty Axelson-Berry)

NORTHAMPTON - In a small studio last week, lights flipped on and 84-year-old Ed Markey - utility company lineman, amateur banjo player, wearer of corduroy pants - was ready for his glamour shot.

Opposite Markey sat a rapt interviewer, nodding in the style of C-Span's Brian Lamb, intent on drawing him out. Behind him was his red-haired daughter, a secretary who paid $975 to bring him here today.

After a year of hemming and hawing - he protested that he was ''not much of what's called photogenic'' - Markey took a deep breath and began telling the story of his life, jitterbug contest, smelting furnace, and all. Starting with the very beginning.

''It's been a question I've gotten all my life, how I came up with the name Edward,'' he began, and the making of ''Edward Markey: The Movie'' was underway.

At the Clio Center for Recording Life Histories, Donna Kenny has devoted thousands of hours of videotape to such under-the-radar human dramas as emptying the drip pan underneath the icebox or squirting the yellow dye into wartime oleo. The senior citizens come in diffidently, with plastic bags full of mementos, and - more often than not - with a son or daughter who has suddenly begun to worry about mortality. Markey's daughter, Michele Witowski, slipped out the door as the tape started rolling.

''He doesn't think he's had a remarkable life,'' said Witowski, who is 54. ''These are normal people living normal lives. That's why this is so important.''

Since Kenny started recording ''LifeStories on Videotape'' 10 years ago, she has been joined by many peers in the booming business of memory.

Her Amherst neighbor, Kitty Axelson-Berry, charges high-end customers as much as $40,000 to assist in writing 300-page memoirs, which emerge with titles like ''Don't Believe a Word of It!'', ''Take a Plunge!'', and ''I Know There's a Book in Here Somewhere!'' In Lisbon Falls, Maine, Denis Ledoux of Turning Memories into Memoirs hires himself out for $55 an hour as a ''manuscript coach'' ready to bolster clients' enthusiasm and help tease out a narrative.

As often as not, memoir writers just need someone to tell them it's worth the effort, he said.

''This spring, a woman called me up and said, `I'm only going to take a minute, but I've been writing all morning and I want to talk to someone who shares my enthusiasm,''' he said. ''It was brief - three or four minutes. I witness to them the import of what they're doing.''

Since Kenny helped found it seven years ago, the Association of Personal Historians has swelled to 300 members. At some point during the 1990s, Americans became comfortable with the idea that their own lives deserve shelf space, Ledoux said.

''When I first started doing the workshops, people came in and they would say, `I must be crazy. This is a foolish idea,''' said Ledoux, a former high school teacher. ''I haven't heard that in years. It seems to have passed into our culture that this is a reasonable and sane thing to do.''

In Kenny's business, much of the motivation is the simple fear of forgetting. Before coming in to film their life stories, Kenny's clients fill out a ''Life Review Guide,'' in which they answer such questions as, ''How were your parents similar and different from each other?'' and sketch their movements for each of the last four decades, as well as their recollections of the polio epidemic, Prohibition, and the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Routinely, the guides come back crammed with tiny writing, so eager was the subject to pour out detail. One man recently returned his with a 55-page typed supplement.

Often, new customers come in with an open fear. In recent years, Kenny has been commissioned half a dozen times to film senior citizens with a terminal illness or early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

It was such a scare that drew Barbara Wiener, who six years ago hired Kenny to film her father. Her mother and sister had been killed in a car crash, and now suddenly the stories - how her mother had thrown up her hands and made the down payment on her own engagement ring, for instance - seemed in danger of being lost.

''It heightened my awareness of how quickly things change, and how important it is to have some kind of archive,'' said Wiener. ''My father became a precious commodity.''

But Ed Markey is not in the habit of thinking of himself that way. As he drove up from Connecticut for the appointment at the Center for Recording Life Histories last week, he asked his daughter once again what exactly he was supposed to say. He brought his yellow hard hat, emblazoned ''Tex.''

Inside the studio, with tape rolling, he carefully related the single personal experience that he felt was worth this kind of focused attention: his war service, spanning six years of World War II.

As an unreflective former high school basketball star, he entered the Army - chiefly, he says now, to get a break from his job cutting meat at a supermarket - and soon found himself shipwrecked for a year in the Phoenix Islands in the South Pacific.

Later, he climbed up an Austrian hillside to take jaunty pictures in Hitler's retreat, two days after bombs had blown every window out of it.

Finally, as the war ground to an end, his detachment met the Russian Army at the Inn River, and he lay awake listening to screams from the village across it.

His taping session also featured episodes that fell short of historical. There was the way, after the war, that he and his wife jitterbugged and two-stepped at the Pearly Gates - a place that could not be called pearly - and then jumped into his Buick Wildcat to go to three more roadhouses before the baby sitter went home. And what it was like to be a 6-year-old child in the iron ore country of northern Connecticut, seeing the air bend around the blast furnace and knowing there were men at work inside it.

Then there is the matter of his name, Edward, which had never been used in his family before. The answer, he said, lay in his harrowing birth, during which his parents were so worried he would die before there was time to baptize him that they panicked and named him after the obstetrician.

By the end of his taping session, Markey was hoarse. His daughter waited happily outside.

''He talks better to total strangers than he does to his family,'' said Witowski. Growing up, she said, ''We didn't talk about the war, and history. We talked about how we were doing in school.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 6/13/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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