About ten years ago I was collecting data for my book on men’s depression in a psychiatric hospital in Krakow (I will write a blog about it). There were very few men diagnosed with depression, so when one day three men attending the outpatient clinic agreed to be interviewed, I was over the moon. I had three interviews, did them one after the other! The interviews were great, all lasted over an hour, the men were talking about extremely difficult things, all cried during the interview. All thanked me for listening.
But I also felt that they all offloaded all the sadness, misery, unhappiness on me and I was crumbling. My mood was going down, headlong. I needed to talk to someone and fast, as I really wanted to find a tree and hang myself. All this sadness was crushing me. Really. And so I went up to the ward where I was based as an intern and had a long conversation with a wonderful shrink, a consultant. She helped me a lot and suggested we met more often. We did, I survived. And I shall always be grateful to Dr Jola Robak, one of the best psychiatrists I have met in my life.
This was the moment when I realised that I was completely unprepared for those interviews. I was already an experienced interviewer at the time, but I had never interviewed people in such misery. I had no defences, I simply took it all on. I hated it, except the interviews were wonderful. These were by far the best interviews I had ever done. And, in fact, I have ever done since. My naiveté, my defencelessness, shall I say, empathy all meant I clicked with those men. They saw, I was genuinely interested in their stories, well, I lived them as they were telling them. They all thanked me not only for listening, but also for helping them, which was quite surprising. After all, I just listened.
But at the end of the data collection I was an emotional wreck. I just could not take it anymore and I promised myself not to make the same mistake (or was it?) again. Indeed, when I started interviewing for my book on fathers and mental illness, I was cool. I could maintain the distance. The men’s sometimes dramatic stories didn’t touch me really. Yes, I was still interested, open to those stories, but I didn’t inhabit them, I didn’t live them.
But then came the transcripts. When I was reading them, I was so disappointed. Yes, they were OK. After all I can interview people. They were technically very good, but, gosh, were they different! I could taste the distance; it was all half-hearted in comparison with the previous ones. What was missing? I don’t really know. Perhaps it was this quality of contact which results in closeness, understanding. The moment when you really don’t need to say anything, but the interview requires it. You know, no, you feel, you understand each other. The problem is that for me it came at a price.
As I prepare to continue interviews for the next project (with men after a suicide attempt), I face the same dilemma. Do I sacrifice myself and do interviews which are wonderful, or do I protect myself and do interview which are very good, technically flawless, but which lacks this something which makes them great? To be honest, I don’t even know whether I am capable of this engagement, I have learnt the consequences the hard way.
I have no answers, apart from that ideally an interview should, I think, be like walking on a tightrope, somewhere between closeness and the distance. And closeness perhaps should become an acknowledgement of your experience, but without sharing it with you. I still have not mastered it. Maybe in the autumn.