Why we need memories along with statistics
I’m currently reading a biography of Franklin Roosevelt by H.W. Brands. I was curious about how the US dealt with the national traumas of war, pandemic, and depression that occurred throughout his lifetime and the lifetimes of my grandparents. Because, at some point in the last year or so, I’ve become a bit desensitized to the human suffering from covid, the war in Ukraine, and food and housing insecurity.
Apparently, this is a normal psychological response, the brain adapting to on-going horrors so we can continue to function. So, it is makes sense that it’s hard to fully comprehend the human cost of numbers like these: in 1931, 100,000 gainfully employed people—most of them the sole breadwinners for their families—lost their jobs every week . . . and every week after that, for another 130 weeks just in the first four years of the 10-year Great Depression.
Harry Hopkins, who ran the New Deals’ Works Progress Administration, noted, “You can pity six men, but you can’t keep stirred up over six million.” He sent reporter Lorena Hickock to gather human stories behind the statistics. In one case, after an interview in a chilly North Dakota farmhouse, she went out to her car to find it full of farmers who had crawled inside to keep warm.
One New Deal program, the Federal Writers’ Project, sent thousands of unemployed journalists, novelists(!), and poets to collect people’s memories in oral histories, including those of ex-slaves. I’ve used them for various research projects, and invariably the interviewees are surprised that anyone would want to hear stories from ordinary people.
This attitude echoed my grandparents, who responded to my questions about their Depression experiences by saying, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about that old stuff.” But I did, indeed, want to know why my maternal grandmother used old nylon stockings to tie things up with “because of the Depression.” She told me once that, “The Depression was having a nickel and not knowing when or where you would get the next one if you spent it.”
My maternal grandfather worked any job he could find, often lucky to be selected from among hundreds because he was tall and stood out in the crowd. My paternal grandfather retained his job, and my grandmother said the Depression affected them only in that some things were hard to get, like sugar. When she died, we found bags of sugar she’d hoarded in the back of a cupboard. (After the pandemic, I will always have a six-month supply of toilet paper.)
The written word isn’t the only way we can retain stories. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was a novel way to commemorate service in war when it was dedicated in 1982. Rather than a statue of a famous general, the names of the over 58,000 soldiers who fought are listed on the Wall. It’s a visceral representation of real people who each had their own stories. Similarly, in July 2021, 600,000 white flags were planted on the National Mall to draw attention to those lost to covid.
These visual cues certainly help to represent people better than an aggregate number, but we must continue to gather the stories of ordinary people, including all of us, who are experiencing our national traumas. Only then can those memories become a part of history, a reminder of our shared humanity and a reminder that there are always real people and real lives behind the numbers.
H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 420, 422.
David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 167-168.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.