Over-Identification and the History of the Present

Having recently finished teaching a course on autobiographies and memoirs, I took a break during the holidays … to read multiple memoirs. Oh well. One of them came on the recommendation of a colleague, called A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka. Lev Golinkin, now in his 30s, recounts the story of how his Ukrainian Jewish family fled the Soviet Union in 1989, part of a wave of refugees who thought their last, best chance to escape the persecution they faced would end on December 31, 1989 (a rumor was floating that the US Congress would refuse to accept more refugees). The fascinating narrative follows Golinkin from his youth in the city of Kharkov to his time as a student at Boston College who began a journey (intellectual and geographic) to learn more about his background and the long trek that brought his family to the United States.

The colleague had suggested the book as a possible addition for my autobiographies course, and in many ways, it would be a great complement to some of the books I used last semester. It explores themes of childhood and education, of racism and ethnicity, of identity and community. In so doing, Golinkin brings to light a deeply personal angle of an event of world-historical importance (the very tail end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Communist bloc). That last isn’t a requirement for the course’s texts, but it makes much simpler the task of connecting personal narratives to the history of a period.

As I read, though, something about the idea of teaching this particular book seemed awkward for me. Part of it is that my training is in early American history. I’m accustomed both in writing and teaching to having my historical actors be good and dead, along with the culture and society in which they lived. It’s easy for me in those circumstances to create a sense of analytical distance. I actually had some difficulty this past semester teaching a memoir about the Civil Rights movement for the very same reason, even though I was born years after the events recounted in the book. It all just felt too similar. Of course, I have colleagues who teach the twentieth century, even at this point some of the twenty-first, and they seem to do alright. If that were the only problem, I could resolve it through a few conversations.

But there was another problem with this particular book and this particular author: I think I over-identify with him. On one level that sounds preposterous: I was born and raised in an upper-middle-class suburb of New York City in a white family. Golinkin was born as an ethnic minority in the Soviet Union and became a refugee with no birth certificate seeking asylum in the United States just before his tenth birthday. The thing is, his tenth birthday was about a month after mine. So even though we began life in very different circumstances, I ended up seeing his story in parallel to mine.

He lived only a few hundred kilometers from Chernobyl, but his knowledge of the disaster was about the same as mine (he’d heard of it, being only six years old at the time). He seemed about as familiar in the late 1980s with Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika as I was learning about it in a New York elementary school. When his family settled in New Jersey, they ended up in a town not all that different from mine. We were even both in Boston for college at the same time. These are superficial differences in many ways, but they’ve been enough to trip me up as I thought about making the transition from reader/consumer to teacher. Teaching the eighteenth century, I can count on the fact that both I and my students share a sense that the past we’re discussing is, to borrow a cliche, a foreign place. But that’s not true for the 1980s and 1990s, which I remember with varying level of detail, and which my students were barely alive for.

Identifying with one’s historical subjects is not a unique problem, to be sure.[1] But it’s a jarring one for someone out of their natural element, so to speak. And in the short term, I’ll probably resolve the issue by continuing to use the four autobiographies I’ve already taught, all of which work well. In the long term, though, it may make the most sense to turn the question back on the eighteenth century. I can readily point to the ways in which I identify with someone of the same age cohort. In what ways am I unconsciously doing it with the historical subjects I more frequently encounter?

[1] The best essay on the phenomenon is Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88 (June 2001): 129-144.

1 Comment

  1. I encounter similar feelings when researching a home’s history. I find it easy to talk about the owners from many years ago, but as soon as I get to the more recent or current owners who are still living or whose ages parallel mine it somehow doesn’t feel right to be researching/discussing them. Like an intrusion on them.

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