A strange thing happens when you spend several years worth of evenings pouring over hundreds of oral histories in order to write a book. Besides fantasizing about when you might have time to kick back on the couch and watch a mindless television show, you develop a very close relationship with the people behind the transcripts. In the case of the interviews I worked with, the subjects were asked to talk about challenges they had faced, turning points in their lives, and other spiritually significant experiences.
These types of questions produce highly personal discussions, and I found myself developing an odd type of intimacy with a large number of people I’d never met. I spent so much time with these interview transcripts that the people behind them became very real to me. So much so, that sometimes the line got blurred . . .
A case in point occurred at BYU Women’s Conference some years ago. I attended a class to hear a friend present, and found that her co-speaker was Jane Clayson Johnson. I did not know a lot about Jane, apart from her profession as a journalist. As she shared details about her career, her divorce, and waiting for and finally meeting her second husband, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat as the realization hit me – Jane Clayson had married Mark Johnson!
You probably find this news about as earth-shattering as the family members sitting on either side of me that day did (that is, NOT AT ALL). But you see, Mark Johnson was one of my close friends. I’d last heard from him in 2002, when he was reflecting on his conversion to the church, his desires for a family, and trying to navigate the idiosyncrasies of LDS dating. That’s the thing with these close friends – I know them from a point in time, and don’t often get to see where things progress from there. I was beyond thrilled to know Mark was married, and learn through his wife how life had unfolded.
Now mind you, Mark Johnson and I have still never met, and if he passed me on the street today, I would not recognize him. Yet that doesn’t compromise the way I feel about all the individuals who participated in the interviews that came to comprise For All the Saints, or the many positive ways in which their experiences, insights, and collective wisdom have impacted my life.
And there are those cases where I do get to meet the person behind the interview, and the real-life relationship that develops is even better than I could have imagined. Ann Hinckley Romish, almost 80 years young, and daughter of the indomitable Betty Hinckley (who I hope to meet in the next life), is a true friend who knows when to encourage and when to push – I always leave her company determined to do and be better.
In short, my life has been infinitely improved by coming to know all the men and women I spent those many evenings with, if only on paper. And to all my BFFs out there that I’ve never met: Barbecue at my house! Let me know when you can come!