Kim Heikkila Q&A

June 27, 2022
Kim Heikkila excels in the art of listening to people's stories.

“I worry that we are returning to an era when access to abortion, adoption, and birth control will become even more stratified along the lines of class, race, and region than it already is. It seems as if we are headed back to the idea that women’s primary personal, social, and political value is defined through motherhood, and a narrowly defined one at that.”

With Roe v. Wade now overturned, are you concerned the country is heading back to gender norms that stigmatize unwed mothers and force them into hushed adoption?

Concerned, appalled, worried … but not necessarily surprised. I worry that we are returning to an era when access to abortion, adoption, and birth control will become even more stratified along the lines of class, race, and region than it already is. It seems as if we are headed back to the idea that women’s primary personal, social, and political value is defined through motherhood, and a narrowly defined one at that.

You run Spotlight Oral History. When did you first get enamored with oral history? Are you a Studs Terkel fan?

I first encountered oral history when I was a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. I was reading scholarship, much of it feminist, about and based on oral history. When I decided to write my dissertation about women veterans of the US-Vietnam War, I decided it would be unethical do so without actually talking to some of them. So I learned as much as I could about the theory and practice of oral history, participated in the Columbia University summer oral history program, which pre-dated its current master’s program, and traveled around the country interviewing women Vietnam veterans. It was an amazing experience to see how listening carefully to someone’s story could not only be instrumental in learning about the past, but how putting an individual’s personal experience into its historical context could be empowering, even liberating, for that individual. If history exists in the interplay between the individual and the collective, between personal agency and social structure, oral history provides an excellent lens through which to explore those connections.

I continued to witness and experience the power of oral history as I taught college students to interview Vietnam veterans and other elders, as I turned my dissertation into my first book — Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam — and as I launched my oral history consulting business after leaving academia in 2016.

As for Studs Terkel, I respect his legacy but my oral history education was influenced by others in the field (e.g. Alessandro Portelli, Sherna Berger Gluck, Daphne Patai, Paul Thompson, Ron Grele, Linda Shopes, etc.); by scholars whose work was based on oral history (e.g. Kathleen Blee, Women of the Klan, and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kenney and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community); and by collections of oral histories focused on American veterans’ experiences in the US-Vietnam War (e.g. A Piece of My Heart by Keith Walker and Bloods by Wallace Terry).

When did you know you wanted to write a book about Booth girls? Was it pretty soon after meeting your birth sister?

I met my sister in 1994 and didn’t start thinking about a book about Booth Memorial Hospital until 2012.

My husband and I had adopted our son from Vietnam in 2006 and I struggled with motherhood. My mom helped me navigate those early months. She became an incredible grandmother to my son and an incredible help to me and my husband. When she died in 2009, I wondered how I would be able to be a good, or even merely adequate, mother to my son in her absence. After my first book came out in 2011, I started thinking about my next project and knew I wanted it to be something with personal significance. I also realized that, though I was a historian of women in the postwar U.S. and an oral historian to boot, I had never asked my mother much about her experience with her first pregnancy or at Booth. What a miss! It was too late to talk to my mother, of course, so I decided to use my skills as a historian and an oral historian to try to learn as much about her experiences as I could. So I delved into the archives and looked for Booth girls to interview. I explained my situation to each of them and they were incredibly generous in sharing their stories with me, in acting, in some ways, as proxies for my mother.

You write in different voices in the book. Was that an enjoyable or difficult literary challenge for you?

Enjoyable. More than that, though, it felt necessary. It seemed that the different threads of the book demanded different styles, different ways of thinking and writing. If I got stuck in one section of a chapter, in one style of writing, I’d stop and work on another section using a different voice. I could almost feel different areas of my brain lighting up as I shifted from one to the other. The more personal voice reminded the analytical historian in me that I was writing about intimate experiences of actual people. The more scholarly voice helped me make sense of those individual experiences and explain how they had been shaped by larger cultural forces. The imaginative pieces helped me connect with my mom in a different way and incorporating her writing allowed her to “speak” in her own voice.

What was your biggest surprise in researching Booth Memorial Hospital?

I was surprised to learn how attitudes, policies, and practices regarding unwed mothers and their children changed over time and that, for the first few decades of its existence, Booth, which was originally known as the Salvation Army Rescue Home, insisted on keeping single mothers and their children together. In 1912, for example, of the 117 children who left the rescue home, 108 went home in the custody of their mothers; only one was adopted (the other eight died). This practice was still in place in 1920. It started to shift in the 1930s and 1940s, and by 1960, seventy percent of children born at Booth were adopted away from their mothers. That shift stemmed from changing explanations of single pregnancy among white women, the post-World War II emphasis on the ideal American nuclear family, and the increasing demand for “adoptable” white babies.

I also found it interesting that Booth at its current location on Como Avenue was designed by well-known architect Clarence Johnston, who has designed many prominent buildings throughout Minnesota and was a colleague of Cass Gilbert.

Have you heard from people who read your book and said that was also their story? Any favorite reader stories?

Yes, often. Every time I speak about the book, someone — often, more than one person — will say that they had been an “unwed mother” in the mid-20th century, or went to school with a young woman who suddenly disappeared, or had been born in a place like Booth, or had reunited with birth siblings they had known nothing about. Families are complicated, far more tangled than the nice, tidy mid-20th century nuclear family ideal would have had us believe.

I have had the great pleasure of connecting with some of my sister’s paternal family members (she has found them via Ancestry.com, which has totally changed the way birth relatives can find and connect with each other). One of my sister’s paternal half-sisters has said that the book has made a huge difference in *her* mother’s life. Her mother has realized that perhaps she, too, was a Booth girl — her memory is foggy on the details — and has started talking about that period of her life for the first time. So now I feel as though my family has expanded again. What a treasure!

You’ve said that the most transformative moments of your life have come when you take the time to truly listen to someone’s story. What is a tip you can share about how to be truly present and listen?

Here’s one: stop thinking about yourself. Often we listen to someone only long enough to start planning our response or think about how their story relates to ours. That’s okay; that’s how we form connections. But every once in a while, turn the dial down on your own inner voice and really listen to the person sitting across from you. Ask them questions based on what they’ve said rather than making statements that bring the conversation back to yourself.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a great oral history project for the Minnesota Historical Society focused on women and sport, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. I’m about halfway through my interviews and have already heard some amazing stories from some amazing athletes, coaches, educators, and officials. Who knows…maybe my next book will emerge from some of these stories.