A Doctor of History Fixes Broken Stories

I generally try to avoid using the title “Dr.” instead of “Mr.” because I don’t want to be called upon in an emergency to have to save someone’s life.

I can imagine it now:  the captain’s voice comes over the speaker system: “Is there a doctor on the plane?”  When no one comes forward, the crew searches the passenger list and calls out my name. “Dr. Douma, please attend to the passenger in seat 4b.”

I’m not the kind of a doctor that can save people. I can’t fix a broken arm, or a broken leg, but I can fix a broken story.

My friend Alberto is an archaeologist in a Spanish colonial city in Latin America. Much of what he discovers in his digs doesn’t fit with the traditional narrative found in his nation’s history textbook. For example, he finds English pottery in layers where there is only supposed to be pottery imported from Spanish.  He protests when he finds modern structures labelled as colonial structures. What bothers him the most, perhaps, is 20th century cobblestone streets, which the authorities are happy to call “colonial” if it appeals to the tourists.

The lines of history are never straight or unbroken. There are always complications to the story. There are missing links, forgotten events, great episodes of courage and struggles that are completely missing in the historical record. Most of these stories are lost and can never be recovered. Sometimes, catastrophic events destroy stories. The stories that die in an earthquake or in the coming of the Conquistadors must be innumerable.

Stories become broken through the passage of time and generations. A family story that a grandfather knew well, a father can’t remember but in vague lines, while a grandson knows nothing of it all all.

Immigration breaks stories.

I go to the Netherlands for much of my historical research. There, I have built relationships with my distant Dutch cousins. One day, while riding bikes through some Frisian village, near my great-grandfather’s birth house, my “cousin” and I made an impromptu stop at the house of another relative, whom I had not met before. My cousin introduced me as a relative from the United States. Welcomed inside, we sat for coffee, tea, and cookies with three women. The oldest women, who may have been eighty, told us that when she was young, her family used to receive letters from relatives in the United States.

Of course, my ears perked up.

“Oh really,” I said in Dutch, “and where did these letters come from?”

“Wisconsin,” she said.

“My great-grandfather Renze lived in Wisconsin,” I replied.

“Oh no, this was an Auke Douma.”

“Auke was Renze’s brother.”

At that moment, the old woman was overcome with emotion. She grabbed my hand and held it in her hands. She began to cry. It had been fifty years since she had heard about family in the United States.

Although our families from two sides of the ocean had reconnected in the 1990s, this was the first tangible sign of that connection she was aware of. A broken story was made whole. Before I left, she gave me a copy of a letter from my great-uncle, dated 1969. That was the last letter from America that the family had received.

As a historian, I don’t try to memorize the past to predict the future. I don’t try to look back to find answers for political problems for today, although one could perhaps do that. Instead, I try to repair the gaps of understanding that inevitably appear in the record.

Historians are like detectives. The are also like medical doctors who need to diagnose problems.

A historian cannot fix all of the broke stories, so they must look for broken stories worth fixing. At the individual level, this may mean repairing a genealogy or a family history. At the community level, it may mean keeping local knowledge alive, or resurrecting lost knowledge that once belonged to the community. At the national level, a doctor of history helps disabuse us of false histories, of  broken stories set incorrectly by past historians.

Reconnecting with the past makes us whole. History tells us who we are, where we came from. It might tell us what is important and what is worth sharing.

Historians want to find the missing pieces. They want to recover and fix broken stories.

They do so in at least four ways. Historians

  • correct or criticize weak or false interpretations of history (critical)
  • find missing pieces and recover lost tales (historical)
  • re-interpret existing narratives (historiographical)
  • correct grammar, organization, and citations (grammatical, pedagogical)

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