What's Your Story? | Our Town | Chicago Reader

What's Your Story? 

For $500 Susan Rose will make you the star of your very own professionally written biography.

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If you don't have time to keep a blog or a paisley-covered diary, haven't been able to get your significant other to complete Philipp Keel's fill-in-the-blank journal All About Me, and can't interest your parents in picking up their dusty copy of Bob Greene's To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come, there's always Susan Rose to take down your memories. Rose is a personal historian, which basically means she's a biographer for hire. She figures the time is ripe for someone with her particular expertise. "Our culture as a whole is focused inward a lot, on the more intangible things," she says. "People's memories are pretty valuable, I think, and if you don't record them they really fade quickly."

On her Web site (www.treeinthe forestproductions.com), Rose suggests that the standard milestones--graduation, marriage, the birth of a baby--are ripe for documentation. But she makes it clear she'll listen to--or avoid prying into--just about anything. (When she interviewed me to demonstrate her technique, I suggested we talk about my collection of tchotchkes from around the world and avoid my painful junior high years.) For a fee of around $500, she'll come to your home, plug in her tape recorder, and conduct an hour-long personal interview, accepting no more hospitality than a mug of hot water. A pre-interview questionnaire helps her focus; you can also hire her to talk to, say, your grandparents or your sister to gather their memories. After transcribing the tape, she'll let you edit out unwanted portions. Then she shapes the material into a polished form that goes into a photo album, leaving room for pertinent photos and other memorabilia. You get to keep the original cassette.

Most of Rose's subjects are adults. Unlike other personal historians, however, she'll record children's memories as well: "I really like children, how they think, their enthusiasm, their unguardedness." She's been interviewing her seven-year-old daughter, Becca, ever since she could talk and making books out of the transcripts. Rose's questions for kids are much more specific, and parents are often called on to answer when attention spans drift during the interview. If you want to get more in-depth and have the budget, she's ready--she just signed a contract to do an entire family's story.

Rose, who turned 50 in May, has a colorful personal history of her own. She was an air force brat, born on a base in Japan. The oldest of four siblings, she moved around with her family and ended up graduating from Pacific Lutheran University in 1975 with a bachelor of fine arts degree. A series of odd jobs led her to a position as an advertising-production coordinator with a trade publication in Denver. In 1980 she was discovered by a French modeling agency and moved to Paris. After a year spent traveling between Paris, Milan, and Zurich, she headed back to the States. She'd decided to become a foreign correspondent. "It was so horrible when I was modeling to have nobody ever want to hear anything that I had to say," she says. "Maybe that's one reason why I'm so keyed into listening to people."

By then her parents were living in Albuquerque, and she briefly attended the University of New Mexico before she was discovered again--this time by a television station. "I managed to get an interview with the local CBS affiliate and got a job as an assistant producer, but I kept bugging them to let me be the reporter." Her persistence paid off. For a year she worked in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where, "in the middle of nowhere," she was her own field reporter, writer, producer, and editor. Eventually she moved back to Albuquerque and started anchoring newscasts, which entailed doing live interviews. "I'd gotten to a point where I knew what I was doing, but I was thinking to myself, 'I'm interviewing Bea Arthur--Maude. How am I going to get to Beirut?'"

The United States government came up with the answer in 1985. Rose had applied to the foreign service, and she was offered a position as a diplomat. She was already fluent in four languages, and her first assignment required a crash course in a fifth: Portuguese. After nine months of training in Washington, she headed to the American consulate in Rio de Janeiro.

"A big part of my job was interviewing people for all kinds of visas. I had to learn to conduct the interview in such a way that I would get the information that I needed to make the decision. Every morning there would be a line of people out front--a lot of them had slept on the sidewalk to be early in line--and I knew that before I left that night I was going to have to interview every single one of them. It was a very tough initiation period. You're interviewing in a foreign language, you have three minutes to conduct the interview, and then you have to make the decision right then and tell them whether or not they're going to get a visa."

The trial by fire lasted 18 months. After that she was posted in Athens for two years and then became chief of the visa section in Brussels, where she met her future husband, Alan Rose, an ad exec who was originally from Chicago. She left the foreign service in 1994, and the couple lived in Greece (where Becca was born) and Hungary before heading back to Alan's hometown in 1999.

Back in the States, Rose dabbled in acting and stayed home with Becca. In 2001 Alan's mother turned 75, and Rose decided she wanted to give her mother-in-law the gift of having her life documented. She couldn't find anyone in Chicago who offered such a service, and in the end she went with a more conventional gift instead. But later that year, after a little research and some career-counseling sessions, she launched Tree in the Forest Productions.

Rose still holds a day job too, again working for the federal government as an interviewer. "I'm adjudicating requests for political asylum, and I'm interviewing people about the worst kinds of things, and in a lot of detail. Torture and really bad stuff--vicious beatings and abuse--and I'm going from that to somebody talking about their most wonderful day." She's guessing that in this age of self-confession, sooner or later a client is going to want to record their most painful experiences. She looks at what she's doing now as "training for that."

Right now, though, her biggest hurdle is making people aware of what she does--and of why they need her services: "It's not a known product," she says. "If you say you're a personal historian and give somebody your card, they don't really know that they might be interested."

She's well aware that personal historians are hired mostly by people who have the means to indulge themselves. "It's true that there is an element of narcissism, I suppose, in people with money wanting to document their lives, or the lives of their precious children. But I don't think you do harm to somebody when you sit down and listen for an hour and pay attention to them. Especially a child."

Eventually Rose would like to set up workshops to teach people who can't afford to hire her how to do it themselves. She'd also like to document the lives of foster children. "Listen, forget personal history--so many of these kids don't have any history, and when they grow up the salient points are going to be pain. But I think even in the middle of pain there are still some good points, and to have that documented is important. A life is not just the high points that we remember. It's all the little stuff in between that we forget. That's who we really are."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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