Storytelling and The Life Tapes Interview

... when you look at the maze you start from the top and go into the maze ... your life, you go down and then you reach a place where you have to turn around ... maybe in your own life you fall, something happens in your home, you are sad, you pick yourself up and you go on through the maze ... you go on and on and on ... so many places in there you might ... maybe your child died ... or maybe somebody died, or you stop, you fall and you feel bad ... you get up, turn around and go again ...  

The Life Tapes Interview

“The fact that we are together has totally changed my outlook on what I am going to do with my life.”

Beginning in the 1970’s, Dr. Rosenbaum promoted the audio taping of family histories after seeing increased cohesion and improved communications between patients and the family.

Among those who decided to conduct interviews, cancer became viewed as a life-changing event, happening to the entire family not simply the affected individual. The life tape interview promoted meaningful self-reflection and the mutual sharing of authentic emotions during the process of telling one’s story. Follow-up studies were conducted with patients taking part in a formal study and the results reported that 90% of patients found benefits through the sharing process, specifically:

  • It helped with leaving a legacy and passing on values to family
  • They increased self-reflection and self-understanding
  • Sharing their story with loved ones helped in overcoming the hurdles to communication
  • Patient learned that the family could handle the current problems<
  • The social connection helped address the patients feelings of isolation

Symbolic Immortality

To cope with the threat of physical death people attempt to connect themselves to a symbolic meaning that is greater and more enduring than the self. This process relates to the search for “symbolic immortality” which reflects the person’s relatedness to all that comes before him and all that follows him. The results of that search are often captured in memoirs or biographies but in short, they are what makes up a life story. Capturing a person’s story can contribute to the feelings of immortality by identifying family ties and through acts of loving support.

Tips For Your Interview

The following is an outline of the basic requirements and procedures for conducting your interview.

  1. Selecting the tool you'll use for recording - Do you have a smartphone? It has a recording mechanism but we strongly suggest using the StoryCorp application described in the sidebar of this page.
  2. Decide if others will participate  - Including others can help socially and emotionally. Identify other participants and contact them to describe the procedure and encourage their involvement. In addition to coordinating the interview, you could ask others to volunteer their memories of and feelings about the interviewee, particularly the ways in which the person has influenced them, and what they have learned or observed since the diagnosis.
  3. Plan your Questions - Before recording anything, go through the list of questions in the next section and give to the interviewer or the interviewee prior to the scheduled interview. Ask them to think of significant life events and also to consider how much he or she wishes to disclose about thoughts relating to their illness. Review these topics with the patient on the day of the interview. Find out the names of relatives (e.g., grand parents) that the patient would like to talk about as a form of brief genealogy.
  4. Ask Warm-up Questions - Click the record button and begin by introducing yourself and others. Then ask a few warm-up questions like: "where were you born?" or "can you describe the first time we met?" If you plan to use the StoryCorp application, you'll be able to select warm-up questions.
  5. Ask Open-Ended Questons - This lets the storyteller steer towards what is important to him or her. Use language like "Tell me about..." or "What was it like when..."
  6. Ask Follow-up Questions - You don't always need to stick to the script, ask a follow-up question if you are curious about an answer.
  7. Tell a Story - Don't hesitate to share a personal story or have others in the room share their favorite memories. This can be a time when you can tell your partner how much he or she means to you and to discuss something you've always wanted to talk about.
  8. Set up Context - Keep in mind that future listeners may not be familiar with specific people or places you mention. Set up context where needed with questions like: "Who was Uncle Steve?" and "Why was he such an influence on you?"
  9. Encourage Vivid Details - Questions that encourage vivid details can make the story special. Some examples are: "What did yor kitchen smell like growing up?" or "What images stand out when you think about Granddad?"
  10. Plan Some Reflective Questions - Keep an eye on the time so you are aware when there are 10 and 5 minutes left. Plan some reflective questions as the interview wraps up, such as: "Looking back, what were the happiest times? or "What advice would you give me about being a parent?"
  11. Follow-ups - Although we have had no reports of serious negative reactions from participating in the Life Tapes Project, as with any intervention it is possible that issues raised during an interview could prompt reactions that the patient finds upsetting. For this reason, the interviewer or physician should contact the patient a few days to a week following the interview, to insure that there have been no serious negative sequel or to offer or refer the patient for support, if warranted.

Structure of the Life Tape Interview

Editors note: The following is taken from the original Legacy Project document but we strongly recommend referring to the excellent set of questions found on the StoryCorp website here.

Phase 1 – Beginning the interview; birth to young adulthood. Begin with somewhat more factual and “safe” questions about the participant’s ancestry, upbringing, and early life. Move on through high school and college. Typical questions might include:

  1. What is your earliest memory of life?
  2. Describe your relationship with your parents/grandparents.
  3. What do you remember them teaching you?
  4. What was it like being a teenager?
  5. What were you learning at this time in your life?
  6. What was college like for you?
  7. Did you have a favorite area of study?

Proceed to later periods in life and significant relationships and events. What did you do in your twenties/thirties? Were there any significant others that came into your life at this time? How did they influence you?

Phase 2 – Middle of interview. This phase occurs naturally as the patient begins to reveal him or herself in detail. Explore major turning points in life and career up to a few years ago, and important lessons learned. Bring out the significance of events and people for who the patient is today. Family participation is common during this phase—particularly when the interview turns to raising children and important events that the family shared.

  1. How/when did you meet your future husband/wife?
  2. What discoveries did you make during this time?
  3. How did that experience influence who you are today. How did having children affect you?
  4. What are you most proud of?

Phase 3 – End of interview. Questions “deepen.” Patient discusses coping with cancer, personal legacy, feelings about spirituality and the afterlife, regrets, etc.

  1. How has your cancer diagnosis affected you and your family?
  2. What has been the most significant change you see in yourself now that you are living with cancer?
  3. What is a typical day like for you now?
  4. During this time, what is of most importance to you?

If you have agreed with the patient that discussion of dying and/or the afterlife would be appropriate, guide the interview there. However, be aware that not all participants are prepared to talk about such matters directly.

  1. What do you think happens when a person dies?
  2. Do you consider yourself religious? Spiritual?
  3. Have you become more spiritual or religious since your diagnosis?
  4. What lessons do you hope to have passed to your children?
  5. How do you hope you will be remembered?
  6. What kind of legacy would you like to leave with your family?
  7. End the interview with a couple of final summary-type questions.
  8. Has this interview been helpful to you? How so?
  9. If you were to live your life over again, what would you do differently or change?
  10. What would you keep the same?
  11. What are you grateful for?

Story Telling Resources

"Every Story Matters"

"StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world." 

With the StoryCorp smartphone app, you can prepare, record, and share a conversation. An easy to understand set of instructions and "interview scripts" are available on their web site.   


A heritage scrapbook is a wonderful project for the whole family and a way to share precious memories down through the generations.

Ethical Will

Ethical wills are a way to share your values, and deeper thoughts with your family, friends, and community.


We wish to acknowledge the people who were noted in the original Legacy Project - the amazing friends of the Rosenbaums!