‘I Wish I Had Asked’: Amherst artist seeks to preserve people’s life stories with free recordings

Last modified: Monday, February 11, 2013

Ralph Lowen is always looking for new challenges. He traveled to Senegal with the Peace Corps when he was in his early 20s. When he came home, he became a special education teacher, then a therapist, then a painter.

Now he is bringing his background as a therapist and an artist together to pursue an oral history project titled “I Wish I Had Asked,” that aims to help cancer patients record and share their stories.

Lowen, 67, who lives with his wife Mary Ann in Amherst, says his life experiences have built on one another. It was what he learned as a therapist that led him to become an artist, and he believes his background in art is essential to his success as a collector of stories.

“There’s no sort of separation from one to the other,” he said.

Lowen founded “I Wish I Had Asked” more than a year ago because he realized that many people share the experience of wishing they had spoken to family members about their lives before they died. He began by distributing fliers to local hospitals and clinics in order to find participants. When no one responded, he figured that he would need a more personal way to connect with people. He decided to draw on his experience in therapy to begin a discussion group that would lead to individual recordings.

This fall, Lowen ran the first “I Wish I Had Asked” group through Cancer Connection of Northampton. The group, which met for 10 sessions, had about five members, though attendance fluctuated. Lowen recorded their meetings and met with most of the members individually to record their stories. He has also made recordings for a patient he met through Cancer Connection who didn’t participate in the group, and a patient he met at a dementia support group where he spoke about the project. All of his recordings are free for the participants.

Doubled-edged benefits

The goal of “I Wish I Had Asked” is to preserve stories for future generations, but Lowen believes there are benefits for the storytellers.

“There’s also a really wonderful thing that happens when people feel heard,” he said. Medical research has shown that it is palliative for patients to tell their stories, according to Lowen. “Sometimes it’s a little bit more than the story that comes across,” he continued. “It comes through that they’re telling the story because they’re dying.”

Betsy Neisner, the director of Cancer Connection, said that she saw the palliative benefits for the participants in the fall workshop, and she has received positive feedback on the program. “They went in not knowing really what it was all about and they came out relaxed, connected with each other — raving about the program,” she said. Participants really valued being able to share their stories in their own voices, Neiser said.

The recordings are generally about an hour long and are only lightly edited. Lowen is a fan of storytelling radio programs — like “StoryCorps,” an oral history project that airs segments on the public radio show “Morning Edition,” and “This American Life,” a program that primarily tells true stories and also airs on public radio. Those programs are heavily edited to create more compelling narratives for radio broadcast, however, and Lowen feels it is important to share the full stories participants tell, rather than attempting to shape them.

Lowen, who tries to refrain from asking questions unless the participants are particularly hesitant, says that the hardest part of his job as a facilitator is keeping quiet.

“I’m not there to say this or that is good or not good,” he said. “All of it, including the grunts and groans, are part of us. I am certainly not good enough, you know, to edit somebody else at this point. It’s not mine to be doing. It’s theirs. You know, none of this belongs to me really. It’s really about the person and what they want to give to their family.”

The idea for “I Wish I Had Asked” has been percolating for nearly two years, Lowen said.

About three years ago, he overheard his cousin say, “I wish I had asked” at his uncle’s funeral. The comment stuck with him and eventually inspired him to start the project in early 2012. Lowen’s wife is a radiation oncologist, which led him to focus on cancer patients.

“When you’re diagnosed with something that we consider such a horrendously awful and oftentimes fatal disease, it puts time in a very different perspective,” he said. “There’s more of an immediacy to things.”

Family connections

Lowen’s father died when he was 3, and Lowen said his mother seldom spoke about him and discouraged him from asking his grandparents about him.

“My mother was trying to protect them. Probably incorrectly so,” said Lowen. “They probably would have loved to have talked to me about it.”

Lowen’s father was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and his mother designed guidance systems for torpedoes. He believes that one of the primary reasons he was drawn to art is because it helped him identify with the “creative thought process” his parents engaged in as scientists.

Lowen lived in New York and then western Massachusetts, working in special education for 17 years and as a psychotherapist for almost a decade. He decided to pursue his love of painting in the mid-1990s, and studied art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for five years. He has been painting professionally ever since, showing his work in Boston, New York and western Massachusetts.

He and his wife have one daughter, Cynthia Lowen, an award-winning poet and the writer and producer of the 2011 documentary film “Bully.” Lowen credits his daughter’s courage as a writer and filmmaker as a source of inspiration when he began “I Wish I Had Asked.”

Because he lost his father so young, Lowen is particularly interested in ensuring that children have stories from their parents. He hopes to expand “I Wish I Had Asked” to work with the families of fallen firefighters and police officers, recording stories from friends and family members for their children. “I think it’s really valuable for kids to have stories about their parents if their parents are gone,” he said.

For now, Lowen’s equipment is simple. He records sessions with a handheld recorder that cost less than $300. For the little editing he does — primarily to improve audio quality and remove background noise — he uses a free software called Audacity and the Apple computer he has at home.

Though he has hired a friend with business expertise to consult, Lowen largely runs the project himself. He estimates that it has cost him a few thousand dollars so far, and he hopes to sustain his work through grants and donations.

So far, Lowen has produced seven stories, and he is scheduled to do three more. He will be running another group through Cancer Connection beginning in March, and he hopes word of mouth will bring in more people.

Now that “I Wish I Had Asked” is off the ground, Lowen has begun seeking volunteers and money. “I Wish I Had Asked” is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a New York group that enables artists and arts organizations to function as not-for-profits without getting 501c3 status. “I Wish I Had Asked” can accept tax deductible donations and apply for grants, which are often limited to not-for-profit organizations, through Fractured Atlas. So far, Lowen has received two donations for a total of $100.

“I know it works,” he said of his project. “I know it’s valuable. I’ve seen it in the people I’ve done it for.”

For Lowen, keeping costs down and ensuring that the organization is financially self-sustaining is important because he would like “I Wish I Had Asked” to become a network of volunteers across the country.

“In the end, we’re just sort of this amalgam of our stories, our histories, and I think that’s really where we draw our strength from.”