(NYT Magazine) Ken Burns Still Has Faith in a Shared American Story

You’ve talked before about the connection between your work in bringing the past to life and your mom’s death (Burns’s mother died of cancer in 1965, when he was 11).

Is the explanation for what you do that simple? That you’re driven to make historical documentaries because it’s a way of waking the dead? “Driven” sounds too easy, but you wouldn’t be talking to me if my mom hadn’t died. That’s the truth of it. In April, I will have been without a mother for 56 years. That is way too long. Her name was Lyla. The half-life of grief is endless. But it has also been hugely productive. I remember being interviewed in the ’90s by two sociologists about the early death of parents, and their last question was, “What is your mother’s greatest gift?” And I said “dying” and then started to cry. I didn’t want her to die, but I don’t know what I would do without the loss as being the engine of exploration, of confidence, of bravery. What idiot would take on all of these things and think you could do it? It’s pretty absurd. So there it is. But the good postscript to this: Near you in Brooklyn, David, is a little girl who is 10 years old whose name is Lyla. My oldest daughter named her first child after my mother, and a name that was never spoken except draped in black crepe now gets spoken all the time with joy and love.

Do you wonder what your mom would make of your work? All the time. And it just — I’ll start to cry right now. Only because I sort of feel that she must — she’s present. There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not aware of her. But at the same time there has been that friction that has helped me to create, so I can’t help but honor that. I feel very fortunate that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

Read it all.


Posted in America/U.S.A., History, Movies & Television