Luepker's Living Portraits was hailed by The
Grinnell College Magazine as an innovative business.
See The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2007,"The
"This Is Your Life"
By Erin Peterson
When Ebenezer Scrooge tossed and turned his way through an
evening full of nightmares in Charles Dickens' A Christmas
Carol, he was having more than just a rough night ‹ he was
undergoing a life review, says Ellen Luepker '64. By examining
the events of his earlier life through older, wiser eyes,
he began to understand who he was ‹ and how he might still
Most of us won't have such perfectly-sequenced, epiphany-revealing
dreams, but Luepker, the founder of Living Portraits, believes
that the life review process is for more than just characters
in novels. "[A life review] is for many people ‹ people
who may be terminally ill, or people in their 70s or 80s ‹
or even their 40s or 50s," she says. "A life review
can create coherence and purpose in people's lives. They become
clearer about who they are, and it can enhance the sense of
meaning in their own lives."
Since 1995, Luepker has been creating video life reviews
through Living Portraits. She works with individuals and their
families to capture the highlights of a person's life through
thoughtful questions that get to the heart of how they've
lived their lives.
The process from start to finish is remarkably thorough:
once a life review is requested (often by family members of
a particular individual), Luepker meets with the subject of
the life review, then collects questions from family members.
After organizing the questions chronologically, she meets
with the individual for two or three two-hour sessions and
goes through the questions, videotaping the entire process.
From there, the video is edited, organized, and put on a DVD.
In all, the process can take up to 60 hours to complete. "People
find this to be an extremely pleasurable experience,"
she says. "It's not therapy, but it's a therapeutic experience."
The therapeutic aspect of the work is part of the reason
she got into the business in the first place. Luepker, who
has done psychotherapy and counseling work for decades, says
she was inspired to start Living Portraits after she learned
about a graduate school mentor who had done life histories
for older women in Japan. "I was fascinated by the process,"
she says. "People need to review their lives and make
meaning out of them." Her training in psychotherapy gave
her the skills to do loosely structured interviews that guide
‹ but don't intrude on ‹ a given train of thought.
While life reviews are similar to the more commonly known
oral histories, there are key differences. Unlike oral histories,
which tend to focus on particular groups of people ‹ nurses
in World War II or survivors of the Holocaust ‹ life reviews
focus on individuals. They also don't limit the discussion
only to a particular segment of a person's life.
She says the visual aspect of these life reviews are also
unique. "With video, people can remember the body language
of those who are no longer with them."
While Luepker's Living Portraits work represents only a portion
of her income (she also continues her therapy work, supervises
training for psychiatry residents, and has authored books
on counseling), she finds the work finds deeply satisfying.
Last year, she had a dozen clients, and as the baby boomer
population ages, she'll have a growing audience for her work.
And someday, she may even turn the camera on herself.
"I think that I would welcome the opportunity to do
a life review," she says. "I'd love to have my own
children asking the questions."