The prologue to this week’s This American Life is heartwarming—perhaps overly so, even for this embarrassingly sentimental reviewer. Ten-year-old Tess admits to her father that roller coasters terrify her. He takes her to Six Flags to conquer her fear. She rides a looping roller coaster for the first time, and in her words, “it wasn’t even that bad.” The experience leaves her transformed: “I am a different person than I was a minute ago,” she says. (OK, fine, fine—it’s cute.)
This introductory segment sets us up for an episode of people facing their fears and, no doubt, becoming better people because of it. Thankfully, the episode is darker and more varied than the premise leads us to expect. People do confront their fears—of (respectively) men, city buses, making friends, and their own homosexuality. But of the four acts, only one tells the story of a purposeful quest for self-improvement. The others show something a bit different: unexpected adaptability in response to a change in one’s situation. This adaptability, I will argue below, can be both praiseworthy and pernicious.
In act one, stand-up comedian Anthony DeVito (no relation to Danny, but yes, he’s from New Jersey) shares a story about Vickie, his grandmother. Vickie is 90 years old. She lives in a nursing home. And recently, she’s acquired a new boyfriend: Frank, who’s 62, blind, one-legged, and African American. Not the partner you’d expect, DeVito says, for a tough, relatively intolerant Italian woman from Jersey.
But what’s most surprising is that Vickie has let herself fall in love at all. She became estranged from her husband when she learned he was having an affair. Their marriage turned into a cold-war standoff in the family house—one so bitter that DeVito, growing up, thought that his grandfather was a tenant, not Vickie’s husband. The end of the marriage left Vickie with a deep distrust for men.
And then she met Frank in the nursing home. The nursing home is unpleasant, with constant wails and moans and a smell of sickness that attaches to everything. But together, Vickie and Frank make it tolerable for one another. Their dialogue, captured directly in the segment, is the episode’s highlight. They are clearly smitten with one another.
Ira Glass reports the second act, in which he accompanies an asylum seeker from Afghanistan on the Detroit city bus. The woman—Glass calls her “M” to protect her identity—lives at Freedom House in Detroit, which teaches asylum seekers such skills as getting around a city independently. This story is one that radio tells well: we hear M directly and can register how capable and confident she sounds. The same story, told in a different format, might have more difficulty in conveying such a rich sense of her personality and drive.
The third act is the only segment that parallels the prologue’s format of a person charmingly confronting their fears. This tale of self-improvement, however, takes place in prison. Richard Pierce, an arsonist, has been behind bars for the last 28 years. Now 52 years old, he’s been isolated his entire life: for years in prison, he spoke to no one. So he joins a prison club called Toastmasters, where inmates stand up and give speeches. Richard thinks that if he can give a speech, he’ll be better able to engage with people in conversation—a skill he’s lost, and perhaps never had. The prison setting notwithstanding, the segment is lighthearted; it’s hard not to root for the long-suffering inmate who ventures into public speaking.
The final act begins with a conventional story of a kid on Thanksgiving break from college telling his parents he’s gay. After the conversation—in a twist I almost hate to reveal here—his mom confronts him. She says: “I think I’m gay, too.”
Self-transformation is not always a willed act of reinvention, à la Madonna from album to album. More typically, I think, people change over time in response to the conditions in which they find themselves. This context-dependent adaptability can be good or bad. On the one hand, the ability to adjust our habits, behaviors, and even preferences in response to surrounding conditions gives us a helpful flexibility. On the other hand, I wonder: does adaptability carry with it acquiescence to whatever our present situation might be? We accept the form of life that our environment offers us, and our environments are unstable across the course of our lives. Acceptance and response to this instability is not always progressive transformation; instead, it’s just what’s necessary for survival.
This less-than-heartwarming side of transformation is most visible in the segment that follows M, the refugee. She is not in Detroit by choice. A humanitarian worker in Kabul, she came to the U.S. a year ago for a conference. While she was here, she got tipped off that if she returned to Afghanistan, she and her family could be killed. She’s been separated from her husband and children for more than a year. Transforming herself into an “American”, or a quasi-American, by learning how to take the city bus, is not an act of metamorphosis, but an adjustment to a distressing situation.
But the same principle applies also to the nursing home story, charming as it is. Would our elderly odd couple have hit it off had they met in another setting? The episode gives us little reason to think so. They are interdependent in the nursing home context in ways they wouldn’t be elsewhere: their love makes the place bearable.
The episode presents transformation as, all in all, a good thing. The fact that we can extract a murkier moral testifies to the richness of the stories told. Transformation is, at times, how we wrest control of our lives; at other times, it’s a surrender.
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