This American Life | Podcast Review | September 23, 2015 | By

This American Life: “What’s Going On In There”

This week, the listener is asked to step beyond day-in, day-out generalization, and toward a place of empathy.


There is a difference between knowing and assuming. We all know this, but we so often substitute one for the other. I didn’t get the lead in the play because the director is a mean rotten jerk from his mean rotten toes all the way to his mean rotten soul. Maybe you’re just a bad singer. I know I was. Assuming is easy—it affirms our world view.

This week, Ira Glass and This American Life dive inside the world of stories that, heard elsewhere, would be easy to understand simply, reductively. Instead, the listener is asked to step beyond the familiar site of generalization—about a ramshackle hideaway found hidden in the woods, about an absentee teen in a inner-city high school, about a father who has never spoken to his son—and toward a place of empathy and fuller comprehension.

Just a few months before the Pan-American Games were set to begin in Toronto, Canadian officials discovered an underground bunker near the site of the games. The Canadian media began speculating about terrorist intentions and spun the public into a fervor; the hashtag #terrortunnel followed soon there after.

The truth? Some guy named Elton just wanted a place to hang out.

But I started my first tunnel probably when I was in elementary school. I would just go in the creek, walk around, and this is something on my mind. I wanted to go to a clubhouse. I had five or six attempts, and I think the sixth one was the huge one that you guys found.

Now terrorist intentions, or even harmful ones—he just wanted to hide from his sisters and their tirades on how he was living his life. It was just his place to pray, reflect, and relax.

Jumping ahead, Act II begins with Larry, who speaks English. His father does not. For years, Larry could only wonder what his father thought of him. The exploration of this relationship is as emotionally rich as you would expect from This American Life. The story concludes with Larry reading, in Chinese, a letter to his father, about what his dad has meant to him growing up. Then, he and his father speak to each other through a translator—communicating substantially for the very first time.

Act I, however, stole the show. Here, Ira Glass showcases WNYC’s Radio Rookies, a program that helps high school students produce radio stories. WNYC producer Courtney Stein helps our narrator and protagonist, the 17 year-old Rainy, tell the story of her physically and emotionally abuse relationship with “Tony.”

In January, This American Life played a BBC radio documentary about noted beat writer and heroin addict William BurroughsGlass gushed over the documentary:

They do this totally untraditional kind of narration where the rock star, Iggy Pop, who is apparently a huge Burroughs fan, both narrates the show and comments on the narration that the show producer has written to the show producer all through the show. I have never heard anything like it. It’s one of the best hours of radio I heard last year, and one of the most original.

While Glass doesn’t praise the production or craft of Rainy’s story about abuse, the same elements shine through, perhaps contributing to its selection. The way Rainy’s best friend, Nicole, will interrupt Rainy’s narration is well-structured and, if you listen closely, seemingly staged, yet incredibly moving. As is, of course the, content.

WNYC describes Radio Rookies as “for teens, by teens.” Rainy’s experience is unlike that of most teens, exactly like that of too many teens, and one from which all people, teen or otherwise, can learn about intimate partner violence. If you’ve ever wondered why people remain in abusive relationships, this lends a valuable window into a common behavior pattern. And if you’ve ever wondered what gives someone the courage to finally leave, well, that’s here too.

About the Author

Will Warren is a founding editor at Audiologue, and covers Radiolab for the site. You can find him on Twitter @willpwarren or via email at will@audiologue.xyz.

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