On this week’s This American Life, Ira Glass begins, as he sometimes does, with a story drawn from within the ranks of his staff. Elna Baker, a regular contributor to the show, recalls an incident involving her little sister.
When Elna was nine and her sister five, they were cleaning their family’s garage with their three other siblings. Elna’s little sister had found a pair of skates and was skating around the garage, ignoring Elna. Enraged, Elna grabbed a broom and bashed her five-year-old sister in the head. Blood streamed down the girl’s face. Their father was quickly summoned for first aid.
Elna claimed the broom slipped accidentally; the bloodied sister told her father what really happened. To get to the truth, Elna’s father decided to hold a family trial at which he required all the kids to give their accounts of the incident. He videotaped it, too—Elna has posted the footage on YouTube.
That Elna’s testimony was fabricated is painfully obvious when we see the footage. Her parents weren’t fooled either. But at the “trial” she was “acquitted”. Why? Her mother thought that declaring the broom assault an accident would make the little sister less scared of Elna in the future. More importantly, the parents thought that Elna’s regret over the incident would be a more effective punishment than a spanking administered quickly and soon left behind. And they were right. Elna’s guilt over how she treated her sister lingers.
The intro is classic This American Life fare: a bittersweet domestic story that is unusual but not far removed from middle-class suburbia. This hook, however, launches an episode edgier than most that This American Life has produced: inventive and risky, and in ways that don’t always succeed.
The episode’s first act begins with the background noise of traffic, the sound of a ringing phone, and a grainy smoker’s voice saying, “Hello.” The voice belongs to Bruce Rodrick, a man in his 60s who had posted an ad on Craiglist about getting his swastika tattoo removed. He can’t afford what a tattoo shop would charge.
“I’m with this girl Emily right now,” he says to the woman on the phone, speaking of Emily Hsiao, the reporter who produced the segment. She’s interviewing Bruce in his car. “She’s a fucking college student or something.” He pauses. “Twenty-four,” he says, presumably in response to a question about her age. “I’m not doing her. What the fuck is wrong with you?” All this before we hear from Emily herself. Instead of the calm polished tones of a journalist doing a voice-over, we get the unmediated voice of the story’s subject; Emily does not introduce Bruce, as is custom, but instead Bruce introduces Emily.
The segment relies on production so minimal as to be virtually absent: the interview seems one continuous take, corrupted by background noise of wind and car horns; the section includes all the missteps and awkwardness that you would expect from a conversation that neither person really wants to have. The segment plays like a piece of performance art as much as an interview.
Bruce spent over 30 years of his adult life in prison, serving a string of sentences for robbing drug dealers and selling heroin. He got the swastika tattoo in the late 1980s while behind bars. After reading a book by a Jewish man who survived the concentration camps, he decided he wanted the tattoo removed. “I am getting old,” he says, “and I don’t want to die and have God see that on my arm.”
The segment is one of the first stories the reporter produced, and it shows. Her questions are sometimes painfully callow. “What’s prison like?” she asks. “Have you ever killed anyone?” The listener winces.
But the reporter’s evident inexperience, and the segment’s grainy, minimalist production, are what make the interview an astonishing piece of documentary realism. Emily gamely lets the listener experience her own missteps so as to tell a parallel story about the interview itself: an uncomfortable encounter between two people straining to communicate.
The episode’s second act is similarly inventive and out of step with This American Life’s typical offerings. The story follows a man named Will Ream. Ream grew up in a town called Colorado City, in the deserts of north Arizona. He was raised within a fundamentalist religious group that split off from the mainstream Mormon church more than a century ago. Around 2009, Ream was living in the same town, happily married, with five children. His church began getting more extreme. The leadership started sending Ream and other male church members out in the middle of the night to vandalize the property of people the church deemed enemies—and told them not to tell their wives. Ream’s wife, who married him when she was 15, got fed up. She left him and the kids behind.
After his wife leaves him, his church gets even more fanatical, restricting children from playing and riding bicycles and forbidding members from eating sugar or wearing red clothes. So on his 33rd birthday, Ream loads his kids into his van and leaves Colorado City—and his church—behind.
Entering modern society, with toys, movies, sugar, and non-fundamentalists, is difficult, especially for Ream, who has little education, no savings, and—now that he has left the church—no social support system. His kids, by comparison, welcome the opportunity to play and meet others. Eventually Ream has a breakdown and recognizes that he needs help taking care of his five children. He sends them to live with families nearby—and, as he watches them thrive more without him than with him, he ends up waiving his parental rights entirely.
What makes the segment bold? The producers enlisted Stephin Merritt, from the band the Magnetic Fields, to compose songs that accompany Ream’s story. I found the musical portions haunting. Others will find them an irksome slathering-on of pathos, unnecessary in a story already moving when told in reported prose. Because the lyrics come from Ream, not Merritt, they lack subtlety; the effect is one of documentary authenticity at the expense of the irony and intelligence that characterize Merritt’s lyrics for the Magnetic Fields.
Whether one loves the songs or rolls one’s eyes at them, one has to admire This American Life’s willingness to experiment: risking, in one episode, an absence of polish, and also an excess of it.
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