This week’s This American Life offers three stories of people able to see something that others cannot: a rare genetic mutation; the comedic potential of “mom jokes”; and, in the final segment, the existence of a grubby angel. As is typical for This American Life, the episode’s first act is the strongest.
David Epstein, a reporter for ProPublica, introduces us to a muscular dystrophy patient who suspects that she shares a rare genetic mutation with an Olympic athlete. Jill Viles, a 39-year-old Iowa housewife, emailed Epstein after the publication of his book The Sports Gene. Viles had a theory: the same genetic mutation that made her muscles wither until her limbs were too spindly to support her was responsible for the astonishing musculature of Canadian hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who won a bronze medal in 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
It wasn’t the first time Viles had advanced a theory about the muscular dystrophy that had left her weak and gaunt since childhood. At nineteen, she diagnosed herself with Emery-Dreifuss, a rare type of muscular dystrophy that most physicians then believed occurred only in men. Doctors waved away her claims. But four years later, Viles got confirmation from a DNA test: she had Emery-Dreifuss, caused by a mutation in her lamin gene.
Soon after, as an intern in a Johns Hopkins lab devoted to lamin disorders, she came across another rare disease: partial lipodystrophy, a disorder that causes fat to waste away, leaving veins and muscles popping out. Looking at photos of patients with the disease, she recognized traits—veins branching in a certain way; missing fat on certain locations; muscle divisions between hips and butt—that she had seen in herself and in her family members. Could she and her family, Viles wondered, have not one rare genetic disorder but two?
Again, scientists doubted her, and Viles lost interest. But years later, studying photos of Lopes-Schliep, she saw that the muscle-bound sprinter had missing fat in the same places that Viles and her family did. Through Epstein, she contacted Lopes-Schliep—and again issued a correct diagnosis.
Epstein’s story is medical reporting at its most spellbinding. This chronicle of genetic typos is thoroughly human-driven. By enveloping us in Viles’s story, Epstein makes the scientific concepts that drive the narrative seem not just urgent but also easily comprehensible. We learn about genetic typos not as occurrences that could abstractly happen but as events that have shaped the arc of a human life and precipitated Viles’s private pains and triumphs. Epstein proves himself, moreover, as a confident radio voice.
This American Life has covered ProPublica’s reporting before, and with similarly engrossing results. Continued partnership between the two organizations is likely to be fruitful. But Epstein’s segment, like Paul Kiel’s ProPublica segment that ran on the show in November, comes off too much like an auditory transcription of the corresponding reporting published in ProPublica. Both stories thrill more in print than on the radio—especially Epstein’s, which is accompanied by photos of Viles and Lopes-Schliep, as well as images of Viles’s correspondence with researchers.
It might be enough for Glass and his staff to simply showcase ProPublica’s stellar reporting. For many people, a podcast is a more digestible format than a 6,000-word article. And This American Life reaches a broader audience than ProPublica could hope for on its own.
Still, I think that This American Life producers have an opportunity to think about what they can add to a story initially told in article form. By working with ProPublica reporters to adapt longform writing to the special demands of radio, they could construct segments that complement—rather than just repeat—ProPublica’s content.
The second act features Tig Notaro—and, importantly, Carol Ashton, the mother of Tig’s fiancée. On a car ride, Ashton tries to tell a joke that she’s made up, but laughs so uncontrollably that she can’t get it out. Tig decides to bring her future mother-in-law onstage at a comedy club two weeks later to tell her joke to a live audience.
The real humor in this segment is the joke-within-a-joke. We laugh at how hard Ashton, described as a tasteful civilian mom, is chortling at her own quip. As a mom telling what is certainly a “mom joke”, Ashton is utterly winning; her refined glee carries the segment.
Act three is a bizarre choice: a short story by Etgar Keret read by the actor Alex Karpovsky. I am pleased that This American Life is incorporating literature into radio. But the story highlighted here does not lend itself well to This American Life’s breezy ethos—and clunks after the lighthearted Tig segment that comes just prior. The story is brief, allegorical, and ends with death. I suspect the tale is better appreciated within the collection in which it was published. It may be worth observing, also, that the Keret isn’t American but Israeli—but then again, as I’ve noted before, This American Life’s commitment to covering specifically American topics is inconsistent, and this isn’t ipso facto a negative thing.
This American Life has,successfully incorporated fiction into its programming. In an episode commemorating Frank Sinatra, Michael Ventura read aloud from his novel The Death of Frank Sinatra (1996). With its jazzy, undulating sentences, the passage was a delight to hear aloud. Keret’s story, by contrast, is written in sparse minimalist language: effective, perhaps, but less easily transported to radio. Verbal pyrotechnics might be one useful criterion for determining which works of fiction are radio-friendly; another strategy would be to include comedic or quasi-comedic short stories written in the same chatty, lightly ironical tone that This American Life contributors frequently adopt for the autobiographical narratives that the show often features. By showcasing fiction that begs to be read aloud, or that accords well with the tone of accompanying segments, This American Life could promote literature with verve—rather than with the flat thud that ends not just this episode but also (literally) Keret’s story.
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