Last year, when I decided to train for a marathon, I was stymied by the prospect of being on my own for hours with nothing but my thoughts. Equally stressed by the option of recruiting an in-the-flesh running partner, I looked to podcasts and audiobooks to push me along as I covered the miles. This American Life was consistently and perfectly qualified for the job. I mean, you know what I’m talking about — the program has a dependable structure that familiar voices fill with reliably thoughtful, if not always entertaining, stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. It both occupies and soothes me, and it rarely veers off the rails. As I ran circles around Central Park last spring and summer, in desperate horrible heat, I found myself forgetting the sweat dripping down my forehead and laughing out loud, even crying a little bit. One time, I was so entranced with an episode that I tripped and skinned my knee. I lay in a daze on the pavement, blood dripping off my limbs, no one around in those early morning hours but Sarah Koenig’s voice straining through my dropped headphones. What I’m saying is, the show and I bonded big time. I’m loyal.
Most recently the best run-TAL experience I’ve had was with one of the most popular episodes the show has had to date, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” Usually on a run there are a few stories that don’t hook me and I tune out, listening to my own feet or paying attention to my form instead. But “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” kept me riveted the entire hour. The show is adapted from Mike Daisey’s one-man show about Steve Jobs and the poor factory conditions in which Apple products are manufactured, and true to its theatrical origins, it plays upon the same emotional beats that draw a live audience into a scene. Daisey is an amiable and identifiable protagonist, with obsessions and curiosities (aka the perfect TAL narrator), and he encounters vivid characters and high stakes action. He reports seeing underage workers; a man who has lost his hand to the repetitive motions of the assembly line; and cafeterias that are truly enormous but don’t feed nearly as many workers as needed.
I tend to get more emotional when I’m running — I’ve definitely cried one or ten times to an anthemic pop song — so this episode had me loudly gasping, tearing up, and shouting “WHAT” a few times at Nick Kristof, who comes on the show to argue that sweatshop labor is necessary. Most of all I felt sick to my stomach. Here I was, running in Riverside Park, in Manhattan, iPhone in my pocket, nice running shoes on my feet, listening to an episode about poverty that is (as Kristof argues) inevitable to support my lifestyle. I felt totally and irredeemably responsible for lives that I had never seen or given that much thought. The problems I heard described seemed huge, tangled, paralyzing. I felt woozy from the guilt.
But then I did nothing. I didn’t sign any petitions, I didn’t throw my iPad out the window. I felt terrible, but I also felt done with it. Like you would when you turn off the news.
Since the episode has aired, This American Life has retracted the story and publicly stated that their fact-checking fell short and plenty of events Daisey claimed to witness turned out to be false. Daisey stated, “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard…My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.” I sort of see where he’s coming from, all misrepresentations of theater aside. Part of a good storyteller’s gifts is knowing what to select to hold the audience’s interest, and Daisey does that remarkably. The man without the use of his hand, for instance — that guy seems real to me. Perhaps because of images from history textbooks about the downsides of industrialization, but still very real. Cathy Lee, the interpreter who has done considerable damage in discrediting Daisey’s account, seems real to me, too. The way Daisey describes, for instance, how she cannot believe that people have no choice but to live and work the way that Foxconn is allegedly enforcing: when Daisey asks her what she thinks, he says she takes off her glasses, and suddenly, in Daisey’s words, she looks very old. This description chilled me, and still does. It also describes how I felt, and how I imagine a lot of people felt, listening to the episode. Tired, run down, and helpless.
Does it matter that this description might not be true? Well, it’s complicated. At large, yes, this is a very big deal. This American Life is journalism, and this story isn’t true, so, oops. But on a personal scale I have a hard time distancing myself from Daisey and condemning his actions. Mike Daisey wanted to be heard so badly that he was willing to fabricate information to get an audience’s attention. And he got it, expertly. What I want to know is: what did Daisey want us to hear so badly, if not the facts, and can that survive fabulism? Is the feeling I got running along the Hudson a moment I can discard now that I know the story’s not real? I don’t think that’s possible, but I’m also not really sure. On one hand, I feel manipulated. But on the other hand, fiction provokes a response in me that I can’t disavow just because it’s not true. Maybe, because Daisey’s story was being told in the style of theater, I was already treating it that way. In his quest to be heard, Daisey gave his story a theatricality that, while shocking, allowed for catharsis. And once you’ve gone through catharsis, truly purged, then nothing’s left to do. You feel drained, but not quite galvanized. Usually you don’t go through the five stages of grief when a character in a movie dies. I’m still where I was when the story seemed true: definitely not apathetic, but ultimately inactive. And saving my TAL episodes for long runs. Still doing that.