Wisdom through Stories
By Paul Westhelle
I was sitting on my couch one recent Friday morning enjoying a cup of coffee and checking my email when a StoryCorps segment on Morning Edition grabbed my attention and reminded me why public radio matters.
StoryCorps may be the most ambitious oral-history project ever undertaken in the United States. Like the Works Progress Administration interviews of the 1930s, StoryCorps seeks out ordinary Americans, the people who rarely make it into the pages of history textbooks, to tell the stories of their lives. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants via two Airstream trailers sent to communities around the nation to record conversations between family members and their loved ones. Each conversation is recorded on a CD which is given to participants and then preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Select conversations are then shared with millions of listeners each Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition.
The StoryCorps segment I heard that Friday was the story of Liza Long and her son “Michael” (which is not his real name). One day after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, Liza wrote a blog post urging the country to focus on treatment for the nation’s mentally ill youth. In her post, Liza wrote: “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books ... No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options.”
Liza and Michael visited StoryCorps in Boise, Idaho, to have a conversation about her post. When asked if the story Liza wrote was true, Michael says, “It was fairly accurate.” Michael tells Liza that his memory of the library book incident is kind of blurry but that he does remember much of it. “I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t have control,” he says. He explains that when he gets that angry, “I don’t exactly know what I feel. My heart definitely is beating faster. Like, I’ll be having a really great day and all of a [sudden] my body will decide, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m going to ruin your perfect day for you.’ It almost feels like there’s some extraterrestrial being taking control of me and making me do all these crazy things. I feel powerful, like I have control, and yet I don’t.” The thing is, Michael says, “people can’t actually understand what mental illness is if they don’t either have a mental illness or have lived and been with someone who does. I mean, the only times I really get mad is if I feel like someone is trying to hurt me or disrupt my personal life.” “Right,” Liza says. “But you don’t mean to blow up like that?” “No, I actually don’t like it. And yet there’s not really anything I can do about it. It kind of makes me unlikable.” “What do you mean? I like you,” Liza says. “Yeah, but my life still has some major problems,” Michael answers. “They’ve diagnosed me with bipolar [disorder], intermittent explosive disorder, ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder. So on and so forth.” Liza asks Michael what right now, today, would make his life better. “Maybe new treatment that ends up completely curing the mental illness instead of just getting rid of the symptoms,” he says. “Would you want to be cured, though, or would you feel like you were a different person?” Liza asks.
“If I’m different and have to deal with these stupid rages, then I’d rather be cured,” he says.
After hearing the interview between Liza and Michael I felt proud to be part of an organization committed to bringing these types of stories to people. We could have aired anything that day. Together with NPR and StoryCorps we chose to tell the poignant story of one woman and her son who love each other deeply and are enduring a monumental lifelong challenge with honesty, self-awareness and grace. Each Friday, StoryCorps will continue to pursue its mission “to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters.” JPR is honored to be part of this effort.
Paul Westhelle, Executive Director,
Jefferson Public Radio