There was a new episode of This American Life this weekend, and the theme was "Break-up." As usual, the entire episode is excellent, but nothing stuck me quite as powerfully as the second act called "But why?"
During a very tight 10 minutes, they first played an interview from 1987 when Noah Adams -- then host of All Things Considered -- talked to eight-year-old ("Nine, next month") Betsy Walters, a young girl trying to deal with her parents' recent divorce. She had written a letter to then-NYC mayor Ed Koch, asking for some advice on how to handle things. She figured since he was the mayor, he must be smart and might have an idea on how to help. Of course she wanted her parents to get back together, but all she was looking for was an answer as to why? The second half of the This American Life piece was another interview between Betsy -- now an elementary school teacher -- and Adams today, as she's almost 29.
I'm a child of divorce. My parents got married quite young -- Dad was 22, Mom not yet 20 -- and by the time I was four, they had been married 10 years ... but that was more than enough. I'll be 36 in just over three weeks. By this time in my father's life, he had an eight-year-old son and my parents had already been apart for four years. It was only once I reached my very late 20s and really early 30s that I even started to realize how growing up in this environment affected me. Don't get me wrong: my parents' divorce was probably the best thing possible in terms of me and my upbringing, and as far as divorced couples go, my parents handled it very well, never arguing in front of me; always making sure that I had a home with and knew I was wanted by both of them; and always making sure that every child's fear -- What did I do? -- was definitely not the case. Being a child of the '70s, I don't think my story is all that unique, and I think in lots of ways, I was likely luckier than many.
But this experience of mine certainly played a part in me finding myself virtually stopped cold on 42nd Street tonight, walking back to the subway after a show at Signature Theatre Company, and hearing this little, eight-year-old voice full of pain and confusion asking why? Why did her parents have to split up? Why couldn't or wouldn't they get back together? They tell me it's not my fault, and I don't think it's my fault? But ... why? At one point, Adams asks her if she now understands her parents divorce better, and she answered no. He then asked what she still doesn't understand. Transcribing the following doesn't have the proper impact, but even so:
Why did they have to go off and do it? Because, see, the most painful part was when I saw my dad packing up, and I really don't understand because ... it's hard because they won't tell me what happened to them, and I really want them back together and I don't understand why they can't.
When Adams and Walters begin their modern-day chat, it was fascinating to hear Walters describe how even though she remembers the 20 year old experience vividly, hearing it now as an adult with a greater understanding of what did actually happen was painful in an entirely different way. In her own words:
Then recently, I heard it as an adult, and it was so heartbreaking. I didn't think it was so sad when it was me. It was just what was going on. It made me sad to hear the pain in my voice, confusion, and now I hear it even differently as an educator.
There are certain things that certain media do quite well -- often better than others. There is a reason why This American Life is such a successful show -- because it uses the format of radio the best way possible. The juxtaposition of these two interviews, I would bet, is much stronger happening without a visual accompaniment. The emotion -- whether we would recognize it or not -- comes from the sound and tone of this little girl in a way that is likely far more effective -- and focused -- than had it been accompanied by her sad face. That may seem hard to believe, and yet, I'd still argue it to be true. I didn't give it all away: go listen for yourself.