I had an opportunity (possibly my last one) to write a story for my former newspaper. The paper was recently sold, and the editor who brought me out here has retired, so the luxury of the occasional freelance piece isn’t one that new management is likely to deem desirable.
The story was, for all its narrative complications, a straightforward one: Twenty years ago, a woman born in the local hospital discovered a shocking truth that confirmed long-held feelings of not belonging; she’d been switched at birth, given to another new mother and lived for 43 years under the mistaken assumption that she was a part of this family to which she shared no biological connection. Now, she was telling her story in a book.
It was a difficult story for the woman to tell, and she’d never spoken to media outlets despite national news covering the story back in the early 2000s when the discovery was made.
Instead of recounting the details of the story, I wanted to use this space to write about how the universe lines up, every now and then, to give you the feeling that what you’re doing is supposed to be happening.
The day before I was to meet with the woman for our interview, I was reading the original news story that our paper did about the discovery of the error and the reunion of the biological families. The story was marginally helpful for what I’d be tackling the day because the woman hadn’t participated in the story. I used the original story as a way to learn the players in the story, the general outline of what happened. But I wouldn’t be writing much about that. It was a part of the story, the part that was most likely to hook a reader, but the story I hoped to tell was what life had been like for this woman before, during, and after learning the truth of her birth.
I was seeking more generalized, thematic inspiration, some idea of how I’d shape the story in order to inform the questions I wanted to ask about. I remembered an episode of This American Life I’d first listened to at least seven or eight years ago. I knew that had to be the case because I remembered being in Mississippi when I’d first heard it.
So I went to This American Life’s website to see if I could find the story. To my surprise, I didn’t have to look hard. It had recently been reposted as the show’s most recent episode. It was right there at the top of the page; as soon as I reached the page, the search was over.
You can see from this screenshot it’s still very near the top of the page; two weeks have seen two other stories posted since then. The episodes all around the “Switched at Birth” episode are all recently reported, whereas the “Switched at Birth” story was a re-run. It originally aired in 2008, which means when I heard the content in around 2014, I was late to it even then.
The week I looked it up was not significant to the story nor was it the anniversary of its original publication. In short, I have no idea what prompted the folks at This American Life to republish it when they did.
But I found it, as simple a coincidence as that is in the grand scheme of things, it felt reassuring. Other small things made it feel like it was on the right trail: The women in the This American Life story also found out they were switched at birth when they were 43. One of the families in the This American Life had lots of kids, and one had a much smaller clan, just like the two families in my story. There were physical differences that made the women in the This American Life story deal with suspicions that they’d been adopted because they didn’t look like their siblings, just like the woman I’d interviewed, who was referred to as “the little dark one” by those who know her family.
At the end of our interview, I told the woman about some of these defining characteristics of the women depicted in the episode, and she asked me, “Was it about me?!”
Of course, it wasn’t, but it just felt right that all of that should have happened before this woman shared her story with a reporter for the first time ever. It just felt right that my final assignment for the paper, my final assignment for my editor, would be stamped by the universe by this coincidence. I can’t claim to know whether it affected my writing of the story or whether it provided some level of inspiration or even an infinitesimally better sentence anywhere in the story, but it made me feel slightly less alone during the very lonely process of writing a story, and for that, I’m grateful for this meaningful backstory to an interesting story.
Ten Worth Your Time
I especially enjoyed this line from Jonathan Haidt’s recent Atlantic article “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” that read: “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.” I love the thought that stories, those simple, everyday things that so captured my attention that I went back to graduate school at 30 to learn to tell them better, have helped bind societies together. But then comes the next line of Haidt’s piece, and thus much of the central thrust of his argument: “Social media has weakened all three.” It’s a wide-ranging article, and it looks at a series of ills, but it’s case that social media has led to so much of our enduring strife is a powerful and convincing one.
Speaking of social media, have you heard about this reported sale of Twitter dot com? To that Musk fellow? It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written, but the news of Musk’s acquisition of his preferred social media platform was exhausting, at least if you’re the type who’s already perpetually online (and especially if your favorite social media site also happens to be Twitter). A podcast I’ve recently been listening to more lately is Atlantic writer Derek Thompson’s Plain English podcast, which is distributed by The Ringer. He released an instant reaction podcast to the news that Musk was making the initial offer, and he and his guest talked about the interesting mix of how powerful and valuable Twitter is in a cultural sense but how weak it’s been as a business prospect. His second, more in-depth episode about the sale featured an interview with Charlie Warzel about what he sees as three potential paths Twitter could take under various levels of Musk involvement.
In addition to social media’s corrosive effect, Haidt’s article also acknowledged cable news’ contributions to the problem. None has been worse than Fox News, and none on Fox News has been worse than Tucker Carlson. The New York Times just released a massive deep-dive into Carlson’s background, his rise to prominence, his show, and its tactics. Read parts 1, 2, and 3 to get a better understanding of one of the driving forces in America’s increasing stupidity and nastiness.
One of Carlson’s frequent targets in the media landscape is digital culture reporter Taylor Lorenz, formally of the New York Times and now at The Washington Post. In recent weeks, she was again in the spotlight for Carlson-adjacent reporting, this time with a closer look at an influential right-wing Twitter account known as Libs of TikTok. In a testament to the accuracy of Haidt’s points, one of the sources quoted in the story said, “Libs of TikTok is basically acting as a wire service for the broader right-wing media ecosystem.”
An essay of hope in the face of such ugliness that’s fostered by the fracturing of American society was published in LitHub recently. It’s hard to succinctly summarize, but it’s full of interesting thoughts that are disparate but inter-related. It wanders and meanders through his mind, and it’s clear that he’s worried about those who are passing through his classes, especially the men.
On Earth Day, a Colorado man, Wynn Bruce, set himself on fire in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. I lived in D.C. for a while in college, working for a small law firm and studying constitutional law, all in preparation for attending law school one day. I walked by the Supreme Court building often, awed by the wonder of the place and the gravity of the decisions made behind its doors. I can’t imagine the sight of such a form of protest, which is what Bruce’s final act was thought to be. A protest over inaction toward climate change. I saw just the breaking news part of the story the day it happened, and I remembered thinking how awful it was. But then I found this story done by local Washington Post reporters, and I was touched by the humanity of it. It’s somewhere between a news story and an obituary, where the reporters tackled the difficult assignment of talking to those who saw it happen and the victim’s family. I’ve written those stories, and they're tough, even when the manner of death isn’t something so dramatic as self-immolation. But this was an example of it done well, with grace and respect for Bruce’s life and contextual details that tried to make sense of what he did.
In case the world needed reminding that Eli Saslow is a storyteller of the highest order, he recently wrote about a Montana ranching family whose pasture has housed nuclear missiles since the Cold War. It’s a brilliantly rendered story, made relevant due to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the ever-looming possibility that it might be used. In case you need a reminder of the power of story, compare Saslow’s piece to a Wyoming version that presents some of the same information but isn’t really a narrative of any kind. It’s no slight to the Wyoming reporter from Cheyenne who wrote the story; I quite like it and learned a lot. But it’s not in the same league as what Saslow’s doing.
From nuclear missiles that have never fired to missiles that are fired with alarming frequency: those from drones. The New York Times tells the story of Capt. Kevin Larson and other drone pilots just like him, facing untold trauma and stress from the requirements of the job, all the while never being considered to have served in combat despite many kills on their hands. A tragic story all the way around, but one that’s brilliantly told, if nothing else.
Never miss a big story from Tom Junod. Just don’t do it. Here, working with a co-author in Paula Lavigne, the pair tells story of a Penn State sexual predator not named Jerry Sandusky. This was before his time, and every bit as troubling. Before Jerry Sandusky, Penn State football had another serial sexual predator. This is the untold story of his crimes and the fight to bring him to justice.
My ex loved, among others, this one account on Instagram, the name of which I could not tell you, but I do remember the two main reasons she loved it so: the dogs and the van. They were just a couple, two of the many that littered Instagram and TikTok, who lived as nomads, everything to their name in this stylish-looking van, always checking in from some far-flung and beautiful destination. My ex told me they were popular enough that much of their life was paid for by sponsorship deals. Even without the promise of sponsors, I couldn’t deny that the more she showed me of their carefully curated account, the more appealing it seemed. Even to me, an avowed maximalist (i.e., not the best for living from a van) and debilitatingly uncomfortable with public bathrooms, there was a certain charm to the idea. Run away. Wake up somewhere new every day. It was a seductive idea, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Luckily for me, one of my favorite writers, Caity Weaver, tried it out so I don’t have to wonder what I’d missed out on. Spoiler alert: Not as much as Instagram would have led me to believe. I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty.
Here’s a collection of what I’ve been watching in the past three weeks (because it’s been so long since I’ve checked in).
Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.
4/10:ROTHANIEL (HBO Max)
4/11:Better Call Saul, S5 (Netflix); Minx (HBO Max)
4/12: Better Call Saul, S5 (Netflix); THE INSIDER (Hulu)
4/13: Moon Knight (Disney+); Abbott Elementary (Hulu)
4/14: Better Call Saul, S5 (Netflix); Tokyo Vice (2) (HBO Max)
4/15: Atlanta, S3 (Hulu)
4/16: Minx (3) (HBO Max); Slow Horses (AppleTV+); DEEP COVER (Tubi)
4/17: Winning Time (HBO Max); Better Call Saul, S5 (5) (Netflix)
4/18: Better Call Saul, S6 (2) (AMC+)
4/20: Moon Knight (Disney+)
4/22: Tokyo Vice (2) (HBO Max); Slow Horses (AppleTV+)
4/23: Atlanta, S3 (Hulu); Winning Time (HBO Max); Outer Range (2) (AMC+)
4/24: The Nineties; Outer Range (2) (Amazon Prime); Barry, S3 (HBO Max); Winning Time (HBO Max)
4/25: BEETLEJUICE (Hulu); SWISS ARMY MAN (Showtime); Better Call Saul, S6 (AMC+)
4/27: THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (Theater); Moon Knight (Disney+); AFTER YANG (Showtime)
4/28: THE NORTHMAN (Theater)
4/29: Slow Horses (AppleTV+); Tokyo Vice (HBO Max); Under the Banner of Heaven (2) (Hulu)
4/30: EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (Theater); THE WITCH (Showtime)
5/1: THE LIGHTHOUSE (Showtime)
If you liked what you read, please sign up, follow me on Twitter (@CaryLiljohn06) and then forward to friends to help spread the word.