Six years ago, I was introduced to my first podcast when my son Will sent me a link to a Serial podcast; a spin-off of NPR’s “This American Life.” The series was called “S-Town.”
It was a story presented over seven hours about a resident of a small town in Alabama who contacts a reporter to investigate a murder, which he believes is being covered up by a wealthy family. Without question, the story was a strange, but entertaining, ride.
I tried a couple more seasons of Serial, but eventually dropped it from my routine. As an old reporter, I admired the depth of investigating, but seven, or nine, or thirteen episodes of a single storyline proved too monotonous for me and I never really returned to the medium.
Cue Beautiful Anonymous. Chris Gethard is a comedian who once had an idea to create a podcast where he tweets out a phone number, answers a random call and has an hour-long conversation, good, bad or ugly with the person who makes the call.
As Chris said, “I forfeited the ability to hang up. I figured it would be a funny podcast where I’d get prank-called by weirdos.”
“Instead,” he continued, “this project has transformed my life by becoming a weekly tribute to empathy, openness, and honesty. People have shared their lives, one by one, in a way that truly makes me feel like the world is a smaller place, and that people are people, and that everyone has a story worth telling.” He is now in his 8th year.
They exchange no names or locations. It isn’t slick or pre-produced. It’s just an instant conversation between two people.
When I learned about it, I decided to pull myself back from self-exile and re-enter the land of podcasts. I wanted to try it. The serendipitous one true story–one person-one hour format appealed to me.
I’ve already listened to a few. I access it through a basic podcast player on my phone, and the layout is simple with every episode available to scroll through. You don’t have to listen in sequence.
I also joined the Beautiful Anonymous Facebook group, where listeners can offer feedback and support. They are quite engaged with follow-up and are extremely loyal to the show.
As I explored the episodes, I’ll admit I could not get used to one caller’s giddiness and her laugh, so I moved on to my next selection. So far, there is one that stands out, and I want to share a bit of this woman’s story. I transcribed several direct quotes as I listened.
We don’t know her name, of course, but she moved to the United States 25 years ago from Mexico. She announced she is 62 and a half years old. She insists on using “the half” because “in Mexico, the elderly are revered.”
She’s married and started grad school at age 57. She is now a psychotherapist and does clinical work. She sees patients.
Her focus is on food disorders, and this is when her “true self” stories emerge.
“I weigh 124.2 pounds Chris. Thank you, Universe. I am full; I am happy. For 13 years now, food is not an issue.”
She went on to describe an organization named Graysheeters Anonymous. Participants weigh their food daily, avoid carbs and sugars, and work on emotional and spiritual issues, too.
“I love, love being thin,” she shared, which led to a strange left turn.
“I am very vain. Full of myself. Bark orders left and right. I was an unbearable Jewish mother. I have two daughters, 43 and 41, and they don’t talk to me. They don’t want to be part of my life… I was obsessed with weight. I wasn’t available. I wasn’t a good mother. It’s a black cloud in my life. If I dwell on it, I become paralyzed with pain.”
I had to take that in. I hit pause. Who openly declares that they are deeply vain? So vain, in fact, that it costs them a relationship with their children?
But this is a strength of the podcast. Listeners hear real, unfiltered life stories. Often, they are far different from our own, but they exist. We are all humans on this planet and navigating life in a trillion different ways. This is hers.
Luckily, there was a moment when I laughed out loud. She explained she had heard of Beautiful Anonymous and visited the site because she thought it was for beautiful people! In fact, the full title is “Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People.”
Later in the podcast, she explains why she is so drawn to counseling. “I direct my love and tenderness to help others.”
This helps to offset the sadness of losing her daughters over her own weight issues. She’s hoping that one day they will say, “nobody has the perfect mother.”
She feels like she has hit some kind of goldmine with Beautiful Anonymous because the demographic seems to be people in their 40’s–the same age as her kids. She feels a connection. “I love them. I want to knit all of them a sweater.”
Honestly, I was not sure what to make of the caller. I was interested because we are the same age, and I will say she praised Gethard over and over for his talent and his show. Astute Facebook readers mentioned they felt she used that as more of a defense mechanism when the host asked questions about her past. She would quickly deflect to his skills and back to her present life.
And there is one more twist. Did anyone catch her reference to being a Jewish mother? Gethard did and asked her.
“Yes, Catholicism is the primary religion in Mexico,” she shared. “But I am Jewish!”
“Let me tell you something, Chris. Do you know that Christopher Columbus was Jewish? He wrote in Yiddish characters. Jewish people were the first to come to this land. Then who followed them? Yes, the Inquisition.” She explained she is a descendant of the Marrano people. The term marrano came into use in 1492 when the Spanish government prohibited the practice of Judaism in Spain and required all remaining Jews to convert or leave. Millions converted, but continued to secretly practice Jewish rites. It is also known as crypto-Judaism.
“We practiced Judaism in secret. And I have to say, we practiced in shame. It was not a good thing to do.”
The main reason she came to the States was because she wanted to be openly Jewish.
“My dad believed in two things: The New York Times and The Torah. He insisted his children learn English and find a community in America where they could be openly Jewish. He taught us to revere the written word in English. He felt that everything that is worth pursuing comes from America. “
As I listened to the full hour, I thought of that famous quote from a 1948 film.
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”
It’s compelling when strangers are given one hour, and some space from the host to suddenly delve into stories even they are surprised they are sharing. It’s funny, it’s raw, empathic and often educational. It helps that Gethard is compassionate and non-judgmental.
I pulled a few titles of Gethard’s and fans’ favorite episodes:
Episode #69 — Love Is Everywhere
Episode #121 — Prison Bound
Episode #65: Deaf
Episode #72: Aussie Best Friend
Episode #138: House Burned Down
I’m going to stick with it. Maybe I won’t catch every single story, but it does make me think about my quest for 2023; how to Live a Great Story. I know I’ll certainly be listening to some.
Mic Photo by sandrin costa on Pexels.com
I love stories, and as you point out, you can find them everywhere, often in podcasts. The saddest line in the story you gleaned from the woman from Mexico is this one: ” I have two daughters, 43 and 41, and they don’t talk to me.” I can’t imagine anything much worse than not having communication with my children.
About podcasts: I have been interviewed twice on a podcast. Also, I like to listen to podcasts when I chopping veggies in the kitchen. But sometimes I like silence.
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I have definitely chosen silence over podcasts and/or music the majority of the time in recent years and I want to work on breaking that up. Yes, the woman had a lot of pain behind her cheery disposition, maybe she didn’t realize how much it would show through? You can only be so prepared for these conversations and in hindsight, she may be surprised at what she let out. I listened to your recent podcast with the woman you met in a bookstore. That is cool! She was very impressed with the engagement of your followers. 🙂 Anyway, I would love to be a guest (or host?) of a podcast some day, we’ll see what happens. Thanks Marian!
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Sounds quite interesting, Melanie. I have to wonder what Chris does when he gets someone who isn’t all that interesting.
One of the people in my writing group is a big fan of podcasts. He particularly likes to listen to them when he’s traveling. How big a fan? Enough that he’s decided to start his own.
He’s a fascinating man with vast life experiences. He is currently a website designer and developer but has decided he wanted his podcast to be unique from an earlier time in his life—clowning. He will share his experiences going to clown school (where else do you learn how to be a clown?) and some of his experiences after he became a clown. He shared his first episode in our writing group a couple of weeks ago (though it was in written form rather than audio.) He has done a lot of acting and has a pleasant-sounding voice. It will be fun for us to see where, if anywhere, this goes.
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That’s awesome Pete! What a great story. He may have found his niche which I think is key these days since there is such a plethora of podcasts. Anyone with “vast life experiences” brings something interesting to the table. Once he gets it going, send me a link, I’d be curious to listen in… and I’m not clowning around! 🙂 Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
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