This American Life and The Stories We Tell

Me, I’m a born storyteller. Honesty was never really my sport.
-Artie Moffa, “The Ex and her Arrows”

It’s tacky to quote myself, but that’s the line I keep coming back to when I listen to the This American Life/ Foxconn/ Apple Factory/ retraction. What, exactly, is a storyteller’s relationship to the truth? How many people have to be gathered in front of us, and in what context, before we can lawfully assume the mantle of storyteller?

I mean, I think we all accept that newspapers and newspapers are supposed to be true, and novels are supposed to be fiction, and fiction isn’t the same thing as lying, because the expectations are different.

I don’t know what expectations others put on spoken word poetry, but when I’m on stage, everything I do, from mic check to final bow, is part of an act.

Mike Daisey wrote a one-man-show about his investigations into working conditions at Apple’s Chinese factories. This American Life used excerpts from the show, plus interviews of Daisey, in a scathing expose of Apple’s labor conditions. Apple is a pretty terrible employer over in China. But Mike Daisey isn’t a journalist. He did go to China, he did tour the factories, he did interview lots of Apple workers. But this guy was writing a play. So he wrote a powerful, gut-wrenching play. And when This American Life excerpted his play, what collided were two very different sets of expectations about fiction vs. lying.

I’ve been a true fan of Apple Computer since 1994. It’s my favorite company.
I’ve been a fan of Public Radio since 2000. It’s my main source of news and opinion.
I’ve been a storyteller since I could breathe.

It’s easy for me to listen to the retraction podcast and be furious at Mike Daisey. He lied. He combined things that he saw, things he’d heard secondhand, and things that he imagined. Then he put this blend in front of a national audience who was unaware that it was incumbent upon them to discern truth from fiction. He got famous, and then he told everyone it was “real.”

Apple has done bad things. That’s hard for me. I’ve been a fan of Apple since waaaay before it was cool. In 1993, I had a Commodore 64 computer and a dot matrix printer that took five minutes to print one page. My dad offered to buy me a 486 Dell or IBM with Windows 3.1. He offered to spend up to $1800. This was a huge outlay for my family at the time. I asked him to buy me a Mac. He said no. So I mowed lawns and I babysat, I hoarded my birthday money, and in 1994, I spent $799 on my first Macintosh. I couldn’t afford a keyboard or a monitor, so I gave my computer to my friend Drew so he could test it out while the warranty was still good. On weekends, I’d go to Drew’s house to visit my Macintosh. Drew had a Mac, too. So hearing that my favorite company is beating and poisoning its Chinese workers is hard for me. It’s almost like hearing that a beloved childhood uncle had been an abusive husband (Eric Darby’s “Uncle Jack was the Cool Uncle” poem comes to mind.) The cloud of confusion this radio story has kicked up will make it easier for Apple to wriggle out of responsibility for the bad things they actually have done.

Ira Glass sounds as if he’s about to jump off the Sears Tower. This is a big gut-punch for his radio show. The credibility issue will spill over into the rest of NPR, even though This American Life is not technically an NPR show.

Mike Daisey is a jerk and a liar. But as I listened to Ira Glass cross-examine him this week, I was shocked at how easy it was for me to slide over to Daisey’s corner, to make Ira Glass the bad guy, the one who didn’t get it.

There are poems and stories I’ve told so often, for so long, to large crowds of friends and strangers alike that it requires real will on my part to parse out what really happened and what sort of happened and what didn’t happen but probably should have happened. I think people who don’t tell stories don’t realize how murky some of this stuff is. When I go up on stage, I consider myself under no obligation to the truth. When people ask me “Did that really happen?/ Is that true?” about one of my poems or stories, I consider that question every bit as impertinent as “Were you wearing boxers or briefs during your feature?”

(At the Oversocial Mofo Revue in San Jose, underwear is part of the slam scoring process, so the boxers/briefs question is legit. But the question of truthfulness never is.)

Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that. That wasn’t what you saw.

Mike Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.

Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?

Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about.


Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth…. I took you at your word.

Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater. And how people see it.

Truer words were never spoken.

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