At the risk of sounding like Forrest Gump, NPR’s This American Life series always reminds me of a box of chocolates. It’s hard to imagine that stories so different in tone, texture and meaning can be united under one theme. Kinda like lifting the lid on that box of chocolates and finding pieces containing caramel or cherries (yuk! I’ll trade you…) or nuts. Those are all very different chocolate experiences, but they live happily in their little paper cups under the same lid.
The premise of Recordings for Someone is that each segment begins with recordings that were intended to be heard by only one listener. The first segment concerns a testy phone message left by a a college student’s mother on her son’s phone. The son shares the recording with his friends and before you can say Butler Library the message has “gone viral.” I was struck by how my thoughts about the son and the mother changed as I listened to the story. In the beginning of the tale I though the mother was some kinda of Dragon Mama. What a rude and unpleasant message to leave on anyone’s phone, much less your child’s. It especially bothered me that the “Little Mermaid” reference was supposedly directed at the young man’s date. But as the story continued, it was revealed that the “Little Mermaid” reference actually had to do with the son’s recorded phone message which invited the caller to leave a message for me & the Little Mermaid. That, and the fact that the son had not followed through on his promise to wait for his mother’s return phone call, made me see the mother’s comments in a different light. I think it was disingenuous that those facts were not made know while the recording was making the rounds of the Columbia Community. I also am left asking myself why the son should want to expose his mother to public ridicule in that way, regardless of the message left on his phone.
The second segment is a poignant plea on behalf of a young stutterer to to the employees who answer phones and take orders at a local pizza joint. I felt it was a good “awareness” tool. We don’t really get a chance to inhabit other people’s realities. We don’t understand what it might be like to live with a handicap –in this case, the inability to speak clearly. It must have been wonderful for the young man to hear himself without all the usual stops and starts. I don’t know that his recording will have the desired effect with the pizza company, but it did succeed in focusing my attention on an issue I had not thought much about. This issue is also explored in the recent film, The King’s Speech.
War Story dealt with recordings made by a Gulf War soldier who was called upon to execute very dangerous missions and who made the tapes so that his wife would know about his last moments in the case of his death. He, in fact, survived his tours of duty and consequently the tapes were never heard by their intended listener–his wife. The tapes, however, did capture an incident in which a group of unarmed prisoners were fired upon by U.S. troops. What follows is a fascinating journey through the soldier’s mind as he finds some way to live with the events of that day. It seems clear that his original point of view as documented on the tapes was one of horror and revulsion at what he felt was unnecessary killing of enemy prisoners. It seems that the horror of the experience and his own inability to act to intervene left him with a burden of guilt that he could not carry. And so, we listened to the process of a man changing fundamentally the meaning of an experience so that he live with himself. This shifting of meaning necessarily involves the denial, the negation, of his original understanding and assessment of the experience.
As I listened to his explaination, I found myself thinking about the three types of denial outlined by OAS Senior Human Rights Specialist Ariel Dulitzky in his article ”A Region in Denial: Racial Discrimination and Racism in Latin America.” In this article he posits three types of denial– Literal Denial which asserts that nothing happened; Interperative Denial which allows that something did happen, but not what the viewer thinks he saw; and Justificatory Denial which states that what happended was deserved and to be expected. The first two of these forms of denial seem to stem from the speaker’s understanding that something wrong has occurred which must be hidden either by the denial of the occurance or a reassignment of meaning. In the last form the speaker embraces the act and assigns blame to the victim.
The soldier uses all three forms of denial in an attempt to “rationalize” (his word) what has happened. He asserts that even though there was gun fire and the prisoners had been left unprotected and unarmed, “Nobody saw anyone killed.” (Literal Denial) He later states that IF something did happen it was likely due to a “communications problem” and not a deliberate intention to kill unarmed enemy soldiers. (Interpretive Denial) Finally he asserts, “What we did was right. We were soldiers. They were soldiers. They knew the risks.” (Justificatory Denial) The soldier goes on to tell us that he had struggled with his feelings of guilt and that he had made the conscious decision that what he had done was right so that he could live with himself. He says, “I was able to to move on with my life because I was able to do this.” Whatever actually occurred on that day, this segment provides a gripping look at issues of conscience, accountability and mental health within the rank and file of the military.
Finally, Recordings for Someone provides us with a happy ending. This last segment tells the story of John and Alexandra, lovers separated by many miles. John woos Alexandra with a series of tapes capturing the sounds of his daily life. He professes his love and longing and manages to keep the relationship alive and capture Alexandra’s heart. Someone else might find this corny or uncool, but not me. I am a romantic. I will die a romantic. This story made me smile.