I’ve chatted here about podcasts
before. So you know with that, I no longer listen to the traditional radio. Between podcasts, on-demand streaming and Tumblr, I’m pretty caught up on all the latest happenings in the worlds of entertainment, news, and pop culture… Note I didn’t include my TV in the mix. For good reason. So FM radio is out and podcasts are in. Joy! Latest addition to the bunch? Love and Radio
. I really appreciate storytelling podcasts. And so to further ascertain whether Nick van der Kolk could join my
podcasts rolodex, I downloaded their latest ten episodes and have been binge listening through my commutes.
Now, their episode Choir Boy really got me thinking about the nature of storytelling: specifically who gets to tell their stories and how those stories are to make us feel. Choir Boy is about Tom Justice, who, for all intents and purposes, is a regular-ass young man leading a regular-ass life. What struck me most about his story is, ostensibly, his privilege… and more specifically, the privilege of his ability to lead a regular human life, become bored of his regular human life, take up robbing banks to add thrill to his regular human life, serve nine years in prison as punishment for robbing banks in his regular human life, and then get invited to share his side of his regular human life story on a widespread platform.
Let me pause right here. I’m a digger, you see. I like to dig into things – particularly into conversation with people. Generally, I find people fascinating- except for when I don’t. I like to – not pry, hopefully! – but dig into why people think or behave the way they do; why people make certain decisions; why people decide to define the world the way they do. This is why I’m drawn to the social sciences. This is why small talk basically bores me. I find that if you listen carefully, meaningfully and creatively, people are more than willing to share and will tell you, more or less, exactly who and what they are. So, largely I don’t shy away or judge stories that lack heroism, or a moral compass, or fail to observe social propriety. Tell me about that time you got drunk on purpose just so you can call your ex and tell them exactly how you feel about them. Or better yet, tell me about that time you consciously forged a relationship with an older married woman and seemingly harbour no regrets about it.
I say all that to say this: un-pretty stories are ubiquitous, we all have them and we often don’t have a space to put them. This is why I find storytelling podcasts excellent.
So Tom Justice, right? You can google his story. Sir Tom told his story honestly and plainly on Love and Radio. I can appreciate that. What I could not shake was the privilege he was able to enjoy in the telling. This was a young man who could have been anybody. By his account, he didn’t appear deviant or narcissistic or incapable of rational thought. He got into robbing banks (~27 in three different states) not because he needed the money. He needed life to be more thrilling. His style of robbery was so homely, so cozy and comforting that he even earned the rather sonorous FBI nickame: Choir Boy Robber. Who could possibly be afraid of that? Even when he got stopped by a police officer after one of his escapades, who became suspicious, and Tom ditched the bike that helped lead to his eventual capture, the cop was polite…nice even, by Tom’s account. I can’t imagine that had Tom been of any other demographic, there would have been such humanity, that he would have been painted in such a strange, albeit, comforting light.
Now, I’m certainly not saying Tom’s life has been easy or devoid of ill-treatment, since his release in 2010. There are whole programs and initiatives out there aimed at supporting ex-cons re-integrate into society. I am saying, however, that Tom was humanised – during his stint as a criminal and even thereafter. Through the podcast, Tom has been granted the space to present his story, his context, as a human making silly choices, rather than a criminal, laying in wait to prey on helpless tellers. We, as listeners, are not asked to sympathise or even empathise. We are granted something more significant: a chance to understand him, a chance to see Tom as a man, before all else. Storytelling enabled that for him.