Several weeks ago the NPR program This American Life aired a stunning segment on Gordon Gee, the Latter-day Saint President of Ohio State University, and his daughter Rebecca. The segment revolved around a series of letters Gordon’s late wife Elizabeth wrote to their daughter as she was dying of cancer. Rebecca was 16 at the time of her mother’s death, and the letters were to be given to her each year on her birthday for thirteen years. Rebecca, however, gradually drifted from the Church, while the letters from her devout mother focused heavily on the deep yearnings she had for her daughter to remain close to the Mormon faith and marry in the temple. Gordon, meanwhile, began to find himself caught in between these letters from his late wife and his daughter, with whom he remained close.
The segment, as is typical of This American Life, is handled deftly with balance, in a way that leads you to understand and identify with each side in the story. It also got me thinking of the many other Mormon-related segments This American Life has aired. Among the most poignant for me are Where’s King Solomon When You Need Him? from Episode 380, which tells the heart-wrenching adoption saga of a Mormon couple, and God’s Close Up from Season 1 of the This American Life television series, which profiles Latter-day Saint Artist Ben McPherson, and his effort to paint a series of works depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. For those familiar with the program, what are your favorites?
Below are the radio and television segments I’ve identified with a Mormon connection (along with accompanying website blurbs). All the radio segments can be streamed for free through the accompanying links. If I’ve overlooked any segments, let me know and I’ll add them.
- Episode 401: Parent Trap (Act One: Letter Day Saint): Rebecca Gee was 16 years old when her mother Elizabeth died of cancer. But before she died, she wrote letters to Rebecca, to be given to her on her birthday each year for thirteen years. At first the letters were comforting, but as time went on, they had much more complicated effects.
- Episode 380: No Map (Act Two: Where’s King Solomon When You Need Him?): Reporter Ted Gesing interviews Latter-day Saint Mike Nyberg about adopting a little girl from Samoa, only to learn over time that her Samoan family had no intention of giving her up for adoption. The US adoption agency had told the Nybergs that their adoption would be closed, and that their little girl Elleia had been living in a foster home waiting for adoptive parents; but in Samoa, Elleia’s parents were told that their daughter could come to the US and receive a better education, and that the adoptive family would send money and regular updates on their daughter’s progress. The whole situation leaves the Nybergs trying to find their way through sticky moral territory.
- Episode 373: The New Boss (Act One: A Trust Without A Trust): An accountant, Bruce Wisan (who is LDS), is hired by the state of Utah to clean up a very complicated mess in a complicated place: Short Creek, home to hundreds of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—or FLDS, which practices polygamy. The community had been run by the notorious Warren Jeffs, now in prison for rape. Jeffs had been in charge of the FLDS church, and also of the giant trust which church members paid into all their lives. But when Jeffs became a fugitive, he began to mismanage the $112 million trust, and so the Utah attorney general stepped in, giving Wisan control. Wisan had plans: He was going to modernize the town utilities, improve the roads, and most important, give people titles to their homes, which under Jeffs were owned and controlled by the church trust. But Wisan quickly ran into an enormous problem: The majority of people in Short Creek would have nothing to do with him or his ideas.
- Episode 348: Tough Room (Act Three: Mission: Impossible): Producer Jane Feltes spends a day with two young Mormons, on mission to possibly the least receptive environment they could find…the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
- Episode 347: Matchmakers (Act Three: Babies Buying Babies): Elna Baker (author of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance) reads her story about the time she worked at the giant toy store, FAO Schwartz. Her job was to sell these lifelike “newborns” which were displayed in a “nursery” inside the store. When the toys become the hot new present, they begin to fly off the shelves. When the white babies sell out, white parents are faced with a choice: will they go for an Asian, Latino, or African-American baby instead? What happens is so disturbing that Elna has a hard time even telling it.
- Episode 286: Mind Games (Act Three: Invisible Girl – Elizabeth Smart): Scott Carrier and his family live in the same Salt Lake City neighborhood as Elizabeth Smart, the fourteen-year-old whose kidnapping made international news in 2002. Though pictures of Smart were everywhere in Salt Lake City, and thousands of volunteers searched for her, her captors brought her back to the neighborhood she was taken from, and they walked freely through the streets with her. But no one recognized her. Scott talks with his neighbors and with his son Milo (who attended grade school with Smart) about what was happening in their heads that they didn’t recognize her, when she was there in plain sight.
- Episode 21: Factions (Act One: Religious Faction): Scott Carrier documents a group in Manti, Utah, that left the Mormon church and formed its own polygamous church. The members started fighting, broke up, and no longer speak.
- Season 1, Episode 3: God’s Close Up (LDS Artist Ben McPherson): This entire episode is devoted to a single act, the story of several unlikely people brought together by an equally unlikely undertaking. Reporter Nancy Updike tells the story of Ben McPherson, an artist and devout Mormon who’s creating a series of paintings depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. Ben first stages these scenes in an elaborate tableau using props and actors in period costumes. He then lights and photographs them, later using the photos as references for his enormous, lifelike paintings. One of Ben’s problems is that to make the paintings historically accurate, the men must have beards. But Mormonism frowns on facial hair, so Ben searches Utah’s homeless shelters and anarchist cafes for bearded men to use as models. His Jesus is a Marxist economics grad student named Matt Bradbury, whose girlfriend Kristi Davis, a lapsed Mormon who fled to New York City, isn’t too happy about his modeling gig.
Not to be confused with the This Mormon Life podcast, of course.
I love This American Life. I met Ira Glass a couple of years ago after a show he did in my town. It was an accidental meeting in a staircase, so I wasn’t prepared at all and blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. Turns out what is in my mind is stupid. I hate that I wasted such a golden opportunity to be cool and smooth.
Oh well. I am sure Ira had a good laugh about our dumb conversation later that night in his hotel room.
Thanks for doing the work to string together these stories. I will listen to them all at once and savor them like a perfectly made grilled cheese sandwich. YUMMY.
Thanks for compiling this list! I love that show and have caught most of these episodes when they aired but am really tickled to have a longer list to load up on the iPod. See that sandwich living in Zion’s having? I’ll have the same.
Marc, I had no idea “This American Life” has done so many shows with Mormon themes. I’ve listened to the show many times and it is a great example of how radio can bring new perspectives.
You missed one of my favorites: Episode 96 (March 1998): Act One. Book Of Job. (McCarthy turncoat Harvey “Job” Matusow). Matusow died in 2002.
The This American Life website makes it very difficult to find things these days — the descriptions of the shows aren’t very detailed, and the description of this one doesn’t mention that Matusow joined the LDS Church after he turned against McCarthy.
I love “This American Life.” I missed some of these episodes and appreciate your post.
I’ll always be indebted to Ira Glass for introducing me to the world of David Sedaris.
Oh yes! Awunderli you are SO right. David Sedaris is a hoot. I love his stuff. He came to our town last year and I was dying to get tickets to his show. I didn’t, knowing full well my dear husband would not appreciate his gay stories. I won’t make that mistake again. Next time David is in my neck of the woods, I’m going to the show by myself so I can laugh my head off without having to feign offense at his sexual preferences. I couldn’t care less who his partner is. His books and shows are funny.
I took my kids to see the music group, “OK GO” last week. Turns out they got their musical start on “This American Life” as the house band. In my world, everything good begins at TAL.
I frequently enjoy listening to the This American Life podcast. It has a unique contemplative tone, often mixed with wry humor. Not too long ago, they did a show about Penn State, named the #1 party school in the U.S. I have since thought that a companion piece about BYU (rated the #1 stone-cold sober school) would be a nice companion piece. I’d be interested to hear thier take on Mormon life in and around Provo
Brady Udall and Elna Baker have also appeared on TAL, although I don’t think their segments mentioned Mormon culture.
Katya, Brady Udall contributed to three different episodes (see this list). Elna Baker’s story is listed in the post.
TAL makes Saturday the best day of the week. (IMO, the Elna Baker story about working at FAO Schwartz is a classic that must be returned to again and again.)
The episode about Ben McPherson made it on the TAL TV show that aired on Showtime; don;t know if the show is still going as I saw it on video. It was pretty awesome. It also featured a Mormon father and daughter story where the daughter left the LDS Church.
I was introduced to This American Life last November on a road trip to BIOLA University for an Evangelical/Mormon student dialogue conference. Interestingly (ironically?) enough, we listened to an episode which had an act on Evangelical bait and switch tactics.
I’ve been hooked since. I love how well TAL gets you to understand every perspective of the story, and how seamlessly they can transition from a hilarious story to a heartbreaking one.
I listened the prologue and first act of the mentioned article and I liked it. I remember hearing the prologue when it was originally broadcasted, but didn’t continue listening because it grab my attention.
The thing I liked most about it was how there was nothing really LDS specific about it. Yes, mentions the temple and being Mormon, but the article was about meeting parents expectations. Remember “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? You could have taken the This American Life article and substituted it for “being Greek” and it would have been pretty much the same story.
So it was an article about parenting, that involved being Mormon. Not an article about being Mormon. I think it’s important to have media coverage like that. Members of the LDS faith have a lot of the same issues that those of differents faiths have. While Mormons are peculiar they’re not as different as some think.
What an excellent post. I love TAL but have heard less than half of these so thanks so much for the heads up.
David Sedaris is painfully funny, as is his sister, imo.
Fantastic list Marc. I’ve very much enjoyed the Mormon stories I’ve heard (along with the rest of TAL – and thank you, by the way, for introducing me to the series last year), but didn’t know of a number of those you list.
I do have to say, that in telling Gordon’s & Rebecca’s story they left the huge gaping hole of Elizabeth, which was tragic both in terms of leaving a very incomplete story (you get a very brief, very two-dimensional discussion of her to serve as a backdrop for the drama that Gordon & Rebecca went through), and also in terms of the Mormon element of the story.
Great post, Marc. My favorite episode is Episode 262: Miracle Cures, Act One, about a son who accompanies his deaf mother to Brazil in order to meet a faith healer. Fascinating story.
Julia Sweeney spoke a lot about Mormonism and missionaries in episode 9 http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/9/julia-sweeney .