I know Lea Thau well. I know that the breakup with her son’s father was painful, that she is deeply conflicted by conservative politics in America, and that the inflections of her voice can reveal her moods.
I feel like I know her, but actually we are strangers – which is appropriate, because that’s the name of her podcast. From her home in Los Angeles, California, she makes radio documentaries that explore how people deal with the challenges life throws at them.
There’s 25-year-old Adrian Wagner, who’s having a hard time adapting to going blind, and there’s Andrew and Akina, who seem like any other hipster couple, except their marriage was arranged through the sect the Unification Church. At the core of her stories is human interaction, where lives meet and part, for it’s at these intersections that meaning in life is found, says Thau.
“I am driven by stories, which are the desire to understand something essential about what it is to be human,” she explains over a crackly Skype connection. “Sure I like science too, but that’s a different approach to understanding life. It can’t get to the emotional core of what it means to be human – stories can. I do find that endlessly fascinating.”
From Aarhus to NYC
This search to find meaning in real life has permeated both her studies and her radio career. Originally a philosophy student, Thau switched to literature before moving to New York at age 23 to continue her studies. Philosophical theories weren’t as good as literature at explaining the human condition, she felt. But even the study of literature was often too theoretical.
“I was a pretentious young intellectual, but I quickly lost interest in abstraction and philosophy. I was interested in humans and what made their lives worthwhile. So I moved from theory to stories and realism. I’m not that interested in debating whether this chair exists or not.”
Her first job after graduating was at the United Nations, which dissatisfied her because she felt disconnected from the people that made the city palpable and attractive. So in 2001, she joined The Moth, a live storytelling organisation, where she worked for the next ten years. Through their outreach programme, she met New Yorkers from all walks of life and helped to tell their stories.
“I experienced every aspect of New York, from top to bottom. It was enormously appealing.”
The Moth’s principle is simple. Participants stand and tell their story to a live audience, without any props or script. In their outreach programme, producers work with the storytellers for weeks beforehand, but there’s no guarantee that they will succeed, and many bomb. As a producer, Thau helped hundreds of people turn their lives into stories, which isn’t easy. People often forget that a story is much more than a series of events. What brings the events together is a higher principle, but finding that takes soul searching.
Finding the story
“You need to go deep inside yourself to find what the story is really about. We don’t normally have that meta-awareness of what has happened, of why we do what we do, so we have to sit down to figure that out. That has to come even before you structure the story, and it requires a great deal of honesty. The answer we end up finding is often not the one we thought it would be.
“The second part of telling the story is finding out why anyone else should care. The introspective mode risks being confessional, creating a story that we should tell a therapist, priest or our mom, rather than a roomful of strangers. After the introspective process, you need to hold the story with your arm outstretched, to give it as much distance as possible. Even if it is a first-person story, try to shape it for someone who isn’t you or your best friend.”
When Thau started Strangers in 2011, she continued to try and shape other people’s stories, albeit in a different format. Hours of interviews would be woven together to create the perfect narrative arc. But as she included more and more people into a single show, she realised a need to introduce herself, to tie the stories together.
Among the popular storytelling and documentary podcasts, Strangers is one of the most intimate, and Thau often blurs the lines between subject and presenter. Instead of taking a step back, she airs her own doubts and feelings along the way. The audience is brought close, sometimes too close. It’s a fine line, but instead of feeling awkward, I found myself becoming invested in Thau and her search for understanding in people and their stories.
Her most popular episodes put her at centre stage. After four years of being single, and while researching a story about online dating, she decided to investigate why she was having a hard time finding love again. During the four-part series Love Hurts, she spoke to friends, relationship experts, and men who had turned her down. It was vulnerable and awkward, but her biggest hit to date.
“From a storytelling perspective, they might not be the most successful pieces I have made, but it’s the most talked about and beloved series I have done. It’s transgressive and has an appeal – an element of that base voyeurism that drives reality TV. I had to do it against my better judgment. I sent it to my best friends first, and they weren’t sure I should put it out. But when I heard their hesitation, I knew I had to do it anyway. And that’s the reason it got respect in the radio world, because it was new in podcasting and impossible to do with normal radio. From an artistic point of view, it was experimental.”
Her American dream
Thau doesn’t think she’d be making this type of radio in Denmark, where standing out is less the social norm than in the US. It’s one of the reasons she’s stayed. She loves that anyone can move to New York and get a job waiting tables in a restaurant and call themselves a New Yorker. The political consensus in Denmark that foreigners must ‘integrate’ sounds absurd to her now. In America, you are accepted for who you are.
“Americans ask, ‘Who do I want to be?’ That’s naïve, but it pays off. They have this idea that they can create themselves in their own image and vision – that you can move 3000 miles across a country to chase a dream. Europeans are so much more insular and guarded about what is possible or OK, looking instead to others. When Europeans ask, ‘Who am I?’, they look backward and inward to determine something that they think is a pre-existing fact that they just need to grasp. But Americans ask, ‘Who do I want to be?’ and they’re off. Yes it’s a little shallow, but it’s exciting.”
Some of Thau’s stories reflect the social and economic exclusion and poverty found in the US that would never be acceptable in Denmark. She still can’t adjust to the wealth divide, and shudders at conservative Republican values, with their passive support for inequality and lack of compassion for the poor. She stands divided between the social compassion of her roots in Denmark, and the drive and attitude in America.
“At the end of the day, it is horrible that people are dying on the streets in America, that there are 50 million people who live in food-insecure households, without enough to eat. It’s the second-richest economy in the world. I struggle enormously with that and my choice to live here, because the next logical question I get most from Americans is why do you live here?”
It’s a question her Danish friends and family ask her too: why would she give up six weeks’ vacation and generous maternity leave to live in a country so full of conflict and lacking compassion for the weakest? But there’s an exciting underlying dynamic that she can’t help but love, and which makes her stick it out.
She’s not completely entirely, however, as she misses her family, especially now that she has a child. She tries to return to Denmark twice a year, often using up all the holidays she gets.
“Sometimes when I sing a Danish song to my son, I realise that time is finite, that every choice has a consequence. That I could choose to live and die here. And that’s still a bit weird to me – the idea of dying in the US, of never making it home. I have no desire to live in Denmark, but I would like to die at home.” M