Published September 12, 2017.
For more information about the Sabbatical Series, go here.
By Caroline Lester
This summer, I often went for walks through my neighborhood, listening to podcasts and telling myself, now that I’m a freelancer, this was a form of work, too. And I did learn a lot from those walks.
I learned, for example, that the bright green house I live in is called a painted lady, for her garish coat and colorful trims. I learned that late summer nights are an excellent time for possum spotting. And I learned that an acquaintance had used my full name — first and last — for a character in his podcast.
I spent the following days in a fog, listening as much and as often as I could. I heard my name constantly, spoken by voices I didn’t recognize. And, at the end of the season, I heard my own murder. Well, my namesake’s murder, anyway. By a character with the same name as the acquaintance, who slit my (namesake’s) throat.
It’s odd, to hear yourself die on tape.
When I reached out to let the acquaintance know I’d “discovered” his secret, I told him I was flattered. (This was a poor choice of words, and I’ve felt like an idiot ever since.) But I don’t think that what he did was malicious. He told me he wasn’t good at coming up with names, and as a result opted to take them from the people surrounding him.
I called my brother, laughing, and told him what I had just listened to. He asked if I had called the police.
Maybe I was being delusional. Anyway, it makes a good story.
It’s a strange position, to find yourself the subject of someone else.
I’ve been working on a piece about, among other things, infertility. The women I talk to all ask if they can see their quotes before I publish. When I tell them no — ethics, you know how it goes — they’re graceful, and still willing to talk. Every time they agree, I’m thankful, but surprised. Here I am, a stranger, asking them to give me a part of themselves. When we talk to reporters, or people who make stories, or anyone who requests to use our name, we’re looking for something. Validation, perhaps, that our story is true. We’re asking to be known. It feels so good to be known.
I think, all the time, how brave it is, to trust someone with your name.
This isn’t quite the same, but there’s a vaguely similar kind of uncanniness. To find, as a writer, a piece of yourself used as an accessory; to see your name transferred onto a character you don’t control. (Usually, you’re the one in charge.)
The stakes are different between nonfiction and fiction, of course. I recognize that. When my subjects choose to lend me their words, they’re on the line. When someone takes your name for a fiction podcast, it’s not you that’s on the line — not really, anyway. But the outcome, a character with your name that you didn’t create, is somewhat the same.
But here’s the thing: it feels good to be a character in someone else’s story, whether it’s you or just parts of you. It feels like someone has found you important and moving enough to write about or listen to or even just borrow from. Like you always suspected, some part of you matters, and here is proof.
And yet there’s the other thing: that version of you isn’t you, or at the very least isn’t the whole you. So what are you left with? A shadow that outgrows you, one that isn’t controlled — by which I mean, defined — by you. And in my case, defined by someone who doesn’t even really know you, by someone who picked up your name and maybe small parts of yourself (who knows) and warped it into something just recognizable enough.
And so this thing that once felt good feels, instead, horrible.
I find myself going back and forth. Is this bad? What’s the difference between someone borrowing your name for a story and sharing a name with someone famous?
Last month, I interviewed a high school student named Casey Anthony. That’s much worse, I imagine.
The violence that happens to my namesake (my shadow) changes things, of course. And the possibility that maybe, just maybe, my acquaintance wasn’t fully forthcoming about the name use. That he wrote traits into the character that he thought came from me. Which makes the violence more disturbing.
I wonder what Casey Anthony would have to say about this.
Making audio stories is a solitary process. You track alone, you edit alone, you spend your days buried in headphones and audio files and your studio (or in my case, closet). But the things we create are the opposite of solitude. The sound of someone speaking is insulated, immediate, and shared. Piped through earbuds, it becomes both formless and full of knowledge. It’s a knowledge that’s very hard to challenge, specifically because it lacks a form. You’re in someone else’s world, now.
I moved recently, which I think that’s why I’ve been listening to podcasts so much. The closeness between you and the story being presented to you isn’t of the place you’re in. It’s a space of your own. When I walk around my neighborhood, headphones in, I sometimes feel as though I’m floating. Moving through, but not within.
When I heard a raspy female voice whisper my name through my headphones, I snapped back to the sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts, to elm trees lining the street, to the smell of asphalt in the sun and hot, close air. A shrill sound moved towards me. A car drove by, horn stuck.
There’s a thrill to hearing your name spoken by a stranger… and an alienation, too. It’s like looking in a mirror and being surprised by your own reflection. Is that what I look like to other people?
My character was, at the very least, a surprise. Independent, unexpected. Maybe it was just the name, but I liked her. I spent the week listening, hanging on to her actions and words. What else had this character taken from me? What could I take from her? That week, my pitch was rejected. I argued with my partner. I couldn’t figure out how to hang those damn curtains in my living room. Each time, I turned to my podcast, to the sound of my name and my character.
Then she was murdered, and became what most women in narratives become: a body to be acted upon. (Isn’t it strange, how so many stories end the same?)
Oh, I thought. This is not me, after all.
Caroline Lester is a writer and audio producer who has served stints in Alaska and Boston. She now lives in New Haven, and is a contributor to WNPR and WSHU. You can find her on Twitter at @caro_ohlivia.
She was great to work with! You should hire her.