The response was overwhelming.
“Our best friends are a couple who have a boy with Asperger's. I wrote to the father this morning and told him he had to go to NPR and listen to the story. My exact words to him were, "I was in love with this kid." … Man...another morning driving to work with tears in my eyes.”
“I have never had this happen before, but when I was listening to the Story Corp interview and heard your son ask you if he had met your expectations as a son and your tender reply tears ran down my cheeks. Your answer to his question is the most loving thing I think I have ever heard a parent say to a child. How blessed he is to have you for a mother and how blessed this world is to have you in it”
“Well, I've had my share of "driveway moments" in 25+ years of listening to public radio, but your Story Corps segment with Joshua this morning was a first for me: a "burst into tears while driving 70 mph moment."
“I’m the father of a 10 year-old son who was (finally) diagnosed with Aspergers a year ago…After listening to Joshua’s questions and Sarah’s responses, I feel for the first time that my son, my wife, and I are not alone in dealing with these challenges.”
“I am a principal of an elementary school and wish I had more parents like you. You see the qualities that Joshua has, and don’t seem to focus on the one he doesn’t.”
This was just the beginning. As a fiction author by trade, I’m not short on imagination, but the reaction to our interview was beyond anything I’d have envisaged. In fact, our story turned out to be one of the top three most responded-to StoryCorps segments in 2006.
It wasn’t just the sheer volume of e-mails that amazed me.It was the depth of the responses - the heartfelt connection people seemed to feel upon hearing this brief snippet of conversation between my son Joshua and me.
The father of a five year-old with autism wrote: “I found your interview very uplifting! It gave me the sense that we can get through this journey together…Please remain vocal about your experiences and share them with other people in your position. It helps!”
What’s more, it wasn’t just parents of children on the autistic spectrum who wrote - our conversation seemed to strike a chord with parents in general. One woman wrote of her frustration trying to communicate with her son, and concluded: “Thank you for allowing strangers to peek into your life. It has inspired me to work harder to become a better mother to my son.”
All I can say is that I'm glad she didn’t peek into our life at 7:15 am on a school morning, when I can usually be found shouting something along the lines of: “Aren’t you dressed yet? I woke you up half an hour ago! Stop winding up your sister! And feed the dog, already!!”
So how did Joshua and I end up at StoryCorps in the first place? Well, every school vacation since my kids were little, I’ve tried to have a one-on-one day with each of them, doing something fun.
One of the many difficult things a working mother of more than one child is the feeling that there simply isn’t enough of you to go around. You can multiply that feeling by however many hours a week you have to work to earn a living, because even if you’re fortunate enough to be a writer, working from your basement lair, your kids won’t be thinking, Gee, I’m so lucky that my mom works downstairs instead of having to commute into New York every day. No, they’ll still resent the fact that you’re in the middle of a phone interview when they get home from school, or that you’re trying to get another page or two written before dinner.
Simply put, it’s fine for your kids to ignore you for long tracts of time while they’re with their friends, but heaven help you if you just happen to be busy when they want your attention, because that’s proof that “You care more about work than you do about me!”
Hence the one-on-one days. An entire day of Mom’s Undiluted Focus.
In February 2006, I was in year two and counting of a difficult divorce and to say that thing were difficult financially was an understatement. There was no way I could afford to take the kids away, but figured I could splurge enough to spend a fun day in New York City with each of the kids, doing something that they would enjoy. Amie, my artsy, musical daughter, wanted to go see “Wicked.” Joshua’s first response, inevitably, was that he wanted to go the Nintendo World store, the self-proclaimed “gaming paradise in the center of New York City.”
Now there are a lot of things that Joshua and I enjoy doing together, but video games are not one of them. Yes, I’ll admit to having suffered from a Tetris addiction when the original Game Boy came out - I think it was that corny Russian music. But if it’s a matter of spending hours in front of a screen playing some game involving a princess being saved by an elf or an Italian plumber, call me old-fashioned but I’d rather read a book.
But this was supposed to be Joshua’s day, so I agreed that we would go to the Nintendo Store. Being the evil parent that I am, however, I insisted that we do something else as well - something cultural preferably, but I was willing to accept pretty much anything that didn’t have to do with video games.
Unfortunately, Joshua wasn’t particularly forthcoming with other ideas.
Almost three years earlier, I’d been listening to NPR and heard about a new project called StoryCorps, where you could go interview a loved one at this little booth in Grand Central Station in New York City. I’d suggested to my younger sister Anne that we go there with Dad for Father’s Day. The three of us squeezed into the recording booth, with my mother listening outside, and we had a wonderful 40-minute conversation, at the end of which we were given a broadcast quality CD of the session. I’d really enjoyed the experience and as I wracked my beleaguered brain trying to think of something to do for Mother and Son Day, I had this sudden image of sitting in the booth with Joshua.
“What do you think about going to StoryCorps?” I asked him. “You could interview me - you know, ask me anything you want and I’ll answer it.”
Joshua’s reaction was probably typical for a 12 year old boy who is being told he has to do something besides going to Nintendo World: “I dunno.”
“It’ll be fun!” I assured him.
He didn’t look entirely convinced.
Sometimes, Mom just has to make executive decisions. Clearly, this was one of those times.
And so, few weeks later, we found ourselves sitting on the Metro North train into the city, our action plan mapped out. Lunch at Mars 2112, a Martian-themed restaurant on the West Side, back to Grand Central for our StoryCorps session and then over to Rockefeller Center where teen-boy mecca Nintendo World is located.
Somewhere around Mamaroneck, I made Joshua put down his Nintendo DS and handed him my omnipresent writer’s notebook and pen.
“Write down some questions you want to ask me,” I said.
I expected grumbling, but he took the book and pen and started writing. I made the mistake of not looking at the questions when he handed the notebook back. I just stuck it in my bag.
After an entertaining meal at Mars 2112, complete with Martians, mad scientists, and gooey chocolate desserts, Joshua and I headed back to Grand Central Station and found the StoryCorps booth.
It’s almost surreal how quiet it is when you enter the booth, after navigating the noisy bustle of Grand Central. We sat on opposite sides of a small table, each with our own microphone. Our facilitator, did a sound check and adjusted the mikes for our voices. Like many kids with Aspergers, Joshua was born without volume control. He has one voice setting - loud.
Our facilitator asked us to each say the date and where we were conducting the interview, and then, with Joshua’s first question, it started: “What do you think of today’s young people? Have they deteriorated since you were young? “
The kid is smart. He put me off my guard by starting with an easy one.
Me: “Well, you know, I think every generation thinks that the young people of the generation that follows them… has deteriorated from when they were young, but I think it’s just a perception, I don’t think that the young people really have deteriorated. I would say the only thing that I think is a shame about young people today is that their parents aren’t teaching them manners. And you know that’s one of my pet peeves …but I don’t think that…
Joshua:: Cause like, it seems today.,,,sorry
Me: Go ahead.
Joshua: It seems today that young people like have an obsession with like swearing and SEX.
Me: But you know what? People in other eras also had an obsession with sex and swearing, but maybe you didn’t hear about it as much because there wasn’t the Internet and there were more restrictions on what they could put on TV and in the movies. But I think a big problem is that parents aren’t being role models for their children in how they should… behave towards other people with manners and respect. And I think that’s a real shame.”
Ok, that was easy. I even managed to get in the “Manners Rant” about one of my pet peeves.
Then, just when I was starting to relax, he hit me with a doozy. “How does getting married feel?”
Try to answer that question honestly, on the fly, when your 12 year-old son is sitting across the table, peering at you through his glasses with huge blue eyes, at a time when after 17 years, your marriage is in its bitter, angry, death throes. I’m a Jewish Mother. I want grandchildren, G-d willing, someday. So the last thing I want to do is turn my son off the idea of matrimony.
When it doubt, repeat the question. It gives you another 20 seconds to figure out what the heck you’re going to say.
Me: How does getting married feel? Well, it’s a little bit scary …because, well…when I married your dad, I thought it was going to be for life and unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way.
Now there’s an understatement. I didn’t want to get into why it didn’t turn out that way - like the failure of any marriage it took two people. So I told Joshua something that he never knew about his parents - that we’d had two weddings.
Me: Daddy wanted to get married just the two of us and a Rabbi and I thought I was only going to get married once in my life so I wanted to walk down the aisle wearing a white dress with all of my family there. So … on April 14th, 1989, I was visiting Daddy in England, and we went to Weymouth Registry Office and had a civil wedding and we didn’t tell anyone, including my parents or Granny… Our big wedding we had on September 3rd, 1989 and we told Grandpa and Grandma and Granny I think a week or two before the big wedding… but see, for me, I didn’t feel married…until we’d had the religious wedding and you know, I’d stood under the chuppah and been married by a rabbi and with all my family there and walked down the aisle wearing a white dress…But..what I was starting to tell you about how it feels – even though Daddy and I were already married, the night before the religious wedding I remember being up until like four in the morning thinking, “Oh my goodness, what am I doing?” because it was so scary.”
I expected more questions on the topic, but fortunately, that was enough for Joshua.
Joshua: Ok, next question. Do you think the US is becoming a mess of a country and do you think Bush is completely to blame or do you think there are other reasons why it’s becoming a mess?
I’d like to stop and remind you that the kid was 12 years old at the time. Then again, I’m not sure how many other 12 year-olds read Time and US News and World Report. I don’t know if Joshua’s interest in politics stems from the fact that his mother, in addition to being a young adult novelist also writes a political column, or if it’s because he was subjected, from a very young age, to the sounds of me arguing the issues of the day with my fiercely Republican father. I had to laugh when I heard his question - clearly in this case, unlike mine, the political apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree.
The questions went on:
“Are you afraid terrorists might attack?”
“Do you have any mortal enemies?”
“Is there anyone you wish was dead?”
“Have you every lied to me?”
“Have you ever felt that life was hopeless?”
“What do you think is the greatest country in the world?”
“Have you ever felt that you couldn’t cope with a child?”
“Do you think a lot of people are sexist today?”
I tell you, Barbara Walters has nothing on this kid.
Towards the end I was able to ask him two questions - and then, off the top of his head - or maybe from the bottom of his heart - Joshua asked me this:
“Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? …Like did I meet your expectations and…”
It was like a fist to the solar plexus, that question, because it goes straight to the heart of what every child wants to know: that they are loved and cherished for the person they are, not measured against some potentially unattainable parental expectation.
This question had an easy answer, but I had to fight back tears of emotion as I gave it.
I got to ask the final question: “Other than buying you any video game you want, whenever you ask me for it, what can I do to make your life happier?
Joshua: I don’t know. Well, let me see… get the divorce over with, and write more books so that way you can take us to Disney World and on a cruise like you promised.
We shook hands on that deal.
Even re-entering the hubbub of Grand Central couldn’t burst the magical bubble of closeness we felt after our time in the StoryCorps booth. I thanked Joshua for interviewing me and told him how much I enjoyed it. Much to my surprise, he told me that he enjoyed it, too.
During the Passover Seder, we Jews sing a song that lists all the miracles G-d performed to deliver the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, and after each miracle we chant “Dayenu” - it would have been enough. Just the experience of sharing that precious time with my son and having the opportunity to talk through so many deep and important questions would have been enough, Dayenu. But a few weeks later, I got a call from Michael Garofolo, a senior producer at StoryCorps, saying that they wanted to play excerpts from our interview on their weekly segment on NPR’s Morning Edition. Dayenu!
An inveterate NPR listener, I’ve found myself wiping away tears on many a Friday morning after listening to the StoryCorps clips on Morning Edition. I remember one time in particular, hearing StoryCorps veteran Danny Perasa’s final interview with his beloved wife, Annie, as I drove Joshua to school at 7:20 in the morning. Here I was, going through this awful divorce and feeling pretty down on the whole concept of love and marriage, but hearing the beauty and strength of the love between these two incredible people had me crying so hard I could barely see the road.
“Are you ok?” Joshua asked me, worried.
“That’s the kind of love I want for you, honey, when you get married,” I managed to sniffle out. At that point in my life, I’d given up on having it for myself.
Joshua’s answer was pure 12 year-old boy.
“If I ever get married. With my luck, I’ll probably never even have a girlfriend.”
Responding to that led to an entirely new conversation. That's the wonderful thing about StoryCorps. It's all about the conversations.
Michael Garofolo and I were in frequent contact over the next few weeks as he worked on editing our 40 minute interview down into a three-minute clip. I was impressed by the tremendous care and dedication that went into the editing process and touched by how hard everyone at StoryCorps worked to ensure that I felt comfortable with how our story would be presented.
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, I was once again driving Joshua to school when we heard the familiar voice of Renee Montagne, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, say our names over the radio. We managed to listen to the interview just before I had to drop Joshua off. It was strange, yet exciting, to hear our conversation being broadcast over the airwaves, nationwide.
Following the clip, Renee Montagne spoke with Rhea Paul, professor of communication disorders at Southern Connecticut State University and a researcher at Yale's Child Study Center. Dr. Paul used our interview to educate listeners about Asperger's Syndrome. I describe people with Aspergers as being born without “the social gene”. The rules of social interaction that most of us pick up as if by osmosis, need to be taught to these kids. Many, like Joshua, are exceptionally bright. I find my son fascinating; not just because he’s my son but because I never know where his phenomenal mind is going to take us next. It’s rarely easy, but it’s always an adventure.
But that wasn't the end of our StoryCorps journey. Michael e-mailed me asked how I'd feel about having our segment turned into an animation.
"Can they make me look like Wonder Woman?" I asked. I can live in hope, right? Michael was non-committal, but I agreed anyway. After all, how cool is it that Josh and I now have our own IMDB pages?
We drove into Brooklyn to meet with the fabulously talented Rauch Brothers, Mike and Tim. You can read about that meeting here. Even before meeting us, Tim had got some of our mannerisms down, just by listening to our voices. How did he DO that? After meeting with us, he totally nailed us, from my habit of gesticulating wildly with my hands when I talk, right down to my blue hair. (Take *that* Marge Simpson!)
"Q & A" was selected for the prestigious Annecy Film Festival, and has won numerous awards including Best in Show at ASIFA-East Film Festival and Best Documentary Short at the Nashville Film Festival. And today, finally, you can see it online!
I hope it inspires you to take someone you love to the StoryCorps booth. Dave Isay also has a new book, MOMS, filled with wonderfully inspiring stories from the StoryCorps booth, which makes a great Mother's Day gift.
Click here to buy a copy from your local indie bookseller: