Lea rests her face on her hand and looks into camera

The Feministing Five: Lea Thau

The first time I listened to Peabody award-winning producer Lea Thau’s podcast Strangers, I unexpectedly became a mess of tears on the morning J train.

The story, about a mother who learns that her teenage son is capable of harrowing violence, lingered with me for days. It shocked me in its subject matter, yes, but also in the poignancy and tenderness with which it was told and how deeply it made me consider the power of storytelling.

Strangers has that effect: each episode, described as “an empathy shot into your arm”, features true stories about “the people we meet, the connections we make, the heartbreaks we suffer, the kindness we encounter, and those frightful moments when we discover that we aren’t even who we thought we were.” In so many ways, the show dives deep into what it means to be human, exploring everything from abuse to sexuality to regret to redemption with astonishing honesty. With more than ten million downloads, Strangers has been on numerous “Best Of” lists and won the 2015 Public Radio March Madness Bracket Contest, beating out fan favorites like This American Life, Serial, and Radiolab.

Originally from Denmark, Lea Thau is the producer and host of Strangers, a storytelling coach and teacher, and previously served as Executive & Creative Director of live storytelling organization The Moth, where she created The Moth Podcast and The Moth Radio Hour. For this week’s Feministing Five, I had the pleasure of catching up with Lea about her latest series, “Lea in Trumpland”, her continual search for emotional honesty, why a passionate “fuck you” can be essential to healing, and more. You can listen to Strangers on iTunes and follow Lea on Twitter @leathau.

Senti Sojwal: It’s so crazy to hear your voice in real life after spending so many hours listening to your voice on your podcast. When I was researching you, I found out that many people do in fact have a lot of opinions about your voice, which I happen to find particularly soothing. What’s that like?

Lea Thau: You know, I don’t think it’s that unusual for me because I don’t really have a typical radio voice. There’s been a lot of commentary about vocal fry and women’s voices on the radio. When “Invisibilia” came out there was all this talk about the two female hosts’ voices — how they sounded the same, how they were unlistenable. Compared to a lot of other women in radio, I haven’t been hated that much! I think the reaction to me has actually been more positive than negative. I never liked my own voice. I never imagined that I’d be on the radio. I always loved it, but never thought I had a radio voice and just sort of fell into it. We started doing radio with The Moth and that’s how I got into it. I loved the idea of doing radio storytelling and loved the medium but always thought, oh it’s too bad I have such an awful voice.

Senti Sojwal: What’s the process like for you of finding a story? What kinds of stories do you think you’re most drawn to?

Lea Thau: Well these days we’re in the fortunate position that usually it begins with someone writing to us. We don’t have to do as much of that legwork in the beginning. Of course, 90% of the people who write don’t have a story that we can necessarily turn into a show, so maybe 10% of the stories we dive into. Ultimately, 1% end up working out. First and foremost, I’m looking for emotional honesty. That’s not quite the same as when we think we’re being honest. It’s a level deeper than that. It’s being able to acknowledge not just the story as we’d like it to be but as it really is. It means looking at the darkness that’s in us, at the things we’re scared to admit. The things that we secretly think about when we’re awake at four AM. I spend a long time getting to know people and talking to them, usually over the phone, before we do the story. I want to get a sense of their emotional honesty. I want the four AM, can’t-go-back-to-sleep part of them, the part that says, maybe this whole thing was my fault or I brought it upon myself. I want to work with people who are willing to go there, to explore that. It doesn’t meant they have to take responsibility for something that wasn’t their fault, but it means they have to admit that in the dark of night, when they’re alone, that’s what they think about.

Senti Sojwal: Your latest episode was the first of your new series “Lea in Trumpland”. In it, you interview a Trump supporter named Alicia and have some very intimate conversations with her where you seem to both really connect with her and also butt heads on a series of pressing political issues. What did you learn from making this episode?

Lea Thau: The hardest part was that normally I go in and remove all obstacles and barriers to me connecting with my subject. I purposely try to avoid things like politics. In telling someone’s story, I want to build mutual trust. I want them to open up to me. Going in knowing that the very purpose of my being there was to do the polar opposite of that was very hard. I knew I was going to have to challenge her, but I also knew that as soon as she was in front of me I was probably going to like her. I look back on some of my other subjects, some of my favorite people, who I’ve later found are Trump supporters. This idea of “what is a Trump supporter?” becomes so much less abstract. I know these decent hearted people who voted for Trump, so I know there are decent hearted people who voted for Trump. At the same time, how can you be decent hearted and do that? I just didn’t get it.

It was hard to know that in meeting Alicia, I would just want to connect and stay in my comfort zone and do what I normally do. There were two things I didn’t want to do going in, and I did both of them. I didn’t want to just like her, and find common ground, because what does that solve? On the other hand, I didn’t just want to get into nitty gritty policy discussions. We know the conservative positions and we know the liberal positions, and there are certainly more informed people you could ask about that. In the context of finding common ground, honestly that’s so easy to do. If you go to the house of a Trump supporter you don’t know, I bet 80% of liberals could have a great time. Hanging out, shooting the shit, talking about our kids, talking about dating, making a pie, none of that is hard. What’s hard is that a person you can relate to on that level can do something so reprehensible.

What I wanted to try to do was see, can we hold both in the same space? I was scared of being too soft and liking her too much, and I was scared of getting stuck in policy. We did both — I really liked her, and we got way more nitty-gritty than I expected. Maybe that was the point — to have moments where we’re both clearly at each other’s throats and also just hanging out and eating pizza together. It all ended up making sense. No one thought this episode was a good idea. My mom said it was too risky, that I have this persona on the show of being an empathetic person, and here I was walking straight into stress and divisions. My producer, Laura, worried I would get stuck trying to steamroll her, going overboard with my opinions and passion about all of this. She was telling me how much I’d really need to listen. I was like, I don’t want to fucking listen!

It was scary but in the end so many things are true at the same time. We are humans who can easily get along, we also profoundly disagree in a way that’s terrifying. What I hope the episode did in the end is show this very thing. Even though I think Alicia was misguided on a lot of issues, I did realize that in her mind she was coming from a good place. I realized how much of her opinion was shaped by who she was and where she came from, and I realized the same about myself. I held so much hatred after the election. If I went into a maximum security prison to interview a mass murderer, I would seek the points of empathy I could have for that person even though they committed a heinous crime. I would want to find the humanity in them. I had to look inward and think, I would do that for a murderer but not a Trump supporter? Is that who I am, so hateful? And why? That was the backdrop for the series. I think I did feel less hateful afterwards. I needed her to understand what I found so horrifying, but I also had to try and understand her. I ended up feeling that while I didn’t agree with her, I could understand why she voted the way she did, and understand that I, too, was a product of my environment. I thought a lot about how liberals believe we have a patent on what is right and good. Really, though, there are just two ideologies and I subscribe to one of them. I was able to see the relative nature of my own point of view.

Senti Sojwal: Your own personal stories that you share on Strangers are so raw and I think about how vulnerable it must feel to create something like the “Love Hurts” series, where you chronicle your own experiences with romance, heartbreak, and emotional health. What was the process like for you of doing that series and what kind of place did it have in your own emotional journey at the time?

Lea Thau: I knew I had to do it. I felt drawn to doing it for a while and had it in the back of my mind but I was scared so didn’t totally think it through. It was for me but also I think more generally spoke to something about our times. One of the things I did was go back and talk to guys I had met through online dating who rejected me and find out why. Not because I wanted to put them on the spot, but because I found that to be the most bewildering part of online dating and dating in general. To tell the truth, I’ve never really dated. I had my first boyfriend at 15 and pretty much was never single until I was suddenly 38 and with a baby. We broke up while I was pregnant. Online dating is just how people do it now. The bewildering thing about it is when you go on a date and the person just never calls you back. You don’t know anything about them, you don’t know their friends, so you never get an explanation like, oh he just does that, or he’s still in love with his ex, or he just wasn’t into you. You don’t get any context. I thought maybe that could also be a problem for people other than myself, that I could do something meaningful for other people. I didn’t think that much about how emotional and scary it would be.

I’m not a super new agey person, but I think in a way I did have to do that series to get away from something I was stuck in and open up space for new love in my life. I was done with my ex in the sense that I didn’t want to get back together, but I wasn’t done with the hurt and the anger, the heartbreak. I don’t think you can really find love when you’re still that pissed off. I’ve never admitted this to anyone — when people ask about the series, I normally say something different, and there’s truth to that as well, but I’ve come to realize very recently that part of it was a “fuck you”. Like, you got to do this to me, but I get to tell the fucking story. I wouldn’t say revenge, because it wasn’t just vindictive and it wouldn’t be interesting to people. Don’t make a radio show to settle scores.

More than I’ve ever acknowledged before, I’ve come to see that the “fuck you” part of it was also part of what set me free. I’m not proud of that, and there were other things that also set me free that were a lot more positive. Allowing ourselves to be angry isn’t something women are good at. I was also raised by typical Scandinavians who didn’t want to talk about feelings. I didn’t want my parents or even sometimes my friends to find out that I was in a bad place, and I’d feel too vulnerable saying anything. I wasn’t being emotionally truthful. That’s what I ask of my subjects, and I realized that while I ask that of others I’m not so good at emotional honesty in my own life. I feel way too vulnerable admitting anything’s wrong, even my fiance having an affair and leaving me while I was pregnant. There was this door that was so hard to crack, where I couldn’t even tell people I was close to how scared and sad and lonely I felt, that I had nothing to do but blow it wide open with a stick of dynamite. Since then, I never feel that way. My parents ask how I am and I’ll tell them, not so fucking good. I always thought people couldn’t handle it. But people can let their guard down and not pretend like we’re just okay all the time.

Senti Sojwal: I love interviewing people who are also interviewers. What has “Strangers” taught you about the art of the interview? How have you grown as an interviewer in your career?

Lea Thau: I think I’ve learned to trust the process. The number one thing I think I’ve learned is to show up as a person and not as a reporter. Of course, not everyone can do that because sometimes you do have to be a reporter. That’s what was hard about this Trump series. I had to be a reporter a little bit. I had to maintain some emotional distance to ask hard questions. I mean I also did things reporters would never do like stay overnight in her daughter’s bedroom and get drunk with her and road trip with her. I both wanted to do what I normally do as myself and also be a reporter so I didn’t get too seduced just by liking her. Normally, I don’t try to create that barrier. I think liking and loving and crying with someone I’m working with helps me feel that the work is meaningful, and helps the story. In the beginning I thought I always had to know what my questions were and I’d worry about asking the right thing. I realized that then you’re so busy trying to get it right that you just can’t possibly do it right. For this kind of work, you need to just go and be totally open and as present as you can be and just on someone’s level. You need to be just as much a person as you’re asking someone else to be — a person who’s got her own issues and hangups and fears and heartbreaks and isn’t in some privileged position in some tower. I think that’s the number one thing I’ve learned, to not be afraid or have some journalism-school hangup about remaining objective or distanced or clear headed. To me, that would undermine the work. The less clear headed I am, the better. I have to allow myself to get sucked in.

Photo courtesy of Rasmus Jensen.


Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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