Transcript

444:

Gossip
Transcript

Originally aired 08.26.2011

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Prologue.

Sarah Koenig

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Sarah Koenig sitting in for Ira Glass, who's off this week. To begin in the show we wanted Julie Snyder, our senior producer, and her husband, Jeff Melman, to tell the story about something that happened with Julie's hairdresser. So they came into the studio.

Julie Snyder

OK, I'm here. You're there and he's there.

Sarah Koenig

And before we got into the hairdresser story, Julie was trying to figure out a clever way to introduce the fact that Ira was away. She thought maybe we could do a little skit to tell people that. So she fed Jeff this line.

Julie Snyder

Oh, you're supposed to say, so where is Ira, right now.

Jeff Melman

Right now? So where is Ira?

Julie Snyder

No, not like that.

Sarah Koenig

Note how quickly she shoots him down, doesn't even wait a polite second to pretend to consider whether that was any good. That's why she's the senior producer. She keeps at him.

Julie Snyder

So where is Ira?

Jeff Melman

So where is Ira? Let me do it again. I told you, this is--

Julie Snyder

More natural.

Jeff Melman

I told you, this is not my thing.

Sarah Koenig

So where is Ira?

Jeff Melman

See.

Julie Snyder

Do it just the way Sarah just said it.

Jeff Melman

This is going to affect our marriage.

Sarah Koenig

Jeff likes to say that, but in fact this will not affect their marriage. I've known them for a long time, and, as the President likes to say, the State of the Union is strong.

Julie Snyder

OK, so we're here to tell you this story, so we'll start in on telling you the story.

Sarah Koenig

The story is a gossip story. That's what our show's about today, gossip. And it starts, like any classic of the genre, in a hair salon.

Julie Snyder

First of all, what you need to know Sarah, is that my hair color is not natural.

Sarah Koenig

Stop. Julie visits her colorist every six to eight weeks. They've struck up a friendship.

Julie Snyder

You know, how are you, how are your kids, blah, blah, blah, where are you living, what are you doing, and stuff like that. And at one point, she started telling me-- I don't know if she was broken up with her boyfriend or they were on a break, but she was starting something on the side, she told me, with a guy who worked at a restaurant in our town. And she started describing him to me, and I knew who she was talking about. I was like, oh yeah, that guy. He's the best looking guy that works there. And it sounded all very exciting. And then like the next time, like six to eight weeks later, I asked how that was going. And by then, it wasn't going as well. But she also was like, when I asked her about it, she was kind of like, oh, shh, shh, shh. And sort of admonished me for asking about it in a normal tone of voice. And then, she waits until it there's like nobody else around, and then kneels down very quietly next to me, and was just like, it's just that I don't really like people knowing my business.

Sarah Koenig

So then Julie's hairdresser goes on to tell her some kind of embarrassing stories about the guy. And how she's not that into him any more. She might break it off, maybe go back to the original boyfriend. And Julie goes home and tells all of this to Jeff, which she figures is a dead-end for this top-secret information. He's unconnected. He doesn't know the hairdresser. There's no reason he'd repeat it. The gossip is safely stored within the walls of their kitchen.

So fast forward to the neighborhood Christmas party. Julie stays home with one kid, but Jeff takes their daughter to the party. He's not having a good time. It's a lot of small talk with people he doesn't know. It's a little awkward. So using his six-year-old to escape, he wanders upstairs.

Jeff Melman

We were like in the kid's bedroom. Where a bunch of kids were, and they were all like playing, like throwing stuffed animals around. That's where I was hanging out. No because my daughter needed me to be there, but because I'm not a big party guy. So I don't know. So somehow I overheard these women talking.

Sarah Koenig

Jeff overhears the women say their sister works at the salon that Julie goes to. So he chimes in, makes a connection.

Jeff Melman

I think I said something like, did you know about the relationship with the guy in the restaurant or something like that. I think I jumped right in.

Sarah Koenig

In fact, they knew nothing about the guy in the restaurant. But they wanted to know everything.

Jeff Melman

And then of course, they were just full of joy. They were so eager to hear more. I mean, I told them everything that I knew. I think, I made up some stuff maybe, possibly. Yeah, the more I told them, the more interested they were in me, and the--

Sarah Koenig

[LAUGHING] Oh, God.

Jeff Melman

--they were enjoying me.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, my God.

Jeff Melman

I couldn't stop. I can honestly say, at no point during the conversation, like while I was at the party, did I think that what I was doing was not OK. Like it never felt like, oh, I should stop. It was great. I mean, they were filling my cup--

Sarah Koenig

[LAUGHING] Oh, God.

Jeff Melman

--lighting my cigarette for me. It was like that. I mean, I just spilled it all. And then, like I said, when I left, I was excited to go tell Julie about it. Somehow I though that she would be as excited as I was.

Julie Snyder

And I was just like, wait. What? Jeff thought this was no big deal at all. And I was like, did the sisters know? And he was like, no, they didn't know. They had no idea. I just couldn't believe, why would you do that? Why would you tell them that? This is a really, really, big deal.

Sarah Koenig

Julie had seen the chess pieces lineup immediately. Her colorist has three sisters. They're close, which means if they didn't know about the cheating, the sister, very pointedly, did not want them to know, didn't want their judgment. And she also knew that her colorist would quickly figure out that it was Julie who blabbed to Jeff, who blabbed to the sisters. Which is exactly what happened. And this has stumped Julie ever since, why Jeff would be so clueless? Jeff's defense is that he doesn't have Julie's talent for understanding the contours of gossip. He can't feel the significance of secrets the way she does. He can't always figure out their weight and value and danger. It's a real disability.

Jeff Melman

I, honestly, I swear, when I got home from the party I was very excited to tell Julie about this. Somehow, it felt like I had done good. For some reason I thought Julie would be very pleased with me.

Sarah Koenig

You were like a cat bringing home a dead mouse for her to lay at her feet.

Jeff Melman

I sort of thought of it as like a family victory, like we really scored at this party.

Sarah Koenig

So I've read a little bit of like wonky, academic stuff about gossip just in the last week, and there's various definitions or whatever. But this one academic from Yale wrote this whole book in the '80s. And one of the things she posits, actually, is that gossip is-- there's extremes of gossip which are really bad, like tearing somebody's character apart, or very malicious gossip, obviously that no one condones. But that gossip itself is a way of like making an emotional connection with people around you. And super important and really good. And that it carries an erotic power in fact. That there's something erotic in having access to information and being the one to pass something exciting on to somebody else. And I'm wondering.

Jeff Melman

Well, I do have a lot of erotic power, that's true.

Sarah Koenig

I could tell that.

Jeff Melman

I think that's very interesting. I mean, maybe some of that is tied up in it. This is really going to affect my marriage by the way.

Julie Snyder

The fact is, now that I hear you talk about it now, it's sweet that you just loved them listening to you and laughing.

Jeff Melman

The erotic power?

Julie Snyder

I actually find the erotic power part to be sort of sweet.

Jeff Melman

It almost makes me feel like I would do it again.

Julie Snyder

Oh.

Jeff Melman

No, I'm just kidding.

Sarah Koenig

We all gossip, but we don't always understand its power, its erotic power, if you will. On today's show we've got gossip, gossip, and more gossip. Stories, where yes, the gossip can be dangerous and slanderous but also a force for good. We've got rampant gossip on another continent. And a short story about when gossipers go pro. If you want to hear what we'ver heard, stay with us.

Act One.

Sarah Koenig

Part of what makes gossip gossip is that you're not supposed to do it. It's in the Bible. It's in the Koran. Jewish law prohibits it. It's considered sinful. But sometimes you have to. That's true in Malawi, in southeast Africa, for instance. There gossiping is, of course, frowned upon, but not gossiping can be even worse. Hazel Namadingo is from Malawi. She's 26, and she went to college in Malawi, at a place called Chancellor College, where gossip wasn't just common, it was organized.

Hazel Namandingo

There was some kind of board where people posted gossips.

Sarah Koenig

It was a bulletin board, in fact, in the college's main library.

Hazel Namandingo

So every morning people would rush to that board to see the latest thing that has happened around campus.

Sarah Koenig

What kind of gossip?

What kind of gossip? That's a stupid question if I do say so myself. Because, really, there's only one kind of gossip you'd rush to see on the bulletin board every morning. And that's, of course, gossip about sex. And I guess this is a good place for a listener warning that this story does discuss sex and birth control. Not graphically, at all, but just the existence of it. So if you're listening with kids, you might want to know that.

Sex, as any gossiper knows, is the mother of all good gossip. If you made a pie chart of gossip topics, sex would have to be half the pie, maybe even 3/4. The same was certainly true at Chancellor College.

Hazel Namandingo

It ranged from maybe a guy being caught in the girl's hostel--

Sarah Koenig

A hostel is like a dorm.

Hazel Namandingo

--up to a girl getting grades for having sex with a lecturer.

Sarah Koenig

And this would be on this public bulletin board, where everyone can read it?

Hazel Namandingo

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

And the university new about it?

Hazel Namandingo

Yeah, it knew, but they had no control over it whatsoever.

Sarah Koenig

The bulletin board did eventually stop, but the gossip didn't. And it's not like it went underground.

Hazel Namandingo

It was now being printed in newspapers.

Sarah Koenig

In like a campus newspaper you mean?

Hazel Namandingo

So in my time, we had several newspapers. We had a school newspaper, which was OK. It printed a lot of stuff that you can read and benefit from. But then there was this other newspaper, which a group of boys and girls would print, and it was just pure gossip from first page to the last page. It had names, but the foremost one was just The Tabloid. I think it was called that.

Sarah Koenig

Hazel says The Tabloid quote, "Gave too much detail to things that you would want to keep secret." Which is pretty much the best definition of a gossip rag that I've ever heard. For anyone who's gone to college, or to high school, or, for that matter, simply existed in any kind of fornicating society, the stories in The Tabloid are probably familiar. Two people got together and had sex, discuss.

But in Malawi, I'm going to venture to say, that this kind of gossip, not to put to fine a point on it, is a matter of life and death. Because in Malawi a lot of people have HIV and AIDS, and so figuring out who is safe to go out with is a serious concern.

Hazel works for an American run research project that's interested in how AIDS is changing the way young people in Malawi make decisions about family planning, about who to marry, how many kids to have. She supervises a team of researchers who interview young people three times a year to see, among other things, how their love lives have changed, what decisions they've made about their relationships and why. And AIDS is central to all this. In Malawi everyone knows someone who's got it.

Sarah Koenig

How many people would you say you know or know of, who are positive?

Hazel Namandingo

In my life, for sure, I know three. And these are all my relatives. Yeah, I know my brother is positive. I know my niece is positive. I know my brother's wife is positive. That's for sure. But for some people I just meet in my neighborhood or work with, I can't really say that I know what they're positive, maybe suspect.

Sarah Koenig

What about the second category, sort of, you've heard around town?

Hazel Namandingo

A lot, like they can reach up to 50.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Hazel Namandingo

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Hazel herself is married now, and has a newborn baby. But she says AIDS was a constant topic with her friends. Before they'd date someone, they'd ask around about them, and make their decision based on the gossip. It's so common to discuss whether someone's got the virus that there's shorthand for it.

Hazel Namandingo

We have our own terms that we use to name someone who has AIDS, or who is on ARVs.

Sarah Koenig

ARVs stands for antiretrovirals, the medication that some people with HIV take.

Hazel Namandingo

So when you want to go out with a person, and your friends will say no. That one is poison. Like the person is poison, you can't go near him. Or sometimes we call or we name that person, oh, that one is using units.

Sarah Koenig

What does that mean?

Hazel Namandingo

That means-- you know, in Malawi, the mobile phones that we have?

Sarah Koenig

This one's a little complicated. In Malawi, to use a mobile phone, you have to buy a card with phone units on it. And once you use them up, you have to buy more to buy more time. So if a person is said to be on units, that's slang for taking ARVs. They have to top-up on the medication every single day to buy more time. In Malawi, just like in the US, AIDS testing is confidential. So really people are usually guessing about who's infected and who isn't. But where Hazel lives secrets get around pretty fast. For instance, if you go to the hospital for malaria testing at the laboratory, which isn't all that uncommon--

Hazel Namandingo

Right next, after they-- laboratory-- there is this room where it's written that-- ARVs. So when you see people going there, queuing on the line towards the ARVs door, you conclude that they are positive. So these are some of the ways how people come up with kind of gossip that so and so is positive, so and so is on ARVs.

Sarah Koenig

ARVs are helping a lot of infected people in Malawi live a lot longer, but they also complicate gossip. If a girl is beautiful, for example, it doesn't necessarily help her chances of finding a partner partly because of ARVs.

Hazel Namandingo

Like if you see someone who is, maybe, a little bit fat--

Sarah Koenig

Remember girls, this is Africa, where a little bit fat is good.

Hazel Namandingo

Or maybe her skin is so smooth, some people like put questions behind that. They don't think this person is normal. Like they have the virus.

Sarah Koenig

Because they look too good?

Hazel Namandingo

Yeah, they look too good.

Sarah Koenig

Because the ARVs can make your skin smooth?

Hazel Namandingo

Yeah, that's what most people say. That's the explanation that is going around right now.

Sarah Koenig

Hazel herself happens to be uncommonly beautiful, and she's been the subject of rumors too. But she says her job saves her from the worst of it. Her neighbors know that her work is connected to a white person, which means she's probably well paid in dollars, and so can afford to take care of herself and wear nice clothes. There's an explanation for her beauty. But if you're a girl without a job, who looks good and dresses expensively, then you're suspect. Because that means you must be sleeping around, getting money from men. Which means you could be infected.

Hazel Namandingo

Mostly the beautiful ones are a cause of alarm. If you're not so attractive your safe.

Sarah Koenig

Safe from what? You're safe to have sex with?

Hazel Namandingo

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

You have to be a bit careful about AIDS gossip though. Hazel told me you can get taken to court. That is, someone can bring a case against you to the local chief if you accuse them of having AIDS. And if you don't have proof, which almost no one does, you can get fined.

It's understandable, being accused of having AIDS when you don't, that's a rumor that's a very, very hard to shake. And it can ruin your life. In Malawi, Hazel says, it's among the top three things you don't want to be accused of. The other two are being a witch and practising satanism. So while no one exactly condones gossiping where Hazel lives, everyone knows that sometimes it's required.

Take the case of this one neighbor of Hazel's, a young woman. She used to be good looking, but then she lost a lot of weight. Rumors started that she had AIDS, and that she was going out with a couple of men in town. When the gossip got back to her, she started keeping to herself, not really leaving the house or doing the normal things she liked to do. Until, finally, she went to the hospital and got on ARVs, saved herself. But the danger for the men in town is that now she doesn't look like she has AIDS at all. Her disease is hidden. She's a one-woman public health threat.

Hazel Namandingo

The thing is, when men see her now, like she's healthy. She got back a little bit of weight, and you really can't tell that she has AIDS. So I would say it's really tricky. Like, to say, in this way is gossip good for her, was it good for the society? Was it bad for her, was it bad for the society? But, I would still say for her it was good, because it made her make that decision, which she wouldn't have made if people weren't gossiping about her. But for many in our society, I think, it's not good. Because now she's healthy and more attractive than she was.

Sarah Koenig

So if someone new came to the neighborhood, maybe someone you liked, or became friends with her, or was a relative and said, "oh, look at your attractive neighbor. I think I would like to ask her out." Would you gossip and say, "look, I know she looks good, but she's got the virus, you should know that." Or do you feel like you can't gossip that way, because it's too, possibly, harmful for her? What's the right thing to do?

Hazel Namandingo

I think I'll gossip because of seeing the way she looked before. Yeah, I'll tell my share of the gossip that I've heard.

Sarah Koenig

You could call it gossiping. Or you could call it using your social network to educate those around you about how AIDS works and how to avoid getting it. That's what a sociologist named Susan Watkins would call it. Because what Hazel's been doing all this time with her friends and family, all the gossiping, that is the basis for a huge research project.

Watkins, along with colleagues and grad students, has spent more than 10 years looking at how people's social interactions, including their gossip, shape their attitudes about AIDS, first in Kenya then Malawi. She spends about two months a year in Africa. She was initially researching family planning, but her field work kept getting interrupted by funerals.

Sometimes local people were going to three or four a week of people who died of AIDS. So she switched to focus on AIDS. Watkins started researching people's sexual behavior the way most sociologists do, with surveys. But the information respondents were giving her wasn't all that accurate.

After all, she was an outsider. A stranger holding a clipboard. People didn't want to tell her all the details of their sex lives. To figure out what rural Malawians really thought, Watkins needed to hear what they said to each other when she wasn't around. She needed to eavesdrop. So she hired local people she knew to keep journals.

Susan Watkins

So I just said, why don't you just listen. Wherever you go, in the course of your daily life, if you hear anybody talking about AIDS just listen and then go home later in the evening and write it down. And write it down as specifically as you can in exactly the words that they used.

Sarah Koenig

She ended up with thousands and thousands of pages of preserved public gossip written by hand in school notebooks and spanning more than a decade. Conversations at markets, funerals, bars, churches, water wells. And the contents were surprising. The journals bucked much of the conventional wisdom about how rural Malawians were dealing with the AIDS epidemic on the ground.

Susan Watkins

I realized that what these conversations, these gossip that was going on as people talk to each other about, did you see so and so is looking thin? Or did you see so and so? She's got shingles, and so she probably has AIDS? That there was just a lot of talk going on.

Sarah Koenig

And what was the prevailing wisdom among researchers about the way this was getting talked about or not talked about it in a place like rural Malawi?

Susan Watkins

Well, the prevailing view wasn't so much that of the researchers as that of the prevention community. Which would be the NGOs and the donors that were contributing money to have campaigns that would stem the tide of the epidemic. And their prevailing wisdom was that people don't talk about AIDS. It's a taboo topic. They don't talk about sex. And the Malawian elites, who work for the NGOs, said that as well. No our people don't talk about AIDS and don't talk about sex. But of course, we found out right away that they do. And they talk a lot. And they say very pertinent things to HIV prevention.

Sarah Koenig

I have to say, having read a bunch of excerpts of the journals, that was the thing that surprised me immediately was they talk about sex all the time.

Susan Watkins

There was one wonderful conversation that I didn't send you, which was some guys in a trading center, just a little market area, standing around and talking. And one of them says, "Hey guys, I've got--"

Sarah Koenig

What he's got is a little too graphic for public radio. So let's just say, he's got an infection.

Susan Watkins

And the other guys say, "Well, what is it?" And he said, "Well, I don't know what it is." And they said, "Well, maybe your underwear is too tight" And he said, "No, my underwear isn't too tight." And then they said, "Well, maybe you've got a crack in your foreskin?" And he said, "No, I've looked at my foreskin, and I don't have a crack there." And then another guy chimed up and said, "You know, I think this might be gonorrhea. And if it is gonorrhea you better get it treated very quickly." And then somebody else jokingly said, "And, if you have gonorrhea, it's going to smell, and green flies are going to follow you." And then they all roared with laughter. And then they said, "Well, how do you think you got it?" And the guy said, "I don't know." He said, "Because I'm faithful to my girlfriend, and she's faithful to me." And at that point the guys laugh raucously and say, "Well, if that's the case, you couldn't possibly have what you have. So, if it's not you, it must be your girlfriend. So you ought to get rid of her. You ought to divorce her." And the guy says, "Oh, I can't divorce her." He says, "I've bought her already three pair of jeans at the PEP store in Blantyre, and two blouses, and a pair of sandals." So clearly, he had made an investment in this woman and was not yet ready to give her up. Unfortunately, we don't know the end.

Sarah Koenig

I think actually did read that one. And he also says, "No, I love her." He loves her.

Susan Watkins

No, I love her. And anyway, I bought her all this stuff, exactly.

Sarah Koenig

And he also says, if I remember, "Well, if she's got it, I already have it anyway. And if she has HIV, I've already got it then anyway, so what's the point of giving her up."

Susan Watkins

Exactly. That's a major misconception among Malawians-- and also, I've worked in Botswana and Swaziland and there I think it's all over-- that they vastly overestimate the probability of transmission in a single act of intercourse with an infected person. About 97% of our respondents said, it was certain or highly likely. And that's far from the truth. It's actually quite difficult to transmit HIV. But the people believe that. If you lie together, you die together, they say. So that allows this guy to say, well, there is no point in breaking up with her. And it also allows people to say, well, there's no point in my getting tested. I must be positive. I just had so many girlfriends.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, that's interesting. Because I was thinking maybe having that level of fear, like even one time and I'm doomed, might be kind of good. Like telling your kids, you'll get pregnant if you have sex even one time as a preventive thing. But you're saying, it actually can have the other affect too, which is making you blase.

Susan Watkins

Yeah, why would you use a condom. Nobody likes to use a condom. So if you're sure you're already infected, no way would you use a condom. Anyway, the women don't want to use condoms.

Sarah Koenig

Right, nobody seems to like the condoms. There's one quote that I love. That it said, using a condom oh, it's like eating sweets in a wrapper.

Susan Watkins

Yeah, that is all over Africa. And everybody tells it. They like slap their knee as if they are the first ones who ever told it. You can't eat sweets in a wrapper. And then they go ho, ho, ho. But it's absolutely all over the place.

Sarah Koenig

It's funny every time.

Susan Watkins

Yeah, funny every time.

Sarah Koenig

The other thing that I noticed reading them, or it just occurred to me, is that there seems to be a lot of gossip around, a lot of gossip around. And I'm thinking like, is that different from us? And then I thought, nah, probably not. But the level of it was really-- I was like, man alive. You really got to be careful what you say and do, I mean, because people are watching.

Susan Watkins

These are small communities with houses close to each other. They're mud huts with thatched roofs just like you see in National Geographic pictures of rural Africa. And, I think, because their houses are dark, there isn't electricity, people spend a lot of time outside. And that probably makes gossip happen more than if everybody is in their house with a half an acre yard around it. And they have to walk a lot of places to get water, to go to the market.

Sarah Koenig

So there's just a lot of conversation all the time.

Susan Watkins

Yeah. They use these stories to launch discussions about how they can prevent themselves from getting AIDS. Saying, well, this person surely got AIDS because he said he would never use a condom. Whereas this person probably got AIDS through his wife, because she used to be married to so and so, who died of AIDS.

Sarah Koenig

Because gossiping about these people is really the only way to find that stuff out, right?

Susan Watkins

Yeah, and in fact, they sometimes, when the men are gossiping or talking, they say, Timun died of AIDS, but he died because he didn't ask us. He didn't tell us he wanted to go with this partner and ask us for our opinion. If he had done that, we would have told him that she used to be married to Matthew, and Matthew worked in South Africa and came back with AIDS and died of it. So we would've told him, no, don't go for her. But he didn't ask us, so it's really his own fault. He knows better than that.

Sarah Koenig

I was really struck by a one of Simon's entries from 2003. I just was really struck by-- so this woman walks by, and they just diagnose her on the fly, and then it launches this whole thing. And I'm wondering if you could just read that? It's your summary of what he's written, partly your summary, and partly his words, I think.

Susan Watkins

The journalist has gone to the trading center, which is a small market, to buy soap for his wife and fish for lunch. He chats with a fish vendor, who is a friend of his, and then they both chat with a customer, who has sores on her face. Once she leaves they are joined by a neighboring vendor who had been listening. Together they diagnose the woman's condition as shingles, which they interpret as a symptom of AIDS.

They justify this diagnosis by providing a narrative of her sexual history. She's had four marriages all ending in divorce, because she was unfaithful. They then speculate as to whether her unfaithfulness was due to a need for money for her children or to lust. And why, in these days of the epidemic, any man would select her as a sexual partner. One man went on saying that she's on the way to the graveyard. This is not a time of playing with men by doing sex with them. Neither should men be playing with women by doing sex with them.

We chatted and chatted, and finally we concluded by saying that, nowadays, it's better to just stop going with other sexual partners. It's better that whenever you want sex you should select a bar girl, because one cannot think of having plain sex with a bar girl. Everyone knows that any bar girl has AIDS, and, therefore, everyone having sex with her protects himself by using condoms. We chatted and chatted until I just bought the fish and left.

Sarah Koenig

And just to be clear, when he says one cannot think of having plain sex with a bar girl, plain sex means sex without a condom?

Susan Watkins

With no-- yeah, right.

Sarah Koenig

I love how these back to back ideas of, well, you should just not sleep around. And if you're going to sleep around, you should choose a bar girl, because we know she's a slut, so you're going to use a condom.

Susan Watkins

There was one wonderful debate where somebody said, well, if we have to select partners, we should go with school girls, because they won't be infected. And then somebody else says, no, the school girls are all infected by the teachers. What you should really do is go for an ugly woman, because nobody else will have gone for her, so she's less likely to be infected.

Sarah Koenig

What surprised you the most when you started getting these back and reading through them, like stuff you just did not expect to see?

Susan Watkins

I had some expectations before hand, because I'd done a little bit of this in Kenya. So it wasn't quite as striking to me, the Malawi journals, as they would be to you. But the variety of places that people talked about AIDS. How, sometimes, it was just looking out the window. Somebody is on a bus, they look out a window, they see somebody thin, and the bus starts talking about it. Sometimes the bus driver gets into the story.

I had not really appreciated these group aggregate, like buses, people on a bus. And a lot of the things we learned, including this, were against the conventional wisdom. That people don't talk. They don't talk about sex. It's taboo. That they're fatalistic. Well, you can tell from these excerpts that they're not fatalistic.

Sarah Koenig

Wait, so some of the prevailing thought was that people in these communities just assume they're going to get AIDS and die? So there's nothing they can do about it? That was the fatalism?

Susan Watkins

Yeah, or another bit of the conventional wisdom was that they were in denial. They're just going on as if AIDS didn't exist. They don't want to believe it, so they don't believe it. But we see from the journals that they do believe it. And they do feel that they themselves are at risk. But then added to that-- and something that's not at all in the agenda of the prevention community-- is partner selection. And they advise each other to be careful. Before you select a partner, ask around, see what her behavior is, see who knows her.

Sarah Koenig

But has any of that prevailing wisdom that you've talked about, that you think is wrong, how is that then effecting prevention programs? If you start with that premise, then what did it mean about the programs?

Susan Watkins

Well, it meant that they did some programs that weren't necessary. Because they were telling them to talk about AIDS when they were already talking about AIDS.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, so they were trying to encourage this kind of discussion, and you're saying it was already underway?

Susan Watkins

It was already under way. Or they were trying to inform people that AIDS is here. Well, you've seen yourself, they've known that for a long time. So I think what that stuff did was justify spending money on things that, to be fair, the prevention community thought would be important, because they didn't know what was going on outside of their offices, basically.

Sarah Koenig

When you have talked about the contents of these journals and what they show, has the response changed? Has programming responded to your research?

Susan Watkins

No. I don't think so.

Sarah Koenig

The problem, says Watkins, is that Malawi depends on outside money for AIDS prevention, big donors and NGOs. And so to make sure that money keeps coming, the Malawi government tailors its AIDS prevention strategies to whatever the international trends are. Even if those trends are based on assumptions about real Africans that aren't necessarily true.

Susan Watkins

You have to be sympathetic to somebody sitting in Washington, DC at the offices of USAID. How are they going to know what goes on? What they know, generally, about rural Malawians comes through the Malawian elites, largely, because those are the people they interact with.

And they have very strong views. And so for the elites, AIDS is spread by people who aren't like us. AIDS is spread by superstitious, backward villagers. And AIDS is spread by sex workers. And AIDS is spread by sugar daddies. So there's some of these usual suspects. And even when there's very strong evidence against those, they just don't believe it.

Let me give you an example. Where nobody ever says, the problem, the driver of the epidemic, is men with money. And yet the evidence shows, very clearly, that the highest prevalence is among the wealthiest and most educated men. I know. But when I suggest, well, why don't we go after the elite men? People just look at me like I'm totally nuts. I think it's just seen as an impossibility. It's seen as men's nature. So it's better to try to train women to negotiate condom use and to protect themselves than it is to pay any attention to the men.

Sarah Koenig

If it were up to her, she said, she spend every penny of AIDS prevention money on the one new thing that's been proved effective scientifically, that is on male circumcision. I can see the meeting now. The 72-year-old white woman sits down with Malawi's health minister, various other government and NGO officials in suits, and tells them, forget the prostitutes and bar girls. You all need to go get yourselves circumcised. Good luck with that.

Susan Watkins is a professor at UPenn and a visiting research scientist at The California Center for Population Research at UCLA. The more than 1000 journals she's collected from Malawi are being catalogued now. You can read some of them on the website of her project. The link to that is on our website, thisamericanlife.org.

[MUSIC - "PEOPLE GONNA TALK" BY JAMES HUNTER]

Coming up, Leo likes Astrid, pass it on. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two.

Sarah Koenig

It's This American Life. I'm Sarah Koenig. Ira Glass is away, so I'm filling in as host. Today's show, gossip. An especially low form of gossip is backbiting, low, but entertaining. It's what we've been watching slack-jawed for the past decade on reality TV. It's the engine of a million plots, because it never runs dry, especially, if you make it up. Novelist Rebecca Makkai has this short story.

Rebecca Makkai

Markus is a gifted crier. We just say, "Tell us how your grandfather would feel," and he gushes like Miss America. "My grandfather would be so proud of me," he says, and blows a kiss to the sky. Or we ask if he feels that his whole life has been a struggle? He says, "I just feel like my whole life has been just this huge struggle," and then he starts snorting and choking and holds up a finger.

The producers love the criers. And they love the cocky bastards. And they love the snarky gay men. The others we try to get drunk. We flirt with the straight guys, if there are any. If necessary, we feed them lines.

I don't try very hard anymore to explain to Beth what I do, why my voice is never on the show. Really, I think she's pretending to be confused. I think she likes saying, "OK, but why don't they just have the contestants talk to the camera on their own? Aren't they smart enough?"

If I tried to tell her about Sabrina screaming at the judges, or Astrid getting drunk she says, "Don't tell. You'll ruin the show for me." Even though, half the time, she doesn't watch what I've worked on. And so I stopped talking, because what else could I possibly talk about.

Hour after hour, Inez and I sit, side by side, in folding chairs. The contestants sit on what looks like a throne, something oak and leather the producers found in the library. Inez is great at maintaining a lethally bored expression, so that whoever we're interviewing feels compelled to say more and more interesting things, more outrageous, more emotional.

We say, "We're not getting a character arc from you. This is going to be boring TV." We say, "Remember this is a job. We're paying you, and your job is to answer all the questions." Then we ask, "What do you hate about Leslie?"

"I don't hate her," they say.

"Yes, but you need to answer the question."

"Well, she's pretty sure or herself. I mean she's good."

We say, "That's great. Go with that. What does her confidence remind you of?"

"Like a gorilla? Like this big, silver-back gorilla that's bigger than you?"

"That's what we're looking for," we say. "Now we need a full sentence about how you hate it."

"Leslie's been swaggering around like some big, silver-back gorilla, like beating her chest, and telling everyone how great she is. It's driving me crazy."

If you've ever seen Starving Artist, if you've ever even heard of it, you'r probably a gay man between 25 and 40. We gather artists from all different fields-- this season a painter, a dancer, a poet, a glass-blower, a playwright, a piano composer-- and stick them in an old, defunct, artists' colony in northern Pennsylvania for 25 days.

We give them prompts. The first episode was nightmare, then Shakespeare, then baseball. They work for a day and a half, creating something small, and potentially beautiful, and always tragically rushed. And then they're judged, eliminated, given warnings, awarded prizes, the normal deal. The poor playwright got a 50 second performance limit on each play. He went home sobbing after the second elimination, twitching and covered in hives. The winner gets an agent and a $200,000 grant. The losers get publicity cut with humiliation.

I come home, upset about the playwright. And I try to tell Beth.

She says, "But I thought the point for these people was the exposure?"

I say, "I don't think that's what he even wanted."

He wasn't typical. His name was Lincoln, and he seemed so surprised by everything, so constantly startled by the number of people, and by our lifting his shirt to re-tape his mic.

"People are going to remember him as the twitchy-hive guy," I say, "and I don't think he'll even know how to take advantage of the publicity."

"Then why did he sign up?"

Beth is knitting at the speed of light with tiny wooden needles. She's the kind of person who can undo a knot in any necklace and get a broken toaster to work again. That was how we met. We lived in the same building in LA. And when she looked out her second story window and saw me throwing a toaster in the dumpster, she called down that she bet me it was just the heating element. And she could fix the calibration with a flat-head screwdriver and a beer.

Right now I shrug at her question. But I don't know why Lincoln signed up for the show. Optimism, I suppose, but I don't say that. And this is the way a lot of our conversations have been ending, one of us asking a question, the other not answering.

Eight days in, the producers tell us we need a romance arc.

Kenneth says, "It has to be Leo and Astrid, because she's the hottest girl, and he's the only straight guy. We have to go hetero on this." And then he says to me, "No offense, Christine. It's the network. They're asses, and they don't get our demographic at all."

Inez says, "You expect us to make them fall in love?"

He slurps his coffee through the lid and then looks at the ceiling, "Yep."

The next time Astrid sits down, she's just escaped elimination. She's in that wonderful spot between ecstatic and vulnerable. She's the glass blower, and the judges are getting bored with her. I want to tell her she'll be safe if she can just pretend to love Leo, but I don't think she can act that well. So I say, "How do you feel about Leo being the only straight guy here?"

Astrid has long blond hair with a pale-blue streak. Her nose is pierced and she's beautiful. If you saw her on the street, you'd think she was already famous.

"I think Leo is getting along well with everyone. It's got to be hard being the only straight guy here," she says to the camera.

Inez takes over, "Can you see anything happening between the two of you?"

"I don't see anything happening between me and Leo," she says. But she's blushing, so we can use it. "He's cute, but I'm focusing on my art right now."

I would have stopped there knowing we got, "He's cute," but Inez keeps going.

"What do you think about his flirting with you? Is it distracting you from the challenges?"

Astrid tilts her head, and her hair falls down in waves. "I don't think he is."

"But if he were, would that bother you?"

"No."

"Can you say it in a full sentence?"

Astrid rolls her eyes. "It wouldn't bother me if Leo flirted." Bingo.

We tell Leo, "So Astrid told us she thinks you're cute. She said, she wouldn't mind if you flirted a little."

There's a sudden wash of blood under his pale, freckled skin.

I say, "What do you like about Astrid?"

"Astrid is a talented glass-blower. I think she's a real threat."

"Do you think she likes your music?"

"I hope that Astrid likes my music." At least 90% of his blood is in his face now.

With a smile to let him know she's not really serious, but that she still expects an answer, Inez says, "A lot of viewers will be wondering if you're really gay. Are you?"

"I'm not gay. I'm attracted to women. There are a few cute girls here."

Inez looks triumphant. They'll use that last sentence over a shot of him awkwardly stepping aside to let Astrid pass in the dining room.

Back at our little temporary apartment in town above the old lady's garage, Beth spends hours trying to figure out what she feels.

She'll start sentences this way, "It's just that sometimes, I think that maybe I feel like--"

I imagine her chasing her emotions with a stick-pin, trying to jab them into place before they get away again. They always get away again. All day long, while she's supposed to be designing websites, she sits on the couch writing in her journal, trying to decide if she wants to stay with me. Then when I get home, she reads me her journal. I tell her she'd give great interview. But really she wouldn't.

The camera doesn't have patience for someone who feels iffy, who weighs the options, who equivocates. And maybe that's why I want to throttle Beth when she tells me she's been making a list of the pros and cons, she says, of our relationship. I ignore this, and tell her how Inez and I are making two people fall in love.

"That's sick," she says.

Inez is mad that she can't flirt with Leo now. She says, "He was the only cute guy here."

She means out of everyone, the crew, the producers, the cast, and the entire population of Straithersburg, Pennsylvania where we've all flocked like refugees from LA and set-up camp. Kenneth tells us they have footage now of Leo and Astrid giggling in a hallway, choosing adjacent seats at the big dinner table, taking an early morning jog.

"My genius cupids," he calls us.

I've done sleazier things every day for the past five years, but for some reason, this one is starting to feel wrong. Beth is getting to me maybe. Or maybe it's something about being outside of LA, here in the real world, where the normal rules of behavior should somehow apply.

Kenneth slaps me on the shoulder. "We're changing the next prompt to love. This should be good stuff, Christine."

When Astrid sits down in the interview chair, she asks if we can turn the cameras off.

"Sure," we say. And give Blake, the camera guy, the signal to cover the red light, but keep taping.

She leans forward and says, "I know what you guys are trying to do with your questions about Leo. I get that you're supposed to create drama and everything but frankly this is insulting."

I look at Inez. "All we're doing," she says, "our role, is just to speed along what would happen in the real world if we had a lot more time. So let's say, in real life you know a guy and maybe after six months something starts to happen. OK, so here we don't have six months, we have two more weeks. And that's if you stay to the finale. We're not making you date him Astrid, we're just stirring the pot."

"Well, I want you to stop," she says.

"OK," I say, "sure." Although Inez is looking at me strangely. "Turn the camera back on Blake. Remember, present tense, full sentences. So Astrid, tell us about this week's prompt."

Inez and I take our only half hour off in five days to head out to the only coffee shop in Straithersburg.

Inez says, "Why in the hell did you say we'd leave her alone? Tell me it's part of some master plan."

I don't tell her that I'm suddenly and deeply sick of messing with people. I say, "We need her on our side. She's not NPD."

The casting directors are great at spotting borderline narcissistic personality disorder, the kind that makes you just crazy enough for great TV but not crazy enough to destroy a camera with a baseball bat. The best casts are around 50% NPD but no more. Astrid was one of the contestants picked for her charisma and talent rather than her belief that she was destined to be famous.

I say, "I see her really shutting down in interview if she thinks were manipulating her."

"I'm just saying, Kenneth had very high hopes for the love challenge interviews."

"You can go to town on Leo then," I say. "Tell him she's pregnant with his child."

Inez laughs, pretends I'm not annoying her. And we finish our lattes.

As we walk up the endless grass hill to the colony, our shoes in our hands, Inez says, "You don't seem happy. Can I ask something?" she says. "Why exactly are you with Beth?"

The whole time we walk I'm tearing at my thumbnail and trying to answer her question, as if I'm a contestant and must answer the question. And must rephrase the question as part of the answer.

I am with Beth because I've been fighting against her leaving for so long it's the only thing I know how to do. It's like that's my character arc. Like some producer has said, "We need you to be the quirky girl with the short hair who doesn't want her girlfriend to leave." And like the best contestants, the ones chosen for their compliance, I go along with it. Because what other role do I have?

Inez and I always listen in at the back of the judgment room so we don't have to get debriefed before the interviews. Kenneth is a genius. He lines the five remaining artists up in front of the book shelves where they'll be judged and then tells them we won't tape for a few more minutes, when really the cameras are already rolling.

He tells them to stand still for the light guys and then says, "We're having more digital issues. We're going to be here pretty late tonight folks."

And the sleep deprived artists, dehydrated and trying to hold still and awaiting judgment, give the most beautiful looks of disgust and despair. The cameras are getting it all. The editors will splice it in with shots of their work being critiqued or a competitor winning. They always fall for it.

Once Kenneth had one of the camera guys give all the contestants some incomprehensible direction in a thick accent while the other camera guys captured the grimaces of confusion. At the third judgment, he directed Inez to have a loud phone argument with a boyfriend in the corner of the room. That time we had enough snickering and eye rolling to manufacture an entire rivalry between Leo and Gordy. It became one of our best plotlines.

Even after all our work, by the end of the shoot Kenneth has decided to drop the love arc.

"We're way more into Leo's fallout with Gordy. And I think we'll want to paint Astrid as kind of a loner so that everyone roots for Sabrina," he says. "She's going to win."

They'll never use the beautiful footage of Leo blushing. Just like they'll throw away 99% of everything that happens. Those are the last four standing, beautiful Leo, Gordy the mediocre painter, Sabrina the shouter, and Astrid the blond.

We have two more days left on the shoot. They'll be told that the final prompt is November. They'll go home to work on a portfolio of five pieces, preparing to come back before the judges and the almighty agent to present their work and make a case for their careers. They'll tell us all to love them, to care about their work, to see that they alone have embodied November.

Of course, it won't actually be November. It's only June now. They'll have 10 weeks off, and then we'll shoot finale the last week of September. But it will air in late November, and that's all that counts. Not what time it is here, but what time it is on the other side of the TV screen.

By the end I never see Beth awake. I don't know if we're broken up, if we're reconciled, or if we're the same as we always were. All I have is her unconscious body beside me in the dark when I get into bed and beside me, in the earliest gray light, when I roll out.

On the last day of the shoot, I'm up in the house's attic searching among piles of abandoned furniture for a rug. I look out the window, down to the grounds, and there, back near the words, with no one else around, Leo and Astrid are kissing, passionately but slowly, like they've done it before. His hands in her hair, her hands in his back pockets.

A giddy flood of adrenaline sends me halfway down the stairs on my way to tell Kenneth before I stop and think. Kenneth would love me for it forever . I could maybe get someone to lug a camera up the narrow stairs and shoot them before they walk away. I wonder, for a long time afterwards, why I don't. Instead, I walk back up the stairs. I lean against the window frame and watch them. It's a movie, and I'm the only one in the world with a ticket.

We shoot the artist's packing and leaving. We shoot them looking out the backseat window of a moving car. And then, suddenly, we're done. Instead of going home to Beth, I stay for the party. The camera guys do actual keg stands on the lawn. I won't miss this place at all. In September, Astrid, I think, will bring back delicate glass leaves and gray bubbles. Gordy will paint empty city streets. Sabrina will dance like an empty tree. Leo will play sad, beautiful, modern things on the piano that only I will know are for Astrid. And I'm certain that I will be coming back here alone.

Before the shoot starts, Inez and I and everyone lower on the totem pole, will run around making the place look like November, desolate and cold and fading. We'll stand on ladders to pull leaves off the trees. I've done it before. We'll spray some of the remaining leaves yellow, some red. We'll make everyone wear a coat. We'll kill the grass with herbicide.

It's sick and it's soulless, but it's one of the things I love about my job. Here, you can force the world to be something it's not. We'll take the four contestants, one by one, into the foyer. And put them on that ridiculous chair and ask them, "Why do you deserve to win? How passionate do you feel? What do you love about your work? How much do you love your work? What is the sucker punch love that ruins us so completely? And can you say it in a full sentence."

Sarah Koenig

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novel, The Borrower, which was just published in June.

[MUSIC - "HE SAY, SHE SAY" BY SHOW & A.G.]

Credits.

Sarah Koenig

Our program was produced today by Ben Calhoun and me with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Miki Meek. Seth Linde is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Damien Graef. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight from our boss Mr. Torey Malatia. Who, when I told him Ira was away, finally saw his chance to get us to stop talking about him on the show.

Julie Snyder

It's just that like I don't really like people knowing my business.

Sarah Koenig

I'm Sarah Koenig. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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