Andrew Solomon is a journalist from New York who decided a few years ago to write a book that investigated the experience, science, and treatment of depression. His interest in the subject was not purely academic; he personally had suffered from it, sometimes unable to return friends’ phone calls or leave his home.
Eventually in his research, it dawned on him that depression was not a modern, Western problem, but one that cut across cultures and time. This train of thought eventually brought him to tribal Senegal, interviewing a shaman about her ritual to cure depression. At the end of his interview with her, she told him that she could tell that he himself was depressed, and offered to actually perform the ritual for him. He agreed, and showed up the next day with the required two roosters, several yards of fabric, and a ram. By the end of the day, he was covered in ram’s blood, surrounded by villagers who had each taken their day off work to usher him through this. Despite his skepticism, he felt completely restored to happiness.
After this experience, he returned home to New York, finished his book, and then told his story to an audience of strangers at The Moth.
The Moth is a collection of live events in different cities where people tell their true, personal stories on stage, without using a script, or even any notes. Its founder, George Dawes Green, used to attend meetings on a neighbour’s porch in his native Georgia, where people would gather to share their stories with each other. There was a hole in the screen where moths could get through to the porchlight, and the group began calling themselves “the Moths.” When he moved to New York, he gave that name to the groups he began hosting in 1997 in his living room — a space they quickly outgrew.
Storytelling is arguably the oldest art form, certainly predating even cave paintings. Making sense of our experiences by shaping them into a narrative, and then sharing that narrative with others is one of the most essential functions of our brains. It’s at the heart of what makes us human. We’re wired to respond to stories far more than to pure information. It’s hard to imagine that the Ten Commandments would have had the same cultural staying power if they hadn’t been accompanied by the drama of Moses’ journey up the mountain to receive them on stone tablets from God, only to then destroy his first copy in a fit of righteous rage.
There’s two types of Moth events: slams, where volunteer storytellers compete onstage, and mainstage events, where storytellers are chosen beforehand and coached by Moth staff. The Moth artistic director Catherine Burns says that “The best stories are the ones that have stakes,” where the teller had something to gain or lose, and the outcome changed their life. “We’re looking for the story about how you became you. And that’s a tall order, obviously.” When coaching tellers, they ultimately get to the question of why the audience even cares about the story at all, which ultimately means why does the storyteller care. “If you can convey to us why you care, then chances are, so will the audience.”
The result of this approach is thousands of compelling, sometimes hilarious or heartbreaking (or both) stories on The Moth podcast. An Indo-American comic who is heckled one too many times as “terrorist.” A woman who prints her dying mother a ticket to Heaven. A 12-year-old boy who tries to impress a girl with his homemade Halloween ninja costume (making heavy use of smelly black permanent marker) at the party he discovers is not actually a costume party when he arrives.
Give it a listen at themoth.org, and I hope you have a story-worthy week.
Dave Cusick is Director of Programming and Volunteers at CIVL Radio.