Sex, death and hate: The art of the taboo podcast

These podcasts are tackling topics that have been largely too tough to handle

One of the great revelations of podcasting is the format’s eagerness to lift the curtain on the journalistic process. Consider the raw interview, a non-fiction podcast staple that reveals as much about the person asking the questions as the one answering them.

The most interesting ones stretch the form beyond the journalist’s traditional limits. If the classic journalistic chat is objective and emotionally removed, the best podcast hosts leverage their personal investments and creative conversational tactics to tackle even the most taboo topics. These three podcasts reveal new insights into how to talk about sex, death and hate.

Where Should We Begin w' With Esther Perel
Esther Perel is a rising-star sex therapist, complete with fun accent. Her new podcast takes the form of a one-time counseling session with a couple working through some issues. Listening to people describe their sex lives often feels nominally subversive but ultimately boring. But during a session with Perel, you get to know an anonymous couple from so many angles that it feels more like an unraveling mystery story.

It’s all because Perel works so creatively as an interrogator. She rejects her clients’ first answers. She puts words in their mouths. She suggests doing the session blindfolded, with different names or with foreign accents.

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If the traditional journalist is after “the story” – to record the subjects’ perspectives and synthesise them – her prerogative is to create a new narrative, one that frees the couple from endlessly relitigating past conflicts. “People come in with a story,” Perel says in one episode. “I want them to leave with a different story, because a different story is what breeds hope. It’s what gives them a sense of possibility.”

In the third episode, Perel upends one American couple’s story by having them role play as liberated French lovers. He plays Jean-Claude. She is Jacqueline. Perel translates and, at one point, serenades them with a little Edith Piaf. While the husband, Scott, is a nurturing partner out of touch with his sexual desires, as Jean-Claude he is arrogant and sensual, with “no sexual hang-ups”. The lightness of the scenario helps partners get out of a defensive mode and into a collaborative one.

Terrible, Thanks for Asking with Nora McInerny
Nora McInerny self-describes as a "notable widow." In the three years since she was hit with three terrible life events within a few weeks – a miscarriage, her father's death and then her husband's death from brain cancer – McInerny has devoted herself to creative projects that cut through her trauma with insight and levity. She has written a memoir, created an online support group and now hosts the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, which began in November. In it, she meets people who are suffering – a fellow widow, a mother of a teenager shot by the police, a woman who tanked her career – and then solicits honest answers to the question, "How are you?"

McInerny’s personal experience with several genres of grief is central to the podcast’s charm. This show about death is not a downer. For most people, talking to strangers about the worst thing that ever happened to them is a paralyzing idea. Journalistic efforts in this vein can feel emotionally flat – serious, sympathetic, never so invasive as to seem jerky or voyeuristic. McInerny brings a lightness that only a widow like herself could, eliciting not just the dark details from her subjects but the funny and strange ones, too.

In a recent episode, her opening monologue leaps into a digression about her life story. “Before I met my first husband, Aaron – I love saying ‘my first husband,’ by the way. It just makes me seem, like, mysterious, I think. Like, ‘My first husband,’ and then people have to ask, and I have to say, ‘He’s dead.’ And then, wow: ‘I killed him.’ Just kidding, he had brain cancer. Or did he? Just kidding, he did. He for sure did.”

Conversations With People Who Hate Me with Dylan Marron
In Conversations With People Who Hate Me, Dylan Marron calls up strangers who wrote nasty things about him on the internet and tries to talk it out. The podcast is the latest entry in a digital subgenre, where anonymous meanies reveal the complicated dynamics behind their online misbehavior.

What distinguishes this podcast is that Marron’s critics are not generalist haters. He’s best known for his brassy social justice videos on YouTube, and the detractors he features are mostly conservatives who become mad watching them.

That makes his podcast something of a test case for a political strategy that has been floated among liberals since the election of President Donald Trump: Stop condescending and start empathising with people on the other side of the aisle, and then – this last step is often implied but rarely stated – turn them into Democrats.

(NYT service)