I have been following Baratunde Thurston on Twitter for months. He’s hysterical. Web editor of The Onion, co-founder of Jack & Jill Politics and an expert on things like “How to be Black.” I was already in Austin, Texas attending South by Southwest Interactive, so when I saw that he would be a featured storyteller at the Fray Café, I made sure I was there.
Imagine my surprise when Baratunde asked the dozens of us squashed into the Red Eye Fly bar to not record or tweet what he was about to share. His story was personal. He didn’t want it to leave the room. This, coming from a King of Social Media with over 21,000 followers on Twitter.
I was intrigued. Here was a public figure who had decided to share something personal in a public forum but with some very clear parameters for how public.
At Exhale, we’ve been asking the women we work with a lot of questions about the kinds of private and public forums they would like to share their personal abortion stories. We want to know what kind of forums feel the most supportive, respectful and empowering. We have learned that there is a whole spectrum between private and public, from a confidential talkline or private online space to small facilitated discussions and public conferences, not to mention the publicity of online networks and social media. These “super public” forums, like Twitter or YouTube, as Baratunde refers to them in the interview, are the least likely places for women to choose, even when they are open to other kinds of public storysharing. We have found that each person has their own comfort level with the kind of forum that feels right to tell their story. Each person is unique.
Baratunde told his personal story. Everyone in the room felt the story. We were surprised by it and moved by it. We related. We saw ourselves. We admired his courage for sharing.
I met him briefly after he got off the stage and later, I emailed Baratunde and asked him to share his motivations for telling his personal story in a public forum, and about his request to get the details off of Twitter. Here is what he said:
Me: At the Fray Café you were a featured storyteller and you decided to tell something very personal about your life. You asked people not to record it or tweet the details. Yet, you still told the story in a public forum. Can you describe what led you to tell the story?
Baratunde: “Well, the story began when my wife told me she didn’t want to be married anymore, and the rest of the story kind of wrote itself. In all honesty, I didn’t think I had anything else worth sharing at Fray. I perform and speak publicly all the time, but rarely on such a personal, intimate subject. The first Fray Café I ever did I told a five minute story about my mother’s passing, and that was very emotional. But generally speaking, I don’t talk about my super personal experiences in public.
With this story, however, I couldn’t let it go. 2009 was a major year for me, high and low, and this was the low part, and I had gotten to a place where I was cool with it and was finally ready to share beyond my close group of friends. As the Fray event approached, I tried to think of other things to say, but I couldn’t. So I stayed up all night thinking and typing and talking the story out to see if I could make it fit into the 15 minutes.
This story was the truest thing I could have shared, so that’s why I chose it.”
Me: How did you feel afterward? Were you glad you did it? Did you have reactions you were surprised about in yourself or others?
Baratunde: “I felt exhausted, relieved and a little shaky afterward. I can’t stress enough how unlike me it is to share something like this, so while I have years of stage experience which prevent my nerves from getting rattled, I really had no idea what to expect. When it was over, a woman came up to me and gave me a big hug and a kiss and said I had helped her. I wasn’t expecting that. Then other people shared similar comments.
People are used to me making them laugh. Some are used to me making them think. Few are used to me making them feel. So this was a new experience for them and for me. I also felt like I had completed some important stage of the healing process by physically getting the story outside of my body. Even though I had shared such detail with close friends, they are so close that it sort of doesn’t count. By telling the story to strangers, I really was able to let go of some of the residual pain and trauma I’d been carrying.”
Me: Would you have told the story if you knew it would be videotaped and put on YouTube? Why or why not?
Baratunde: “I probably would not have told the story “super publicly” like that. My ex-wife and I are on good terms, and while what I told was my story, it’s also hers. I wanted the freedom to tell the truth from my perspective without unfairly putting HER business out there. I don’t think anything I said was mean or slanderous, but I just didn’t feel right about (potentially) telling the entire world all these things. Unlike most of my public appearances, I’m not interested in that story blowing up and getting lots of YouTube hits. I’m not interested in being KNOWN for it. I don’t want it to become a Comedy Central special. I told the story mostly for myself and found out after that others got something out of it too. But the idea of people streaming and live-tweeting and uploading this personal, intimate tale felt like a violation of her, of me and of the story itself. You have to FEEL it. Being in the same physical space provided that respectful atmosphere. YouTube, I think we can all agree, does not.
Me: Do you plan to tell this story again publicly? Why or why not?
Baratunde: “I’m not sure I need to tell that story in that way publicly again. What I have done is find a way to work a small portion of the story into a joke for my standup routine, and I imagine as time passes, I’ll integrate more of this experience into my overall story. But the idea of doing the same thing with the same intensity in the same way kind of feels like having a successful surgery and then doing it again just because the first surgery was so awesome.”
Thank you Baratunde Thurston!