A Beginner’s Guide to Beautiful Anonymous
In 2016, I started a podcast where the premise was I’d tweet out a phone number and talk to whomever called for a full hour straight. I forfeited the ability to hang up. I figured it would be a funny podcast where I’d get prank called by weirdos.
Instead, this project has transformed my life by becoming a weekly tribute to empathy, openness, and honesty. People have shared their lives, one by one, in a way that truly makes me feel like the world is a smaller place, and that people are people, and that everyone has a story worth telling. Some people share experiences as mundane as “I am currently walking around in the aisles of a Target” or “I am currently on a SEPTA train outside of Philadelphia”. Others share stories as deep and complex as, “I was sucked into a mysterious religious cult and managed to escape” or “I am watching a relative of mine who has Alzheimer’s degrade and want to share the experience.”
It can be anything on any given day. It transforms constantly. Even I don’t know what I’m getting into at the beginning of the episodes, and quite often the callers wind up sharing things they didn’t expect to tell me either.
I love it.
I’m also trying to be less self-deprecating about my work moving forward, less apologetic, so I’ll just put this out there: I think the show is great, and I think a lot of people who love it say that it makes them feel like a more well-rounded human. That means the world to me.
This ties into one of the things I’m most proud of with the show: People tell their stories in their own words. The show is not pre-produced. It’s barely edited (usually we only bleep names or remove identifying details). You can hear about peoples’ lives from their own perspective. I know for a fact that some people have heard from other types of people for the very first time on my show. People who have never in real life sat down to talk with a trans person, an illegal immigrant, a disabled person, and yes, even a proud Donald Trump voter — they’ve heard them explain their lives and experiences via this show.
I think that’s pretty cool. On my best days I think the show crosses over into actually being something important. Like most of my work, it has a healthy cult following but isn’t viewed as being in the full on mainstream heavily talked about sphere of its medium. More than almost anything else I’ve done, I think that’s a real shame.
I’d love if you took a chance on the show. But I also know that 160 episodes in, it might feel impenetrable. So I recently asked the members of the Beautiful/Anonymous Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/beautifulanonymous/) to vote in a poll on their favorite episodes of the show. Here are the results of which episodes they think represent the show best. I’ll do my best after each one to hazard a guess as to why that one stands out for them.
Episode #69 — Love Is Everywhere
This episode is so heartbreaking and as real as it gets: A mom calls in from a hospital waiting room, where she’s awaiting test results for her daughter who has long suffered from a rare form of cancer. This is a conversation that’s hard to have. It’s hard to hear. For many people in real life, it’s one we’d feel awkward about engaging fully in. And that’s why I think over 1,300 people in our Facebook group picked it as the most representative of the show, if I had to guess: because once you get through the shock and sadness of the topic, you hear about a beautiful family, a beautiful child, and directly from a beautiful mom doing anything she can to protect her child. Countless people have expressed to me, both in person and online, that this episode helped them through hard parts of their own life and that it made them really take stock of their priorities. I have said that this singular episode of this podcast may be the thing I am most proud of in my entire career.
This episode also has a follow-up, where the original caller updates us on her family situation. As you can imagine, it’s equally intense and difficult, but also somehow just as special and beautiful.
I will forever be in debt to this caller for being so open and honest with her family’s story. She took her pain and helped a lot of others and I feel honored to have helped facilitate that.
Episode #121 — Prison Bound
The beginning of this call immediately blew my mind: In just a few short days, the caller would be turning herself in for a years-long stint in a federal prison, and she was taking a precious hour out of this time to tell us about her situation.
This might be the episode that best encapsulates one of my favorite feelings of the show: where pretty early on a bomb gets dropped and you have that feeling of “Oh shit, buckle up.”
The caller tells us so honestly about what got her this federal prison stint, a bout of addiction that spiraled so out of control that she became a pretty major cog in an international drug smuggling operation. She talks of mistakes she’s made, regrets she has, and details some truly horrible things that she witnessed along the way in this indescribably dark stretch of life.
Most of all, the caller stresses over and over again that she knows she made mistakes and hopes her story can help other people avoid the path she walked.
This episode also set off an immense amount of debate following its release. Some people felt grateful to the caller for the inside look at her situation. Others felt like she was romanticizing her own story in a way that fully dodged true penance. Some noted that it put on display some of the problems with the American prison system and its inherent biases. But very few people walked away without an opinion on this one.
Episode #65: Deaf
If there’s one thing most of us would agree regarding the medium of podcasting, it’s that it’s an audio-based experience. You would think that deaf people would have a hard time participating.
This week’s caller shows how ignorant that thought was of me. Our caller, it turns out, experiences Beautiful/Anonymous each week by reading transcripts of the episodes. And he calls in by enlisting the help of a translator who relays his sign language to me verbally, then relays my verbal responses back to him in sign language.
Personally, I never dreamed I’d be able to have a deaf person explain to me, in depth and in their own words, their life experience for a full hour of one on one conversation. We communicate in different ways and I am not fluent in sign language, which bummed me out immensely on the heels of this call. I think many listeners also felt this way, and it lead to this being perhaps more than any other an episode where you walk away feeling like you had a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for an hour in a way that previously seemed impossible.
On top of all that, both the caller and translator were funny and super cool people.
Episode #72: Aussie Best Friend
This is a recording of a live show from Ottobar in Baltimore, Maryland. And it’s pretty representative of a side of things with the show that’s often underrated: it’s really, really funny and fun.
DON’T GET ME WRONG: the caller details an upbringing that is by anyone’s standards insane. His father was a high level criminal to a degree most of us only see depicted in fiction. And he lived it as a kid, and as you can imagine, it’s really informed the rest of his life.
That being said, he and I realize in the course of the call that we are clicking. We have a little bromance unfold live throughout the hour, all in front of a live audience. I tell him about Thor comic books. He tells me about Jodie Foster movies. And we realize that maybe in a different life we would have known each other outside of one anonymous hour, and maybe we would have been pals.
Episode #1: Ron Paul’s Baby
This is the first ever episode of the show, and the one that lead most people to finding it. It was featured on This American Life, which lead to a tidal wave of listeners who immediately redefined the show from what I envisioned it as into what it has become.
A young man from Texas calls in to tell me that he’s sitting in his car, outside of the job that he hates, killing time so he doesn’t have to go back.
From there we have a personal conversation that is very honest and very funny, most notably in a stretch where he tells me that he believes he was conceived at a carnival and was later brought into this world by his delivery doctor, notorious former presidential candidate Ron Paul.
But I think what stuck in most peoples’ gut on this one was that I flipped out and got mad that he’d stick with a life he’d become resigned to even though it didn’t make him happy. I made him promise me he’d go for his dreams on some small level. I made him shout for the sake of it. You can hear some fire rise up in his gut. You can feel him believe in himself a little bit more, and I think the listeners believe in him too. And I think for many, maybe they believed in themselves a little bit more too.
This one set the bar high for one of the things I’m most proud of with the show: Always empathetic. Above all else, this show is defined by empathy.
Episode #51: Made Out With My Teacher
As you can tell from the title of this one — it’s pretty messed up. And bottom line, this episode probably got as many votes as it did because it’s a sensationalized topic. But very importantly, I think unlike a lot of podcasts, it doesn’t aim to exploit the sensationalized headline, it aims to show compassion — because once you get through the shock value of hearing a young lady detail what it was like to have an affair with her teacher years ago, you remember that this is a real human being telling her story.
And many, many listeners who heard it felt like there was a lot of unresolved issues in the caller’s story, in her voice, in her reactions to things I brought up. Many people expressed true rage at the teacher, and true concern for the caller.
Every once in a while we get a call like this, one that tells a story that if you heard on other podcasts would be produced with a soundtrack and edits and production tricks that would squeeze drama out of it and ultimately use a concerning tale for clicks and buzz. Instead, we keep it very raw and I just sit back and listen to the caller explain. I do my best to help and offer thoughts and advice, but I’m no therapist. I’m just a guy who is very willing to listen and who hopes that things turn out ok.
(Side note: I later met this caller in person and she gave me a very nice note saying that the show and the reaction to her episode helped her put a lot of things in perspective. That made me feel very good.)
Episode #138: House Burned Down
Recorded live in Los Angeles, this is an odd one. Because the caller, straight up, had her house burn down very recently. It’s a sad situation. But this call is beloved, I believe, for its massive amount of charm.
The caller has an incredible sense of humor, and an ability to tell us about all the animals she cares for, including a donkey named Cedric who became a cult favorite of listeners to the show. Combined with her resilience and the heart tugging nature of her situation, it’s impossible not to root for her.
Every once in a while, someone calls into this show who’s simply put in the middle of a real stretch shit of life, and the show serves as a place where they can vent it all out and feel listened to.
Episode #119: 39 Year Old Grandma
This lady is just rad. End of story, she’s rad, and funny, and good natured, and easy to listen to. Her personality shines through in a huge way, and as soon as her call aired, people started bringing it up to me that they loved her.
It also doesn’t hurt that her life is a living human math problem. She’s only 39 years old, but she’s already a grandma. By modern standards, that’s working pretty quick. She tells us all about the situations that lead her down this path, with grace and warmth, and her laugh is also infectious.
I’ve since met her in person twice. She’s so nice. Very cool grandma!
Episode #132: I Survived A Mass Shooting
I am so proud of this call, though I am so sad that it exists. Our caller survived the infamous Las Vegas mass shooting and tells us about it in great detail. Needless to say it was a harrowing experience in the moment and traumatic in its aftermath. The caller was able to tell us so much detail about that day itself as well as all the actions she’s taking in the time since to try to heal.
We hear about incidents like this, but so often when we do they are filtered through a political lens. People tend to report stories like this right out of the gate as a way to promote their agenda; and often that’s necessary. I get that political change needs to happen and that extreme incidents warrant activism. I really do.
But this call puts the agency in the words of someone who lived it. No agenda. No filters. No editing. Just a person who was there, on the ground, living through it and living afterwards, given a platform to say whatever she wants and needs to say about something terrifying and tragic.
Episode #94: The Puppet Master
Ok, I’m jumping the line. This call wasn’t ranked number 10 in our listener poll, it actually came in at 13.
This guy called up ostensibly to tell me about working in animation.
But halfway through he laughs and his laugh is completely fucking insane and I can’t stop obsessing over it.
People have stopped me on the street to tell me they put this on to cheer up when they’re having a bad day.
I hope you dig this list. If you haven’t listened to the show, it’s a great primer. And if you do listen to the show, feel free to tweet it out or send it to your friends!
Thanks so much for reading –