I spent the last minutes before the beginning of winter break in my usual chaotic frenzy to download enough free online podcasts to stave off boredom on my flight. With headphones in my ears, eyes closed, I find it easier to survive the stale airports and the rickety, small planes that for some reason airlines also choose to fly to my tourist hot-spot hometown of Indianapolis.
Scrolling through the random Moth podcasts I had downloaded, I jumped into the story of Aimee Mullins performed live on the Moth Radio Hour, without any clue as to who she was. I was just looking for a distraction, something to drown out the emergency evacuation instructions, but I found myself suppressing giggles in my seat, disguised eloquently with coughing. But I also found myself twisted up inside, twisted by the emotional pendulum-style of her storytelling, from light to dark and back to light. Comedy and Tragedy intertwined.
Aimee Mullins had both of her legs amputated below her knees as a baby, and she is now a model, an athlete, and an activist. At 17 she was the youngest person to be give top secret clearance at the Pentagon as part of her full academic scholarship from the U.S. Department of Defense, she competed against able-bodied athletes while a member of Georgetown’s women’s track team and broke three world records, and she is currently starring in Ancient Evenings, a film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel. By any measure, she could have just read out her resume bullet-point by bullet-point and easily impressed the live audience she spoke to that night.
But it’s how she delivered her stories, by getting laughs from pretty heavy moments, pulling comedy from tragedy, that gave her story weight, and kept me entranced. She painted scenes like one where she is dancing the twist in class and her legs pop-off. Of what was probably an extremely embarrassing situation for a child, she only commented that the teacher fainted at the site of her legs and she thought to herself, “My parents are gonna kill me; I broke my leg!”
Acclaimed storyteller David Sedaris makes a living out of this technique of Upsiding Tragedy. He pulls comedy out of all sorts of tragic situations, stories from ones focused on funerals to those discussing racism, from child abuse to marital fighting. This is a skill any storyteller can apply to their style for various purposes. While Sedaris uses satire and absurdity to surprise and entertain people, Aimee uses it to tone down the difficulties of her life without negating them. “Tile floors are public enemy number one to a girl like me,” she says lightheartedly of the feeling of imminent disaster she faces in the simple act of wearing heels to a party.
Flecked with tragedy rather than drowning in it, her story hit me square in the heart without filling it with cement. She walks the line between comedy and absurdity, always defaulting to sincerity. The piece conveyed to me that she’s not just an inspirational person, she’s an inspirational storyteller. Her piece shows us that with careful intention, by precisely sequencing the light and the dark, a little morbidity can be hilarious.
She works through her story to bring you a hopeful and compelling version. This may seem like she distorts her past, but when she manages to examine the dark moments in her life and finds space for a couple beats of laughter, she inspires you to find hope in the midst of the obstacles you face in life. She makes you feel light even in the face of human pain and struggle, and that’s something all storytellers can strive to do.
A Work in Progress
by Aimee Mullins at The Moth in 2012