The summer before my freshman year at Stanford, my entire class read three books: Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Kite Runner, and a collection of literary short stories. In the scheduled book discussions that we freshmen had with our RAs, the first two books had the floor. Paul Farmer, we had read, would walk four hours through rural countryside to treat a single cholera victim. Many of us felt we should become doctors. The Taliban, in Hosseini’s novel, was gut-wrenchingly evil. We would go into politics, or international relations. The third book didn’t make nearly so powerful an impression on our ambitions – or at least, my ambitions.
It is surprising, then, that I became a writer. The storyteller’s life doesn’t seem as noble as the life of the other two aspirations. Even though I love being a working writer, sometimes I feel uncomfortable with it. Am I actually having a positive effect on the world? Do stories really generate the kind of change that medicine or politics do?
This American Life recently aired a story that changed my mind about the significance of stories. The story, which is part of the episode “Crime Scene”, is called “A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime.” It is about a man named Bobby. Bobby is a recovering drug addict, a former thief and con artist. In this story, he returns to his old neighborhood, the same place where he stole things and tricked people, to coach a Little League baseball team.
The story, which is narrated by Bobby’s neighbor, Katie Davis, is affectionate, funny, and bittersweet. Bobby, despite occasional bouts of gross unprofessionalism, is trying very hard to do a good job. After spending years not even able to control himself, he has to control a bunch of wily ten-year-olds. It would be a hard task for anybody. But after a while, the kids respond. They like him. And in a way, they’re made for each other. Bobby even says at one point that the biggest troublemaker on the team, Benjamin, is his favorite kid, because Benjamin reminds him of himself. It’s an incredibly touching moment, and when the kids win the final game of the season, you’re right there, rooting for them.
“Return to the Scene of the Crime” originally aired in 2000, but the part that struck me the most did not air until a few weeks ago, when TAL re-broadcast the entire episode of “Crime Scene”. Ira Glass included updates on all of the stories in the episode, and he included one here: Bobby did go on to start a kids’ basketball team, as he had planned. Eventually, however, he relapsed, started using heroin again. He ended up at a halfway house, and he died there. “His counselor,” Ira concluded, “said that among his few possessions, when he died, was a CD with this story on it.”
Listening to this last line, I literally dropped what I was holding and started to cry. I felt I had been slapped in the face; it was the most visceral reaction I have ever had to a piece of radio. Not much later, I realized that this moment both embodies the central problem I have with stories, and offers a redemption for that problem.
One of Bobby’s only possessions at the time of his death was his own story. It did not save him. Stories, to my dismay, do not save you. They are not the doctor who walks four hours to find you. They are not diplomats, or drug rehabilitation counselors.
But stories can still be our most important possessions. They give us meaning, a reason for going about – or trying to go about – life in a certain way. They do not dictate our actions, but they can smooth our paths in one way or another, and they can help determine which of those paths we find fulfilling or beautiful.
I wanted to become a doctor, not because I knew anything about chemistry, but because I read a story that I loved about a doctor. I wanted to become a diplomat, because I read a story that presented a battle to be won.
When you listen to Bobby’s story, you’ll see clearly the importance of stories; they’re so valuable that you’ll want to have them with you, even at the very end.
“A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime”
Produced by Katie Davis for This American Life in 2000