Narrative radio-show and podcast host Glynn Washington knows the power of story better than anyone.
By Matt Huston published November 3, 2020 - last reviewed on November 3, 2020
Glynn Washington wields stories that hook the listener in a heartbeat, whether he’s mining insight and humor from the pop culture of his youth or putting a painful moment under a magnifying glass. His personal dispatches kick off installments of his decade-old public-radio program Snap Judgment —which marries true tales with dynamic soundscapes—as well as the podcast Spooked , a collection of first-person ghost stories and other eerie accounts. Washington, whose colorful past befits a raconteur, counts among his storytelling influences his law school education and a childhood spent in an apocalyptic cult.
Your shows present people’s stories in their own voices—a recent episode featured those affected by a COVID-19 outbreak in prison. Why is that so powerful?
Storytelling is the closest thing that we have to telepathy. If I’m telling a story about my mother, you think about yours. If I tell a story about my dog, you think of your pet. If I say, “I was cold”—everyone’s been cold before. “I was freezing, and I could barely catch my breath.” Uh huh, I’ve been there before. “And I looked up, and the bars were right where they were when I got locked in here.” Now, you might not have been there before. But if I can find a bit of commonality first, you might be more willing to go on this journey with me.
How does that approach distinguish Snap Judgment from other programs?
When I first was thinking about how to construct a show, I was watching Crossfire on television. No one ever changed their mind in the history of that show. It was made to buttress the position that you already had. With stories, I see people change their minds on issues all the time. The barriers don’t go up in the same way when someone says, “This happened to me.”
Is vulnerability an important element of storytelling?
The stories that have the most resonance are the ones where I reveal something that, often, I don’t want to reveal. I have to take a hard look at me and say, OK, that decision was not as heroic, as purposeful, as loving as the image that I have of myself. Those situations often involve changes or growth, and they don’t have to be huge. It can be about a discussion with your wife, the time you slammed the door, the time you said “No” to your mother for the first time. It doesn’t have to be, “I jumped out of the airplane and landed in the middle of the forest.” Nobody likes to hear stories from somebody who does everything right.
Why are ghost stories such an enduring part of our culture?
I think they are a way to quantify our monsters. What is the shame, the fear, the sorrow, the hurt that is chasing you? In our culture, we don’t speak openly about the monsters that we carry around. But sometimes we are allowed to address that pain through the language of ghost stories—that shadow in the closet, the cold touch in the middle of the night. I also think we yearn to peek over the veil. Everyone’s asking the same question: What happens when we die? Any hint at an answer can be very powerful. We’re seeking a bit of direction, light, understanding. The real question is, what are we? What are we here for?
How did you start to rethink the stories you were told growing up in the Worldwide Church of God?
The cult that I grew up in predicted the return of Jesus Christ any minute. There were some very racist elements: The idea was that the founder’s progenitors had never been sullied by the seed of any race but the white race, and that he could trace his lineage back to the house of Windsor and from there to Jesus and Noah and Adam. I thought, yeah, they’re racist, but that doesn’t take away from the truth they have. I didn’t understand how central it was to the belief system until I was older. And then, I asked one of our pastors where the Bible came from. To his credit, he gave me a book called Who Wrote the Bible? I read it, then I read it again, and it broke my belief system completely.
What did you do after you left as a young adult?
I tried to get as far away as I could and clear my head. I ended up getting a fellowship to study in Japan. Later, when I was speaking Japanese at a 3-year-old’s level, people would ask me about my religious beliefs. I think everyone should have the experience of trying to explain their belief system in another language, because it makes you really think about what you’re saying. Coming out of a cult, I felt tricked. I felt stupid. But I also felt like I had a background in Cult Studies. I wondered if there was a way to use the narrative education I’d gained, at the feet of charlatans and hucksters, for something positive.
What have you learned about our ability to rethink challenging life stories?
Nine times out of 10, if you ask someone for their story, they will tell you a story of trauma. In the story that I was telling myself about myself, I would see myself as this kid screaming in a closet, feeling lost, confused, alone, with these wacky religious beliefs. I’ve learned that I can go in that closet and say, “That’s not where your story ends.” Not there, where you’re crouching and afraid, but here, where you’re on a stage in front of thousands of people, here, where you’re able to help out another little kid, here, where you’re reading your own son a story and you both are laughing. Telling your own story to yourself in a different way is the most powerful thing ever.