I worked as a customer service rep at Amazon in the late 90s, at the same time as Mike Daisey. I don’t think he and I ever interacted one-on-one, but I knew who he was, saw him around the ol’ cube farm, and received the emails he periodically sent to the department, alerting us to upcoming performances by his improv group.
After he left Amazon, Daisey created a one-man show called “21 Dog Years”, which documented his zany adventures with the company. A book soon followed, and I have harbored a petty grudge against him ever since. He had the initiative to do the thing we’d all fantasized about (i.e., turn our experience with Amazon into a book deal), and that made me resentful. You know how that goes (or don’t, and are a better person than I).
A lot of my coworkers saw “21 Dog Years”, and most enjoyed it. Some thought it was great. But the consensus was that it was “truthy” at best, a slurry of his actual experiences, exaggeration for comedic effect, some good stories he’d heard from others cast into the first person, and maybe a little bunkum.
In 2001 when he spoke about the show with the Seattle Weekly (which was on a weird anti-Amazon jihad at the time), the interview contained this exchange:
Seattle Weekly: How much did you really deal with Jeff, and have you heard anything from former co-workers about his reaction to the show?
Daisey: I saw Jeff all the time, almost every day.
I worked like 100 meters from Daisey, and saw Bezo maybe three times in as many years. Like I said: truthy.
In the context of an interview, “I saw Jeff all the time” is a lie, plain and simple. But if Daisey said the same thing on stage as part of “21 Dog Years”, I wouldn’t have objected. I guess I agree with Daisey when he says that the tools of theater are different than the tools of journalism.
And although I and others were irritated at some of the “facts” Daisey got wrong in “21 Dog Years”, it seemed okay that the monologue took liberties with the truth, even if he didn’t state as much. After all, no one thought that all of the workplace events recounted by David Sedaris in “Santaland Dairies” were literally true, and that story was everywhere. Heck, it had even appeared on everyone’s favorite radio show, “This American Life”.
So where did Daisey go wrong with this whole Foxconn debacle?
For me, the key clue comes not from the This American Life Retraction episode (although there are plenty of damning moments in there), but from a February appearance Daisey made on “Real Time with Bill Maher”. It’s at the two minute, 35 seconds mark of this Youtube clip:
Daisey: People work on that line tirelessly, hour after hour until they drop. I met people who were–
Maher: Until they drop?
Daisey They drop. A worker at Foxconn died after working a 34 hour shift …
And here there’s the slightest of pauses, as if Daisey has reached the end of the statement. But then he adds, almost mechanically:
Daisey: .. while I was in China.
A worker did indeed die after a 34 hour shift. But the truth of this fact isn’t enough for Daisey; he has to then attach to it some connection, however tenuous, to himself. A Chinese man didn’t just die; he died while Daisey was in China.
Of course if Daisey wasn’t actually in China at the time of the death, his statement, as a whole, becomes false. And this is what appears to have happened with a lot of the “facts” of the Foxconn story, facts that were true until Daisey digitally inserted himself into the narrative. Foxconn has employed underage workers (true), but Daisey didn’t meet five of them on his first day. Workers were poisoned by n-Hexane (true), but Daisey didn’t meet them either. Someone Daisey spoke with had a “ruined hand” (true, according to the interpreter), but the man never worked at Foxconn (the company Daisey was specifically investigating). Even the lie that the Foxconn guards had guns is only interesting in juxtaposition to the picture of a rogue American in Hawaiian shirt, boldly striding toward the gates of the factory.
It’s tempting to ascribe this to a kind of megalomania on the part of Daisey, to speculate that he lives in a world where everything must ultimately be about him. But speaking as someone who has dabbled in storytelling a bit, I can tell you that there is another explanation.
The easiest way to make a story engaging is to personalize it, to say “this is something that happened to me”. Everyone knows this on some level. Urban legends happen to “a friend of a friend” because, just by adding that phrase, you have made the story twice as interesting as one that happened to someone to whom you have no link at all. And be honest: would you even have read this post if I hadn’t opened with my personal connection with Daisey?
“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey says in the Retraction episode. Well, personalization is the ultimate shortcut from uninteresting fact to gripping yarn. It is like fairy dust for storytellers: you sprinkle it on your anecdotes, and they sparkle.
It’s a kind of magic, to borrow a phrase. And it is very, very seductive.
One last observation.
The Retraction episode of This America Life is some of the most gripping radio I’ve ever heard. But you know what would have made it even more interesting? If Rob Schmitz, the reporter from Marketplace who ruthlessly grilled Daisey, had done so with Ira Glass as well. “You said that when Daisey didn’t provide contact info for his translator, you should have killed the show. And yet you didn’t. Why?”