For the last half decade, Nora McInerny has been in the public eye.
It all started with her wildly popular blog, “My Husband’s Tumor,” which chronicled her love affair with Aaron Purmort, Purmort’s brain cancer diagnosis, their marriage, the birth of their son Ralph, the miscarriage of their second child, the death of McInerny’s father, followed all too shortly by Purmort’s death.
Before Purmort died, the couple wrote his obituary, a tragicomic memorial that revealed his secret identity as Spider Man. The obit went viral, and write-ups appeared in many publications, including “Slate,” “Time,” “Buzzfeed” and the “The Huffington Post.” Last year, McInerny published “It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool, Too),” her memoir about living life in the midst of tragedy. She’s also written first-person essays for “Cosmopolitan,” “Elle” and the “New York Post.”
Throughout it all, McInerny’s been breathtakingly funny, honest, raw and resilient, focused on sharing her unique life story with the world.
Now, with her new American Public Media podcast, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” (TTFA), McInerny is moving the focus away from her own story and instead focusing her formidable attention on the lives of others.
Let it out
McInerny got the idea for TTFA from the mountains of emails sent to her from people who had their own difficult stories to tell.
“After Aaron died, after the obit went viral,” McInerny said, “I’ve never had an empty inbox. I felt like I needed to respond to everyone, but sometimes it was just so overwhelming.”
Most of the emails were from “people who are experiencing something terrible and they wanted to be seen and heard,” McInerny explained. She knew this feeling all too well: “They were writing to me because the people around them stopped talking about what had happened or even speaking to them sometimes because they thought that their story was over or maybe they didn’t want to make them uncomfortable by bringing it up again.” But the truth is, McInerny continued, most people who experience tragedy actually do want to keep talking about how they are feeling. They just don’t always get the opportunity.
“We tend to avoid hard conversations,” McInerny said. But she thinks we should have those difficult conversations. It is a way to heal — and to help others heal, too. And that’s what she wants her podcast to be about.
“I was so lonely after Aaron died,” she said. “Even though a million people knew he was dead and everybody would like my Facebook status, I would go places and see people I cared about and I’d act like I was fine even though I wasn’t actually fine at all. I needed people to ask me how I was doing and I needed them to listen when I told them the truth.”
Birth of a podcast
Since McInerny realized that she found a measure of solace, support and strength in sharing her story with others, she decided she wanted to create a forum where she could help other people do the same thing.
“I decided to do something that wasn’t about myself,” she said, “something that helped other people who do not have the same sort of platform at their disposal, who aren’t famous or even internet famous. I wanted them to have a way to be heard.”
After a little research, McInerny decided to pitch her idea to APM Producer Hans Buetow. “I had the idea. I had the name,” she said. “Someone told me that Hans made podcasts,” she paused, and laughed: “So I very professionally sent him message on Twitter.”
The casual approach worked for Buetow, who set up a meeting. “I knew about Nora,” he said. “I had followed her blog. I knew she was a person who had things to say.”
After a few conversations, APM agreed to produce McInerny’s podcast, and she and Buetow got down to work. The pair has created 11 episodes for this season, including an interview with a mother who lost a child to stillbirth, a radio DJ’s experience with postpartum depression and anxiety, a young man’s struggle to come to terms with his grandparents’ murder, and an in-depth conversation with rape survivor Sarah Super. They are hard at work creating more shows for next season.
Audience response to TTFA has been positive, Buetow said.
“People want to open up to Nora. She has a warmth and a generosity and there’s a level of intimacy that she engenders in all personal conversations that’s magical. We have been overwhelmed with the level of response to this podcast. People are reaching out and wanting to share their stories and saying, ‘Thank you for covering this experience that I went through, that I don’t hear other people talking about.’”
Brave by circumstance
Some people might respond to a confluence of tragedy like the one that McInerny survived by retreating from the world. But she believes that the terrible things she’s encountered have actually stripped all the fear from her body. That’s why she continues to put herself out there.
“If you see two people you love die in front of you and take all of their unrealized potential with them, you know that to do anything but everything would be a complete waste of the time that you have on earth,” she said. “I don’t want to waste time. I think the best way that I can honor Aaron and my dad is to make things that they would be proud of, things that I’m proud of, things that help other people.”
In a world that’s desperately in need of empathy, Buetow believes that McInerny’s interviews help open her listeners’ minds, and inspire them to reach out and ask their loved ones to share their own stories.
“We need to see each other as people and to be seen as people,” he said. “We do that by talking about our shared experiences. Everybody experiences terrible things at some point in their lives. We are often made to feel alone. If we can talk about our tragedies, whatever size they are, maybe we can learn to actually see each other and to see the humanity in each other. After working on this show I have so much more respect for people.”
That’s the whole point, McInerny said. Removing the blinders and realizing that the world is full of people who struggle and survive is key to creating a planet where we treat one another with the respect, curiosity and love that we all deserve. She hopes, in this next phase of her life, to be able to spread that message to as many people as possible.
“Every terrible thing that happened to me in the last few years has made me braver,” McInerny said. Now, she’s determined to take full advantage of the time she’s been given on this earth. “What’s the worst that’s going to happen?” she asked. “I think the worst thing that could happen would be that I didn’t even try.”