This Horrifying Life

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Two affectless and frightening examples of real-world horror came my way this weekend from the public radio show This American Life.

This first show, Animals, is the more recent of the two and was broadcast this weekend (Listen in Real Audio). The show’s first, long story concentrates on the work of photographer Catherine Chalmers (her work pictured above). Chalmers takes photos of the food chain, using animals she raises. That is, she raises in her New York apartment bugs and the creatures that prey on them, and those that eat what eats bugs, etc. etc., all the way up the food chain until she’s got mice and snakes.

Then she feeds the animals to each other, stepping one at a time up the food chain and photographs the whole gory affair of the natural order of things.

What’s horrifying about the story (some of the photos that can be found on the Web give some idea of it), is the detachment with which Chalmers talks about her work, the detail of her descriptions of the events which she photographs. No doubt she has some serious emotions about what she’s doing, but they come through in an odd, almost alien way, in the piece. Not to impugn her at all, but rather to put her words in another context – the ideas put me in the mind of how an alien might talk about humans or a serial killer about his victims.

Which is, I think, part of the effect of her work. Her work looks almost alien, or synthetic, and is strange for that reason.

Along with thinking through the moral issues involved, the events she describes – such as the colors of the undigested food in the caterpillar’s guts; that a female preying mantis gets more sperm from a male after he’s bitten his head off during sex and he keeps on pumping, headless – are chillingly odd.

I recommend that you not listen to this story while eating. I listened while eating and driving and felt pretty squicky when I got where I was going.

The second show, broadcast a week before (I believe), is called “Didn’t Ask To Be Born.” The second story is the star here. The story is written and narrated by my friend Brent Runyon (actually Brent is one of those people who fall in between being a friend and an acquaintance – we went to college together, have friends in common, have hung out a number of times and like each other, but aren’t terribly close and don’t keep in touch). It tells the story, also told in his book The Burn Journals, of how, in 8th grade, he tried to kill himself by setting himself on fire.

It’s a terribly deadpan look at an awful event and ends on a sad, powerful note.

Brent’s an impressive guy.

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