Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NPR's Jackie Lyden

Jackie Lyden, host of "All Things Considered" each weekend on National Public Radio was in Hutchinson today for a presentation. She spoke at the Hutchinson Town Club as part of the Prairie View Food For Thought Series.

She read from her book, "Daughter of the Queen of Sheba," and told stories about growing up with a mother who was suffering from a mental illness. She said, "Long before radio existed for me as a vessel in which to pour all these life experiences, I was a daughter." And that relationship shaped her world view in many ways.

Lyden said she was a diarist from the time she could write, and that she wrote on anything. I asked after her speech if she still wrote by hand, and she said yes, that she doesn't go anywhere without her journal. She said, "My leather notebook goes everywhere I go. I believe in pen and paper."

Lyden said part of the appeal of writing this book about her mother was, "I wanted to fix her on the page." She said she felt if she could get down to the tap root of what was wrong, she could pull it out.

She said her mother's delusions would eventually turn dark and her mother kept a notebook about them called, "The Evil Account." While not knowing how her mother would be from one day to the next was difficult, Lyden said the experiences taught her,  "Nobody's imagination is garbage. It tells you where people are."

Working as a foreign correspondent, Lyden has interacted with people in many different kinds of situations. She told the story of a man telling her he couldn't leave a dangerous situation because, "If I leave now I will lose all my family history." She said that stuck with her, and reminded her people are similar everywhere. Holding her fingers a couple of inches apart, she said, "The line between Hutchinson, Kansas, and Fallujah, Iraq, is this big." She said, "When I tell stories on the radio, I'm looking to make that human connection."

Lyden said that no matter where she went, she had something no one else had, a faded photograph of her mother in a dress made specially for her in Hong Kong in 1950. Lyden has the dress and wears it on special occasions. She said, "I don't know where I'll be, but wherever I go, I will carry the photograph of the woman in this dress. Then I think what you carry the most is their story."

She said when she discovered NPR, she saw there was an opportunity for creativity and imagination. She said, "Radio entered me like a wave." And on the radio, as a host, she could be the voice of all the people she had had conversation with.

When asked about why mental health still has so much stigma attached to it, she said, "Until we understand that we are just molecules and that brain chemistry is chemistry and we are a little more humble about being human ... then we are going to have difficulty with something like stigma. Because to not be in control of your faculties is to not be perfect. And we are a culture that believes in perfection of the mortal."

She said she's very close to her mother and this is probably the happiest time they've ever had together. "My mom is fun. My mom is funny and smart." She said the great tragedy of her mother's life was not that she had a mental illness, but that she didn't have an education. Last year her mother read four dozen books, and is currently reading "My Antonia."

She said her mother's view of the book Lyden wrote about her has changed depending on her mother's mental state. She said now that her mother is better, the book is painful, but she is proud of it because, "She feels her struggles are not for nothing."

One of Lyden's sisters asked why they couldn't just move on and try to forget all of this, leaving it in the past. Lyden answered that, "Memory is what makes us human. Memory is the human connection. It's what gives us soul."
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