Episode 502: Sarah Polley, George Pelecanos, Elaine Hsieh Chou

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scene from episode of HBO's 'We Own This City: police walking down street with guns cocked
(C) Photograph by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Actor and director Sarah Polley joins us to discuss her debut book, ‘Run Towards the Danger.’ Also, showrunner George Pelecanos on the HBO mini-series, ‘We Own This City.’ And Elaine Hsieh Chou talks about her novel, ‘Disorientation.’

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  • Screenwriter, director and actor Sarah Polley runs towards the danger

    Sarah Polley is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, director and actor. From her start in Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” through her stint with one of Canada’s top television series, “Road to Avonlea,” through her American breakthrough in “Go,” Polley has enjoyed creative success at every level.

    She even received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for the first feature-length film she directed: “Away from Her.”

    Polley’s resume also includes the documentary film, “Stories We Tell.” It won the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the National Board of Review award for best documentary.

    Now she’s written her first book — “Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory.” It’s a beautifully-written, brave and honest exploration of the most harrowing stories of Polley’s life.

    As she started writing the book, she discovered that there was a dialogue happening between her past and her present.

    “You know, the connective tissue between these essays — because I think on the surface, they’re about very different things — is this moving through a past situation through a sort of current echo of it,” Polley told WPR’s “BETA.”

    She explained how an experience in the present would unearth a lot of memories from the past — taking the story in a different direction.

    “It meant that the memories that I’ve been holding on to of these past, usually difficult, experiences became more malleable, like the memories themselves didn’t sort of stay in this fixed hard narrative, but were able to kind of move into another state,” she said.

    Intrigued by psychoanalysis, Polley found phenomena interesting, looking hard at how “our pasts inform our current lives.”

    “But I hadn’t yet really discovered how much our current lives can inform our relationship to our pasts and how much current experiences or new experiences can kind of change the relationship between us and what happened to us in the past. And that’s certainly what happened to me and many of the stories that I tell in this collection,” she said.

    At the age of 8, Polley played the part of Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” It’s an expereince Polley called difficult.

    “There were things about it that were obviously wondrous. I got to work with some of the most talented people in the world on a beautiful film. But for a child, it was a terrifying environment to work in. I mean, there were explosives all the time,” she recalled.

    As Polley pointed out, special effects were done manually in those days, not with computer-generated imagery.

    “We were in very cold tanks of water for very long periods of time,” she said. “I worked extremely long hours. It was a really harrowing experience for everybody, including the adults on that film, let alone an 8- or 9-year-old.”

    Polley earned the nickname “Canada’s Sweetheart” for her role as Sara Stanley on the CBC Television show, “Road to Avonlea.” The program began airing in the U.S. in 1990. In her book, Polley writes that as she grew older, she started to see the show as a grave injustice.

    “I think the show is really problematic,” she explained. “We spent a lot of years really loving these stories of this idyllic past, based on Lucy Montgomery stories, and there’s a lot that’s beautiful in those stories. But it’s become sort of this history of Canada somehow of us looking back nostalgically at this completely innocent all-white past where there’s no mention of Indigenous people or the people who are driven out of where they lived and the land that was theirs.

    Polley also writes about being exploited during the shooting of “Road to Avonlea.” Her mother Diane died of cancer just before Polley’s 11th birthday and it wasn’t long after her death that Polley shot a scene in which her character had to react to the death of her character’s mother.

    “I think that because my tears about my mother’s death were used so quickly and so soon after my mother’s death, it was very hard for me to know what was real and what wasn’t in terms of my own grief as years went on,” she said, adding that in doing research for the essay, crew members confirmed that her memories were accurate.

    One of Polley’s rawest essays deals with her experience with former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who was arrested and charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking with regard to three complainants in late 2014. In January 2015, Ghomeshi was charged with three additional counts related to three more women.

    “I had a really hard decision to make at the time that women came forward, and there was a big court case here in Canada about it, and I had to make a really hard decision about whether or not to come forward as well,” Polley explained.

    She did a lot of research about whether she should come forward, including talking to more than a dozen lawyers. Polley realized that her memories were somewhat inconsistent and she had a friendly professional relationship with Ghomeshi, including being interviewed by him on the CBC Radio show, “Q.”

    “There were all of these unbelievably awkward details that made it feel like I would not be any help to those women who came forward if I came forward, too,” Polley explained.

    “And of course, this is what happened to the women who came forward as in most sexual assault cases,” she said. “There were lots of gaps in memories. There were lots of inconsistencies. There were lots of correspondences that they had not divulged or in the case of Lucy DeCoutere, I believe, hadn’t remembered.”

    Polley admitted that she’d been working on this essay for many years because she felt an ethical obligation to tell the story at some point. She decided to do so by cross-examining herself.

    “I’m going to show you that as evidence that this is what it looks like. It’s messy,” she explained. “And let’s stop hurling these accusations at women who are brave enough to come forward because this is what it actually looks like.”

    “I do think we’re coming to a more fulsome understanding that this kind of behavior is normal,” she continued, “But I wanted to contribute to that conversation by kind of offering myself up as a case study in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable. But it felt to me like having not come forward at the time, which I’ve never felt completely at peace with, this is what I could offer to the conversation now.”

    In October 2015, Polley suffered a serious concussion. She spent three-and-a-half years struggling with the head injury. Polley had been advised to either lie in a dark room for a few weeks or to go and do her regular activities; however, when she felt a headache coming on or she was experiencing brain fog, she should rest.

    She decided to see Dr. Michael “Mickey” Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Collins is an internationally-renowned expert in concussions.

    He told Polley that she had to know that the things that were causing her discomfort were the very same things that she had to get better at dealing with. So, for example, if she felt a headache coming on, she should take a walk around the block.

    “Now this was all I have to be really clear, scaffolded with very specific treatments around vestibular exercises, physical exercises,” Polley cautioned. “I don’t think everyone should just run out and do if they have a concussion. I think it’s good to seek medical advice.”

    “But I think that his advice was ‘run towards the danger.’ So anything that causes you discomfort, anything that causes pain, you need to actually do more of. But it was a complete paradigm shift to say ‘run toward the danger,‘ do the things that are hardest, do the things that are most uncomfortable. And that’s the only way you’re going to heal,” she said.

    So how does Collins’ advice to ‘run towards the danger’ influence the way Polley lives her life now?

    “I think it’s been a paradigm shift in every part of my life. I think the writing of this book was about running towards the danger,” she said. “I’m telling stories here that are really hard to share, that were really hard to write, that there is a huge risk in telling.

    But Polley always wanted to write a book, and is keen to continue facing her fears.

    “I tend to take on tasks that in the past I’ve avoided,” she said. “I tend to just run into experiences that I know will be uncomfortable and take those gambles, which I think in many ways I’ve just avoided over the years. So his advice to me went well beyond the healing of a concussion. It sort of entered into every part of my life.”

  • HBO's 'We Own This City' returns to Baltimore for an ominous coda to 'The Wire'

    In spring of 2015, the city of Baltimore became the center of the nation’s attention. News had come to light that resident Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while he was in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department.

    Civil unrest and a televised uprising ensued, playing out on television screens that April. The officers involved were suspended and charged, but the rest of the BPD was dispatched to a tense standoff with residents.

    Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the leader of the city’s Gun Tracing Task Force (GTTF), rushed to the front lines in support of his fellow officers. He stood with them and fed them using money out of his own pocket. Then, that very same evening, Jenkins, while patrolling in an unmarked police car, filled two garbage bags full of opioids that he robbed from looted pharmacies.

    That, and a litany of other unconstitutional practices Jenkins and others in the BPD were involved in, are covered in the investigative book, “We Own This City” by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton.

    Twenty years earlier, another Baltimore Sun reporter, David Simon, made television history with his fictional saga of Baltimore when he created “The Wire” for HBO.

    Critically acclaimed and inspired by actual events, the series documents systemic failures in the city’s institutions due to the chaos inflicted from the war on drugs. Now, Simon and former “Wire” writer, George Pelecanos, return to Baltimore for their adaptation of Fenton’s book.

    Pelecanos is co-creator, along with Simon, of HBO’s mini-series “We Own This City.” He tells WPR’s “BETA,” “The first thing that David and I always do when we’re deciding on these things, is we sit down and ask each other, ‘What’s this about?’ And ‘Why are we doing this?’”

    What they found in Fenton’s book is that today’s Baltimore — specifically its policing methods inspired by political pressures to reduce crime — has morphed into something far more sinister and problematic.

    “We’re really going back to the beginning of the drug war that has facilitated such behavior and encouraged such behavior. Because when you make it the mission to mass incarcerate and to mass arrest, you create this atmosphere where police break rules,” Pelecanos said.

    While “We Own This City” is a nonfiction adaptation, it does serve as an ominous coda to the fictional “The Wire” and the themes it addresses. The many familiar faces of actors that appear in both series may help blur that line.

    “‘The Wire’ was rooted in reality, but it was all fictional characters. But it is, in a sense, a coda because the Baltimore that we left 15, 20 years ago is different now. The conditions have gotten worse for the citizens,” Pelecanos said.

    “You’ve got police officers doing home invasions, robbing citizens, and most importantly, they were confiscating drugs and selling them back out on the street. That would have been unheard of 15, 20 years ago in the police force,” he continued. “It’s an update on what’s going on in the city and, by extension, what’s going on in America vis-a-vis the police.”

    Jenkins is played in the series by chameleonic actor Jon Bernthal. In addition to being a fellow D.C. native, Pelecanos was impressed with how Bernthal was able to capture Jenkins’ wide-ranging arc with stunning accuracy. Bernthal was able to display Jenkins’ earnest academy enthusiasm through his relentless instincts and work ethic that made him an incredibly successful plainclothes officer to his delusional stance that he wasn’t a dirty cop once he was indicted.

    Pelecanos explained that it was important to show that this systemic failure is rooted in the moment when policing theory hits reality. “We wanted to show what happens to a police officer coming out of the academy. The academy tries to teach them right. They teach them constitutional policing, they have sensitivity training. And so, in the show — and this really happened — Jenkins comes out of the academy, and they put him up with a sergeant. And the very first day, the sergeant says to him, ‘You know, everything you learned at the academy, sensitivity training, all that stuff, that’s all bulls—. I’m going to show you how to police. This is Baltimore.’ And so, the system sort of sabotaged these guys coming fresh out of the academy.”

    The growing rift of trust between the BPD and citizens only deepened during the Freddie Gray uprising and the national scrutiny that came with it. After the police involved were charged with manslaughter, members of BPD implemented unofficial work slowdowns. They refused to get out of their cars or make arrests for fear of offering a justification for accusations of brutality.

    “A lot of cops said, ‘Look, if I’m going to get charged because somebody bumps their head while I’m putting him in my car, I’m just not going to get out of my car anymore. I’m not going to make arrests.’ But the GTTF cops kept working,” Pelecanos said.

    Pelecanos said the production of Jenkins and his unit was so prodigious that these cops were literally praised until moments before they were all indicted.

    “They kept getting guns off the street. Up until two weeks before they were all arrested, the (police) brass was giving them commendations and singing their praises in the police newsletters,” he said. “They were guys who were allowed to keep doing what they were doing because they were producing. And that’s an interesting thing. Guns in the city are a very important component of controlling violent crime. So, they had a big responsibility, and they put the most productive gung-ho guys on that squad.”

    The Freddie Gray situation brought DOJ scrutiny and investigations. In July 2016, prosecutors dropped all remaining charges against the three police officers who were facing trial in the Freddie Gray case. The other three officers had already been acquitted.

    Around the same time Jenkins was being indicted, the city entered into a consent decree with the federal government.

    “It’s basically when the feds come into town, and they hold the city’s feet to the fire in terms of reform,” explained Pelecanos. “What they have as their ace card is withholding federal funds to the city if the city doesn’t comply.”

    Pelecanos says that even though most police departments don’t mind operating under a consent decree, they often aren’t the magic bullet solution.

    scene from
    Wunmi Mosaku as DOJ investigator Nicole Steele in HBO’s “We Own This City.” Paul Schiraldi/HBO

    “The problem is that the consent decrees can’t go far enough. They don’t change the mission and that’s the problem,” Pelecanos said. “The mission is flawed, and it’s the thesis of the show.

    “The drug war has not just destroyed neighborhoods and individuals and families, but it’s ruined policing. Police can’t operate effectively to get violent criminals off the street when citizens won’t talk to them anymore, and the reason they won’t talk to them is, they’ve had brothers and sisters and fathers and uncles and cousins who’ve all gone to jail for nonviolent drug offenses. And they’ve stopped talking to the police. So, the show is really our continuing argument, it’s the last nail in the coffin for the drug war.”

  • Elaine Hsieh Chou delivers humor and social commentary in debut novel, 'Disorientation'

    The title of Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel, “Disorientation,” is most certainly a play on words.

    The novel is about a 29-year-old doctorate student named Ingrid Yang who is having a lot of trouble finishing her dissertation — a situation that is disorienting in many ways.

    Like her protagonist, Chou was in a similar situation. She was pursuing a doctorate in modernist literature. The difference was that she was studying in Paris — when the 2015 terrorist attacks happened.

    This harrowing experience pushed Chou to confront an important existential question: If she were to die, what would she wish she had done with her life?

    Chou thought back to her childhood, when she wrote stories and poems, and realized the path she was on wasn’t the path she wanted to pave. So, she left her program in Paris and headed to New York for her Master in Fine Arts.

    “I started working at a bookstore, and I think it was a really great place for me to be — surrounded by books and constantly talking about books,” Chou told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    “And when I started writing the novel, I think setting it in academia was familiar territory, right? Because writing a novel is so daunting. I felt like academia provided a good setting where I could explore those ideas,” she said.

    Fast-forward seven years and Chou has published a very funny, socially relevant campus satire.

    In her novel, Ingrid, the protagonist, is working on a dissertation focused on the fictional late-poet Xiao-Wen Chou.

    “He’s sort of described as the Chinese Robert Frost and his poetry, I think, is very appealing to white Americans because it just presents the East and China in the way they want to understand it as exotified and very distant where they don’t feel implicated,” Chou explained.

    “So he writes poems about teacups and rivers and things like that,” Chou continued. “(Ingrid) has no real interest in him. She was basically coerced into studying him. So because of that and the fact that he’s been over-researched, she doesn’t know what to say and has been struggling for four years.”

    Ingrid’s adviser, Michael Bartholomew, intimidates her into writing her dissertation about Xiao-Wen Chou. It’s in Bartholomew’s interest to do so as the head of Barnes University’s East Asian studies department. He tells her she has to do her dissertation on the poet if she wants tenure; and if she doesn’t, her life will be miserable.

    “Researching someone canonical like Chou is the only way, and he tells this story about how adjuncting without health insurance is so horrifying and how his student pulled out her own molar because she didn’t have dental insurance.”

    Ingrid’s fiancé, Steven Greene, is white, and Ingrid has this complicated relationship with white men. She has only ever dated white men. She eventually discovers Greene has a secret folder on his computer which contains photos of all of his Asian ex-girlfriends. This causes a lot of emotional turmoil for Ingrid.

    “It throws their entire relationship into question because she now has to ask herself, ‘Oh, do you actually love me for who I am on the inside? Or do you really see me as a set of interchangeable parts?’” Chao explained.

    “It was important for me to explore this type of relationship that is very ubiquitous,” she said. “And I think with a lot of my Asian friends, we’ve talked about the fear of being fetishized and how it truly messes you up in a lot of ways.”

    Ingrid has very nuanced and relatable relationships with her best friend, Eunice Kim, and her nemesis, Vivian Vo.

    Chao said “people have referred to them as the trifecta of Asian women in the novel.”

    She wrote three versions of her novel. Eunice and Vivian only appeared in the last.

    “I realize now how necessary they are because I think it is important to show, in a way, they’re sort of different facets of who Ingrid could be.”

    As Ingrid starts to gain a better understanding of things, she could become radicalized and be more like Vivian, Chou explained. Or if Ingrid could become less anxious and less paranoid, she could be more like Eunice. Even though Eunice knows they live in a damaged system, she is still able to have fun and enjoy herself.

    “It was important for me to have these different Asian female characters, also with very different politics,” Chou said. “It was just important to show we’re obviously not a monolith. We come with all different backgrounds and beliefs, and often they jar against each other.”

    Taking what is learned and applying it ‘to my own life’

    The first time Chou studied creative writing was as an undergrad. It seemed to her like it was just a fun class. But in retrospect, she realized every one of the characters she created were white. She was trying to copy what she was being taught — work by revered writers such as Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce.

    “I guess I didn’t even understand how to take what I was learning in class and apply it to my own life,” she explained.

    “It was just like, ‘Oh, well, I will now write a short story about rural, poor white people.’ And that’s what I was doing, and I think I realized I was like, ‘Oh, this must be working because my teachers would really like it.’ I think purely because I just learned the beats of ‘Oh, this is what is thought of as great American literature.’

    I think at that age, I would have felt too afraid to write about people like me in stories that are similar to my own life, I think because I didn’t want to draw attention to being Asian in a way. I was so afraid of being stereotyped.”

    Chou recently wrote an essay for The Cut that went viral.

    She wrote the very first draft of the essay in 2015, when she fell into an online rabbit hole: Chou discovered terrifying forums and blogs in which white men would discuss Asian women.

    “It was as if we didn’t really exist, like they were so open without fear of ever being found out,” she recalled.

    “The honesty was brutal because it’s anonymous, right? None of them are using their real names,” she said. “And there was another link to this website that just collected news articles of white men murdering Asian women. Most of the time, they were not strangers, right? So they were either girlfriends, wives or they were seeing sex workers.”

    I became haunted by that. Deeply haunted,” she continued. “(I) was even physically unwell from reading (about) all the murders, and the first iteration of the essay is just these men speaking for themselves, so I would copy and paste their words exactly. I wouldn’t change a thing, and then I would just put a summary of the murder.”

    Editors told Chou they could not publish this version because it was too violent and too triggering. She agreed.

    Chou resumed working on the essay again in March 2021 after the Atlanta shootings.

    “Now I feel like I had had some distance and the shootings had just confirmed this feeling like I was being gaslit,” Chou explained. “I’m trying to tell you this phenomenon, this intersection of violence and fetishization exists. But why is no one listening? And then I think in 2021, I was like, “OK, I think some people are starting to see this.’”

    “And so I started writing. And then the essay actually kept evolving some more because there were more attacks against Asian women.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Sarah Polley Guest
  • George Pelecanos Guest

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