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In times of trouble and turmoil, I have found comfort and solace in the soothing, eternally reassuring voices on NPR. I don’t know how to drive, so I do not listen to NPR while driving to and from work, as most people do. And as this column perhaps conveys, I am something of a podcasting fan, so I don’t listen to NPR a whole lot, but when I do I am a casual fan of just about everyone on the American Liberal institution, with the exception of that sick fuck Garrison Keillor. The worst circle of hell is too good for that guy. He knows why.
I love the voices on NPR, past and present. They’re so much more pleasant and sonorous than the angry, violent ones in my head. I’m particularly fond of the almost hypnotically mellow voice of Snap Judgment host Glynn Washington. Washington’s wonderful voice, like the voices of all great NPR hosts, silently but powerfully conveys, through tone and gentleness alone, that no matter how terrible the world might seem, everything is going to work out just fine.
Washington’s voice is as comforting and homey as a mug of hot cocoa or Earl Grey tea. There’s a jazzy musicality to it that stands out on the conspicuously lily-white public radio behemoth so I foolishly assumed that a man with such a wonderfully soothing voice must also have always enjoyed a happy and smooth and mellow life. Why on earth would I make an assumption like that? Is anybody really happy? Is anyone’s family not ragingly dysfunctional? Do happy childhoods exist outside the world of black-and-white sitcoms and science fiction?
These are the kinds of questions you are particularly liable to ask if you listen to the Mental Illness Happy Hour religiously, as I do. It doesn’t hurt if you also wrestle with mental illness yourself. When I saw that Washington was going to guest on Mental Illness Happy Hour I assumed that some heavy shit must have gone down in his past to complicate my conception of him as one of those perfect NPR people, but I had no idea what a fascinatingly bizarre and unlikely journey he’d traveled to adulthood, self-actualization and finding himself as both a man and an artist.
Gilmartin begins the episode by apologizing for the somewhat rough sound of the podcast recording, but when the conversation gets going technical glitches become irrelevant. You’d imagine a man with a voice like Washington would be a natural-born performer, particularly on the radio, but he wasn’t that interested in media or the arts growing up. Washington’s path to national radio stardom began as an adult when, on a whim, he entered a contest called the Public Radio Talent Quest to find new public radio talent which eventually led to him creating and hosting Snap Judgment.
When Gilmartin asks his guest for snapshots from his childhood that provide a sense of who he was and how he saw the world, Washington clearly has an insane amount to choose from, having experienced a “a very strange childhood” as part of a group called the Worldwide Church of God, which Washington describes as an “End of days, apocalyptic, white supremacist Jesus cult.” That would be bad enough under any circumstance, but as you may have guessed by now, Washington is an African-American, which makes it particularly unfortunate that he spent his childhood in a racist cult.
Yet Washington has positive as well as negative feelings about his childhood in a cult. He recounts feeling “chosen,” of feeling like he had “special knowledge” of the universe because of the singular way he was being raised. Washington is predictably fascinating discussing the nature of the Worldwide Church of God, its charismatic leader, and its literal-minded, fundamentalist conception of mankind in perpetual warfare with the forces of Satan. Washington captures the trusting, innocent nature of children, and how it makes them particularly easy pickings for strong-minded adults.
Washington recounts how the cult’s leader, Herbert W. Armstrong, was able to use primitive computer animation of the horrifying imagery of the Book of Revelation to terrify followers to the point where they were willing to follow Armstrong despite his many unfortunate qualities, such as, you know, anti-black racism. And being greedy and hypocritical and power-mad. You know, the whole crazy cult leader deal. As terrible as the Worldwide Church of God was in seemingly every way, it also made Washington feel special, and what kid doesn’t want to feel that way?
The Snap Judgment host concedes that the teachings of the Worldwide Church of God were “fucking batshit insane” but also that they weren’t “any more crazy than anything else.” Washington’s fierce faith in spite of everything is powerful and fascinating, as is his eventual and inevitable disillusionment upon becoming an adult and seeing through the lies and manipulation and corruption of faith that defined his childhood and adolescence.
Snap Judgment is full of great stories elegantly told, but Washington’s greatest story might be his own. On Mental Illness Happy Hour he tells it beautifully, in a way that makes you feel both his early pain and his later triumphs. It’d make for a hell of a book, and an even better audio-book.
Nathan Rabin is a father, the author of 5 books, a columnist and the proprietor, owner, Editor-in-Chief and sole writer for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, which can be found at nathanrabin.com.