‘Snap Judgment’ host Glynn Washington talks growing up in a cult, Ira Glass and the dark side of storytelling

Snap Judgment LIVE

Englert Theatre — Thursday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.

Glynn Washington — Smeeta Mahanti/courtesy photo

On Thursday, Nov. 1, National Public Radio host and raconteur Glynn Washington will bring his storytelling sensation, Snap Judgment LIVE, to Iowa City’s Englert Theatre. That night, some of the world’s best storytellers will take the stage to tell real life stories, set to the beat of a live band. Snap Judgment LIVE offers a truly unparalleled performative experience — especially for anyone who enjoys storytelling programs like This American Life or The Moth.

Little Village recently spoke with Washington about how he tells the story of his own life — a story which starts with his upbringing in an apocalyptic cult, the Worldwide Church of God.

Washington left the cult as a teenager and proceeded to live a fascinating life; he worked and studied abroad, held a number of interesting and varied jobs, fell in love with storytelling and now hosts three of the most talked-about radio programs/podcasts of 2018: Snap Judgment, the paranormal-themed Spooked and Heaven’s Gate, about a cult not dissimilar to the one Washington was raised in.

When you encounter a potential new listener, how do you pitch Snap Judgment to them? Do you have a perfect, Glynn Washington, nutshell summation of Snap that you could share with our readers?

Snap is about life. We are trying to tell stories that mean something to people. Stories that get you right into someone else’s experience and really, at the end of the day, just try to put you into someone else’s shoes, someone else’s skin. Stories that do that are our bread and butter.

One way Snap really distinguishes itself from other, similar programming is music. Can you talk about the centrality of music to Snap’s identity?

When we first started Snap Judgment, we really wanted to make sure that the music acted as a second narration. We wanted the music to tell the story at the same time. I used to love going into the studio to start scoring myself, but now we have this amazing team and they kick me out of the studio whenever that happens — I’ve got to let the professionals take over.

What role does music play in your life? How did music and other pop culture impact your childhood, growing up in the Worldwide Church of God?

Yeah, I grew up in the Worldwide Church of God which was a very fundamentalist, end-of-days, Jesus cult. In a lot of ways, most popular music was verboten. We weren’t allowed to have any of that going on. But as isolated as we were I did have my cousins, and I would go to Detroit maybe two or three times a year. They would recognize my plight.

I’m like this little kid going: “What’re you listening to? What’s happening? You gotta tell me what’s going on!”

They would give me these crash courses in what they were listening to, what the new dances are and, when we were outside the range of my parents, they would literally give me these [classes] on how the world was living outside of my craziness. And I will forever be grateful for that.

Did you ever feel torn between something verboten by Herbert W. Armstrong and something with universal appeal, like Michael Jackson or another seminal pop culture touchpoint?

You hit it on the head with Michael Jackson. I can remember, it was study hall, and I remember the guy’s name, it was Todd Schultz. There was one kid, I don’t know why she wasn’t allowed to see when “Thriller” came out: It was this big thing on MTV and everybody stopped everything to watch it. The next morning in study hall, Todd Schultz gave us a second-by-second reenactment of “Thriller” and that is almost more burned into my memory than the actual video itself.

That [record] was no joke. And you couldn’t, even as deep into the cult as I was, this was something that obviously I really wanted to participate in. I wanted the Michael Jackson jacket, I wanted some parachute pants, I wanted the shoes, the Jheri curl — I wanted everything. If it was up to me, Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of our cult, would have lost all those battles. But unfortunately it wasn’t up to me so I had to get my Michael Jackson in secret.

You grew up in an African-American family in a very rural, very white, part of Michigan. You were also a member of an apocalyptic cult — a cult which you rejected by the time you hit age 20. It sounds like isolation played a major role in your young life. As a kid, how did you combat the loneliness inherent in physical, cultural and social seclusion?

I think the way I combated loneliness was two different ways: number one, I had, who my grandmother called, my “twin” brother. He was one year younger than me and we were going through a lot of the same things at the same time. But we were in the middle of nowhere for a lot of time. For a while we lived in a mobile home on 88 acres of land — swampland, really — that was supposedly a farm.

What really saved me, in a lot of ways, was that every two weeks or so we would take these trips to the library and our library had an unlimited book checkout policy, which meant as many as you could carry, you could checkout. So that’s what I did: I’d stock up and between reading and my nascent writing, I was on a farm but I was living in all kinds of different lands, worlds, places and countries though literature. It was almost as real to me as the farm we were tending.

What was the trigger that led to you leaving the Worldwide Church of God?

I think a lot of things happened at the same time. One of the things was that I was a true believer and, even though I thought that our church had some things wrong on the margins, I thought that the basic framework was intact, the basic timeline was intact. I thought that we were in the end of days — I thought that for a long time growing up, but then I started to, not just question our interpretation of the Bible, but to question the Bible itself as a historic document, as a prophetic document.

And, of course, the racism that I thought was on the periphery of our organization, the more I got into it, the more it felt like it [racism] was built-in, like it was a feature and not a flaw. When I left I thought that, even though intellectually I knew it was the right decision for me, I was fearful. I thought the sky was going to fall down. I thought fire was going to consume me from below — it was one of those things where, talk about feeling alone, I felt extremely alone because I was walking away from that group and no outside can understand what that feeling was like. It was a very lonely time period for me — to feel like you are at the center of a cosmic plan and then to feel like you are just a speck in the universal vastness.

But, what is interesting about that is, I grew up feeling special, that we were chosen and that we had a part and a special need to unlock the secrets of the End Times. I grew up feeling like I was Harry Potter, and even though the intellectual underpinnings for that feeling went away, I still felt like, “I am special.” I don’t have a basis for it, I don’t have a doctorate, and I don’t have a bible that says it, but that feeling still remains to this day.

What was the biggest shock for you when you left the confines of rural Michigan and the cult, and entered into the larger world? Did you have to completely reform your identity?

The shock is I think I had been living this guilt-based existence. I felt guilty for a lot of things I was responsible for and a lot of things I wasn’t. When you feel like you’re the center of the universe, you feel like a lot of things are your fault as well. Being able to let some things go, not having to right every single wrong I saw, was powerful for me and it took a long time.

I got very, very lucky when I turned 19 — I moved to Japan, and I’m trying to learn the language, and they’d ask me, “What do you believe it?” And I’m trying to explain my belief system in Japanese to someone who doesn’t have any of the same Christian touchstones that we have here and they would look at me like I’d lost my mind! They thought it must be the language barrier that would make me say such nonsense and they would laugh and giggle and clap and say, “Say it again! Say it again!” because they thought it was funny. It was really a great experience in having to explain my belief, which was changing at this time, and put it into another language and look at it from a different perspective. I had to laugh at the things coming out of my own mouth.

Did you have any support system? How did you manage doubt and fill the void left by the certainty of apocalyptic teaching?

As far as a support system, I didn’t really have that. When you leave the organization, the people who remain are basically told to shun you. You are no longer part of that fellowship and there is no way to come back unless you were to renounce your evil ways. And that compounds your feeling of isolation.

But like I said, I was living in Japan for about a year, immediately after I left [the cult], and that group of people — Americans who went over to study at the same time I did — ended up being this crazy group that I still lean on today. The bonds that we formed over being a strange person in a strange land ended up being permanent bonds. That kind of deep friendship came at a time when I really needed it. I feel very grateful that happened when it did.

As a fan of the show, I feel like I’ve heard you talk about so many different jobs, places you’ve lived and experiences you’ve had that I am unsure of your actual narrative. Can you give readers a brief overview of your post-cult life and work history? Did you bring the same passion to one of your less thrilling jobs as you do to Snap?

For me to give a background of post-cult, we’d be here for a while — but I lived in Japan for a while and finished school. I went to Malaysia and worked for the State Department. I then went to law school. Most of my career has actually been spent managing various types of nonprofits. Often times the big deal is that when you don’t have any money and you’re trying to get a battered women’s shelter built, or a children’s program, the only currency you have is the ability to tell a story to the people who are making the decisions. I learned really quickly that the PowerPoint presentations and the big books and all that other nonsense that not-for-profit management people often spend their time on is wasted time.

Glynn Washington — Smeeta Mahanti/courtesy photo

Do you ever miss the goldmine of storytelling fodder that a shitty job provides?

I’ve never missed a shitty job. I can complain right now that I am overworked or whatever but a bad day here is so much better than me at the Ponderosa Steakhouse trying to wash somebody’s pile of dishes.

When did storytelling enter your life in a way that became significant? Did you have a moment when you realized its power?

I was born into story. The stories my grandmother told me about the devil, about Anansi the Spider, about what it means to be a trickster, about my mother. The stories my mother told me about Jesus and some of those stories were not quite the stories you would hear at church. I feel like, in a lot of ways, my entire childhood was like a lucid dream and the building blocks were narrative.

When you decide you’re going to move your family out to the middle of nowhere to live on a farm around these white people who think you are crazy and who actively despise you — the only reason why you do that in the first place is because you have a narrative that puts you there. My parents genuinely thought that the world was about to end and they had to take steps to protect their children and that’s why we were there. They thought this was the best way to save us from the wrath of Satan that was imminent — that’s a story and it’s a powerful story!

What place does storytelling hold in our digital, consumer-driven society?

I think [storytelling] is becoming more and more important the crazier and crazier we get. When I first started Snap Judgment I was listening to Crossfire, which was effectively two jackasses yelling at each other. No one ever changes their mind in that format. But I noticed that when people did tell a story oftentimes minds would change.

When I was recently in Michigan, I saw some old friends and they said, “Hey, mister global warming, mister living in California now in the wintertime, how you doing?” We went and had a few beers, and I thought I couldn’t argue with them about global warming and temperature changes and whatnot. But instead, I said, “You know, it’s so funny, getting here today on my drive I couldn’t figure out what was different since the last time. We’re out in this rural area and I realized that what was different was that when we were children you couldn’t drive 10 minutes without having to get out and wipe your car down from all the insects. But now, the insects are all gone. And do you remember that sound? That roar that used to come from the forest at night; the cacophony of animals and insects? Boy, it sure is nice and quiet these days. Anyway, who wants another beer?”

How did programs like This American Life and The Moth play into the inception of Snap?

There’s a correct, in my opinion, perception that NPR is too white, too cosmopolitan and too old to truly reflect the diverse voices, identities and experiences of the U.S. as a whole. How does that deficiency impact the production of Snap, the voices you choose to include, the kinds of stories you choose to tell? I have been a big public radio fan for a longtime. And, yes, I do have problems with the diversity issue, but what I liked was that I never felt like I was spoken down to or like my intelligence was taken for granted.

I remember the first time I heard This American Life. It was long-form storytelling that I’d never heard before, and it had a tremendous impact upon the way I saw storytelling. This was long before I was doing radio, but I was transfixed by it. I didn’t hear The Moth until after starting Snap, but This American Life and, eventually, Ira Glass himself ended up being instrumental in a lot of ways for helping us get the show started.

He had good advice early on and helped to get investment early on. Ira’s been like my fairy godfather in a lot of ways, and I never could have imagined that. Featuring Snap Judgment on This American Life, early on, really, really helped us get the word out and to give these risk-averse public radio station directors some cover to go ahead and experiment with a show like ours. If Ira says it’s cool then maybe it’s cool to give them a little bit of time.

What we wanted to do was to bring a lot of different voices. Even now I don’t understand the issue with not having enough diversity [on-staff]. Just look at the world and bring the world to you. There are amazing storytellers, and I’ve never seen the evidence that only a certain type of person can tell a story. When you tell me you can’t find storytellers of color, I just want to slap you upside the head. There are 130 languages being spoken within five blocks of where we are right now. If you can’t find a story within all of that food, clash of cultures, beautiful people and ugly people and people coming and going — if you can’t find a story there then maybe it’s not the environment getting in the way, maybe you need to look at yourself.

On a personal note, I wanted to share that my wife, Jess, and I are big fans of all your projects but Spooked, in particular, is appointment podcasting for us. Recently you aired an episode in which a woman has premonitions of her own death during childbirth. When our daughter Iris was born, Jess underwent some similar, though less dramatic, trauma in the delivery room. Throughout the episode we were both rapt and when it ended we were both visibly upset. It was disturbing and cathartic and very real. Jess wanted to know if have stories you hold back from producing or broadcasting because they’re too scary or too upsetting or too unbelievable? She also wanted to request that you continue to scare her pants-off.

When we’re doing Spooked we try to make stories about things that matter, besides the ghost in the closet. The stories that people are telling us that we end up caring about often link to something else. I’m glad you were able to have a catharsis, much like the woman who told that story. She had a catharsis when telling it to us.

People often times think that on Snap Judgment that we have to amp-up or exaggerate a story in order to get it on the air. I think what people would be surprised to learn is that almost every time, 99.9 percent of the time, we have to dial down what happened in order to make it believable or digestible. For my personal stories, kind of how you eluded to, I’ll break them up, I’ll give you a little bit of this and maybe we will have part two later on.

As a storyteller, do you ever have a problem with the way audiences want a neat, packaged conclusion and how life almost never offers one?

Endings are hard, and it’s hard to craft things that make sense. What you won’t hear me do is tell you what a story means. I want you to feel like you’ve had an emotional ride or roller-coaster and that you’ve gone somewhere, but I am not going to tell you what it means. The general public radio storytelling model: a little exposition, a little story, a little exposition, a little story and then someone comes and puts a public radio bow on it. The reason I don’t want to tell you is because, at the end of the story, there is a gap. Our brain tries to fill in that gap with meaning. As soon as I tell you what a story means your brain shuts off. If I don’t tell you, that story will stick in your brain like a worm, and that’s when our story becomes your story.

Where are the lines in 2018 between telling the true story and telling the best story?

You have to establish a relationship with an audience. So, I’ll put it like this: As storytellers we have to be careful not to abuse the trust of our audience or to manipulate people. We pay a price for doing so with our credibility. I also think that right now, storytellers are messing up. The best storytellers that are out there are filling the airwaves with lies, ridiculousness, crazy and despair. The absolute nonsense that we hear — I think that our current political structure is built on using the same story tools that I use every day when building Snap, only I think it has a pernicious and antagonistic intent.

I think that because storytellers aren’t properly telling the story of global warming — so that people can feel it in their heart, not just understand it intellectually. They aren’t telling the stories of urban and rural despair because they aren’t telling the stories of what it’s like to succumb to an opioid addiction because you went to get some medication for your backache. The environmental destruction. Why coming over with your child, as an undocumented immigrant, leads to you being treated like a criminal.

We aren’t getting these stories out there enough so that people understand their fellow humans, and we are letting the dialog be dominated by despots. I just think we need, as storytellers, to do a better job. It is imperative because the other side, they’re doing a great job. What’s so frustrating to me is that I grew up with people who claimed to follow “Christian values,” and I see those same people try to tell me why it’s OK to put a baby in a cage. This is a very, very powerful narrative to support such claims, and I just have to think it’s going to take a very, very powerful narrative to get us back out again.

What can we expect from Snap LIVE that we won’t find on the podcast?

On Snap Judgment the podcast, you’re hearing someone tell their story, and they might have spent 10 hours, 15 hours on it. Then a producer comes through and edits that piece and works with the person to really get out a version of the story that really works for the podcast.

Snap Judgment LIVE is the inverse of that. We want people who will come out and just rock the story. To bring you there. One person. No editing. No cuts. I want them to walk that high-wire with you, the audience, and you will see if they fall off and you will lift them back up again if they do. Our storytellers get emotional because they are reliving certain aspects of their past and doing it in a partnership between the audience, the storyteller and the musicians. Because no storyteller tells their story the same way twice: They change things around, they experience things differently and the band must respond in real-time. You see the audience respond in real-time as well.

What’s your favorite part of touring? What’s the worst part?

I love meeting people after the show. I love the group of storytellers that we tour with. They are universally hilarious and really fun people to hang out with and get a drink with after the hard work is done. They are all accessible — if you hang out in the lobby after the show you will be able to meet the people you just heard on stage.

That’s what is so cool right now about the whole podcasting landscape — with a couple of exceptions, you can talk to just about anybody. As talented, as magical, as much above you as you may think they are, you can still chat with them and have a beer. They’re just regular folks and you get to see that regular folks have genius.

For those readers whose mice are currently hovering above the “purchase” button for tickets to your Iowa City show, do you have a Glynn Washington, perfect nutshell summation of why they should see Snap LIVE?

People who come out of Snap feel like they’ve gone on an unexpected journey. You will have gone to the valley, and you will have gone to the mountaintop. You come out and you see people hugging strangers, you see old people and young people, side by side. You see various races in the same building. You’re going to see your own community a lot differently when you go to a Snap show.

The people who are moved by these stories, the people who dig these stories, they’re good people. Look at yourself and you’re gonna say, “This is my crowd.” For the first time people are going to see that these are my people, this is my tribe and I’ve been taken for a ride. It’s a real heart language that is being spoken at a Snap show and I hope people get to see it!

Jon Burke is a North Liberty resident who has written about film, music and pop culture for various publications since 2006. An abridged version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 252.

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