Does having obsessive, violent thoughts mean that you are going to hurt someone? If not, how can you get the thoughts out of your head?
To Lulu Miller (Grad ’13) and Alix Spiegel, there is a narrative story lurking in such haunting questions—a story they want to share with you.
Intertwining scientific research with the challenges of real people, Miller and Spiegel have created a new National Public Radio show, Invisibilia, with a focus on how invisible forces influence human behavior. The show launched in mid-January on more than 260 stations (an NPR record) and was so well received it also took over the No. 1 spot on the iTunes podcast chart, displacing the true-crime series Serial.
“We’re hitting podcasting at such a great time, because Serial just opened up the door to so many new listeners,” says Miller, an NPR Science Desk reporter. The timing with Serial “was complete luck and fate and chance,” she says, “but I think new people were hungry for a new podcast and there we were.”
Miller, 31, is embarking on her new show at a time when not only radio consumption patterns are evolving—with the rise of podcasts that audiences can play at their convenience—but when long-form narrative programs are breaking through in a landscape long dominated by sound bites.
“You have a lot of control about when you want it versus turning on the radio and whatever’s on is on,” Miller says. “You turn on your podcast and you get to choose—like I want this slow, emotional thing right now or I want this nerdy, upbeat thing. You get to cater it to your mood, and it allows for binge listening.”
Miller, who grew up in Newton, Mass., first got hooked on public radio when, as a recent graduate of Swarthmore College was working as a woodworker’s assistant in Brooklyn and the radio was on in the shop all day. Her favorite program was Radiolab, and when she realized it was produced just down the street, she offered to volunteer. She helped out, unpaid, on Tuesdays for almost a year and ultimately beat out more experienced journalists for a full-time producing job because she’d learned technical skills like uploading audio.
Under Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Miller learned to weave narrative nonfiction audio essays, capturing and highlighting the kinds of authentic moments that grip listeners. But all the while she held onto a childhood dream of writing fiction stories and so, after applying to UVA’s creative writing MFA program amid what felt to her like long-shot odds, she received a Poe-Faulkner Fellowship. “When she comes into the room, you feel that somehow all the watts and volts have increased,” says Professor John Casey, who taught Miller and describes her writing as “both musical and laconic.”
One story of Miller’s in particular stuck with him: It was about her bike-trip across the country with an opposite-personality friend. “It was both very funny and compassionate, with a big change of mind,” Casey says.
Miller came to UVA to plunge into the more imaginative end of writing; here, she worked on craft, vividness and the telling detail—techniques she applies to her work as an on-air essayist, says Professor Christopher Tilghman, director of the creative writing program.
As an interviewer, Miller is a natural: “There are people who can get people to talk. Lulu is just one of those people,” Tilghman says. “People want to talk to her. She just makes you feel interesting.”
Adds Casey, “She is extremely sympathetic and attentive, and people open up to her because she is open to them.”
Miller says while radio has taught her to be explicit and focus on plot, the creative writing program at UVA taught her the value of subtext. “When you can create an emotion in the reader just from letting characters act in space and let the meaning just rise off the events or the words like steam, that’s so powerful too,” she says.
This is one of the things that she and her co-host Alix Spiegel are attempting to do with Invisibilia. The two met at a radio conference shortly after Miller finished her MFA, and Spiegel shared the idea that would spawn their inaugural episode: It had to do with an evolution in the psychotherapy community regarding the thinking about thoughts.
Spiegel and Miller decided to center the story on the experiences of a California man who was overrun by gruesome, violent thoughts. The story unfolds with unexpected twists and turns.
Miller hopes listeners will come away from Invisibilia “feeling like the world is slightly new.”
“Sometimes we think of it as secret self-help,” she says. “We’re sliding it in [along] with your vegetables.”
Serial and the Law
UVA’s Deirdre Enright speaks about her role on the podcast
It’s the final day of winter break and the Innocence Project at UVA School of Law, a clinic that investigates and litigates wrongful convictions, is bustling. Law students hunch over a batch of court transcripts, reviewing cross-examinations, and across the hall Deirdre Enright’s phone rings and rings in her sun-filled office. Enright, a UVA law professor and director of the Innocence Project Clinic, became an overnight celebrity after she appeared on the NPR series Serial. The weekly podcast, narrated by reporter Sarah Koenig, examined the 1999 murder of Baltimore 17-year-old Hae-Min Lee, and whether her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, had been wrongfully convicted of the crime.
Enright (Law '92) appeared midway through the series and then again in the finale, serving at first as an adviser to Koenig about wrongful convictions, and then taking on Syed’s case to investigate through the Innocence Project. In the final episode, Enright and her students came up with a possible alternate suspect for Lee’s murder.
Enright says that at the outset she had no idea how popular Serial would become. “I didn’t even know what a podcast was,” she says. She soon realized she had become part of a narrative that was in many ways out of her control. “One of the things I was concerned about was that [Koenig] has journalistic goals, and that I have legal goals, and they are not always going to go together,” she says.
Enright says that once she began working closely with Koenig, it became clear they had one very important thing in common. “After a while of being with Sarah, what I realized is that we both care about the truth,” she says. “What we both do is vet our own, vet ourselves, vet the witness, run things down … I remember thinking, ‘This is beautiful because I won’t have to explain myself to her. She’s going to know.’"
Enright says the Serial project weighed on Koenig. “I was amazed at the level of her concern about the whole situation,” she says. “[Koenig] was often very troubled … she would do the back and forth, like, ‘I think he did it, I think he didn’t do it.’ I think she thought too, ‘When I’m done with this story, I can put [Syed] in your hands and feel okay.’” Enright and her team at the Innocence Project plan to file a request for DNA testing of the forensic evidence from the 1999 crime scene, including hair, fingernail clippings and a rope, none of which were ever tested. The results of the tests could help exonerate Syed, or do just the opposite.
Enright attributes Serial’s popularity to Koenig’s storytelling ability, her “unbelievable, almost hypnotic voice” and the "hundreds and hundreds of hours she devoted to finding—and then telling—the truth." Enright stresses, though, that Syed’s case is not extraordinary. “Sarah would say to me, ‘How could a million things go wrong for him?’ And I would say, ‘A million things could go wrong all the time.’ Every story, every case, has these unbelievably textured details. It’s just that our criminal justice system doesn’t tell stories that way.”