There are five reasons why people tell podcaster Whit Missildine their life's most outrageous or harrowing stories.
First: He's an affable fellow, with that "I'm excited about you!" energy that gets people talking. Second: The 37-year-old Oakland resident has a PhD in social psychology and a cool day job as a designer of simulated "strategic rehearsals" of corporate catastrophes like underground mining disasters, so he's kinda seen it all. Third and fourth: As a longtime fan of horror films and a former pack-a-day smoker, his flinch factor is low and his addiction — having transferred from nicotine to narratives — means that he's as attentive as glue is sticky. The fifth reason you'd spill your slimiest or scariest beans? He'd ask.
People who cross paths with Missildine even accept, often without ever having set eyes on the guy, a $400 recording device he sends by snail mail on which they confess to having been an alcoholic at age nine, how they came to be a fake priest in Japan, why a former boyfriend committed suicide by lighting himself on fire, and other astounding stories.
These unbelievable but true tales find their way onto This Is Actually Happening, the bi-weekly podcast Missildine launched in 2012 — part of his "other life" as a documentary filmmaker, podcast producer, and creator of his media company, The Permatemp Corporation. These days, his broadcasts of life-changing stories, which can be heard on Permatemp.org, attract over 35,000 subscribers and receive 3,000 hits per day.
"My primary interest is in ambiguity," Missildine said in an interview. "It's where the fuel for our psychic life is located."
Years ago, Missildine thought he'd study philosophy in college and perhaps become a poet. His stable, middle-class upbringing as the middle child of happily married parents in Cleveland, Ohio, wasn't entirely remarkable — until it was.
"When I was fourteen, my dad had a massive stroke at age 42," he said.
Seemingly overnight, his father, who was typically a tense, people-pleasing accounts manager for a textbook publisher, turned into a hippy prone to mellow "I love you" declarations. Years later, Missildine suffered a series of inexplicable panic attacks. "I was partying a lot, but not insane like a drug habit. There was no trauma that it was referring to; it was a disintegration of my meaning-making system. I got interested in the pivot points where you switch very dramatically from being one person to another person."
Missildine began investigating not so much what preceded or followed a life-change, but the perilous period during which a person is forced to sit with ambiguity. "We create mythologies and structure narratives to resolve it," he said.
Initially, the stories came from friends and friends of friends. Then, he discovered that posting a notice on the Craigslist jobs list was a good way to attract applicants. The kernel of a compelling story was obvious in the one-paragraph outlines he received. "If I needed them to elaborate, we'd do that in emails. Then I'd talk to them on the phone, send them the recorder, tell them to turn it on and talk."
The show's popularity — three episodes sponsored by Snap Judgement on NPR provided the largest boost recently — means submissions now arrive without prompting. Missildine said the two-hour interview tapes require ten hours of editing on average to get down to 20–25 minute episodes. "Umms" and similar verbal fillers are eliminated and, because people tend to jump erratically in conversation, there's shifting done to keep the narrative logical. Opening sentences get the most attention. "I like it when people feel like they're dropped into the middle of something. It can be simple, like, "'He was really mad at me.'"
Tracing his interest in stories "that lurk behind the veil" to his grandmother, who introduced him to the Bible as a historical artifact and not the word of God, Missildine recalled her "shut-eye space trips." To help him fall asleep, she'd describe magical extraterrestrial journeys and ask him to fill in the details. His paternal grandfather, W. Hugh Missildine, was a psychiatrist and author who coined the term, "inner child." Missildine says his namesake's book, "Your Inner Child of the Past," was "giant lore in the family" and lay the seed for his fascination with the human psyche.
It's unsurprising that Missildine's pursuits have wound their way into documentaries and podcasts, given his love of the 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and movies made by David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and others. All Contained in Void, Missildine's documentary that tracks the lives of "forgotten" people living under freeway overpasses and in other "dead zones," is like an urban nightmare with real life imagery.
But the raw, emotional truth spoken by anonymous podcast storytellers is perhaps best conveyed without visuals that would establish ethnicity or race. "People often listen on headphones, in cars, private spaces. There's incredible intimacy and stereotypes don't come through as powerfully as they do with video," he says. "It's a direct identification with a person revealing something incredibly vulnerable."
Missildine doesn't seek stories on specific subjects, but avoids repetition by veering away from clusters, like a recent spate of stroke stories and four child molestation episodes that would lose power if extended. He'd like an amnesia story — or a story told by a necrophiliac, someone obsessed with corpses. "That's such extreme behavior, it'd be new. I want things that are out there, harder to stomach."