You're Wrong About's Sarah Marshall on how to reclaim our misremembered history

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Image:  You’re Wrong About / Sarah Marshall
Image: You’re Wrong About / Sarah Marshall

You know the old joke about how copyediting saves lives? The gist is that the gory suggestion “Let’s eat Grandma!” becomes far less hazardous—“Let’s eat, Grandma!”—when you apply the proper punctuation. That’s how every episode of You’re Wrong About feels: the podcast presents you with the facts and figures of recent American history, but with certain excerpts highlighted and underlined to extract a more meaningful (and often more complex) narrative than the one we internalized at the time. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in conversation with You’re Wrong About host Sarah Marshall, you will be treated to enough insight to fill an entire season-long slate of podcasts.

Marshall, whose series has been debunking commonly misremembered historical events and figures since its debut in 2018, has always chosen her episode topics carefully, motivated by a genuine sense of urgency to correct the record rather than aiming to pull the rug out from listeners for the sake of it. Sometimes, correcting the record isn’t strictly the goal; instead, it’s about Marshall and her (sizable) audience working through the murky muck of history together, taking the opportunity to apply a more empathetic lens wherever one can be retrofitted. Y2K, Amy Fisher, “going postal,” crack babies—all of these get the closer inspection you didn’t know they needed.

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With the podcast recently reaching its fourth anniversary, Marshall spoke with The A.V. Club about which episodes best represent the spirit of You’re Wrong About. Newcomers, start here.

The Stepford Wives (August 24, 2020)

The Stepford Wives - You're Wrong About

The A.V. Club: Why do you think this is a representative episode of You’re Wrong About?

Sarah Marshall: That’s the first one that comes to mind when people ask for a personal favorite. To me, it feels like the most coherent theory has happened there—my theory that The Stepford Wives is a true story, because it reflects the fact that we were being drugged into submission in midcentury America, and the horror of the social isolation of becoming a suburban housewife when maybe you were used to living in a city and having friends around.

It’s a horror novel that, when you think about it, doesn’t really seem like an exaggeration at all: It’s space-age technology being used to perfect the housewife. And yeah, it’s based on a horror novel where everyone is murdering their wife and replacing her with a robot, so obviously, it’s grim subject matter. But it’s a relatively light way into some really intense themes that we access in other episodes. So I like it also because it’s a break from telling a life story. We get to talk about the characters in a novel.

AVC: How did you come up with this as an episode topic?

SM: I probably read The Stepford Wives for the first time in grad school, and then came back to it in 2019. I really loved it, and I had already talked quite a bit on the show about my thoughts about Rosemary’s Baby (which is also by Ira Levin) being effectively an allegory for the normal experience of becoming a wife and a mother: suddenly your body is controlled by your husband and the people who, in this story, are standing in for the in-laws.

And then it was when I read the book More Work For Mother, a history of housework in the United States, that it came together. I had started developing this idea [that] women are being overmedicated in this [era], and Valium was invented by the family that would go on to be responsible for Oxycontin, and they kind of related to it with a similarly thoughtful marketing push: Let’s get this into every American home and think about the consequences later. I felt like I was onto something with that. And then it was when I read this book about housekeeping and technology that everything clicked.

AVC: I don’t know that the 2004 movie engaged with the material on the level it could have. Do you think we’re due for another reboot?

SM: I think we’re so due for a Stepford Wives limited series—and there are a lot of ways you could do this—but I would want to see it take place in Silicon Valley. The mechanical wife is just such an obvious way to disrupt wife technology. [Laughs]

But I think that could be amazing. The Stepford Wives is just such a perfect horror novel, and the [1975] movie has some lovely touches, but you can see a lot of compromise happening in it. It’s great; it’s imperfect. And then you have the Stepford Wives movie from [2004], which is just an utter nightmare. We love Nicole Kidman, but there are limits, Nicole. We won’t watch you in just anything! But it’s clearly an idea that’s just as relevant now as it was 50 years ago.

Kitty Genovese and “Bystander Apathy” (June 20, 2019)

Kitty Genovese and “Bystander Apathy” - You're Wrong About

AVC: What makes this a compelling episode to you?

SM: Kitty Genovese was a story that my mom first told me when I was 12—which is too young. I don’t know what she thought I was going to do. “Sarah’s going to get on a plane and wander around in Queens at night in the 1960s. I’ve got to stop her!”

I remember absorbing it as one of the fairy tales of the time about why little girls can’t go into the world. Because we’ll die.

It’s funny, too, because we did this episode in a week where I was like, Okay, I’m at a loss. I don’t have any good topics. Let’s just do Kitty Genovese. To me it was an amazing story, and I had learned that the facts were very different from what I learned as a child thanks to an article that was in The New Yorker around a decade ago. I thought, well, if it’s in The New Yorker, then everyone knows by now. But that doesn’t turn out to be true. There can be an amazing article that you read about something that completely changes the way you see the world, and that doesn’t mean that it’s common knowledge, unfortunately. So we recorded that episode.

To me, it was important to contextualize—the core myth of Kitty Genovese, and the thing that makes her life into a kind of tough-on-crime teaching tool, is that 37 witnesses watched her be murdered and nobody did anything. Thirty-seven witnesses, and nobody called the police. This was the inflammatory story that made this legend from the beginning. And the most obvious fact, when you think about it, is that if someone is stabbed to death in the wee hours of the morning, why are all these people casually awake, for one thing? Why are they all just sort of sitting around?

As you learn the truth, what it breaks down into is that some of her neighbors did try to call the police. The police were so incompetent at the time that it didn’t matter. The neighbor with the single best and most complete view of what was happening, and who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was being assaulted, was gay, and the idea of calling the cops as a gay man at that time in New York City—if you look at the context of how they had been treating gay people, especially around this idea that they needed to “flush out” gay New Yorkers before the [1964] world’s fair, it isn’t surprising at all that you would potentially be too afraid to call the police.

You end up with some witnesses who saw or heard something. The 37 number, or it might have been 38, is just derived from the number of windows. The single best witness, who knew what he was seeing, was too afraid to act.

And then, looking at the fact that [Kitty Genovese] was living her life as a lesbian at this time, what becomes clear is that if your death becomes famous in some way, and is used by people to prove a point, inevitably it’s going to take over the substance of your life. And you might be someone who these people—who use you as a talking point—wouldn’t have even cared about or protected while she was alive.

AVC: The Kitty Genovese story is told by people who think that it demonstrates something they already know to be true about humanity. But your story, as presented, is more hopeful: It’s that people are looking out for each other. There’s an inherent cruelty in the original version. But when you unpack it, it seems to strip that cruelty away.

SM: Right. Because this mythological world where people are just, like, eating popcorn, casually looking out the window watching someone be stabbed? Yeah, if you believe that wholeheartedly, then that can teach you that you need to be hard enough to survive in a world that’s like that. I think in many ways, in America we’re living every day with the results of people becoming individualists because they grew up learning that it was the only way to make it.

The O.J. Simpson Trial: Nicole Brown Simpson Part 1 (October 3, 2019)

The O.J. Simpson Trial: Nicole Brown Simpson Part 1 - You're Wrong About

[Note: You’re Wrong About has, from 2018 to the present, intermittently released episodes investigating the O.J. Simpson case. The Simpson series, 16 episodes long thus far, is both chronological and ongoing.]

AVC: This is such an opus. As a listener, I put off listening to any of these O.J. episodes for a really long time, because I wanted to eventually listen to them all in a sequence—

SM: Yeah, that would have been nice. It’ll happen someday. [laughs]

AVC: It’s a really interesting listening experience, and it’s so in-depth. What is it about these Nicole episodes within the greater O.J. saga? What makes them great episodes of your show?

SM: I remember first researching Nicole Brown Simpson in 2014. Initially, I wanted to find out what was going on in the O.J. Simpson trial. It was something that I vaguely remembered, but we hadn’t culturally revisited it yet in the way we have now.

The first book I read was Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life, which is real bitchy on the subject of Nicole. It’s very easy to pick up on. I’ve heard women be maligned after their own deaths before, and this is it.

I became really compelled by her story. I also read Raging Heart by Sheila Weller at the time, and a lot of the sources I could find. When The People vs. O.J. Simpson came out [in 2016], I thought, this is exciting, because for one thing, it’s making my argument more viable that people want to consume tabloid stories from the ’90s. So thank you, Ryan Murphy. But I was also like, where is Nicole? I know you only have 10 episodes, FX, but where is she? [Batman voice] Where is she?!

AVC: You’re pop culture Batman!

SM: Yes, ideally. [Laughs] I wait in parking garages and I surprise TV execs.

Initially, I was like, we can do this whole trial story [on the podcast] in 10 installments as well, but mine are going to start off really Nicole-heavy. And then, of course, it’s become one of these fancy restaurant things, where you, like, take a carrot and you atomize it into carrot gel and carrot puff or whatever. You end up with a bit of F. Lee Bailey on the plate, and then some candied Guy Who Did The DeLorean Defense.

It was just a story that I found so heartbreaking. I don’t normally dream about my research at all, but I had dreams about Nicole Brown Simpson. What was hard for me was the repetition of how awful things got, and how violent he became with her. How many people knew, how much people knew. People whose job it was to try and intervene in some way—and just how it never mattered.

I felt like she had been really slandered throughout the trial, and that’s something we can see in our revisitations of that recently. So I thought, you know what? Let’s start with her taking up space as a person, and then let’s see where we can go from there.

AVC: What do you think people get the most wrong about Nicole?

SM: Just to not think about her. One of the reasons we love trial narratives, maybe, is because once it’s a trial story, it’s not a murder story anymore. It can become this long, often somewhat funny daytime drama as opposed to something that happens once very briefly in a way that nobody usually sees—or no one who survives can describe.

The ways that we tried to not take [Nicole’s] trauma seriously were by calling her a “party girl,” like Jeffrey Toobin did. The implication at the time was, well, she wasn’t a very serious person. I don’t know. Does that make it better? No. Unserious people need to live too. You can’t judge that about somebody, but if you could, it wouldn’t matter.

The idea that to be recently divorced, good-looking, and running around town is somehow courting your own murder is a really oppressive idea. It’s disturbing to see on full display. The way to reclaim her is not to say, “No, she was a really good mom!” It’s to say, “She was a really good mom, and she liked to go to the club—and God, did she deserve it!” [Laughs]

AVC: What do you hope to continue doing with You’re Wrong About into the future?

SM: Well, I guess now I want to go write a Stepford Wives TV show.

This is an exciting time to be making the [podcast], because we got to the point where we really knew what we were doing and what it was going to look like each time. And now I’ve been doing it solo for about six months after [former cohost Michael Hobbes] moved on to focus on Maintenance Phase. I know a lot about what I’m trying to do, but it’s a little different each time when I’m with a different person. It’s more guest-oriented now, and that’s showing me what it has the potential to do, and feel like and sound like, in ways I wouldn’t have thought of until you can see it emerging.

I’m looking at ways to expand the brand—oh my god, I can’t believe I just said “expand the brand.” I’m looking for ways to expand the You’re Wrong About experience into things outside of the podcast in the next couple years.

It feels like there will never be an end to the material, and each year that I do it, there are new questions that I find myself learning how to ask and think about. The show and I get to grow together.

AVC: As listeners, we get to expand our own definition of empathy and learn to question the narratives we’re told, but in a way that’s most charitable to the humans in those narratives.

SM: One of the things that makes the show work is that when you’re stretching and using your empathy in new ways, extending yourself empathetically to people who it might be your initial impulse to judge and then push out of your brain—one of the reasons people love that is that it feels good as you’re doing it.

It’s not like taking the recycling bins in or something. It’s not mowing the lawn. It’s not something you do to be a good citizen. If you extend yourself empathetically to someone and feel some kind of connection, even or especially if they’ve behaved in ways that it’s hard for you to imagine behaving in your own life, that feels good. It allows people to expand their definition of what makes them worthy as humans, and maybe to entertain even the idea that humans deserve and require unconditional love.

AVC: That’s the read on history I’ve always wanted.

SM: It’s true!