The StoryCorps booth, new to the Chicago Cultural Center
The StoryCorps booth, new to the Chicago Cultural Center Credit: Andrea Bauer

I’m sitting in a dimly lit recording booth, about the size of an elevator, at a small table opposite my friend Brenna. The only things between us are a couple cups of water, our microphones, a lamp, a box of tissues, and my notebook. The setup is designed to encourage meaningful eye contact. “So,” I ask, “when did you meet Greg?”

Greg and Brenna met as teenagers in an online poetry forum, and eloped seven years later. Their story is an unlikely, romantic, lucky, and at times scandalous one, and although I’ve known them for about four of the six years they’ve been married, I’ve never heard it. For the better part of an hour I ask Brenna about getting to know someone 2,000 miles away, the first pictures she ever saw of him, the first time they met, realizing they were in love, realizing they wanted to get married without waiting. It’s a whirlwind romance that took seven years, and it’s a great story. We emerge from the booth 40 minutes later, slightly dazed. The world feels loud by comparison.

Founded in 2003 and new to Chicago, StoryCorps offers space, equipment, and assistance to people with something to say. It’s “a very simple idea,” as founder Dave Isay once put it. “You bring a loved one with you, a parent, a friend, someone you met on the bus whose story you want to get to know. And the door shuts, and for 40 minutes you just talk.” What you talk about is up to you.

The conversation takes place in a small, soundproof digital recording booth. Chicago’s eight feet by eight feet fit two participants plus a StoryCorps facilitator intimately (there’s room for a third participant to sit in on but not be part of the conversation). At the beginning of the one-hour appointment, the facilitator goes through guidelines, suggests questions, and checks microphone levels, then for the most part lets the participants navigate the conversation. At the end of the session, two CDs are burned. One goes home with the participants, and the other is archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Each Friday, the national StoryCorps organization contributes an edited story for broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The conversations range from mournful to celebratory, painful to funny. Children interview parents, parents interview grandparents, wives interview husbands, veterans discuss combat experience, a couple remembers a beloved pet, classmates talk about high school, friends ask friends about eloping. What all the stories have in common is that they get personal—more personal than everyday conversations with your loved ones tend to get.

Ritesh Parekh interviewed his wife, Tina Shah, about their first baby, who’s due next month.Credit: Andrea Bauer

A few days after I looked into Brenna’s eyes and asked her if she believed in soul mates, I listened in as Ritesh Parekh interviewed his wife, Tina Shah. They’re both 30 years old and live in Skokie. It was the eighth anniversary of their first date, and they came in to talk about their first child, who will be born next month.

Parekh told me they’d spent a little time talking about parenting, but he wanted to take the opportunity to talk more about their expectations and reflect on how their lives were about to change. He wanted to walk away from the booth “not just having a CD but having a new perspective” on being a parent.

They’re having a girl, and they want her to be warm, curious, well-rounded, adventurous, and kind. Parekh asked Shah what she was scared of, what she was looking forward to, and if she wanted to be the same kind of mom her own mother was. They talked about their relationship, how its strengths and weaknesses would be amplified by parenting, and the need for a secret signal if they felt an argument coming on when their daughter was in the room.

A lot of Parekh’s questions were hard, like “What traits do you want our daughter to have that I don’t have?” But aside from one emphatic disagreement (“Are you scared about boys?” “Not really.” “What?”), they’re on the same page. “It’s going to come to you like it’s going to come to me,” Shah told him. “I have faith it will be fine.”

Shah and Parekh came to the StoryCorps booth on the eight anniversary of their first date.Credit: Andrea Bauer

Shah told me that the experience was a “cool, intimate way to get to know someone you already know,” and that she had been wanting to participate in StoryCorps for several years. Mariana Motherway, on the other hand, had to be talked into it. She’s 13, a seventh grader at Park View school in Morton Grove, and came in to be interviewed by her father, Michael Motherway, who lives in Elk Grove.

Mariana is African-American, and was adopted by Michael and his ex-wife, both white, who have each since remarried. Mariana lists her birth mother, birth father, adopted father, stepmother, adopted mother, and stepfather, and then deadpans, “I have a lot of parents in my life.” Michael wanted to participate in StoryCorps so he could ask her, essentially, how she’s doing with all of it.

They talk about her adoption, whether she’s curious about her birth parents, and what it’s like for her to split time between two homes and four parents, who have different expectations about everything from hygiene to religion. They talk about her growing up in a mostly white community, the racism she’s experienced from classmates and teachers, and how she looks forward to going to a high school with more than just a handful of African-Americans in her class.

Michael said some of the questions were “heart-wrenching to ask,” since they were talking about whether or not Mariana’s happy with the life that resulted from her adoption. He was surprised by quite a few of her answers, and obviously gratified by the strength and confidence she demonstrated throughout their talk. “I’m an adopted African-American with divorced parents,” she said at the close of their session. “Life’s tough, huh?” he said. “Not really,” she said.

After each interview, participants take home one of two CDs of the recording; the other goes to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.Credit: Andrea Bauer

“It would be great if StoryCorps is seen as a true asset to the city,” says Shirley Alfaro, the Chicago site supervisor. “I want individuals, communities, and institutions to view StoryCorps as a resource for them. What connects us in this world is our empathetic nature and genuine sense of humanity. Stories are a way to provide a platform of thought, compassion, and dialogue. We need to have more spaces like this in society, and StoryCorps is a pioneer of this.”

StoryCorps opened its first recording booth in New York City in 2003, and has added locations in San Francisco, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Alaska (the last three are no longer operating). Chicago is the fourth city to get a permanent recording booth, which opened on the ground floor of the Chicago Cultural Center in early May. Stories will be recorded in the new location on Thursdays and Saturdays, and one a week will be edited for broadcast on WBEZ during All Things Considered starting on May 24.

StoryCorps also operates two MobileBooths, recording studios on wheels that make one-month stops to record in various cities around the country. Its Door-to-Door service sends facilitators to record stories on-site, at a fee, for organizations that request it. Nationwide, StoryCorps has recorded more than 45,000 stories from over 90,000 participants.

As it’s expanded, the organization has launched the Memory Loss Initiative, to collect the stories of sufferers of memory loss and their families; the Griot Initiative, for the stories of African-American families; StoryCorps Historias, for the stories of Latino Americans; as well as the September 11th Initiative, the Military Voices Initiative, and the National Teachers Initiative. In 2008 the organization created a National Day of Listening, encouraging people across the country to record their own interviews with family and friends. Recently, the Chicago Public Library was selected to take part in the national pilot program StoryCorps @ Your Library. In conjunction with this year’s One Book, One Chicago pick, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, the program will record stories from people involved in the Great Migration.

And yet for such an ambitious national organization, the experience it provides each participant is intimate, personal, and unique to them. A native Chicagoan, Alfaro cites the city’s history as ideal for StoryCorps, and hopes people of all ages, from every neighborhood and community, will participate. “Everyone has a story to tell, whether they believe it or not,” she says.

Michael Motherway plans to put the CD away and listen to it in five years, when Mariana is 18, to see “how her voice has changed, how her opinions have changed,” and says he would “absolutely come back” with her again. Ritesh Parekh and Tina Shah thought they might listen to the CD in a year, to see how their experience of parenting compares with their predictions, or that they might give it to their daughter someday when she’s pregnant, or come back to record with her. Brenna played our conversation for Greg when she got home, and I’ve listened to bits of it a few times. I’m struck by how easy it would have been for any of us to have these conversations on our own, but none of us ever had.