Thursday, May 8, 2008

"This American Life" focuses on disabled man's goal of independence

Mike Phillips, 27, and his girlfriend,
Sara Rosenbaum, 29.

The first episode of Season 2 of "This American Life" on Showtime (it's also a long-time radio show on PRI) focused on "Escape" and spent most of the episode with Mike Phillips of Tampa, Fla., 27, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a very debilitating disability in which he has gradually lost most muscle function over the course of his life and now can move only his face and his finger.

The episode started out a bit rocky with its focus on his mother's constant care giving, but it quickly became clear why that needed to be included because Phillips talked about his desire to be an independent man living on his own throughout the rest of the show.

It turned out to be a phenomenal portrait of Phillips, which gave thoughtful insight into how someone with such a serious disability makes his way in the world. But make his way he does. He wanted to have a non-family member caregiver so he went on to Craig's List and hired one. He wanted intimate connections, so he went onto Craig's List and met his girlfriend.

Due to some medical setbacks months back, he had to have a tracheotomy so isn't usually able to use his voice. Ira Glass, host of "This American Life," asked him whose voice he'd like to have read his thoughts. He said, "Johnny Depp." So that's who read his voice over.

Because almost 20 minutes of the 30-minute show were devoted to Mike Phillips story, viewers were able to get a multi-faceted look at how he lives his life and what he thinks about his life. The show also explores how society treats his girlfriend for dating a disabled man and her thoughts about relationship with Phillips.

You can watch a clip from the episode on the Showtime Web site.

Also, the St. Petersburg Times wrote about how Mike Phillips and Ira Glass built the relationship that would inform the show.

The two talked by e-mail and Phillips says in the Times that he honestly told Glass his innermost thoughts -- thoughts that no one else knew.

"I wanted to tell him everything," Phillips said about the e-mails with Glass. "I was really kind of screwed up and I didn't know how to fix it."

Glass said: "The way he wrote about what those moments were like was utterly without melodrama. It was just a very easy reporting of, 'Here's everything that goes through my head when I realize I may die in a minute.' It was kind of amazing."

Glass was determined to avoid a sappy, cliched story about overcoming a disability.

And I think he accomplished that. This episode was a story of Mike Phillips life, not his disability.