The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded

Intro from Jay Allison: This is a remarkable story. I won’t tell you much about it because the title should be intriguing enough, but it ends up covering the nature of consciousness and what matters in life, and does so with a strong hook and a light touch. For the students among you, we have included two versions (11 and 20 minutes), so you may see what is gained and lost in ruthless editing. This piece was made with help from Seattle’s Jack Straw Artist Support Program and is now available to stations at the Public Radio Exchange. Hannah Palin is a writer, performer and filmmaker. This is her first work for radio.

Download
Listen to “The Day My Mother’ Head Exploded: Version #1”
Download
Listen to “The Day My Mother’ Head Exploded: Version #2”
Tattoo
Mom’s tattoo above her right knee. She put it there so she could look at it all the time.
Space Needle
Mom & I at the Space Needle in Seattle, WA.
Banana
Groucho Marx glasses have become an integral part of our family culture. I’m wearing my very own pair at grandmother’s 75th birthday party.

About the Piece

I’ve wanted to tell my mother’s story, and my own, for years now, but have struggled with form and structure. I’m a writer and producer with a background in theatre and documentary filmmaking. Despite all of the tools at my disposal, I just couldn’t get it right. Then, on a whim, I borrowed a mini-disc recorder and did an extended interview with my mother when she was on a visit to Seattle. A year later, Jack Straw Productions awarded me some studio time and the services of Scott Bartlett, an extraordinarily gifted and patient engineer, who helped me navigate a host of technical landmines so that I could find the true path to this particular story.

“The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded” was first presented to the public as part of the Jack Straw Artist Support Program in April 2003. When the piece was over, my mother joined me on stage where we performed her signature song, “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby.”  And yes, we wore Groucho Marx Glasses.

Tech Info

The interviews for “The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded” were recorded on mini-disc in Seattle on a muggy afternoon in July, 2001. [I borrowed the mini-disc and have no idea what brand it was or what kind of mic I used! Sorry!]

The piece was edited in Pro-Tools using the mini-disc recordings, narrative recorded in the Jack Straw studios, audio from VHS-C camcorder tapes, sound effects from Jack Straw’s extensive pre-recorded library, and the music of artists like Moby, Ry Cooder and the B-52’s. In one section, I wanted the perky music of “The Donna Reed Show” to slow down to nothing as a way to underscore my futile attempt to become my mother. In order to achieve this effect, Scott recorded the Donna Reed theme onto reel-to-reel tape and then, during playback, manually slowed it down until the old machine came to a stop. It worked like a charm.

Hannah Palin

About
Hannah Palin

I am a writer, producer and performer who enjoys working with a variety of different media. I trained extensively in the theatre but became disillusioned, took some time off, and found a living in the catering business. My eight years in the food industry gave me the freedom to explore different creative avenues -- writing, oral history, letterpress printing, documentary filmmaking and, most recently, audio storytelling. I've worked on short form documentaries for KCTS Television in Seattle, as well as for local non-profit groups. I've had a series of essays aired on KUOW 94.9 FM in Seattle. One of my interests is in small gauge film preservation and as such, I spend my days working for a company that transfers home movies and amateur film to videotape. I am the regional coordinator for Home Movie Day and am part of the Moving Image Archives Project at the University of Washington. I am a member of the Association of Independents in Radio as well as the Association of Moving Image Archivists. "The Day My Mother's Head Exploded," is my first work for audio, and was completed in January 2003, with assistance from Jack Straw's Artist Support Program.

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  • Jay Allison

    3.11.04

    Reply
    The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded

    This is a remarkable story. I won’t tell you much about it because the title should be intriguing enough, but it ends up covering the nature of consciousness and what matters in life, and does so with a strong hook and a light touch. For the students among you, we have included two versions (11 and 20 minutes), so you may see what is gained and lost in ruthless editing. This piece was made with help from Seattle’s Jack Straw Artist Support Program and is now available to stations at the Public Radio Exchange. Hannah Palin is a writer, performer and filmmaker. This is her first work for radio.

  • cw

    3.13.04

    Reply
    I liked this piece

    I think you achieved a nice balance between light and heavy in this piece.

  • chelsea merz

    3.15.04

    Reply
    More is more

    Hi Hannah,

    I loved this piece .

    What compelled you to make two versions and which one are you happier with? If you could have had only one version up on Transom, which one would it be?

    I listened to the longer version first so I really, really missed the hospital scenes in the shorter piece. Your portrayal of the hospital culture not only contrasted nicely with your life outside of it–at home with your step-father– but it made what you were feeling and observing that much more vivid and palpable.

    The second version, in comparison, seemed sanitized and the funny and poignant moments seemed somewhat muted. But of course if I heard only the shorter version who knows? It might have been just as effective in a different way. What are your thoughts?

    Is there anyone out there who has a preference?

    Oh, what version does your mom like?

    Many thanks for a great piece.

  • Hannah Palin

    3.16.04

    Reply
    More IS better!

    I just thought I’d put in my two cents on the longer vs. shorter debate! I like the longer piece better but when I was in the throes of editing, I was encoraged to create a shorted version that might be more marketable and fit into programming parameters a bit better. Cutting it from 20 minutes to 11 was a painful experience, but it was also very instructive. It forced me to concentrate on the plot, keeping in only those things that advanced the action. I’m not sure it was completely successful. But, it all seems to depend on which version you hear first.

    The transom folks proposed the idea of putting both on the site and I thought it was a great way to get some feedback and discuss the editing process.

    It’s great to hear that the hospital sequences are effective. It was a very difficult scene to work on–it put me back in the emergency room, a place I never wanted to be again–but I felt like it created the ambiance I was looking for. It was hard to cut it, but, again, it didn’t necessarily advance the plot, just the experience of listening to the piece.

    To answer Chelsea’s question about which verison my mother likes the best…longer. She truly enjoys the limelight, so, well, longer is better!

  • helen woodward

    3.16.04

    Reply
    here here!

    I also preferred the longer version, but I also listened to it first, so I was very aware of what I was missing (like the the extended wendy’s bit that I loved). I wondered if you might talk a bit more about how the process went of producing the 2 versions. had you completed the longer version, or were you working on both in parallel. And also could you expand on how the collaboration worked with the engineer.

  • helen woodward

    3.16.04

    Reply
    This Just in…..

    I have taken great liberties in copying this excellent review (you got 5 stars as well!) over from prx (I am about to email the reviewer). It relates to the longer version only, and has some very interesting observations. (incidentally you definately need to put the short version up there too!):

    "Review of The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded by David Schulman
    PDs at newstalk stations, don’t be put off by the slightly glib title — if you audition no other PRX piece this month, listen to this one. You don’t have 20 minutes to listen, so do this instead: Listen to the start, then go about 6 minutes in, then about 16. You will know then whether this terrific piece can work for your station. This is a lovely and compelling story of a daughter and a mother whose relationship is transformed by a stroke. (The mom almost dies, and emerges, superego impaired, a new and delightful person: "I love sex now; I wasn’t so crazy about it before.") This piece, or a condensed version of it, would work well as part of a show that touches on topics including: *mother-daughter relationships *the cutural phenomenon of hospitalization *kids caring for aging parents. This is serious business, certainly, but the story is told with a light touch and an easy sense of humor. The hospital scene six minutes in is riveting, and realized beautifully as radio. There’s some more amazing tape 16 minutes in — a lovely unforced scene of disagreement between mom and daughter. The BIG question is: How do you program this warm, amusing, deeply stereotype-busting piece? Of course this piece deserves to be heard in the full glory of its 20 minute version, but I’m afraid that length may limit its usefulness for many stations. The most obvious local market for this — if it’s not snapped up by TAL — may be local news-talk shows. This story could be used to focus a discussion — by callers, by local in-studio guests — of some of the topics mentioned above. But a local show can lose it’s own sense of identity going 20 minutes without standing down and bringing in local voices. So if there is a shorter version, or a version that occurs in three or four segments, I urge the producers to make these alternatives available to stations via PRX. I think this could add significant flexibility, and could get this on the air more often, in more places, and at times of day when more people are listening. Personally, I think this is some great radio, and I want lots of people to hear it. "

  • Hannah Palin

    3.18.04

    Reply
    The Process

    Sorry I haven’t written sooner. I haven’t been able to get to the computer, no matter how hard I tried!

    Helen was asking which version came first. Here’s my process…I transcribed my mother’s interview and looked for the most interesting, charged bits. Then I wrote a really, really long version–it would probably have been about 45 minutes had it survived. That’s what I brought in to Scott at Jack Straw. Now, this being my first radio experience, I wasn’t really sure how to approach the editing sessions.So we just started importing stuff from the Mini-Discs (which was a bit traumatic because I’d been working off the wrong timecode. At one point I thought about walking out and giving up completely but ultimately, it worked itself out!) We also took some sound from videotapes that I had of my mother and I singing together (not much of that made it into the final version).

    Once I started hearing the clips in sequence, I realized that there were sections that either didn’t work or didn’t sound nearly as good as they looked on paper. Scott would burn me a copy of the session, I’d go home, pop it into my computer, and start to play and rethink everything. I have to say that Scott was very patient and there’s a nice spot for him in editing heaven, because there were times when I came into the next edit session and rearranged all the work we’d done the last time.

    Scott was also wonderful because I was able to describe what I wanted in a particular section, I could hear it in my head but I didn’t know how to create it and he always had great suggestions. We spent a lot of time playing with different ideas– layering sound effects, for example, to create the hospital sequence or when I wanted the Donna Reed theme music to warp and slow down to nothing. It was an amazing experience to watch the piece unfold on the screen. There was a time when I couldn’t figure out how to end the thing. We played around with a couple of different ideas and then we tried ending it with my mother saying maybe life is all about being a vegetable farmer in Vietnam. We both sat there, silent, and finally one of us said, "That’s it." And it was. I’m still not sure what it means, I just know that’s how it’s supposed to end! The great thing about working with Scott was that , by the end of our time editing together (about once a week from September-January!), we were working as a team and collaborating on the piece together (which is one of the reasons I gave him the assistant producer credit).

    Ultimately, I ended up with a version that I liked but I was still getting feedback that it was too long. That’s when I cut it down from 30-ish minutes to 20. THEN, I started hearing that programming 20 minutes would be difficult so it needed to be even shorter. Oy! That’s how the 11 minute version came into being. I just whacked away at the long version until I had something I could live with.

    It’s funny. I just listened to both pieces again for the first time in months. I started with the short version and didn’t really miss anything. It felt like a complete story. Then I listened to the long version and it is definitely a lot more fun!

  • Hannah Palin

    3.18.04

    Reply
    Question

    I’m curious to know what people think about this…

    I recently got the feedback that the sound effects in the piece are "distractions" and are "unneccessary" and that because they are "not authentic sounds recorded at the time of the events, they are superfluous."

    If the goal is to create (or re-create) an experience for the listener, what means do you use? How do you build an auditory environment if there aren’t any "authentic sounds?" For example, I obviously wasn’t thinking about creating a radio piece 15 years ago and so there’s no audio to fall back on for "The Day…"

    What would you do?

  • Phil Easley

    3.18.04

    Reply
    Hannah’s Mothers

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve pontificated about "shorter being better". Now I have to rethink everything. I didn’t even consider listening to the longer version. Maybe later, if I feel like studying the process. So I listen to the 11-minute version, and think, "yeah, it’s a nice piece, well-crafted, kinda quirky, some high points…", but it just didn’t quite grab me the way I expected it to. It was okay, it was fine, it was better than I would have ever done, but I just couldn’t get worked up about it. Finally, I listen to the longer version, almost had to drag myself to the task. NOW I get it! Somehow, the longer one made me care a lot more. Character development, I guess. The shorter one didn’t quite pass my rather harsh-sounding "So what?" test (quirky well-crafted with some amusing high points isn’t quite enough on my most curmudgeonly days), but the longer one did. I got to know the two of you better, I shared more of your experience. So there, I like the long version better, and I heard the short one first!

    It is still true that most radio stations think 20 minutes is an eternity…actually, quite a few think 11 minutes is an eternity.

    I don’t think the sirens, Donna Reed music, etc. were distractions at all. Some news programs have policies against that sort of thing, but I think more for purposes of "authenticity" rather than story production quality. One could easily overdo that kind of spice, but to my taste it was just right.

  • Sydney Lewis

    3.22.04

    Reply

    First I heard the short, then the long. I thought the short was super, streaked like an arrow. having listened to both again. gee. I don’t know. I like them, long and short. The long has some details that pull the narrative wider and that’s very satisfying. But I think they’re both gosh darn good.
    Also, found the sound effects handled well, supportive, not distracting. Mood evoking. Clearly this is a story told from the present about the past, so authenticity issue not relevant. artistic license rules. thank you Hannah and thank you Hannah’s singing mom. Sometimes now I find myself singing the Wendy’s song, and I’ve never even had one!
    Now, do I have a question? Hmm. What are you working on these days?

  • Hannah Palin

    3.23.04

    Reply
    Wendy’s song

    I’m so very sorry to put the Wendy’s song in your head! It’s really catchy and before you know it, you just want to go have a Frosty and some fries. Perhaps I should contact Wendy’s about my mother being their spokesperson!
    I’m not really working on any audio-related projects at the moment. I’m about to start to work at the University of Washington on a project with their film collection. But I’m toying with another piece I’ve been calling "My Dead Dad." It’s about my estranged artist father who I never really met until he passed away.

  • Rupa Marya

    4.04.04

    Reply
    tiny explosions

    Hannah,

    This piece is sublime. I enjoyed every minute of the long version, didn’t even realize 20 minutes had passed. The story itself is poignant and well-done. Your narration is intimate and necessary as the story is one of relationship, not just a portrait of a changed woman. I love the way the tale starts with the singing and a description of how positive things had come out of this horrible event. It pulled me in instantly.

    About sound effects, I did end up being a little distracted by the ICU sounds. It did make the piece "sound good" but a part of me was wondering how you got that sound. It pulled me away from what you were relating and made me focus for a moment on who was on the end of the ventilator you were recording.

    I don’t think we have to be purists necessarily with where we get our sound. At Salt, because it’s a documentary institute, we are supposed to use only the sound that was in the field when we were recording. The issue of whether or not to use music came up a lot in our class. Some refer to it as "emotional facism" dictating what the listener was supposed to feel, while others think it lends an emotional background upon which to set a scene. I think it depends on the piece and how the sound is used. And in the ICU scene, it did distract me. In the other scenes, I felt your sounds and music created a nice layer.

    I wonder if you can speak about interviewing your mom. What was it like? Was it harder or easier than other interviews that you’ve done? Did you feel some areas were off-limits and just not go there? In the piece you mentioned that you and your mom had not talked about the incident in a great while. The tape that follows that, is that from the first time you talked about it?

    Wonderful story. Your mom and you are superstars. Those moments when life comes crashing down and you get to step off the madness and see what it’s about are gifts if you know what to make of them. It sounds like you and your mom did.

    Rupa

  • Hannah Palin

    4.11.04

    Reply
    Interviewing mom

    Dear Rupa,
    Thanks so much for your lovely comments about the piece! It’s gratifying to know that it’s touching folks in all the right places!

    As for interviewing my mother…she’s actually a really easy interview and drawing her out wasn’t hard at all. I made a short film about her obsession with Wendy’s a few years back and discovered that she spoke in nice, complete sentences and answered the questions in really wonderful (and very useable!) ways. So I knew interviewing her for the radio piece would probably flow pretty well.

    My mother has talked about writing a book about her experience and I think the radio piece was her chance to talk about the aneurysm in full detail. We spent about four hours in front of the microphone doing an official interview but we’d been leading up to it over the course of her week-long visit, so she was kind of "primed" to spill the beans. It didn’t seem like she had any real emotional difficulty talking about the aneurysm, but there were some moments that were a little rough for me. I think the hardest part was letting her know that I felt my "old mother" was dead and that I didn’t quite know what to do with the "new mom." I wasn’t sure how she’d take that. But, in typical "new mom" fashion, she seemed completely at ease with that idea. I was taken aback by how much more comfortable she is now than she was when I was growing up. It was something I knew, but it really helped to actually hear her say things like she likes sex now or that she eats Wendy’s hamburgers because, basically, life is too short!

    There was, of course, an awful lot that didn’t make its way into the piece that was very helpful and informative for me on a personal level. And a lot of that helped me write the narrative, when all was said and done. Now that I think about it, it was hard to be both a daughter and a producer simultaneously. I knew what I wanted and needed her to say for the piece, but I also wanted to keep my ears and my heart open for the unexpected, the surprising and also, the healing elements of what she had to say. It was tricky, but I’m very glad I made the attempt.
    Thanks for listening!
    Hannah

  • MArk Annett

    4.20.04

    Reply
    Your Mother is more interesting than you

    Hi Hannah,

    I very much enjoyed your piece. I only listened to the short version. I was going to listen to the long version but I saw that a lot of people had started with that and I thought I might be helpful to give you my comments as someone who just listens to the short version.

    I have a couple of suggestion about how you might be able to make the piece more compact and more exciting to the listener. The main point is that in the short version you might want to consider not trying to do two things and just focus on one.

    My guess is that you started out to tell not just your mother’s story but also your own experiences. I assume that most of what you cut from the long to the short already was many of your interactions and I would think you could tighten the story more by cutting your self a little bit more. You have two stories here not one. Tell them separately or just stick to the long version.

    I would suggest starting with action, I.e. the ambulance sound up until she is squeezing your hand. That way suspense is built and then go back to what is your present beginning. I found it a little distracting to have gotten emotionally involved with your mother and then having to take a step back for the technical info, which I believe is also necessary.

    You and your mother singing is a very powerful start but I wanted to stay with your mother in the present and flashbacks are always risky, which is why I suggest redoing the order.

    I really like the Vietnam part. I would suggest that you cut your interactions with your father-in-law and you becoming your mother out of this version. Your Mother is the one the listener is really interested in, at least in the shorter piece. Go right from the Vietnam to the phrase “slowly… very slowly this other person began to emerge.”

    From there on I think you are great! Just keep your self as sort of an impartial observer. In a short piece that is your job as the interviewer. In a longer piece it might make sense for me to form and emotional connection with you too but not in this one.

    There is one thing I wanted you to say that you didn’t. Towards the end, you say that life can all be over in a flash. However, in your mother’s case it can all begin in a flash. What I got from this story is that your mother is living a richer more happy life then she ever did before. I wanted you personally to make the transition from your old mother died , and mourning her, to the recognition that although she might embarrass you, she is lucky to have been reborn as this new person.

    Best wishes,

    -Mark-

  • Tracy Morris

    7.25.04

    Reply
    My Mom’s Head Exploded, Too

    Our family’s experience with brain aneurism began in 1991, just when my mom was about to retire from 30 years of teaching public elementary school. She, too, came out a ‘new mom’ — a much more mellow version of herself.

    This is the first time I’ve heard another’s similar story. I have absolutely no technical comments — I guess that coming from my personal vantage point, I couldn’t be critical if I tried. I thoroughly enjoyed your story. Your mom sounds as wonderful as mine.

    Thanks so much,
    ~Tracy

  • praak

    10.30.06

    Reply
    My Mom’s Head Blew Up Too!

    Dear Hannah,

    Tonight, my friend Ed called me to tell me that there was a story on NPR which resembled that of MY life story. I have goose bumps just having listened to your story.

    In 1981, my mother Joan had a brain aneurysm and was 51 years old. I was 14 years old. I could go on and on about how I relate to you so strongly on the grief process that went into accepting the changes in "this other person" we used to call our mom. You said it perfectly.

    Mom was my best friend. I loved her so much. My need for acceptance came when she died 12 years later. I soon realized while I was grieving her death, I had never grieved the loss of the mother I knew before "her head exploded". It is a process that I feel no one truly understands, so it was so nice to hear your story. What a wonderful job you did telling your story. PS: My Mom’s song was Silent Night.

    More power to both of you.

    Patty

  • Matthew Taylor

    1.17.07

    Reply
    My wife’s head exploded

    Hannah,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with the world. My wife suffered a ruptured cranial aneurysm 6 years ago, and your piece transported me back to that time. The grief, the acceptance, the changes, you shared them so well (and I only listened to the short version).

    I was compelled to write about my experience. One version was published in Potomac Review (Spring/Summer 2005). I continue to write about it as I struggle to tell the story.

    I met Cathy Crimmons, the author of a fantastic book called "Where is the Mango Princess?" about her husband’s traumatic brain injury (different cause, same outcome). She said these stories must be told, and yours is very moving. Thank you.

    Matthew Taylor

  • MeBMe

    12.31.10

    Reply
    Thank you so much for sharing this story…

    I listened to this story a few days ago via Third Coast International’s Re:Sound podcast about The Brain.

    My mother’s head almost exploded. By that I mean that she was also found to have an aneurysm, but by the grace of good fortune, it was discovered and she underwent a very risky coiling procedure to prevent rupture. I worry about her every day. But what’s more I am grateful to have the ability to see her alive.

    Your story did several things for me. One, it cheered me up. I have been unemployed and terribly depressed for a very, very long time now. I have difficulty convincing myself that I have anything for which to be thankful, much less anything for which I must live. Your mother’s infectious spirit made me feel grateful that my mother lives (even if I am ashamed that she must see me feeling so useless), and your story encouraged me to recognize that even a little thing can be worth holding on to. Sometimes little things are all we have. That doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Second, I am forever going to be singing that Wendy’s song in my head. Wendy’s, Wendy’s, Wendy’s!

    I hope you and your mother are healthy, happy, and hopeful.

  • Barbara Stanley

    11.07.11

    Reply

    Dear Hanna,

    Thank you so much for this perfect, beautiful story. My mother’s head exploded back in 1984, she had three shunt replacements over the years and a new knee – I called her the bionic woman. When she had her aneurysm she was hospitalized for six months was in a coma and lost all her speech and had to learn to walk again. Eventually she drove a car and was able to balance her check book but she never cried after the explosion. She knew when things where sad but she never cried – but I make up in that area for her. After the explosion she was very child like and loved to laugh and eat.

    She passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 88 of complications from a broken leg. I miss her so very, very much and wish I had a recording of her voice and stories like you do with your mother. It so great that you did heartfelt story – especially for us who can relate and just for you and your mom. What a treasure.

    So many things you talked about I could totally relate to, like I became my mother and she would say things out loud that shouldn’t be said. It also brought up so many other memories. And though the explosion happened when she was 62 the mom I knew before I really don’t remember. For many years I thought of the explosion as something bad that happened to my mom and to me (I was her main care giver over the years.) I am blessed by who she was because of her explosion. Even though your piece made me cry a lot, I loved it and I love the version #1 More is better. More life, more love.

    Many blessings to you and your mother,
    Barbara

  • macon

    2.06.13

    Reply

    Hello Hannah!
    I know you made this many years ago, so Im not sure if you still get these comments, but I was sent to this piece because this past OCt my mother was hit by a truck on her bike and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Strangely enough, I was living in Chicago too when I got the call and spent weeks at the ICU holding her hand and just hoping and praying to the world that she would live. And now i too am getting to know this new wonderful lady who is more relaxed and positive than ever and experiencing all the waves of emotion around it. Thank you for this piece, it is truly a gift. Thank you thank thank you,
    Macon Reed

  • Jennifer Caldwell

    10.12.15

    Reply

    Beautiful documentary! Please share NPR interview…where might I find it?

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