Intro from Jay Allison: The audio diary is a tricky form. Story and teller are merged in the moment, bound by voice. The voice of 12-year-old Payton Smith is disarming in its spirit and honesty. Payton recorded during a two-year separation from her incarcerated mother. Hear her voice in this collaboration between Payton and producer Chana Joffe-Walt, with help from Viki Merrick.
About “Not All Bad Things”
Payton and I met in the car. We got to know each other on rides to and from Washington state prisons. I was working with a Girl Scouts program for girls whose mothers are incarcerated. The girls have troop meetings and monthly visits to state corrections facilities; Payton had been in the troop for about four years.
Payton’s the kind of kid who wants to enjoy everything. She looks for pockets of fun in any kind of bleak situation and desperately wants everyone around her to be happy. She’s also the kid that taught me about how complicated it is to have a parent locked up. She maintained pure adoration for her mom when I met her although that changed over the first year I knew her.
Last summer when there were murmurs of her mom getting released early, I brought up the idea of her recording her thoughts about her mom’s release. At that point she was adjusting her countdowns each time the release dates changed on her. Still, she didn’t talk about disappointment, loss of trust, anger and endless frustration. She was always too busy trying to make sure everyone was having a good time.
“Not All Bad Things” is a mix of my interviews with Payton and her recording on her own for about five months. Once a week Payton and I would interview in the car parked outside a McDonalds or Subway. Sometimes we’d sit and listen to tape she’d recorded and talk about it (on mic). Those ended up being important moments where she’d say, “that’s not the point Chana, the point is…”
Joe Richman’s non-narrated, intimate Radio Diaries are what first got me excited about radio, and I’ve always wanted to do pieces like them. Producing a non-narrated piece that is true to Payton’s experience was fascinating and totally frustrating. I got lots of help: the Transom operation, (with Viki at the helm) swooped in and did their magic; my step-mom Ellen told me where the emotion was once I’d forgotten; Yvonne Vasquez shared my excitement for Payton and her stories; and my favorite man Lincoln listened over and over, then pulled me back enough so I could see.
Payton’s magic for me was that in conversation she brings this large bureaucratic system down to one twelve year-old: how it affects Payton. I want the piece to reflect that remarkable quality in her.
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From Payton Smith
One day we were going to prison and Chana asked me to take a recorder around and record things while my mom is gone. I wanted to talk about my mom because I thought it would make it easier to deal with it. It would take it off my chest. I’d have a lot to say.
I started recording my brothers’ birthdays, us at my cousins’ house and stuff at school. It was crazy, everybody kept trying to sing into the mic. My teachers thought it was a CD player and the principal even took it away for a while. It made me feel different because I was the only one who got to do it and everyone was like “oh you’re lucky.” During my interviews I felt special, I felt like a reporter from The New York Times.
In my interview with my mom, I found out she was going through a lot and was struggling while she was away. She was trying to get all her stuff together, figuring out where she was going to go and what kind of job she was going to get. The more I got into the conversation during the interview it made me realize how much I really love her and that it’s all going to be OK and that I really need to support her more than I have been.
My sister Jasmine was feeling different. She was like, “I know she’s not going to be here and there’s nothing we can do about it.” My grandma just talked about how concerned she was about us and how we should stay in church. She’s the type of grandma that likes to get her point across. If she’s not right, nobody’s right. It made me irritated at times. While Jasmin and Grandma was sitting there talking about how I have to deal with it, I was thinking of another way — like giving mom support.
My mother came home finally. Since my mom has been home I’ve gotten my own room, $5 for cleaning her room, money just because, and I get to go more places. My attitude has changed like I’ll clean up just because and I’ll get my brother ready for school just because. Its important for her to be in my life because without her we’d all be extra bad because a whole bunch of kids need parents guidance. You need some kind of support behind you.
From Viki Merrick
There have been a myriad of variations in approaching the edit on this tape. There are so many sides to Payton, a young girl finding her own path through these unusual circumstances. Payton’s revealment of hurt, defiance, acquiescence and resilience all in 10 minutes is extraordinary and exquisitely painful. From the very first, I felt like a guard dog making sure that the listener remain invested in Payton at all times and not be distracted by her sister Jasmin or Grandma or her Mom. That made for an interesting exercise. Chana would deftly move around the pieces like playing with the light on a diamond necklace; A process that lends itself to going after just one more gem to add to the string to make it better. The lack of chronological importance lent itself to us being able to try that – fodder for further discussion once you’ve listened to the piece. Come back and talk!
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