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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Jan 08, 2019

The MOTHerview with Storyteller James Braly

by Suzanne Rust

James Braly

“I could see that anger for my family was a narcotic: we used conspiracy theories to numb the hard fact that one of us was about to die.”

When James’ estranged family comes together to fulfill his dying sister’s wish, the author realizes that letting go can be hard, beautiful, and sometimes funny. 

You’ve told many stories for The Moth. What has it meant for you to be able to share those stories on stage, and this one in particular?

I started telling stories at The Moth partly to understand my marriage. There was a human placenta in my freezer, two young boys in my bed, and a whole lot of breastfeeding going on... I had been to probably 10 mental health professionals by this point — couples counselors who had tried (and failed) to help. So when I discovered The Moth, I thought I might crowd source some solutions. My theory being, if I could figure out why I was choosing my marriage, I’d be happy, because I was getting the life I chose. So every story had a happy ending. 

Eventually I put a bunch of these stories together in an early version of a show. And someone who lived in my apartment building saw my show and walked up to me afterwards and whispered in my ear, “Who do you think you’re kidding?” This led me to change my show, which changed my career and my marital status. In other words, The Moth fundamentally impacted my personal and professional life.

As for this story in particular, as I was living it in Houston I called Catherine Burns [The Moth’s artistic director] in New York to reluctantly cancel an upcoming performance at The Moth. Catherine was, of course, totally gracious and understanding and perhaps even a little bit pitying that there would even be a debate in my mind as to which obligation was more important. But there was a debate -- The Moth meant that much to me. That is why, after I flew back to New York City, the first place I told people my sister had died was on stage at The Moth. It felt like home – in a good way.

After decades of turmoil and estrangement, what was it like for your family to finally come together for your sister Kathy? What stands out in that memory?

I told Kathy at the time that she was a trailblazer for my family. She was the first to choose an artistic path – moving to LA to be a singer, and eventually opening for The Beach Boys and Steve Miller (in a concert my brother produced). She was the first to live in Europe, moving to Rome and learning Italian. And now, she was the first to die, which brought the rest of us together for the first time in many years. She was a pioneer, which I told her on her deathbed. Which made her smile.


I think that people are often surprised that during the darkest times (like your sister’s illness and passing) we still have the capacity to find humor, which you certainly find a lot of.  Can you talk a little about those mixed emotions?

A few days after I landed in Houston, I became aware of feeling something I had never felt: ecstatic from living totally in the present. Previously, I was living in the past (Why didn’t my sister take better care of herself?) or the future (My sister is going to die!). It was an incredible feeling. Which set me to thinking, Is it wrong to feel ecstatic when my sister is dying? Maybe. But I’m gonna take notes.

And the more notes I took, the more insane and funny the events around me appeared. My dying sister is plotting to adopt her boyfriend so he can inherit money she doesn't have? Insane. And funny. (And this particular conspiracy theory was hatched by ME. Because the crazy apple does not fall far from the crazy tree – and I was back in the orchard.)

In other words, I could see that anger for my family was a narcotic: we used conspiracy theories to numb the hard fact that one of us was about to die. When that finally clicked for me, I decided to try to hold on to the present, ecstatic moment for dear life. And a lot of the time the present moment was, me sleeping on a window seat in a hospice room with my bald, terminal sister in the bed nearby, buzzing with a drug pump every 20 minutes and periodically waking up to ask me to massage her feet and give her cherries and vanilla ice cream.

It sounds like you and your sister were very close. What do you miss most about Kathy?

Her sense of humor. She is – or was – the funniest person I have ever met. And she was also the only person who understood my sense of humor literally at a molecular level. So losing her was a Last of the Mohicans kind of thing – I felt seen by her in a way I don’t know I ever will feel again.


Who are your favorite storytellers and why?

I loved Spalding Gray, who pioneered the long form autobiographical monologue and made it look so easy, like he was just talking, which he was. But when you saw him perform the same monologue multiple times, you could see the work.  I love the Scottish comic Billy Connolly, who tells transcendently hilarious riffs, which remind you, you don't have to have every word right – structure and moment-to-moment feeling can be just as effective as a perfectly constructed story. Lily Tomlin’s Broadway show The Search for Sign of Intelligent Life in the Universe many years ago was amazing for the opposite reason – it was like watching a Swiss watch –only it made you laugh, a lot. And Blown Sideways Through Life by Claudia Shear was tour de force brilliant – and raw, in a Moth kind of way.


What kind of story do you think your family would tell about you?

After my book came out, my mom told me how hurt she was by how I portrayed her. She had already seen my show, which portrayed her the same way. But evidently sitting on an easy chair, holding a book written by your son, and reading the same lines over and over was a different experience. In fact, it was so painful for her, she said she could not finish it. I asked her what upset her so much. She said I portrayed her as a vacant, venal debutante. Maybe she didn't use those words exactly, but that was the gist. Versus as a woman who, for example, had the strength to gather her family after she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer and say she wasn’t going to die and that she couldn't have anymore stress and that she was dumping any family member who couldn't be a positive force in her life.

Which is to say, I think my family might tell a story about a guy who doesn’t necessarily present them at their best, and at his worst takes too many notes and spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing.


What are you most proud of? 

My sons. They’re both amazing to me, in different ways. And my show, Life in a Marital Institution: 20 Years of Monogamy in One Terrifying Hour.


When you look at that last family photo now, what thoughts and feelings come to mind?

How fast time passes. And how being in the present – as I learned in the Houston Hospice – is really how you – or at least I – want to live.


Please finish this sentence: Storytelling is important because...

It’s fun, it’s infinite – you can always get better – and it makes you feel less alone, because you realize other people feel like you feel, which depending on how you feel that day about people is a very good feeling!

For more on James, go to www.jamesbraly.com

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One Last Family Photo

by James Braly

Estranged for 20 years, a man's family is brought together by his sister's last wishes.

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