Discover more from By Tony Russo
I'm Bafflingly Nervous About Being on TV
The documentary I participated in is coming out, and I can't tell anticipation from fear
I’m going to be on television Monday night. I think. I haven’t seen the show from beginning to end, so I don’t know which episodes I’m in and which ones I’m not. The real crazy thing is that, as a cord-cutter, I won’t get to see it when it airs.
The show is called “The Devil You Know Season Two.” It’s a six-episode documentary covering internet cult leader Sherry Shriner and the unsettling power she had over people who had never seen her face. It is such a compelling story.
I crossed paths with the documentary team while I was researching Sherry for what would become, Dragged Into the Light: Truthers, Reptilians, Super Soldiers, and Death Inside an Online Cult. It is fair to say that if I hadn’t met them, I wouldn’t have gotten the story I did.
To be clear, I would have gotten a good story, but when you are neck deep in insane theories almost every waking hour it is so easy to lose reality’s thread. Being able to bounce ideas off of someone else about, say, the difference between demonic and reptilian possession is really helpful when you’re trying to incorporate those differences into nonfiction.
More than that, being able to share impressions about the subjects and the evidence helped me give my story more depth.
There’s no telling what they got from me. Not until the show is out. I have a few guesses but all of them horrify me.
Sometime last spring, I got a call from the show’s executive producer. I’d been going back and forth with another producer, sharing stories and sources on and off. She asked whether I would be interested in being interviewed for the documentary.
There were things I knew and could explain about the cult’s ins and outs that she thought would help. I said I’d be happy to.
A few weeks later I drove to Tobyhanna, Pa., the Pocono Mountain town where the killing at the center of the story takes place. They interviewed me for hours, asking for questions and opinions as I sat at a breakfast bar in a rented condo.
I was the only person in the room not wearing a mask (because I was being filmed). The entire crew was happy to be working but not so happy they were willing to be sick over it. They seemed to be taking hospital-level precautions as they drove around the country interviewing people.
Answering questions about Sherry and justifying my answers really made me think about the story in a way I don’t know whether I would have otherwise.
There were long passages (that I’m sure weren’t used) wherein the director, producer, and I would start reanalyzing how we thought the story fit the world around us, which was getting more insane by the day by last summer.
Here we were talking about chip implants and FEMA plots from as much as a decade before while those very same stories were being repackaged for Covid. It was like talking about a news story before it happened, then watching it happen. No. It wasn’t like that. It was that.
We drove around Tobyhanna, me answering questions and talking politics, the director, masked and scrunched down against the door (to get all of me in the shot, I supposed) prodding me to speak or asking me to stop. They wanted shots of me researching the story the way I had during my previous trips to Tobyhanna. The problem was that the courthouse was closed. Well, closed to filming during a pandemic. Instead, we went to places that were like the places where I’d done my pre-pandemic research.
All in all it felt nice to be treated like a big shot and to have the chance to talk with so many people about my story, fellow experts on an obscure cult. I was happy to be done, but I wasn’t done with Tobyhanna. Toward the end of production they had me up again.
They had wanted to come to my house while I was writing, but I balked at the idea.
First, there was a pandemic on.
Second, my office was converted from my youngest daughter’s room. I’m not much of an aesthetics guy so I just threw up some soundproofing so I could podcast. Today, it is also my closet and dressing room. I’m a function before form guy, and seeing my home and office through a stranger’s judgemental eyes made me way more uncomfortable than I would have imagined.
Third, objectively speaking, my office appeared staged, as if by someone who tried and failed to make it look like a writer worked there. I had never thought about it before entertaining the idea, but after I couldn’t see it any other way. The mess and scattered papers, the errant notes (some taped to the computer screen, others I’d propped against photos or knickknacks in the vain hope I’d notice them later), piled dishes and stacked teacups were too cliche.
The compromise was a stand-in house. This was last fall, and I was really cruising along with my book. I’d knocked out a draft over the course of a two-week fever dream, a breathless report from a panicked witness. Now I was editing and rewriting, trying to make sense of everything the mad dash produced.
I took up residence for a couple of days and brought my office along. They would get to talk to me while I was working, I would get to work, and no one would be in my house. What I jokingly called my Pennsylvania writing retreat turned out to be a perfectly functional office where I got so much work done I considered actually renting a place like it for a month of writing.
By this time, our narratives (I think) had successfully diverged, and I felt good about that. We had and used a lot of the same sources, but they spoke with people I had not and vice-versa.
We also saw the narrative in slightly different but critical ways. What I love about this story is that the facts of the matter are a little fluid and many of the people involved are unreliable. It was a wild monster of a story to negotiate while trying to make a more subtle point about conspiracy culture.
I don’t doubt that they succeeded, but I have no idea how, which is exciting and terrifying.
I don’t have TV, but even if I did, 10 p.m. is pretty far past my bedtime. So the weirdest part will be the not knowing. Waking up Tuesday morning in utter ignorance of what, if anything, I said on television the night before.
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It is likely to be my only Eastern Shore event before the end of the summer. I’m putting together a book tour that will take me to Washington State and back in June and July. I hope to have dates locked in in the next few weeks.