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Bestiality, micropenises and incest: Here's what we learned from today's bizarre Reddit AMA

A New York Magazine writer reflects on her diverse — and surprisingly illuminating — portfolio of interviews


Colin Gorenstein
March 10, 2015 1:51AM (UTC)

New York Magazine's Science For Us columnist Alexa Tsoulis-Reay has one of the most fascinating writing portfolios a journalist could ask for. She's interviewed a man dating his horse, a 58-year-old virgin, a man with a micropenis and an 18-year-old in a romantic relationship with her father.

Monday Afternoon, the tables were turned as Tsoulis-Reay participated in a Reddit AMA and answered questions from the online community about what she's learned from working so closely with such interesting characters.

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Tsoulis-Raey's AMA is a humanizing examination of subjects frequently dismissed as "weird" or "abnormal" and a macro-level interrogation of the systems that have failed them.

Here's what we learned from today's Reddit AMA with Tsoulis-Reay:

There's a through-line in all of these off-color narratives: trauma (full excerpt here).

When I first started doing these interviews I would start each call waiting for the scene where the dad does something terrible...

I'd say the main theme is trauma. Usually the death of a family member or childhood abuse or abandonment. Almost all my subjects have experienced loss (maybe their parents divorced when they were little, or they had a late miscarriage, or a messy relationship breakdown.) They have all had to live with an element of "difference" which in many cases has made them have to hide parts of themselves from others. As for traits, they all tend to be very smart, introspective and tolerant of difference. I think we all feel like we don't fit in, to some extent, and I think the people I talk to are just extreme examples of the displacement most people feel in life.

Judgment should be reserved for the institutions or systems that have failed the subjects (full excerpt here). 

Despite how intense and frank the interviews are I hardly ever feel the need to judge. Of course there are those moments when I'll hear something completely new and may have to stop to catch my breath but I figure we all do weird shit. Sometimes I find myself judging hard on the other people in my interviewees' lives (say, an abusive ex-partner, a parent who was violent, even a throwaway reference to a school bully) but then I figure these people probably have their own terrible backstory too, so, judging just becomes a little pointless after a while. I usually end my interviews really angry with the systems and institutions that have failed many of my subjects (the family, school, medical professionals, etc)

Imagining the subject's discomfort divulging personal details can help minimize your own discomfort as a journalist. (full excerpt here). 

There are always moments of anxiety, usually when I know I'm leading up to a very personal question (what does a horse's vagina taste like? Or, tell me exactly how big your penis is...for example) I'm usually so focused on their comfort that I can block out my own nerves.

"Normal" is  a spectrum (full excerpt here). 

Interestingly, I don't think there's been a single subject who I haven't "connected" with. Of course, my rapport with some has definitely been stronger than others (say, the girl who is afraid of vomiting, the man who is dating a horse, the girl who is engaged to her estranged father) but I've felt very close to everyone I've talked to. The man with the micropenis was one of my first and he was so open, so real and he clearly found the whole process very challenging so I feel a special bond with him (ditto re the man who wants to cut off his leg.) I guess at the end of each interview I was left feeling that the person I had just talked to was more normal than "strange."


Colin Gorenstein

Colin Gorenstein is Salon's assistant editor of internet and viral content. Follow @colingorenstein or email cgorenstein@salon.com.

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