“Which One of These Is Not Like the Others?” aired Dec. 15, 2006. Although the producers of “This American Life” knew it was a strong show, they were floored by the level of response the segment got. “Ira [Glass, executive producer] said he had never seen a radio story get that many letters,” said reporter Alix Spiegel. “We got hundreds and hundreds of letters the first week, and an equal number the second week.”
The story, about a Muslim family’s disintegration in the aftermath of 9/11, honed in on a cherished American ideal: that America welcomes the assimilated immigrant.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the children of this well-integrated Muslim family were relentlessly harassed at school, and the parents came to two very different conclusions. “The main thing that tears the parents apart is that [the mother] Sari thinks it’s an aberration and doesn’t represent anything bigger about America, and the father feels this is what America is and wants to move the family to a Muslim country,” Ms. Spiegel said.
“Which One of These Is Not Like the
Others?” was part of the “This American Life” producers’ effort to investigate misunderstandings between east and west. The original intent was to create a trio of stories related to the theme. When Ms. Spiegel’s first story idea didn’t pan out, she again tapped all the organizations she had already contacted to find another one. A contact at the American Civil Liberties Union told her a story of a family that, after 9/11, had essentially been hounded out of town.
Ms. Spiegel tracked down the family through its lawyer and then had to overcome Sari’s wariness of the press. She was particularly adamant that her family not be seen as victims, said Ms. Spiegel. “Sari said she would talk about what happened to her family, but we had to disguise the names,” she said. “She didn’t want anyone in their new community to know that they had had these problems.”
Ms. Spiegel fact-checked the details of the story with the U.S. Justice Department, which had become involved with the case after a series of incidents at the daughter’s school. She also contacted the school, through the principal and the child’s former teacher, both of whom declined to be interviewed due to the ongoing civil lawsuit.
“With the Justice Department corroborating the facts, I felt comfortable going forward,” said Ms. Spiegel. She spent a full day with the family, conducting interviews, and wrote the piece, which was edited by Mr. Glass and senior producer Julie Snyder.
So far, there’s been no happy ending to the family’s plight, said Ms. Spiegel. Sari and her husband are still separated, their views of America so divergent as to brook no reconciliation. They’re still recovering from the situation, said Ms. Spiegel.
From the perspective of a year later, Ms. Spiegel also understands why “Which One of These Is Not Like the Others?” has had such a strong impact. “It’s about America,” she said, “and what America will be in a post-9/11 world.”
Credits: Alix Spiegel, reporter; Diane Cook, producer; Julie Snyder, senior producer; Ira Glass, executive producer; produced by Chicago Public Radio; distributed by Public Radio International