I’m worried about Marc Maron

Dear Willow:

I’ve been worrying about Marc Maron.

I don’t know if you listen to his WTF podcast, but you’ve probably heard of him. On May 16th, his girlfriend, the filmmaker Lynn Shelton, collapsed in the home they were sharing during the pandemic, and shortly thereafter passed away of a previously undiagnosed blood disorder.

Each episode of Maron’s podcast features an interview with a single person. At first Maron focused on many of his fellow comedians, but over the years he’s expanded to entertainers and artists across the spectrum, and even interviewed President Obama.

While the interview is the feature, Maron starts off every episode with a free-ranging monologue into which he mixes various sponsorship plugs. It’s mostly about whatever is going on in Maron’s life and you can see the genesis of what will undoubtedly become material for his stand-up performances. After ten minutes or, he segues into the interview. The cumulative effect of listening to the introductions is to come to know something about Marc Maron the person. It is a weird thing to feel like you’re kind of friends with someone you’ve never met and who wouldn’t know you from Adam, but such is the power of podcasts as a medium.

When someone Maron has interviewed passes away, he traditionally re-airs the episode (without the introduction) as a tribute, so two days after the death of Lynn Shelton, I wasn’t surprised to see the episode he’d done with Shelton in 2015 in the queue, but when I went to listen to it, I was surprised to hear Maron’s voice, wracked with grief, introducing the episode. He sounded like you would expect someone would sound, two days removed from the sudden death of their partner practically in front of their eyes.

The episode was the actual first conversation ever between Maron and Shelton. They had never met prior to the interview, and it would be years before they started dating. Can you imagine having a recording of the first conversation you ever had with the person who would become the love of your life?

Each WTF episode since Shelton’s death has had Maron doing his introduction, much shorter than usual, and usually an update on how he’s doing. As of yet, all of the interviews were completed prior to Lynn Shelton’s passing, but soon enough we will hear what it’s like for Maron to do an interview in this state. It is a quasi-real-time window into someone else’s profound grief, unprocessed, fully leaded, and listening to them provides a kind of strange catharsis for me.

It makes me realize that one of the things that I feel has been missing from the coverage of the pandemic is grief.

I think of it in contrast to the 9/11 attacks, where within a week of the event, the primary subject of the news coverage seemed to be the nation’s grief. This went on for months. I remember the TODAY show used a more somber version of their theme for a long time. “America Mourns” was the official response. I wrote an essay about the phenomenon for a long-defunct online journal about how it seemed as though there was a specific plan to keep our emotions inflamed. I recall an interview by Diane Sawyer some months later with the mother of a newborn, child on her lap, whose father was a first responder who died in the building collapse and never had a chance to see his child. It was explicitly designed to jerk our tears. And it worked.

This hasn’t been the case for the pandemic. I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. It isn’t a discrete event, but a continuous one. We can’t pause to grieve the thousands dead every day. The people who are dying in the greatest numbers—the elderly, a disproportionate share of people of color—that’s clearly a factor as well. The desire to get past the crisis so we can “recover” doesn’t leave room to focus on grief and mourning.

But grief is a useful, even necessary emotion, and keeping it bottled when the spirit knows it must be released is dangerous.

I know that I have been periodically grieving during this period. When my father died, being the way I am, I made a study of my grief as a way to work my way through it. Ultimately, when I published my novel, I collected my study into an essay that’s one of my proudest achievements, personally. None of this makes me an expert on grief, but I know it when it’s creeping up on me, and it has not only crept up on me, it’s looming over everything I do.

Right around Memorial Day, as South Carolina opened up, I drove through the downtown strip of nearby Sullivan’s Island as I went to pick up some carryout. I saw how crowded the streets were, how stuffed the restaurants seemed, the patrons disgorged into parking lots, hardly a mask to be seen.

I was shook. I had an overwhelming sensation that I was looking at some number of people who were going to be dead in a month. Objectively, I knew I was catastrophizing, that while for sure this behavior was going to result in an increase in infections (it has), most of these are young and healthy people, who even if they get sick, are unlikely to die.

I think those folks were attempting a state of being carefree, but all I was seeing was people who I thought were being careless. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t feeling the same kind of fear and dread as I was.

In a way, vicariously experiencing Marc Maron’s grief has been a relief valve for some of my own. It’s very brave of him, though I don’t think he would see it this way. He’s doing what he has to do because what choice does he have?

I’m worried about Marc Maron. It feels good to spend some time worrying about someone else, rather than for myself.

Maron has a history of addiction and self-destructive behavior, though he’s been clean for a long time, and he appears to be working through his emotions as well as could be expected, which is to say he appears to be a wreck.

Being a wreck is more than justified, though. It’s more than justified for just about anyone these days as far as I can tell.

There’s no shame in letting your grief flag fly.

John

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