Mike Daisey returns to Woolly Mammoth to face fans and detractors

Monologist Mike Daisey, who has admitted that his play The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs contained significant inaccuracies, apologized to Woolly Mammoth audiences at the theater last night.

“Some of the best work in my life has been done here,” Daisey observed. However, “I failed you. I didn’t stand up to the standards I made for myself,” he said.

Daisey, looking ill-at-ease and wearing what looked like a two-day growth of beard, appeared on the Woolly Mammoth stage with Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz and Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann. For about an hour, they fielded questions from an audience of roughly 150 people about how Daisey came to falsify details about his visit to manufacturing facilities in the People’s Republic of China.

In his monologue, which Daisey had presented in finished form at Woolly in March, 2011, Daisey described his visit to a Foxconn facility in Szenzhen, in China’s Special Economic Zone. He claimed to have conducted interviews with over a hundred workers in the shadow of the factory’s armed guards, including with workers whose nerves had been damaged through exposure to n-hexane, with a worker whose hand was mangled by a factory machine and who was later fired because he couldn’t keep pace with the quota, and with many underage workers. Posing as an American business executive, Daisey toured the plant, noting that it featured dormitory rooms which housed fifteen or more workers in small spaces. The Foxconn facility, Daisey noted, was an important site in the manufacture of American electronics, including many Apple products.

Daisey’s monologue, which interspersed his account of his investigation in China with snippets about Jobs’ tenure at Apple, was a sensational success, and its impact grew more profound after Jobs died of pancreatic cancer. Daisey wrote an op-ed column on Apple’s and Job’s responsibility for conditions at Foxconn for the New York Times shortly after Jobs died, and later appeared on the Bill Maher show and on “This American Life,” a radio show which is broadcast on many NPR stations. The New York Times ran an investigation of Foxconn and other facilities in the Special Economic Zone in January, verifying many of Daisey’s observations.

Subsequently, however, Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for American Public Media’s “Marketplace”  fact-checked the assertions Daisey had made and found many of them to be untrue. He  found the translator who Daisey had used in China, Cathy Lee, whose identity Daisey had tried to hide. Lee disputed several important elements about the monologue, including the presence of armed guards (only police and on-duty soldiers may carry guns), the number of workers Daisey had interviewed (Lee said there were only fifty), the workers poisoned by n-hexane (Lee said that they never met any and that there were none at the facility, although n-hexane poisoning had been reported two years previously at another facility about a thousand miles away), the underage workers (Lee said they interviewed only one), and the worker at the factory with the mangled hand (Lee said that he never worked at Foxconn). Lee also asserted that they never saw any dormitory rooms, although Daisey continues to aver that they did.

Daisey admitted that many of his assertions were untrue, and “This American Life” subsequently retracted its show and then repudiated it in this hour-long broadcast.

Daisey’s current contrition for his monologue’s falsification stands in sharp contrast with his initial reaction, which was somewhat defensive. “Many consider this week’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE episode one of the most painful they’ve ever listened to,” he said in his March 19 entry on his blog. “In particular the segment with me is excruciating — four hours of grilling edited down to fifteen minutes. I thought the dead air was a nice touch, and finishing the episode with audio pulled out of context from my performance was masterful.

“That’s Ira’s [producer/narrator Ira Glass] choice,” he continued, “and it’s his show. He’s a storyteller within the context of radio journalism, and I am a storyteller in the theater.”

Six days later, he had changed his posture. “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not,” he wrote on March 25, “I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.”

Daisey continued to profess contrition in his appearance before last night’s audience at Woolly. “I should have had more self-awareness,” he said in response to a question. “I wish I had slowed down, been more careful…this was an avoidable tragedy.”

When one audience member asked whether the problem was simply that Daisey had called the monologue “a work of non-fiction,” the monologist replied, “It’s not just a labeling problem. I had a blind spot.”

Daisey said he has changed the monologue in response to the discoveries that “This American Life’s” fact-checkers made.  “The monologue will run without any of the contested material,” he said. Daisey estimated that as a result of “This American Life’s” discoveries, he had removed about six minutes from his two-hour monologue. The first performance since the scandal broke takes place Monday, April 2nd.

Daisey described the monologue’s composition as a process by which his research and his personal experience “lay next to each other,” and that with each iteration they became more and more enmeshed, until he was “feeling a growing distance between myself and the story.”

He also attributed the factual misrepresentations in the story to his passion to alert the world to the injustices in the Chinese factories. “I felt driven by,” the miseries at Foxconn, Daisey asserted. “Suicides were happening every day…almost every day.”

“I was on the ground,” he said, when journalists began to report on working conditions at Foxconn. According to Daisey, news stories stopped when Chinese authorities clamped down on news sources. “I could see the hand move toward the problem and then move away.” Daisey felt compelled to bring conditions to light. “I was really miserable,” he later said, “which is what happens if you live with a cause.”

However, in asserting that there were suicides at Foxconn nearly every day, Daisey appears to be engaging in the exaggeration that characterized some of the other details in his monologue. In fact, there were only ten documented suicides at Foxconn between January and May of 2010 (with two unsuccessful attempts), a rate of one suicide every 15.1 days. When I mentioned this number of suicides in my review of Daisey’s show (in which I accepted Daisey’s factual assertions uncritically), Daisey wrote in to dispute my appraisal of the suicides’ significance, but he did not dispute their actual numbers.

A few attendees at Woolly’s forum defended Daisey’s actions. One attendee quoted extensively from Camus to bolster her assertion that Daisey was being “pummeled” because he had gone after “a corporate icon” and urged Daisey to “take off your hair shirt” (Daisey had no response) and another argued that the theater community owed the public a response which clarified the difference between journalistic truth and theatrical truth. The majority of those who spoke up at the forum, though, appeared to be Daisey fans who had been disappointed to learn of his fabrications. Many seemed simply curious about why he did the things he did.

For example, one questioner wanted to know “how long down the road would you have gone? Would you have ever” revealed the whole truth had it not been discovered by an outside party?

Daisey replied that he didn’t “think that it would have worked” indefinitely. He had been “deceiving myself. Something would have cracked.”

Another questioner wanted to know whether Daisey thought that no one would ever notice his fabrications. “I didn’t think about it that way,” Daisey replied. “I didn’t think about it consciously.”

A third questioner asked him why he had tried to mislead “This American Life” about the identity of his translator. (In his monologue, Daisey identified her as “Cathy Lee,” which is in fact the name she uses when she offers her services as an English-language translator. But when “This American Life” asked for her contact information, Daisey claimed that her real name was “Anna” and that the cell-phone number he had for her no longer worked.)

“I didn’t think that Cathy wanted to be contacted,” Daisey responded. “She did not like what we were doing.” Daisey said that he had told Cathy, untruthfully, that she would not be in his monologue and that he was worried about how she would react if she found out he lied about that. “I didn’t know what she would say.” Daisey emphasized that his memory of his experience in China is different than Lee’s in some important aspects.

Some of the forum speakers said that the Steve Jobs fabrications made it impossible for them to believe any of Daisey’s representations, including his present claim of contrition. To one speaker, who said that she could never pay for another ticket to a Mike Daisey monologue, Daisey said, “people who feel they can’t trust me shouldn’t come to the show.” To another, who asked how she could know whether Daisey is telling the truth, Daisey noted that most of his friends had lied to him at one time or another and that “at the end of the day, people decide who they can trust.”

“I have a lot of work to do,” Daisey admitted.

Woolly’s leaders, Shalwitz and Herrmann, continued to stand by Daisey but left themselves with room to maneuver. “We have complex and ever-evolving feelings,” Herrmann said, and Shalwitz admitted that he was “still sorting through some very complex feelings.”

The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs will be performed July 17 through August 5, 2012. Tickets are on sale now. Because of this controversy, Woolly is offering to refund the price of tickets to anyone who made their purchase before March 21st. Contact the Woolly box office, 202 393-3939 before April 21, 2012. All details here.

Comments

  1. We were in China when the frequent suicide stories were published by the China News Daily (a government issued English language newspaper). It was hard for us to understand how 200,000 employees could be at a single factory. These are kids from the rural areas who are seeking opportunities off the farm. They live in dormitories where they cannot speak to each other because of linguistic barriers within the multiple languages of China. They are provided with swimming pools and films, but have to work 12 hour shifts assembling computer parts because that is cheaper for the company than 8 hour shifts. 

    The suicide rate at Foxconn is lower than the suicide rate for China, and the government does not make available the suicide rate for government owned computer component manufacturers. It is important to note that Foxconn is a Taiwanese company and an easy target for the PRC. Mike Daisey may have been deluded into thinking he had access to special information, but this is not the reality in the PRC — which is a really controlled country.   

Reprint Policy Our articles may not be reprinted in full but only as excerpts and those portions may only be used if a credit and link is provided to our website.
DC Theatre Scene is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.