Best Nonfiction Monologue That Turns Out to Have Been Fictionalized

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Mike Daisey’s monologues were already a staple of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s season by 2010, when he “birthed”—his term—The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs there. His engrossing dual-narrative spliced a hilarious and insightful corporate history of Apple with an account of Daisey’s summer 2010 visit to Shenzhen, China, where he interviewed employees of the Apple supplier Foxconn who put in 12- to 24-hour shifts assembling iPhones and iPads. The show had a full run at Woolly last spring. Nearly a year later, when This American Life retracted a version of the monologue it had aired, it became apparent Daisey had inflated some of his numbers, and invented a number of scenes wholecloth.

I don’t remember if the part where Daisey met workers poisoned by the screen-cleaner N-Hexane was in the show when I saw it a year ago. (Daisey says he doesn’t use scripts and that his shows evolve from night to night.) It was one of many anecdotes included on This American Life. Now we know Daisey read about poisoned workers but never met any; he didn’t actually see the trembling, nerve-damaged hands he described so vividly. Daisey has lately claimed this falsehood slipped into the show gradually, as he was performing the unscripted piece at theaters around the country by night and doing Apple-shaming TV appearances by day.

While Daisey’s charge against the media—that no one was doing substantive reporting on Apple’s supply chain until he shamed them into it—smacks of self-inflation, recent investigations by the New York Times and other outlets have substantiated Daisey’s basic message that our luxury devices are literally handmade by people working in grueling conditions that western workers wouldn’t tolerate. It’s rare for a piece of oral storytelling to ripple into the broader culture the way other narrative forms do, and it wasn’t mere muck-racking sensationalism that made it happen. Daisey’s a shitty journalist, but a hell of a tale-spinner.