Contagion + Maria Bamford Lulu explores the idea that you may be entangled with the people around you. Comedian Maria Bamford talks to the hosts about a very specific kind of entanglement: The one you have with your mother.

Contagion + Maria Bamford

Contagion + Maria Bamford

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Lulu explores the idea that you may be entangled with the people around you. Comedian Maria Bamford talks to the hosts about a very specific kind of entanglement: The one you have with your mother.

Contagion + Maria Bamford

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This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.


And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: And today we are looking at entanglement - the ways which we are all invisibly connected with one another.

MILLER: Yep. And we just heard the story about a woman who can feel - literally physically feel what other people are feeling. And as sort of nutty and strange as that sounds, this is happening to all of us.


ALLEN FUNT: The gentleman in the elevator now is a candid star.

MILLER: Which brings me to a series of famous old clips from the TV show "Candid Camera," hosted by Allen Funt.


FUNT: Here's the candid subject.

MILLER: OK, so we see a poor, unsuspecting man walk into an elevator that has been secretly rigged-up with cameras, and he stands there waiting for the door to close, when all of a sudden...


FUNT: Here comes the "Candid Camera" staff....

MILLER: ...Two people walk in.


FUNT: ...The man with the white shirt, the lady with the trench coat.

MILLER: And weirdly, they face the wrong direction. They face toward the back wall of the elevator.

DICK RAPSON: The poor, little guy is very confused.

ELAINE HATFIELD: Does the door open the other way?

MILLER: To help us make sense of what's about to happen to this guy, we brought in two psychological researchers from the University of Hawaii - Elaine Hatfield and her husband/colleague, Dick Rapson.

RAPSON: Aloha.


MILLER: So anyway, back to this guy in the elevator. He keeps on facing in the right direction despite the two weirdos next to him.

RAPSON: He looks at both of them facing the wrong way, looking very puzzled.


FUNT: He looks at his watch.

MILLER: But when a third person comes in and faces the back wall, the poor, little guy can't take it anymore.

RAPSON: Now he turns immediately to the back wall.

MILLER: And the dance is on.

RAPSON: Now they all turn forward. He turns forward like all the others.


MILLER: "Candid Camera" observes this phenomena again and again. An unsuspecting victim would walk into that elevator and end up imitating what ever the people around him were doing.

RAPSON: He has a hat on, and the others take off their hats, so he takes his hat off as well.

SPIEGEL: Now, the first guy's initial, slow turn to the wall is what Dick and Elaine call conformity.

HATFIELD: You don't want to look like a fool.

SPIEGEL: When you slowly and consciously decide to follow the group.

RAPSON: That's right.

SPIEGEL: But sometimes the victim begins following what the people do so quickly that it goes by another name.

RAPSON: Contagion.

SPIEGEL: Contagion.

RAPSON: Now the others are turning around. And he turns around right with them. That's an example of contagion.

MILLER: When the imitation is so fast, it looks...

RAPSON: Like it was choreographed. The others are putting their hats back on; he puts his hat back on.

MILLER: And you, listening to my voice, do this, too, whether you want to or not, all day long, you are engaged in a kind of synchronized dance with the people you come into contact with.

HATFIELD: When we watch other people, for some reason, we're wired up to get in sync with them on so many things that it kind of boggles your mind.

MILLER: Some are more obvious - how you imitate people's postures and speaking patterns. But others are quiet. Like, how if you're talking to a friend, over time you will begin to blink as one. Or if you watch someone stutter, the tiny muscles on your m-m-m-mouth will start to twitch.

HATFIELD: And they calculate that it's so fast that you couldn't possibly do it consciously.

MILLER: Really?

HATFIELD: It's got to be going through the brainstem.

MICHAEL BANISSY: So if you could put people in the same room, you'll find that their breathing starts to mimic one another as well.

MILLER: That's Michael Banissy, the neuroscientist from our last story.

Really? Like around a group conference table, we'll all start breathing as one?


HATFIELD: It's so wired in and in the primitive parts of the brain that animals do it.

MILLER: Monkeys, dogs.

HATFIELD: Even little birds imitate one another. It just happens. It just runs off like breathing.

MILLER: And it's not just each other's physical movements we take on, but emotions, too. And this is Dick and Elaine's real specialty - emotional contagion.

RAPSON: I'll tell you how we first started to come across the notion of contagion. We were therapists for a while - for about 15 years - and I remember a client who came in who was very animated. She was talking very quickly and energetically, but I found I started to yawn. And Elaine started to yawn. And I said, did we sleep last night? Did you sleep last night? Are you tired? And Elaine said, no. And I wasn't tired at all. So why were we yawning? And what we think was going on is that we were picking up, underneath her cascade of words, depression.

MILLER: That was their idea - that the depression was somehow being telegraphed to them nonverbally. So they looked into it and found out that, indeed, emotions leak out a person's face in these very measurable, consistent ways called micro-expressions.

HATFIELD: Split-second expressions of fear...

RAPSON: Grief...

HATFIELD: ...Shame...

RAPSON: ...Joy...

HATFIELD: ...Sadness.

MILLER: What Dick and Elaine then added to the equation after years of research is that one way we might contract these emotions is through that same old dance. Because our faces, unbeknownst to us, actually imitate the tiny micro-expressions we see on other people - our eyebrows bound in synchrony with someone else's surprise or droop with someone else's sadness - the strange result is that the corresponding emotion is produced inside us.

HATFIELD: That's right.

MILLER: Because, as has now been well documented - one of the ways that emotions are produced is from the outside, in.

AMANDA: I do believe our thoughts are matter.

MILLER: Which reminded us of that thing that Amanda, the clinically empathetic woman from the last segment, said.

AMANDA: Our thoughts are actual matter, just like our skin and this couch. And I think our thoughts have a ripple effect.

MILLER: In a sense, she's right.

HATFIELD: We get real pale, little reflections of what others are thinking and feeling.

MILLER: And for Dick and Elaine, the result of this realization of learning about hundreds of experiments in which we so readily contract each other's emotions and thoughts and breath is that even though you walk around thinking of yourself as an individual...

RAPSON: That we're each individual entities who live in our own universe and control our own universe, I think that's a delusion. Would you agree with that, Elaine?

HATFIELD: Yes, I would. We're going to slip in to being like the company we keep.

MILLER: It's like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism, a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us, which I'm pretty sure is some philosopher's definition of bliss or nirvana. But when Dick and Elaine realized this, they felt like their jobs as therapists got a lot harder.

HATFIELD: You give up the hope that you can change everything.

MILLER: We are so permeable, they came to believe, that if a patient came to them asking how to deal with visits home to particularly toxic environments - families that are extremely angry or alcoholic or depressed - they tell them...

RAPSON: Don't stay with them.

MILLER: Seriously?

HATFIELD: Yeah, I think that if you're, say, going home for Christmas, you vow, this time I am really going to behave well. I am not going to say mean things, etc. I'm going to be so good, I'm just going to listen to them talk for four days. Ha ha ha. That is not going to happen. What's going to happen is after two hours, you're going to do something awful because you can't help it, and then the rest of the year, you're going to be ashamed of yourself and sorry. So we'd say the get-the-hotel thing. At first they'd say, I couldn't do that; it would break my mother's heart. She would never understand. And the answer is, is she going to understand when you scream at her after two hours and behave in an awful way? Eventually, their mother'd get used to it, they'd get used to it and the family would go well.

MILLER: In other words, if you are dreaming of a white Christmas, where everything is merry and bright, then according to Dick and Elaine, after two hours' time...


MILLER: ...Run.


SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel does not support or condone the recommendation of avoiding family members during the holidays. Remember, they gave you life and even tolerated that unfortunate phase in high school when you thought it was a good idea to wear your sweatshirt as pants. The least you can do is pretend to enjoy your mother's food and watch unspeakably bad television with your father - after all, they did provide food and shelter, you heartless, ungrateful wretch.

OK. Got that out of my system. And now for something completely different. It was recently suggested to us that most people can do a pretty good impersonation of that person that we all began life entangled with, our mom.

MARIA BAMFORD: You know, like, and don't really even think about it. Can you do one of your mom?

SPIEGEL: I mean, I have one which is just like her [bleep]. Like, that's like, the one impersonation because she just, she smokes a lot and she says [bleep] a lot.


SPIEGEL: That's what I got.

MILLER: Alix and I were talking to comedian Maria Bamford.

MARIA BAMFORD: OK, so how about, Lulu, do you got one?

MILLER: Yeah. I guess the main one is (impersonating mother) girls? Girls? Tell about the time. Tell - tell - it's a command for us to tell a story.


MILLER: And it's a special (impersonating mother) tell - girls tell...

And we were talking to Maria about mom impersonations because imitating her mom is a big part of her professional life.


MARIA BAMFORD: My mom - I'll tell you a little about myself. My mom told me before I went to my first girl-boy party in the eighth grade, she said, (impersonating mother) OK, remember what we talked about, gonorrhea, syphilis, Herpes 1, 2 . Watch the cold sores. Date rape is a lot more common than people think. You look so gorgeous. You were conceived in Groton, Conn., in one night at a campsite. I am not saying you weren't planned, I'm just saying Bamfords get pregnant like falling off logs. Oh, Jenny's (ph) mom's here to pick you up. Well, have a good time!


SPIEGEL: Bits like this are standard for Maria. Sometimes, they're just funny because the version of her mom that she plays is so charmingly, obliviously upbeat about the horrors of the world that it's actually endearing.


MARIA BAMFORD: (Impersonating mother) Oh, sweetie, I have a joke for over you. A friend of mine coincidentally - she was actually in foster care. She is so funny. She was airlifted out of the Sudan in the late '90s 'cause she had been be-armed and be-legged by the Janjaweed, the horseback militia.


MARIA BAMFORD: (Impersonating mother) She's just a hoot. She'd love to do standup, but she can't ugh...


SPIEGEL: But sometimes, the imitations feel like they're about elements in their relationship that have a darker side.


MARIA BAMFORD: (Impersonating mother) Sweetie, are you taking a shower? Can I just get in there real quick and just show you something. Oh, I didn't know you were naked. Oh, sweetie. Listen, if you want to get breast implants, we will support you - not financially, but emotionally.

SPIEGEL: So we were curious about this - about what happens when you mess in a very public way with an entanglement that's already pretty complicated - the emotional entanglement between mother and daughter. You know, how does it feel to imitate, and how does it feel to be imitated? And how does the imitation affect the original entanglement? Yeah.

MILLER: So we decided to ask them.

Will you tell me what you had for breakfast?

MARILYN BAMFORD: Oh, I had oatmeal...

MARIA BAMFORD: I had Branbuds...

MARILYN BAMFORD: ...Greek yogurt...

MARIA BAMFORD: ...Rice milk...

MARILYN BAMFORD: ...Blueberries...

MARIA BAMFORD: ...An older banana that I probably didn't have to eat, but it felt necessary.

SPIEGEL: On two different days, in two different states, with the blessing of both of them, we spoke to Maria and her mom, whose name is Marilyn Bamford. We started with Maria, who said her mom imitations were actually some of the very first bits of comedy that she ever did when she was 18 or 19 and doing standup in Minnesota. And in the beginning, she did it, she says really, to get a kind of distance or control over their relationship.

MARIA BAMFORD: For me, it was a time in life of, like, detaching from my family or detaching from, you know, what I think they want me to be. You know, which I'm sure they just want me to be happy. But at that point in my life, I was like, yeah, like, you know, like, guess what my mom just said? And (laughter) so it was more sort of like this way I could express frustration. Like, my mom, I remember she did - or what I heard her say - of course she may have a different feeling of what she said at the time, but she said, if you don't wear make-up...


MARIA BAMFORD: Honey, when you don't wear make-up, you look mentally ill.


MARIA BAMFORD: So now when I go home, I'm certain to wear thick, green eye shadow and a line of lipstick around my lips, huh? Baby look pretty now, mommy?

MARILYN BAMFORD: Oh, it feels like she's got me down perfectly. In terms of voice, cadence, vocabulary, pretty much, you know, she's...

SPIEGEL: And what about the things that you say? I mean...

MARILYN BAMFORD: Well, quite a bit of that is not exactly what I say. The one I think about was the one where she has me saying, when you don't wear lipstick, you look mentally ill.


MARILYN BAMFORD: And she and I have gone back and forth about that because I - I know I didn't say it that way. I said you look depressed. I mean, that's my memory of it.


MARILYN BAMFORD: On the other hand, she remembers what she remembers.

SPIEGEL: But still, Marilyn doesn't seem bothered by the impersonations, even when she feels like Maria misrepresents her. She sees them instead as helpful.

MARILYN BAMFORD: I mean, I recognize that when she talks about certain things in her comedy, that those are issues for her, that she's projecting out some issue that she's interested in, and so that when I say something like, oh, I don't think I said that, and then we have a discussion about it, it's - it is helpful in the end, you know, to have that kind of discussion and - but I know there are probably some times when I have chosen not to say anything about it because I'm not sure I want to discuss it or have the energy to discuss it.


MARIA BAMFORD: (Imitating mother) You know, I think the real reason you were down is because you're 36, everything you've ever achieved is really in the past now, probably never really reach those heights again.

I don't want to talk about it.

(Imitating mother) You look 36. And, you know, that's hard.

SPIEGEL: Do you learn anything about yourself from watching her imitation of you?

MARILYN BAMFORD: Oh. Yes. (Laughter) I kind of remind myself of my mother. My mother was a believer that you put your lipstick on and you powdered your nose if she went out. And she put - instead of wearing a house dress, she would wear something nicer. And I think we all - or many people that I know don't particularly want to be like their mothers, not because they don't love their mothers. It's because they just don't want to be like their mothers. They want to be themselves. And I think I see that there in myself, and I say, oh, no. I don't want to be that way. But what can you do?

MILLER: And speaking of the inevitable gravity of becoming your mother, a funny thing actually happened to Maria as she impersonated her mom more and more. Though she started out doing it to detach herself from Marilyn, it ended up just bringing her closer.

MARIA BAMFORD: Yeah. Like, it cheers me up to think about what she would say about things. Like, I like the idea that she has a certain point view on life, and things are certain. Or if I - if she's not around, I can make her be around, you know, of, what would she say in this situation? The truth is, like, I would like to be more like her as I get older. Like, I'm hoping that my impersonation just bleeds into I'm her (laughter) like as I get older.

SPIEGEL: Are you really hoping that?

MARIA BAMFORD: I kind of - I do kind of think about that. Like, if I was, you know, rather than being, you know - I could just be the full-on Marilyn Bamford 'cause she's a very likable person. You know, she's always bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It's like, (imitating mother) oh, honey, we're in Turkey and I wanted to call you 'cause the hotel next door is on fire, and your father is Vining it - I don't know what that thing is. But we're fine. They said the imam says we have to leave this hotel, which is just a real pain in the neck, but we are going to have dinner tonight in the town square...

SPIEGEL: And Marilyn Bamford says that in her own way, she, too, has experienced an unanticipated benefit of her daughter's impressions of her.

MARILYN BAMFORD: I think that many women my age, who are, you know, catching up with 70, you know, feel kind of invisible. So therefore, when you have your daughter doing these really wonderful and gifted impressions of you, it makes you kind of immortal in some way. And that's kind of a lovely thing to happen at this age because, you know, you're more seen.

SPIEGEL: Maria had actually never heard this - that her mom was grateful at the age of 70 to feel seen in this way. When we told her, she was quiet for a moment, and then, she made three distinct noises.

MARIA BAMFORD: Aw. Oh. Bah. That's really - well, yeah, because my mom is such a delight, and she's lots of fun. And yeah...

MILLER: Three noises that, for me, anyway - Lulu - represent the paradox of entanglement with you parents. First you feel that involuntary rush of connection.


MILLER: But then, something else creeps up, a desire to be separate.


MILLER: And finally, that slight discomfort of knowing that life is a nauseating journey of being forever tugged between these two states.



MARIA BAMFORD: My name is Maria. My mother always told me that (impersonating mother) if a boy doesn't like you, OK, it is just because he is intimidated by your beauty because you are the most beautiful girl in the whole world, and if you would stop doing impersonations of me, maybe other people could see that.


MILLER: Dancing time?



UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don't fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love. Don't fence me in. Let me be by myself in the evening breeze, listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees, send me off forever but I ask you please, don't fence me in. Don't fence me in.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is me, Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And me, Lulu Miller.

And now for our moment of nonsense.

All touch - even the touch you feel like...


MILLER: ...A little pinch down on your arms.



MILLER: Sorry. That feeling - was it that bad?

SPIEGEL: I think I'm bleeding.

MILLER: Sorry. I wanted a real reaction - authenticity.



UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Just turn me loose let me straddle my old saddle underneath the Western skies. On my cayuse, let me wander over yonder till I see the mountains rise.

SPIEGEL: Join us next week for more INVISIBILIA.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Till I lose my senses. I can't look at hobels, and I can't stand fences. Don't fence me in. Don't fence me in. Don't fence me in. Don't fence me in. Don't fence me in.

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