In the months before I first left for college, I started recording my friends. Not video, just their voices: the stories we exchanged in the car on the way to the movie theater, the way we said goodbye to each other after a day at the beach, the jokes we told at sleepovers—which we only found funny because we were so exhausted. The recordings carry not just their voices, but all the sounds that came with them: the clink of utensils as we ate, the music playing over the speaker at the mall, the flipping of playing cards as we played Egyptian War.
That August, after we all moved away, I picked the best clips from my Voice Memo app and combined them into a fifteen-minute audio diary. It was poorly edited, and although I shared it with my friends, I’m pretty sure no one listened to it but me.
The project was important to no one but myself, and even then, I cannot tell you why I did it. But I was seventeen and felt as though we were all standing on some sort of precipice, felt the strange grief of a childhood almost over, and felt the urge—so strong it was almost primal—to preserve what we had not yet lost. I wanted to be able to listen back to our voices years later and remember exactly who we had been.
I had forgotten that feeling until I listened to Sophie Townsend’s audio memoir, Goodbye to All This. The podcast tells the story of Townsend and her family as they lose her husband, Russell, to lung cancer. Townsend recounts her experience, from Russell’s first doctor’s appointment, to life as a widow with two young daughters, to moving out of the house she had shared with her husband. The BBC series, written and produced by Townsend, is so vulnerable that it often feels more like a diary than the work of a journalist.
Much of the podcast’s effectiveness is precisely because it is a podcast. Instead of writing about her grief, Townsend forces us to listen to her speak about it. There are no official transcripts or web-adaptations of Goodbye to All This. The only way to access Townsend’s story is through her own voice.
There is a level of truth and trust that comes with telling a story out loud. Audio as a medium forces both the speaker and the listener to bring down their guard, be immediately vulnerable. I think it’s part of the reason why I desperately recorded my friends all summer before freshman year. In Townsend’s case, listening to her tell the story of her husband’s death makes it all the more devastating. Without the distance created by a written text, her unfathomable loss feels tangible, uncomfortably and suffocatingly close.
Like almost every work of creative nonfiction, Goodbye to All This reckons with the issue of accuracy in memoir. Townsend’s uncertainty is often at the center of her memoir. In one episode, she describes the faces standing around her husband’s deathbed. It sounds as though she is trying to describe a dream almost forgotten: “How did I hold Russell and my girls while I watched a scene in a room next to his bed? How did I somehow take it all in and take in nothing at all?” she asks herself.
Townsend allows other people to outright reject her narrative. She describes the hours before her husband’s death, when the doctor declares that he is in a coma: “I remember him asking me why I let Russell get out of bed last night on his own, telling me I should have helped him. This is why I remember him saying, ‘He’s in a coma now.’ My mother remembers it differently.” Townsend is not afraid of creating contradiction and confusion within her retelling; in fact, she welcomes it.
At other points, the voices of friends and family disrupt Townsend’s narration, providing details that she has left out. They describe the way the children covered her husband in freshly-picked flowers as he lay dying and the silence that came after Russell’s heart stopped. Sometimes even these voices contradict each other. Two people say Russell looked at peace in his final hours, while one man remembers him looking ill. Their voices fade in and out of music, framing them in an illusive way. While inserting outside quotes into a written memoir may have felt clunky, audio as a medium allows the polyphonic element of Townsend’s memoir to work seamlessly.
By introducing conflicting memories of her husband’s death, Townsend suggests that honesty and accuracy are not always the same. Townsend rejects that there could be one absolute version of her story. As a journalist, Townsend operates in a world that prioritizes objectivity and accuracy above all else. And although the genre of creative nonfiction allows more flexibility in terms of accuracy, the reader still expects honesty from the memoirist. But perhaps the most truthful way to portray grief is to acknowledge that it is inherently subjective.
Ultimately, no one can truly understand the pain of another. It’s a deeply isolating experience. Townsend compares herself to a ship lost at sea, one that struggles to look after her two children, to cook them dinner every night, to drive them to and from school, all on her own.
But by inviting friends and family to share their memories of her husband, as well as their feelings of loss, she portrays their pain as something simultaneously private and shared, a universal yet inconclusive experience. It is impossible to know someone else’s pain, but it is all pain. No matter how differently they remember the night of Russell’s death, they have that in common.
Goodbye to All This may be Townsend’s memoir, but it resonates because it is not her story alone. She puts her grief on full display, with all its messiness and nuances. And in holding out a hand to the others in her life suffering the same loss, she holds out another to her listeners. Your feelings may not make sense, she seems to say, but sometimes you must sit with the chaos.
And isn’t that true for all our memories—that most of them exist as a cacophony of contradiction? I’ve done what I can to preserve the past, to record every moment I had with the people I care about, and yet when I listen back to my audio diary, it’s all a jumble, sounds taken out of context and stitched together. The utensils clink, but I can’t tell you what we were eating. The music plays, but the song is muffled. The games go on, but we never know who wins. This is the closest I have to reliving it all, and maybe that’s enough.