If you want to know what it feels like to be listened to, if, in our moment of detachment and division, you’ve forgotten the basic pleasure of revealing something delicate about yourself to another person, and of having that person respond by taking a sincere and sustained interest, allow Anna Sale to remind you.
I experienced it earlier this summer, when I made Sale pretend that I was a guest on her acclaimed interview podcast, “Death, Sex & Money.” With little more knowledge of her subject than could be gleaned from an email signature and a few minutes of small talk, she felt her way toward a line of questioning that left a lump in my throat and a storm of memories flashing before my eyes.
What was the career arc that led you to The New York Times at this moment? When did you feel like “I’m uncertain if I can get paid writing about the things that I love and think are important?” Have there been moments when it didn’t feel like that was going to be possible? How did you figure that out? Were there people in your life who were there to support you?
Listeners to Sale’s show are familiar with questions like these, questions that lock on to moments of unease, irresolution or tenderness that we don’t always put into words. Since she created “Death, Sex & Money” for WNYC in 2014, Sale has asked them weekly of both famous people (Bill Withers, Jane Fonda) and nonfamous people, many of who send in letters and voice memos inspired by the show’s tagline: “The things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.”
Guests have included a copywriter who paid her bills by working as a “sugar baby,” a woman who’d recently given birth to a stillborn child and a Black man in Chicago who was tortured by the police, to name just a few.
In the era of Covid-19 and mandated social isolation, the show’s intimate conversations feel more urgent than ever. Several recent episodes — including a series of interviews with essential workers and “Skin Hunger,” a two-part collaboration with the podcast “Love + Radio” about the longing for physical touch — have confronted our pandemic reality explicitly.
But the show is perhaps most valuable as a long-running investigation into interpersonal estrangement of all kinds. If no human experience should be regarded as alien, to paraphrase the Roman playwright Terence, then “Death, Sex & Money” offers a fuller view of what being human can mean.
Sale, 39, has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and the enthusiastically analytical manner of a therapist at happy hour. In March, she left her home in Berkeley, Calif., to shelter with her husband, two young daughters and in-laws at her in-laws’ house in Cody, Wyo. During our video call, she sat on the floor of a closet that has been serving as a temporary “Death, Sex & Money” studio.
Sale grew up in Charleston, West Va., the fourth of five daughters, with a father who was an orthopedic surgeon and a mother who was a physical therapist. Both of her parents were regular listeners of NPR, and Sale, an observer born into a family of talkers, loved to listen to Terry Gross while riding in the back seat. She moved away for college in 1999 — she studied history at Stanford and worked at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project there — but returned home after graduation without a clear vision for her future.
“I had all of this energy and didn’t know where to direct it,” she said.
One day, her aunt told her to close her eyes and imagine someone who made her feel jealous. She pictured Gross. Soon after, she got her first break in journalism, as a local politics reporter for West Virginia Public Radio. She spent three years there, plus one in Connecticut, before moving to New York, where she cold-called her way into a job at WNYC.
From 2010 to 2013, Sale reported on politics for the WNYC show “The Takeaway.” During the 2012 presidential election, she led a series of candid, in-depth conversations with voters in swing states. She had hoped they might provide a counterbalance to the red meat of political rallies and professional pundits, but the stories struggled to penetrate the din of the horse race.
While covering Anthony Weiner’s second sexting scandal and ill-fated mayoral bid in New York the following year, pangs of doubt about the direction of her life returned. But not long after, she learned of an internal WNYC contest soliciting ideas for its nascent podcast operation. Sale, who was 33 and divorced at the time, realized that she had one — a show where people would be given room to talk about hard things that had shaped their lives. One day, while walking the dog, she heard herself say the words “death, sex and money.”
The secret ingredient of the show is Sale’s empathic persona. Nick van der Kolk, the host and director of “Love + Radio” and co-producer of “Skin Hunger,” first noticed it in an early episode about a massage therapist who also did sex work.
“Usually, when you hear a story like that, it becomes either a tragic thing or the flip-side, which is like militantly sex-positive,” he said. “But their discussion was incredibly nuanced. The woman was completely honest about not liking the job, but also about how she didn’t feel like it was this horrendous thing that was destroying her life.”
Often, as in an episode about pornography featuring a man using the pseudonym Daniel, who reported intrusive, upsetting thoughts during sex, Sale’s forthright questioning — in a finely tuned, feather-soft voice — elicits equally forthright answers.
SALE Is it possible for you to have sex with your girlfriend that doesn’t feel hard?
DANIEL Sometimes, yeah. Is there ever a time when we have sex that I don’t have to talk to my brain? Where I don’t have to use the conscious part to talk to the unconscious part? No. But it doesn’t mean it’s not good.
SALE So what’s a sentence that you have to tell yourself?
DANIEL I’ll be like, “That’s not real, that doesn’t mean anything, that’s not what you really want, think about what you really want.”
“She’s a master of the craft,” said Stella Bugbee, editor in chief of The Cut and a longtime fan of the show. “You can hear the generosity in her voice, and it’s very genuine. But she doesn’t beat around the bush and she doesn’t back away from pain.”
Sale, who said her experience covering politicians taught her to embrace tough questions, doesn’t work from a script during interviews. “I’m listening and editing at the same time that I’m interviewing,” she said. “If someone is opening up to me about something, I keep chasing the thread until I can picture it and it feels real to me. Where were you? Who was there? What was that like?”
Over the show’s six years, listeners have come to trust it as a vessel for their most vulnerable selves. That has placed a particular burden on Sale and her team of producers.
When I asked Sale if she ever felt that the emotional toll was too much to bear, she brought up the episode about the woman whose child had been stillborn. “It was the kind of loss that our society is so paralyzed about and unable to figure out how to acknowledge,” Sale said.
After conducting the interview, in which Sale, who had recently given birth to her second daughter, asked the woman about deciding to hold the child and what she planned to do with her milk, she took the rest of the day off, called a close friend and went home to her family. Once the episode had aired, she began to hear from listeners.
“There was a woman who donated 50 trees to be planted in the child’s name, a man in our building who said he’d never thought about this subject before, and a woman who said that it had happened to her 25 years ago and it’s still the most painful thing she’s ever gone through,” she said. “I was moved that we had been a place where people could encounter that kind of experience and think about how it exists in the world that they live in. It made me proud that we hadn’t looked away.”