What It’s Like to Ask People Really Awkward Questions

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Yesterday, Alexa Tsoulis-Reay, who has conducted most of the interviews for Science of Us’s “What It’s Like” series of conversations with unusual people, did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. Here, for your reading convenience, is a (lightly edited) roundup of the questions and answers that ensued:

Do you ever feel uncomfortable conducting any of your interviews? If so, how do you overcome that?
There are always moments of anxiety, usually when I know I’m leading up to a very personal question (“What does a horse’s vagina taste like?” or, “Tell me exactly how big your penis is,” for example). I’m usually so focused on their comfort that I can block out my own nerves.

Has there been anyone you’ve actually connected with, despite their strange quirk?
Interestingly, I don’t think there’s been a single subject who I haven’t “connected” with. Of course, my rapport with some has definitely been stronger than others (say, the girl who is afraid of vomiting, the man who is dating a horse, the girl who started dating her estranged father), but I’ve felt very close to everyone I’ve talked to.

The man with the micropenis was one of my first and he was so open, so real, and he clearly found the whole process so much of a challenge, so I feel especially bonded to him (the same with the man who wants to cut his leg off). I guess at the end of each interview, I was left feeling that the person I had just talked to was more normal than “strange.”

I was surprised by all the private details that the zoophile guy was willing to provide.
I think he was my longest interview. We might have talked about three times, for hours at a time, and he was really careful about finding out as much as he could about me before he agreed to the conversation. I’ve been interested in bestality and the zoosexual identity for a while and I was so excited to have someone who was so knowledgeable about it all and so willing to discuss his life with me. I think that his passion about his identity and the fact that I was so (genuinely) intrigued just made things flow … smoothly.

Is it hard not to judge people who do such taboo things?
Despite how intense and frank the interviews are, I hardly ever feel the need to judge. Of course there are those moments when I’ll hear something completely new and may have to stop to catch my breath, but I figure we all do weird shit. Sometimes I find myself judging hard on the other people in my interviewees’ lives (say, an abusive ex-partner, a parent who was violent, even a throwaway reference to a school bully), but then I figure these people probably have their own terrible backstory, too, so judging just becomes a little pointless after a while. I usually end my interviews really angry with the systems and institutions that have failed many of my subjects (the family, school, medical professionals, etc.).

Do you have a behavioral science background?
Well, I have a background in sociology, media, and cultural studies. Years ago, I toyed with the idea of being an academic and did a research masters about iPhones, Facebook, and Paris Hilton based on an ethnography with a group of teenage girls in Melbourne, Australia. But I have an eclectic résumé. In my pre-journalism days, I worked as an investigator for a phone porn regulator, a company that managed complaints about taxicab drivers, and as a hardship officer for a bank.

What would be your dream interview?
I’m really keen to talk to a pyromaniac and a zoophile who is in a relationship with a dog. I’d also love to talk to someone who identifies as a “feeder.” However, I think No. 1 on the list for now is a blind anorexic — I’m fascinated by that 

Are you planning any follow-up interviews with these people? In particular, I would be VERY interested to know what married life is like between that girl and her father.
I’d love to do formal follow-ups with most of my subjects. But the thing I’d really love to do is talk to the other characters in their lives. For example, What It’s Likes with the father who is engaged to his daughter, the wife of the man who is dating a horse, the father of the 58-year-old virgin, the vom-phobe’s mother, etc. 

If someone did an Alexa Tsoulis-Reay–style interview on Alexa Tsoulis-Reay, what would your “unexpected life” be?
It would be a long interview. I haven’t had sex with an animal, but I am a recovered emetophobe and when I was a kid I hid sandwiches in my piano because they made me feel very uncomfortable.

Was it different or difficult compared to your other stories to write about an emetophobe when you’ve experienced that fear yourself? Was there a discussion at the magazine about you covering that for any conflict reasons, or do you have the freedom to pursue any story?
It definitely made it easier for me to relate to her, but I don’t think there was any “conflict” (and it would be hard to find a writer who hasn’t dealt with anxiety in some form, right?!). I did feel very protective of her, but I feel that way about most of the people I’ve talked to. And like I said in another comment, I think the lives of all these people are representative of the human condition, perhaps just with the volume turned WAY up 

Have you had trouble getting new interview subjects to open up since the series has gotten so big? Or are they more eager to share, knowing that their story will reach a huge audience?
I think things changed a bit after my interview with the woman who is dating her dad. The headline kind of broke the internet, so maybe it made some people worry about talking to the “dad sex writer.” But that’s really more to do with getting subjects to agree to talk to me and that’s always half the battle. I haven’t noticed anyone clam up during an interview. It does seem like when the series got more popular, my interview subjects were more likely to want to use their real names.

Are you now looking for specific people to interview and if so, who are you trying to find?
I’m always looking for subjects. Namely, anyone who has a specific condition or leads an unexpected lifestyle that’s commonly distorted, sensationalized, or ignored by the media (and is willing to prove to me that they are legit).

How exactly do you verify that someone is legit?
It’s an art, not a science. I don’t want to compromise the privacy of my anonymous subjects, so I can’t go into too much detail but as a general rule of thumb I always ask for documentary evidence (a diagnosis from a medical professional, photographs, a history of thinking/writing about the issue, etc. … ). And I go looking for them, which I think is key.

Were there any interviews/story ideas that you loved but didn’t end up making the cut (like someone who spent their life trying to be abducted by aliens)? What were they?
Oh yes, plenty. You know, it was really hard to find the perfect micropenis because so many men who think they have one don’t! I spent hours interviewing a serial surrogate mother and we didn’t end up running the piece because I just couldn’t get her to open up to me. There are ALWAYS ideas that seem like they’d make for a perfect what it’s like and then they just … fail. I recently tried to talk to someone who has supersonic hearing. Turns out it’s not that fun when you can hear your eyeballs roll around in your head 

Supersonic hearing sounds really cool, insofar as it opens up the possibility of subjects who BELIEVE they have superpowers of a sort. How verifiable does a condition have to be? I think it would be cool to interview someone who believes they are psychic or can command their spirit to leave their body and go spy on people.
Generally, it has to be a condition that’s been proven to exist. And of course this is slippery terrain. Despite what some scientists say, many people don’t believe you can make yourself have a lucid dream. There are those who think that having sex with an animal is a psychological disorder rather than a mere sexual object choice. Short sleepers may have a genetic deviation but the science is still so new we don’t know for sure … Many of our subjects are on the cutting edge of science so we focus on explaining rather than diagnosing, if that makes sense (genetic sexual attraction, or the dad sex case, is probably the best example of this … the condition exists largely in anecdote which is why these talking accounts are so important). But yeah, if this spirit commander you speak of has been studied in a lab, I’d talk to him.

Are the interviews all done personally or via an internet chat? How do you encourage such people to answer such private questions about elaborating on their fantasies and such?
Usually phone or a combo of phone, internet chat, and email. Some have happened IRL. If you’ve got a specific interview in mind, I could talk you through the process (each one varies wildly!).

Do you find that the people you interview share traits and feelings? Is there a through line in the interviews?
When I first started doing these interviews I would start each call waiting for the scene where the dad does something terrible… I’d say the main theme is trauma. Usually in the form of the death of a family member or childhood abuse or abandonment. Almost all my subjects have experienced loss (maybe their parents divorced when they were little, or they had a late miscarriage, or a messy relationship breakdown). They have all had to live with an element of “difference” which in many cases has made them have to hide parts of themselves from others. As for traits, they all tend to be very smart, introspective and tolerant of difference. I think we all feel like we don’t fit in, to some extent, and I think the people I talk to are just extreme examples of the displacement most people feel in life.

What It’s Like to Ask People Awkward Questions