Like many here at Mockingbird, I’m a big fan of This American Life and Serial/S-Town and all of those NPRish, WBEC Chicago Public Radio podcasts. I’ve been listening to the TAL podcasts for going on four years now, and “Chip in My Brain” (Jan 13, 2018) is the most compelling to date, for me. That’s a huge compliment in my opinion, because, while TAL (much like 60 Minutes) can be a bit “hit or miss,” it usually hits, and this time, I wonder if it even knows what it has stumbled upon.

Going forward here, there will be some spoilage, and that is significant. At any point, it’s ok to tap out and just go listen to this episode. Chip in My Brain (for me) has the biggest “story twist” in the history of TAL/Serial. The story literally bounces one way (you will see what I did there) and goes another.

“Chip in My Brain” is a seemingly simple story about a wealthy, suburban Austin, Texas couple who hires a private basketball coach for their sedentary, video-game-laden ten-year-old (Cody). This very well-meaning couple just wants to get their kid some exercise. It starts beautifully when Cody’s mom asks, “Cody, we know you love Dungeons and Dragons and video games, but we need to get you some exercise. What sport do you like?” Cody answers, “Um, I like basketball, but I’m not very good.” Off we go. Within days, Cody has a private basketball tutor — “AJ”. AJ is a 6′-6″ former college basketball player (and NBA hopeful) who for now makes his living as a private basketball tutor.

Lesson one — Cody can only dribble a ball for three bounces before he stumbles. By year two, after hundreds of hours of personal training with AJ, Cody is the MVP of his sixth grade basketball team. Everyone, Cody’s parents, the school, the team, is thrilled. Cody’s parents have recommended AJ to several of Cody’s friends’ parents, and they are all raving about not just how their child has become “athletic” but also about how wonderful AJ is. Buckle up — this is only the first ten minutes!

Cut to a few years later — Cody and his friends have still been spending dozens of hours monthly with AJ for private lessons, and the results continue to impress. One day, Cody’s mother (Drew) runs into another mom (whose son is also being privately tutored by AJ) in the school car line. The other mom is distraught. She tells Drew that AJ is not who they thought he was. At this point, every TAL listener is prepared for the worst — sexual/physical abuse. AJ was immediately fired by all of the families when Cody’s mother learned the truth.

Thankfully, though (or perhaps not), AJ is not a sexual predator. He’s a cult leader. His cult is not particularly large. It just consists of a handful of impressionable adolescent boys who attribute their basketball success, and the corresponding confidence that it affords, to AJ.

There is so much here, and it’s not so much about AJ’s bizarre, apocalyptic, religious views that Cody has fallen prey to all these years (as TAL would lead us to believe). Rather, TAL has stumbled unwittingly into a new S-Town — hundreds upon hundreds of hours between Cody and AJ. For a kid, that is an intense amount of time spent with a charismatic, larger-than-life adult who is not a parent.

What follows is the story of an intense, five-year-long deprogramming for Cody. I’m not going to give much else away here, except to say that the ending (while on the surface very positive for Cody and his family) opens up far more questions than it answers.

During the interviews about Cody’s deprogramming, Cody constantly refers to a “chip in his brain” — a voice in his head that could not be silenced, no matter how many drugs his parents got prescribed for him, or how hard he worked to shake the ramifications of all those impressionable hours spent with AJ. That chip in in his brain was still there as Cody literally laid suicidal in the fetal position in his college dorm room.

TAL would have us believe that Cody is in this state because of some sort of “religious persecution” that Cody experienced in the most formative years in his life. Listen, and judge for yourself — the stuff that Cody heard from AJ about the Book of Revelation and about angels and demons (and how they all relate to the Illuminati, which is taking over the world) is beyond disturbing. It’s a horror movie, and it’s the stuff of cults that inspired the Branch Davidians, and Peoples Temple, and many others. There are other podcasts out there like “Cults” (recommended) that do a comprehensive deep dive into all of that.

I’d suggest, though, that something far more spiritual, and relational, and unfixable happened to Cody. Chips in our brain start as a seed from an innocuous, well-meaning place (like our well-meaning parents wanting us to get some exercise) and they are nurtured by hours upon hours spent in tactile, face-to-face contact with the people who are most physically present in our lives. For Cody, that person wasn’t his mom or his dad, it was AJ. AJ was the one who (for years) continually cultivated and nurtured that chip in Cody’s brain. I’m not suggesting that Cody’s parents were negligent because they allowed a very charismatic adult to spend more time with their child than they did. I’m suggesting rather that this is simply the rule and not the exception far more than we think, especially in our current culture.

“Chips in our brain” are a real thing. They develop in the seasons of our successes and our disasters, and they speak to us constantly. They lead us into addiction and dysfunction, and they are further exacerbated when we bring a family history of depression or pathology into the mix. Add in countless voices from social media, and the current “noise” in our culture, and I can only conclude that there are a boatload of Codys out there suffering silently for a myriad of reasons.

But even if our parents didn’t unwittingly give us over to a cult-leader-whack-job who filled our heads with BS, we all still have that chip in our brain. The law condemns, and it pushes us, often, to sit at the feet of real-life, engaging (but abusive) human beings who say they have an answer to our deepest angst — navigating the world that is, and trying to control it. Cody caved in on himself (not surprisingly) and his parents were left helpless as to how to see him restored.

TAL buried the lede. The chip in our brains (condemning us, haunting us, confusing us, paralyzing us) is a real thing for EVERYONE. It is not merely put there by masters of manipulation. Our hardwiring is a bit “jacked up” no matter who’s womb we fall out of, or where we fall out of it. The tactile hearing, tasting, and absorbing of the good news of the Gospel is the balm. May we all find it, whether in daily or weekly liturgy, or in that flesh-and-blood community with the people we trust to speak into our lives with grace and truth.