Jeannette Perutz-Elsner realized as a child that shame works like a mute button.
"I didn’t want anyone to know anything about me, where I lived, who I was," she says. "I kept quiet."
Things change. So do people.
Perutz-Elsner, 70, is a wife, mother of two and grandmother who lives in East Hills and is no longer silent. She is living out loud, and she’s cranked the volume to 11.
Her vehicle is a 4-month-old podcast called "Living at the Mercy of the Moment," available at various spots including Apple podcasts.
In her stories of coping with everything that life has thrown at her, including multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease of the central nervous system, you may find take-aways that you can use. That’s the point.
Launched this summer in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the podcast is produced and hosted by Shira Dicker, 59, who is editing Perutz-Elsner’s in-the-works autobiography "MS as Metaphor: A Memoir of Life at the Mercy of the Moment."
Designed as an intimate, free-flowing conversation, the podcast is an open mic for Perutz-Elsner to chat with Dicker about traumas and triumphs, losses and lessons, and more.
As Dicker says in a slow, deliberate cadence at the start of each episode, "If you want tips for surviving this impossibly difficult moment in our history" … then listen up.
"Jeannette’s life has had such adversity. She has insight and wisdom about living through it," says Dicker who lives in Manhattan and has deep roots on Long Island. She attended North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, home to her mother and father, a psychologist and rabbi who died last month.
The podcast is subtitled: "A podcast for the pandemic." On one hand, it’s a nod to the fact podcasts are one of the viable mediums amid social distancing. It also acknowledges that stresses of the pandemic can be challenging.
"What I’ve gone through, and I’ve gone through a lot, makes me uniquely able to help others get through this," says Perutz-Elsner, whose life has been interrupted by physical calamities and restricted by her lack of mobility. "My experience has in a way been its own vaccine against COVID."
Message of resilience
The conversation between Perutz-Elsner and Dicker isn’t prescriptive. Perutz-Elsner isn’t out to be an agony aunt dispensing cure-alls.
"I have a thing about overt self-help," says Dicker, who admits she’s not a mental-health expert. "It’s like McDonald’s — too cheap, too available. Jeannette’s message about resilience comes through."
Lessons in adapting began early on for Perutz-Elsner.
Born in Belgium to Holocaust survivors, she grew up on the property of a few New York mental institutions, including Letchworth Village, a residential facility in Rockland County.
Her father was an on-site doctor at the place that became infamous for misery and wretched conditions. "We came from Europe. My father didn’t have a lot of options open to him for work," Perutz-Elsner says.
"Journey to Letchworth Village," Episode One of the podcast, focuses on a trip made by Dicker and Perutz-Elsner and her 30-year-old son, David, to the abandoned psychiatric hospital in upstate New York. Painful memories flooded back. "It was like a sort of concentration camp. When I returned I looked around in detachment," says Perutz-Elsner.
Education provided a means of escape for Perutz-Elsner, who studied psychology at Syracuse University, graduating in 1972. In the '80s she earned master’s degrees in psychology and organizational development at the New School and worked as a psychologist. She moved with her husband, Alfred, and their kids to Long Island in 1992.
"I love to learn and explore new things," says Perutz-Elsner, who records the episodes in her son Jonathan’s former bedroom. David, who majored in environmental studies at Adelphi University, pitches in as his mom’s production assistant.
Podcasting has been an education for Perutz-Elsner and Dicker. "Serial" and "The Shrink Next Door" are the only ones they’ve heard.
"Living at the Mercy of the Moment" is part of the growing medium. As of last month, there were 1.5 million podcasts and more than 34 million episodes, according to podcastinsights.com. That’s up from 550,000 podcasts in 2018.
Dicker, an admitted "technophobe," launched "Living at the Mercy of the Moment" using the free app Anchor. She found the process low-tech and easy-peasy, with a little help from her youngest child, Judah, a musician. If she and Perutz-Elsner can do this, you can, she assures.
When she records roughly half-hour episodes Dicker grabs her laptop, a headset and Luke Wilson (her Pomeranian) and heads into a bedroom in the Upper West Side apartment she shares with her husband.
Along with candid conversation, episodes come with occasional audio glitches and random "arfs" from perky Luke Wilson. No matter. It’s an acknowledgment that nothing and no one is perfect — including podcasts.
"There’s no neat bow tie on it," says Dicker.
Perutz-Elsner’s life has never been tidy. She’s endured paralysis, deadly infection and serious vision issues that even she finds too scary to talk about. MS, which she was officially diagnosed with 28 years ago, looms extra large.
"I look healthy. I work out with weights. I stretch," says Perutz-Elsner, who sees a physical therapist twice a week. Trying to walk, however, she says, is like being "caught in quicksand."
"I struggle for independence. But I’m not bitter," she says. "I’m sad that I’m unable to do things I’d like to do."
In one episode she talks about losing mobility. "I began my journey trying to make this MS expressed in the most beautiful way," she says. She had canes with flowers, erupting volcanoes and ornate initials. "My canes were cool," she says.
Walking sticks eventually became useless. She went from walkers ("I couldn’t make them look cool," she says) to wheelchairs for long distances.
"When you sit in a wheelchair people look down," she says. Like others with MS, she won’t be diminished or reduced to two letters. She’s constantly twisting and tweaking the letters MS. Make Strong. Motivate Self. My Sunshine.
"I love language, I love words," says Perutz-Elsner, who uses them as a poetic and potent act of defiance against the disease.
Fans of Tears for Fears and "Donnie Darko" will recognize the podcast’s theme music, an instrumental snippet of "Mad World." It’s a moody song with a self-explanatory title. "The music felt right," says Dicker.
'An organic evolution'
One lyric — "no one knew me, no one knew me" — tolls with particular resonance to Perutz-Elsner, who wants to be known. Dicker plans to have Perutz-Elsner’s memoir manuscript ready to submit to publishers by the end of 2020.
At the heart of the podcast is a trusted relationship between the host and subject, whose relationship owes to Dicker’s father. Perutz-Elsner was one of his patients and saw him for several years at his Queens office. After he retired, she and Shira met years later and became friends and multimedia collaborators.
The episode, "The Sisterhood of the Bronze Shoes," traces their bond. The title’s a nod to a picture of Shira that Perutz-Elsner saw outside Shira’s father’s office.
Other episodes, which have included guest chatters, have covered the propensity for denial and need for hope as well as the current state of American democracy.
"There’s been an organic evolution. I don’t map it out," says Dicker. With 10 episodes posted, they’re halfway through their planned goal.
The current audience, mostly women who are over 50, hovers around 100 listeners. About 90% of them are in the United States, with the remainder spread out across Europe, Canada and Asia.
"People who thought they knew me have told me they’ve been totally shocked," says Perutz-Elsner, adding that extends to what she’s endured as well as her honesty. "One friend in the community said she can’t believe my resilience or my experiences."
Perutz-Elsner calls the podcast "cathartic."
"It’s been an affirmation and a confirmation. I didn’t feel adequate," she says. "I felt inadequate. I feel valuable on this podcast," she adds. "I feel valuable now. I can help people through what they’re going through."
"I’ve gone from shame and hiding to saying, ‘You know, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.’ I’m proud of my resilience, my coping, my strength."
MS — My Strength. MS — Mobilize Self. MS — Mute Shame.
PRICK UP YOUR EARS: LI Podcasts worth a listen
If you’ve thought about launching a podcast, there are tips at podcastinsights.com. In the meantime, listen up to these three Long Island-based podcasts.
“The Long Island History Project,” longislandhistoryproject.org
Interviews with “any person with a passion for the history of this riotous island” is the name of the game for this twice-monthly podcast cofounded, produced and co-hosted by Chris Kretz, a Stony Brook University librarian. That history includes scandals, court martials, boundary-pushing artists and kicky local festivals.
“Before the pandemic, my co-host Connie Currie and I had a home base at the Sayville Public library,” says Kretz, who now records from the laundry room in his home. “It has good acoustics.”
Upcoming: Discussions on archaeology and the Montauk Indian Tribe.
“Middle Country Library Podcast,” mcplibrary.org/podcasts
Like other Long Island libraries with podcasts, Middle Country uses its weekly production to promote in-house programs and “to educate and entertain,” says librarian and co-host Sal DiVincenzo. “Even though we focus on our local community, we try to make it as accessible as possible.”
After recording remotely for a few months because of COVID-19, DiVincenzo and fellow librarians Sara Fade and Nicole Rambo are back together in their studio (“It used to be a closet,” says DiVincenzo), where they are following social distancing protocols.
Upcoming: Their annual Thanksgiving episode in which hosts talk turkey and discuss dining, spending, Black Friday and more timely topics.
“Imperfect Strangers,” anchor.fm/imperfectstrangers
Long Island mom of three and former “The Real World: New Orleans” cast member Melissa Beck chats with her friend Amanda Strong in Ohio.
“Podcasting makes me feel like I’m still out in the world,” says Beck. “It’s a great creative outlet. I used to be on a reality show. Now people are getting to know me in new and different ways.”
Her husband, Justin Beck, a business owner and guitarist for the band Glassjaw, has come in handy for recording tips.
Upcoming: How to make socially distant holidays work.