Health TED Talks

The full epic of Ed Gavagan

Today’s talk is about surviving a brutal attack, and the extraordinary skill of the surgeons who saved Ed Gavagan’s life. It’s a remarkable story, but there is much more to it. Ed originally told part of the story at The Moth, a wonderful group devoted to true stories, told live on stage. In many ways The Moth is similar to TED — at TED people get on stage to talk about their ideas, at The Moth they’re invited on stage to share a true, personal story from their lives.

Ed’s story has been legendary at The Moth. For years he worked with the artistic team to develop the story, and has told it in several pieces which add up the whole picture (watch the video embedded below). Below, we asked The Moth’s artistic director, Catherine Burns, to tell us about working with Ed, and how knowing him has enabled unexpected connections.

I first met Ed Gavagan in 2007. I was attending a Moth StorySLAM, one of our open storytelling competitions, and he was one of the last names picked. Each event has a theme, and the theme that night was “Rescue”. He told a story that has now become a Moth classic, of how he survived being stabbed and left for dead by a group of teenagers whose gang initiation involved them killing a random stranger. He described a series of events that would probably do most people in. If they survived physically, they would never recover emotionally.

As he spoke, there was a deep silence in the room — the stillness of 200 people really, really listening. It felt, as one of our frequent storytellers, Bliss Broyard once said about the best Moth nights, “like the entire room was holding hands under the table.” But there was humor too. In the story everyone was so sure he was going to die that his case was assigned to homicide detectives to save paperwork.

Ed then finished with a beautiful twist.

His story ends not with bitterness, but with his gratitude for all the people who saved his life that night, from the little Italian ladies who called 911 to the Vietnam Vet-turned-trash-collector who just happened to drive by as Ed lay bleeding in the street.

When he was done, the room exploded with cheers and applause. It was one of those nights where it felt like the roof lifted.

He won, of course.

He told me later than he’d almost never been on stage before. He hadn’t even planned to tell a story that night, but when his wife got stuck at work and he was there alone, he got up the courage to put his name in the hat out of which the names of each night’s tellers are randomly drawn.

A few months later we asked him to tell the story on our mainstage. This time he would have a lot longer to tell his story. He came and sat in my then tiny, cramped office in the Garment District of New York. I asked him if there was more to the story? Um, yes, there was.

He started telling me a tale straight out of the Book of Job, of how he ended up about as down on his luck as one could be. The stabbing had set off a string of events that left him sick, jobless, and homeless. At one point, finally turning bitter from the experience, he was arrested for threating a former business partner. His luck changed when the cops who arrested him turned out to be from the same precinct as the detectives originally assigned to his case.

As he sat talking me through these insane events, we both ended up breaking down. We wept in my office, struggling with how to turn his tragedy into art.

That’s one of the biggest challenges of directing Moth stories. The line between a story that’s transformative and moving and one that just feels like a raw therapy session can be very (very) thin. These aren’t acting monologues, played by a performer. These are true stories that are often about how people found their way back from their most painful missteps and tragedies.

Most people only ever tell one story at the Moth. But Ed and I became friends, and one night over dinner, it came out that just weeks after his accident, he had survived a terrible car crash where he flew through the windshield of the car and was rushed to the hospital once again. As horrible as it was to hear, he had me laughing to the point of crying describing the poor emergency room nurse who ripped open his bloody shirt, only to find a chest full of stiches from surgery. But I did think to myself, my god, is he the unluckiest guy on earth?

That story, combined with him finding the strength to testify at the trial of the kids who had attacked him, became his next Moth story. We also cried together a lot working out the ending of that one, which deals with Ed feeling merciful towards his attackers.

In some ways, this third one was the hardest for him to tell, I think because he still struggles with the issues that the story addresses. This is another Moth challenge. Problems in life are rarely resolved neatly, tied up with a big bow. We struggle with how to give stories a satisfying ending without them feeling false and “after school special-y”.

That story has the most opaque ending of the three, but I knew it had succeeded when another wonderful recent teller, Damien Echols, one of the “West Memphis Three”, was so moved by it that he and his wife forwarded it to their friends as an example of what Damien was going through. He was just ten months out of jail after spending 18 years locked up, often in solitary confinement, for crimes he did not commit. The night Damien told his story, Ed came to the show to cheer him on. Afterwards, they made a date to go boxing. That’s one of my favorite things about storytelling, the power stories have to make us feel less isolated, even when we’ve been through situations as heinous and unimaginable as those experienced by Ed and Damien.

Ed and I worked out the arc of this last story in my new office, which is, if I can brag for a second, quite lovely. And that’s because Ed (who is an architect by trade) designed, not just my office, but the entire floor of the building that we are lucky enough to now occupy.

He helped The Moth find the office when we had to move out of our old place, and personally built it out so we’d have a beautiful place to work. He’s become a sort of guardian angel to all of us at The Moth. We joked as he hung up a beautiful chandelier and helped me pick out the paint for the walls, that he was creating a sanctuary where storytellers can come work out their stories with me. He wanted them to have a welcoming place if they needed to cry a little bit. And then a few months later, he became the very first storyteller to cry there, as we put together his final piece.

The only problem with Ed’s design is that the office is so beautiful that people sometimes think that the Moth is now rolling in cash. I have to reassure them that, no, we are still a not-for profit, but we’re lucky enough to work in a space that was designed by a man who, having seen the worst of this world, now spends his days trying to make it as beautiful as possible. And in this sense, I think he may just be the luckiest man I know.

Catherine Burns
Artistic Director, The Moth