TLC, the Relationship Guru

Some of television’s trashiest reality programming turns out to be the best medicine for broken hearts.


Illustration by María Luque for The Bygone Bureau

Breakups aren’t funny. In college I took a friend to the emergency room after a breakup led to nearly sixty hours of non-stop crying. After the third sleepless night taking my shift on the floor of her room to keep watch, I decided to turn her over to professionals. They offered her sleeping medication while TLC’s A Wedding Story played on the television in the waiting room: perhaps ironic, but still not funny. Later I took her home and tucked her into bed, looked at her beautiful heartbroken face and wondered: what was the solution? I would go on to ponder this question again and again throughout my twenties.

I was one of the lucky ones: I met my husband before my mid-twenties, before the term “quarterlife crisis” was part of this country’s vernacular. As one of the lucky ones, I opened my home to the less fortunate. On more than one occasion women close to my heart moved in with my husband and I after they went through breakups. The stereotypical reclusive movie-watching, ice-cream eating antidote, oft combined with solo wine-drinking, worked to a degree, but I was in search of something stronger. I perfected the no-bake cookie and my knowledge of when to fast-forward romantic comedies, but I grew impatient with the amount of time needed for real healing to occur. I needed a way to smite the devil and keep my girlfriends pure.

I discovered the kind of protected innocence I was seeking in an internet accident. A couple of years before the Hensel twins became household names along with Honey Boo Boo, I came across the original 2006 TLC documentary on conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel on YouTube. Alone one night I sat in my apartment and watched these incredible young women, dicephalic parapagus twins, get ready to turn sixteen. It wasn’t just that they could do everything — which they could! — it was the way that their community took care of them. I found myself tearing up at the human ability to adapt. In small town Minnesota, just like the small Midwestern towns I grew up in, people proved that phobias depend on the unfamiliar. Where outsiders would stare at two girls who essentially shared one body, the people they grew up with shrugged it off as part of the everyday.

“Look at the human capacity for acceptance!” I cried to my husband when he got home. “If people could just be exposed to things totally different from themselves, then we all could live in harmony. If people were forced to grow up with difference then we wouldn’t have homophobia or racism or sexism.” I choked up. “They’re friends, they’re just kids looking out for their friends. They keep them safe.”

“What are you watching?” He stared at my computer screen where a two-headed girl rode by on a bicycle.
I watched the TLC documentary several times and did a little Google research. There were rumors swelling that Abby had gotten engaged and of course the internet was abuzz. I called my mom to share with her my YouTube discovery. “Oh the Hensel twins documentary?” She’d seen it. I tried to impress her with my open-mindedness, with my ability to casually share vast amounts of information about their abnormality. She wasn’t fazed. And so I started clicking on the recommendations YouTube was making for me based on my viewing history.

When I was younger someone told me that KFC couldn’t be called Kentucky Fried Chicken anymore because it didn’t serve real chicken. I swore off KFC even though I never found out if it was an urban legend or if mutant chickens actually existed. Terminology is powerful. Sideshows have always depended on jargon. Seal Man, Frog Man, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy: a proper name and a little acting can turn even the familiar into the extraordinary. Change, however, requires us to update our lexicon. The word “freak” does not mean the same thing today that it did at the end of the nineteenth century. I find it interesting that TLC no longer refers to itself as “The Learning Channel.”

TLC has been accused of exploitation with the reality television shows they started to produce post-Jon & Kate Plus 8. But, isn’t it the fault of those of us who watch? Aren’t they just cashing in like Barnum and Bailey on our collective phobias? Watching YouTube video after YouTube video I told myself I wanted to learn, but maybe the truth was closer to nervously standing in line, nickel in hand waiting to go into a tent. I watched the “spider girls” in India, the world’s oldest conjoined twins Ronnie and Donnie, the countless children who had a disease which caused them to age rapidly and a few rare cases of adults who had never left their infant bodies. Again I called my mom to report.

“Seen it,” she dismissed.

“Seriously? Even the one in Spanish?”

“The interview with the mother of the baby who has never grown? She’s wearing a white bonnet? Yup.”

After my husband caught me engrossed in a TLC video documenting the last six months in the life of “the world’s only living mermaid” Shiloh Pepin, he asked me what I was doing.

“Research,” I answered, tears streaming down my face.

“What exactly are you researching?” he asked.

I tried to explain myself by replaying the part where Shiloh says, “Some people are the same, some people are different, some people are short, some people are tall.” I looked up at him, squinting through my swollen red eyes.

“Maybe you should stop watching these,” he suggested.

I did for a while, until a dear friend of mine went through a hard breakup. In our thirties, the breakup of a long-term relationship that hadn’t produced children bore a different weight. Post-quarterlife crisis, the numinous number of 35 started its face-off with our ovaries. Romantic partners were no longer only evaluated on humor and sex appeal. Suddenly, their potential child-rearing abilities entered the picture, at least subconsciously. The mere admission that maybe a woman would like to have kids someday put an enormous amount of pressure on every budding relationship. The closer we got to our mid-thirties, the shorter the allotted timeframe from first kiss to labor and delivery. My single girlfriends turned into relationship diplomats. If they’d been negotiating across coffee and stacks of papers instead of across martinis and sticky bar tables, we’d have peace in the Middle East by now.

My girlfriend had invested an entire year in a serious relationship when it fell apart. Broken-hearted, she came to stay with us for a few days. I made tea, got out the Nutella, and we sat together under a blanket on the couch. There weren’t any answers. Like so many men, he’d simply, inexplicably, changed his mind. Fallen off the face of the earth. Older and wiser, we knew that pondering wasn’t productive. The healing wasn’t any faster or easier, but she also knew it wasn’t worth it to dwell. I didn’t know what to say, so I went and got my computer.

“Have you ever heard of the Hensel twins?” I asked. Before my husband could stop me I’d shown her the entire one-hour documentary and started her on the Google rumors of Abby’s engagement. When she called me a few months later to tell me TLC was premiering a new reality show on Abby and Brittany, I realized I had something. It may not have been the perfect solution, but for mending a broken heart, a little TLC from YouTube went a long way. I always thought TLC stood for “tender loving care”: perhaps ironic, maybe even funny.

Laura Story Johnson writes humorous nonfiction essays that are meant to be read in ten minutes or less because that is the maximum amount of time her children allow her to do anything uninterrupted.