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Documentary Arts

Arlene Arevalo ’21 & Lillian Clark ’22: Revelations

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2021

“Revelations” is an audio memoir/personal narrative about leaving a cult, losing family and living with their memory. It chronicles Arlene’s effort to learn about her estranged parents outside the Jehovah’s Witness framework, without actually talking to them.

About the Project

This summer, we took the concept for Revelations and turned it from an idea into a story. In the spring, when Arlene started to plan on finishing her in-progress memoir instead as an audio series, we jumped right in to interviewing a list of cult experts and historians via Zoom. Reflecting on that period, we realized we had bypassed the heart of the story in pursuing an academic narrative rather than a personal one.

The Benenson Award enabled us to slow down our approach to the series. We talked to great audio producers, editors and other professionals in the field about pitching and the creative process. We pursued and received feedback on our pitch for the show. Not all of that feedback was helpful —this summer was also a learning experience about power in the audio industry — but much of it was essential to clarifying each iteration of Arlene’s story. In weekly edit meetings on Zoom, we talked through the narrative arc, stakes, conflict, reporting strategy and our envisioned audience. We established the impulse for the story: why it should be told now, and by us. Accountability for the project helped us make the leap to put conversations with family on the calendar. Inspired by the work of audio company Mermaid Palace, one way we thought about our work on Revelations was as a journalistic investigation of familial love (here, in the inseparable context of religion). Arlene reconnected with several members of their extended family, and Lilly recorded a handful of conversations with her own Mormon family.

We also went through an extensive research process, conducting over 20 one to two hour interviews with ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses from various internet forums. From the beginning, we were interested in the universality of Arlene’s narrative. Leaving a cult and enduring the ensuing shunning is a more common experience than many people realize. One goal of Revelations was to provide space for members of the ex-JW community to share their grief, healing, anger, and joy without needing to explain themselves.

Support from Benenson also allowed us to bring on our collaborator Liam Idrovo to develop original music for the series. Now, at summer’s end, we have officially pitched Revelations to a major podcast production company.

Reflecting on Arts Amidst COVID-19

The opportunity to apply to Benenson helped us put a significant amount of time into our creative relationship despite the fact that because of COVID-19, we have never to this day met in person. Rather than waiting to work on Revelations until circumstances allow for in person interviews and collaboration, receipt of this award encouraged us to act now and take advantage of a remote mode of operation to talk to ex-JWs across the North American continent. We had the luxury to slow down and build intention before taking our pitch to other people who would wish to change it.